Earlier I mentioned wantng to write
heartbreaker system with better approaches to lots of things.
One of my sticking points has always been magic systems. As I mentioned last time it’s easy to bolt other rules onto the side of the Chaosium d100 system’s core.
Skills seldom interact with each other. Various rules have created exceptions, e.g. Martial Arts and other unarmed fighting skills, and languages for those of us who bother about dialects and common roots. By and large one can add, remove, combine, or split skills with few repercussions.
The core seven(ish) Characteristics affect skill percentages by +/- 1% per point in a few systems. Other versions, notably Call of Cthulhu, dispense with even this.
While older versions rolled against core characteristics directly, usually CON for health checks and POW for will, luck, and sanity checks, the Mongoose versions of RuneQuest introduced skills based on those attributes, such as Brawn for STR, Resilience for CON (Endurance in Mythras), and Persistence for POW (Willpower in Mythras), which join the venerable Dodge for DEX (Evade in Mythras).
For the most part the combat system uses Attributes derived from the core characteristics. One (e.g. I) could imagine removing them entirely, and deriving Hit Points, damage modifiers, Luck, and other derived characteristics some other way.
Regardless of how current magic systems work, we can bolt on whatever we like. Existing mechanics we can (but aren’t required to) use include:
Skills, rated as percentile chances.
a list of Spells a magician has practiced or memorized, unranked or ranked by “level”, Intensity, or whatever makes sense.
existing Base Characteristics
new Characteristics or Derived Attributes
Runes, Techniques, domains, or anything else we can invent; there are precedents!
Grand Unified Magic System?
One idea I’ve been toying with for a while is to start with four meta-mechanics present in every RPG in every genre:
- Chance: rolling dice, drawing cards, pulling a Jenga brick, etc.
- Drama: doing things in the game world.
- Karma: having a skill, power, etc. listed on a character sheet.
- Resource: having some exhaustible resource in the game world, either as “tangible” objects or abstract points (Health Points, Magic Points, charges, uses per day, etc.)
It’s hard to imagine a useful form of magic driven solely by chance, but examples of the others abound:
Drama: the character discovers a magical ritual, so she assembles the required implements, waits for a propitious time to cast it, and spends uninterrupted hours of game time to do so.
Karma: the character’s sheet says they can fly, read minds, or whatever, usually as a result of a skill, class ability, advantage / boon / feat, etc.
Resource: the character spends Magic Points to sour milk, boost their strength, etc.
In most mechanics all the elements are present to some extent, but in my notional system the simplest forms of magic rely almost exclusively on one:
Ritual or Ceremonial Magic: (Drama) Ritual Magicians spend game time researching and performing (notional) rituals, sacrificing in-game resources (or beings) with (possibly unreliable) effects. Alchemists and even “scientific” inventors fit this paradigm. While potentially powerful, the research and time investment, not to mention potential hazards, makes this path less attractive for the typical adventurer. Possible models include the higher levels of Enlightened Magic, Animism in Mythras, various systems in Elric of Melnibone1, magic in the non-BRP Castle Falkenstein RPG, and the “Sorcery” system in the also not-BRP but still excellent RPG Barbarians of Lemuria.
Attunement: (Karma) Through birth, accident, rigorous training, or other means, this kind of magician can do things beyond ordinary mortals as easily as said mortals speak, walk, or (more likely) sprint. Whether achieved through esoteric practices or bestowed by unseen entities, the Sources of such abilities do not grant great power easily or without cost. Possible models include the empathic abilities of Enlightened Magic, the benefits of increasing Alignment in Magic World, low-level superpowers, and perks of cult membership in Mythras and RuneQuest.
Will-Working: (Resource) These practitioners learned how to channel their own energies, e.g. Magic Points, hard to renew charges, or uses per unit of time, into superhuman abilities. While in theory both quick and powerful, in practice unaided mortals lack the stamina or psychic power to accomplish more than a few parlour tricks. This resembles a lot of systems in RuneQuest and its descendents, including Legend’s Common Magic, the Sorcery of Magic World, Mythras’s Folk Magic, OpenQuest’s Battle Magic, RuneQuest’s Spirit Magic, and Mythos-related “sorcery” not involving summoning things in Call of Cthulhu.
Each category of practice can augment the other:
An Adept or Witch augments Rituals with the power of their own Psyche, and vice versa. The same talents that magnify their successes can also worsen their mistakes. Witchcraft in Renaissance is the obvious inspiration here. (Drama + Karma)
A Magus or Sorcerer augments Rituals by tapping into other sources of supernatural power. In Magic, however, no power is “neutral”, and the nature of that power may shape or even pervert the magician’s original intent. Maybe nature spirits grant them “favors” in return for services rendered. Or maybe they summon and bind spirits, demons, and worse things like the worst necromancer or Mythos sorcerer. (Drama + Resource)
A Priest or Cultist amplifies their own subtle abilities by making a Pact with Supernal or Infernal Entities. Such pacts require upkeep and sacrifices of some description. Theism in Mythras and Rune Points in modern RuneQuest would represnt a more intense relationship between a worshiper and their god than simple “Allegiance”. (Karma + Resource)
A true Wizard blends all three techniques to amplify his powers to truly awesome and/or terrifying levels. Wizards might tap “mana” sources like ruthless Gloranthan sorcerers, acquire patrons like Elric did, or borrow power from ancient gods … yet still retain a reserve of power and the capacity to call in really big favors. (Drama + Karma + Resource)
In a fit of madness I mapped up even higher power levels, involving travel between parallel worlds, superpowers, and channeling the power of one’s own worshipers into miracles.
How to implement these ideas is another matter. Maybe a unfied and ever-expanding list of spells and/or effects, with an abstract “power rating” met through “raising power” in rituals, channeling power from supernatural allies (or vassals), and drawing power from one’s own soul and blood.
Is The Best Magic System None At All?
On page 18 of The Pendragon Campaign, 1st ed. (link), Greg Stafford writes:
Pendragon has no magic system. All magic is within the hands of the gamemaster, and is used to imitate traditional effects rather than to make comic-book flash-bang nonsense spells.
At the time I read that I was in the first year of college. I thought to myself something like, Wait, I can do that?
In the same year, GURPS Man to Man and its adventure Orcslayer had just come out. As a player of The Fantasy Trip – and a longtime fan – I was excited about that. But MtM had no “magic system” at all. The adventure justified this lack by stating Orcslayer’s setting, the nation of Caithness on the fantasy world of Yrth, was a “Low Mana Zone” where working magic was harder. Thus, the region had few wizards. The desert next door, where the Orcs lived, was a “No Mana Zone” where no magic worked at all.
Doing without magic sounded intriguing. I read on:
Magic should never dominate the game. The gamemaster should feel free to make palaces glow from a warm internal light, to serve exotic wines imported from Cathay, and to mark trails through forests with ancient stones. A magical event or curse can form the basis for an adventure. Magic can be used to save villains or characters. But never should the plot rely upon a magician to do something – this is an example of the gamemaster working versus himself, which only occurs at the players' expense.
More relevant to this discussion, RuneQuest 3rd edition had come out at about the same time. I’d never owned 2nd edition, about which I’d heard so much. Imagine my dismay when the older students around me complained bitterly and long about what a disaster Avalon Hill had made of their favorite system, in particular how Sorcery was just plain broken.
In subsequent years I soured on magic systems:
In the aforementioned TFT campaign I played a wizard who at one point used illusions of birds to scout out a castle. The rules said I could see out of their eyes, right? The GM permitted it.
For a year I ran a GURPS 3rd Edition campaign. Every PC was a mage, and they tended to run roughshod over all my plans. But my fault, right? That’s what players do.
A guy name John Kim wrote a series of essays exploring, in part, the thesis that many extant magic systems encourage a mechanistic, quasi-technological approach to magic. “Spend this many Magic Points for this strong an effect.” “A fireball expands to this volume, doing Xd6 damage.”
From D&D I learned the phrase “glass cannon”. In literature the people who do “magic” are gruff but wise Gandalf, curséd Elric, the interchangeable evil priests that Conan plunges a sword through, the barely trained Gray Mouser who relies more on wits and sword, the Odyssey’s Circe and Calypso who are magic more than they do magic, Terry Pratchett’s wizards and witches who seldom cast actual spells, or Neverwhere’s Door who can open doors from here to there without knowing how or why. In D&D low level “Magic-Users” are useless tagalongs; at high enough level they become living artillery whom other characters exist to guard, lest they reap less loot or die horribly.
In the past 35 years, King Arthur Pendragon has gone through several editions and publishers. The 4th Edition from Green Knight Publishing in 1993 (reprinted in 1999) allowed Magicians as player characters and thus included a “magic system”. Each Magician belonged to a tradition that determined their specific talents, and had to “raise power” in a slow ceremony before casting a spell. White Wolf’s 5th Edition in 2005, written by Greg Stafford once again, removed the magic system and incorporated some material from older works. Editions since then, from Nocturnal Media and (once again) Chaosium, have mainly clarified rules, fixed errata, and refreshed art.
So maybe in some settings it’s better not to define a “magic system”. Maybe magic isn’t for the hands of mortal men. Maybe having a well-defined system kills awe and wonder. Just maybe defining and quantifying the unknown makes it less, well, “magical”.
Or, more to my point, maybe not letting player characters solve problems by magicking them away will put the fear of me into them.
Appendix A: Magic In RuneQuest and its descendants
See “Magic in RuneQuest and Its Descendants”.
Appendix B: Annotated Bibliography
See the annotated bibliography. in “Magic in RuneQuest and Its Descendants”.
For Mongoose Publishing’s version of RuneQuest, now unavailable. ↩︎