Monday, March 18, 2013

Spells are easy, college is (very) hard: Another alternate magic system

The Problem

I really dislike the standard GURPS Magic system, for a variety of reasons, but one thing I really dislike about it is that spells are Hard skills. I've got degrees in computer science and engineering (also Hard skills in GURPS, with prerequisites in other Hard skills) so I think I have some understanding of how much effort it takes to learn several Hard skills to a professional level. The idea that every GURPS wizard either has to be a multi-talent genius on the level of Richard Feymann or that every one of them has studied enough to master 20 skills, each the equivalent of getting a minor in Mathematics just doesn't seem reasonable.

The idea of the academic wizard who spends all his time researching and studying magic is common in fiction, and on first pass, the GURPS rules support that. Except each spell is very specific, and it's hard to believe that learning Ignite Fire should be as difficult as learning a legal specialty. It's the accumulation of the various spells and their prerequisites that make magic hard to learn, not learning any given spell.

Fortunately, the rules already do a have a format that models this. The standard Ritual Magic system has each college of spells be a different Very Hard skill, with any individual spell being a Hard technique defaulting to the college skill with a penalty of the spell's prerequisite count. Sadly, this system doesn't work very well, as many useful spells have prerequisite counts of 7+, and that makes it pretty much unlikely to create a Ritual Magic mage who can cast both Lightning Bolt and Shocking Grasp. It also continues the trend that a dabbler wizard is a bad idea: an IQ13 elf thief with Magery 0 who puts 1 point in each of the Movement and Light/Darkness colleges can accidentally summon demons, but has basically no ability to cast even basic spells such as Light or Apportation.

(Aside rant: the current pricing of the Magery talent, which adds to 800+ spells or 20+ ritual colleges, is also broken. Raising the price to 15 points makes it worthless against buying more IQ; narrowing the focus means that wizards buy more IQ anyway.)

The Solution

Ritual Path Magic (introduced in Monster Hunters) provides rules for grimoires: props that provide a bonus to casting rolls for a specific spell. Grimoires should be imported into the Ritual Magic rules, replacing the current technique rules.

College Book Ritual Magic

  • Any spell can be bought as a Mental/Easy skill, following the normal rules for prerequisite chains.
  • Any college can be bought as a Mental/Very Hard skill. There is no "core skill". Spells can be cast from default with a penalty equal to the prerequisite count*.
  • There is no Magic Talent (Magery). Players can come up with specific magical talents with GM approval. For 5 points, the talent should apply to 2-3 college skills (and any individual spells in that college) and 4-3 other related skills. For 10 points, the talent should apply to 6-7 college skills and 6-5 other related skills.
  • Grimoires exist, and reduce the default penalty for a specific spell. A grimoire cannot be used to set the spell's default level above the caster's Thaumatology skill. A spellcaster does not need to have the grimoire on him to cast the spell with the grimoire's bonus, but must have reviewed the grimoire within the last 24 hours. Reviewing grimoires takes 1 hour for every total 100 points in bonuses (round fractions up) provided by the grimoires.

* For easier default casting, change the default penalty to -(prerequisite count/2 +2) for spells with a prerequisite count of 4 or more.


These rules are an extension of the concepts from Bookish Wizards. Wizard delvers will constantly be looking for better grimoires: a new spell that they couldn't otherwise easily cast, a better bonus for their favorite spell, a faerie grimoire that is lighter and more portable. They also have to spend time reading and researching their grimoires.

It is also fixes a bunch of my other issues with the magic system. A smart dabbler can know a couple of basic spells cheaply. Building a specialist wizard is straightforward, instead of a bizarre and pointless exercise in point-shaving. The scope of generalist wizards is reduced somewhat, making wizards something less of a swiss-army-knife of problem solving. Hopefully, wizards can make more interesting optimizations between IQ, Talent, and skill points, though I admit I haven't really worked through the thought experiment.

This system still has the problem that it uses the highly idiosyncratic spell list from GURPS Magic, but fixing that is a subject for another post, or possibly another blog.


  1. I'll say this - on the surface, with a gut level reaction, I like it. I, too, would want to put it through the paces to make sure there wasn't some manner of gotcha somewhere in the details.

    I haven't had a chance to see Ritual Path Magic in play yet, and am really jonesin' for RPK's new book on it. I have some hope that it, too, can be easily bent to fit a high fantasy style of magic.

    1. I've played in two RPM games, and I have some issues with the system. First, there's too much die rolling. Second, the amount of energy that can be safely used decreases too slowly below effective skill 16 and too fast above it, further reinforcing the "magic is only for Richard Feynmann level intellects" feeling. Third, there's way too much difference in the effective abilities of a Ritual Adept and a normal caster. I have thoughts on addressing all of those, which I will probably put in a future post.

      I glanced through the sample spell lists from DF: Adventurers, and I think they work fine with this system. I'm going to post some sample characters with this system.


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