For the past few weeks, my mind has been wandering. Other projects and hobbies have been pulling at my attention, and I’ve devoted much less of my time to tabletop than I normally do. Aside from installing new shelving and reorganizing my apartment, I’ve enjoyed several evening spent playing Cthulhu Saves the World. It’s a game created in the style of classic 16-bit RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and of course, the Final Fantasies 4 through 6. It celebrates their artistic style and gameplay, while incorporating new ideas to improve upon the failings of those older games. The whole thing is very ‘Old-School Renaissance’ in its style.
Playing this game over the past week or so has got me thinking about the games I wasted my youth on, and the Final Fantasy series in particular. I know it’s the hip thing to pretend we all hate the Final Fantasy series for one reason or another. But I’ve never been very hip. Partially because I still use terms like ‘hip.’ The Final Fantasy series has always fascinated me, particularly the way that each game starts largely from scratch. The series does have a formula, and a number of traditional elements which show up in each game, but each installment in the series always tries something new. The magic system for each game is an area where this is particularly evident.
Magic systems in tabletop games also fascinate me. Perhaps because magic has no real-world analog, it’s much easier to be creative about how magic is accessed by characters in a game world. So while my mind is adrift, I thought I’d use this post to examine the magic systems in the first 10 Final Fantasy games. Specifically with regards to how adaptable they might be to a tabletop gaming system. Let me be perfectly clear: most of these will probably not translate well to a tabletop system. This is intended primarily as a thought experiment, and not as a serious attempt at game design.
Final Fantasy: In the first game of the Final Fantasy series, players must choose four classes to make up their party. Among the available classes are a few different types of mages, which can each learn a different array of spells. Most towns in this game’s world have a white (healing/protection) and black (offensive) magic shop, where spells can be purchased and taught to members of the appropriate mage class.
This idea would adapt easily to a tabletop game, you wouldn’t even need to change anything about it. All you need to do is come up with prices for spells, and roll some random inventories for shops. The only potential problem I see with allowing players to access magic this way is that PCs often become ludicrously wealthy, and might be able to purchase all the spells they want. But that could be easily handled by restricting what spells are available, and pricing spells so as to drain your player’s coin purses.
I could honestly see myself using a system like this.
Final Fantasy II: Spells in Final Fantasy II were purchased in much the same way they were in the original game. However, they could be taught to any character in the party, as opposed to only those who were mages. Most games in the series would follow suit, allowing any character to learn spells. Additionally, only basic spells were available for purchase, and the spells ‘leveled up’ separately from the character, based on how frequently they were used.
This is not as simple to convert to a tabletop format. Tracking the level of multiple spells implies a lot of bookkeeping on the player’s part. More bookkeeping than I think most players would enjoy. Though, perhaps, a system could be set up where all of a magic user’s spells start at a basic level. Each time the character levels up, they can select a certain number of spells in their repertoire (perhaps equal to their relevant spellcasting ability modifier) to ‘level up’ with them. Assuming this number remains relatively static, the player is given an interesting choice: would they like to have only a few very powerful spells, or a larger number of moderately powerful spells?
Final Fantasy III: I must be honest, I did not play this game past the opening, and thus don’t have any personal experience with the magic system. My understanding is that spells were learned by characters of magic-using classes as they leveled up. I believe characters were able to change their class, but aside from that, this isn’t particularly unusual. So I won’t expound on it further.
Final Fantasy IV: Unlike Final Fantasy III, this game stands as one of my favorites in the entire series. I’ve played through it several times, and every time I cheer when Cecil becomes a paladin, and get teary eyed when Edward crawls from his sickbed to save his friends. I even adapted the game’s Dwarven Tanks for use in Pathfinder. However, the magic system is very dry. Characters who can cast spells learn them at per-determined levels (or, occasionally, during story events). It works well enough in a video game, but in a tabletop game it would just be boring.
That being said, one of these days I will grant a character the ‘Meteo’ spell during a dramatic moment, just for kicks.
Final Fantasy V: The fifth game in the series was focused on multiclassing, and it was pretty complicated. So complicated, in fact, that it was intentionally never released in North America because it was assumed American gamers would not be smart enough to understand it. There were a large number of classes to choose from, and characters could switch between them easily. Anytime a character’s class was changed, the player could select one ability from another class which they could continue to use. So if, for example, you chose to level a character in the Black Mage and White Mage classes, then when the character was a Black Mage, you could give them the ‘White Magic’ ability. The game had a vast array of different magic using classes, which might be compared to the different magical schools of a game like Pathfinder. Often these different casting classes learned their spells in different ways, and those spells had vastly different effects.
Consider Pathfinder’s various magical schools. Abjuration, Conjuration, Evocation, Necromancy, etc. What if a system forced you to specialize in one of these schools, and when specialized, you could only cast spells from that school? However, once you attained a certain level of mastery in that school (lets say, Necromancy), you could begin studying a secondary school (lets say, Enchantment). While studying the Enchantment school, you would still be able to cast Necromancy spells. However, the maximum level of spell you could cast would be reduced by half.
So a Necromancer able to cast 8th level Necromancy spells could then begin to study Enchantment, and learn to cast 1st level Enchantment spells, but he could not cast any Necromancy spell above 4th level. I suppose the character could go on learning as many new schools as the player wanted, but they would only ever be able to cast from two schools at a time: the school they were currently learning, and one other school they already know, reduced by half. As a flavor explanation, perhaps the caster needs to carry a gem of a certain type in order to access each school, and the gems interfere with each other when in close proximity.
Having written that out, I don’t know how interested I would be in playing such a system, but it’s an interesting idea none the less. Maybe if the exact numbers were played with a bit, it could be made more serviceable for a tabletop environment.
Final Fantasy VI: This game is, in my opinion, the best in the series, and its magic system represents that. The world of FFVI is one of technology, but early in the game the characters are introduced to Espers. Espers are magical beings from another world, many of whom have been killed by the villains of the character’s world. By equipping ‘Magicite,’ which are stones left behind when an Esper dies, the characters can gradually learn spells associated with that Esper as they defeat monsters and gain exp, and retains these spells even when a different magicite is equipped. Additionally, characters can summon the spirits of their deceased Esper to aid them in battle occasionally. Though, unlike spells, this ability does not stay when the character switches to a different magicite.
Despite the apparent complexity of the system, I think it would translate easily to a tabletop environment. Every magic user would have a necklace, or a ring, or some other device where they could mount a magical stone. These stones would be the remains of powerful magical beings that introduced magic to the world. Each magic user would start with one, but after that they would need to obtain them through adventuring. Only one stone can be used at a time, and the stone which is being used grants the magic user access to a magical ability.
Each time the magic user levels, they gain spells (and other abilities, perhaps) based on the stone they currently have equipped. But each stone only has enough magic in it to support perhaps one or two levels of advancement. So it is important for magic users to seek out new stones, so they can continue to advance in power.
The cool thing about this system is that it is not only flavorful, but could have interesting game effects. Magic users would be desperate to never advance a level without possessing a stone they could learn from. If the GM chose to make such stones scarce, the search for them would drive every magic user to take risks in the pursuit of them. The system could certainly use a lot of polish, but I think this could be fun to use.
Final Fantasy VII: Seven attempted to give magic a bit of a scientific twist with its Materia system. Materia are gems formed within the earth which allow characters to access unusual abilities, such as summoning blasts of fire, healing wounds, etc. Each materia starts out weak, but gains its own kind of experience over time. Materia slowly level up, and can give characters access to more powerful effects. What is interesting about this system is that materia can always be traded between characters. So if a character starts with a “fire” materia which can barely conjure a spark, but levels it up until it can summon a conflagration, they can easily hand that materia over to someone else and allow that character to summon a conflagration.
Essentially, this is a system with no magic users. Everything is handled by naturally formed magic items, which level up over time. If you wanted to run this, you could just adapt Paul’s magic item leveling rules and run with it. Surprisingly simple.
Final Fantasy VIII: This was the pinnacle of the series’ complexity, and for the record, I loved it. Each character was able to use a turn during battle to ‘draw’ spells from the enemy creatures, and spells were treated as a shared resource between everyone in the group, with a max number of 100 per each type of spell. The spells could then be ‘junctioned’ to an individual character’s various statistics, giving that statistic some property of the spell it was juncitoned to, with an effect proportional to the number of spells of that type. So if you junctioned 10 “fire” spells to your attack, then your attacks would deal a small amount of elemental damage. Whereas if you junctioned 100 fire spells, your attacks would be entirely elemental in nature.
I honestly don’t think this system has any chance of being adapted for tabletop. Not unless everyone at your table is much better at doing mathematical caluclations than I am.
Final Fantasy IX: While I did play Final Fantasy IX a great deal, I find it very difficult to remember how the game’s magic system worked. From what I’ve read online, it seems as though it was very similar to the Esper system of FFVI, where players learn spells by equipping an item. The primary difference being that abilities are learned from items such armor and weapons, rather than the remains of magical creatures.
Like Final Fantasy VII’s system, I think this would work best in a game with no magic users. Where every character has the potential to learn spells as they level up. Finding a magic suit of armor would offer characters more than just additional protection. If they found it and wore it until they leveled up, then they could permanently learn a spell such as Cure or Magic Shield.
Every character starts at a predetermined location on a massive, interconnected grid. Characters gain levels very quickly, and each time a character levels, they can spend that level to move themselves one ‘space’ along the grid’s paths. Each space has a single ability or attribute bonus on it which the character can learn.
The interesting thing about the system is that it simultaneously established characters as certain Archetypes (Lulu, pictured left, is a Black Mage) but at the same time allowed each character to develop in any way the player desired. As an example, Lulu’s starting location on the grid is surrounded by Black Mage abilities; spells, extra magic power, and so on. But if the player so chooses, they can gradually move Lulu out of the Black Mage area of the grid, and into the White Mage, or Warrior areas.
If we were adapting this for a tabletop game, I think the first step would be to drop everything but spells from the grid. Using a system like this for for general character advancement would be both too complicated, and too limiting for a tabletop RPG. But if the entire grid is nothing but spells, it could be a very interesting way of representing a magic user’s advancement and specialization. Instead of different areas of the grid representing different classes, they could represent different schools of magic. Players would need to select a starting spot in one of the enchantments, and spend their first few levels learning spells from that school. But as they moved through the sphere grid, they could guide their progress towards secondary, and tertiary schools.
The only downside I can see is that it would be next to impossible to model the system at the table. In order to track a character’s progress along the grid, it needs to be small enough for each player to have a copy, which means it would need to fit on an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper, or thereabouts. Perhaps each space on the grid could be three spells, instead of only one?
Final Fantasy X+: When it was announced that Final Fantasy XI would be an MMO, I lost interest in the series. The god-awful failure that was Final Fantasy X-2 only solidified that feeling for me. I haven’t played any of the games since X, and cannot make an honest attempt to adapt magic systems I don’t know.
Let me know if you have any thoughts. This is just random brainstorming for me, so input would be fun.