The art of magic

27 February, 2009 at 7:49 pm (game design, roleplaying)

This is most of the planning I’ve done for a game I’m about to run for a group of friends (and possibly one new person, if I can re-establish contact).


Mostly realistic medieval Europe, precise location to be determined. Player input welcome. Of course, there’s mages. Mages are defined as people who can see and travel to another world that is parallel to the medieval one and also a reflection of it. Magic is defined as going to that other world and altering it in such a way as to also affect the normal world. This is almost all there is to magic.

Examples of magic: Some person is very hostile towards you. So, one day you enter the other world with the intention to change that person’s disposition to better. In the other world that person is (this time) represented as a roomful of people, arguing amongst themselves and hence making the decisions the person does. So, you find the vocal opponent(s) of yours and drug, kill, silence, persuade, charm, or imprison them. Now the person doesn’t hate you anymore, though there is likely to be other effects. Perhaps the person can feel hatred towards nobody, or can feel nothing towards you, or just generally be maladjusted in some way. Such are the effects of magic.

Another example: Say you want to hide the location you reside in such that it will be hard to find and hard to escape from. Enter the other world with this purpose in mind and build walls and hedge mages and such around the hide-out, and people who can’t see the other world will wander aside or get lost or find they just happened to be thinking about something else when they should have kept track of the direction. Few will be able to find such a place without excessive means.

Player character creation

Players will play mages. Other ideas may be considered, but the default will be a mage. Character generation is as follows: Select up to four phases of your character’s life, with possibly selecting the same one several times. These should be on the level of lifestyle or profession. If in doubt, we’ll use Burning Wheel human lifepaths as a guide and source of inspiration; if some character is too out there the wheel that burns may also be invoked, with “too out there” defined by the most discerning player. Phase has default value of 13; if selected several times, each one adds +3. For each phase select one noteworthy or character-defining feature of the character. (Same one can, if plausible, be selected several times). The features start at 10, +2 for each time beyond the first one is selected.

Decide how the character became a mage. This is the first time the character entered the other world. Add magery 13 as a phase and relevant feature at 10. Make it evocative.

Example 1: Abelard. Was the son of a local blacksmith and practiced the trade for some time, but was then conscripted and spend many a long year as a mere footsoldier, marching from war to the next, until getting tired of the death, upon which he escaped only to sell his soldiery equipment and become a humble pilgrim so as to atone for all the killing. Once when resting under the shade of a tree he saw a bright cross shining in the distance and followed it, knowing it to be his sign. Through burning forests and plains he trod, upon burning coals, and never did he step aside from the fiery path. Finally he touched the flaming cross, waking up due to the feeling of intense pain upon his forehead; a burning cross is now there, as if branded, for all people to see.

Stats: Blacksmith 13 (strong 10), footsoldier 16 (jaded 10, weary of killing 10), pilgrim 13 (seeks redemption 10), magery 13 (the burning cross 10). Equipment: Not much of value.

Example 2: Eloise. The daughter of a wealthy noble, she quickly mastered the arts of reading and arithmetic, even though such pursuits are not typically for women to devote themselves to. As such, her affinity was a public secret among the family and their servants. She turned down many a suitor, some of whom told tales further. The clergy did not take well to her unconventional activities, so she had to appear as as interested in courting and other similar activities. By night she talked to more learned visitors and perused the few books she had access to. One night she was studying the stars as something happened; she was floating among them and they talked to her, warned her, taught her and encouraged her; finally they told her to return. Since then her eyes are literally as small stars, especially in the dark. the chance was not unnoticed and she had to leave, but her parents did offer a host of servants and men-at-arms so that she could travel without danger and establish herself at some more favourable land.

Stats: Noble lady 13 (leader 10), scholar 19 (alchemy 10, the seven liberal arts 10, astronomy 10), magery 13 (whispering stars 10). Equipment: Astronomical equipment 6 (such as star charts), wealth 6


The game starts as the mages, or some of them, are driven away from a city of some size. If not everyone is driven away, the others join them shortly. It would be good if at least one of  the mages had servants so as to make the following step smoother. (Band of outlaws, mercenaries, or servants as in example could all work.) Next, building a settlement of some sort (or traveling around in carts or whatever). All of this is likely to be played through in fairly quick way so that players get to play their characters a bit and design their settlement.

There’ll be trouble and complications from the larger city nearby, as well as from the other world, should the mages travel there. Also any story hooks players embed in their characters are likely to see plenty of use.

Resolution and other rulesy bits

Characters have traits as defined in character generation above. When playing and the consequences of some action are unknown and interesting, dice are rolled. Most rolls are difficulty 1. 2 is difficult, 3 extremely difficult, anything beyond that nearly impossible. Unopposed difficulty 1 roll: Take the highest relevant trait. Roll a d20. If result is at most trait value, the roll is a success. Assuming a success, higher result is better. Example: Trait 13, rolls of 1-13 are successful, 14+ failures. 13 is the best possible success. For difficulty 2 rolls the process is the same, except that second highest trait is used. For difficulty n rolls, the nth highest trait is used. In case of opposed rolls, both or all characters roll. If there is only one successful roll, all is clear. If there are several successful rolls, the highest success beats the others. If there are several failures, among them the highest result means the least severe failure.

Should some trait have value of 21 or more, the die is rolled normally and success at unopposed tasks of relevant difficulty is certain. To determine margin of success, take the rolled result and add twenty if the result is still at most skill; otherwise, don’t add twenty. Example: Skill 24, roll 10 counts as 10 because 24 < 30 = 10 + 20, while 2 counts as 22 because 22 is at most 24 and 42 = 20 + 22 > 24. Traits in excess of 20 are rare.

Partially related traits count at half value. Using one token (willpower or will tokens or something), more on which below, forces a reroll and gives a permanent +1 to some trait used (up to player, but directly applicable trait if such are being used). The +1 helps with the roll in question. The decision to reroll is made after success of the roll is known, but generally before results are narrated. Several can be used for one roll.

Bonus, as from equipment, simply counts as a trait. Poor quality or improvised equipment is 3, decent to good quality one is 6, excellent quality is 9. If characters are helping each other or doing one task, they count as one character or some as count as equipment for the acting member or possibly some other solution.

Negative traits may function in two ways (up to playtesting):  As a trait for the opposing side or as a penalty to the largest applicable trait in a given conflict. The former takes less arithmetic, the latter would make larger traits more valuable even in difficult rolls. Example of the second: Positive traits 16 and 12, negative trait 9. Now the larger positive trait would only count as  7 = 16 – 9, so 12 would be used if difficulty were 1 and 7 if difficulty were 2. In case of several negative traits this could get messy. Apply only one flaw per positive trait; if there are more flaws, then apply second flaw per trait, so on. Highest flaws to highest perks. This should not be relevant in play, really, but covering all possibilities is important.

Extended, or zoomed, conflicts: Sometimes conflicts will not be resolved by a single roll. This happening is mostly a function of pacing. Two conflicting characters first roll as normal. Loser suffers some consequences. Both sides select what they will be doing. If reasonable, the winner decides what difficulty the next roll will be at. Continue until someone gives up or is soundly defeated.

All players can give will tokens to each other as a reward for good play, however they define that. I encourage people to include dramatic, humorous and smart play. Tokens can be used to add new traits or to give rerolls as already explained. New traits require justification within the fiction. The value of a new trait is generally half of parent trait’s value, if any, or 3. Parent trait is something that justifies the new trait.

Traits can also improve or degrade due to events in the fiction. Particularly, training can improve traits. One month is sufficient for physical skills, while year is suitable for improving magery and similar traits.

The ways of magic

As established, magic is travelling to the other world. By default the character’s body will be in trance or deep sleep or as in death when this happens. Entering the other world is difficulty 1 (magery is the generally applicable skill). Entering with a certain purpose and approach, such as driving away the local band of outlaws by making the forest they reside in haunted, is difficulty 2. Having e ven more conditions may increase the difficulty further. Failure at these rolls means that entering the other world fails or, more likely, that something nasty is afoot there.

In the other realm a mage can make things be by mere willpower (and training). This is difficulty 1 for gradual changes (a forest behind the next hill), difficulty 2 for major or fast but relatively minor alterations (the world will end after the next hill, or the lilys on this field wither and die now), 3 for major changes or changes affecting sentient beings (this forest is in fire; or gone; or it grabs and entangles everything it touches; making the lowliest of pixies disappear is also difficulty 3). Affecting mages is opposed roll; aggressor rolls at base difficulty 3, defender at base difficulty 1. Failing a will roll brings consequences; a perverted manifestation is the default.

Failing any magic rolls and then fixing it with willpower tokens has a price; namely, in addition to the usual effects, character is marked. This mark may be physical, or it may be a familiar, or a magical item. The mark remains with the character in the normal world and is easily distinguishable, especially by other mages. All characters start with one mark related to their magical path. Characters heavily marked draw the other world close, hence making it more likely that things will cross the boundary, wittingly or not.

Design notes

This game is Ars Magica with different magic and rules. The resolution system is mostly stolen from Hero Wars as designed by Robin Laws. It is mathematically equivalent to rolling a d20 and adding the trait, target number 21. I use 20-sided die because it gives sufficient granularity and somehow feels correct for these rules.

Default skill value of 13 gives roughly 2/3 chance of success on unopposed rolls. It is basically an educated guess as to a suitable value. The way difficulty is handled is basically an experiments. It might not work at all or feel terribly unintuitive for all I know. Play will show.

The way magic works is another experiment. If successful, it will make magic feel magical in a way that few rules systems have managed thus far. One of my holy rpg grails. As a bonus, there is clear distinction between the fantastic and the normal, except if someone blurs it…


  1. jonathan said,

    sounds awesome! I’ve always wanted to play an Ars Magica / troupe style game but haven’t been able to nail down a group willing to do it yet.

  2. oberonthefool said,

    I didn’t have time to read the whole post (it’s long!) but I like the concept of how magic works in this world. I’ll be interested in hearing how this game goes.

  3. Tommi said,

    Thanks, both.

    I won’t promise actual play reports, but there’ll be some observations regarding how things worked out.

Leave a Reply to Tommi Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: