Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

The last time I ran a game with Mages in it, they were obsessed with only using rotes, leafing through the book to see how they could combine their magic to cast Rotes. They never once even considered casting a spell that wasn't a rote. It wasn't something they roleplayed; they played as though anything but rotes was bad and wrong, and not how spells should be done. I'm guessing this attitude was based on their previous experience in D&D, where pre-made spells are the norm.

So next time, how should I get the players to be a bit more adventurous with their spells? Or should I let them play in this more confined way, if it's what they as players want? As far as I'm aware they knew they could do non-rote magic, but we were all fairly unsure how it all worked when we first played. I don't think it was ignorance that they could use magic that way, but perhaps of how interesting and powerful it could be.

share|improve this question

11 Answers 11

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Let Them Be.

There are practical reasons why mages and players might choose to rely on rotes. Improvised spells not only have a smaller die pool (Gnosis + Arcanum vs Attribute + Skill + Arcanum), but they have a mandatory cost of 1 mana if not in your ruling arcana. If your troupe is more interested in collecting codified effects rather than doing spontaneous magic, that's great news for you — you can motivate them with the "carrot" of access to new and interesting spells that they might not have thought of, and they'll be quite excited to join a Legacy where their favorite spell is now simply part of their being.

However, to advance your position, occasionally remind them that something they want to do could be accomplished with an improvised effect. Not constantly, but contextually, as they find themselves in trouble.

share|improve this answer

Introduce cutscenes in which your players take on the roles of minor Mage NPCs (prepared by you in advance) for about an hour of game time (no more per session.) Have the players learn of crucially important background events / info through these (fast paced and ruthless) scenes... and do not give these NPCs rotes. They're freshly awakened, or otherwise stricken / disabled semi-PCs who can and, in fact, must rely on improvised casting to survive. Reward its use with an extra XP at the end of the session. After a few sessions, by the time your players got the hang of this kind of casting (without having endangered their PCs), slowly withdraw these secondary characters from the game.

share|improve this answer
+lots for a way to introduce gameplay changes in a way that doesn't have to pull punches but doesn't endanger PCs. I'm going to have to try that. – IgneusJotunn Aug 18 '12 at 2:40

The best way to get your players to act the way you want is to teach them them via rewards and punishments for each situation. This training doesn't change their way of critical thinking, it just changes the tools they do actions with, and hopefully will open their
magic use.

Please consider the personality of your players before beginning a 'training' regiment like the ones below.

Positive Reward OOC: Reward players for not using rote spells with a point or two XP, temporary items, recognition (Temporary status merit from a few followers), to encourage the actions you want in game.

Positive Reward IC: Employ the use of magical zones that increase the potency of non-rote spells. Negative Punishment:
Employ the use of another magical zone that takes away some of the potency of rote spells.
- Use of both types of zones would really hammer home the point.

Positive Punishment: Subject the players to a Mind/Force or Spirit/Force Spell that shocks the player for a level of bashing damage every time they use a rote. Make sure they roll intelligence or another combination of stats to notice where the pain comes from, what triggers the pain, and give them time to think about how to get around it by using non-rote spells. It helps greatly if the players have enough power to overcome this particular spell. If not, just giving them a time limit that overlaps with a goal they need to accomplish will necessitate using non-rotes.

Positive Punishment is giving the players a hard time. Obstacles are an example of positive punishment, but as this is a game of obstacles, overcoming them, and the journey of doing so, this may not be the best way to do so.

Negative Punishment takes away from a players capability for performing an action, a debuff. If the player is in control of when the debuff occurs and can avoid it, they usually will. How often will players walk in severely damaging lava when there's a perfectly good bridge just a foot away?

Positive reward: Giving the players something good for doing an action that you prefer is one of the quickest ways to keep that action occurring. It is recommended to skip a single iteration of a reward to strengthen the bond between action and reward, creating more desire. Players will thrive for that reward a lot longer this way, which may make it habit.

Negative reward: Take something bad away when they do something good. I recommend taking away weak status effects or just make non-rotes more effective at removing penalties. This isn't one of the strongest methods of teaching and training. For instance, if your dog does a trick, you could take off its collar, but then you might lose your dog.

Remember! Always use your powers for good!

Or to tell a really sweet story.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to the site, great First post! – Pureferret Apr 30 '12 at 20:09
Thanks a bunch! I look forward to seeing everything this site has to offer, and I'm already greatly pleased with just the cursory glance I've had so far. – B.A. Thomas Apr 30 '12 at 20:15

I had this problem in my Dresden Files RPG game not too long back where a wizard would only ever use rote spells. (Some of the terminology might be a bit different with Mage, as I'm only loosely familiar with the system, but I think the basic principle of the encounter still probably applies.)

The solution turned out to be throwing a magic-eating abomination called a ferali that I cribbed from a book. There was kind of a wide eyed "oh crap…" moment when the ferali ate the spell, then just shifted its form to jettison some of the bullet-ridden bits the rest of the group inflicted to help heal itself, using the spell it ate as fuel. The wizard made a Lore roll to see if there was any way he could try to contribute to the fight, to which I simply grinned and explained that he's in a industrial building with lots of heavy machinery, concrete floors, high voltage wires, etc. that he could use magic to manipulate against the abomination & in favor of the employees it was devouring to sustain/grow itself.

In the span of one combat round he went from "I cast x rote at [target] using # shifts of power" to throwing high-voltage power lines & exploding concrete at it in unpleasant & useful ways.

More detail on the Ferali: Its basically a magic eating abomination that is created from a ritualistically altered human that forms mouths to devour humans anywhere they touch it, adding their muscle and bones to its structure with the caability of rearranging the internal arrangement of the whole mess, they came from Late in the Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks but could have come from anything

share|improve this answer

How about asking them why they did not use other magic? Was it a question of choice or ignorance? If it was by choice, then that is fine. Maybe the bad stuff of messing magic were too high a risk to the player, maybe it was because rote are more powerful than making it on the fly. If it was by ignorance, was it because of a lack of knowledge of the rules (how do I know that my effect is not to little/too much?) or just a "I am cannot think what I can do with $magical_skill[random()] and $magical_skill[random()]"...

Because it is Mage and reality is fluid, have a plot that the bad guys (TM) have just discovered a way to make rotes decay. They are losing power on a daily basis. Maybe House Diende (assuming that your version is compatible with Ars Magica) is back with a vengeance? Maybe it is due to Chaos (or whatever it is called now a days) raising its power base? Maybe the $scary_religious_cult[random()] has worked out how to stop magic and that's the first step? Maybe all the above and more ...

From a rule point of view, give XPs for story enhancing use of spontaneous magic, lessen the effect of Paradox, and allow the characters to subtly change rotes. The latter could work by itself: rotes no longer have a fixed effect but a fixed median with low variance. Sometimes, their rotes will be a lot more powerful and sometimes not so much. Now, they will have to cast spontaneous magic to rectify the effect -- or enhance it depending on situations.

Edit: Instead of letting your players think "What can I do with current tools?" make them think "What can I do, using my magic, to make a more entertaining story?". The focus changes from tactical applications of spells to a strategical applications of abilities that the character has. A little bit like letting your character have the spell all along but without the cheesy continuity breaking that this causes in other media.

share|improve this answer
+1 for decaying Rotes, +1 for story XP, -1 as there is no technocracy in the new world of darkness. – Pureferret Jan 20 '12 at 12:04
@Pureferret Nor an Entropy, for that Matter. – Jadasc Jan 20 '12 at 14:10
decaying Rotes is a great idea that I'd appreciate as a Storyteller and hate as a player. :) – OpaCitiZen Jan 20 '12 at 14:35

Look at the rotes the characters have and prepare poblems, which are not solvable with their rotes.
For making it easier, you should not make the problems lethal and let them enough time to be creative. And maybe let them find a parchment or something describing how to solve it being creative.
But you should not forget, that some players don't like to have to much possibilities and they won't use it, no matter what you are doing. So if it doesn't help, go with it and let them play how they like to play. Its about fun, not rules.

share|improve this answer

Let them be!

There is no reason to do and carrot-and-stick learning nonsense here. You are seeing the result of the nWOD vs oWOD Mage rules. My oWOD group rarely bothered with rotes. What's two dice compared to limiting your cosmic power, after all?

In the nWOD Mage game there are serious drawbacks to improvised magic. So long as your players understand its uses and the rules, there's no need to go over it.

Additionally, you might want to compose and "cast" a series of improvised effects to see the cumulative effect of a dozen spells in a short amount of time...

share|improve this answer

You may want to lead by example. Why not have them confronted by other mages that hand them their asses using smart examples of improvised magic.

In a little while, they will start asking if and how that can be done. Hopefully, in a little more while, they will surprise you with the magic they come up with.

share|improve this answer

I know of an all Wizard campaign where spells were created by making rhymes. No two rhymes could ever be the same, so no two spells could ever be the same. If a spell failed, the most likely reason was that someone had already cast that particular spell.

I suspect that this would be a step too far for your campaign, but if you have players who are willing to give it a go (and you are willing to try something which might fail) then it might be an interesting option.

share|improve this answer

Encourage them to have their characters do research in their down time and create new rotes. You might introduce an NPC or "Magic for Dummies"-type book to give them some guidance and motivation.

In my Ascension games, we also have a house rule that if you cast a certain improvised spell enough times with enough successes, it becomes a de facto rote.

share|improve this answer
In Awakening, you need to have five dots in the relevant Arcanum to create a rote. (Page 291) I don't think this group of PCs is there yet. – Jadasc Jan 20 '12 at 16:40

When I played nWoD Mage, I mostly used rote spells due to lack of system mastery, and because (IIRC) the rotes were safer. No reason to tread unfamiliar mechanical terrain wrought with risks, unless there is motivation.

To provide motivation in an uncontrived way, I suggest strange and dangerous situations with high pressure (and don't prepare a solution - that's up to the players, so do consider their ideas charitably). Sooner or later they need to get inventive with their abilities, either making superb use of the rotes they do have (which ought to be interesting), or improvising something. Either should be interesting.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.