Making a more robust magic system


I am kicking around an idea in my head to create a magic system that better simulates what we see in fiction. From Gandalf to Dr. Strange, mages/wizards/Jedi seem to have a huge variety of things they can cast and almost no RPGs emulate that. I was thinking of a system that uses Tags and HP cost to allow for a lot more PC freedom and diversity of spells. For example, a wizard chooses the tags “Fire”, “Light”, “Force”. He/she can cast spells that are in those areas. Depending on their damage/effect/range they will pay an HP cost based on a d4, d6, d8, etc. Simple spells have no cost.

Some examples, “I want to cast a fire bolt to do d6 damage on the Orc at Near range” No cost
“I want to cast a Scorching Blast for 2d8 damage on the Orc at Near range” roll d6 and subtract from your HP. “I want to blind the Dragon with a Flash, if the Dragon fails it’s save I want it blinded for 1d4 rounds” Okay roll d8 and subtract from your HP.

I want to give more room for creativity and lessen the need for spell lists and tracking. I also want there to be some risk in trying powerful spells to better match the fiction and drama we see in fiction. The battle weary Cleric giving all he has to disintegrate the Demon that is about to fell his friends, falling unconscious, dying, after casting a massive blast of radiant damage to save his friends.



Using tags for spell variety on the fly is definitely a fun thought. I’m working on something similar for “build your own weapon art.”

I’m working with the number of tags being associated with the cost (whatever that is, currently HEARTS of Effort for me).

I also like to represent ability associated with growth, so if you like the idea of a character’s specialty really making them stand above untrained characters you could associate the number of tags they could assign to a spell on-the-fly with a score to a core attribute. If your Int score is 5, maybe you can use 5 tags to shape your spell from range, damage type, targets, additional effects, secondary damage, effect template, etc etc.


If you end up using ability scores to dictate the number of tags for spontaneous shaping, the number of tags players could use could get way out of hand if you don’t set a cap. You could use a set-up of diminishing returns so when players really specialize they can shape their spells more, but it would be harder to do. That way your score-to-tag ratio wouldn’t be one to one. :slight_smile:


As much as I agree that fantasy worlds have a variety of magics, the problem with what we see on TV is divided into soft and hard magic systems with way different rules.
By making it that all your spells cost HP, you’re essentially making some sort of hard magic system for one kind of magic. :open_mouth:


I have a lot of thoughts…in running a trial with a variable magic system, the characters/players focused on the magic system and not what they could have done with other non-magical abilities.

I think there are many more robust magic systems to be had, but not to overwhelm the players.

The creativity in core ICRPG is to play with d8 damage to enemies equals 1d6 to self. Perhaps with mastery or preparation it reduces to 1d4.

For me the ideal is to have the magic user so overwhelmed that they default except when in dire situations or they feel that they have a 75% chance or really changing the outcome.

Cards and power tracking seems to distract the players, at least while they are new to the system.

Perhaps 2 levels of reduction for single targets d8 vs d4 on single targets and 1 level on d8 vs D6 on near and equal of d8 damage on close and you take equal damage is the way to go. And equal 2 rounds of stun to 1 hp as equal.

This means if I want to stun an area that is close…and I succeed…I roll a d8…
7 I take 7 hp but those close to my effort took that much in rounds stunned…if I hit. I now have 7 rounds to recoup HP until my crew destroys my enemies. Or I missed and I am now at 3 HP.


I’d stick with variations on number of Magic Effort dice rolled, as the effort system is one of the most elegant pieces of ICRPG’s design. Throwing in different kind of dice would just complicate matters for very little benefit.

Using TAGS is a good idea, but how much a spell costs would be better done, in my opinion, à la ICRPG MAGIC, with instead of dice informing the cost, a simple calculations that detracts less time from play (as the choosing of TAGS will already take some time for most players, I believe.)

My take would be:

  • Establish what TAGS could be involved, first;

  • 1 range tag (CLOSE/NEAR/FAR) could be free (making AoE effects more costly) and other tags adding to cost of spell. Let’s say we had TAGS that informed what kind of damage was being inflicted, such as FIRE, COLD, FORCE, etc - how many of those are in the spell inform how many Effort dice are rolled;

  • I believe there should be a way to measure how much is the mage accustomed with, and over that many TAGS his casting attempt is HARD. Spells that would be too simple could be EASY in return, or a spell created by the caster themselves that would be within his ‘threshold’;

  • Make cost of spell equal 2^(n-2) or 2^(n-1), n being the number of TAGS (second options is not counting the range tag).

  • Sustaining a spell for another turn requires paying its cost again.

and go to town.


Very niiiiice, I LIKE!
Maybe also give the option to make a spell a ritual, ie: using time/turns as a cost. So maybe rituals have 0/half HP cost but take X hearts of effort before the spell is cast. Now we have the wizard needing to focus on the spell over a number of turns whilst the party protects them!
This could also be a way to cast super powerful spells (in combination with with normal cost per Tag).
I will mess about with more ideas in my sketch book before posting more thoughts.

I have a priest who prays for “miracles” and such. The “power” is based on how much Faith he has (meditation gains faith, the narrative forces “tests of faith”). He can pray for anything as long as he has enough faith and it’s thematically appropriate for a Christian priest. Works well, very light and definitely has a holy intuitive magic feel, as opposed to the intelectual, studious wizard.


I have always struggled with making an RPG feel like epic fantasy magic. The crux of the matter is older epic fantasy like lord of the rings and the GandalfCharacter is that those characters are role model/ mentor archetype. Think about the spells we actually see Gandalf cast (some book and some movie examples): speak with insects: when he whispers to the moth, pyrotechniques, when he does fire works for Bilbo’s birthday party, create fire when he lights his pipe, read language when he reads the dwarves glyphs above the entrance to the mines of Moria, reveal magic when he reveals the moon writing on the map of the lonely mountain, project voice when he keeps the trolls arguing until sunrise and probably the biggest spell was magic barrier when blocking the path of the Balrog. Overall the vast majority of Gandalf’s spells could be classified as cantrips. And there are a handful of times he casts spells over the 5 books. Gandalf fights with staff and sword more than he casts spells. The mentor archetype isn’t meant to be a main character but more often a guide, a keeper of ancient lore, helping the protagonist rise to their full potential.

In an RPG setting, a player character wants to be a protagonist. Casting spells like a gunslinger with unlimited ammo. Gaining more and more powerful spells as they level up. This is why OD&D and other RPG systems have struggled with ways of constraining the spell casters.

I really don’t know what the answer is. I want magic to be part of my world. I want a player who wants to be a spell caster to have the opportunity to play the character they envision. But, I haven’t found a way to reconcile the epic fantasy archetype with a player characters desires to be an epic impact in an encounter.


@Dragonlair I agree with the dichotomy and problems of the fantasy archetype meeting the PC’s need to be a protagonist. I find the best way to deal with the disparity in sheer power between the mundane and magic is either to have a full magic party or have tighter role play restrictions/penalties for the misuse of magic.

Sure, the mage has the potential to wrap the laws of reality around his finger and utterly devastate the countryside. BUT there is a guild that he is a part of that would stop him (violently and lethally).

The character isn’t in the guild? No problem. Witch hunters and inquisitions bent on “reeducation” or containment and at the end of all options, the destruction of the unguilded mage.

On the topic at hand, a universal magic system is something I’ve tried to find and build for YEARS… The closest and best thing I’ve come up with/across is the narrative style of Genesys and the sheer scope and flexibility of Mage the Awakening.

I may take a look at coming up with something using the arcanum from Mage and using the mastery system from MAGIC.

Also been toying with using STUN from vigilante city as a “mana pool” that’s drawn on first then health once that pool is depleted.


So what I settled on was this:
For a cantrip style, 1st level power spell, you cast it At-Will, all you want and if you want to add an effect (more damage, wider range, extra effort, etc. then you roll d4 or more (depending on the effect) and subtract it from your HP.

For stronger spells, things that would be 2nd level and above, you can cast those once per encounter or per day (I LOVE 4e rules) but if you want to use the spell again it’s roll a d4+ and subtract HP. You can also enhance the spell as stated before for the HP cost.

So I went with a route similar to Stunts in ICONS AE and other super hero games. “You have the “power” to cast a Fire Bolt, but want to really charge it up and put some oomph in it to vaporize a skeleton, go ahead but it’ll cost you. You want to use Mage Hand to stop an oncoming boulder? You can try but it may render you unconscious.”

I am happy with this and at peace, finally. I think it adds that narrative feel of magic I want to emulate in my games.


Glad you’re happy with it. Per encounter/daily things always bothered me. :stuck_out_tongue: Vancian magic? Hate it with a passion.

But if you’re happy, then go for it. :slight_smile:


I agree about Vancian systems. I threw spell slots and all that away long ago, but I always liked the idea of the 4e system of this is a spell/power you can use whenever, but these are more draining so they can only be used per encounter, etc. With this system you can keep casting Fireball or use it in a new way, it’s just gonna cost you some HP for all that strain.