RogerBW's Blog

How to Choose a GURPS Magic System 11 January 2019

GURPS 4th edition has a lot of magic systems, as well as rules for designing your own. How can you choose which one(s) you should use in your new campaign?

One could discuss this from the mechanics end of things, but I think it's more useful to consider it in a narrative sense: what should magic feel like in the game, what should player character magicians be able to do? Any given set of magic rules will carry with it a "feel" for what magicians are good for.

One can usefully distinguish two overall classes of magic system: the sort where one just needs to set a few parameters and it's ready to hand over to the players, and the sort that takes a bit more effort on the GM's part. The older ones tend to be closer to "ready-to-run".

"Classic" magic: this is the system with spells and prerequisites that's described briefly in the Basic Set, and at greater length in Magic. This was designed first to allow dungeon-bashing magicians to stand up next to dungeon-bashing warriors, and magical effects tend to be quick (cast in a few seconds) and obvious. Magicians learn lots of individual spells and are usually generalists at magic (even someone who's concentrating on Fire will need spells from multiple colleges to satisfy the prerequisites for the big blasty spells), but specialists in that they don't do much that isn't magical – though they tend to have highish IQ. The Technological college in particular can be overpowering in a setting where most people don't have defences against it.

Magic runs off people's personal fatigue points, plus supplemental devices - giving magician PCs an incentive to have high HT or at least extra fatigue, so they tend to have good physical endurance in general. (This can be tweaked by encouraging them to buy Extra Fatigue (Magic Only), which canonically doesn't get a discount.) Spells that need lots of fatigue points can be cast ceremonially, i.e. slowly with a complicated ritual and preferably spectators who want to help.

Variant ways of casting these spells are Clerical Magic (no prerequisites, needs Power Investiture rather than Magery) and Ritual Magic (rather than learning an individual spell, you learn college skills that let you attempt any spell in that college, meaning mages tend to have more specialised magic). These are dealt with slightly in Magic and at greater length in Thaumatology.

Threshold-Limited Magic (formerly known as Unlimited Mana) lets the magician cast any spell he knows, but the more fatigue points it would cost the greater the chance of something going wrong; magicians build up a personal "tally" that doesn't disperse as fast as they'd like it to.

More spells for this magic system are found in Artillery Spells, Death Spells and Plant Spells.

The spell colleges can be rearranged to suit the flavour of a setting; Thaumatology has detailed examples, but that's hard work.

Path/Book magic (Thaumatology) has its origins in GURPS Voodoo, and contains a completely different set of effects. Spell casting takes a while (typically 10-60 minutes), and the results tend to be subtle: disguise the subject as someone else, make them a more convincing liar, make them lucky, let their car run better, etc.

Symbol Magic (Thaumatology) is more flexible (and this is very much on the construction-kit side): the GM defines a set of typically 15-30 lexical elements, and a magical effect is defined as a series of these (as it might be, "transform" "human" "bird"). The closely-allied Syntactic Magic makes the series shorter, either one element only (recalling the Spheres of Mage: the Ascension) or a verb-noun approach ("transform human"). This all relies quite heavily on a player who's willing to improvise, and a GM with a good feel for what's possible in the setting and how much energy to charge for it; the power level is extremely flexible, and effects can be subtle or blatant, fast or slow.

The final approach is simply to buy standard GURPS Powers, and apply the Magical power modifier. Thaumatology has examples of how to make this work. This is probably the best-defined approach, and one can usually tweak a power to produce the exact effect that's needed, while getting a sensible point cost out of it. By default, though, powers tend to be quick and obvious.

Thaumatology: Age of Gold is a 1930s pulp setting with several distinct magic systems worked out in detail, giving examples of how they can be fleshed out and interact with each other.

Thaumatology: Chinese Elemental Powers is a worked example of magic as powers, focussed on cinematic chi. Most of these affect the individual, though some of them are quite blatant.

Thaumatology: Magical Styles tries to do for magic what Martial Arts did for Martial Arts: create "styles" with packages of skills and spells that magicians can learn, and recognise.

Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic is expanded from the Monster Hunters series. It's an improvisational system in the style of Symbol or Syntactic Magic, but with a standard set of elements (using the Sephiroth as a basis) and tighter guidelines on the sort of thing one can do with them. It's probably the most fully developed and thus the easiest of the improvisational systems to get up and running, but it's intended primarily for high-power characters doing fairly obvious things.

Thaumatology: Sorcery tries to convert the old spell-based magic system into individually-learned powers (so they don't all end up costing the same small number of points). Only one college, Protection and Warning Spells, has been fully converted.

(Thanks to John Dallman and Phil Masters for comments on early versions of this article.)

Tags: gurps rpgs

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 05:28pm on 11 January 2019

    I don't recall if I said this at the time we discussed this on the podcast but I think that all magic systems boil down to: You can do these amazing things but at this cost or risk.

    Which may be the way to describe any sort of resource, fantastical or otherwise.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:53pm on 11 January 2019

    GURPS magic systems, having their root in essentially hopeful gaming, tend to make the cost something that can be recovered fairly easily. Exceptions that come to mind are threshold-limited magic (where you can keep casting until something goes foom, possibly you, possibly the universe) and some of the options in Age of Gold where you can accumulate all sorts of debts to unpleasant entities.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 08:16pm on 11 January 2019

    The Black Magic options also have a price attached to them and in order to make them gameable the paying of the price isn't absolutely certain.

    And yet, I'm happy about using Threshold Limited magic in my games and not Black Magic because the first, though it risks destroying continents (if no worlds) doesn't involve inviting demons into oneself.

  4. Posted by Robert at 01:34am on 14 January 2019

    Was symbol magic rune magic back in GURPS 3rd?

    A GM of my acquaintance had very good results using that in a modern strangeness setting. The joy at learning even one rune for the player who chased it was immense. There was a bit of a “every problem is a nail” when limited in runes. But it worked in the setting.

    The opposition, skilled in the runes, would try to corral the pc with delicate and clever magic and if things went a little sideways, the crazy fool they were dealing with would burn them to cinders using their own souls as fuel. Insult to injury, he didn’t even realize how crude and awful what he was doing was. He thought he’d found real power.

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 09:29am on 14 January 2019

    Robert, I didn't use Rune Magic in GURPS 3e, but looking at Magic for 3e it looks as if this is definitely the rule set updated there as Symbol Magic.

    Usually I expect enemies to have raw power while the PCs are subtle; that's an interesting variation…

  6. Posted by Robert at 06:04pm on 15 January 2019

    It appeared to be largely a product of the disadvantages. GURPS Illuminati informed a lot of the initial game set up and the PCs were the weirdo conspiracy theorists. So the PCs had disads like paranoia and amnesia and the opposition had disads like duty and code of honor.

    A moral of the campaign post mortem seemed to be “desperate people do not stop being desperate when they achieve power.”

  7. Posted by Phil Masters at 06:08pm on 19 January 2019

    The "debts to unpleasant entities" magic in Age of Gold is actually spirit-assisted magic from Thaumatology, which is in turn a generalisation of the Demonic Contracts/Black Magic rules from Magic. Black magic puts you in debt to explicitly demonic beings, whereas spirit-assisted magic allows the debt to be to something which doesn't actually wear a T-shirt saying "evil" -- but it's still a debt.

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 12:28am on 20 January 2019


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