This one is going to be some thoughts, but I’ll get this out of the way early: I’m not terribly experienced with the current and alternate GURPS Magic systems. Some of that is lack of interest, some is lack of experience . . . but some is experience playing and GMing in a few games (not lots) where magic featured, and walking away less than fully thrilled.

Many of the issues and questions I’ll raise are not new or novel. A good, even cursory, search of the GURPS Forums will reveal most of these questions, I’m sure, along with answers. Maybe even answers from +Sean Punch or Rev Pee Kitty.

Anyway, some random thoughts and discussion about magic in GURPS.

Skill-based GURPS Magic

The basic core system presented in GURPS magic is at it’s core, skill based rather than advantage-based. No surprises there. Each spell is a skill, and you derive those skills the same way you derive all skills: a base attribute, plus any levels of bonus-granting attributes like Talents, plus points invested in the skill itself.

Whipping out Cadmus, whose skills are a blend of physical and mental stuff, I find that for this particular DF character, I’ve got 9 DX-based skills, 8 IQ-based skills, 3 HT-based skills, and 1 Per-based (which of course is also an IQ-based one). One of the IQ-based skills, though, is Holy Warrior!, a bang skill that “replaces Leadership, Religious Ritual, Strategy, Tactics, and Theology, as well as Hidden Lore, Physiology, and Psychology specialties pertaining to evil monsters. Make a Will-based roll for Exorcism, Intimidation, or Meditation.” (Dungeon Fantasy 1, p. 18).

So this character effectively has 18 IQ-based skills.

Where should I spend my points, then? Clearly on IQ, for anything where relative skill level doesn’t matter much. If I choose not to buy up Per and Will (though that counts against the disad total, should one exist) then it’s blindingly obvious that increasing my IQ is the way to go. There are some caveats. Since Monster Hunters came out, one of the great benefits of “Bang!” skills is that every 12 points in one can give you a “bonus point” that can be spent on several things, such as rerolling bad die rolls or avoiding critical failures, or even spending a couple to make a roll into a critical success. Having only one (as Cadmus did until maybe recently) is a limit, having three or so is nice, and more than that starts to get a bit silly, but they’re always nice to have, and nice to use.

Why the digression?

Magery is the Talent for casting spells (it also defines your power level), and adds to IQ when figuring the base from which you calculate skill level. There’s a 5-point Magery 0 buy-in, but after that, it’s 10 points/level, and gives +1 for every spell you know. Given that higher levels of Magery are also prerequisites for more powerful spells, and often the amount of energy you can put into a spell is limited by Magery or some multple of it . . . well, that’s looking pretty attractive. Certain genres have different limits on how many levels of Magery you can buy, but unless you’re only buying a few spells, the value here is pretty clear.

Next, especially if you are going to spend 4 points in more than five (only five!) spells, is IQ. Given how many magical effects might require a Will roll, I’d never buy down Will, but perhaps slacking on Per isn’t fatal. Maybe not. I like Perception. Too many conversations/interactions in gaming begin with “everybody make Perception rolls,” and that’s not just a GURPS thing; it happens so often in Pathfinder that I’ve made some nasty noises about how Perception should be a class skill for all classes.

Anyway, the issue here, of course, is that building your classic Mage with bunches of Magery and IQ starts to get niche-stomping on anyone with IQ-based stuff pretty quick.

If that’s a problem for you, of course many solutions exist. You could create a new stat called Magic or something that replaced IQ as the base for spells’ skill levels. You could just assume that all mages have a base of 10, plus any levels of magery. Increasing IQ is interesting, but relative skill level is based of off 10+Magery, and so you might use IQ-based rolls to discuss magic intellectually, Will-based rolls to resist the effects of a similar spell, but you roll against 10+Magery+Relative Skill Level to actually cast it.

Huge Tracts of Grimoire


In my limited experience, though, people have a lot of spells. With hundreds and hundreds of spells in GURPS Magic for Fourth Edition, and the way point investiture can work, having three or four dozen spells isn’t out of line at a point or two each. Without large dependencies on relative skill level, and the standard rules presented on GURPS Magic, p. 8 do not have such a dependency, the benefits of increasing the base level for all spells is huge. You get a reduction in the cost of a spell by 1 FP starting at effective skill 15 and another every five points of skill thereafter. Not “relative skill,” but skill, as in IQ+Magery+relative skill level.

I know where I’m spending my points.

Game Play and Feel


In the GURPS Jade Regent Dungeon Fantasy game I play in with +Nathan Joy as GM, the spellcasters we’ve had have used the basic Magic rules (as opposed to one of the alternates presented in GURPS Thaumatology, or cribbing from Ritual Path Magic, from Monster Hunters and with a big expansion book coming out).

I find that the feel of the system doesn’t work for me as well as I’d like. There are many complex effects, each of which can invoke special rules. It’s very technical, not terribly mystical, and sometimes the spells are wildly effective, and others . . . not so much. +Mark Langsdorf could probably fill many screens of text on this, since he’s got a very good grasp of the “do/do-nots” of the magic system.

That imbalance can be all well and good when you’re on the giving end; not so much receiving, sometimes.

Also, the Magic book – the spells particularly – feel like they either have too much metasystem (or metasystem applied unevenly) or not nearly enough. You’d better be ready to look up how it’s all done, and some spells seem to follow different rules. The energy cost vs. spell effects trade could really use some serious rationalization, but that wasn’t done when the book was revised for Fourth Edition.

Honestly, this is where the Divine Favor and Ritual Path Magic type systems shine. They have an underlying metasystem that’s very strong, and so you can be more sure that powers and abilities are balanced against each other. 

Parting Shot

I’ve occasionally been tempted to play a mage in the game. The versatility and occasionally power of the spells is compelling, but ultimately, I’m turned away by the complexity of the system. I happily play a Divine Favor-based Warrior Saint, though. He’s got a much smaller number of enumerated powers, and then uses the General or Specific Prayer mechanic (two rolls, one for petition, one for reaction, GM decides what the results are on a success) for other stuff. That’s a lot of GM fiat, but you can always do this, and it’s hugely flexible and fast and fun to play.

I’ve played in a game recently with Ritual Path Magic, and the mechanics for casting spells are pretty straight-forward, but they’re heavily weighted to out-of-combat play. You need to spend a lot of mechanics-time defining a ritual, make a ton of rolls to gather energy, and then you do the spell, which if you’re sitting around a table, will get you beaten to death with large core rulebooks or pelted with d4s, and you’ll deserve it. It very much rewards coming to the table prepared. And really needs a grimoire of pre-written spells, which I have to believe is a core part of the upcoming book.

I’ll have more thoughts on magic in GURPS coming up. But by and large, I’ve found it something I like other people to play, but because of the idiosyncrasies of the skill-based system, it takes a bit of work to prevent the Wizard from being the best at all things that might derive from IQ. And that’s annoying.

10 thoughts on “You can do magic

  1. I have always really liked the basic Spell system, because I have always found the level system of DnD very constraining in regards to spell casting. I should point out that I played mostly with 3E spells, but 4E spells aren't much different (if at all).

    But I do agree that one major flaw is that because all the spells are IQ based, it allows Mages and Wizards uncanny strengths in other IQ based skills and abilities that don't always seem right. Just because I can cast a bunch of plant spells shouldn't mean that I'm an expert at resisting Fright Checks.

    I think good fixes are:

    1) As a GM, encourage raising Magery (which you can get very cheap by taking restrictions) over IQ.

    2) Use Rev. Kitty's optional rule about separating out Will and Perception as separate from IQ. I really thought that seemed a bit silly until I read this post and really thought about magic including past campaigns where I had the wizard uber perceptible just because he had a high IQ to be good at spells.

    3) Use the Magical Schools thought up by Sean Punch which will help limit what spells mages know so it doesn't become a crazy over kill of spells. When I get back to my GURPS Fantasy, I will be using these schools especially in regards to divine magic. But Divine Powers never existed when this campaign was first developed, so that will need to be reviewed as well.

    1. I would strongly suggest looking into Thaumatology: Magical Styles – it's a fantastic little supplement, and talks a great deal about making real differentiation between different styles. I love it, and it's about the only way I'd use the default magic system anymore.

  2. IQ in GURPS has always been a Problem.

    I disagree that the advantage cost system (as used for Divine Favor) is particularly balanced. It is nice to be able to justify your costs, but a lot of the build for the learned prayers strikes me as "I did this to get the cost where I wanted it."

    You are certainly right that the core GURPS Magic system is quirky and annoying though.

  3. The core GURPS Magic system is annoying, but I'm on my umpteenth campaign using it only slightly tweaked. We used the 1st edition version in my 1e game in the 80s and into the 90s. We used it again in the my two 3e games. And then in my next 3e-into-4e game. We're using it now in my DF game.

    It's got issues, and it could use a good bit of cleanup, but I keep using it. It's not perfect but it's serviceable and fun enough. Plus, unlike a lot of the alternatives, it takes less work – it doesn't depend on a player with the time and interest in tinkering. It's pick-and-go.

    1. I have always thought it has worked well enough. I'm not sure I've played an RPG magic system that hasn't has some annoyance to it. It is a hard mechanic to design and pull off it seems, plus different designers have completely different ideas of what magic should be like in a game.

  4. One of the most complicated parts of playing a magic using character is dealing with prerequisites, a subject I have been giving some thought as I work on data files for use with GURPS Character Assistant. If you want a blaster mage, you are going to be working back along a tree of prerequisite spells to be able to have that Fireball available. This makes sense, in that a wizard who throws around fireballs but cannot light a campfire (or put out all the fires that start during a battle) conflicts with intuitive expectations. But it makes spell selection much more involved.

    1. My main dislike of the 4E Magic book is the lack of spell prerequisite trees. Yes they are online, but really would have preferred them with the book. The other was that unlike the Base book, MA, and Powers, it was never really rethought out or revised, but as said above, still works well enough that I've always liked it.

    2. On the other hand, if you use something like GCA, you can pick the one or two spells that you feel will define your character and get the rest automatically. Once they're picked, having that selection available is rather interesting, and makes mages more flexible than someone who's just (e.g.) picked a couple of specific powers.

  5. Spell-based GURPS Magic is also quite customizable, without ditching it entirely for one of the alternative magic systems. One configuration I've been toying with is:

    1) Require the Wild Talent advantage, spells only, with retention. In my world this is called the Wellspring, and represents an intuitive source of magic.

    2) Ignore prerequisites, but charge an additional 1 character point per spell (basically the Charm perk, but applied even to spells without prereqs)

    3) Use the Threshold Limited option.

    This gives something resembling D&D 3/3.5 Sorcerers–intuitive spontaneous casters who have a relatively limited, idiosyncratic selection of spells, and who manifest new magical effects without needing to study books or scrolls. Casting doesn't tire them out, but they are still limited by how much magic they can channel in a given amount of time. You could also use modular abilities to get a D&D Wizard style prepare-and-cast effect, where wizards buy "slots" with character points, and fill those slots with spells.

    Also, I don't like the default enchantment system at all, as it's heavily biased toward enchantment being done by specialist NPCs, and I like the option of PCs crafting their own toys if they want to. So, I use the option of Raw Magic. Certain materials or locations (which must be found on adventures–you can't just go to the Wizard's Emporium and buy them for gold) have one or more points of Raw Magic. Each point counts as 100 energy for enchantment purposes. So, instead of sitting around in their tower for weeks months or years slowly enchanting an item, PC wizards can travel to exotic locations, slay dangerous monsters, and retrieve mysterious and powerful substances. Far more enjoyable this way, for gaming purposes at least.

  6. I think the magic system in GURPS is one of its strengths. If you are tired of your mages all being super geniuses, have the players buy IQ with the limit: for spell use only.

    Don't like using magery, build "spells" like powers. Add limited use, costs fatigue, requires activation, requires dex roll, uses resistance roll, and a magic origin.

    The alternate magic systems in GURPS Thaumatology books offers an entirety different approach if you want to go that way.

    Magic is one of those things everyone has an idea of how it should or should not work. I think the problem comes from trying to pound an inherently illogical idea into a logical framework.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *