Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hacked Magic: A Homebrew Sorcery

Yesterday I posted a diagram showing how we're handling magic in our new fantasy campaign. It borrows concepts from several places, most especially Mutant City Blue's Quade Diagram. One commenter asked if they could see more of the actually play structure of the system. So today I'm posting the rules for that as I presented them to the players. This is perhaps a little incomplete; I can see a couple of details and clarifications I need to make. We use Action Cards, a card-based homebrew we've been playing since '00. It would probably be considered more a story game and some of the concepts lean heavily on Fate (Aspects, Stress). Where I say pull below, imagine that I'm calling for a resolution roll. I'm hoping some gamers might discover some useful ideas for their own homebrews or modifications. If you have any questions, please ask. 

So you’ve decided to be a magic-user- they have great power and options- but they also have some more rules to work with. But the goal of this system is to have an easy process which still allows you to do cool things. This game doesn’t have spell lists- you can create effects based on your areas of magical expertise.

The basic process is this:

1. CREATION: Figure out what the effect is: this determines the medium & method for the spell.
2. DIFFICULTY: Decide what Modifiers are on the spell: these increase the difficulty of casting and/or stress cost.
3. CASTING: You make a pull to see if you succeed in casting.
4. EFFECT: If you succeed and it is an attack spell, make a pull to hit your target.
5. COST: Mark off Stress for casting

Every spell is defined by two terms: the method and the medium. Method defines generally what the spells trying to do (destroy, create) and Medium shows what substance the caster’s using or affecting. These are abstractions and you can create the same effect with different combinations. For the most part they help define what kind of caster your character is. In this system, you use Destroy Earth to cause a wall to disintegrate. If know Create Earth you could magically summon a wall of stone out of thin air.

Players learn “spells” individually, but can use them for varied purposes. Destroy Water, for example, could be used to dry up a stream bed. But it might also be used to dehumidify a room. We’ll get to buying spells after the casting explanation. Keep in mind these definitions are pretty open ended- so you have plenty of wiggle room for creating effects.

Control                 Control move and trajectory
Create                   Bringing new into existence
Defend                 Prevent from causing injury
Destroy                Fully remove existence
Imbue                   Enhance/reinforce something
Sense                    Detecting something that exists
Strike                     Cause damage with a medium
Transform           Change something's inherent nature

Air                          Weather Forces
Animal                  Beasts & Creatures
Body                      Physical form & Self
Darkness             Shadow & Cold
Death                    Corpses & Souls
Demon/Holy      Power of Evil/Good
Earth                     Soil & Rock
Fire                         Flames & Lava
Healing                 Restoration
Movement          Motion over Distance
Light                      Light & Dark
Plant                     Plants & Herbs
Sound                   Hearing & Noise
Thought               Mind
Time                      Flow of Time
Water                   Water & Ice

Invisibility: Transform + Light or Control +Thought
Fireball: Fire + Strike
Flight: Control + Air
Call Birds: Control + Nature
Tough Skin: Transform + Body

Most spells will fall into one of the following types: spells which damage, spells which cause a benefit/penalty, and spells which cause a change effect.

Spells begin with some base definitions: they happen at touch range, they take an action to prep & one to cast, and armor interferes with them. They have a base difficulty of OK and they cost one stress (Wounds or Composure) to cast.

Usually you’ll want to change that up. To do so, you’ll add modifiers to your spell. There are two kinds of modifiers, Easy and Hard. Easy modifiers increase the difficult of casting by +1. Hard modifiers increase the difficulty of casting by +2.

Easy Spell Modifiers
At Range, Fast Casting, More Damage, Last Longer (for non-damage spells), Seeking (no combat pull needed), Stronger Effect, Precise, Triggered, Extra Effect (Minor), Cast in Armor (Light)

Hard Spell Modifiers
Area Effect, Ignore Armor, Go Really Far, Last Longer (for damage spells), , Much Stronger Effect, Independent, Extra Effect (Major), Last Much Longer (for non-damage spells), Cast in Armor (Medium/Heavy)

So a Fireball, would be Strike + Fire with the modifier: At Range (Easy)
An exploding Fireball would be Strike + Fire with the modifiers: Area Effect (Hard)

Players can offset those increases in difficulties in several ways- to a minimum difficulty of OK.

Prep: If your character’s going into a non-surprise situation, you may offset the difficulty of the first spell you cast in a scene by 2. The GM has the right to veto a spell which you couldn’t have had ready.
Time: You can take an extra action to cast a spell in combat. This offsets the difficulty by one.
Aspects: You can invoke an appropriate aspect by spending a drama point to reduce the difficulty by two. Free invocations may also be used.
Talent: magic users may have stunts which reduce the difficulty of casting certain mediums and methods. These stack if they have a talent for both.
Items: Some items may give bonuses to reduce the difficulty as well.

You need to make a Mental pull of at least the difficulty to cast your spell. Success with style can give benefits to the casting. Unless you got a Catastrophic or worse, you can attempt the spell on the following round with a +1 bonus. If you drew a Catastrophic or worse, you lose the spell and take stress.

Some effects, like controlling something at a distance, require concentration. The GM may limit the caster to a number of simultaneous spells equal to their refresh. The GM may also increase the difficult of casting new spells by +1 if the caster’s concentrating on other spells. They may also require Physical Concentration (Will) pulls if the caster takes damage while casting or maintaining a spell.

If a spell does damage to a target, the caster must make a Combat pull to hit with the spell. The target then gets a defense. If the caster makes the spell Seeking, then they don’t have to make a Combat pull. It is automatically considered a Masterful result, but cannot succeed with style.
If a spell affects a target, the GM may make a resistance pull versus the caster’s casting pull. This is usually for controlling or debuffing opponents. The GM may skip this to move things along- judging the effect simply on the casting pull or requiring another Mental pull for effect.

The base damage for a spell is X plus Y rolled damage. Applications of the extra damage benefit offer +2d rolled damage for the first; +1 after that. Healing spells also follow this rule. Damage is reduced by armor unless a modifier is applied to the casting.

Ongoing spells in combat generally last three rounds. Buffs and debuffs usually have the same game impact as adding an aspect or a tag. Of course, they may also effect other mechanics, such as temporary wounds, number of damage, etc. The GM will eyeball these.

Ongoing resisted spells get a resistance roll when they’re applied. If the spell forces an action, players may resist after they take the action. If it does not, the player may spend an action to resist. If they succeed with style, they can take an action. In some cases, the GM may allow a player to spend a drama point to clear an effect. Usually though they can spend the drama point to get a free re-resist.

Area effect and multiple target spells which do damage use this formula. Roll the standard damage +1d for each target and divide the damage as evenly as possible, if the AoE doesn’t allow for a defense pull. If the effect does allow for a defense (sweeping strike, etc), roll the standard damage +2d for each target and divide the damage as evenly as possible (counting folks who avoid the damage).

Casting any spell costs at least one stress- wounds or composure. This stress may not be offset with armor or any other means. Such damage cannot be healed with magic, only with rest. Players decide when they cast a spell which damage type they will apply.

For each +2 in modifiers the caster applies to a spell, they take +1 stress. Some stunts and powers may reduce this, but never below 1 stress. If a caster takes multiple stress from one spell casting, they must apply the damage to one type (wounds or composure). Magic users may take a consequence to avoid taking damage.

Take a look at the Schools of Magic chart. That looks a little intimidating, but it’s actually pretty easy to use. In practice it shows you what kinds of spells a magician is likely to know- and perhaps help with investigations.

To begin, a Magic user picks on of the eight Schools of Magic. They’re shown as octagons on the sheet. That school defines the character’s starting spell- and his schools signature spell. The Signature spell of your starting school gives you two benefits when you cast it: you offset +1 difficulty and you reduce the stress it costs by 1. This stacks with other stunts.

Next you may pick five more spells. These have to be connected to a spell you know by a line. For the moment, don’t worry about the red lines. There you go. Now you’re a magic user.
You’ll probably want to buy some skills. Magic itself gives you a repull on casting all spells. You can buy specialties for repulls based on spell mediums or methods. You’ll also want to take a look at the Magic stunts. There are some cool ones there.

In play, when you want more spells, you buy them using the Expand a Power pick (8 points). This gives you two new connected spells. You may only skip Know spells. However, if you want to add a spell which is connected by a red line, you must pay +2 points (making it a Stunt). 

  • Adept. You may reduce the stress you take when casting a particular spell type. Pick one medium or two methods.  Reduce the stress you take when casting by 1. The minimum stress you take is one point. This Stunt stacks with other effects.
  • Blaster. You do +2d damage with a specific medium or method.
  • Burner. You may take additional stress to increase the damage done with a spell while not increasing the difficultly. Each stress you spend in this way adds +2 dice damage.
  • Cantrips. You know three simple spells- these are absolutely basic effects which may not be modified, cost no stress, and don’t require a casting pull. Suggested cantrips include: Create Noise, Light Room, Jump (10’), Glue, Life Small Object, Pinch, Change Color, Clean, Repair Tear, Bad Smell.
  • Mastery. You may offset the difficulty when casting a particular spell type. Pick one medium or two methods.  Reduce the difficulties from modifiers by 1. This Stunt stacks with other effects.   


  1. I'm the anonymous guy who requested more details, so kudos and thanks! I'm still wrapping my mind around the system. It seems similar to the on the fly checks from Dresden Files (so a Fate magic), but the mechanics are sort of effect based, not unlike Mutants and Masterminds. The Method + Medium (and escalating difficulty for special features) seems like a nice core that can be adapted to different systems.

  2. Always wanted to play Ars Magica, or use it in a homebrew, it just seems awesome. I was wondering why you have the strike method. It seems like if you create the rock for stone shards if would be create rock, and if you fling existing rock it would be control rock. Was it just sort of a gamiest thing, to keep those other methods from being more powerful or to make it more straightforward? Do you not allow someone to fling stuff with control? Not a criticism, just curious, I have always wanted to use Ars Magica, and like some of the other additions you make (defend and Imbue).

    1. Absolutely- there's a ton of redundancy in the set up I have here. It is more to have some other options and let the players play with the development. In some ways the players will define their own limits in negotiation with the GM and then come up with other interesting meanings.

      So- yes- generally I would allow a player to do that, provided they describe what it looks like and the logic of it. That gives them freedom, but at the same time they're careful not to overextend themselves. That sounds odd but here's what I mean. They know instinctively that the possible options for X methods has a limit, and if they put too much in that box, eventually I'm going to call them on it. That's more a practical limit than a written one. Players can goof with that.

    2. So I could in essence use the control method (for example), for just about everything, but you may decide during some weird planetary conjunction (or whatever), that control powers work at -2, and then they are SOL.

      Could I use Fireball with the strike method, without some sort of pre-existing fire?

      Awesome answer, by the way, it has sort a hero system GM enforcement of limitations/disads feel to it. You can’t completely nail down the cost in advance, because something is only as useful as it is in play. If you tie all your spells to one method, that is valid, but it is very useful and should have cost you more skill purchases, so it must have a disadvantage. Just like spreading yourself out must have some sort of built in advantage since it costs more skill purchases. In hero you can say you have a power that comes from your hammer. If you take no limitation from it, the GM will never (ok almost never) take your hammer away, it’s just special effect, or you could make it ¼ in super hero form only, then he would rarely take it away, or -1 OAF then the GM better take it away at some point just about every adventure. But it’s an illusion that defining it upfront is any more neatly defined, play informs cost, cost informs play, it’s two side of the same coin. Sorry I blathered on so much.

    3. A little bit like that, but I'd want some narrative establishing how they see "control" within the limits of movement and trajectory. So they might use it to have the flames move in a way to cause a distraction, to clear a path, to create a barrier, to fly at someone and incidentally cause damage. But they'd just need to explain both the fire and the movement FX (to use Champions terms).

      And yeah, I would usually assume that a fire caster has some means of creating flame easily. Unless, and this would be a situation I'd save for later, they're caught unprepared or end up captured or something. Then when they ask about casting an attack fire spell, I'd ask if they have Create Fire. I like being able to handwave the details, but still be able to reserve an interesting obstacle to overcome later.

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