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Magic

Introduction

When your character takes an action in play, hopefully it makes sense to you. You can imagine it with some clarity, and you have an instinctive sense of how things work that allows you to have fun without overthinking it. Consider the number of calculations that go into punching someone: are your hands free? Can you move them? Are you close enough? Have you balled your hands into fists in preparation?

We don’t stop and talk through those steps in play because we understand them implicitly to be part of the act of punching. This clarity thins as we move into areas outside common experience, but by and large, you can grasp the chain of action that goes into things.

Sufficiently misunderstood action is indistinguishable from magic.

Magic upends this. We don’t have the same foundation of experience to reference when we start throwing around thunder and lighting. So we try to find rules and logic that make the magical more familiar to us, and that’s something of a paradox. Magic is, by its nature, a creation of fiction, and writers and creators are more interested in how it helps them tell stories than any kind of internal rules.

Games, on the other hand, need rules. The consistency of rules makes behavior—without rhyme or reason, it’s just madness.

The good news is that there’s a sweet spot that you can aim for. While it’s true that magic is a convenience of authors, those who use it willy-nilly produce tepid, mushy fantasy. Giving magic rules is not just good gaming, it’s good fiction. If you can find the spot where those two priorities overlap, then you’ve got the workings of a great magic system.

The Basics

The simple test for this is whether or not your magic system makes sense without the game.

This is backwards from the way a lot of games feel. Coming up with the mechanical basis for a magic system is a lot of fun, and it is often the first thing we do with a new system, but this largely ends up perpetuating magic systems we already know from games where ideas and rules don’t mesh.

The greatest example of a magic system is “Vancian” magic, called such because it’s based off the books of the late, great Jack Vance, where wizards memorize spells, then forget them after casting. This should be familiar as the basis for magic in D&D, and whatever one thinks of its implementation in D&D and related games, it definitely instituted a number of rules—spellbooks, spells per level, and so on—to capture that idea. If you want to base your magic on Vance, then you’re picking some great source material. The trap to avoid is not to base your magic on someone else’s interpretation of Vance.

To put it another way, magic is not just an excuse to add spells to your game. Magic says incredibly important things about your game and your setting, and if you don’t think those things through, you are going to end up with a thinly painted-on layer of magic that will quickly chip and fade.

What Is Magic?

So what is magic and how does it work?

There’s no single answer to that, and while that’s rather the point, it’s also intensely frustrating. You could say magic is a way to do things that are otherwise impossible, or an alternate means of doing things that are possible, but that falls short. You could bust out some Arthur C. Clarke and just treat it as a different kind of science. You could treat it as a system of prices, risks, and rewards. You could consider it something that comes from someone else—someone horrible or wonderful, depending.

You’d still be missing things, but for ease of application we’re going to seize upon a few key threads and boil it down to these five factors:

  • Tone: Is magic a neutral force, a flavored force, or something with opinions?
  • Cost: Does magic demand a price, a risk, or neither?
  • Limits: Does magic follow strict rules? Is it flexible and open-ended? What are the limits on magic?
  • Availability: Is magic universally available, so everyone in a setting might have it? Is it rare enough that only some people have it, possibly including all the PCs? Or is it rare enough that only one or two PCs might have access to it?
  • Source: Where does magic come from?

Tone

The first factor speaks to the nature of magic itself. Neutral magic is a force, like electricity or gravity, which is simply implemented like a tool, while a flavored force either responds to or is inclined towards certain outcomes. The most common example of this is a magic that tends towards the dark and the light, and which perhaps operates differently at each end of the spectrum. In this case, the magic is not necessarily an intelligent force, but it has tendencies. For example, fire tends to burn, earth tends to be stable. Opinionated magic comes from someone. Maybe it’s a god or angel, maybe it’s a horrible monstrosity outside of time and space. Whoever they are, they have agendas, and magic is a tool for them to drive those agendas. There’s a lot of room for nuance here—the magic might be neutral in its use, but the source might be opinionated. On the other hand, if magic actually summons or channels these beings, then the actual manifestation of magic may be shaped by their opinions.

Cost

The second factor is one that speaks to the cost of magic use. For some, it is essential that magic have a cost, that there be tradeoffs made for power. They might be literal or symbolic, but when they’re present then the subtext is usually that power has a price. Contrast that with magic having some risk associated with it. As with price, this puts a natural limiter on the use of magic, but it speaks to a very different set of priorities, especially if magic is easy to come by. It might be blatant—such as spells having a risk of blowing up in your face—or it might be subtle—a steadily accruing toxicity—but it makes each choice to use magic a conscious one. As an aside, costs work well with flavored or opinionated magic, risks work better with neutral or opinionated magic—where the risk is “attention from the beings with opinions”.

No cost is a curious option, and one to not take too literally. There’s usually some cost, even if it’s the price of a pointy hat and the opportunity cost of studying magic rather than getting that MBA. These are familiar, mundane costs. That’s why this approach works best with highly regimented neutral magic. It lines up well with “magic as science” thinking or very concrete lists of spells or effects—or rules for things like cyberware, which are basically differently skinned magic systems. Whatever the case, if there is neither cost nor risk, there is usually some other limiting factor at work, even if magic is fairly ubiquitous—such as limits to the types of magic a given person may use.

Limits

The third factor is a little bit of a cheat because it also speaks to the tolerances of your table. Strict magic systems, with spell lists and direct effects, appeal to some players, while more loose interpretive systems appeal to others. There’s also lots of room in the middle for systems that are open-ended in effect, but constrained by something like elements or spheres.

Whatever the answer, this should help you think about is what magic can’t do. It is mechanically easy to make a system where magic can do anything—create a magic skill then let players roll it for everything that they can describe magically—but that tends to be very boring. Limits are a big part of what makes magic feel magical, and in turn are a big part of how they can be flavorfully implemented in play.

Availability

The fourth factor tells you something about the setting, sure, but it also answers a critical question about game balance and spotlight time. A magic system that is available to all players can be designed very differently from one that only one player is going to use. If only one character has access to magic, then it’s important that magic not be so potent that the character overshadows other players and steals all the spotlight, but also not so useless that the player feels like she made the dumb choice. If, on the other hand, everyone has magic, you have a lot more leeway. When everyone gets to be awesome, “balance” is less of a bogeyman.

Source

The final factor is the most and least important—it doesn’t matter much what the answer is, but it matters that you have one. The better you understand where magic comes from, the better you can understand what it can do and—sometimes more importantly—what it can’t do.

You’re under no obligation to share this explanation with your players, and in fact this is an area where we actually encourage a little discretion. Not because you can’t trust players with this information, but because your magic system is going to feel a hell of a lot less magical after you’ve explained it all. A little bit of mystery is essential to the magical feel.

Notice that none of these factors ask “What does magic do?” since the answer to that is another question: What does it need to do? Hopefully you have a grasp on that, because if you don’t know that, nothing else is going to work. “Because I need to have a magic system” is not a good enough answer.

Magic and Fate

The purpose of rules is to give you the tools to translate your speaking and imagining into a structure that lets them be shared. That presupposes that you have something you want to share.

Fate is a representational game. That is, if you have an idea in your head, it provides you the tools needed to express that in play. Need characters to be able to do something? Make sure there’s a skill for that. Have a trick you want them to do? Create a stunt. Want to drive home a thematic element? Put an aspect on it.

These same tools are available to you when you want to add magic into your game. But just like the rest of play, there is no one single right tool. Depending upon what magic looks like in your game, different mechanics may be the right way to capture it.

The magic systems that follow serve two purposes. First, each one is a functional magic system that you can drop into your game or hack to serve your own purposes. That’s important, but it’s almost secondary to the other purpose. Each of these systems is also an illustration of how to apply mechanics to deliver a certain kind of effect.

And that’s how we end up back at punching. If you know Fate’s rules well, then it’s easy to adjudicate a punching scenario, and only slightly more complicated to come up with your own system for fisticuffs. By the time you get to the end of this, the goal is that you will feel equally comfortable taking a magical idea that you’re carrying around and be able to translate it into mechanics with the same ease that you do more mundane challenges.

Skills as Magic

The skills are an easy avenue into magic, whatever skills you use. The main question to ask is whether it repurposes existing skills or demands the creation of a new magic skill. Each approach has specific strengths, and it’s worth thinking about them when designing a system. If you’re going to soup-up existing skills, then you end up with a bit of a challenge in covering all skills. You can, of course, opt to only make certain skills magical, but you need to be careful not to create super-skills this way.

Creating a new skill can solve a lot of problems, especially since you can create multiple skills if you want to differentiate between magical disciplines. There’s also a subtle cost to it, since buying up that skill is going to mean some “real” skill gets neglected.

While there’s no right answer, when in doubt, go with a new skill. Converting existing skills to magic is more labor intensive, and it’s something you should only do when you already have a clear vision you’re acting to serve.

Aspects as Magic

Aspects have two important roles in most magic systems, both as a gateway and as an expression.

As a gateway, almost any magic system will demand that the character have at least one aspect that reflects their magical tradition or power source. While there are exceptions—such as those where “magic” is just a different coat of paint on technology—magic is usually important enough to the character to merit reflection as an aspect.

Aspects are also a great way to represent the effects of magic. At the simplest level, it’s easy to do a magic system where magic simply expands the range of aspects that you can create through advantages and boosts.

Stunts as Magic

Stunts can absolutely serve as the basis of a magic system, especially if stunts simply do explicit things. More often, however, this is a good model for a powers system. This is a pointed difference, but powers are better suited to monsters and superheroes. Still, stunts can be a useful way to jazz up a magic system, but cost must be carefully considered. Often, a magic system has an intrinsic refresh cost, which makes picking up stunts dangerous. Either the cost should be adjusted or the stunts should really be worth it.

Extras as Magic

Extras are basically their own magic system as written. A magic system may provide explanations and justifications for specific extras, but the system itself is robust and easily used for any number of effects.

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