Let's Talk About Magic

I'm working on a magic system, and I'm focusing on concept rather than mechanics right now, so it leaves me free to look in various directions for mechanics. I want to do something with a lot of narrative/descriptive play in it, where the effects of spells aren't prescribed but rather "interpreted" or quasi-improvised within the context of the fiction.

What are some of your favorite approaches to magic in games? Why?


  • edited July 2015
    Asif, take a look at this thread (most unique magic systems), should give you plenty of ideas:
  • Quite a while back, I was in a game with alien sorcerers that used the Wushu Open rules. This proved to be surprising fun since the basic nature of Wushu is to use details to add to your dice pool. So, by evoking magic you (the players) were rewarded for colorful and emotional descriptions of your magic.
  • edited July 2015
    Recently, my favorite was a Fate Accelerated version of Unknown Armies. Fate points are the magical juice, there's really nothing you need to hack.

    For improvisational magic, I have played a ton of Mage and Ars Magica but nothing has worked for me so far. It's difficult to engage with the fictional content when that content is abstract mambo-jambo. Usually, a GM has to handle all of that (themes, paradigm, ressonance, alternate realities, etc).

    I do like @zircher 's idea of using Wushu Open as the ultimate "tell me wtf is happening and you get dice".
  • /nodding, listening, reading, and thinking very hard...

  • Ricardo: Unknown Armies imo has one of the most interesting mechanics for magic. I cannot quite imagine this being reduced to Fate Points. Doesn't that make all the UA mechanics mere fluff? Would like to see details.
  • Always loved Lady Blackbird's no-hand-holding approach. It slaps down [Stormblood] on the character sheet and walks away, letting the player handle all the specifics. Few game wizards have felt as as powerful or thematically on-point as the umpteen versions of Lady B I've seen.
  • @BeePeeGee I also love the original Unknown Armies, it was one of the first RPGs that made me go 'wow'. However, I prefer something more focused on the PCs as protagonists and on magic as a personal struggle. FAE allows me to bring that part of UA to the forefront. Specifically, I took the story from the book Godwalker and created a scenario with Frank, Kate and Leslie as pre-made characters.
  • Currently, I still favor the approach in On Mighty Thews (magic=knowledge) and Sorcerer's approach to magic as interaction with a most thematically-supercharged class of NPCs.
  • edited July 2015
    My own improvised magic system for Matiné - a game that mainly focuses on challenging the players' creativity. Each mage had a theme - fire, animals, illusions, et c. The players could do anything within that element; it's not harder to do more complex stuff but it drained them depending on the effect they wanted.

    1. Combat: attacking or avoiding in combat.
    2. Change: drawing advantage of the environment to change it into what they wanted.
    3. Create: creating the element from nothing.

    The players shouldn't use the Create at all; I always thought it would be more cool if a fire mage had a torch that she drew from to transform fire into whatever the player could come up with. During a play session, an illusionist wanted to make a sign, and instead of creating the illusion on the spot, he took a twig and formed it into a sign.

    There were some more to it than that, like how the spells could be changed by increasing the tiers in Reach and Duration. All spells had an immediate effect but if they wanted the spell to last for a scene, a session, or a campaign, the drain would increase. A good mage had however less chance to get drain than an unexperienced mage. And the system also made mages into lunatics after a while, but that's another story. It gave the mage campaign, during the playtest, a real nice touch though.
  • Worlds in Peril is an AW based super-powers game. Recently, I like it more and more and I think it would work for a game where basically every player had access to magic of some kind.
    The powers are defined in a very broad way by the categories simple, difficult, borderline, possible, impossible. This keeps them very useful in a generic sense, imo.
  • I find that it's the "impossible" category that needs unpacking, subcategorizing, an interior orthogony, aggregated costs, or etc. In other words, more definitional mechanics. I agree that categories within the range of possibility may be ranked with fair ease, given a little experience with the system.

  • Magic in fiction is a plot device, generally. The wizard /could/ use magic to solve every problem, but doesn't because the author wants magic to be rare. Fiction magic also imposes a great cost of some kind to every spell. This tends to make less interesting gaming when magic is the /only/ tool in the wizard's box.

    I'm quite fond of the sympathetic magical system in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicle (The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear, etc.). Wizards learn how to draw energy from environmental sources and transmute it into other forms. Spells require a sort of mental "multitasking" that is quite difficult; the more "tracks" one can manage in one's mind, the more complex a spell one can command. On top of that is a more traditionally mystic "things have true names" aspect, plus alchemy and runecraft. I'm pretty sure Rothfuss ran his setting as a GURPS Fantasy campaign before turning it into a book, if that suggests anything about how the magic system might have come about.
  • edited July 2015
    I've been playing and trying several different mechanics for magic, so whatever you choose, here's my advice:

    -You will really need something that works on the spot As cool as the idea of having players search things to cast spells and/or prepare ahead of time sounds, quite often the game constraints (actual playtime, fictional time, location, pacing of the story, etc) conspire to distract the player from preparing, specially in systems where the GM is responsible for framing scenes, as players in that case usually assume a more passive stance.

    If you want players to prepare, perhaps some mechanic that works retroactively by spending some resource will work better. For example, to cast chain lighting the player spends a fate point to bring out a piece of wood struck by lightning from her bag, explaining how she found it previously and now intends to evoke the lightning out of it.

    -A price must be paid... if it's fun Either complications that arise before or later, paying the price is always a nice theme to define a whole game... except when you want the game to about something else. You can come up with the most dramatic magic system that requires the sacrifice of memories from the players, but then the campaign becomes a tactical battle with some political intrigue... and then the systems loses it's impact and the mage player finds her character often weak and unable to cope with the situations.

    It happened to us when we started a campaign with a homebrew game where the power of the mages depended on how many people believed in them. The player started to roleplay, convince people with tricks and intimidation, his power raised... but then the action moved to somewhere else, the other players started to make things happen and a few sessions later we had totally forgotten about the mechanic and I had to redesign it so the player could cope with situations that arised in the middle of a desert with things trying to eat him whole and nobody who around to believe in him.

    Having a renewable resource works wonders for a bit of the old resource management game, it's quite easy to come up with an interesting excuse for it. Also helps a lot when the magic in the game is something beyond the capabilities of the rest of the mortals. Yes, you can control the weather, but only twice a day, and perhaps there could be a cheaper way to get what you want... Now players need to think more their moves and save their spells until really needed.

    But hey, if you all wanna see magic more often, the setting can take it, it doesn't steal the thunder from the other players nor needs too much bookkeeping, you will find that even keeping track of mana will slow down the game and ruin the power fantasy feeling.

    -Spell list or a improvisational mechanic? Try both My post-3.5 D&D trauma made me hate spell lists and as a GM I've been reluctant to dive in them until recently. I still have problems with them in 5e and some part of my brain is still thinking of a way to avoid them. However one of the best experiences I had with a spell list came from a sorta Harry Potter minimalistic homebrew I made years ago. The list of spells there was generated by the players as they learned new stuff, but they had at their dispossal a way to improvise with wild elemental magic. The main difference was that improvised magic was unreliable: they rolled 1d10 which meant how many cubic meters they could cover with one element of their choice and how much damage it did. A 1 on the dice usually meant it wasn't even 1 cubic meter. When the characters started gaining levels I allowed them to multiply the roll by their level to show the progression of their magic abilities.

    On the other hand, listed spells had a fixed cost, damage, area and effect; players had to learn or research more powerful versions, some of which required certain components. Learning spells was all roleplaying since no mage taught their tricks for free and on the best case, they had to pay with mana for the knowledge and magic-related items, if not with favors, blood or souls. There were mana-storing devices on sale but there required the players to either save their daily unused mana in cheaper devices until they had enough mana to pay for a bigger one, and then rinse and repeat to buy bigger containers, often needed to make ritual-level magic and spells from their list.

    - Make yourself a favor and complicate a bit summoning rules More often than not, summoning means the mage has a way to bypass lacking combat skills, her usual only weakness in many systems. If by chance the system allows the mage to perform actions while controlling a summon, that's often enough to break a game. And that's without considering what if the summoner can call a horde of creatures, even if these are less powerful.

    Not that that means a thing in systems like apocalypse world, where rolling more often means the GM has more chances to make bad things happen.

    But then again, rolling separately for each creature and keeping track of their HP along with the NPC and monsters HP may slow the game a bit and distract the GM from other important stuff. You can use group mechanics there, assign a single HP to them and narrate them as whole army if you want, it would look a lot cooler in a power fantasy game.

    The first time I saw a system that made summoning worth of defining a separate class was in Anima Beyond Fantasy, where first the player has to roll for summoning correctly (or risking to have the creature reverse-summon them) then roll for controlling the creature (or risking them do whatever they want; I had a table that included trying to reconcile both fighting sides) and then roll to banish them when the battle ended (or risk having a pissed monster after you)

    You could also bond the creature to an object and use it like a pokemon, but that required spending daily mana so nobody used it. And though the book had a few tables with costs to create monsters instead of a list of monsters, I found more fun to follow my first advice and let players describe on the spot whatever they wanted to summon, only asking them the level and element of the creature, which dictated their powers, cost in mana and difficulty to summon, control and banish. It was the best and most funny campaign of my life. Yet to my surprise players never went powergaming the monsters; looks like the chance of calling whatever they wanted were enough for them.

    It's more or less the same case for necromancy, though corpses were required. At some point I even let the player being able to recreate undead from ashes, though it made sense only at higher levels.
  • edited July 2015
    I think my fondest magic systems are those which:

    * Have a very unusual fictional flavour to them. (Like Defilers in Dark Sun.)

    * Have to do with striking bargains with powerful entities or forces beyond control (a very elegant way of "balancing" an improvised magic system, and creates lots of opportunities for roleplaying, plots, twists, and interesting and bizarre NPCs - all of these not only give you magical outcomes but also advance the Situation, creating complications even as others are resolved). World of Dungeons has probably my favourite magic system in terms of its simplicity/fun ratio.

    * Allow the group to "explore" magic by defining it as they go along. Mortal Coil has the players defining costs and drawbacks to magic as it happens; recently we discussed a D&D-type game where magicians could try anything, but rolls made throughout the campaign would "set" the rules of magic, and be followed henceforth. (So if you try to raise the dead and the dice are against you, perhaps it means raising the dead is not possible with magic in this setting...)

    However, when it comes to something simple and yet classy and interesting, I'm thinking lately that one really easy but fun way to make a magic system would be something along the lines of Apocalypse World. You know how AW has savvyheads and the maelstrom and augury? And that allows all kinds of weird supernatural stuff to happen, but without having to mechanize it all so heavily? I like that.

    I also really liked the various magical talents in Red Box Hack (drawing doors on any surface with chalk allows you to pass through, you can vomit up a "homunculus", which does your bidding and returns with however many hit points it has left, whereupon you must eat it in order to be "whole" again). These are fun because you don't need special rules: you just read (or write) what the magic does, and then you play.

    I think a really cool way to design a magical world would be as simple as that:

    Write a bunch of magical abilities (in simple English) or a whole bunch of interesting AW-style moves. ("When you call the dead to return to life, say by whose power you call their souls, and then choose from the list below: [...]")

    Leaving these fairly loose allows some development of the magical reality as you play, and the players will create ways to chain these moves together - you have a move to "call the souls of the dead", and your friend has a move which is "imbue a historically-significant item with the desires of the long-gone"? Now you call the soul and the desires of a specific persona - perhaps a long-dead warrior king - and house it in your sword. What will that do? I don't know, but we'll find out (maybe we'll write a new move, or just see what happens when the players get creative).

    The various bits and pieces are bound to come together in unexpected ways, hopefully creating some real magic.

    Here are some examples, from an OSR blog:

    Soul Transfer

    The sorcerer’s soul is placed in a talisman such as a pendant or article of clothing, leaving the original body behind in stasis. While in the talisman, the sorcerer’s consciousness remains active and aware of events nearby, and may possess any body that comes in contact with the talisman, though a save is permitted if the possession is resisted. If this new body is slain while occupied by the sorcerer’s soul, a saving throw is required for the sorcerer’s soul to return to the talisman and avoid becoming trapped in the spirit world.


    Prepared canopic jars and paraphernalia must be available, and a freshly slain person’s organs harvested during the casting of this spell. Using the properly prepared remains, a ritual of three days and three nights may then be performed that slowly gathers a new body around the soul still contained in the brains and viscera. This new body should be determined using random encounter tables.
    That would be plenty enough for me; there's so many ways this kind of thing can develop in interesting ways, and you don't necessarily need to roll dice or consult tables.
  • Generally, I like magic where anytime someone asks "can I do this?" the answer is never "no". As in, "no, you don't have the right skill" or "no, your level isn't high enough". For example, while Mage is about climbing the Arete ladder before you can do stuff, Dresden Files is about not getting anyone killed because you have to do stuff right now.
  • edited July 2015
    Ricardo has implicitly mentioned it, I would like to directy refer to Unknown Armies magic mechanics in the original system.
  • I enjoy this thread and the Most Unique Magic Systems thread. I always appreciated systems where magic was more than just another skill, and where spell costs were more involved than "cast once per day" or "3 mana".

    I agree with Ricardo that WoD Mage has way too much philosophical mumbo-jumbo, and I never could picture how it would actually play with a group. But I love the idea of Paradox!

    As I read it, a mage's power is generally unlimited, but the looser the mage plays with reality (at least as perceived by non-mages), the harder reality pushes back. Mechanically this is represented by accumulating paradox, which is essentially a debt owed to reality. You could try to work off this debt in installments (accepting minor penalties called paradox flaws), but if you built up too much too quickly, then it might trigger an uncontrolled and much more serious paradox backlash (reality bankruptcy?).

    Paradox backlashes are expected to be wild, and open considerable room for narrative creativity. The GM could just inflict damage (boring), create an elemental force to subdue the mage (new villain?), warp the environment around the mage (change of setting?), or even remove the mage entirely into his own reality (rescue mission time?).

    I think WoD Mage just had paradox checks apply at spellcasting time, but I like the idea of paradox complicating other actions as well. If *any* action you take could trigger a backlash, then magic has a more elaborate "cooldown" cost. I like the idea of a mixed party in a fantasy-style game getting into a bind that the mage has to bail them out of with some major magical fireworks -- only to leave the party with a mage so keyed up with paradox that he can't tie his shoes for fear of triggering backlash. Suddenly the adventure is about escorting the mage to safety before all that paradox blows his head clean off.

    And I agree with Adam that magic is used sparingly in fiction for narrative reasons: resolving *all* plot points with magic just doesn't make a good story. Think of how little magic affects the plot in The Lord of the Rings! But Tolkien explains this by introducing risk that magic (spells cast, ring worn) will reveal the characters to the searching forces of Mordor. One of the few times Gandalf actually uses magic in the books is at Mount Caradhras, and afterwards he complains that he has exposed himself to anyone who was watching.

    So this brings another possible cost of magic: exposure. In fantasy settings, many enemies are magical and perhaps they are drawn to spellcasters. So while your magic may make you powerful, it may also make you a target. And that opens up narrative possibilities as well.

  • I agree with Ricardo that WoD Mage has way too much philosophical mumbo-jumbo, and I never could picture how it would actually play with a group. But I love the idea of Paradox!
    Have to say that I love all those abstract concepts, but I would love even more having good tools to play with them. Instead of something like "tsk, tsk, you forgot about resonance", have things like resonance be a part of how every spell is described/resolved in a way that exposes "the true nature" of who a mage really is.

    Paradox even in M20 is essentially explained like "we need to have limits because Mage is not D&D". Paradox because paradox. Again, another wasted opportunity to bring forth each character's inner world into the game. I would like to believe that it's each mage who unconsciously inflicts paradox on himself as, in his own unique way, he is still part of the consensus and of that reality zone.

  • I want to do something with a lot of narrative/descriptive play in it, where the effects of spells aren't prescribed but rather "interpreted" or quasi-improvised within the context of the fiction.
    I've mixed a lot of knowns and unknowns in various versions of Delve.

    There's stuff that the GM knows which the players might discover:
    - In the summer when the red stars are brightest, fire magics are most dominant and privileged in a spell, and fire spells are most powerful.

    There's stuff that the players and GM both know:
    - This rune in this position means either 'kill' or 'efface'.

    There's stuff that no one knows for sure:
    - Will including corpses in our casting nudge the spell from 'efface' to 'kill'? How about deadly weapons? How about both? Or what if we kill a bug? Or a squirrel? Do we need a person?

    There's the GM's adjudication of that stuff:
    - 'Efface' wouldn't make much sense in the context of the rest of the spell, so however the players work in death will suffice. That said, some of their ideas were more convincing to the group than others, so if they go with a less convincing one out of laziness or hurry or scruples, some minor penalty might apply.

    I've gotten a lot of mileage out of "this thing I'm trying could have multiple effects," as players try to nudge a spell toward their desired effect with various brainstormed associations, symbols, sacrifices, etc. It's also been vital for me to have a basic metaphysical structure (stars bad, sun good, etc.) for them to riff off of. Giving meanings to numbers and plants and animals is also handy for colorful castings.
  • I would like to believe that it's each mage who unconsciously inflicts paradox on himself as, in his own unique way, he is still part of the consensus and of that reality zone.
    Oh wow I LOVE that! Great for character exploration, fights the transparent play-balance aspect, and also opens up possibilities for how insane mages would differ in this respect (though I have zero recollection of whether Nephandi suffer Paradox as is)...

  • edited July 2015

    I've gotten a lot of mileage out of "this thing I'm trying could have multiple effects," as players try to nudge a spell toward their desired effect with various brainstormed associations, symbols, sacrifices, etc. It's also been vital for me to have a basic metaphysical structure (stars bad, sun good, etc.) for them to riff off of.
    This is excellent advice, David. I think it feels more "realistic" also mechanically making magic this fuzzy, unknown, uncertain thing (depending on lots of ingredients).

  • Yeah! If it's known and certain, it kinda ceases to be "magic", right?

    Not that all RPG magic must "feel like magic", but I do like it when it happens. :)
  • Some great observations in this thread. I just want to thank everyone for posting.

  • edited July 2015
    Rather than classifying magic into curricula as is usually done, I decided to try for a functional breakdown, going for a completely abstract taxonomy.

    What does that mean? Well, like the time-honored test of a dictionary (look up their definition of the word "masturbation"), the difference between the two approaches is easily illuminated by looking at a system's definition of Necromancy.

    Necromancy is actually two things, in the history of magic on Earth. It's either (a) Divination (conversing with a spirit, using the corpse as a focus/component) or (b) Animation of a corpse, which can be done in two ways: (b1) directly controlling the muscles of the corpse via an act of will, or (b2) binding a summoned spirit/demon (perhaps the body's original owner, perhaps not) into the corpse. But in most magic systems, Necromancy is defined as a category of its own, implying that the classification system of most games is curricular, not purely functional.

    So anyway, here's what I've got right now. The names are in beta. It's the abstract functions I'm classifying.

    ALTERATION - The magic of changing the form/structure of things
    ANIMATION - The magic of making things move
    CHANNELING - The magic of directing or molding magical energy
    CONJURATION - The magic of creating/destroying matter
    DIVINATION - The magic of gleaning the unknown
    EVOCATION - The magic of calling forth creatures and entities
    FASCINATION - The magic of attention and emotional affect
    ILLUSION - The magic of deceiving the senses
    INVOCATION - The magic of acting as a conduit for a force or entity
    MEDICINA - The magic of life and death, physiological processes
    MENTATION - The magic of communing with other minds
    PROJECTION - The magic of leaving the body

  • To me, these sound functional:
    ALTERATION - The magic of changing the form/structure of things
    ANIMATION - The magic of making things move
    CONJURATION - The magic of creating/destroying matter
    DIVINATION - The magic of gleaning the unknown
    EVOCATION - The magic of calling forth creatures and entities
    ILLUSION - The magic of deceiving the senses
    MENTATION - The magic of communing with other minds
    PROJECTION - The magic of leaving the body

    While these sound curricular:
    FASCINATION - The magic of attention and emotional affect
    MEDICINA - The magic of life and death, physiological processes

    And this sounds like a means to any of the above ends:
    CHANNELING - The magic of directing or molding magical energy

    Whereas this sounds like a distinction in methodology rather than function from Evocation:
    INVOCATION - The magic of acting as a conduit for a force or entity

    I leave it to you to judge whether my reactions have more to do with the categories themselves, your specific wording, or my own idiosyncrasies. :)
  • edited July 2015
    I agree that Fascination and Medicina (especially the latter) could be approached as curricula. Actually most of these could, if you think about it. But just because something could be approached as a curriculum doesn't mean it has to be, right? These are "types of forces" or "types of effects".

    Fascination would cover everything from love spells to the evil eye, but it's more emotional and internal than sensory and (seemingly) physical, so it's not Illusion.

    Medicina (bad name because it sounds all positive but I didn't want to say "biophysiology") is of course pretty much vital for game purposes. It includes both healing and harming. I realized that on a cellular/organic level, the same powers could be used for harming a body as for healing it. Like how medical surgeons might make the best murderers (or something like that). And while it could TOTALLY be approached as curricular, that doesn't mean that's actually done that way. Like, I might know four spells for healing various common ailments and I know how to magically make you have a bad case of gas, but I never went to school, and I learned them all from different sources. In other words, as a Mage, my knowledge is not systematic, it's spotty.

    Channeling (this one has the worst name, I hate it because of its association with spiritual mediums but can't think of a better word) is the one Gygax would call "Abjuration". It's important because it allows you to fuck with other people's spells. Does it not sound like a class of its own?

    You're right about the difference between Invocation and Evocation. That's the one I agree with you most strongly on, it's definitely a methodological division. In the literature, it's a tremendously vital difference, one that separates whole schools of thought and sets up expectations of whole different classes of ritual, so I found it an impossible distinction not to make. In terms of justifying this separation in my system, my view was this: One involves drawing energy down into yourself, and your defenses are internal. The other is drawing energy up around yourself, and your defenses are external.

    I'm trying to think of them like Forces operating on a quantum level, not as distinct spells. A spell might involve two or three of them, combined. The infamous "Fireball" for instance might involve Conjuring (if the flame came from nowhere) plus Animation for throwing it across the room. And there might be several different combinations that achieve the same or similar effects.

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