Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Magic System Features

I've been thinking about psionics and how to make a system that satisfies me with its simplicity and flavor.  In doing so, I realized that psionics differ from Vancian magic in lots of categories.  I think it might be helpful to try to map out those categories.  Once we have them, we might even be able to generate a new unthought-of system of magic.  So, just as they come to me:

How much preparation?  Priests in 2e needed none.  Warlocks needed none.  First edition material components add another degree to the mix, meaning you have to decide what to cast and be literally prepared.  Rituals requiring components are the opposite.  So, it seems there are two divisions here: Spell selection and then literal preparation.

What spells are possible?  So, even though a priest may call spells as needed, what those spells are does not change.  The opposite would be Ars Magic, or how I was envisioning runic magic; magic that must be creatively constructed at time of casting.  This is a little different than selection, because a system might allow for creation of spells but require selection of castable one each day.

How long to cast?  This seems minor to me because abstracted time can be fast forwarded and it seems to only come into play as instant casting/long enough to be disrupted.  (What if spells took multiple sessions to cast?) I'm thinking now that this an preparation could be combined into how difficult magic is to cast.

What is the cost of casting?  If you take away the simple device of Vancian spell slots, how is magic limited?  The second most common option seems to be spell points.  Psionics takes this approach.  Any system involving blood sacrifice is dealing with this feature.  Material components hit this too, when an expensive gem needs to be used up in casting.

How learnable is magic? This can be like D&D's % chance to know a spell or Psionics chance of knowing devotions.  But it can also be who can learn, because Psionics traditionally could be had by any class.  So, this may be two categories, too.  Who can learn, and how difficult to learn spells (even if limited to magic-uers).  Let's call the first accessibility and the second availability.

How powerful is magic?  Old school D&D's system sections spells off into level by how powerful they are.  Many spells are affected by caster level too.  With old school psionics you could randomly end up with a minor devotion or a major science and yet, the effectiveness of most powers rose with character level.  A spell point system might allow variable powered casting of the same spell.

How reliable is magic?  Second edition psionics treated powers like proficiencies, i.e. skills.  You could fail.  This is like Fourth editions chance of stinking cloud to "miss."  Older editions have a little of this show up in saving throws.

What does magic effect?  Okay, this is probably a lot of categories in one, but I'm thinking of psionics' direct attack powers here.  Some magic-users spells are similar, but most affect targets or not depending on saving throws. Psionics has something similar to melee combat, only it isn't.  I'm thinking wizard spell duels might fit here. Does magic affect hit points, target state, target stats, etc.

What is necessary for magic?  I don't really consider clerics asking gods for spells "magic."  But traditional ideas of magic often involved asking for effects from otherworldly powers.  This shows up in Fantasy Wargaming and even 2e's Al-Quadim caster type. I'm not sure how to categorize this.  Does a spell system identical to 1e's, but requiring demons look any different in practice?  Maybe the difference is the implied risk.  So, this would be another possible cost.  Maybe we could call it caster risk.

As always with categories, we could probably combine some of these and divide others, but to reorganize these into a draft list:
What is magic?
  • Creation
  • Selection
  • Affects
Who uses magic?
  • Accessibility
  • Availability
What is the cost of magic?
  • Preparation
  • Limitations
  • Risk
How effective is magic?
  • Reliability
  • Power
And now, without the organizing questions:
  1. Creation
  2. Selection
  3. Affects
  4. Accessibility
  5. Availability
  6. Preparation
  7. Limitations
  8. Risk
  9. Reliability
  10. Power
The Manual of Planes has a numerical system of denoting how magical alternate prime material planes are.  I don't have it in front of me, but we might use a similar system here.  Assign a number to each category will tell you how difficult, how reliable etc.  I'm naturally drawn to 1-10, so, you could roll 1d10 for each category and see if you can make sense of the magic system that results.

I'm at work with no dice, but let me try a web dice roller:

That looks like: Although possible to create new spells, spells are pretty much set.  Spells probably have no saves or rolls to hit, might even function identical to melee combat. Only magic-users can use spells but they can use pretty much any of the set spells.  Preparation is a pain, probably a system of rituals.  Few limitations, which makes sense if there is a lot of cost already built into the preparations. No risk at all.  Spells are super reliable and very powerful.


  1. I'd like to email back n forth with you some time about designing magic systems. Right now I'm leaning towards using HP for spell points (direct cost you feel!) and giving MUs the same HP as everyone else, or even making CON a vital stat for MUs. Zak just came up with a nice psionics system where you can inflict traumas you've suffered on others (I'll hunt it down when I'm more connected); I'm thinking about an uncontrollable wild talent psi system which only cuts in in extremis - like a saving throw power - and has wild Arduinian effects.

    Finally, unless you really work at it I don't see much value in trying to distinguish your types of supernatural powers. In particular the distinction between magic and miracles rubs me the wrong way any time I actually stop to think about it (so 19th century to this anthropologist's eyes!). Which is another way of saying I'd like to do the hard thinking to make multiple spell systems meaningfully different.

  2. Magic through badass toughness (eats your HP) is one I have thought about for a long time. I made up my own class (don't remember if I named it) back in highschool like that.

    Raised in a pretty strict protestant church and studying biology in school, miracles and science (Magick) seem like very different domains to me.

    I have an idea for a simple psionic system based on 4e's encounters as a unit. I guess I'll have to buckle down and write it down. But yeah, email any time.

  3. very good. I'll get back to you in about a week - traveling right now with sporadic internet access.