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Upgrading the Magic System

Below are a few simple adjustments and optional rules that I've added to the GURPS magic system. Balancing Ritual Magic is a minor tweak to prevent the point-crock abuse that seems to invariably occur when the ritual magic rules are used in a game. Modifying Spells is an easy answer to the question, "How can I make my fireball homing?" Long-Ranged Magic is a worked example of modifying spells, to allow for a world in which mages aren't limited to just a few yards of range.


Balancing Ritual Magic

The Fourth Edition ritual magic rules (sidebox, p. B242) allow mages to be far more flexible, as well as more easily designed. A "fire mage" needs only to sink plenty of points into the Path of Fire skill to have at least a chance of casting every spell in that college. It's a great system, in theory.

In practice, however, it takes few players long to realize that they're better off just buying up their core skill and taking advantage of the fact that all Path skills default to the core skill at -6. It seems fairly pointless to sink dozens of points into the Paths you want when you can instead sink those same points into your core skill and learn all the Paths simultaneously. The fact that each spell requires a minimum investment of 2 character points (half the price of buying up a Path skill -- or, for that matter, your core skill) makes learning individual spells an unattractive option.

Fortunately, this is very easy to fix with just two small changes:

1. The various "Path" or "College" skills do not default to the core skill.

2. Spells are Average techniques, costing 1 point per level to raise.

Try it out. You can download a data file for GCA that implements these new rules here. Path skills and spells become worth buying again, which reinforces the whole idea behind the ritual magic system.


Modifying Spells

"Hey! I just realized something! I'm gonna add the Reduced Time enhancement to my Magery, and cast all of my spells in half the time for just a few points!"

Of course, it doesn't work that way. Magery is one part Talent, one part Unusual Background -- adding an enhancement to it doesn't translate over to your spells any more than adding an enhancement to Green Thumb would translate over to your Gardening skill. ("I'm not just a gardener... I'm a Cosmic gardener!") And adding modifiers to skills, while possible, is overly complicated and often a point crock. Imagine the mage with 1 point in his Fireball spell adding Accurate 10, Armor-Divisor (10), Explosive, Homing, and Increased Range x50, all for an extra 4 points.

Besides, it's not really in the spirit of the magic system. If you want a variant on a spell, then create a variant spell.

A simple concept, really. Look at Fireball and Explosive Fireball for a perfect example. If you want your Spasm spell to keep your victim twitching for the next few seconds, design a Cyclic Spasm spell. Variant spells have always been part of the magic system and are one of the primary reasons the Thaumatology skill exists. And it really isn't hard to keep them balanced.

Designing Variants: Here's a quick and easy shortcut to making sure everything comes up balanced. Take some enhancements that you want on the spell, then balance them out with an equal value of limitations (so that, if this were an advantage, the final modifier would be +0%). Everything not modified remains the same. Give it a new name and learn it. Done.

Example: Aethir wants a version of Paralyze Limb that lasts longer, preferably ten minutes. Extended Duration x10 is priced at +30%, so he wants to add drawbacks worth -30% to keep it balanced; he chooses Contact Agent. Aethir writes it up as a new spell, "Paralyze Naked Limb". The range, casting time, cost, etc., are the same, but the duration is now ten minutes and the spell requires the caster to touch bare skin.

A few things need adjusting, of course:

  1. Pretend that the Fatigue-related modifiers don't exist; they don't mesh well with spells.
  2. Never take more than one level of Area Effect; that one level turns the spell into an area spell, and changes the Cost into a Base Cost.
  3. Spell difficulty really shouldn't change. If the GM allows, you can treat turning a Hard spell into a Very Hard one as a -5% limitation and the reverse as a +5% limitation (comparable to Reliable, since it's only a +/-1 to skill.)
  4. For the purposes of variant spells only, you may use a new limitation, Increased Cost (-50% per level). Each level doubles, triples, etc., the Cost or Base Cost (in Fatigue Points) of a spell. For example, Explosive Fireball could be thought of as just Fireball with Explosive 1 (+50%) and Increased Cost 1 (-50%).

These guidelines don't absolve the GM of the need to keep an eye on things, but they will help ensure that each spell is relatively balanced against the others, and they should allow for enough flexibility to keep even the most experimental mage happy.

(Note that since this page was written, GURPS Thaumatology has added some excellent rules for adding enhancements to spells. Worth checking out, and compatable with the rules presented here.)


Long-Ranged Magic

One of the great limiting factors on spell-based magic (in GURPS) is range. With a penalty of -1 per yard for most spells, wizards must either get up close and personal, resort to meta-magical solutions, or sink a large number of points into their spell levels to soak the range penalties.

This doesn't always mesh well with every setting. In some, even an apprentice can hurl fireballs far across the field of battle, or stop a foe in his tracks long before he can close the distance between them. Achieving this in GURPS can be tricky, though.

Some groups just arbitrarily change the rules and say that spells use the Speed/Range table, with no corresponding drawback. While that's an option, it also removes one of the great limiters of the magic system, and thus makes spellcaster considerabily more powerful than their point cost would indicate. This can especially cause friction in a mixed party, once it becomes clear that a point spent on spells and Magery is worth more than a point spent on anything else.

One way of adjusting this is with point cost. Charge an Unusual Background to be a mage, or perhaps double the cost of Magery, spells, or both. I don't care for this method, myself. If you double the cost of spells, players will just buy up their IQ and Magery instead of sinking points into spells. If you double the cost of Magery, they'll just buy up IQ. Either way, it rewards them for going around the system, and thus doesn't really address the issue.

The best way to handle this, in my opinion, is to tie it into the spells themselves. Not their point cost, mind you, but their effectiveness. Improve the spells in one area while compensating with drawbacks in another. That way, you don't have to worry about character point cost because the spell remains balanced. If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the same concept discussed in Modifying Spells, above.

The simplest way to handle this is to add the effects of Long-Range 1 (+50%) and balance it with Increased Cost 1 (-50%). For Missile Spells, which already use Speed/Range penalties, replace Long-Range 1 with Increased Range x10 (+30%) and a special enhancement, "Affected by half normal Speed/Range penalties, rounded down (+20%)", priced in comparison with Long-Range. The changes can be summarized thusly:

Long-Ranged Magic Rules

A mage may define his magic as "Long-Ranged" when first purchasing Magery. There is no change in the character point cost of his Magery or spells; this is a variant.

Every spell which works at a distance, and would normally be at a -1 penalty per yard of distance (e.g., most spells) now uses the Speed/Range penalties instead. Its listed Cost or Base Cost is doubled. This is a fundamental change to the spell; the cost remains doubled even if the caster is currently using the spell on himself or by touch.

Missile spells have ten times their listed range, and are only subject to half the normal Speed/Range penalties (round down). Their Cost to cast is doubled as well.

Spells which do not work at range (e.g., Melee spells), use the Long-Distance Modifiers (e.g., most Information spells), or only affect the caster are unchanged.

The nice thing about taking this approach is that there's no reason you can't mix regular and "long-ranged" spellcasters in the same setting, or even the same party. The former will have an easier time with their spells while the latter will have a greater tactical advantage. In a game with high point totals that uses Unlimited Mana rules or allows PCs to buy Regeneration (Fatigue Only), "long-ranged" magic becomes a far more attractive option -- but that is intentional. A high-powered fantasy setting demands high-powered mages, after all. If the GM does not want this, then simply setting limits on Recovery and Threshold, or barring Regeneration (Fatigue Only), will keep such mages in line.


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