Myriad Magics: GURPS Conjures Choices

The nature of magic—its source, how it works, and its limits—is is probably the single most important facet of a fantasy RPG setting because it sets the baseline for how everything else works. Is magic divine in origin, with those who wield it serving as priests or mediums of gods or spirits? Or maybe it Something Humankind Was Not Meant to Know, bound in blasphemous tomes coveted by those who seek power and feared by those who grasp even a hint of its diabolic potential? Is it a highly disciplined mind’s imposition on the natural world? Maybe your game world is one in which magic is wielded by those who know Words of Power, and combine them at will to alter reality to their whim. Or perhaps magic is more like arcane technology and expressed in the arts of alchemy and the crafting of items imbued with arcane powers? Magic can be all of these and more—much more—with GURPS as your game engine.

Those who have read my other musings know that I’m a huge fan of The Fantasy Trip. It is a streamlined game that offers a lot of meaningful choices—but not many when it comes to magic; the system has too many baked in assumptions. TFT magic excels at low-power sword-and-sorcery, but anything beyond that strains the system since even small tweaks have the potential to upend its finely tuned balance. It is true that a game like D&D gives you several options, with clerics, druids, paladins, wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers all having different sources for their powers, but—and this is important—they are all mechanically the same and different only in name. A character’s level determines how many spell slots they have in each spell level. Different classes might have different spell slot profiles, but the spells themselves and how they work are exactly alike, one can’t really call them meaningful options.

GURPS could not be more different. For instance, a GURPS sorcerer has magical powers. These could be inborn, obtained through initiation rites, granted by a spirit, ritual tattooing, or anything else a GM can dream up. Because GURPS uses a point-build system for designing powers, exactly how a particular sorcerous power works—for instance, whether it can it be cast repeatedly without consequence to the caster or requires a sacrifice of fatigue or is tallied up against a daily threshold which is dangerous to go beyond—is determined when the GM and player design it. On the other hand, a GURPS wizard whose magic is a set of learned skills, probably can gain a new spell by studying the appropriate tome or scroll, he might be better at casting some spells than others, and the limit on the number of spells he can know is determined not by a class level but by available Character Points which, typically, are awarded after each session of play. So, rather than having to play through several sessions before leveling up and having a leap in abilities, a GURPS character can incrementally increase skill with a spell or broaden his ability by learning new ones.

One of my favorite GURPS magic systems is the Book half of Path/Book Magic discussed in detail in the excellent GURPS: Thaumatology book. With this approach to magic, characters study and learn Books, each of which containing one or more spells. As you gain mastery over the book, the spells in it become easier for you to cast, though some might be harder than others. This system maintain the trope of mages collecting and jealously guarding grimoires and works wonderfully with the flavorful possibilities presented by some of the common conceptions of laws of magic, such as astrological correspondences, material association, the Law of Contagion, etc. For instance, a particular spell in a blasphemous tome might be far easier to cast if its ritual is conducted when the stars are right, or if the wizard has a lock of hair from the intended subject of the spell. Paths are much the same as books, but represent esoteric training in a particular branch of magic by means other than a literal book and probably focused on a theme, such a set of spells focused on healing or knowledge. Path/Book Magic is ideal for GMs who want to confine the PC’s to only those spells found in books or paths to which they have access rather than let them assume that if a spell is in the rule book, it is fair game to them to learn it.

Another favorite is Ritual Path Magic. At the heart of this system is the knowledge of the theory of magic, Thaumatology, combined with skill in any of nine Paths which represent everything in the Cosmos: Body, Chance, Crossroads (gates), Energy, Magic, Matter, Mind, Spirit, Undead. In any given magic ritual, practitioners of the magic arts create one or more effects (Create, Control, Destroy, Restore, Sense, Strengthen, Transform) within one or more paths. It generally takes time to work these rituals, and the more energy they require, the more opportunities for unexpected glitches to become worked into the magic. It can also completely backfire. Spectacularly. Ritual Path Magic was first released as part of GURPS Monster Hunters (inspired by series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but soon was fleshed out more fully in its own short book, which includes details on how to reward players who add flavor by incorporating astrological and material resonances to their rituals. Ritual Path Magic is a free-form system that invites improvising rituals to suit the needs of a given adventure and is thus perfect for gamers who enjoy exploring just how far they can push things.

One can see in Ritual Path Magic some similarities to Ars Magica in that the world is divided into a number of nouns subject to verbs. Other approaches to exerting control over spheres or realms or techniques to create magical effects are dealt with in the Syntactic Magic sections of GURPS Thaumatology and GURPS Magic, with some of the options including runes or other symbols, words of power, and innate capability.

As is true for most RPGs, in all of these systems for magic, the working assumption is that powerful magic is more difficult, e.g. creating a huge bonfire requires more arcane ability and power than creating a candle flame. GURPS offers an interesting twist that allows for turning all of that on its head, because it anticipates the GM who wants a world in which subtle magic requires more mastery than crude and blatant manifestations. Making it so is incredibly easy using GURPS.

Divine magic does not often feature in games I run, but for when it does, I turn to GURPS Powers: Divine Favor. This slim PDF volume offers compact, clear rules on mechanics for petitioning gods to answer prayers with an intervention into earthly affairs. These divine interventions can range from minor rewards to the faithful to world-rocking miracles. Petitions to the gods can be made through general prayers—“God, give your blessings to our queen and smile upon her!”—or more specific ones—“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?” The very devout might even gain access to “pre-approved” miraculous power (probably on a relatively small scale), allowing them greater certainty that their god’s will will be done. Divine Favor is perfect for games in which PCs don’t actually have magical power, but they have access to the beings which do.

At the other end of the spectrum is material magic. While alchemy and magic item enchantment can be components or complements to other magic systems, GURPS allows the GM to make these front and center, if desired, as the only magic. Basic rules for these are found in the excellent GURPS: Magic and various ways to tweak them are included in the Material Magic chapter of GURPS: Thaumatology. For instance, alchemy might require access to dragon blood, or the distillation of ambient mana through arcane apparatus, or it might be as simple as requiring mastery of herb lore. Regardless of the ingredients, the practitioner needs to set aside time to prepare and combine them properly for the intended effect and hope that their elixirs remain potent long enough to be effective in whatever adventure they find themselves involved in.

This array of choices can be dizzying and daunting to those used to applying all of the game rules all the time, so it is important to remember that GURPS is essentially a set of tools and must be used as such. The GM needs to think about their game world first, and decide which tools are appropriate, setting others aside. So, sure, GURPS gives you a plethora of magic systems to choose from, but you are probably only going to use a single one in any given game.

If you love games in which magic is a major component, you owe it to yourself to try some of the approaches GURPS offers. The system is well-equipped to support you as you customize magic rules so that you get a system that represents your ideas about magic rather than a one-size-fits-all approach dictated by other games. GURPS: let it bring some magic back into your gaming!

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by Steve Jackson Games. This material is used here in accordance with the Steve Jackson Games online policy.

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