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Bringing the magic into magic

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On 4/3/2024 at 7:01 PM, Gauntlet said:

When running a Fantasy Hero game I always state that all spells must have at least -2 in limitations. I also require that they have the following limitations at all times:


Requires a Magic Roll

Side Effects

Incantations and/or Gestures

Unified Power (though I do allow this to maybe only effect the type of magic that is being suppressed or expelled if the character has multiple types of magic that require different Magic Rolls)


Other common limitations:

Focus (many times expendable)

Cost MANA (should the power type be one that does not cost END and 0 END Advantage is not allowed)


I also do not have Magi use their END for their spells. I give them two additional characteristics: MANA and MANA Recovery. These cost the same as END and REC. In addition, should the Magi be using more MANA than they have, when rolling for STUN Damage, they take BODY as well (like BODY damage for a normal attack).

We did this for a short campaign. It worked really well! 
(It seems really, really odd that we did very similar things. We even called it Manan. Weird.)

We added two things: 

1) Concentration limitations

2) The Skill roll defined how effective it was. Making the roll by 2 or 3 points meant the spell effect went as expected. Making it by more actually increased the effects a bit. (I think we doubled the effects when someone made their roll by 8 points once,) Making the roll by only 1, or exactly, made it less effective. Missing it by 1, made it half effect.


Using extra time and more elaborate gestures and incantations gave a +1 or +2 to the Skill roll. Which made all the extra trappings important and added a bit of suspense. We ended up calling it “Cinematic Magic.”


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7 hours ago, Old Man said:

And for unpredictability, as I see it there are three ways for a wizard to screw up: magnitude, control, and effect. 


  • Power: Usually this manifests as a failure to generate enough magical power.  Luke can't lift the X-Wing.  Ron can't leviosa.  It's also possible to overpower a spell--this might not matter if you're trying to kill a dragon, but could be bad if you're casting a love charm.  Some Hero powers already have dice rolls here, but not all.
  • Control: Power is nothing without control.  Ron casts a slug curse with a busted wand and it backfires on him.  He later Disapparates without a license and leaves an arm behind.  Hermione successfully transforms herself... into a cat.  Ged summons Elfarran, but also summons a shadow creature that almost kills him on multiple occasions.  To-hit rolls cover some of these instances but not all.
  • Effect: Sometimes magical mistakes have completely unrelated results.  The Potterverse almost has a monopoly on this trope.  Harry loses his temper while casting a spell and... accidentally inflates Aunt Marge into a balloon.  Neville accidentally transplanted his ears onto a cactus.  Luna Lovegood's mother cast an experimental spell and simply blew herself up.  This is the hardest thing to randomize without just having the GM make something up.

This really cried out for a much more fleshed-out Side Effects system.  As it stands Side Effects is entirely situational--in fact without GM intervention it's possible for the Side Effect to be better than the original spell.  But using the above it should be possible to set up a system to randomize spell failure without leaving it to the GM to make something up.


Really useful @Old Man.  If I focus on re-jigging the Magic Roll along the lines I talked about in my original post and Side Effects as you suggest I might get to where I want to be.


I look forward to reading your thesis on making magic magical. 🙂 



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11 hours ago, Chris Goodwin said:

I know I'm on record as pooh-poohing the idea, but I'm going to make a good faith suggestion. 


You'll want the following:

  • SFX decided by the GM. The spell is a Blast, let's say, but the GM decides what form it takes. 


Appreciate the effort Chris.  I think it is easy to talk about game styles you don't like as long as the Game Police are not going to break down your door and make you use it!  😄 


I think this is some of the stuff that the complication idea I had might trigger.  It should not be every time that the GM has to decide, that could get tedious, but if the magic roll contains a complication THEN things go awry.


I might want a bunch of broad things to impose, like the SFX significantly changing (very much like the Spellsinger novels) or ignoring detailed management of physical components until a spell complication destroys everything being carried, making the spellcaster scrape things together (and risk more complications) until he can properly reprovision himself.


Those things are helpful too.

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6 hours ago, Steve said:

A sorcerer casts a summoning spell and botches the casting roll. Perhaps having them rush the casting time and not having all the right spell components was a bad idea? It still works but the anticipated summoned creature is antagonistic and strong-willed instead of friendly and amenable to requests. Oops.


I like systems where the roll can be more than a binary result.  More than do you succeed or fail.  In the Modiphius 2D20 system, the player rolls 2D20 by default which can result in 0-4 successes.  The player can add more dice (up to 5D20) to achieve more effects.  The drawback is that rolling a 20 causes a complication, the action can succeed but there will be one ir more complications and the more dice you roll the more likely it us to have a complication.


With magic in their Conan game, every failure (not just 20s) is a complication.  The conceit is that magic is inherently difficult, dangerous and ultimately evil in Hyboria.


This adds a level of risk and reward and brings in that concept if nagic having a cost.  Sometimes the complication will just be a physical/spiritual transformation that marks out the sorcerer as a sorcerer.

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I sometimes chide people for ragging on D&D in ways I think are unfair. Nevertheless...


For me, magic in D&D feels utterly un-magical. One reason is that despite multiple sources and modes of magic, it all works exactly the same way. Another is that while great effort is made to describe the tactical effects of every spell, the game remains sketchy and incoherent about what magic is and why it works. (Maybe setting books go into this. I've only read the Forgotten Realms Gazetteer, which has some blither about a "Weave" that left me unimpressed.) Maybe I'm unusual, but I don't find resource management enhancing my sense of wonder. Well, what do you expect. D&D began as a wargame, and that remains written into thre game's DNA.


I hope I have at times achieved sense of wonder in my own D&D games, but it came from my work, not that of the game designers.


For me, at least, part of what makes magic feel magical is the context. Like, let's take Incantations. Fine: It's a -1/4 Limitation, because if something prevents you from talking you can't use the Power. But what are the incantations? For an example, let's say the mage is conjuring that stereotypical fireball.


The Hermetic or Kabbalistic magus uses secret names of God to invokes Gabriel, angel of fire, and Phaleg, angel of the fiery planet Mars, to burn his enemies.


The Satanic sorcerer calls on Xaphan, who fans the flames of Hell, commanding him by Lucifer and Beelzebub as well as divine names such as Elohim Sabaoth and the Tetragrammaton -- blasphemously treating names of God as arbitrary tokens of power that don't actually mean anything. Or he just uses "barbarous words" -- pure gibberish, void of meaning, but you have to speak it all letter-perfect anyway because you're embracing pure superstition.


The Hindu sadhu chants a short mantra that distills both a prayer to Agni,m god of fire, down to a few sacred syllables. He has told the prayer 100,000 times, and the force of his ascetic meditation and ritual is such that even a god cannot deny his will.


The shaman has met a spirit of fire in his visionary journeys and made a treaty with it. Tapping his drum, he chants an appeal to the spirit and reminds it of their bargain.


The Taoist mystic writes the name of Yan Di, the Blazing Lord and Minister of Fire, on a spip of paper and stamps it with his seal of authority. As he holds it up, he demands that a lesser spirit of fire work his will: "By imperial order, in accordance with the statutes and the protocols!"


The Finnish sorcerer sings the story of how fire came to be. Knowing its origin asserts his power to command it.


In Earthsea, the graduate of Roke knows the true name of fire. In fact, he knows the specific true name for an explosive ball of fire, and by saying that name he calls it into existence.


And so on. Whatever the system of magic, the magic words mean something. Not that the player and GM have to come up with anything. It's enough to extablish that that the mage character is indeed calling on some special knowledge to access something deep and powerful in the world.


Dean Shomshak

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Writing that last post reminded me: In many RL magical traditions, the powers are also persons. The magician isn't a scientist or engineer, confident that if they use the right tools on the right materials in the right way, the desired result must inevitably happen. Magicians deal with forces that have wills of their own. They negotiate, cajole, bribe, browbeat, bully, grovel, or outright lie to get their way. This is most explicit in dealing with spirits, of course, but may be implied in other cases.


In HERO terms, this might supply alternate Skill Rolls for magic. Like, the Chinese sorcerer needs a Bureaucratics roll to make his magic work. (Or Bribery -- spells often involve burning an offering of gold-paper. As with mortal bureaucrats, the spirits are supposed to do their duty to you when appealed "according to the statutes and the protocols," but act with greater alacrity when you grease their palms.) A Hermetic summoning a demon to extort a service threatens dire consequences for failure to appear and obey, delivered not merely by himself but by Almighty God -- Interrogation, perhaps (if seen as intimidation or outright torture rather than shrewd questioning). Shamanic negotiations might suggest Trading. If not a Magic Roll itself, such Skills might be complementary; or perhaps be called upon when the Magic Roll fails, in hopes of mitigating or redirecting the Side Effect of an angry spirit's appearance.


Dean Shomshak

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  • 2 weeks later...

Yeah I did that with Demonology.  Nobody teaches Demonology spells beyond a certain power level; you have to learn them from your patron, who you gain a Contact roll with by using a ritual.  Then the evil sorcerer has to get them to teach you, if their contact wants to.  Obviously, this is for bad guys and NPCs only.  Anyone can learn the low level stuff, and many mages do, because there's a lot of protection against demons in the minor spells.

Edited by Christopher R Taylor
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In the unified Multiverse in which I like to set all my game worlds, Magic is, fundamentally, a force of Chaos, a power which can warp reality and physical laws according to the will and imagination of its user. Some creatures and races, and a few rare humans, are inherently magical, and can tap and control that force instinctively and at will, the way we walk and breathe. How such magic manifests is usually limited to a creature's nature and function, e.g. a dragon breathing fire, a ghost becoming invisible or intangible, and so on.


Sapient beings can learn to consciously utilize magic, often in much more diverse ways. However, without that instinctive connection they need to find a rational approach to using magic that they can comprehend. Hence a given society or school conceives a philosophy for how magic works reflective of their own world view, a structure and style with rules they must follow to achieve the effects they want. Because magic responds to will and imagination, those rules truly become necessary to use that magic style, even though another style may have very different rules.


This is the reason why there are so many diverse forms of magic, whereas science holds and seeks to further uncover one set of universal physical laws, which exist irrespective of a person's knowledge or belief. (BTW the process of magic conception I describe above is pretty much how they came to be in the real world.) ;)

Edited by Lord Liaden
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