Sunday 19 August 2012

Developing a USR Magic System

When I came up with the USR system, I wanted something that is quick to get onto the table and requires very little rulebook referencing, but also a game that's modular, allowing players to build on the system. As fantasy is one of the most poplar genres for roleplaying, I've been kicking around ideas for a magic system, spurred on by Tabletop Diversions' D&D B/X USR conversion.

Above all, magic rules for USR should be simple and broad, allowing for imagination to take precedent. I've always loved the magic system presented in Barbarians of Lemuria, which has a freeform feel, so that's the kind of system I'd like to emulate.

But before we can get into the nitty-gritty, we need to look at the current rules, and more specifically ability scores. USR has three main attributes: Action, Ego and Wits. Classically, wizards and other such magic users tend to draw their spells from their intelligence, pouring over books for days in a vast library. USR's 'intelligence' equivalent is Wits, so it's possible to base magic off this attribute.

Now we've decided what attribute we're going to use, we need to look at how to go about casting spells. Importantly, advancement in USR does not mean that your initial attributes increase, which actually makes it a little easier when it comes to magic mechanics because we can simply set a target attribute test. Something along the lines of:

Minor Spell - 4+
Advanced Spell - 7+
Major Spell - 10+

Minor Spell: A small incantation with a minor effect. Examples - create a small light, move a 20lb object with your mind, create a pool of water. Minor Spells cannot do damage.

Advanced Spell: A grander spell that is able to inflict a small amount of damage or change the form of an object. Examples - create a 5ft fire, move a 100lb object, turn an object invisible, reinforce a door, dis-spell a harmful enchantment, throw a fireball. Advanced Spells can cause 1d6 damage.

Major Spell: A powerful spell with a large effect. These spells can cause great damage. Examples - curse an enemy, turn the party invisible, create stone skin, disintegrate an enemy, create a huge flood, fly 50 miles. Major Spells cause 5d6 damage or can outright destroy enemies.

Obviously, minors are very easy to cast and majors incredibly difficult. Magic users can use focus equipment to make it easier to cast a spell. A wand or staff gives a +1 to the casting roll. Rarer magical items worth a lot of money will give a +2.

Of course, there's the problem that the wizard could just overuse spells out of combat, constantly rolling until they get a 10, so we need something to prevent that from happening. I like the type of sorcerers that have to do crazy rituals involving sacrifices and paraphernalia, so perhaps the wizard has to meet pre-requisites in order to cast a spell.

Minor Spell Prerequisite: Ability to speak and/or gesticulate with at least one hand.

Advanced Spell Prerequisite: Cutting own hand with a dagger (-2 Hits), two minutes of chanting and incense burning.

Major Spell Prerequisite: Sacrificing a sentient being, ten minutes of chanting and incense burning and cutting own chest with dagger (-5 Hits)

In this way, wizards will have to think about how and when they will use a spell. This is only rough, but I will be making a full magic system available shortly.


  1. Nice. I too like the idea of a broad magic system as it prevents huge lists of spells with narrow uses that no one will ever use. In a gamebook scenario, you can give a description of what magic can do and then offer it as an option in the book. e.g. You need a lantern to go into the cave or you can summon some light by making a minor spell roll or you can fire an arrow at an opponent or attack them by making an advanced spell roll to deal 1d6 damage or a major spell roll to deal 5d6 damage.

    Will magic be a 'trained only' ability i.e. it requires a talent before you can cast spells?

    1. Thanks, matey. Exactly what I was thinking for solo games. I think magic will only be used by 'magic user' classes. These will be introduced in USR: Fantasy

    2. Stuart echoes my thoughts exactly. I can not say it any

  2. I also like a freeform magic system but I am not so sure that I like the prerequisites proposed:

    In my opinion a magic-user in the classic fantasy genre should be able to rely on his advanced spells during combat, e. g. firing magic missiles etc. If that always requires two minutes of chanting or cutting oneself, no magic user will ever be able to use it effectively in combat, since most combats are over in two minutes. Let's just assume a combat round lasts about 4-6 seconds in in-game time, two minutes can be up to 20 rounds of combat. That's one magic missile every 20 rounds or so.

    But I do agree that you need some form of limiting magic. D&D uses either spells per day or encounter/daily spells, other systems use some form of arcane energy measured in points that are expended with every spell cast etc. To keep it light and simple and in the spirit of USR I would propose something along the following:

    Every magic user can make a number of casting rolls per day equal to his die type in wits. So a 1d10 Wits mage can make up to 10 rolls per day. Minor spells however can be cast without expending a roll (even though you still have to roll of course). Note that I say rolls, not successful castings. So if I decide to always go for major spells, I will probably end up expending a few rolls before I am successful, limiting my number of successful spells per day. If I go for advanced spells, I will be able to cast more. Let's look at the numbers. Assume 1d10 wits and a +1 implement I will be able to make 10 casting rolls per day. I have a 50% chance of succeeding at an advanced spell (roll of 6 or higher) which means statistically I can cast 5 such spells per day. I only have 20% to succeed at a major spell (9 or higher) which means statistically I will only be able to cast two of these per day burning my casting rolls. But that seems about right compared to the power level.
    For minor spells I might even consider allowing them to deal 1d2 points of damage to make sure that a mage can always do something magical during combat. So much for my two cents :-)

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