Flash! Bang! Magic! Part 2

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Last week, I talked about the need (or lack thereof) of special rules for magic in settings with flash-bang magic. The tl;dr version is that if everyone has a good understanding of how magic works in the world and and what a particular type of wizard can do and there are no setting conventions that require special rules, you can probably use the same rules you use to determine how well a bard recites a poem. If the definitions of “magic” and “wizard” aren’t quite so clear, you might need some rules to help define the wizard’s role and keep the story from breaking down due to the fact that one of the characters has reality-altering powers. Fantasy authors have come up with numerous solutions to the problem, so let’s look at a few that are easily adapted to RPGs.


Specialization doesn’t require any special rules other than the stipulation that the wizard’s Job has to be more narrowly defined than “guy who uses magic.” The character has to be a Druid or a Fire Mage or a Necromancer or something. This provides a basic theme that helps define what sorts of spells are and are not appropriate for the character. Since most magical job titles are used differently in different stories, cultures, and traditions, it’s important that the player and GM have a mutual understanding about what a particular magical Job means. For example, does “Witch” mean the character has a familiar and makes deals with The Devil, wears a pointy hat and rides a broomstick, or collects crystals and owns a bunch of cats?

Magical Laws

These aren’t Isaac Bonewits-style magical laws like sympathy and contagion, but basic fundamental rules about how magic works in the world. For example, “wish magica almost always has unintended consequences,”  “magic always has a price,” or  “magic doesn’t work on reptiles.” Some magic laws will be explained (or rationalized) by the mythology and magical traditions of the world (reptiles are the magic god’s spies), others will just be accepted, like the law of gravity (The Force has a Light Side and a Dark Side). Magical laws are by definition heavy-handed and arbitrary, so it’s best to reserve them for universal truths that describe the limitations and basic principles of magic in your game world.

Human “Laws”

I put “laws” in quotes here because they’re often taboos, superstitions, union rules, or cultural values that forbid or restrict certain spells or forms of magic rather than actual statutes of the legal code. A wizard can use forbidden magic, but there will be consequences–possibly very severe ones–if anyone finds out. He may be kicked out of his coven, forced to do some sort of penance, or just treated like a pariah by anyone who’s heard about what he did. The Unforgivable Curses in the Harry Potter series are a good example: Using them won’t cause a character’s face to melt off, but if the Ministry of Magic will ship him off to Azkaban the minute they find out about it.

Spell Difficulty

The idea that some things are more difficult than others, even if they use the same skill set, is both a basic fact of life and a core gaming concept. It’s easier to cast a detection spell than raise the dead, just like it’s easier to spam somebody’s email account than to hack into the Pentagon’s computer system. In stories where magical training is formalized, spell difficulty is often combined with academic standards to keep powerful magic out of the hands of those who aren’t ready to use it yet. Spell difficulty can also be used to help enforce the magical laws of the world. For example, if turning lead into gold is considered a nearly impossible feat that only the greatest wizards can master, it will have a high difficulty. In D&D, spell difficulty is accomplished by arranging pre-defined spells into different levels. For QAGS, you can just use Difficulty Numbers.

Human Limitations: Spell Points

In some stories, there’s only so much magic a human being can channel, usually because the author realizes he needs an excuse for limit the wizard’s power during particular scenes. Sometimes the wizard is like a battery, and once his magical “juice” is used up, he has to recharge before he can cast more spells. In RPGs, this idea is usually modelled using a spell point system.

QAGS seems to have a built-in mechanic for spell-points in the form of Yum Yums. Just make wizards spend Yum Yums to cast spells; When they run out, the battery’s dead. This seems like a good idea on the surface, but quickly runs into problems. For one thing, you’re going to have to give the wizard Yum Yums for routine actions like sleeping or meditating or whatever restores magical energy in your world, which kind of runs counter to the entire idea of Yum Yums. On top of that, you’re making the wizard spend Yum Yums to use his Job, which would be like making a fighter spend a Yum Yum every time he swings his sword. In most cases, this kind of system will either lead to the wizard having so few Yum Yums he’s useless or so many Yum Yums that he potentially has vast control over the game reality without even casting any spells (since he can just spend part of his giant pool of Yum Yums to alter reality and augment rolls).

If you’re going to use the player’s Yum Yum pool as a magic pool, I suggest making most basic spells “freebies” and only making the character pay for especially impressive or difficult displays of magic (just like a fighter can pay Yum Yums to do crazy action movie combat stunts). The easiest solution is probably to base whether or not Yum Yum expenditure is necessary on Difficulty Number–maybe a spell with a DN of 10 or more costs a Yum Yum. Whether running out of Yum Yums shuts down the wizard’s magical ability or just places difficult spells off limits is a matter of what works best for the setting and group preferences. As for “recharging” the magic pool, the wizard should only get Yum Yums for things that would normally earn Yum Yums (which could include coming up with cool ways to regain magical energy). If you want to give the wizard “freebie” Yum Yums to keep him from going too long without the ability to cast spells, give them to everybody. The idea that everybody’s more effective after a good night’s rest, and therefore should get a Yum Yum when they wake up, kind of makes sense. Unless your players have a tendency to hoard their Yum Yums, it shouldn’t cause any problems.

If you want to keep spell points separate from Yum Yums, you’ll need to decide how spell points are calculated, how they’re recharged, and whether different kinds of spells have different costs. I’d probably set the magic pool equal to the wizard’s Job Number and base the cost of a spell its DN: 0 Spell Points for 5 or less, 1 for 6-10, 2 for 11-15, and 3 for 15+. For regaining spell points, you can either have a set “recharge” rate for certain activities or make the player roll Job to see how many points he gets back whenever he does something that would restore his magical power.

Human Limitations: Drain

In some stories, the human capacity for magic is more like alcohol tolerance. There’s a certain amount you can handle, and if you keep going after you’ve reached your limit you’ll regret it in the morning. In RPGs, this concept is usually called Drain.

Drain happens when a character uses too much magic. If you want to use drain, the first thing you’ll have to do is decide the consequences of magical hangover: does it exhaust the wizard? Make him fall into a coma? Manifest as physical damage? Based on the answer to this question, you’ll need to decide the game effects of drain. Exhaustion would probably manifest as a penalty to rolls and physical damage would result in HP loss, for example.

Once you know the effects of too much magic, you need to figure out how to measure how much magic is “too much” and how each spell counts toward that limit. For QAGS, I’d base it on spell DN. You’ll also need to a way to determine the specific details of drain, like how many HP the character loses or how long the coma lasts. Assuming the drain doesn’t render the character completely helpless, you’ll also need to decide whether he can still cast spells and how to handle additional drain.

Here’s a simple drain system for QAGS: Each wizard keeps a running tab, which we’ll call his Drain Rating, which starts at 0. Each time the character casts a spell, his Drain Rating increases by the spell’s DN. As long as the Drain Rating is less than the wizard’s Job Number, he doesn’t suffer any negative effects. When the Drain Rating exceeds the character’s Job Number, he must make a Job check. If the roll fails, the magic frazzles him, giving him a penalty to all rolls equal to his Failure Degree plus the difference between his Drain Rating and Job Number. If the character continues casting spells, he must make an additional Drain Check for each spell. The penalties for multiple failed drain checks are cumulative. If the character’s penalty ever exceeds his Job Number, he falls into a coma for 12 – (Body + Penalty) hours. Additionally, if the character ever rolls a Bad Break on a Drain Check, the damage manifests physically, causing HP loss equal to the penalty incurred.

Limits On Freeform Magic

So far, we’ve mostly been assuming that casting a spell is kind of like painting a picture: once you know the basic techniques, you can use it to paint whatever you want. That’s freeform magic. Many fictons treat magic more like music: just because you know how to sing doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If you want to do that, you’re going to have to figure out what the hell Kurt Cobain was saying, memorize it, and probably introduce some variations so it works better with your own voice. Sure, you could write your own original songs, but that’s a lot more work and most of the shitty bars you’ll be playing at only want cover bands anyway. We’ll call this formulaic magic. In a world with formulaic magic, wizards learn each spell just like cover bands have to learn each song. Presumably it is (or at least once was) possible for wizards to create original spells–the spells everybody uses had to come from somewhere–but it’s a lost art, it’s dangerous, it’s unreliable, it’s time-consuming or whatever. While you can definitely define the reason nobody creates original spells anymore in your game setting, and even create mechanics for it, you don’t have to. Many fictons with formulaic magic just assume all wizards stick to existing spells and never mention the possibility of creating original spells on the fly.

In a world where most magic is formulaic, spells become a commodity. While there will be certain spells everybody learns at wizard schools, there will also be gatekeepers who try to control which wizards have access to certain spells, spell trading and even collecting among wizards, profiteers who earn their living giving wizards access to new spells, and probably a few legendary spells that are presumed lost. The idea of spells as a commodity could lead to some interesting storylines in world with a modern legal system. Are spells subject to intellectual property laws, allowing the legal owner of the spell to sue people who use it without paying royalties? That kind of thing could be a lot of fun in a game like Shadowrun where evil corporations exist in a world with magic.

The implementation of a formulaic spell system really depends on how much control the GM wants over what kind of magic a wizard can perform. For tight control, make the player keep  a list of the spells he knows how to cast, kind of like an equipment list for mystical powers. If the GM wants to give wizards a little more room for improvisation, he can let players make up typical (generally low-mid power) spells on the fly but make them seek out, find, or trade favors for more powerful magic during the game. Spell Difficulty is a handy metric for deciding which spells can be assumed. For example, maybe wizards don’t have to keep track of specific spells with a DN of 8 or less, but anything more powerful can only be used if the wizard has it on his spell list.

If you want to try something a little different, it might be fun to let the wizard player to come up with spells on the fly, but he has to give them a setting-appropriate name and maybe some history or other flavor, but no mechanics or other specific details of how the spell works. The GM then determines what the spell actually does based on the information the player provided. I’ve never tried this (because I just thought of it), but I plan to as soon as I get a chance.

The Price of Magic: Ritual Requirements

As Spike observed in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, magic always has a price. The simplest variation is to make the “price” of magic something that’s required or consumed when the spell is cast. There are a few variations on this theme:

  • Magical Crutch:The wizard can only cast spells if he has the proper tools. If he doesn’t have access to them, he’s out of luck (or at least at a distinct disadvantage). Wands in the Harry Potter universe are a good example of this.
  • Spell Components:I’m going to use Gygax’s term here because the only other phrase that works is “ritual requirements” and making it a subcategory of itself would just be weird. D&D has verbal (things you say), somatic (little dances you do), and material components (physical items/substances required by the spell). Since verbal and somatic components are only an issue when the wizard can’t talk or move freely, you’ll probably want to focus on material components if you’re more concerned with limiting the wizard’s power than instilling magic with some flavor. Basically, you’re keeping track of ammo. When the wizard runs out of bat poop, he can’t cast any more spells that require bat poop. If you’re doing a spell list, you can come up with specific components for each spell. If you’re doing more freeform magic, you can let the player name the component the first time he uses the spell and stick to it from there on out. Bigger (higher DN) spells will likely require more precious components and it’s best if components are somehow symbolic of the spell being attempted.
  • Magic Fuel: This is basically a generic version of material components: in order to cast any spell, the caster has to power it with some kind of magic rock or drug or whatever. It’s kind of like the currency used in social media games that you can only get by annoying your friends or paying the creator money (but unless your players are used to playing certain miniatures games, charging them real money to use basic character abilities probably won’t be appreciated). If you’re also using spell difficulty, the amount of Arbitrarium it takes to cast a spell can be tied to the spell’s DN.

The Price of Magic: Backlash

This is similar to Drain, but every spell a wizard attempts to cast has a chance of bringing the pain. Whenever a wizard fails or rolls a Quirky Success for a spellcasting roll, he has to immediately make a Job roll against the spell’s DN. If the roll fails, he takes damage equal to the DN minus his roll (treat failed rolls as 0) from the magical current shooting through his body. If magic physically frying the character doesn’t fit the flavor of magic in your world, you can apply the damage directly to Brain or Nerve, depending on whether the backlash makes the character lose his mind or lose his shit. If a character gets a Bad Break on a backlash roll, the backlash leaves a permanent mark of some kind–a scar, his hair turns white, he grows horns, whatever.

The Price of Magic: Consequences

Spells have consequences. If you’re using formulaic magic, these consequences may be defined as part of a spell, like the way some spells age D&D Magic-Users. You can also make consequences more vague and tie them to specific magical traditions, like the idea that magic used to hurt others comes back on the caster threefold. Finally, you can go completely freeform with the consequences and base them on the situation. These sorts of consequences work kind of like conservation of energy or the laws of motion, but are usually more literary and symbolic. Basically, every spell has some kind of repercussion, but it’s usually so minor and removed from the caster that it isn’t even noticed. For example, maybe a wizard’s light spell causes one of the street lights in town to stop working. The bigger the spell, the more likely the repercussions are to be felt by the caster. Such repercussions don’t have to be predictable or as direct as “light created by a spell destroys light elsewhere,” but the potential trouble caused by them should be consistent with and symbolically related to  the benefits gained from casting the spell. A spell that lets the caster pull a rabbit out of hat shouldn’t destroy an entire ecosystem because of some kind of butterfly effect caused by the rabbit not being there for a wolf to eat, but it might cause some Easter eggs to go bad. If you need a mechanic, make a d20 roll every time a wizard casts a spell and use the difference between it and the player’s roll (treat failures as zero) as a guide for how close to home the repercussions hit. With the exception of very powerful spells or very irresponsible uses of magic, most repercussions shouldn’t be clearly identifiable for what they are.

Vancian Magic

If you want Vancian magic, just play D&D or one of the hundreds of D&D clones. If there’s one magic-related thing that D&D does well, it’s turning the weird magic system from Dying Earth into game mechanics.

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