It’s probably just being deep in Harry Potter fanfic for a while, but the other day I had a moment where I yearned for a magic setting/system where magic was truly mysterious, even to the mages. Where magic is not just technology only usable to a select few, who learn the tried-and-true spells for doing most things and refer to them like any tradesman’s jargon. And I think that comes down to a few points:

  • Mages should be able to fairly easily craft their own repertoire of spells. The complexity of spell creation should make a particular spell better for one person than for another.
  • They should want to keep these spells secret from most other mages, either because spells tend to come with easy defenses you could use if you knew the details and/or because the very dissemination of the knowledge weakens the spell.
  • There should be a common framework around learning and creating magic, so you have something to teach at magic schools/apprenticeships, but that should plug into the spell creation system rather than being spells themselves.

I think in the grand scheme of things, for an RPG system, this involves a lot of charts with suggested multipliers and combos, and where powergamers will just be able to go nuts making their perfect overpowered spell. The defense to this getting completely out of hand is that A) the GM is free to slowly add on drawbacks and hidden costs that become apparent as the player uses the spell until it feels powerful but not game-breaking and B) the antagonists also have access to this system. Be polite to your rival mages, because they may have crazy OP spells to use against you if you piss them off. Also, there are probably several dark lords floating around happy to try to bump you off for your grimoire if you show off your brokenly powerful spells too much.

I’m not really ready to do all the math to make that system yet, but here are some charts that are hopefully useful as idea fodder to someone.

Method and Material

One step to making magic feel rare is to make components more than an afterthought. Of course magic is going to just turn into technology when you’re at most consuming a personal, renewable mana pool to make magic. Naturally, a component cost is easier to have in a narrative setting than an RPG: in a realistic simulation, tracking down a particularly hard-to-get commodity is a genuine cost, but in an RPG you often don’t want to play out days of work to interface with suppliers and make purchases. So when you’re like, “Sure, you have Resources 3, you can manage a bag of powdered silver in about a week, moving on…” it ceases to be a real limit. Any system that uses components and wants them to matter has to then have mechanics to make getting them more than an abstracted resources check. Which is why most games don’t bother.

But, I think there’s some there there. In particular, I like the idea that components aren’t just evaporated into magic when you cast a spell. In addition to the material itself, there’s a method of disposal. Do you need to carve the component? Burn it? Dissolve it in the sea? If it’s a tough component, like metal, you may need to have another spell just to make a fire hot enough to burn it or an acid that can dissolve it. The most powerful spells are rituals, and the process of disposing of the components is, itself, very interesting narrative flavor.

In general, harder combos should generate more powerful spells. If you component is “burn old newspaper” or “pour seawater on the ground” those are really easy to do and don’t generate much power for magic. When you’re talking about “burn a handwritten book over a century old” or “spread the powdered rust of a murder weapon that dissolved completely in seawater” then you’re starting to cook with gas. For full on rituals, you can obviously stack the components and tell a whole story about the magic you’re making.

You can also add the idea of non-consumed components by also requiring materials to be used as tools. “Carve runes into your flesh,” is metal, but not that limiting. “Carve runes into your flesh with a knife,” at least requires a particular tool that you will scramble to replace in a pinch. “Carve runes into your flesh with a silver dagger that was used to execute a murderer,” now means you have a particular, vital tool that your opponents can recognize and take from you.

Methods

  • Cut/Break/Smash (works for components that are whole items, where they can’t easily be reconstituted)
  • Burn/Evanesce (works for items that are so easy to reconstitute that you really want to render them to constituent molecules to be sure they’re gone)
  • Render/Melt (make a solid thing a liquid, particularly powerful if it doesn’t just go back when it cools; this is also a great way to chain component, using the liquid for the next step)
  • Dissolve into Liquid (like burning or rendering, but the idea being that the atoms of the material become thoroughly mixed with a greater volume of liquid)
  • Donate/Gift (this doesn’t work if you can easily get it back, but there’s a lot of power in relinquishing your ownership of something important to another person/institution)
  • Lose/Dispose (sometimes it’s enough to throw the thing away where you’ll never find it again, or pour it out when it’s not something you can just pick back up)
  • Corrupt/Ruin (particularly for dark magic, it may be enough to take something pristine and make it so gross there’s no way to restore it to its untarnished form)

Material

While there’s obviously a nigh-infinite number of nouns that can be used as component materials, I’ve tried to group them because I think this is one of the major places you can put something on a character sheet as a skill. Skilled Blood mages learn how to do less damage to themselves while fueling a spell. Talented Metal mages can pick particularly resonant materials rather than going for bulk. Essentially, there’s a skill for each category that lowers your materials cost per spell, and/or allows you to sub in easier-to-acquire materials.

  • Blood (or any vital fluid, rarity based on particular qualities and/or amount of damage dealt)
  • Craft (any constructed good where the rarity is not the materials itself so much as the difficulty of creating the thing sacrificed)
  • Fire (any evanescent/energy phenomena, so also electricity, cold, sound, etc.; this is more often a tool than the thing consumed)
  • Flesh (any non-blood animal resource, from carving wounds into your own skin or just using rare leather)
  • Metal (any mineral, with rarer ones having more value, and also value in how hard it is to dispose of)
  • Thought (actually losing memories from your head, to making oaths or revealing secrets, to sacrificing written knowledge)
  • Water (any non-blood liquid; this is as often the tool for disposal as the component sacrificed)
  • Wood (any plant matter, with actual rare and hard woods having value in how limited they are and how hard they are to destroy)

Exclusivity

One way to make spells secretive is to literally base part of their power on how many people know them. Suddenly notice a drop in power from one of your favorite spells? Maybe someone’s managed to get a look at your grimoire. Exclusivity refers to how many sapient individuals currently know the spell. If your mentor dies leaving you the only one with the spell, that increases the exclusivity… unless he’s hanging on as a wraith that may still be able to cast magic and/or impart the knowledge of the spell to others. More reason to make sure mages don’t hang on as the undead.

Level 0 exclusivity is when the spell gets so widely disseminated that it can be found in new age bookstores or the internet, easily available even to non-mages.

  1. Any mage can easily find it (it is often taught as an example of the form to students)
  2. Perhaps a third of mages may access the spell (it’s still something of a secret, kept for a few groups or older students)
  3. A secretive guild of perhaps 100 mages, 3 smaller groups of less than a dozen each
  4. An entire order of a few dozen mages, 7 rivals, or 3 unrelated mages
  5. An extended family, a coven of up to 7, 3 rivals, or 2 unrelated mages
  6. An immediate family, a coven of up to 3, or 2 rivals
  7. Only one mage knows it

Time

Do you need a time chart? Everyone needs a time chart. This can be used for both casting time and durations. All times should assume a ~ in front of them, because there’s a lot of fudge in a doubling system. It’s not that it took exactly 2 seconds, it’s that it was slower than instant but faster than a whole action.

Past around a minute on the time chart, the spell becomes a ritual, and possession of the Ritual skill allows the caster to move steps down the time chart by doing it faster.

As another thought I want to investigate at some point, I think the current vogue of 6-second rounds may be way too short. LARPing, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot more jockeying for position in any kind of large fight than RPGs can model these days. Actually swinging doesn’t take long, but that’s usually after several seconds of trying to outflank your opponent: most people don’t seem to just want to run in and trade blows to see in a few seconds who is best and fastest, they want to hit people from the sides while they’re distracted and it seems likely they’ll be able to hit without getting hit back. And that takes time. Anyway, this chart does assume the standard 6-second rounds, but I think that longer rounds might be due a comeback.

  1. Instant (Free Action)
  2. 2 seconds (Swift/Bonus Action)
  3. 4 seconds (Standard Action)
  4. 8 seconds (Full Round Action)
  5. 15 seconds (Two Rounds)
  6. 30 seconds (Multiple Rounds)
  7. 1 minute
  8. 2 minutes
  9. 4 minutes
  10. 8 minutes
  11. 15 minutes
  12. 30 minutes
  13. 1 hour
  14. 2 hours
  15. 4 hours
  16. 8 hours
  17. 12 hours
  18. 1 day
  19. 2 days
  20. 4 days
  21. 1 week
  22. 2 weeks
  23. 1 month
  24. 1 season
  25. 1/2 a year
  26. 1 year
  27. 2 years
  28. 4 years
  29. 7 years
  30. 12 years
  31. 25 years
  32. 1/2 century
  33. 1 century
  34. 2 centuries
  35. 5 centuries
  36. 1 millennium
  37. an aeon
  38. forever