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.

Vancian Magic

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.

Mana Pools

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[1].) 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.

Adjusting Costs

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.[2]

What else?

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?

– Ryan

[1] And that’s part of the reason that in the current draft of the Emerging Threats Unit, it’s akin to Vance-style.

[2] There’s a Technocracy joke in there somewhere.


11 Responses to A Short Breakdown of Magic Systems

  1. chad says:

    great topic!

    I’d like to suggest that the land/tap magic element in M:tG has a place at the table: I find it an elegant way to cue nature-based magic-users like Druids and Shamans in rpg games like DnD, but really it maps to any OSR-model rpg, like Savage Worlds…

    There is also the ‘weave’ process from WotC’s d20 Wheel of Time RPG…

    I’m struggling to remember the system used in the Amber ‘diceless’ game…

    ~again, a great topic you have going here

    • Lon Sarver says:

      Amber DRPG’s magic system is a construction system in the same family as the noun+verb system from Ars Magica. Like the rest of Amber, it was more guidelines, really, with maximum room for player definition of the terms.

      Essentially, you described what the spell did in terms of four basic operations. The more details you had ironed out ahead of time, the quicker it was to cast, at the expense of flexibility in the moment.

  2. Blackcoat says:

    It’s sort of a mishmash of a number of those, but I’ve been in love with shadowrun’s magic system for years. Select your spells from a menu (“my Mage knows manabolt! And ooze! And orgy!”) then get a headache of varying severity to cast t, based on your strength and skill, and how much oomph you put in the spell. Really need to cook something? Start hemmoraging from the brain.

    And then there’s spirits on top of that…

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, that’s a godo setup — ties the resource of “hit points” in, giving you that “okay, can I afford to hurt myself X amount” sense of exchange. (Which we also did in Dresden, as one of the ways you can gain power.)

      – Ryan

  3. stras says:


    I’ve seen ‘know lots of spells but only have X slotted’ (ex: Earthdawn, here you had a number ‘spell matrices’ you could have up at any time)

    I’ve seen ‘takes X rounds to cast’ (again ex: Earthdawn, with spell threads that had to be woven before a spell could go off, or Warhammer which has you channel mana before you case, so big spells take longer to power up)

    I’ve seen ‘choose X casting components and Y recovery period, this determines effectiveness/power’ (ex: Barbarians of Lemuria)

    I’ve seen ‘memorize X symbols, and recognize them correctly in quick succession’ (forget the tabletop equivalent, but I know TrueDungeon uses this method)

    I’ve seen use cards as a RL randomizer and try to generate an effect from things your hand can grant (ex: Oldschool Deadlands)

    And I want to call out to Warhammer with their backlashes for ‘bad things happen’ in a much more epic way than Dresden/Mage.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And I want to call out to Warhammer with their backlashes for ‘bad things happen’ in a much more epic way than Dresden/Mage.

      Tell me more! I would like to hear how something’s more epic than vicious Paradox backlash. Sounds cool.

      I am, at least for the moment, entirely discounting all player skill mechanics like the “player, memorize these”. With rare exception, I think that makes for a weak game experience. I’m alright with that in the LARP context (which I’m also discounting because that’s a different medium.)

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Also, you bring up another dial to look at: how “epic” magic is suppose to be in a given game. (And related, how unusual.)

      – Ryan

  4. Palmer says:

    Simplest system is, to some extent, what 4E *also* did.

    Everything is an action, every action generates an effect. Mechanically, there’s no inherent difference between magical and non-magical actions/effects.

    Any differences are expressed through flavour, and this flavour may be reflected through design constraints, such as “magic effects are always ranged effects” (not even true in 4E, but an “obvious” enough idea to many) or “only magic can create persistent zone effects” (mostly true in 4E).

    The other way is by structuring specific interactions via keywords, frequently damage types. For instance, in game X, the only way to do Electric damage is by magic. The only way a physical attack can do Electric damage is with magical assistance (lightning sword, imbue power spell, channel energy)

    This most commonly occurs in highly granular point buy systems where you can build effects, HERO being the most obvious example, where you build both a Death Ray and a Glock 19 with the exact same rules, just with different damage types and modifiers – no ammo? That’s magic!

    On the flipside, high narrative low-crunch games are likely to take this route as well. Marvel Heroic being a prime example, where the difference between a laser blast and a magic blast is basically the keyword (which matters far less than in 4E) and flavour.

  5. My favourite system for magic has always been Earthdawn. In that game the entire game setting was tied to the nature and use of magic. In a nutshell casters draw their power from arcane space which has been corrupted, most casters use a matrix to filter the energy and avoid harm. Mechanically players have several pre-constructed matrix’s for a few spells, they can weave additional energy into the matrix and cast the spells ad-nauseum. But there were plenty of options for use:
    1- Reconstruct a matrix on the fly for another spell
    2- Weave threads over multiple turns to ensure success or risk it all in one turn.
    3- Players could also ditch the matrix all together and draw from corrupt space which was powerful and quick with 2 catches, one was simple damage and backlash, but the more fun one was bad creatures noticing you in arcane space and being drawn to you, they could even curse you with a mark and track you for later adventures.
    4- Players could also use found tomes of spells they didn’t know to use as a shitty matrix, this was good for stories as you could have spells the PC’s find be used then and there.


  6. RM says:

    What I liked most about 4E’s magic system, honestly, was just the pure fact that finally D&D gave me a system where my main attack, as a spellcaster, could be a magic blast. Constantly. Unless I screwed up and got in close combat, I never felt like I had to go melee or pull out a crossbow or something. That just felt right for a high fantasy sort of game. I can certainly see reasons to use a purely Vancian or otherwise limited system for other themes, especially a dark fantasy or of course something Mythos-related, but for a high fantasy thing (other than LotR stuff, which obeys its own special and beloved rules of magic) I always picture low-level spells being slung back and forth pretty constantly, so it was great to have D&D 4e fit that image.

    I’m a bit ambivalent about the same model of at will-encounter-daily being applied to non-casters, but honestly…it kind of worked, to me. Standardization can be a good thing, as it means you kind of understand at least the basics of playing any class right from the get-go. “Okay, I’ve got these standard things I can always do, and then these that I can pull out once per fight so I need to make sure the situation needs it, and then these that I can only pull out once in a long while so I need to make sure the situation is really critical.” Narratively, it’s kind of hard to justify for non-magic classes, but systemwise, it’s sometimes good to have things work similarly.

    That said, I’m sure that there could be ways to write classes very differently and still have it work, too (13th Age actually seems to be doing an interesting thing with having each class be very different from the others and provide some unique options for actual play, which will likely make learning a new class more difficult but actually playing that class more entertaining since it definitely won’t feel like anything you’ve already done).

  7. Lugh says:

    A couple options that I haven’t seen above:

    Draw on the environment – This is most obviously expressed by the defilers of D&D’s Dark Sun. They cast spells by expending not their own energy, but the energy of life around them. It is also strongly seen in Palladium’s PPE system. That system looks like a simple mana pool system, until you start digging into the various ways that mages can tap into the PPE of other people, nearby ley lines, etc. These systems tend to create mages that are extremely powerful in the right circumstances (e.g., when confronted in their lair), but much weaker when handled correctly (e.g., when their environment is somehow tainted).

    Followers – Really, the only place I’ve seen this explicitly spelled out was in the Shadowforce Archer rules for Spycraft. It’s basically a mana point system, except that most people only have 1 point per day. A really powerful mage might have as many as 20. Most spells require at least 5 points, and most larger spells require 100 or more. You cast those greater spells by getting a whole bunch of followers to join you in the ritual, giving you their energy. The system was really only intended to be used by NPCs, and it shows. When the guys tried to tweak it for use by PCs, it largely fell apart. You just can’t have PCs dragging a hundred of their closest friends around.