Roleplayer #24, June 1991

Up With Magic! Down With Magic!

How powerful should magic really be? There's no right answer; it depends on the campaign and on the world background. The standard GURPS rules offer a fairly generic treatment of magic. Some GMs will want to make the magic much stronger; some will want to weaken it. The system is designed for easy "tweaking."

Here are two articles dealing with ways to tweak the system. One makes it far more powerful; one limits the power of existing mages. Naturally, we had to present them together . . .

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That's Powerful Stuff!

Making Magic Even Stronger

by Brian Mackintosh

In many game systems and novels, mages are presented as extremely powerful. True, most of these mages are experts in their field and have been studying for years. Even so, some magic settings just can't be converted to GURPS . . . they are just too different. Settings like "Thieves' World" introduce us to magicians who can maintain over a hundred spells at a time. Such power is not impossible in GURPS, but it is out of the reach of PCs built on any reasonable number of points. This article presents suggestions for the GM who wants to increase the potential power of magic-wielders.

Why would there be a need for magic which is so powerful? Mostly for variety. It allows different settings to be re-created and it even allows magic in non-fantasy settings. One of the main reasons behind this article is to allow effective combat magic in a campaign for GURPS Cyberpunk, or any other futuristic campaign where any small pistol can outmatch the power of mages. Remember: A soldier can empty his assault rifle in less then two combat rounds, before a standard magic-user could get his fireball properly warmed up. For a mage to match that performance, he should be able to concentrate for less than a round and produce a 3-die fireball!

If more powerful magic is to be "point-balanced" with the rest of the system as it stands, Magery would have to be made much more expensive. However, the whole point of this article is to change the balance . . . to make Magery far more valuable and devastating. So think twice before you raise the price of Magery or require some incredible Unusual Background, or you may defeat the whole purpose of introducing powerful magic.

There are three easy ways to make mages more powerful simply by juggling numbers. You can lower the energy cost to cast spells, reduce time needed to cast spells, and make energy do more for the spell user.

These are suggestions for customizing the Spell List for such a world . . .

Energy Cost

Go down the Spell List and reduce the energy of most spells by 1 or 2. Where the cost is already 1, make it ½ – yes, now half-points of fatigue are allowed.

Time to Cast

The time to cast spells should also be reduced by 1 or 2 seconds, or more if the GM feels the need. Spells which already take only one second to cast may now be cast instantly. For spells where time depends on energy spent, only 1 second is needed per 2 energy points. For instance, a fireball with 2 energy points would take a second of concentration; on the next second the spell would be ready. This should allow mages time to concentrate on a spell, make the roll, and use it all in the same round. Now a mage has a chance against an Uzi-wielding guard.

Increased Effect

For even more power, change the results of spells. Reduce the energy cost of area spells: to increase the area affected, the cost shouldn't double. Instead, raise it by 1 each time the area is enlarged, or ½ for a spell that now costs 1.

Increase the damage done by missile spells. For the Explosive Fireball, raise the damage to 3d per two points put into it. That damage is reduced by 1d per hex away from point of impact. The Fireball and Ice Sphere should be increased to 3d per point of energy. The Ice Dagger and Lightning should do 3d-1 damage per point of energy. Stone Missile will now do 3d+1 per point of energy spent. For Poltergeist the damage should be as follows; for one energy point (object up to 10 lbs.) 3d damage, and for two energy points (up to 50 lbs.) 5d damage. Winged Knife damage should not change. Note: Missile spells are still only allowed to have a maximum of three energy points put into them.

Learning Spells

In a world where magic is very powerful and common, learning spells should be relatively easy. For mages who take Magery 2 or 3' all spells are reduced by one level of difficulty.

When spell levels become high enough, or if they are low enough the bonuses on pages 7 and 8 of GURPS Magic still apply. Highly adept mages can now learn spells easily and cast them with alarming frequency.

Limiting the Powerful Mage

GMs who use these rules in a fantasy campaign will find that the mages are the rulers! In a modern campaign, powerful mages will be able to compete with Rambos without needing their own Uzis. Still, there are ways to keep the spell-slingers from taking over entirely, without revoking the bonuses you've gone to so much trouble to give them.

The easiest limitation is the "cold iron" theory, in which all magic is suppressed by the presence of iron. For instance:

-5 to spells for iron in the same hex, down to -1 for iron 5 hexes away;
Spell-use forbidden if the mage is carrying iron – even as much as a needle;
Spell use at -1 for each pound of iron carried by the target;
Illusions are automatically destroyed by the touch of iron;
Iron does double damage against any magical creature or creation.
The GM could even expand this to plastics or other man-made fabrics. Thus, a mage will have the full use of his powers only if he lives primitively . . . and he can't carry the fight to high-tech surroundings.

Or the world could be one in which magic is very archaic and there are very few remnants of it around. In GURPS terms, the number of available spells is drastically limited. A mage will be able to learn every spell that his teachers know, and still have "room" for more – if he could find them.

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I Hated Them, So I Killed Them

Limiting Mages Without Mass Murder

by Stu Venable, Jr.

This essay is dedicated to all the mages who wandered through my campaigns, only to be killed in the middle of the night by a silent assassin or in the middle of the day by an invisible swordsman. They didn't deserve to die, but I hated them, so I killed them.

As a GURPS enthusiast often thrust into the position of Game Master, I do constant battle with those players who always play mages. A continual debate goes on (usually with me on one side and everyone else on the other) regarding the power of mages. I believe that even low-level mages are too powerful. Others in my group feel that a 100-point fighter could easily defeat a 100-point mage. But with the right combination of spells, a good player, and fair die rolls, the mage could, in my opinion, beat just about anything within reason.

For this reason, I offer the following tips to fellow GMs. I do not want to make playing a mage less fun. On the contrary, I hope to make mages more challenging and to allow a better game for all involved. If I'd had all these techniques at hand, I could have dealt with the problem without resorting to mass slaughter.

Know your mages' grimoires. On several occasions, I have had to curtail entire adventures because one mage had just the right spell for the circumstances. Knowing your mages' potential can be very helpful for coming up with challenging adventure possibilities. Mages should normally be able to assist the party in its efforts, but they should not be able to solve major problems by casting one spell. Very often, however, it is difficult to know every spell a mage has. A 125-point mage could have three pages of grimoire. But do your best to be aware of your mages' potential.

Limit starting spells. This is one of the easiest and most effective ways of limiting the power of mages. In my campaign, I have a general rule that mages can only take spells from the GURPS Basic Set. Other spells need strict GM approval. Enforced properly, this rule can help keep the mages balanced with the rest of the party.

Limit the number of mages. With a finite number of points, one mage can't know too many "annoying" spells (those that cause game balance problems). However, two mages can know twice as many, and three mages three times as many. Not long ago, I discovered that over half the players in my group were playing mages. By the next week, all but three were dead (the PCs, not the players). Now I am the first to admit that I should have limited the number of mages before it got this bad, but I was remiss in my duties and had to kill them during play instead of during creation. In my world, one person in 100 has Magery. For every 100 people with Magery 1, one will have Magery 2, and of 100 of those, one will have Magery 3. But 50 percent of my party had Magery 3. That statistical probability seemed astronomical, so I felt justified in the purge. Mages are a rare thing; they should be mysterious and feared, and they should be valuable members of a party, a commodity worth protecting. Mages have a tendency to receive the respect they deserve when they don't come cheap.

These tips can be helpful either if a new mage is entering the group or if you are starting a new campaign. But if you already have powerful mages in a campaign in progress, here are more ways to keep the game in balance.

Know the magic system and spells. In my group, the biggest problem I run into is the overuse and abuse of certain spells. For example, at one time all of the mages in my party had Apportation. They would cast it on a foe and watch him float straight up at a speed of one hex per turn. When the spell was finished (one minute later), the poor guy was 60 yards in the air, at which point he would fall to the ground and usually die.

After reading the spell in GURPS Magic, I discovered that Apportation is a regular spell, which means that there is a -1 penalty for each hex between the subject and the mage. Did you know that? I didn't. (Editor's note: Apportation would also require constant concentration for constant movement. Mister Pick-Them-Up-And-Drop-Them could only deal with one foe at a time this way. Though lifting someone a mere 5 yards and leaving them parked there for the next minute would be a good move, too!)

Knowing exactly how a troubling spell works can solve many game-balance problems. If a spell is being used for the quick, foolproof removal of a foe, it is probably being misused.

Change a spell. Being GM is a wonderful thing – as long a you have good reason and are consistent, you can do anything you want to your world. This includes changing the way spells work. Adding a resistance roll to Apportation helped make dropping a fighter from the sky less certain and thus less enticing.

Create your own counterspells. This is a nice little trick I like to play on mages every once in a while. One of our PCs had Teleport at a high enough level so that he could teleport without a turn of concentration. So I put him up against another powerful mage who had a spell I had invented: Teleport Tracer. Much to the player's surprise, his opponent kept popping up next to him. Creating counterspells keeps an element of uncertainty in magical adventures. It's a good idea to document these counterspells because the mages in your group will invariably want to search them out and have them.

Take away the spell. I have never done this, and it is definitely a last resort. But if the abuse goes too far and you can make your Will roll to avoid killing your mages outright . . .

I must again stress that these tips are not designed to cripple mages. Your mages, like all other members of the party, must feel like they are play a meaningful role in the party's adventures. Otherwise, those who want to play mages will become discouraged – or they may just quit. Keep it balanced, and it will be more fun for everyone.

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