Fixing the GURPS Magic Framework

Fixing GURPS Magic is a two-part process and this post is merely going to offer ideas for the first step: fixing the general framework. A comprehensive bug-fix for GURPS Magic would have to review every single spell, many of which need more than just a quick once-over.

Cooking It up

There are three main problem areas in GURPS Magic and they’re all interdependent:

1) IQ + Magery beats investing points in spells
Unless you want to build a one-spell-pony, the rules-as-written don’t encourage you to invest more than a single  point per spell. IQ and a level of Magery may cost 30 points, but the number of interesting spells is great enough that most mages will have at least twenty spells in two or three colleges. Add in the general versatility of IQ and in-depth study of a spell will never make sense. Official builds from 3rd Edition supported this method with rare exceptions and 4th Edition’s Dungeon Fantasy follows that trend. Not only does this demote spells from real skills to quasi-perks, it invalidates a lot of interesting archetypes.

2) Generalists beat specialists
Magery is one of the traits with the greatest number of canon special limitations, but the one limitation we often see in fiction or the-other-game sees relatively little use on character sheets: One-College-Only. At -40% it offers a decent discount (and can be combined with other limitations), but reduces versatility by something fierce. Going from 800+ to on average 40 spells is not the main problem. The problem is lacking access to the main utility spells (Recover Energy, Magesight, Armor etc.) offering only measly 4 points / level in exchange. Tying maximum Magery to points invested instead of level alleviates this somewhat, but even then other limitations are the better option.

3) Everybody just aims for skill 15/20/25…
Arguably the biggest problem with GURPS Magic are the “free maintenance” break-points. While it is a cute idea to have an extremely skilled mage maintain spells for free, it does turn the game into “Buffing 101”. Combined with the fact that all spells (barring very hard ones) are likely to be at the same skill level this just makes generalists even more powerful − and boring.

Before I search for possible solutions, let’s look at what GURPS Magic does right − something that’s not done very often, but if it was a whole lot of garbage, why even try to fix it?

1) Spells are skills
This fits a lot of tropes in fantasy fiction. While some wizards are masters of improvisation, many do indeed use spells and invocations learned by rote. Even if they can be varied, that often has strict limits. What could and should be changed, though, is that spells are all based on the same attribute and can never be of easy or average difficulty. Some existing spells could also be changed into techniques based on similar spells.

2) You’ve got to learn to walk before you can run
Prerequisite trees are logical in a way that immediately resonates with players. Of course, you need to learn how to conjure little flames before you start throwing around fireballs. The individual trees might not always be completely logical (or easy to follow), but the concept is sound. This comes to the fore when some spells (especially the Weather college) need solid grounding in two or more colleges. This could be expanded even further

3) Great talent can overcome restrictions
One of the few changes 4th Edition introduced what that a high level of Magery can overcome built-in restrictions of spells − and also limits your damage output. This idea is basically sound, but suffers from the fact that virtually all PC mages will have the maximum allowable Magery level.

4) Competence has its perks
While they weren’t added until many years after the release of GURPS Magic, the addition of Magical styles and style perks offer the GM great tools to make their casters unique.

Tying these together this brings a couple of changes to mind:

1) Fixing attribute costs is a good start.

2) Next is disassociating Magery from its talent bonus. Ten points for +1 to all spells was never balanced and if we make IQ more costly, it’s even worse. Instead Magery costs a flat 10 points per level (including level 0) and does only do two things: It allows you exceed levelled or energy-based limits on spells and it allows you to learn more powerful spells.

3) This new Magery is complemented by Talents for single colleges, which cost either 5 to 15 points per level. Talents act as Magery for their respective colleges, but also give a skill bonus in addition. The combined number of Magery levels and Talent levels has a maximum. You can either have broad access to all spells and little talent or loads of specialised talent and a little access to more powerful spells outside that sphere.

4) Skill level has no influence on ritual requirements and maintenance costs. Instead both are tied to relative level and voluntary penalties. With a relative level of attribute −2 you simply cannot cast a spell without words or gestures, with attribute −1 you can try either at a −4 penalty each. Similar, you can try to save on maintenance costs by taking a −4 to effective skill per point of energy − a chancy thing for resisted spells.

5) Casting costs are reduced according to Margin of Success.

The Finished Dish

GURPS Magic is a complicated beast and therefore the finished rule tweaks are a bit more elaborate than usual.

Magery and Magic Talent

Magery costs ten points per level (including level 0). It allows you to exceed limits on effect as per GURPS Magic p. 9. A certain level of Magery is also part the prerequisites of most advanced spells. Without Magery 0 or a corresponding Magic Talent you cannot cast spells. Magery might or might not allow you to recognise magic items on sight or touch as per B 66, but the GM can treat this as a setting switch. Magery never gives a skill bonus or reduces studying time to learn spells.

Magic Talent costs five to fifteen points per level (excluding level 0) and gives all the benefits of the Magery within its respective college. A mage with Magery 0 does not need to buy any zero-level Magic Talents, but it is possible for a mage to have no Magery whatsoever and only rely on Magic Talents. In that case each Magic Talent +0 costs 4 points. While this is rarely cost-effective for more than two levels it opens up some ways to get more Magic Talent than usual (see below).

Magic Talent Cost by College
Air 10 Light/Darkness 5
Animal 5 Making/Breaking 5
Body Control 15 Meta 5
Communication/Empathy 5 Mind Control 15
Earth 5 Movement 10
Enchantment 10 Necromancy 10
Fire 5 Plant 15
Food 5 Protection/Warning 10
Gate 5 Sound 5
Healing 5 Technology 10
Illusion/Creation 5 Water 15
Knowledge 10 Weather 5

In each campaign there is a maximum cost for combined levels of Magery and Magic Talent. In a typical fantasy campaign like Banestorm this might 50 points. That’s enough to buy for example Magery +3 and Magic Talent: Fire +2. Alternatively it could buy Magery +1, Magic Talent: Food +4 and Magic Talent: Movement +1. Or it could buy Magic Talent: Mind Control +2, Magic Talent: Healing +2 and Magic Talent: Knowledge +1 without any Magery whatsoever.

Limitations and Enhancements affect these costs. All special modifiers for Magery work for both advantages except for Limited Colleges, which is only available for Magery, and One-College Only, which is now superfluous.

Higher and lower maximum costs are possible, but the system starts to breaking down at 80 to 90 points unless you have a considerable number of spells requiring Magery/Magic Talent +4. It’s generally a bad idea to allow any Talent give more than +6 bonus so that sets another limit on how high you want to go. At 20 to 40 points the system still works fine, but requires mages to make some hard choices. Less than 20 points are probably not a good idea.

Ritual, Energy Cost and Casting Time

All three of these are tied to both relative level in a skill and how well he can cast it. Ritual grows less elaborate with higher relative level, but does never vanish unless the mage makes a conscious effort and takes a penalty. Maintenance costs can be lowered by taking a penalty, but only if the mage has a high enough relative level. Casting time can be lowered in the same way. Casting costs are dependent on Margin of Success.

Relative level Standard Ritual1 Reduced Ritual2 Cost Reduction Casting time5
Casting3 Maintenance4
Attribute −3 Extremely Elaborate −1 per 5 MoS
Attribute −2 Elaborate −1 per 4 MoS
Attribute −1 Normal No Words or No Gestures −1 per 4 MoS −5 per energy −5 per second
Attribute +0 Normal No Words and No Gestures −1 per 3 MoS −5 per energy −4 per second
Attribute +1 Subtle No Words and No Gestures −1 per 3 MoS −4 per energy −3 per second
Attribute +2 Subtle No Words and No Gestures −1 per 2 MoS −4 per energy −2 per second

1 The words and movements normally required for casting the spell:
Extremely elaborate: Requires sweeping movements of both arms and legs − both hands must be free − and shouted words (base hearing distance: 6 m), which give a clear indication of the spell being cast. Base casting time is multiplied by five.
Elaborate:
Requires movement of both arms and some body full body movement − one hand and both legs must be free − and loudly spoken words (base hearing distance: 4 m), which give some indication of the spell being cast. Base casting time is doubled.
Normal:
Requires gestures with one hand and clearly spoken words (base hearing distance: 1 m), that give those with Thaumatology an indication of the spell being cast. Normal casting time.
Subtle:
Requires subtle gestures with one hand and whispered words (base hearing distance: ½ m), that give those with Thaumatology an indication of the spell being cast. Normal casting time.
2 Eliminating either ritual words or ritual gestures gives a skill penalty of −4, eliminating both gives a penalty of −8.
3 Every full multiple of the given margin of success reduces casting (but not maintenance) costs by 1 energy. MoS is always figured from effective skill, including penalties from reduced ritual, maintenance or time.
4 Maintenance costs can be reduced by 1 energy for every multiple of the penalty taken.
5 Casting time can be reduced either by one second or 10%, whichever is better. Casting time can also be increased to get a bonus to effective skill: x5 gives +1, x20 gives +2, x60 gives +3.

The Leftovers

That’s the basic framework. You still need to look at every spell and decide whether it should be easy, average or hard − very hard spells can stay that way − and whether it wouldn’t be better served by using Will, Perception, Dexterity, Health or even 10+High Manual Dexterity as the controlling attribute. This will be a long and tedious process, but the results should be worth it. While doing that, spells can be balanced against each other, made compliant with 4th Edition concepts (e.g. no absolutes), tagged with keywords, checked for incongruent prerequisites and maybe put into different colleges. It’s probably also a good idea to reduce the number of spells by declaring some to be techniques based on similar spells, too.

As for tweaking the presented rules further, you could fine-tune the costs of Magic Talent per college to cost one point per 5/6/7 spells (minimum: 5 pts.). Or, going into the opposite direction, even declare all 15-point colleges to cost only 10 points. As it is, they are a bit less attractive at the moment, but be aware that a mage with Magery +0 and Magic Talent: Mind Control +4 can be pretty darn effective.


The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

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

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