View Full Version : Best Engaging, Non-Setting-Specific Magic Systems?

2016-07-26, 05:12 PM
So, I recently got into a Puella Magi Madoka Magica RPG. Quite in-depth, and I actually like its combat and corruption systems a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Small Big problem though... It's a system entirely designed for playing magical girls, but with a painfully average subsystem for the actual magic, which just groups magic into a handful of categories and gives you about five cut-and-dry spells per category. Now, these spells occasionally have fun/interesting effects, but there's no player input or variability whatsoever, and it doesn't give players nearly the sheer quantity of spells to try and get away with that like D&D does. (I still don't think D&D gets away with it completely because its magic system is just terrible, but I digress.)

So what are some games with fun and engaging magic systems that offer enough to provide characters of any given type enough options to carve out their own unique niches? I don't mind having to cludge in a corruption subsystem - it sounds way easier than coming up with a whole magic system - but I'd also hope it does combat well or else I'll have a similar issue all over again. Ideally they should also be systems that give guidelines for creating enemies rather than relying wholly upon pregenerated beasties, but if I have to put in a lot of extra effort to create monsters without any guidelines in the rules it'll still probably be dozens of times easier than trying to make a good magic system by myself so I'll look at stuff without that feature as well.

For obvious reasons, as the title says, the magic system can't be tied too heavily to the setting, since I'm going to need to be able to use it for the Puella Magi Madoka Magica universe.

I don't mind spending some money, but you'll have to, ahem, sell it to me well, pun intended, since I probably won't find much use for even otherwise-fantastic systems if they don't meet my needs here.

What've you guys got for me?

2016-07-26, 07:28 PM
Exalted 3rd Edition has a pretty great one. I suppose it's technically setting specific, but since there are a lot of ways to get the ability to use sorcery in the setting, there are only a few bits here and there that can't be applied to just about any other setting (like the specifics of demon summoning, or how the "circles" (tiers) of sorcery are limited). Also, the fact that it's built on the assumption that you'll only be casting big spells, and mostly doing so out-of-combat may prove problematic. But regardless, you can probably take some inspiration from it.

But anyways, how it works:

Every spell has a cost in "sorcerous motes" (referencing "motes of essence," those being the resource used to activate any kind of magical ability in Exalted - so including supernatural martial arts and innate powers), Unlike the costs for other things, you don't pay for this with motes from your Essence Pool, you gather them as part of a "Shape Sorcery" Action. Basically, you roll (Intelligence + Occult) (runs on the Storyteller system, so dice pools), and the result is the number of sorcerous motes you've gathered that round. The casting of the spell completes when you gather enough motes to pay for the cost, so how long it takes to cast a spell is actually dependant upon the character's stats. It often takes multiple rounds to cast a spell, hence what I said about it assuming you'll only be casting "big" spells.

Now, there are also something called "shaping rituals," which modify the Shape Sorcery action in some way (usually, giving you free motes to speed casting in certain circumstances). You start off with one, representing how you learned sorcery, and can unlock new ones through roleplay or progression in Sorcery. Examples of shaping rituals include absorbing fire in the area for extra motes, or, my favorite, drawing power from feeling of unrequited love towards the character (again, for free motes).

There's also a system of "Sorcerous Workings," which is probably too complex to explain in full here. Basically, it's a system for modeling those one-time feats of sorcery that aren't worthy of their own subsystems, like creating a golem as a servant or changing a regions climate (Exalted operates on a very high power level compared to most systems) or creating magical traps to secure a structure. Basically, you make an extended (Intelligence + Occult) roll, with the specifics depending on the Working's "Ambition" (how big it is), "Finesse" (how specific and fine you want the result to be), and "Means" (what you have to help you complete it). You also have to spend some experience to do it. By the way, this system goes all the way up to permanently changing the laws of physics of the entire universe in what it provides as example "Ambition" ratings.

Honestly, it's probably my favorite magic system in any game system.

2016-07-26, 08:00 PM
Two options to toss out.

The paladium system. Paladium as a system is very clunky but I always found its magic system was a highpoint. By manipulating circumstances (like having other aid, places of power, sacrificing living creatures (with extra points for newborn children)) magic user can cast spells at a level they could never do normally. The system is easy enough to adapt to a setting. Worth looking at for inspiration the least.

Now the nWoD Mage magic system is perhaps too adaptable but with a couple tweaks it may well work for you. It uses a mastery of eight major themes called spheres . . And five levels of mastery per sphere. Can learn normally safe spells if the prereqs are covered or can improv with ST/DM making sure that power levels match what the character actually has. Clever players can manipulate the hell out the system if they are clever but if you pull up the reins early it may be adaptable to your game.

2016-07-26, 09:58 PM
I'm currently running (or at least trying) a low-level urban fantasy game where the PCs have versatile but not very powerful specific powers, and we tried to use Fate Core to do it.

Basically, we have a custom skill called "Sphere" which is the IC name of the magic power, and you can use the skill as how you'd use usual Fate skills (e.g, creating aspects) but NOT actually attacking except if you buy specific stunts. And each spheres are specific and seemingly very weak, like "sound control" or "weight control" and such, but with the premise of the system, it's up to the player's creativity on on how they'd use that specific skills.

2016-07-26, 11:38 PM
Exalted 3rd Edition has a pretty great one. I suppose it's technically setting specific, but since there are a lot of ways to get the ability to use sorcery in the setting, there are only a few bits here and there that can't be applied to just about any other setting (like the specifics of demon summoning, or how the "circles" (tiers) of sorcery are limited). Also, the fact that it's built on the assumption that you'll only be casting big spells, and mostly doing so out-of-combat may prove problematic. But regardless, you can probably take some inspiration from it.

I've read the core rules for Exalted's Second Edition and it doesn't at all work for what I'm trying to do here, but I've also heard that the third edition is astronomically different. In second edition, characters differentiated themselves through their Charms, and Sorcery as a whole was more often part of a particular character's shtick than a complex subsystem unto itself. Is Third Edition more diverse in that regard such that you could have a party full of characters whose primary thing is using Sorcery, fighting enemies whose main power will often be Sorcery, without them all feeling practically identical? If so, I'll definitely consider giving it a look, since the system sounds pretty good.

@Fri: Oh, that sounds pretty good! I've heard good things about Fate, though I've never given it a look since I don't do rules-light very often. If it's that malleable, though, it could be worth giving a shot.

2016-07-26, 11:57 PM
Ars Magica is a system one should check out if one has any interest in magic systems whatsoever.
Very detailed, solid rules which allow you to design spells easily plus a ton of premade spells. Within its limits it's extremely flexible and interesting. The limits and the mechanics are very much tied to the setting so it may not appropriate for all games, but it is hackable enough that you should be able to fiddle it to work for most purposes

2016-07-27, 12:37 AM
A non-setting-specific magic system isn't happening, by virtue of all magic systems being tied to settings to at least some degree. What might be doable though is a magic system that fits the PMMM setting. I'm not particularly familiar with it, but what little I do know is that there are discrete spells to some extent, there are also broader non-spell ways of doing magic, and large scale is generally not a problem. Given all that, high powered Ars Magica magic might be viable. Anima Prime might be usable as a system, although it's a bit weird in other respects.

2016-07-27, 01:04 AM
I've found Spheres of Power (Pathfinder RPG, 3rd party publisher Drop Dead Studios, there is a wiki with most of the mechanics for free) to be excellent, able to allow a wide variety of character and ability archetypes to operate at any level. You can have teleportation specialists, healers, time manipulators, blasters, shapeshifters, and a huge number of other things, and have their signature powers be available at level one, and all the powers are balanced at all levels (unlike normal3.5/pathfinder magic systems). There are a number of base classes that use the spheres, each with their own unique abilities and all of them are highly customizable. Except for some of the archetypes, it is entirely non-setting specific. If you want a versatile generic magic system, I'd look there.

2016-07-27, 03:59 AM
Well, put in a thread on the Ars Magica board to see if anybody else thinks we can cludge it into a Madoka Magica game. Let's see whether this thread dies without being noticed or crashes like the greatest trainwreck to ever post. There is no in between.

I'll also check out Spheres of Power! Though I'm extremely wary of anything even somewhat loosely based on D&D 3.5, so let's see if it beats my expectations.

Martin Greywolf
2016-07-27, 09:43 AM
Well, this is no easy dilemma. On one hand, Madoka has magic that can do literally anything and everything, on the other, there are some hard and fast rules behind it, especially with soul gems. Also there are discrete spells, which is a problem, too.

So, you need something infinitely modular, sort of magic as a skill, on the other, you need discrete spells.

The best thing I can come up with is to slightly modify FATE - keep the division of magic into those categories, all magical girls start with zero skill (so, they can cast, but not well) by default and can buy skill points as normal.

But, they need to invent spells. Spells are almost like stunts/perks, only you can have as many of them as GM allows, but they have fixed effect, and possibly fixed area. Every spell has a target roll you need to beat to cast it, some can be powered by FATE points.

Advantage: you can create whatever magical girl you like.

Disadvantage: it's not the most rigorous system by design, FATE puts DM and players on more of an even ground than most systems and isn't about the challenge of outplaying him, and that's not for everyone.

2016-07-27, 11:20 AM
I second Ars Magica

2016-07-28, 10:03 AM
I'm a fan of GURPS if I want to play a mage. If the GM is looking to run a specific kind of magic system, GURPS can do it, but the default system just...makes sense to me.

Each spell is learned individually, like a skill (e.g. you'd learn Fireball the same way you'd learn, say, shortsword). Most of the more powerful spells have prerequisite spells or abilities to learn them (e.g. in order to learn to cast a Fireball, you first need to know how to Create Fire in the first place); no spontaneous knowledge without knowing the basics first! Then, in order to cast a spell, you roll against your score in that spell and may or may not have to pay a fatigue cost, depending on how good at that spell you are; in addition, in many cases, the more skilled you are at casting a particular spell, the better the spell gets. The only limit on how often you can cast is how tired you are (i.e. how many FP you have), because casting spells is, well, exhausting. Being skill based, adverse conditions such as being on a ship in the midst of a storm, can make casting harder or easier (such as if you're in a high-magic zone).

The best thing about GURPS for a magic-based game is that it can be set up exactly the way you want it to. Want Vancian casting? You got it. Want something more freeform? GURPS will do that too. The system is otherwise very robust and caters to any style of play in at least a vaguely balanced manner on the proviso that everyone playing is on the same page. It's an easy system to break if you want to, so it's important to lay out the ground rules and expectations for that game before anyone gets carried away with their concept.