The Magic of RPGs

Most role playing games involve some kind of magic, whether they actually call it that or not. If it’s a fantasy setting, you’ve got wizards wandering around; if it’s science fiction, you’ve got psychics; if it’s modern, you have eldritch rituals and witchcraft and some such. With rare exception, however, magic is seldom ‘magical’ in RPG settings. It might be interpreted as such by the inhabitants of that setting, but when the rules get slapped atop the sorcery, it rapidly becomes what I’d call ‘mundane’. It is rare that I’ve run across a magic system I’ve liked, including the ones I’ve created myself.

How Magic Usually Works

In most role-playing settings, magic give characters the ability to alter the environment for the purpose of destroying enemies, assisting friends, or acting as a toolbox by which the player can do things he otherwise couldn’t–climb cliffs, open/lock doors, clean his room, carry stuff, etc.. In this role, I usually fail to see how magic differs from, say, equipment. I’ve got a longbow and you can throw lightning bolts–what’s the difference, really? Well, usually it’s two things: (1) magic is more potent and (2) magic costs more. The lightning bolt really only differs from the longbow in the fact that it does more damage than the bow (in most cases) and it requires the character to pay some kind of price for its use, including things like being lousy in combat, taking some kind of drain on their person (aging, a headache, the chance they might catch on fire, etc.), or having some kind of limit on the number of times it can be used.

All in all this arrangement is fairly functional and easy to manage. The trope of the wizard who can throw giant fireballs but can’t defend himself in a wrestling match is well known, as is the ambitious sorcerer who calls down a little too much power and burns themselves up. My problem with it is that, all-in-all, it is fairly uninspiring stuff. I don’t really want magic to be equitable to equipment–I want it to be special, impressive, even frightning. Now, some systems try to achieve this to varying extents (Riddle of Steel is probably my favorite–, and others don’t even bother (4th Ed D&D, for instance, has some of the most boring magic in existence, and it is literally indistinguishable from the abilities of other non-magical players). This is not to say magic isn’t fun (the only character I ever play these days in D&D is a wizard), but it really doesn’t capture what I want magic to capture.

What Magic Should Be

To my mind, magic should be unique, impressive, flexible, and dangerous. I want wizards to toss spells that do more than simple damage to their enemies–I want them to do things that make everybody else in the game go ‘whoaaa.’ I want wizards to have a few spells they use regularly (the simple stuff, like telekinesis and little bolts of energy or whatever), but also have access to spells that they only ever use once and that very well may be unique to themselves. I want the execution of those really impressive spells to have a huge cost for the wizard or the environment or the plot or something. In short, I want magic to be a Big Deal.

This goal, of course, raises a lot of problems in an RPG. The first, and the one most often groused about, is regarding ‘game balance.’ Now, first of all, I don’t really think game balance is all that important in an RPG, mostly because game balance is a concept best applied to competitive or adversarial games, like Risk or Warhammer or Baseball. Since an RPG isn’t adversarial or competitive, but rather collaborative, it shouldn’t really matter if one player is ‘better’ than another. Furthermore, if you’ve got a good GM who allows players to solve problems creatively and is able and willing to raise or lower the level of challenge to make sure the game remains interesting (and you’re using a system that allows such things–i.e. not D&D), then the comparative power levels of the PCs and NPCs doesn’t so much break the game as dictate tactics. Obviously you should not engage the superwizard in a wizard’s duel–you’ll die. Figure out a way around it, folks.

Related to the game balance issue, however, and something that is (to my mind) more important, is the fact that magic, if too powerful, kills the challenge inherent in a game. Players always want to do things easily and almost always want to avoid difficulties or risk whenever possible. Paradoxically, if this desire is indulged, the game becomes no fun. If I ever have to say ‘congratulations, you infiltrated the Tower of Despair and escaped with the Crown of Doom without anyone noticing’, I have failed as a GM (that is unless, of course, the Tower of Despair isn’t the main objective of the mission but rather a sideshow that is best dispensed with quickly, but I digress…). Danger is essential to fun in an RPG. It comes in many forms, of course–not all danger is purely to life and limb–but it must be present. Something must be at stake, and there must be a very reall chance of losing it. Therefore, magic that is too powerful without there being some kind or price inherent in it can kill the game and, furthermore, granting players power that they will abuse for the purpose of eliminating challenge is counter-productive to a successful game. This kind of ‘game-balance’ (not the intra-character kind) must be carefully managed. Again, a flexible GM can fix this often enough (by raising the level of difficulty on the fly), but all-powerful wizards can still derail this if magic isn’t properly managed.

So, with these things in mind, let me outline how the ideal system of magic should work, so far as I’m concerned:


If and when a wizard throws a curse at a person, that person should suffer for it. There is nothing I dislike more than a system where somebody gets hit with a giant lightning bolt and keeps going like nothing happened. Super lame. Combat spells should hurt, defensive spells should be potent, movement spells should do what they say they do. Shadowrun was always pretty good at this (, as is Riddle of Steel. I, of course, like deadly games, so perhaps that’s just me.


Spells should be applicable in multiple situations or, barring that, wizards should have general knowledge of entire schools of sorcery so that they can execute spells that fulfill a variety of roles. If you can produce a telekinetic blast, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to produce a telekinetic hand to pick something up or to hold somebody in place. Talislanta is pretty good at this, as is Riddle of Steel (which is actually too flexible, but anyway). 


Wizards should have sharp limits to their power in that they should either not know everything or not be good at certain things or have magic that possesses certain liabilities (like the need to carry around certain objects to do it, or need certain quantities of time, etc.). This is needed so that a wizard can still be challenged and, furthermore, so that the other players won’t feel useless. This is one area where Riddle of Steel falls a little short–those wizards can do just about anything, though they need a few seconds. Talislanta is marginally better, with all their various Schools of Sorcery having unique and particular limitations to their use.  


Those who use magic should be wary, since it should exact a stiff toll on them if they overstep themselves. I want wizards to have the capacity to obliterate city blocks, but should be forced to balance that with whether or not it’s worth it. This effect needn’t always be physical. You don’t need to burn out you brain or age, for instance–you could instead simply owe progressively more of your soul to the underworld, or be forced to repay the favor the Gods did you in some fashion to be named later. In terms of price, Shadowrun is okay at this (wizards who overstep themselves routinely fall unconscious) and Riddle of Steel makes an effort (but who really cares about aging their character? How is that interesting?), but no system I’ve seen really nails this idea. Burning Wheel  ( leaves the possibility open in their Magic Burner, but don’t really explore it much.


Finally, magic should be really cool in its application and execution. I don’t really want it to function identically to other game mechanics–it needs something special. It must be at least partially apart from the other ways of doing things because that’s what it is–magic. I understand and appreciate the wish to streamline rules and gameplay–I really do–but I don’t wish it done at the cost of flavor, if you will. To this end, D&D falls flat, as does TalislantaRiddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and Shadowrun do it pretty well, but often at the cost of extremely clunky rules and confusing sets of new stats. I’d like to find a balance, if possible.


As those of you who know me can probably guess, I have been tinkering with an attempt to create my own ideal magic system for some time now. It is all going along with my revamp of the rule system I created for my own fantasy setting, Alandar (in which the story “The Martyr” is set, incidentally, along with a novel I’ve written and a huge quantity of background material). Perhaps someday, perhaps even on this very blog, I’ll debut it. It isn’t ready yet, though. Not yet. For now, I and all of us must make our way as best we can with the magic that we’re given, as pedestrian as it might seem.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on September 2, 2011, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I really like the expansive magic system of Alandar. Playing a practitioner of dark magics (ugh, the school name evades me at the moment, but the one where you can summon imps and age/decay things with spells…Veta’nir, I think!) in Serp’s Alandar game was really fun. Although we did have some trouble balancing magic use in mass combat, but I’m not sure if that was a system issue or our own limited experience with the mass combat system or how the mass combat system happened to be run in that game.

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I think my problem with Alandar was the presence of a spell list, really. I originally wanted to treat each discipline (Invocation, Abjuration, Divination, Conjuration, etc.) as a kind of knack, but the 7th Sea Roll-and-Keep dynamic didn’t let that happen. (Oh, which reminds me–7th Sea Sorcery definitely has the Wonder down, but it also isn’t very powerful, so…hmph.)

    Magic in Mass Combat in Alandar was never adequately fleshed out, so it stands to reason that you guys had some problems with it. In the original campaign I kept playing things by ear, really. It was supposed to work by treating the enemy army the same as an individual, with the understanding that you’d need to pour in the power and resources to make it work. I don’t claim to know whether you used Mass Combat the way I described in the Alandar rules or the old way as done in 7th Sea, so I can’t comment on that part.

  3. The hardest part of using magic as you describe in an RPG (especially in terms of the power and wonder aspects) is that I think the adventure would tend to slide in the Shadowrun direction of “each person plays by himself doing his schtick, then we move on to the next player”. If the wizard is so much more different than the swordsmen for example… then it would be rare for them to ever actually work together. Swordsmen would have to get into duels and melees (otherwise there’s no point in them being swordsmen), but the wizards’ abilities would be so wonderous and different that it just wouldn’t make any sense for them to stand behind the swordsmen “helping out” by lobbing fireballs during it. They’d really have no part in the fights except to perhaps buff the swordsman prior to it. And by the same token… when the wizard characters start doing their schtick… there’s really nothing a melee character can add to the situation other than wait around until the wizard is done.

    That’s the really reason why D&D has gone in the direction they have (especially in terms of ‘game balance’)… they’ve reduced magic to the point where it CAN sit side-by-side with swordsmen and archers to accomplish group combat so that everyone can and should play together at the same time. Yes, it absolutely does render magic less ‘magical’ and more mundane… but it lets everyone work together to accomplish a goal.

    There is one thing that RPGs traditionally have not done or had mechanics for, which I think *might* be one way that wizardly characters and combat-type characters could be on equal footing… which is to not have Health be the determining factor in when a person ‘wins’ (invariably which means killing your enemies). Instead… ‘Reputation’ should be a much more impactful attribute to define a character’s standing in the world and whether someone is or isn’t ‘dead’ (not in terms of actually physically dying, but rather just being so inconsequential of a person that he no longer can influence the story of a world in any meaningful way.) If you lose all your influence or reputation… then you no longer are a part of the ‘important’ story being told by the GM.

    What this accomplishes is that it removes the need to have physical death be the determining factor in removing someone from the story (which is what causes the ‘dumbing down’ of wizardly action as GMs are forced to not have spells overshadow swords and bows… resulting in the point you made where guys take lightning bolts to the chest and then shrug it off like nothing happened.) ‘Combat’ could then become a much different animal… where it’s not about a thousand little cuts to knock off someone’s hit points… but rather a battle of character power versus character power. And in this regard, spellcasters and non-spellcasters can now be on equal footing, because something like throwing a lightning bolt at someone could be a reputation HIT to the wizard, rather than a show of strength. It would be considered an act of cowardice to use his power in that way… basically electrocuting a sword-wielder from long distance. That’s not a show of character power, that’s a shit move. And while the swordsman would probably have to spend some time ‘recovering’ from the lightning bolt… they would come out of the battle with a much greater Reputation. He’s the guy who withstood the lightning bolt thrown by the wimpy, cowardly wizard.

    This kind of new mechanic for ‘combat’ would certainly require a huge change of thought for game designers and GMs… as the idea of fighting styles, hit points, healing, recovery and all the trapping of normal RPG ‘conflict resolution’ would get thrown out the window. But it would certainly help balance the power between all characters as its no longer just about physical resilience determining whether you are ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ in the story. It’s about you as a CHARACTER, and how IMPORTANT you are as that character. And whether or not you are worthy of your place within the story being told.

  4. The problem with that kind of system, however, is that it has the additional side-effect of having all PCs trying to be well-liked, which creates its own problems. Furthermore, having a character physically die is somehow less disheartening than having him be forgotten.

    I think the problem with magic and swordsmanship is that RPGs are so combat oriented that it makes things awkward when using them side-by-side. I sought to solve this somewhat in Alandar by making the lower arts of magic (talismancy, alchemy, thaumaturgy, etc.) accessible enough that everybody had a little, making the swordsman apt to survive in a word of tossed fireballs (and even let him toss a few of his own).

    Another issue, and this is one I find problematic in RPGs in general, is this god-awful focus on team combat. There is no particularly good reason why the wizard and the swordsman are fighting the same opponent, anyway. One can easily set up encounters wherein the wizard has alternate tasks to accomplish or, alternately, the different party members can split their attentions among the goons coming at them. The final solution (and the one I like best) is to make magic unsuitable for combat at all. Still powerful, still flexible, but limited in such a way to make it a poor substitue for simple steel.

  5. Well, in response to your last paragraph first… the reason why team combat is usually so important is because the Shadowrun effect of player time distribution really kind of sucks. Sure, it’s great for a GM because he/she is a part of every single roleplay, plus it allows him/her to craft a story with many disparate threads that can come together and split apart, weave and tie to create really compelling and intricate narratives… the Ice & Fire method of storytelling… but for us players, more often than not, it can be exceedingly dull. If I’m a melee character in Shadowrun and have to wait for an hour and a half for the deckers, faces, and mages to do all their individual schticks one at a time before the job ever reaches the point when I can actually do something… by that point the narrative flow for me as a player has ground to a halt, and I’m just less likely to care about I’m doing when it gets to me.

    You’d have the same problem with wizards and swordsmen within Alandar, if their methods for action and conflict resolution are so disparate. You’d have all the fighters go off and do their battles while the spellcasters sit on their hands for an hour, and then vice versa. As a story, it’s probably great. As a game, not so much. And this is especially true if the *results* of the conflict resolution are also so disparate, like it was in Riddle of Steel. When Christine and Josh’s mage characters screwed up, they aged quite a bit but the characters could continue on like nothing happened. But when everyone else’s melee characters screwed up, they got so injured that they were bedridden for sessions on end, doing nothing but “recovering” and/or interacting with whomever might come to their bedside for a sit down. Again… really interesting storyline… not so much fun game.

    This is why I think RPGs have all devolved to using combat as the defacto conflict resolution mechanic. It’s the easiest conflict to get many people together for, it can have very specific game rules created that do not require “roleplay skill” or “GM fiat” to determine success or failure, and it has a very easy victory condition (one side is killed). But not many (if any) have ever tried to create the primary mechanics of their game be something *other* than combat– whether that be social standing, reputation, spiritual enlightenment, money etc. And I think that until that can be made… a mechanical conflict resolution that does not hinge on how easy or difficult it is to “kill” your enemies (thereby rendering the problem of comparing the mage with a fireball versus archer with a bow moot)… you’re not going to be able to have characters of disparate physical powers ever be able to work together most of the time to accomplish goals. You’ll always have to have the wizard go first to do wizardly things, the charismatic character then go off to do face-time things, then the swordsman go off to cut some random guy’s arm off.

  6. Or the other option for something like Alandar is to give every character *both* abilities– magic and combat… so that players have opportunities to get involved in both facets of the story. I know that tends to be an anathema to many players… they usually want to focus in on one certain skill, power or ability at the expensive of all others so that they can be the “best swordsman” or “best pilot” or “best engineer” etc. etc…. but that is also what helps create the “one at a time” gameplay that can make sessions quite boring when it happens each and every week.

    Now for a game like Star Trek, this kind of thing can work… because the story of party creation and conflict resolution for this specific game relies on all the players doing their individual activities… BUT doing them simultaneously and together, bouncing ideas off each other, one person’s success unlocking another player’s opportunity for success elsewhere… where everyone’s actions creating equal and opposite reactions and results for each other as a group. But this is a very specific team game concept that does translate very well to other genres or tropes. When it is tried, you get D&D… a game where you sort of have to suspend disbelief that a sword hitting someone’s arm does just as much damage as a gout of flame shooting out from another guy’s fingertips.

  7. I don’t see there being a necessary divide between ‘one at a time’ and ‘teamwork’. All I said is that you could fashion encounters where they have different tasks. This doesn’t mean they happen at different times (they could all be contained within the same initiative step); all this means is that they aren’t trying to achieve the same thing.

    For example, wizard and barbarian are storming a castle’s gates. Barbarian must fight off the goblins while wizard destroys the doors–same goal, separate tasks in keeping with their mystique. This is very much like Star Trek, actually, and I don’t see a particularly good reason why it can’t be transposed. All I’m trying to avoid is making the magical into the mundane. It can be done, but it requires more work for the game designer and GM or, alternately, forbearance on the part of the players (a more unreliable proposition).

    As for having a game mechanic based upon things other than combat, it’s been done and, in fact, it’s been done by me. I haven’t run Archfiend yet, but I will, and it isn’t so much about beating the good guys in battle as it is about doing so with panache. Heck, even *losing* to the bad guys must be done with panache.

  8. If what you’re talking about for wizards for Alandar actually involve joining other characters in battle to do things like following behind barbarians to blow up doors and the like… then I might’ve misinterpreted the power level of wizards you were referring to. I was thinking you meant that wizards should be be so magical and have abilities so non-mundane that they’d be performing actions completely outside the sphere of normal adventurers. They’d be like generals and kings, sitting way in the back doing their magic on a much more macro-level… not in the thick of things like your standard troops and knights.

    And that’s the disparity level that I think would hinder a game, rather than heighten it. If some PCs are kings, and other PCs are troops… their levels of power and the stories that come out of it are just SO different that it’d be rare for them to actually adventure together in the first place, let alone face the same risks. Of course, this then takes us back to the realm of ‘game balance’, and what is required to have one the one side compelling story, but on the other side, compelling gameplay. It is something that you yourself usually manage brilliantly… but since I’ve been inferring from your talk and other posts about creating these games that you aren’t just thinking of them as strictly for you, but as rules that other people could use as well… I’m commenting from the perspective of the GM who CAN’T do what you can. Because god knows… as a frequent reader and poster of ENWorld (the largest independent D&D messageboard)… there are a LOT of purely mediocre ones out there, and I see what even something like the rules of D&D trip them up, let alone trying to interpret the much more complex and involved game rules that you come up with.

    That, and most of what you create is just so cool that I just like talking about it. 😉

  9. I’m not suggesting a troops and kings separation, more a scientist and athlete type separation. Both of them can be there in the thick of things, but they should have different jobs while there.

    As for a system to make it possible, I’m working on it. When I get a working model going, you’ll know.

    Oh, and thanks for the compliment Fish (and for the conversation). I’m delighted to get to talk about these things, too.

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