Designer's Notes: GURPS Fantasy

by William H. Stoddard

GURPS Fantasy has the same name as one of the very earliest GURPS supplements: the one that introduced the world of Yrth as a standard setting for fantasy campaigns. But its concept is entirely different. Essentially, it's an entirely new book. It was meant to do for fantasy what GURPS Space had done for science fiction: offer a guide to developing new campaigns in its genre, without being tied to any specific setting or campaign concept.

But doing that job meant that, in some ways, it had to be a different style of book. Science fiction is set in the real world; even if it's in "a galaxy far, far away," it's supposed to have the same natural laws that apply here and now -- or a reasonable extrapolation from those laws. Fantasy isn't tied to natural law at all. A fantasy writer can make up a different world, with a different set of laws, as long as it allows him to tell good stories.

The stories are what's important. People have been telling stories ever since the first language was spoken, and a lot of things keep turning up in different stories, over and over. Cultures all over the world have legends about dragons and ghosts, shapeshifters and faeries, magical spells and mysterious omens. They capture our imaginations. So a fantasy roleplaying game has to be able to capture all of them in its rules.

I wanted to offer a comprehensive look at the possibilities of fantasy gaming. Existing fantasy games were one of my reference points. But they weren't the only one. I wanted a book that could be used to create a campaign based on myths, legends, and folklore, or on the latest novel or film. So when I worked out rules and game mechanics, I was constantly thinking about all this material, and asking myself, "Can the rules of GURPS do this? Is there a way to tweak them so they will?"

Writing this was a long process, long enough so that GURPS started down the road to a new edition while I was working on it. GURPS Fantasy ended up being the first supplement to the new edition. Making everything fit the new rules was a demanding job; it would have been impossible if Sean Punch and David Pulver hadn't been infinitely patient with my questions and confusions. But it was also rewarding. The new rules took a lot of haphazard improvisations from past supplements and put them all together into a much more coherent system, one flexible enough to do almost anything. Writing GURPS Fantasy gave me a chance to figure out some of what it could do.

Of all the things I worked on, the most challenging was the treatment of magic. Standard GURPS magic is designed to make mages effective in combat. This style of magic is very common in roleplaying games, all the way back to the first appearance of Dungeons & Dragons. But it's not the only style in fantasy, or even in fantasy gaming. Treatments with different assumptions can be found in games such as Mage: The Ascension, Ars Magica, Amber, and various games based on fantasy books or films. For GURPS Fantasy to be generic and universal, it had to provide ways of handling many different styles of magic. At the same time, I didn't want to make up a lot of new systems, or even one new system; that would have been reversing one of the main design goals of the Fourth Edition, one that its authors struggled hard to accomplish. So I explored three main paths to alternate magic systems: adding optional boosters to the core system; changing one of the assumptions of the core system; or taking a different system that already existed in GURPS, and interpreting it as a form of magic. For example, interpreting psionics as magic gave me the concept of trance magic, usable by shamans, yogis, and people from similar traditions.

But for reasons of space, I discussed such variations at a somewhat abstract level. I had ideas for more detailed variants of magic, based on specific cultural traditions, but not enough space for all of them, even in a 240-page book. So here's one of the ideas I didn't have room for: a treatment of the supernatural in medieval European terms, focused on priests and other holy people. Medieval Europe, and fantasy worlds modeled on it, including Yrth in the forthcoming GURPS Banestorm, are still the most common setting for fantasy campaigns. A GM who wants a more mystical Yrth, or an original fantasy campaign with clerics can borrow this material. It illustrates how to apply some of the magic system design approaches that GURPS Fantasy discusses, and how to fit them to a specific type of story setting and image of the supernatural.

In a medieval European campaign, the dominant form of Christianity will usually be Roman Catholicism, or something parallel to it. Any treatment of the supernatural needs to be compatible with Catholic theological ideas, as developed by such thinkers as St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Pierre Abelard, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Here are three different: "clerical magic" systems that work within that framework: a directly religious treatment of the supernatural, a synthesis of religious and magical approaches in a school of Christian white magic, and a Christian spirit magic tradition of calling on angelic aid.

The Operation of the Church

The Roman Catholic Church is a vast administrative hierarchy, with a system of internal ranks. Being granted one of these ranks is called ordination. The ceremony of ordination must be performed by a bishop. Anyone who has been ordained has a Religious Rank. Priests are Religious Rank 3 and above, up to the Pope, who is Religious Rank 8. Deacons are Religious Rank 2, and various minor orders are Religious Rank 1. It's also possible to devote one's life to prayer and worship, as a monk or nun, without being ordained; treat this as Clerical Investment (in effect, Religious Rank 0).

The primary function of the church is to perform religious rites. Catholic doctrine distinguishes two kinds of rituals through which divine grace can be granted: sacraments and sacramentals. The distinction is akin to the one in the GURPS Basic Set between two versions of the Symbol Drawing skill (p. 224). A sacrament is inherently effective because God promised that it would be. A sacramental is effective because God chooses to respond to certain kinds of appeals instituted by the church.

There are seven recognized sacraments, all said to have been performed by Christ during his ministry: baptism, confirmation, communion (or the Eucharist), penance, matrimony, ordination, and extreme unction (sometimes called last rites). These basically affect the legal and theological relationship between the worshiper, the church, and God. Many of them serve as "rites of passage." Because they're divinely ordained, an ordinary failure doesn't prevent them from working; the benefit of a successful Religious Ritual roll is that the congregation is moved by the ritual, seeing it as a sign of God's presence. On an ordinary failure, the congregation is not moved. On a critical failure, some necessary element of the ritual was omitted, and the sacrament was not actually performed. As a rule, this should only apply under stressful circumstances; regularly performed rituals would have +5 to effective skill and normally would not require a skill roll at all.

There are not a fixed number of sacramentals; the church can institute new ones. But there are several standard categories: benedicens, or blessings; confessus, or public admission of sin; dans, or giving alms; edens, or meals; orans, or prayer; and tinctus, or the use of fluids such as holy water and consecrated oil. A failed Religious Ritual roll means that the sacramental was ineffective, but again, standard rituals give +5 to effective skill and don't normally require skill rolls.

One important sacramental for game purposes is exorcism, or the casting out of demons. This is classed under orans. Any priest can attempt an exorcism; the skill of Exorcism defaults to Religious Ritual-3 or Theology-3. Some priests are specifically trained in Exorcism, and there is also a minor order of exorcists (Religious Rank 1). Exorcism is a Will-based skill, reflecting its dependence on faith; a failed Exorcism roll can lead to problems, as described in the GURPS Basic Set.

Sacramentals can also produce objects or substances with supernatural powers, such as holy water. Demons and monsters may be afraid of these, unable to approach them, or even subject to injury from contact with them. The blessing of a church and its grounds is a sacramental, which has these effects on the entire site, and raises its Sanctity Level (discussed in GURPS Fantasy as a parallel to Mana Level) from Normal to High.

Holy Powers

In addition to the normal operations of the church, certain people are strongly devoted to God and are granted special abilities in His service. In GURPS terms, they have True Faith. The benefits gained from True Faith fit into the same general categories as the sacramentals. However, they're not limited to fixed forms proclaimed by the church; they gain their power from the belief of the individual worshiper.

One thing that a person with True Faith can do is to bless other people. Such a blessing lasts until it's needed, but then is used up. One possible blessing would be one use of the Heroic Feats version of Blessed. Another is Armor of Faith, defined in GURPS Fantasy: a single use of defensive Luck, with a Pact requiring fulfillment of a minor vow (for example, paying for a mass of thanksgiving).

True Faith can also be used to pray for a miracle. Then the GM rolls for God's reaction. (Depending on the world, an actual miracle may require a Good, Very Good, or Excellent reaction.) Having True Faith grants +3 on this roll. What kind of place the prayer is offered in affects the outcome, with a modifier of 0 on consecrated ground, -1 in a hastily consecrated site, -2 on unconsecrated ground, or -3 in a ritually desecrated site. Contact with a holy relic gives an added +1.

(God can choose to grant other prayers as well, especially those made in holy places. GURPS Fantasy provides rules for this. But people who have a single prayer granted aren't set apart as saints.)

True Faith aids in the performance of exorcisms. An exorcist who doesn't have Blessed, Power Investiture, or True Faith is at -4 on his skill rolls. At the GM's discretion, being blessed by a person with True Faith can avoid this penalty for a single attempt at exorcism.

At the GM's discretion, True Faith may also aid in the performance of sacramentals, giving +4 to Religious Ritual rolls made under stressful circumstances.

Finally, many holy men also have one or more levels of Charisma. This can enhance their ability to move a congregation by performing a religious rite. It won't affect the chance of God answering their prayers; this sort of Charisma is a gift from God and can't be used to influence Him!

Christian White Magic

Christians may take up the practice of magic, as the lawful exercise of gifts granted to them by God. A Christian mage may even see magic as his calling, and Magery as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

This view of magic makes a distinction between black magic and white magic, akin to the Zoroastrian distinction between magia and goetia, or the arts of truth and illusion. Spells that reveal the truth, protect the innocent, heal the sick or injured, or command the real forces of nature are white. Spells that conceal the truth or create illusions, that affect only the senses, or that inflict harm or take away freedom or choice are black. Other spells can fall into both groups, depending on how they are used. Many Christian mages have a version of One-College Magery for white magic spells only; because there are only two "colleges," this is only a -10% limitation.

If Magery is a divine gift, it may be acquired and maintained through religious observance. Treat this as a Pact limitation, usually based on Disciplines of Faith (Mysticism) for -10% or Disciplines of Faith (Ritualism) for -5%. If the mage lapses in his devotions, he loses his ability to work magic -- unless he turns to a different source of power and makes a different sort of Pact!

For a more restrictive treatment, a mage may precede every session of spell-casting with a period of prayer. Until he has prayed, he can't work magic at all! Treat this as some version of the Preparation Required limitation.

Note that all of these cost reductions affect only the mage's levels of Magery, and not the basic Magery 0. However, if the mage fails to perform the required observances, he loses even the basic ability to cast spells provided by Magery 0. At the GM's option, he may retain the ability to perceive magic.

A Christian white wizard goes through a process of spiritual purification in casting spells, and is protected from the appearance of demons when the spell casting roll is a critical failure. At the GM's option, a Christian holy man may provide a one-time version of this protection by blessing a spell caster. As with protection from mundane harm, the blessing remains in force until the first time it is needed. Either sort of immunity is forfeit if the mage casts a spell that is classified as black magic.

Christian Spirit Magic

St. Paul wrote, "Do you not know that we shall judge angels?" and some Christians believed that it was possible to achieve supernatural powers by summoning angels to their aid. It's possible to create angels as characters using the Spirit meta-traits in the GURPS Basic Set or the expanded ones in GURPS Fantasy. But for most campaigns, this won't be needed. Angels won't actually appear on stage as allies; they'll remain in the background, invisibly or discreetly aiding their mortal allies.

In GURPS terms, this kind of relationship makes the angels into a Contact Group. The effective skills provided by this group are skills in dealing with the supernatural. Effective skill depends on how high in the hierarchy of angelic choirs the mage's appeals can reach: 15 for angels, archangels, or principalities, who deal mainly with human concerns; 18 for powers, virtues, and dominations, who deal with the natural order; 21 for thrones, cherubim, and seraphim, who deal mainly with God. Because angels of all types have supernatural knowledge, their base point value is increased by 1, to 3, 4, or 5 points, respectively. They are either usually or completely reliable; they will never lie. (Demonic contacts can never be better than somewhat reliable, which makes them less trustworthy.) They can't be bribed. So a very basic angelic relationship might grant effective skill 15 (3 points), be usually reliable (2 cost = 6 points), and be available on a 6 or less (1/2 = 3 points); a Contact Group providing such relationships would be worth 15 points.

Angelic contacts can provide information and answer questions. They can work small miracles, providing benefits at the Perk level. At the GM's discretion, a Christian spirit mage can ask the angels to protect another person, granting a one-shot equivalent of the Blessed advantage.

Some spirit mages may gain a greater benefit from their angelic relationships: the ability to "cast spells" by calling on the angels to intervene in the natural order. This is a form of Modular Abilities, with the Spells Only limitation (-20%). It works as a version of the Spirit Trapping form of the advantage, defined in GURPS Fantasy. Cost is 6 points base + 4 points per point of spell knowledge. Spells are gained from the spirit mage's angelic Contact Group. Only white magic spells can be learned from angelic Contacts; this is a -10% limitation on the Modular Abilities advantage. Prerequisites can be ignored, but the caster must still have either Magery (limited to white magic only) or Power Investiture.

Black Magic

If there's white magic, there must be black magic, and Christian mages may spend a good part of their time opposing various sorts of black magic. Black magic in a medieval setting can be portrayed as a blasphemous parody of white magic, with Satan in the place of God, devils in the place of angels, and lies in the place of Truth. Unlike angels, demons can be bribed, not by money, but by blood sacrifices or the opportunity to possess a mortal body. (Sacrifices have no effect on angels; the one sacrifice that counts for them was made at the Crucifixion.)

In the view of some medieval thinkers, rival faiths such as Islam and Judaism were forms of devil-worship, and Jews and Muslims will be idolaters and black magicians. Most GMs won't want that much authenticity! Other monotheisms can instead be treated as alternate paths to the same relationships with God and the angelic hierarchy.

Medieval Stories

What role can each of these approaches to clerical magic play in a campaign?

Holy powers are the basis for saintly characters. The expanded benefits of True Faith allow a Holy Man character type, who can cast out demons, protect others with blessings, and work a variety of miracles by praying for divine aid. This is the most freeform approach to the supernatural and needs GM judgment to make it work.

Christian spirit magic supports a view of the world in which angels are invisibly present and able to grant help when asked. This form of magic is much like what some real-world sorcerers thought they were doing, so it's good for a historically authentic campaign of ritual magic.

Christian white magic embodies a more technical view of magic. It represents magic as a skill, somewhere between a science and a craft, in a milieu where the practice of a craft can easily be taken as a religious vocation.

Combining holy powers with either spirit magic or white magic is straightforward. The holy man appeals to God directly; the spirit mage or white wizard casts spells and spends much of his time in study. Creating distinct roles for the latter two is a bit trickier. In most campaigns, it's better to pick one or the other: spirit magic if mages are supposed to communicate with the unseen, white magic if they're supposed to use it as a tool.

In addition to their use by player characters, such abilities can also be told of in the legends of a medieval setting. An entire medieval literary genre, hagiography, was devoted to the lives and miracles of saints. Churches can house relics of saints or be built on the sites of historically recorded miracles. And a lower-key religious influence can pervade daily life, with an occasional critical success or Excellent divine reaction to a prayer leading to a miracle.

This same approach can be used to develop GURPS versions of the magical arts of many other faiths. Hindu ascetics developing siddhis, Jewish rabbis practicing kabbalah, or voodoo houngans summoning the loa to their aid are all possible. Choosing the right set of options from the existing rules can represent such magic traditions in GURPS terms and encourage players to roleplay the form of magic that best suits a campaign and setting. Attaining this kind of match was one of the goals of GURPS Fantasy.

* * *

Many thanks to M. A. Lloyd for advice on the doctrinal content.




Article publication date: November 19, 2004


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