Tuesday, March 13, 2012


In descriptive terms, I have a good idea of how magic works in Kimatarthi. As I noted in my last post, however, I’m less sure of how to capture that feel with a gaming mechanic.
So here’s the deal.

In the days before the Goblin Wars, magic was unknown. Kimatarthi was very much like our own world. There was superstition, religion, belief in spirits – but no magic. When the goblin armies arrived, however, they decimated the world with an ability to could conjure fire, wind, and lightning. They brought a powerful and destructive new force with them, true magic.

Though mankind eventually turned back the onslaught, the world’s collective psyche was scarred by the horror of the dark “goblin arts.”  They considered it evil and associated it as one and the same as the scourge that had wiped out cites, towns, and villages by the score. Yet there was a small contingent of people who became convinced that magic was not purely evil. These taught that magic was a natural force that could be studied and harnessed not only for destruction, but for the good of society.

Society is society, however… and society would have none of it. Magic was born of evil and was a direct challenge to the authority of the gods. Anyone who dabbled in this blasphemy was hunted down. If they were not torn to pieces and burned by enraged mobs, they were tortured and publicly executed by the authorities. The use of magic was unequivocally declared illegal, and magic-users were forced underground.

I plan to incorporate this tension into the campaign. I would hope that the players would want to join the underground subversives dedicated to exploring this wondrous new phenomenon. Yet, they will have a choice, and they may choose to support the law and the righteousness of the old ways. They may choose to work to eliminate this devilry from the world. Or it may be something on the edges of the campaign that falls into the background. But magic is an integral part of the setting.

Regardless, I have a gaming tension to resolve. Magic is a natural phenomenon that clearly the goblins have mastered. This implies a complete magical ontology with schools and libraries of spells of many varieties. In game terms, the goblins could be working directly from the Players Handbook. On the other hand, this aspect of the cosmos is completely foreign to the PCs, who are exploring it and perhaps redefining it as they go long. As a gaming mechanic, this lends itself to a more narrative style of magic use, where the players have more freedom to describe the effect they want to create.

So I am faced with this dilemma. I want magic to be open to a wide segment of characters, rather than tied to an innate ability or years of study in a guild. So, I want to find a system where Magic-use could be as easy as adding an aspect or a feat, but then particular methods of wielding it could be skills. I think I would like to base magic use on skills, perhaps with spells nested inside other skills, much like specializations. Then of course, the system also has to serve as a guide for determining the difficulty of spells -  starting a camp fire as opposed to casting a fireball, for example.

This post has definitely been helpful in helping me to articulate what I want out of a magic system. I need to stew over this for a bit more, though. If anyone has any suggestions for a cool, flexible game mechanic for playing magic, I’d welcome your thoughts.


  1. Okay, I'm a bit behind on my blog reading. Does anybody even read comments on posts this old?

    If so, I'd recommend taking a look at the SpaceMaster (not RoleMaster!) psychic powers system -- it works much like you describe and is completely skill based. There's a very general categorization of various types of effects (telepathy, telekenesis, etc.), with a bunch of somewhat more specific effects grouped as sub-skills within those general categories. You choose a specific effect (e.g., a fireball), find the appropriate skill (energy control/create fire), and then come up with a difficulty based on range, effect size, amount of damage, etc. and roll against your skill to see whether or not you successfully cast it.

    I suspect the system as a whole is more complicated than you're looking for. But it might provide inspiration. Once you have reading time again, you can borrow my copy.

  2. @Greg: I'm even more behind than you are. Anyway, here are my thoughts...

    I think you really have a lot of options.

    If you want to go D20, then take a look at Grim Tales. Anybody can learn magic and it is also cool, because it carries a bit of risk when casting. I own it and can let you borrow if you wish.

    You can totally strip out the regular casters from D&D 4e and incorporate magic talents (multi-classing feats) for everyone else. Of course, I stopped keeping up with 4e so I have no idea what the system looks like now.

    Alas, I can't think of a comparable old-school D&D approach. Maybe Natalie can help me out.

    Totally could be done with Risus (though Greg & Chris are no fans of the system for other reasons). On a related note, PDQ can incorporate the magic system of Risus (or lack of system) fairly easily. I still keep meaning to try out PDQ and PDQ# on the group. Jaws of the Six Serpents is a great sword & sorcery supplement for PDQ that might have what you are looking for. Let me know, and I can let you take a look.

    FATE works, though Dresden-style magic seems like to much and Spirit of the Century-style magic seems like not enough. Not to say that just about any other magic system could be made to work when grafted on.

    GURPS is very flexible and can be made to work quite easily. The base magic system seems bland to many folks, but there are tons of options for spicing it up.

  3. @Greg - 'Does anybody read comments??' Dude, I have like four readers, including my wife - I still relish every comment.

    @Tim & Greg - I clearly need to renew my borrower's privileges at your respective esteemed gaming libraries. These are all great suggestions. This little blog project is giving me a great excuse to get read up on these systems. ...If only I had as much time to play them at the table!