GURPS Magic Redesign

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This is "radical theory", completely untested, and should be treated as a gedankenexperiment rather than rules. This page largely assumes the material from GURPS Attribute Redesign is more-or-less in effect.


Produce a framework for a "4e-harmonized" rewrite of the classic GURPS magic system. GURPS has many alternatives, but I don't see that as an excuse not to revise the "first" one for the modern gaming era. That said, the "first" one seems to be in drastic need of revision(s).


Key features of the classic system that distinguish it from other sub-systems

  • Spells are bought as skills - one skill per spell
  • Spells use "spell points" and time to cast as the major "balancing" mechanisms
  • Spell points are a personal quality, by default assumed to be the mages FP and HP. Magic items use the weilders spell points or have an artificial reserve of their own points. Mages may be able to tap artificial reserves of spell points.
  • Mystical environmental qualities can impact spellcasting - "Mana levels", aspects, twisted or corrupted mana, unstable mana, etc. Mana may modify effective skill, may provide local reserves of energy to be tapped, may impose an "energy tax" or even actively sap energy stores. Mana may "colour" spell castings; eg: fire-aspected mana may add fiery effects to non-fire spells.
  • Some people have a special quality that makes them better mages than other people.
  • This quality includes an ability to sense magic, magical effects, magic items, and environmental qualities that can impact spellcasting that might otherwise be invisible.
  • Spells are organized into over 20 colleges based on rough theme. Spells may belong to more than one college.
  • Some colleges are "meta-colleges" containing collections of spells from other colleges organized around a different kind of theme. EG: Weather vs Air/Water.
  • Non-beneficial spells cast directly on other characters require contests.
  • Spells take range penalties.
  • Spells can be organized into hierarchies or chains or tiers; they may require advantages or mundane skills to learn.
  • These are not considered game-mechanical balancing mechanisms; these are game-world design details, and may be social controls or may be actual hard technical requirements in a specific game-world, but do not replace or supplement other balancing mechanisms.
  • Both adventure-oriented super-hero fast-cast spells and dramatic ritual-style casting
  • Consider both the existing ceremonial system and D&D 4e's Rituals/Powers split.

Sacred Cows To Be Slaughtered

These are "key" features of the classic system that should be ruthlessly stamped out.

  • Absolute effects
  • 4e dumped the Immunity advantage. 4e magic should have dumped immunity effects. A more generalized order: keep spells as consistent with established non-spell 4e effects/advantages/mechanics/items as possible.
  • Absolute skill levels
  • Giving away free anythings for absolute skill levels is horrible. Giving away energy discounts for any kind of spell skill level when energy costs are considered the primary control mechanism, not spell skill level? Horrible idea!
  • Requiring high skill levels
The current system rewards skills at 15+ so much, and discourages skills at 14- so much, that PC "beginning wizards" still have IQ+Magery = 17, they just have less spells, or more limitations on their Magery.
Skill penalties are good, but there also needs to be room for skill bonuses as well, just like with regular skills. "Professional" but non-adventuring wizards with skill ~12 as well as "dabbler" and "apprentice" wizards in the skill 10-14 range need to be about as useful as a dabbler with lockpicking in the same skill range.
If a spell is intended to be a work-a-day kind of spell (more equivalent to Administration than Lockpicking), it has to be the kind of thing you can roll monthly as a job roll rather than sweating each casting. That means that critical failures have to be mitigatable in work-a-day environments.
  • Mana laundering
  • The use of spells to recover spell points from "nowhere" in "no time" is bad and wrong. The use of regeneration to recover spell points is highly suspect and should be examined very suspiciously.
  • Spell list bloat / spell over-specificity
  • All the little quirky spells are very colourful, but many should be handled by making them "stunts" or techniques off of other "core" spells.
E.G. Ignite Fire as a +1-5 skill "easy task" use of Create Fire, depending on flammability of the item. An apprentice with skill 8 in Create Fire would still light tinder with an effective skill of 13 without other bonuses.
E.G. "Mass" or "area" spells as a -4 or -5 technique off of a related spell, plus obviously the extra energy required.
  • Underwhelming spell names
  • This isn't a problem with the system, but the tendency for spell names to be so understated that the nature of the spell is misunderstood needs to go. Particularly egregious: "Tickle". "Tasha's Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter" might be a bit excessive, but even "Ticklefits" would be more suggestive of how disabling the spell is.
Aside issue: Of course, I would prefer Tickle to not be quite so... crippling. At least not immediately and irrevocably. Even allowing the character to take actions for one (or several) turns in exchange for voluntarily taking damage, or requiring Will rolls every round to act at a penalty, or something!

Points of Debate

Control Mechanisms

The most similar kinds of skill-based special abilities are chi skills, imbuements, and the enthrallment skills. These abilities all use the one-skill-per-ability model.

Chi skills and Enthrallment both use time-to-activate as significant control mechanisms. Most Chi skills, all Imbuements, and all Enthrallment skills are dependant on the successful performance of another skill. Some Chi skills and all Enthrallment skills use contests with the subject. All three categories use energy costs and skill modifiers.

The details of Imbuements are probably worth revisiting if the spell system is being overhauled, but the design pattern is constant, and suggests that these elements are the more significant part of "control" than skill difficulty or absolute skill level.

IQ or Base 10? Base 0?

Kromm has commented on the forums that basing spell skills on a new attribute (call it "Magery") instead of IQ is the only "real" way to solve serious niche invasion by mages. Obviously this would require the spell list itself to also be ravaged, but that's assumed for this page.

At his most extreme, he has suggested having the Magery attribute start at 0, and costing about 15/lvl. Energy would be equal to this new Magery attribute and cost 3/lvl to buy up, or would start at 0 and still require 3/lvl to buy up. This seemed to be most in context with using the spell system otherwise more-or-less as-is, and may be too extreme if one assumes the spells (and some mechanics) are being overhauled. On the gripping hand, this approach does have the advantage of making limited forms of Magery significantly more attractive, which adds "colour". Making limited Magery attractive should be a design goal.

A more moderate approach would be to base a hypothetical Magery attribute on a more modest point - 3 is still quite harsh; 8, 10, and 12 are other obvious points to consider, in combination with increasing the cost per level to 20 or even 30 points per. Another more moderate option would be to base it on ½IQ, or the average of 10 (or 8 or 12) and IQ - also see below point on IQ. With the moderate options an "unlocking" advantage (see below) should probably be strongly considered.

A third approach is to use a hypothetical Magery attribute as a skill cap, but still basing skills on IQ. This has the downside of still encouraging possible niche invasion by inflating the value of IQ, although mages will still need to sink points into the Magery advantage.

The role of IQ

Many people want IQ involved in spellcasting. Wizards in fantasy are traditionally depicted as wise, or at least academic and scholarly, which is certainly IQ-linked in GURPS. The Thaumatology and Alchemy skills are IQ based in GURPS, but are not particularly tightly linked to the spell-casting system. As noted under Control Mechanisms, the other most-similar categories of exotic skills have heavy links to the successful performance of other skills (often skills based on entirely different attributes). Chi skills and Imbuements change the results of an attack or other stunt, and still require the skill roll to succeed. Enthrallment requires set up time and successful Public Speaking to engage the audience.

Tying skill use in to spell casting seems the best way to encourage "academic" wizards forcing wizards into huge IQ polymaths; the skills required can be collected into a talent, giving wizards a cheaper option.

Niche Invasion?
IQ has a fair price given the number of mundane skills based on IQ. Becoming a mage adds potentially 800+ skills under IQ, making IQ suddenly an incredibly valuable attribute.
Magery, being cheaper and having other incidental benefits, is more valuable, but once Magery hits the campaign cap, mages immediately sink points into IQ and become IQ powerhouses, which in turn makes them excellent thieves, scouts, face-men, and Academics. This is exacerbated in vanilla GURPS, with Perception and Will defaulting to IQ.
The classic magic system also has the problem that there are many spells that are substitutes for standard skills... except better. Faster to use, bypassing many situational penalties, eliminating the need for tools, and forcing all of these "substitute skills" onto one attribute with one overloaded Talent giving bonuses to everything, making Magery the Talent of "Whatever I feel like doing" and IQ the stat of "Whatever I feel like doing".

Whence Energy?

The current model uses Fatigue and the optional expenditure of HP as a "self injury". Some suggestions include stripping this and making the "buy in advantage" an energy pool bought as an ER, or basing it on a new Magery attribute.

One suggestion is to have a separate "spell point" pool but having spellcasting also be fatiguing in some way - costing one FP per spell regardless of spell point cost, or FP = spell point cost (requiring both FP and spell points), or some other scheme based on a fraction of spell point cost in FP in conjunction with spell points. If spell point cost can never be reduced (or can never be reduced to 0), the FP part might be allowed to be reduced/eliminated, to indicate better resistance to magical strain.

Buy-In Advantage?

Chi skills and Imbuements both require the purchase of an expensive advantage before the skills can be trained. The Enthrallment skills also require an advantage purchase, although it's a much cheaper one. (This should probably be tweaked - Charisma is just insanely useful to anyone who would be using Enthrallment... except that Enthrallment has a fairly slow "casting time" and may therefore be self-regulating).

A magic detection and analysis buy-in would be particularly helpful as it could also provide the classic "Detect Magic" type ability.

"Mage Talent"?

Should there be a Talent to improve spell skill levels? An overall talent, or a per-college (or other theme) only?

Other Skills?

Most Chi skills, all Imbuements, and all Enthrallment skills are dependant on the successful performance of another skill. RPM caps rituals at the lower of 12+Magery and Thaumatology level. Symbol Drawing can be used for bonuses in some systems, or is required in other systems.

Save Or Die

Many GURPS spells have retained a distinct "save or die" flavor that dates back to early RPG design philosophy. If they don't "kill"/petrify/entomb the character, they disable him for an entire fight with little to no hope of early recovery, even with intervention by other characters. This is logical for many effects, but when it happens to a PC, it's very boring and frustrating for someone who finds themselves suddenly left with nothing to do for the rest of a 1-2 hour fight.
This is difficult to resolve and still retain the really "cool" classic effects of fantasy gaming. My suggestion is to examine D&D 4e's handling of petrify and similar "save or have nothing to do" effects - the first failure applies a significant debuff effect, and requires further saves to stave off complete petrification (or whatever). This gives a PC casting it on an NPC an immediate rewarding effect that continues to pay off over the next few turns (while still making other characters relevant in controlling the NPC until it completely subcumbs or throws off the effect); this also gives a PC victim a few more turns of something to do, and an opportunity for other players to find something to intervene with at a stage where it might be easier to do so, but ties up the second PCs actions in the process.
For some kinds of spell, instead of a "resist again or progress to a more severe condition", there might be a resistance roll every turn to suffer lesser penalties (critical success shaking off the spell entirely). This would be appropriate for something like Tickle - roll vs Will to act at -2 or -4 to DX and IQ each turn, for example. A spell built on this scheme should still have it's full effect for at least one turn after the characters first initial failed save.


Prerequisite: Detect Magic [36]

All mages require the Detect Magic advantage. Without the ability to sense the flows of magic, magic cannot be manipulated.
Detect Magic is built as Detect (Common - Magic and Mana; Analyzing - 10min Preparation Required, +70%; Melee reach C, -30%; Reflexive, +40%) [36].


Mana detection requires the mage to be in the mana zone to be examined (and thus subject to any of its effects). A mage gets a reflexive roll against Perception-4 when moving across a border between two mana levels/types and when the current mana level/type changes. Success indicates that there has been a change, and the "direction" of the change - if the mana level has become higher or lower, or acquired or lost an unusual property (but not the exact mana level or list of exact properties gained, lost, or remaining).
He may also take a Concentrate action and an unmodified Thaumatology roll to actively examine the current mana level/type. Success identifies the current mana level and if there is an aspect or other special feature (but not the type or magnitude of the aspect or feature).
An in-depth Analysis of the local mana takes 10 minutes of concentration and an unmodified Thaumatology roll; it reveals all qualities, whether those qualities are the result of external tampering, what kind of tampering (a spell, etc), and gives some insight into the (natural or artificial) source of fluctuations, aspects, etc.


Magic detection is an unconscious reaction that requires skin contact with the item, and is based on Perception-4 - a successful roll indicates whether there is a magical effect on anything in contact with the mage (including the mage himself), whether it is a spell or enchantment, and the rough magnitude of the strongest effect on the subject. Roll Perception-4 once per day per item when the mage first comes in contact with an enchanted/ensorceled item.
A closer examination requires choosing a specific subject, taking a one-second Concentrate, and making an unmodified Thaumatology roll; this reveals if there are multiple effects on the subject, and the colleges and magnitudes of each effect.
An in-depth Analysis of a single subject or item requires 10 minutes of examination and a Thaumatology roll; it identifies the precise effects of all the spells, enchantments, etc. on the subject.
Reflexive action: If the mage wasn't deliberately looking for magic or mana, -4
Acute mana sense: This advantage gives +1 for 2 points/level.
TODO: Penalty for examining complex effects, or items with many effects? Bonuses for examining strong effects? Lesser/Greater effects - do they have associated modifiers?

Magery Attribute

Possessing the Detect Magic advantage "unlocks" the Magery attribute. Magery starts at 10 and cannot be bought down. Magery may be bought up at 15 (10? 20?) points/level. Magery is the attribute base used for all spell skills.

Spells may occasionally "float" to other attributes; most common is floating to IQ for improvising an unorthodox application of a spell, or analyzing the improvisation of another mage.

If using spell points instead of FP for casting, Mages get "spell points" equal to 5x (?4x?) Magery. Spell points recover at a rate of (one tenth reserve)/10 minutes.


Base concentration rolls on a will-based skill roll?

Spell skill level is also capped by the skill level in Thaumatology, as in RPM. OR: Greater spells require a successful Thaumatology/Symbol Drawing/Dance (Sacred)/Whatever roll. Grimoires or preparation time or whatever give bonuses to this roll. This is to mirror the dependency on external skill success from Chi and Imbuement.

Spell Design

Unless specified, a spell takes one second to cast(?) and if resisted, is resisted by Will.
Spell effects should be designed using the Ritual Path Magic effect design system, specifically according to the Defining Rituals box (p39). When casting, the final ritual cost is determined using the full set of RPM factors, as normal for RPM. If using FP/HP as the energy source for spell casting, divide final ritual cost by $NUMBER (ed note: 10?), rounding down, to get cost in FP/HP.
Minimum energy cost is 1.

Casting time

Have casting time be based on energy cost? 1 second per 20 RPM energy? Trade RPM energy cost for casting time?

Lesser Vs. Greater

Fleshing out is waiting on the RPM book and the discussion on redefining Lesser vs Greater effects, but.
There's been a lot of natter on the forums about how to tinker with the definition of Greater Effect to make a magic system that works comfortably with a traditional Dungeon Fantasy setting. Switching up Greater effects so things that "everyone knows" magic can do are Lesser (like fireballs, frex) and things that are basically on the list of banned or hacked spells for DF are Greater (like Gate spells and teleporting, permanent creations or enhancements like Essential Wood, things that make dungeon walls obsolete, etc, etc) make the spell system sort of self-regulating. If you decide to include those "forbidden magics" at all, of course.
Greater Effects have a base 10 second casting time? 1 minute casting time?
A thought: Consider the UB rules in Supers/Powers as the guideline when an effect becomes "greater" - when a spell starts packing power/utility beyond that which a person in the setting would reasonably prepare for a single person to pack. EG a little girl with the strength of a strong fully grown man might surprise someone, but bank security is more-or-less set up to cope with fully grown men so she's not able to do anything they can't cope with. A fully grown man (or little girl) with the strength of ten men, on the other hand, is a really surprising amount of power concentration.

Traditional Trappings
  • Note To Self: Consider stealing the table from Spell Components for the foundation of a baseline "Traditional Trappings" discount table. Divide discounts by 5? Iunno.

Worked example spells

These examples are provided to give something concrete to talk about when theory crafting.

See this appspot app for a handy web-app for writing up rituals. Note that it converts dice+adds when handling multiplied damage.


Spell Effects: Greater Destroy Mind.
Inherent Modifiers: Area Of Effect + Duration + Affliction, Sleep.
Greater Effects: 1 (×3).

Puts everything in the area to sleep for 30 minutes.

This Casting: Greater Destroy Mind (5) + Area Of Effect, 3 yards (2) + Duration, 30 minutes (2) + Affliction, 150% to Sleep (30). 117 energy (39×3).

Fire Bolt

Spell Effects: Greater Control Energy, Greater Create Energy.
Inherent Modifiers: Damage, External Burning.
Greater Effects: 2 (×5).

Creates a bolt of fire from nothing, and launches it at an enemy. Range is 10/100, Acc 3.

This Casting: Greater Create Energy (6) + Greater Control Energy (5) + Damage, External Burning 3d (0). 55 energy (11×5).

Greater Fire Bolt

Spell Effects: Greater Create Energy + Greater Control Energy.
Inherent Modifiers: Damage, External Burning.
Greater Effects: 2 (×5).

Creates an intense bolt of fire from nothing, and launches it at an enemy. Range is 10/100, Acc 3.

This Casting: Greater Create Energy (6) + Greater Control Energy (5) + Damage, External Burning 9d (8). 95 energy (19×5).


Spell Effects: Greater Control Energy, Greater Create Energy.
Inherent Modifiers: Area Of Effect + Range + Duration, 10 seconds + Damage, External Burning.
Greater Effects: 2 (×5).

Effect is Greater due to creating fire from absolutely nothing.
No attack roll is required to target the area, it Just Works. However, it is not a Malediction and does not bypass DR - people in the area may still Dodge-and-Drop or Retreat out.

This Casting: Greater Control Energy (5) + Greater Create Energy (6) + Area Of Effect, 3 yards (2) + Range, 30 yds (7) + Duration, 10 minutes (1) + Damage, External Burning 3d (0). 105 energy (21×5).


Spell Effects: Lesser Control Energy.
Inherent Modifiers: Altered Trait, Adds the Invisibility (Fringe) advantage.
Greater Effects: 0 (×1).

Makes the subject invisible; there is a slight visible distortion effect that can still be detected. It automatically terminates if the subject takes an aggressive action, as per DF1.

This Casting: Lesser Control Energy (5) + Subject Weight, 1,000 lbs. (4) + Duration, 1 hour or until broken (3) + Altered Trait, Adds the Invisibility (Fringe) advantage (36). 48 energy (48×1).

Mage Armour

Spell Effects: Lesser Destroy Energy + Lesser Control Chance.
Inherent Modifiers: Altered Trait, Damage Resistance 4 (Force Field) + Bestows A Bonus, Active Defence Rolls.
Greater Effects: 0 (×1).

Protects the subject with a magical force field that provides DR 4 and +2 to all active defence rolls. Both bonuses layer with DR and DB normally - as a force field they are applied before equipment-based bonuses.

This Casting: Lesser Destroy Energy (5) + Lesser Control Chance (5) + Subject Weight, 1,000 lbs. (4) + Duration, 30 minutes (2) + Altered Trait, Damage Resistance 4 (Force Field) (24) + Bestows A Bonus, +2 to Active Defence Rolls (10). 50 energy (50×1).


Spell Effects: Lesser Control Body.
Inherent Modifiers: Speed.
Greater Effects: 0 (×1).

Subject flies through the air as if they have the Flight advantage, at 10 yards a second.

This Casting: Lesser Control Body (5) + Speed, 10 yds/second (4) + Subject Weight, 1,000 lbs. (4) + Duration, 10 minutes (1). 14 energy (14×1). (42 if Greater)

Notes and theorycrafting

This is with the standard damage calculation from Monster Hunters, which is balanced against firearms.

Assuming dividing costs by 10 to get FP...

  • Fire Bolt costs 6 FP
  • Greater Fire Bolt costs 10 FP
  • Combustion costs 11 FP
  • Invisibility costs 5 FP
  • Mage Armour costs 5 FP
  • Flight costs 2 FP (if minor, 5 FP if greater)

This may require adjustment?

Melee-touch (or staff-touch) damage attacks should be significantly cheaper than ranged ones; they just suck for the mage to deliver. Not sure yet.