One of the things that first got me excited about my first Dungeons & Dragons character—my “magic-user” to use the old fogey term—was not simple combat magic. Sure, Magic Missiles were pretty darn cool, and you could generally take down an orc or two with them, but some of those early utility spells were pretty great. I remember reading those early spell descriptions out of the 1st ed. Players Handbook and thinking about creative ways they could be used. Remember Detect Magic and Knock? Levitation? How about Wizard’s Eye, the spell that allows you to see around corners or down the hall? Sleep was almost more powerful in its way than those early damage spells – you could possibly put a whole group of monsters to bed, and subsequently, death. Tenser’s Floating Disk for carrying your stuff? Spider Climb, which allowed you to skitter up walls temporarily, and Tongues, which allowed you to speak another language.
One of the things lost in the translation to video games has been some of this creative use of magic, and while it’s very much due to the emphasis on combat as the primary source of conflict resolution in an MMO, there are a few reasons why I can see them falling by the wayside. The thing about early class-based RPGs was that those specializations really came into play more often during an adventure. Thieves had traps and locked stuff in their wheelhouse, clerics, not only their healing but their ability to know and protect from intention(alignment), and the mages the big firepower. But the magic using classes all had those nifty utility spells that came in so handy when you needed to cross a chasm, or wanted a preview of what was in the next room. It’s simply due to the fact that tabletop roleplaying adventures have more than pure combat challenges. There were traps to be uncovered, secret doors to be found, hostile NPCs to be parlayed with, riddles to be solved. Magic items to be detected, plots to be uncovered, weather, encumbrance and environment to contend with. “Leveling” was a whole experience, which included tests of wits, creativity, yes combat, and even diplomacy. A dungeon was more than a series of “trash” monster encounters preceding the boss fight(s).
There have been a few utility spells that came over to Warcraft — Feather Fall (Slow Fall in WoW), which has been the source of a lot of fun — e.g. jumping off the mountain screaming while being chased by 20 mobs… Used it a number of times to get into hard to reach places as well.
But what are the implications of including more of these types of spells?
Detect Magic would mean that more magical items or effects would be hidden within the world. So perhaps magical items aren’t revealed until an identifier has been cast on the object. Maybe magical traps or effects could be revealed with the casting of the spell. Or a creature’s abilities might be masked until revealed. Admittedly this is all old-school thinking, and players who prefer the convenience of nothing masked in the interest of speeding things along would balk at such a system. However, I’ll argue that such a system allows deeper, more mysterious lore, where everything is simply not known until proper investigation is done. If the game introduced more powerful artifacts or objects, there could more that needs to be uncovered about the object, either through additional research or perhaps additional quests. An object that requires this much study would need to be suitably powerful to warrant all the work, but the payoff (and satisfaction in figuring out the item) would be worth it. Instead of the publisher putting out a big treatise on everything in game, the players would uncover it, over time, for themselves.
Detect Traps would actually bring back the whole idea of traps in a game in the first place. I do believe Neverwinter re-introduced traps, as did The Secret World in its Sabotage missions. In the early roleplaying games, traps were one of the places where Thieves could shine, and given the minor role Thieves play in combat, I could see some players be happy to see another area where the class could do some good.
But weird little spells like Protection from Cold, Plant Growth, Light, Control Weather, Shatter or Clairvoyance all suggest something else – the interaction of the spellcaster with the environment around them. In order to need a Light spell, darkness would have to be enough a problem that a Light spell (or a torch) would be required. It’s the ability to affect the properties of items, or people or elements in the vicinity of the caster. And for that to happen, developers would need to start assigning properties to these elements in the first place, beyond just the visual treatment. Is the item breakable? Can it be moved? What is the weather in the area, and can it be changed? What spells are applicable, and which will do nothing? It’s about assigning properties and qualities to every single object and element in the game. EverQuest Next’s voxel treatments seem promising in this regard, but who knows if it will translate to greater interactivity between caster and environment, and the requirement for more creativity.
Have we moved beyond this kind of gameplay? Or is it just too hard to build? Do we just want to know what the challenge is up front so we can tackle it and be done? My guess is that because of the way MMOs are played, with thousands of players traversing through an area, that eventually these obstacles will become known and published to a website somewhere, where people simply look up the answer and move on. But should we remove those obstacles and interactions because people will eventually figure them out? Is making a more diverse and affectable universe a worthwhile goal?