Creating a Magic System for your Game
By: Jesse C Cohoon
A roleplaying magic system can be a pretty cut and dry thing: a spell list, damage, area of effect and so on, but if done properly it can do so much more. Done properly, it can be used to deepen the setting’s theme and background, informing the players and DM about the world, the peoples, and cultures.
All magic systems rely on manipulating reality through the use of magic power (a form of strength) to create some sort of effect, such as healing, damaging others, buffing, disguise, summoning, animating and so on. These effects are generated in some way; take time to produce. Magic is often limited in how much can be accessed at any given time, subject to failure or interruption, through various systems and mechanics. This article examines each of these aspects at a high level. Please note: In this article I’m using the word ‘Magic’ to denote some sort of larger- than-life power, and could, in theory refer to innate powers, advanced technology, mental powers, etc.
Magic Power as Strength
The magic power itself requires some sort of strength. This can be represented in one of a variety of ways:
- The spell caster relies on one of his or her main stats to cast the spell. Characters without the requisite either can’t cast spells or are limited in which spells they can cast. Usually this boils down to some mental or spiritual aspect of the caster.
- Rarely the requisite stat is based on the user’s physical capabilities, and at times drawing upon the caster’s very life essence to power the spell, thus weakening the caster with each spell she casts. An example of physical capabilities being used to cast spells is Cashel, in David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series is dumb as a rock but his casting power is based upon his tremendous strength and endurance.
- The spell caster’s power is limited by level, or by how many points are put into each of their appropriate powers for casting.
Magic Power as Reality Manipulation
Reality has certain guidelines that it goes by: gravity, magnetism, properties of objects, fire catches and burns flammable objects or melts materials like metal if hot enough, etc. Magic, if successful seeks to, at least temporarily (and in some cases permanently) bend or break these rules. What specific part of reality is broken depends on the spell that is cast, its duration, area of effect, etc. How magic is formed, how reality is warped, the “methods of magic” should be described in the magic system so the player can use their imagination when casting a spell.
In some systems reality is an unwritten contract with everyone and everything else, and using magic around those who aren’t ‘in the loop’ that can be altered causes negative side effects for the caster, whereas in others magic is such a part of the world’s fabric, seemingly impossible things happen all around people without anyone giving a second thought to what’s going on.
In cases where magic is rare or warps reality and backlashes on casters, DMs need to figure out a balance which allows them to still use their powers, limits the type and duration of the backlash, or build in guidelines about what type of things are allowed to prevent characters from getting killed from casting simple spells.
Magic is generated by the caster in some way. These ways may include the following
- Genetics: in your gaming world people with a certain background can cast magic. Consider:
o One ethnic group developed the ability to use magic, whereas others did not
o Weird genetics like one of the player’s ancestors was an alien, demon, dragon or elf, which is why they have the magical ability.
o Genetic manipulation: someone deliberately messed with or through natural selection, as in the case of “Mutants”
- Ancient Technology: in certain game systems the ‘magic’ isn’t magic at all, but consist of some readily usable form, such as a sword, super-weapon that people still know how to use, etc. An example of this is the 1990s cartoon of Iron Man, in which the Mandarin’s rings were the power source for a crashed space ship.
- Contractual magic: sometimes the only magic that exists in a world is a contract with demons and binding them into your service.
- Alien Help: the “magic” in question is actually alien in nature, but because of the fact that the people using it don’t realize this, they call it magic.
- Item magic: maybe the ‘magic’ is simply different combinations of materials that produce various effects, of which the people using them, don’t understand how exactly it works, so they call it ‘magic.’ Enchantment of objects would also fall into this category. So too would alchemy
- Ceremonial magic: sometimes magic may need to have a group of people to cast it because of the complexity of it.
Magic Time Frame
Magic takes time, there’s no debating that point, but the time that magic takes will vary from system to system. If the system relies on complex ceremonies, it’s going to be almost impossible to create these on the spot in the midst of battle. If magicians can gather, control, and weave the magic into the form that they need on the spot, or use single or multiple use artifacts,
Each of these effects have limits as far as what they can do based on the specific strength of the caster that allows them to cast the spell, but there may be other limitations as well.
Many times the game’s magic system(s) disallow certain types of armor or weapons or makes the user(s) less able to use them due to the magic user’s dedication to the craft. In some systems it is the metal in and of itself that makes the casting difficult, and the more metal surrounding the caster, the more difficult it becomes to cast the spell.
Magic is also limited by the imagination of the caster/ player. Even relatively “set” spells can be used for a variety of purposes to suit the situation, if one has a bit of imagination for alternative uses for the spells.
Magic Failure or Interruption
If the magic is interrupted, one of several things can happen:
- Nothing: the spell simply fails, in that it is not cast.
- Success with difficulty: The caster has to struggle to get it under control, but is able to do so.
- Success with problems: The spell is cast and it’s the spell you want to cast, but is not as effective as it normally would have been, either in duration, damage, less area or some other variable
- “Goes wild:” the magic power is accessed, but something goes wrong with the spell, in that the spell that is cast isn’t one that is intended. Sometimes the results are good… sometimes they are terrible, but that’s the “luck of the draw.” Some magic users depend on this randomness and are able to adjust for it.
- Backlash: The spell rebounds on the caster, damaging him. This overlaps with “going wild” but can be seen as a separate point in and of itself.
There are a variety of magic mechanics, including, but limited to:
- Spell Memorization: Spells must be memorized to be cast. While this type of a system is rigid in its rules, the resolution usually lies in if it hits, and how much damage is done.
- Freeform: Spells must be made up on the spot. In this type of a magic the magic system, not only does the spell difficulty have to be determined, but also the damage, range, casting time, and so on, as applicable
- Flexibility within a framework: guidelines are given and combining different magic to produce different effects are encouraged.
- Spell Points: the character has a set number of points from which to cast their magic.
- Divinely granted: the spells cast are at the whim of the god(s). If you made them happy, you receive the spells. If, on the other hand, they’re angry at you, you may find that your divine link is cut off and you have no access to the powers you normally enjoy.
There are several different types of systems that exist, including, but not limited to:
- Divine Magic: magic granted by the gods
- Mental magic: magic of the mind, as in the case of Psionics.
- Demonology: summoning, binding, and controlling demons to do your bidding.
- Runes: magic is controlled by certain symbols. By controlling and combining symbols you can cause different effects
- “Stolen magic:” the character may not have much magic themselves, but can pick apart and warp another’s magic to backfire on them, or change it to another spell that is harmful to the enemy caster.
- Animal Control: brings animals to your aid to perform various tasks. These can either be the form of controlled servants or the people can view them as teammates or friends. Pokémon, Digimon and other anime have themes surrounding such ideas. So too do the druids, and rangers in D&D.
- Music as magic: bards typically use their music to help form their music to produce various effects.
- Schools: certain schools of magic emphasize X type of magic while often neglecting Y
o Elementalism: manipulating such forces as fire, water, air, earth, electricity and so on.
o Illusion: the effects produced are in the person’s mind who sees the illusion, and the only harm that is done is self-inflicted, or caused by mental anguish
o Necromancy: spells for controlling/ talking to the damned
o Healing: giving back a character’s health, curing a disease or raising them back from the dead.
o Protection: spells designed to protect the user or his allies
o Creation/ Destruction: spells designed to create something out of nothing or reusing surrounding materials or causing things to simply cease to exist.
o Charm/ Compulsion: causing someone to think that you’re their friend or using magic to manipulate them into working for you.
o Divination: this is foretelling the future, through various means. Other powers include the ability to sense things from a distance
o Transmutation: changing one substance into another.