Creating a New Table-top RPG System, Part 10

Demystifying Magic


My first thought was to dig deeper and flesh out details on personality in Part 10. However, I ran into a roadblock: Magic. As I worked through this Facet, coming up with a complete list of what’s there, I started to write some ideas. Yet, they had no cohesion. No focus.

Something I don’t want for my game is to have any subsystem seem like it is “tacked on” or is an afterthought. The magic system is integral to a fantasy setting, which means it needs to be built alongside everything else.

I already established the core mechanics for the game. Magic needs to work within these mechanics. Magic must also be balanced and intuitive. This is no short order.

In this blog, I’m going to review some of the existing magic systems to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. I’m going to discuss the type of magic system I want and how it should work. As usual, this will present as a sort of “thinking aloud” type of discussion, so bear with me as we plod through it.

Magic in Literature

Most classic literature portrays magic as a mystical force that a select few individuals can harness and do wonderful things. While some authors, I’m sure, spend a lot of time thinking about and outlining how magic works in their setting, we rarely, as readers, ever see these notes and outlines.

While I’ve read Lord of the Rings (and seen the movies), I keep thinking that while Gandalf is considered the greatest wizard of all, he’s uses his sword as much as his staff. We do see him using magic occasionally, but it’s carefully considered and fitting to the situation. There’s no “spell book” or “daily limit” or “mana power” that we observe. We watch him through the eyes of some hobbits and we don’t learn how his magic works.

Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels describe magic as a force deriving from a supernatural being that lives in an underground cave. The magic encircles the land and if you’re outside its range, your magic is gone. Everyone has some form of power, though, ostensibly, each person’s power is unique. Every character who can consciously manifest magic is limited to one spell, but their power to use it is unlimited.

It’s been an incredibly long time since I’ve read any of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels. I vaguely remember that magic is controlled by the church and is driven by rituals performed exactly as written.

One of my favorites was the Master of the Five Magics series written by Lyndon Hardy in the 1980s. In this, he defines five forms of magic. The protagonist learns about each through the course of the first novel and becomes a master of all five, which was otherwise unheard of in the setting. I noticed as I checked my facts that a new edition of the series was published, along with a new novel in the series.

The main takeaway from magic in literature is that it’s often used as a tool to further the plot of the story. Brandon Sanderson talks about this on his blog:

Magic in the Movies

I already touched on Lord of the Rings. Movie magic (I’m not talking about special effects) is often overblown and bombastic. There’s rarely any indication of how it works, how it’s derived, or that there’s any limitation on its usage.

There are numerous stories where a student is learning the craft and we watch as they go through learning how to focus, recite incantations, and deal with the consequences of their mistakes. Most often, these characters are endowed with some sort of birthright that grants them their power.

Again, magic is unchecked and all-powerful. Very rarely do we see someone who doesn’t control magic have a fair chance against someone who does. Even in Star Wars, to defeat a master of the Force, it requires overwhelming power.

Just like literature, magic is used to further the plot. On the big screen, special effects make magic flashy. Like it or not, this is what players see in their mind’s eye when spells are cast. I don’t want to take away the feeling as a game designer, but I do want to enforce reasonable limitations.

Magic in Gaming (Non-RPG)

Non-RPG gaming magic has its roots in RPG gaming, but I want to cover it separately. There aren’t a lot of games that feature magic, but one thing is clear is that it’s nearly always a case where casters are competing against other casters. If we lump “super powers” into the conversation, the formula remains unchanged. How can an untrained non-magical mundane muggle ever hope to compete against a caster that has even the most miniscule amount of skill?

Conversely, board-game and card-game magic does offer a lot of ideas on how magic systems can work. Magic the Gathering uses a mana-based system where several types of mana are drawn from land and other sources to cast spells. Each spell is represented a card, and the only limitations are what mana you have available and what cards are in your hand.

Mage Wars is another game where cards are used for spells. What I find fascinating about this game is that cards aren’t randomized. You build your “spell book” based on an established point total. Before each turn, you select spells from your book and on your turn, you cast one of them. Some spells have prerequisites in that to cast it, you must have other spell effects already in play. This is the balancing factor preventing a player from starting out with the most powerful spell available.

The Arkham series has magic spells and enchanted items. Again, these are represented as cards that are collected as the game progresses. Some are single-use and are discarded. Others have some sort of cost associated with using them, either as an opportunity cost or they cause damage. This series also represents some risk in casting. A bad die roll could mean your spell doesn’t work or you take damage, or there’s some other negative effect.

You might have noticed a theme: The games I’ve listed all use cards to represent spells, abilities, and enchanted items. I’ve done this intentionally, because my game will use a similar mechanic. I’m already using cards to represent actions during combat. Spell casting is a type of action.

Magic in RPGs

If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that I’ve lamented about the magic systems in other games multiple times. I’ll try not to be repetitive here. RPG systems rarely do magic well. It surprises me that many systems built for fantasy settings treat magic like the red-headed stepchild. (No offense to red-headed stepchildren.) Game designers struggle with balance as they find a way for magic to work within their combat system.

At its core, magic must work in combat. If it doesn’t, it’s a waste of time and effort. This means that spells must be cast-able within the turn-based combat round and not cause players to be stuck with limited options. On the other hand, we don’t want the game to be stalled by analysis paralysis while the player frantically reads through the rulebook searching for that one spell that works best in the situation. When players are forced to choose spells from a list, invariably, they will choose direct damage combat spells first, combat utility spells next, healing spells after that, and utility spells last.

Historically, D&D’s solution to balance is limiting the caster to a set number of spells “per day.” Furthermore, characters must “prepare” their spells in the morning. Not all character classes have the exact same mechanic, but the concepts are the same. The only relationship spells have with each other is they are within the character class’s spell list. While spells have a “school” association, this is rarely enforced as a mechanic.

Especially when you consider that none of the schools are particularly balanced with each other, so that for the character to be effective, they must choose spells from a variety of schools. This makes a thematic approach to spell selection nearly impossible. Likewise, the rules provide the sources of magic, but this has little to do with game mechanics.

It’s interesting to note that for Fifth Edition, you can buy spell cards. Using them has proven to make game play easier, except for those few spells whose descriptions are so long they can’t be fit onto the cards.

Tunnels & Trolls magic system has a tacked-on feel as well. However, it is different enough from D&D that it bears discussion, and I would be remiss to skip over it. A first level caster knows all the first level spells. Depending upon the edition you’re playing, that’s anywhere from about 10 to 30 spells. (7.5 edition is the outlier with the large count, due to an expansion book. Most of the expansion spells are meaningless fluff, though.)

In earlier editions, magical power was drawn from the character’s Strength attribute. Each spell has a cost, which is reduced by leveling and by using a magic staff or focus device. Later editions added a “Wizardry” attribute, which replaced Strength for this mechanic. I should note that even though non-casters have a Wizardry attribute, it’s not used. There’s no mechanic that allows the non-casting class to ever become a caster, so this becomes the ultimate dump stat.

Spent energy restores at the rate of 1 point per ten minutes rest. This doesn’t scale well, meaning that high-level casters must rest many hours to recover after casting a high-level spell. On the other hand, most low-level spells do scale as the character levels up. The basic combat spell, Take That You Fiend! (abbreviated TTYF!), costs six points to cast at first level. A second level caster spends an additional six to power it up to 2nd level, which doubles its damage. At third level, you add another six points, and the output is doubled again. Rinse and repeat as you go to higher levels. The power output is based on the characters Intelligence attribute.

The point I make here is that until you get to 10th level, where you learn the spell Hellbomb Bursts, no other direct damage spell comes close to the damage potential of TTYF!. For combat, there’s no reason to learn any of the intervening spells like Blasting Power, Freeze Please, and others. You might argue for Death Spell #9, but this gives the defender a saving roll, and if they make it, the caster’s Constitution is reduced to zero.

My point is there is virtually no agency when there’s clearly only one choice for the character to make.

The final example I’ll offer is Shadowrun 4th Edition. (I’ve not played 5th Edition, so I can’t comment on it.) Here’s a game where the rules allowed min-max character creation and gave access to powerful spells to low-level characters. The problem I ran into when running this system was that it was too easy for a caster to disable nearly all the low-level opponents in a large battle with a single spell. I found myself devising schemes to disable the caster or his abilities just so that the other players in the combat would have something meaningful to do. It is for this reason magic must be balanced.

There are several takeaways we can learn from examining other RPG game systems. I’ve mentioned many times that it’s hard to strike a balance. Some games the winner of a duel isn’t based on who’s the best caster, but who rolls the best initiative. Some games try to balance magic by making the caster as weak character with low hit points and no combat skills, or worse, by trying to give non-casters special abilities equivalent to magic. I’ve not talked about all these things, but most readers of this blog will know what I’m talking about.

My Magic System

I’ve read several books on how a magic system should work. I remember one titled Authentic Thaumaturgy, by Isaac Bonewits, I have a copy of the original published edition, but none of the subsequently published revisions or editions. It might even be worth some money. Who knows? Anyway, the author of this book outlines a plentitude of magical laws that, supposedly, work in the real world.

To be honest, I’ve never tried.

This, and some other books I’ve read propose a complete replacement of a game’s magic system. Some claim their idea can be integrated, while others make no attempt whatsoever. It’s impossible in this modern era to create a magic system that will integrate into every RPG game. There are too many differences and variables. Furthermore, replacing a magic system adds complexity to an already complicated process. I don’t want to do that.

I can hear you asking, “So, Scott, what are you going to do in your system?” Well, thank you for asking. My magic system will use the same mechanics as everything else. Spell cards are formatted the same as Action cards and show basically the same information. How well a spell works when cast is determined by The Universal Resolution Chart.

To use TURC, we need to know the associated Facets used by casters and their intended targets. Before I talk about the Facets, I need to dig into the theory behind how magic works in my setting.

The Laws

What I want to do for Neuith and SligoRPG is define the “Laws of Magic.” It’s easy to Google search for “Laws of Magic” and through it, you’ll get a variety of results. My results pulled up Dresden Files references, Mystica, Arcana Wiki, as well as a few others. By perusing these resources, I find there are some commonalities.

First, I discard the “legal” type of laws. These aren’t relevant to this discussion. Perhaps later? Most listings are based on Bonewits’ works. It’s more detailed than what I want. I need the system to be approachable, playable, and balance. I don’t want a system that takes a hundred pages to describe!

Law of Balance: All things energy and matter must remain balanced. You cannot create something from nothing, nor can you make nothing from something.

Law of Association: If two things are similar enough, acting on one may affect the other.

Law of Contamination: A property of one item may be transferred to another.

Law of Transposition: You cannot move something unless you know where it is and where it’s going.

Law of Unpredictability: Magic is fickle and random. Great focus and concentration are required to control magic, minimizing its unpredictability.

Law of Life: You cannot create life where there is none.

Law of Paradox: A paradox cannot exist. The Laws of the Universe supersede the Laws of Magic.

Here’s a starting point. Yes, there are numerous other laws that I could include, but the primary takeaway is that all spells and manifestations must follow these laws.

The Source

In a prior blog, I suggested that magic is a supernatural manifestation of radioactive energy. As you’d think, radioactivity causes random mutations, even in those who have evolved to resist the poisoning effect. Physically, the mutations account for the wide variety of creatures, both sentient and sub-sentient, found in the world. Like domesticated dogs in our world, all races are highly mutable. This article is one of several I found that talks about canine genetic mutability:

Conceptually, the radioactive energy in Neuith is somehow controlled through mental focus. Since I’m not a nuclear physicist, I can’t begin to explain how or why. Consider it a suspension of disbelief. No matter how it’s accomplished, nearly everyone in the world can do it with enough training. Some are natural talents and don’t need as much training, while others fail to grasp the most basic elements and principles. You might compare it to the ability to whistle or snap your fingers.

Casting Spells and Making Things Happen

How do the laws apply? If you think of magic as a field of energy that envelops everything, you can begin to see my vision of how this will work. Please don’t compare it to the Force from Star Wars. There are no midi-chlorians. All things are not connected. Blah blah blah. Okay, they are, but on a much smaller scale. The truth is that radioactivity permeates everything in and around Neuith.

Here’s a simple example: I have an apple and an orange. Using magic, following the Law of Contamination, I transfer a property from the apple to the orange. The Law of Association dictates that what I transfer between them must be similar in some way. The Law of Balance suggests that whatever I take from the apple, I must take something similar from the orange. The Law of Transposition says I need to know where both objects are. And finally, the Law of Paradox prevents me from turning the apple into an orange. What I can do is make the orange taste like an apple. In the process, however, the apple will now taste like an orange.

Let’s get practical. It’s not likely a character will need to swap fruit flavors in game. Let’s think about what they will really want to do. I’m in a battle, I’m a caster, and I really want to cause harm to that dude over there. Back in Blog Part 9, I listed seven damage types: Bash, Stab, Cut, Burn, Freeze, Shock, and Arcane. The first three are your basic physical weapon damage types. The next three are the basic energy damage types. The last is all the magics rolled into one convenient bucket. Before we do the magics, let’s look at the energy types.

Side bar: There are other types of energy that we can include: sonic, gravitational, magnetic, nuclear, etc. If they are needed, we can add them, but, for the most part, these end up acting like one of the others.

Burn and Freeze are opposite sides of the same coin: kinetic energy. Heat is high kinetic and cold is low kinetic. On earth, there are numerous ways to create both. The most common and obvious is creating heat through a chemical reaction. Lighting a match is nothing more than causing an electrical spark to ignite a highly flammable substance which creates a lot of heat as the reaction consumes it. To magically create fire, all we need to do is find a combustible substance, transfer it to the target and ignite it. But what if we don’t have anything combustible handy? Now let’s look at how a refrigerator works. Again, there are several methodologies. The most common also relies on chemistry, but it’s not like we can toss some chlorofluorocarbons into the air and cause it to be cold. What happens is air is heated through a system that causes the gaseous form to condense into liquid. Air is forced through coils of this liquid which extracts the heat from the air. The liquid is then forced through a set of fins that releases the warmer air into the atmosphere outside the chamber. I think I’m explaining it right. Go here for a better explanation: If I want to simulate this through magic, I need something that is inherently cold, like an ice cube (if I can keep it from melting) or a bit of fluorine. Through magic, I heat it up, which is easy to do, then transfer the generated cold to my target. If I make enough cold, I can freeze the target.

Who knew I can explain magic with physics? I think it’s because I never took physics in school I can get away with it. Those who have are probably cringing like I’m scraping my fingernails on a chalkboard. Sorry.

In both examples of heat and cold (burn and freeze, in my vernacular), I’m required to use some sort of material component. Do I want to require material components in SligoRPG? For now, I haven’t decided. I think the answer is “yes, but.”

Electrical energy is very easy to create. This is a trick I personally can’t do anymore, but I used to do it all the time. Take an inflated latex balloon and rub it in your hair. Now take the balloon and press it against a wall and let go. If you have enough hair, like I don’t, the balloon will stick to the wall. Not because the paint is wet, but because you created a static electrical charge. Another external link: I do not disappoint.

For magic, I’d suggest that electrical energy is very easy to create. However, it’s very hard to control, because it’s going to follow the laws of the physics by following the path of least resistance to the nearest ground. In other words, if I generate a lightning bolt, it’s not going to shoot in a straight line from my finger and zap everyone in that line within sixty feet. Sorry Gary; it doesn’t work that way. It’s going to zap from my finger and arc to the nearest lightning rod. Likely, that will be your ally standing in front of you wearing steel plate armor standing ankle deep in cave water. Ouch.

This leaves us with Arcane Damage. In this, I consolidate three damage types from D&D: Psychic, Radiant, and Necrotic. Tunnels & Trolls doesn’t distinguish damage types, and most other games basically follow D&D’s lead. I don’t have a problem with that, but I have a tough time seeing the difference. Don’t get me wrong: Radiant is the power of good and necrotic is the power of death. Good normally heals but burns like acid or fire to one that is abjectly evil. Necrotic drains the life force out of its victims causing decay and corruption. Psychic damage is just a way to describe a bad migraine headache. So, if Radiant behaves like acid or fire, why not call it that? Necrotic equates to accelerated natural forces on living tissue, where the fuel to sustain that tissue isn’t present. What D&D does is ascribe the subjective concepts of good and evil to the physical nature of damage. However, like the Intelligence Attribute, I’m leaving Alignment out of SligoRPG. This means I can’t have alignment-based damage types.

Sidebar: What other common RPG components am I excluding? So far, it’s Intelligence (attribute) and Alignment (personality.) It remains to be seen; I’m not done yet.

Sidebar: What’s with all these sidebars? I haven’t been doing them previously. Why now? Well, in one blog, all the titles were alliterative. It’s my blog and I’ll write how I want to. If you think you can do better, WordPress is free. Send me a link.

Back to Arcane Damage. How can we create any sort of damaging force within the defined laws? The first option is to create the belief of damage. By creating an assortment of illusions, you can make one believe they are injured. The hypnotic placebo effect is real. You’d have to be careful to warn your companions that the illusionary dragon breathing illusionary fire on your victims is just that.

The next option is more direct: A bolt of light shot from your hand; If the target believes the harmless array of photons is lethal, it’s their problem. Not yours.

But… but… but… what about spells like Magic Missile that do Force damage? Okay. I can do this if I can relate the doll in my hand to the orc standing across the room. It would help if I had a hair or fingernail, or some other physical piece, but assuming I do, I can put it on the doll, which creates a Contamination effect. Now that I’ve made the doll and the orc similar, because they share a common property, I can punch the doll as hard as I can. Wham! The orc receives Bash damage equal to my Force Facet.

If I can somehow infuse the doll other ways, without a physical component, I can cast the spell, but the effect wouldn’t be as severe. Maybe if I hear the orc’s voice, I can imitate it and speak to the doll.

Here’s another option: I know where the orc is, and I know where the apple in my hand is. Perhaps I can teleport the apple and the orc’s heart, swapping their places. I’m not sure how long the orc will survive with apple juice pumping through their veins. You can’t do that in D&D.

Granted, that last trick is rather powerful and would spell instant death to whomever is targeted. We harken back to the concept of game balance. For the spell to work in this microcosm, I think the orc would have be standing perfectly still, and the caster would have to be either in range to touch or at least close enough to hear the orc’s beating heart. Additionally, the caster would have to be familiar with orcish anatomy, though I suppose it wouldn’t matter much if they missed by an inch or two. Half a heart is just as deadly as the entire thing, just not as cinematically dramatic.


Concepts are great, but how does it work in game? This gets me to where I got stalled writing about the Knowledge Aspect’s Magic Specialty Facets.

Using magic starts with two components: Knowledge of how it works and the ability to use it. I stated previously that everyone can use magic. I need to qualify that statement because there are some in Neuith that can’t use magic. However, for them, it’s because of magic they can’t use magic. Sound like a paradox? It is, but it doesn’t violate a Universal Law, so I can get away with it

The ability to use it isn’t directly outlined, but it is tied to the character’s Wits Facet. It is a mental ability, requiring a strong mind to wield it effectively.

The Knowledge, however, is something that is, and should be, clearly and directly outlined. This is where we get into a discussion of Magic Schools, Types, and Forms. By establishing these, we open the pathway to diverse types of spells, how they are cast, and what happens when they are.

Let’s lay down some groundwork. Knowledge establishes how you learned to use magic and what type of magic you can use. Wits (Physical Aspect Facet) represents your ability to focus, which improves the relative power of magic as well as reduces the likelihood of failed and random effects.

Interactive Aspects may influence some spells. Right now, I’m focusing on combat-related magic, but there are cases where magic is interactive related. For example, casting a compel truth spell would be based on Discernment and an invisibility spell would derive from Deception.

For the remaining Physical Aspect Facets, here are the ones that apply:

Adroitness: how quick can you cast the spell? The higher this facet, the less time it will take. However, quickening a spell increases the risk of unintended consequences.

Force, Fight, and Vitality: these affect the damage a spell does. Due to the law of Balance, it’s likely that some spells will cause “damage” to the caster.

Throw: this controls the accuracy of ranged spells.

Defense: This is important for non-combat spells used in combat, like creating a defensive barrier.

Other Knowledge Aspect Facets can enhance spells directly or indirectly. For example, knowledge of Medicine will make healing spells more effective; to activate or deactivate a mechanical device, knowledge of clockworks would be helpful.

This leaves us with the last, but most vital component of magic: what are the Knowledge Aspect, Magic Facet Specializations?

  1. Bush Magician: You learned magic on your own and you are untrained. While you have a wide selection of spells, their power is weak and you’re likely to trigger strange effects. In fact, most of your spells are refinements of strange effects.
  2. Faith Magic: You learned your craft in the temple. Your spell selection is limited based on the type of faith you follow, but your chance of ill effects is minimal.
  3. Guild Magic: You were one of the rare few that spent at least part of your childhood in the tutelage of the Wizard’s Guild. Within the guild, you were tested for aptitude and you focused your studies on a relatively narrow curriculum. Your spell selection is focused, but you’re good at it.
  4. Nature Magic: You learned your craft from woodsmen, rangers, druids, and other folk focused on things natural. Most fey creatures use this type of magic, and “Fey Magic” is one of the few character-race ability options. You’re spell selection is broad, but combat magic is limited. You have a fair chance of triggering strange effects.
  5. Practical Magic: You have an innate knack for casting simple spells and can do it with little or no thought – almost like it’s an extension of yourself. While this seems like a form of Bush Magic, it’s more refined. You’re all about parlor tricks and showmanship, and within that realm, you don’t have problems with strange effects. However, expanding your basic talents in stressful situations often leads to chaos.
  6. Street Magic: While never formerly trained, you picked up bits and pieces from trained casters whenever you could. You were the one sitting outside the window when the Wizard’s Guild was discussing fire magic. Likewise, you watched carefully while a performer was doing tricks for an audience and you were able to discern how he pulled them off. On your own, you practiced, and you suffered the consequences. Your spell selection seems a bit random and you don’t exactly have everything under control. On the other hand, your cleverness and ingenuity has allowed you to use magic to get you into, or more importantly, out of tight spots.

For a first pass, I like what I see here. However, some of these will require subdivision. Faith magic, for example, includes all types of faith – not just considered “good,” but those considered “evil.” Casters who pursue the “dark side” of power will learn about raising undead, calling forth evil spirits, and other malignancies. One conversation on my to-do list is to cover religion and faith in Neuith. That will help fill out some of the gaps here.

A question that arises is how to resolve strange effects. Still using TURC, I’m thinking there will be a set value based on the type of magic, modified by the difficulty of the spell, which is rolled against the caster’s Wits. I haven’t decided if “Magic Force” is the Actor or if it’s the Caster. It depends upon how granular I want the random effect severity to be.

While important, it’s not something I’m ready to determine right now. I’m over my target word count and there are still other conversations to be had.


I believe I have sufficiently outlined how magic will work in SligoRPG. Granted, there are still many unresolved questions and issues, but each step brings us closer to a finished product. Now that this is covered, I can return to Personality and finish that discussion.

3 thoughts on “Creating a New Table-top RPG System, Part 10

  1. I built Goofy Wizards so that you would have experience with another magic system when it came to writing this article. Why haven’t we played it!? It was meant to insopire yoiu,. Instead I just feel hurt and you have gotten not benefit from experience with it. I intended the Goofy Wizards magic system to be included in the section “Magic in RPGs”. Why isn’t it there? Why should I bother building a game to inspire you if you refuse to play it with me. Why did you write this article before you played my game? Is there any point in collaborating on game development if we don’t collaborate!


    1. Sorry… My brain is going forward without control. I had no intention of upsetting you! I do want to work with you on Goofy Wizards. Remember that nothing I’ve done with my game is set in stone and I’m always open to improvements.


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