Magic Systems in RPGs

magic_book_by_colgreyis-d4gg46fMention the topic of magic in an RPG around the Fandi-table, and you’ll get a whole range of responses from “HELL YES FIREBALL” to “I WILL STAB YOU WITH ALL THE SWORDS. ALL OF THEM.” Love it or hate it, though, magic (and magic-like abilities, such as psychic powers, chi, superpowers, etc.) is a staple of many RPGs. It’s a rare tabletop game that doesn’t give your characters the ability to do something superhuman, from the classic fireballs and lightning bolts of a D&D wizard, to the body-improving magic of Shadowrun‘s physical adepts or the psychic and warp abilities of Warhammer 40K. Even a game like Unhallowed Metropolis, which does not include any kind of explicit magic (which is probably one reason why it’s a favorite of Fandible’s very own Templar, Angela (and bonus points to those who get the reference)), does give players the ability to create characters with clearly supernatural abilities and has several setting aspects that at the very least stretch the definition of what can be labeled ‘scientific.’

For my purposes here, I’m going to lump all these things, be they straight-up spells, psychic abilities, chi powers, and really anything that goes beyond the normal human limits of the real world, as ‘magic,’ especially when it comes to the systems in games that implement them. We’ve played enough different games here at Fandible that I think we’ve gotten a decent taste for many of the varied systems out there, and I think each of us has our own favorites. But one thing I’ve noticed is that, regardless of the system, we do tend to skew towards more ‘understandable’ and straightforward magic systems (i.e. those that have strictly defined powers and a clear progression and not too many variables). A typical White Wolf-style ‘one main power, five dots in each with specific abilities in each dot’ system seems to work well for us. Superhero games where the powers are also more strictly defined have also been a hit. But there’s been times when we’ve branched out, with varying degrees of success.

The Dresden Files RPG, based on Fate, has one of the more complicated magic systems we’ve used. It requires sitting down and figuring out all kinds of parameters, from the spell’s intention, to where the caster is drawing energy from, to what specifically is being affected. While this can lead to an incredibly flexible magic system that allows spellcasters to achieve all kinds of effects (and emulates the magic system of the books the game was taken from closely), it also means that many times when you have to cast a spell, the game screeches to a halt while the caster and the GM work out the details. For some groups, that can be very enjoyable, but for others it can be a jarring break from the immersion of the game.

You’ve also got systems like Part-Time Gods, where your characters are deities with influence over particular aspects of reality. While the system itself provided a structure for how each deity interacted with its sphere of influence, a lot was left open for interpretation – perhaps as it should be, given the nature of the game. While some aspects were fairly straightforward, like dealing direct damage or creating protection, others were, out of necessity, so vague that any use of them required a 15-minute speech on how the deity’s sphere of influence could be applied in a particular way.

And don’t get me started on Mage: the Ascension, a.k.a. Philosophy Major: the Philosophizing.

In the end, like so much of this hobby, the kind of magic system your group will have fun with depends on, well, your group. I think we’ve found some good balances in our games, either focusing on games that don’t have such complex and open to interpretation magic systems (although I for one am looking forward to the Fate Accelerated Edition version of the Dresden Files RPG and how they do magic there), or finding games that just have particularly well-designed power/magic systems (I may be biased but I think that after some initial adjustment we’ve gotten a good hang of the Demon system, which is very different from most other WoD 5-dot systems and has a lot more flexibility and nuance).

Do you have a favorite magic system in a game? Or just a particular preference? Do you prefer low-magic or no-magic games, or do you long for systems like Ars Magica or Mage where the careful and detailed crafting of spells is one of the core mechanics? Let us know below!

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About the Author
Born in the freezing heart of upstate New York, raised in the searing heat of the Caribbean, then mellowed for several years in a fine oak barrel until he reached a perfect balance of snark and zen, Daniel is Fandible’s resident tech expert. Graduating at the top of his class in high school, and accepted to an Ivy League university, he instead chose to run away with the circus, where he learned valuable life lessons, and grew to hate clowns. He then travelled the globe for years in search of the six-fingered man, only to find the power was inside him all along. These days, he surrounds himself with glowing screens and wearable technology in an attempt to summon forth the Singularity by way of cargo cult. He is a Leo, and his favorite color cannot be seen by any but the pure of heart.

14 comments on “Magic Systems in RPGs

  1. Roscoe Murrow says:

    why do you post a blog to a site for podcasts?

  2. crawlkill says:

    damn, there’ve been some sassy comments lately. it’s a site for blogs and podcasts! they’ve been blogging for ages!

    I really WANT to like Mage: The Ascension/The Awakening’s magic systems, but it’s so horribly imbalanced and, in Ascension’s case, founded more on your ability to bullshit than on anything as concrete as rules that they really fall flat for me. they’re “cool,” but they’re not good mechanics.

    I think my favorite magic system is Unknown Armies, where you have to do weird shit to get charges (mana) and avoid committing your path’s Taboo or risk losing all the charges you’re holding. it’s simultaneously concrete and narrative. similarly kind of underbalanced on occasion, but very, very fun, and very in sync with the setting and the general mood. to say nothing of godwalkers, who are often kinda feeble, but similarly interesting in their “act like your archetype even if you don’t mean it and you gain superpowers” mechanics.

  3. Barsha Da Barsha says:

    This is not a site for podcasts. It’s a site for Fandible – which just happens to have podcasts on it. This is our brainchild and we shall do with it as we see fit. Heck, we might just posting art my three year old niece makes just to leave you questioning more.

    As for magic, I find it silly but I do admit enjoying a fireball once and a while.

  4. Barsha Da Barsha says:

    Heck, we might just start posting art my three year old niece makes*

    Forgot a word in my original comment. Ahah! Let that be a lesson to you. I will do with the comments as I see fit as well!

  5. Angela says:

    Spoiler alert: I’m the one that will be stabbing you with swords if you mention magic.

  6. Arvandus says:

    If magic has the chance to summon otherworldy horror, I am all for it.

  7. FandibleDave says:

    @Roscoe: We enjoy writing as well as table top gaming, so we blog to allow for further conversation and to fuel our creativity. Good question, though!

    @Barsha: For the last time your three year old niece is a serous rules lawyer and if she wants to call people poopy faces because they don’t know the movement rating on a Dwarven War Engine across rocky terrain then she can start her own damn website.

    @Angela: In order to maximize stabbing capability I suggest you cast Summon Unholy Servant to hold extra swords and then use the Hex of Mithrengah’zl to OH NEVER MIND.

    @Arvandus: Did you ever consider that the otherworldy horror has things to do? I mean what if we’re interrupting, like, a family holiday or something? “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry but I have to take this. It’s the Fifth Level Mage and he’s fighting a Basilisk. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Can I pick you up some mortals while I’m out?”

    Finally, I love magic in games.

  8. Jake says:

    This is why Dark Heresy has the best “magic” system, because every time your mage tries to cast something they usually end up summoning a horror from beyond who tries to kill you.

    Any system that actively hates and loathes the magic character is correct.

  9. AKBearmace says:

    I like Changeling’s system over Mage’s because it is a lot harder to overuse, but thanks to the “catch” system, it’s not impossible to be a primary “magic” user without running out of Glamour

  10. Warren says:

    Woah! Hold on a second… Fandible does podcasts too?! I thought the site was just for weekly blogs, games, and interviews.

    Guys, I don’t think that you should be branching out into this ‘podcasting’ malarkey.

  11. Mawdrigen says:

    Yeah guys, blogging and podcasting as well, that is madness… Why would you even do that?


    In other news I actually kinda like magic systems that give you “Fuel” you use up as you cast more spells, but not ones that demand to memorise your spells before hand. Numenera for example.

    If I ever write a system ALL magic will have the chance to summon otherworldly horrors. OR transform the caster into otherworldy horrors.

  12. BaronDiamon says:

    I’m still waiting for you guys to roll Vice Versa on Perils of the Warp; let us listen to you act out each other’s characters MWAHAHAHA.

    I’d have to say my favored magic systems are that of Dark Heresy. Calling on the supernatural should have risks beyond “I’m tired.” At the same time, especially in Dark Heresy 2nd Ed, the rules are well thought out there is little ambiguity.

  13. rulescheck says:

    I prefer systems with consistent rules and power scales and settings where magic is restricted by a risk/reward mechanic.
    I find Mage: the Awakening to be really good for this for a story focused group. All magic carries inherent dangers and restrictions and no matter how careful you are there’s a chance of things going horribly wrong.

    Shadowrun sort of does it too, but there is a very wide gap between the world represented in the fluff and the world that would result from the rules. It’s too easy to make drain a non-issue and very difficult to overlook the overpowering superiority of casters (particularly summoners).

    I loathe no-magic games because they often boil down to politics and opportunism, while turning the supernatural into high stakes puzzles.

  14. Thelastarchitect says:

    I’ve got to back rulescheck feelings on Mage: the Awakening and, in regards what crawlkill said, I don’t find Awakening anywhere near as imbalanced as Ascension and while you can do some crazy stuff at high levels in Awakening it’s a lot more defined than Ascension and in a game where the key theme is Hubris and Power it fits the system really well. With how much the Fandible folks seem to enjoy Demon I think they’d like Mage, especially once 2nd ed is out sometime in the next few months.

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