A Short Breakdown of Magic Systems
This little idea popped into my head, as I was thinking about various ways that we’ve seen magic done in fantasy games, and why those mechanics exist. I wanted to take a few minutes to write some thoughts down as they gel in my head.
The magic where you do something and then forget the spell is, from a design standpoint, a giant resource management game. And because of those limitations, you could allow individual actions to be more powerful than the actions of physical combat. Which leads you to many incarnations of D&D wizards.
Now, the idea with old D&D was that you got to pick all new spells every day, which meant you were very versatile, and as a player you got to play with a bunch more shit. So that’s cool. It also made information in and of itself a reward, as you could gain or purchase new spells for your spellbook.
This idea of magic didn’t suit a lot of people who weren’t familiar with Jack Vance’s work — for folks like it, it jarred against another expectation of reality: that you forget shit when you use it. (And to geeks who get by on what’s in their minds, if you think about it that’s actually horrific.) But, you still need to deal with the resource element if you want the magic to have that same sense of potency and thus the same flavor. Entry mana pools, where the resource is about points rather than narrative constructs.
Various other D&D-esque magic classes use this style, to where you can see the various competing concepts of magic in 3/e and Pathfinder, compare and contrast them, and (in my mind most interesting) watch how the world where all these magics exist is formed by how each class is constrained.
Refreshing the Pool
Unknown Armies plays with this idea by making the currency for magic something you need to earn through fucked-up acts, rather than just purely replenishing — making “how do you get more” as much a design element as the casting of magic.
Another design element to this was getting your character to where you could cast certain spells either without mana costs or with such a minimal cost as to be trivial. Whether your design allows for this or not is another question.
Backlash & Risk
Another system, used by many beloved games about magic, especially Mage: the Ascension (and Dresden Files) is the “Magic is awesome! Also, if you play with it you’ll get burned.” approach. Where the cost of magic isn’t in resources (or solely in resources) but in the danger inherent to failing or to other situations.
Spell Menu vs Construction
There are games where you choose spells from a list, and there are games where you make up your spells. For the latter, you have the ingenious Ars Magica system of noun + verb, which I’ve always thought was intriguing (though I’ve only gotten to play Ars Magica once). Mage is about assembling spheres into an effect. Dresden is about assembling your effect and paying its cost in various ways. The list continues.
Lists aren’t inherently bad, though! As with every other fictional/mechanical game component, they evoke setting. Not just in fantasy games, either; Unknown Armies is about the menu (with implied commentary of messing with that). And they make for easy character decisions, not just in “oh, I’ll pick spells X, Y, & Z” but also “Oh, now that I see this list, I feel like my dude is more of an ice mage.”
And the menu creates its own rewards, where some spells are out of reach to start, but you know they exist and you await the chance to gain them.
Of course, you can also go as far as GURPS and create elaborate, granular spell trees, if you want a sense of that experience. That is, strictly speaking, a menu, though it’s also a more complicated beast.
What Fourth Edition Did
Then you have what 4/e did, which was have some spells (chosen via the menu model) be constantly accessible, akin to a fighter swinging a sword. And I thought that was cool — not unique, as other games have done that and that design keeps being implemented (as with Dragon Age RPG’s Mage class and the arcane blast), but cool. The encounter & daily powers were effectively Vancian. It got cognitively weird when everyone, even the martial classes, had Vancian powers, though, and I think that’s part of why it was rejected by so many.
These are certainly not the only models out there, just what I could write in 15 minutes. :) So, what else is out there that you like? What do you like about it? Hell, what about ones you dislike, and why do you dislike them?
 And that’s part of the reason that in the current draft of the Emerging Threats Unit, it’s akin to Vance-style.
 There’s a Technocracy joke in there somewhere.