The Trappings of Technology

Enchantment for Low Fantasy and Techno-Magic for GURPS Fourth Edition

by Demi Benson

"Low fantasy magic is less a source of wonder than a toolkit."
--William H. Stoddard, GURPS Fantasy

GURPS Magic has good rules for emulating the flavor of high fantasy enchantment -- powerful enchantments take years of effort by wizards of legendary skill and the results remain perfectly powerful forever. However, that may not fit the feel of a low fantasy or techno-magic world where magic is a de facto technology. One way to easily distinguish magic from technology is: technological machines break down and wear out, magic doesn't.

If magic items last forever, as in standard high fantasy, the world should be inundated with the remains of apprentices' first Staffs, cheap Fireball wands, minorly enchanted swords, and scads of Powerstones, Purify Water hoops, Measurement gizmos, and Umbrella cloak-pins. If there is a chance the next band of adventurers wandering through town will have some ancient loot that matches close enough, there would be little impetus to order a new device and wait months or years for delivery. In such a world, magic items aren't technology, they're luxuries -- locking devices up in a vault increases the value, especially if everyone takes theirs out of circulation.

To adapt the GURPS enchantment system to better fit a low fantasy paradigm, we have to make some changes in how enchantment works. Mostly what we do is add options to allow for less powerful, even feeble, magic. The default GURPS enchantment system is compatible with the following rules and the two systems may co-exist in the game world.

Conventions Used in this Article

Creating the Enchantment

Why do the default rules require a skill of 15 to enchant? There is never any justification given. For low fantasy, allowing unskilled enchanters to produce ramshackle work fits the genre -- items are more likely to be made by Peter the Journeyman Enchanter than the High Elven Council of Wizards.

  1. There is no minimum skill level for enchanting. How else should a mage get experience in Enchant if not by using it? If the casting was a success, the item will work, regardless of skill level (but see Current Endurance, Resistance, Aging, and Activation below).
    1. There is no minimum level for leading a circle of enchanters. The same penalties apply -- a -1 to Effective Skill per assistant, and -1 for other people nearby (see page 17) -- but Effective Skill may be as low as the leader is willing to risk.
    2. For assisting a Quick & Dirty enchantment, the Effective Skill is the lowest Effective Skill of all involved. Penalties are subtracted from the leader's skill level.
  2. No minimum Endurance level for created items. A cheap item may deliberately have Endurance less than 15 or the enchanter may not yet be skilled enough to produce better work.
  3. An item's initial Endurance level is set to its Maximum Endurance. Current Endurance can always go down and can be boosted back to its starting level with the right spell (see Repair Enchantment under New Enchantment Spells below), but you can't make a weak item into a strong item.

Current Endurance, Resistance, Aging, and Activation

These are the changes that give magic items the veneer of technology -- being worn down through use and age.

  1. An item's Current Endurance is used when resisting other spells.
  2. Items need to roll vs. their Current Endurance once per year to avoid aging, unless under the effect of Slumbering Enchantment (see New Enchantment Spells below).
    1. A success by 1 or more means the item is unaffected by aging for this year.
    2. A success by 0 means the item has gained a temporary quirk, which may be removed when the enchantment is repaired.
    3. On failure, the item loses one level of Current Endurance.
    4. On critical failure, it loses one level each of Current and Maximum Endurance and gains a permanent quirk.
  3. If an item's Current Endurance drops to 0, the enchantment is lost.
    1. At the GM's option, a leveled enchantment, such as Accuracy, may instead lose one level of enchantment. The reduced enchantment then has a Current and Maximum Endurance equal to the previous Maximum Endurance.
  4. All items with an active ability -- casting a spell, performing a function on a target -- have an activation roll equal to their Current Endurance. If the activation roll fails, treat this as a regular spell failure.
    1. An activation failure may be retried after the spell's normal casting time. e.g. an Alarm item could try again every second until it succeeds, a Turn Blade bracelet could only try against a single attack per turn, a Glued area would try once per person per hex.
    2. Items without any active effect -- such as many armor and weapon enchantments, Tangle Growth, a Fireproofed area -- never make an activation roll.
    3. To introduce this rule to an ongoing game, the GM may decide that an item with a Power of 15 or higher does not need to roll. This will allow preexisting items to be used as-is.
  5. An item with Power of 2 or lower stops working completely (but still needs to make yearly aging rolls). It retains an aura of enchantment and it can be repaired back to full strength with the proper spell (see Repair Enchantment under New Enchantment Spells below).

So How Long Does It Take?

Items with high Endurance are unlikely to fail the aging roll. Anything with an Endurance of 16 or higher will regular fail on a roll of 17 and critical fail on an 18. An item with Maximum Endurance of 20 will be reduced to a Current Power of 15 (the lowest of high-priced magic) in between 150 and 390 years with an average of 270 years; each level averages 54 years between reductions. Maybe the long maintenance interval is why high-power wizards enchant up to 20 Endurance when they can. A reduction from 15 (a decent Endurance for a pricey item) to 10 (barely suitable for adventurers) would be between 21 and 69 years, averaging 45. On the downward slide, a reduction from Endurance 10 to 5 (a nearly useless item) would be between 5 and 9 years, averaging 7.

Critical failures do not affect these numbers, although they will reduce how well the item can be repaired.

Improvements -- Skill, Energy, and Endurance

Enchanters may fine-tune Effective Skill, energy cost to create, and Maximum Endurance to suit their needs. An unskilled mage with extra available power could use Energy for Skill to raise his Effective Skill, while a highly skilled mage may use Skill for Energy to quickly finish an item. Obviously, Energy for Skill and Skill for Energy may not both be used together.

  1. Tradeoff: Energy for Skill works as normal (see Ceremonial Magic, page 12). The tradeoff is: +1 for an excess of 20% energy, +2 for for 40%, +3 for 60%, +4 for 100%, and a further +1 for each further 100% energy. This is the only way to raise Maximum Endurance level above a caster's normal Effective Skill level.
  2. Tradeoff: Skill for Energy. Mages may double the effective energy being channeled into an enchantment by taking a -4 penalty to Effective Skill (and therefore also to Maximum Endurance level). Triple energy for -8, and quadruple for -12. Yes, this means that high-energy, short-lived items can be created very quickly. The actual tradeoff is as follows: -1 to skill gives +25% energy; -2 gives +50%; -3 gives +75%; -4 gives +100%; these are additive.
  3. Tradeoff: Power for Skill. An enchanter may get a bonus to Effective Skill (+1, +2, etc.) by taking the same size penalty to an item's final Power level (-1, -2, etc.); e.g. a caster with effective skill 14 may increase his Effective Skill by +4 (to 18) by taking a -4 penalty to the item's Maximum Endurance (it will have Maximum Endurance of 10). This makes lower-power items a virtual success for highly skilled enchanters.

Example: Arenka is a journeyman enchanter making Alarm baubles. She has a 12 in Enchant and a 14 in Alarm, for an Effective Skill of 12. Since she's practicing, she wants to spend little time on this project -- she puts in only minimal effort to ensure the result lasts a long time. The Alarm enchantment costs 60 energy so Arenka enlists the help of an apprentice named Gil (Effective Skill of 11). Arenka decides to speed up the process by trading Skill for Energy at -3 for +75% energy. This brings the energy cost down -- 60 / 1.75 = 34.3, rouded up to 35 -- and her Effective Skill to 8. Then she decide to improve the odds by trading Power for Skill at +/- 2, boosting her skill roll to 10. Arenka and Gil spend the hour enchanting, and she makes the roll dead on. Arenka spends 10 FP and 9 points from her Powerstone and Gil spends 10 FP and 8 points from a borrowed Powerstone. The new item has a Maximum Endurance of 6, and probably won't last more than five years.

Offsetting Penalties

Enchantment using an appropriately tuned magic crystal can offset a caster's enchantment penalties. A +1 crystal is quite common, a +2 is somewhat common, a +3 is hard to find, and +4 or higher is very rare. These will not increase an item's Maximum Endurance, but will allow penalties to be negated. See Attune Crystal, below.

A possible source of crystals is the Crystal Fields, from "Aulos -- City in the Sky" where the crystals are specifically mentioned to be harvested as magical adjuncts.

For examples of crystals and gemstones with some notes on their historic associations, see "Appendix Z: Shiny! -- Random Gemstone Table."

The article "Magic Ingredients Revisited -- Spell Ingredients for GURPS" lists ingredients by college; many include gemstones or crystals.

Optional Rule: Wizard War

By allowing Linking spells to be used with Missile spells (contrary to page 131), and allowing those Links to be used in Temporary Enchantments (page 56), Spell Stones (page 60), or Spell Arrows (page 65), magic-based bombs, missiles, mines, and grenades can be created. Because a single-use Temporary Enchantment costs only 15% of the usual amount, they may be created quite cheaply.

Optional Rule for "Unlimited Mana"

For Slow and Sure enchantment, mages may put any amount of energy into an enchantment every day. Putting in the default Recovery Rate amount (8 points) every day is the minimum to qualify as a professional enchanter. A master enchanter could put in far more.

For any type of enchantment, if Threshold is exceeded at any time during casting, in addition to regular Calamity Table effects the caster must immediately roll vs. his adjusted Enchant skill level -- any failure means the enchantment has failed completely and the caster must start over from the very beginning; a success means the item is only quirked (severity depends on how much Thresh was exceeded), a critical success means no negative effects happen this time.

This option will greatly reduce the price per point of energy for enchantment (by a factor of at least 8).

New Enchantment Spells

Repair Enchantment


Allows the target enchantment's Current Endurance to be repaired by 1 level per casting, up to the enchantment's Maximum Endurance. The caster must know the spell being enchanted at 10 or higher; effective skill level is the lower of Repair Enchantment and the target spell.

If the caster is not repairing a power level, then temporary quirks (but not permanent ones) can be removed at base skill but reduced energy and casting time; the caster must know which quirk is targeted for removal (for example, by a previous use of Analyze Magic, or by discovering the quirk through use). Quirks can be removed at the same time as repairing a power level for no extra energy by taking a -2 to skill, or at no penalty but energy cost +25%.

The caster is at +1 to skill for every 2 full levels of base skill above the enchantment's Current Endurance, and at -1 for every level of base skill below the enchantment's Current Endurance.

Area enchantments may be repaired as the entire original area at once. If a smaller area is repaired, from then on that smaller area is considered a separate enchantment.

Duration: Permanent

Energy Cost: 1/20 the target enchantment's energy cost, with a further x1/4 if only a temporary quirk is being removed and no power levels are being repaired. This cost is not reduced for high skill. Minimum cost is 1 point.

Time to Cast: One minute per point of energy cost, or the casting time of the target enchantment's basic spell, if it has one, whichever is greater. Minimum casting time is 1 minute.

Prerequisites: Enchant 10+, target enchantment 10+

Age Enchantment


Forces an immediate aging roll for a target enchantment if the target fails a Resistance roll versus this spell.

The GM may change the prerequisite of Remove Enchantment to this spell.

Duration: Instantaneous

Cost: 10 or 1/100 of the cost to place the enchantment originally, whichever is more.

Time to cast: 1 minute

Prerequisite: Enchant

Attune Crystal


This spell prepares a crystal or gemstone to efficiently channel the magical energies of enchantment. Most such crystals will be of low quality (providing a penalty offset of +1 or +2), limited in ability (to one College or one spell), or both.

A crystal capable of being used in any enchantment and with a penalty offset of +1 would be worth $50; quadruple price for each additional +1 (i.e. $200 for +2, $800 for +3, $3200 for +4). Price for a limited crystal is x0.8 for a single-college, and x0.4 for a single group of spells. Price savings are not great because the sellers can usually find someone who wants that specific type. However, prices are subject to considerable differences based on supply and demand.

Cost: 30 for a penalty offset of +1, double for each additional +1 (i.e. 60 for +2, 120 for +3, 240 for +4). Cost is x1/2 for a crystal that only affects spells of a single magical College (e.g. Fire spells); and x1/3 for a crystal tuned to affect a single spell and close derivatives (e.g. Fireball/Explosive Fireball, Light/Continual Light/Shape Light). This may be recast as per Accuracy as long as the crystal's quality is suitable to hold a higher attunement.

Prerequisite: Enchant

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Slumbering Enchantment


As Suspend Enchantment, this spell deactivates an enchantment, allowing it to be stored without requiring yearly aging rolls. Use the modifier from Suspend Enchantment (page 58) for attempts to study or detect slumbering enchantments.

When cast as a spell, this must be cast on each enchantment individually. Slumbering Enchantment must win a Quick Contest against the target's Current Endurance. If this fails, the mage pays full energy cost, but may immediately try again.

When enchanted into a device, the caster sets a time interval. If the device has not been used for a period equal to the time interval, Slumbering Enchantment will attempt to deactivate all enchantments in the device -- only an uncontested activation roll is needed. If the activation roll fails, Slumbering Enchantment will attempt activation after another time interval has passed. Slumbering Enchantment may also be triggered by a user to attempt deactivation immediately.

As an enchantment, this spell also deactivates itself -- aging rolls are only made if the device is not yet slumbering.

Duration: Permanent until Awakened

Cost: If cast as a spell, 10 or 1/100 of the cost to place the enchantment originally, whichever is more. As an enchantment, cost is 40 or 1/50 of the cost to place all the affected enchantments originally, whichever is more.

Time to cast: see Enchanting (page 16)

Prerequisite: Suspend Enchantment

Awaken Enchantment


This reactivates a suspended or slumbering enchantment. Against Suspend Enchantment, this spell must win a Quick Contest. Against Slumbering Enchantment, only a regular success roll is needed.

Duration: Instantaneous

Cost: 4 or 1/10 the cost of the spell to be overcome, whichever is greater.

Time to cast: see Enchanting (page 16)

Prerequisites: Enchant and Detect Magic

What to do without Awaken Enchantment?

As GM, you decide to introduce these rules to your ongoing game. Obviously, none of the PCs will know Awaken Enchantment. What should your hardy adventurers do if they find a cache of slumbering magical goodies, but no one knows how to wake them? To fit with fantasy tropes, the solution should be available to even the magically ungifted: Impose their will upon the object and reawaken its quiescent magic.

The PC must win a Quick Contest of Will versus the Slumbering Enchantment's Current Endurance each day for a number of days equal to the activation cost. Every 10 character points in magical advantages (GM's call, although Magery certainly counts) gives a +1 bonus to Will, as does having any points in either Enchant or Detect Magic. In Low Mana regions, there is a -5 penalty. A regular success adds one day to the total, while a regular failure adds nothing. A critical success immediately activates the item. A critical failure means the PC can never overcome that particular enchantment unless he increases his adjusted Will and tries again from the start.

The character need not realize that the device is enchanted, but must use, wear, or study it and must believe that it is special -- believing a sword is well-made and worthy of a hero would allow a Will roll, but pocketing a pretty ring just because it's pretty would not. If the character is not actively attempting to awaken the item, the GM may roll in secret. As success draws near, the GM may give the PC hints of its true power or feelings of immanent comprehension -- "Every night after work you've gazed upon the strange statuette, wondering who made it. Every night you feel closer to understanding why the grotesque figure reaches upwards. One night understanding comes to you in a dream . . . but as you wake, the dream fades and with it your understanding."

Each character may attempt to mentally overcome only one Slumbering Enchantment at a time.

Example: A group of adventurers have explored The Lost City of the Ancients and discovered a hidden trove of items. Suspecting the items are magical, Sasha the Wise casts Detect Magic on an amulet (at a -5 penalty as per page 58) and finds a glimmer of magic. Curious, Sasha keeps the amulet with her and spends many of her free hours wondering what it does. Every night the GM rolls the Slumbering Enchantment's Current Endurance (a 12) versus Sasha's Will (a 14) plus +3 for Magery 2 and points in Detect Magic (an adjusted Will of 17). The amulet has only one small spell in it, and Slumbering Enchantment was cast as a spell for 10 energy. Sasha fails three times and succeeds ten times -- after nearly two weeks, the amulet awakens and she notices that the enchantment seems stronger and easier to analyze.

Meanwhile, her companion Ragnar the Barbarian found an excellent sword, which he declared worthy of a hero such as himself. Ragnar does not believe or care that it is enchanted, but he keeps the sword with him at all times and is very proud of it. The ancient sword has Penetrating Weapon 3, Accuracy +2, Puissance +1, and Shatterproof for a cost of 2400 energy; the Slumbering Enchantment cost 48 energy and has a Current Endurance of 13. Ragnar's Will of 11 has only a slim chance of success every day -- most days the roll fails. The GM doesn't want to roll every single day's contest, and decides that since Ragnar isn't actively trying to awaken the sword, there is no chance of critical success or failure: timeframe is the number of energy points divided by the odds of success -- Ragnar will awaken the sword in 474 days.

Article publication date: August 4, 2006

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