We ran a blind-shot (basically a one shot without much prep) with Realms of Terrinoth for Genesys on Tuesday and it got my wheels turning. I already liked the FFG System from EotE but always disliked the stringent class approach. Genesys mostly does away with this weakness. What I especially like about the game is the flexible way magic is handled. You have a few basic spells like “Barrier” “Heal” “Attack” etc. that have a defined core effect and casting difficulty. You can add further tweaks like multiple targets, enhanced effects, different elements etc. by increasing the cast difficulty. A spellcaster is not limited to a certain subset of spells but can tailor them on the fly for his needs as long as his magic skill gives him access to the spell. I like it because it is flexible while still giving a framework for players who are not comfortable making up everything on the fly. This made me reflect on my favourite magic systems to date.
No Spell List, 100% free form. From simple magic tricks to summoning a volcano, the rules cover everything. You describe what you want to achieve, the GM assigns a magnitude from simple cantrip to world-changing magnitude 3. The magnitude determines cast difficulty and cost. Then you can assign certain requirements to modify casting cost. These can be things like requiring a certain item, must be cast at a specific time or place etc. Small magic effects, like gusts of wind or ghostly noises etc. are easy to pull off without much trouble. Summoning an earthquake to bring down a castle wall will probably take a quest to get the materials required and take days to cast. It is perfect for Sword and Sorcery but not well suited for people who want to throw around fireballs. The focus is not on combat and more on utility while also giving absolute freedom. The system is perfect for any creative player to really create “magic„ at the game table.
While based on Microlite20, a lightweight version of d20 rules, and inspired by Fudge I feel the principle is easily portable. Instead of premade spells a spellcaster learns Actions (Enhance, Control, etc) and Realms (Body, Mind etc). To create a spell you need to combine the Action with a Realm. So Enhance Body might be a heal spell or a classic buff spell. Enhance Matter may repair a broken shield or make a sword supernaturally sharp. The combination of these give a lot of variety and allows a pretty free form approach to magic while still being somewhat codified in the way magic is learned and applied. This is definitely one of my favourite magic systems due to the flexibility while still providing a framework.
This book presents an alternative Vancian spell system with weird magic. There is a long list of spells, 7 schools with 8 spells each. However it eschews spell levels. So there are no first level or fifth level spells. In theory a first level character has access to all the spells from the get go. It is similar to BBF in the regard that they get more powerful the higher level the spellcaster is. There is a good mix of combat and other spells and they are tilting to the weird and unusual. Spell failure can result in Spell Catastrophes based on the spell school in question. These range from just weird to deadly. A spellcaster can also drop any of his memorized spells to cause 2d6 damage to anyone in melee range. I like the whole theme of magic as presented here and it is easily adaptable to any level based RPG, especially in the vein of DnD. The spells are varied and different from what I would consider “standard DnD fare” for the most part as well. They are wonderfully written too and the whole thing has it’s own style that I like. The spells manage to have flavour and still be unspecific enough you can easily drop them in most worlds. I have used it with Beyond the Wall for example to give that game a bit grittier and darker feel.
BBF does have a variety of spells. A Wizard has only 2-3 Spells total though. While this seems limiting, higher leves of the character open additional options for known spells. For example you can use the Aid spell to affect only one attribute on one character in the beginning and end up massively increasing all attributes on a multitude of targets. There is only one attack spell called Offensive Strike. It can either cause high damage to a single target or affect multiple ones for less damage. Or the effect can be cast upon a weapon as well. The Caster determines all details e.g. Element used and it is expected to use common sense to adjudicate what a fireball or an ice ball will do to the environment where it is unleashed. Generally the core effect of a spell stays the same but increases in power over time and often opens up the possibility for one big effect on a single target or weaker effect on multiple targets. I like it because it is simple, a spellcaster has only limited spells but can tweak and tailor them in certain ways.
What does that mean for my own work?
I haven’t fully decided yet. My minimald6 games have no magic rules to speak of due to the lightness of the system, so it is not relevant to them. But I am working on my own d12 based ruleset where I will definitely reference these examples to pick and choose what I like most about them. What are your favourite magic systems in RPGs?