Roleplayer #19, April 1990

Improvisational Magic as the Only Magic

Alternate Spell Rules for GURPS Magic and GURPS Supers

by Steffan O'Sullivan

When I wrote the Improvisational Magic rules for GURPS Magic, I assumed that improvising a spell was the magical equivalent of the default system. Those rules allow a mage to improvise a spell at roughly the same odds a fighter would have of improvising an acrobatics maneuver he had never tried. The rules as written work very well from that standpoint: mages who are specialists can often improvise spells with about 50% chance of success. The system does shortchange generalists, though, perhaps unfairly.

Those rules also discourage the use of improvisational magic in combat. This was deliberate, as the threat of bodily injury diminishes one's ability to improvise. In addition, the GURPS advanced combat rules are already time-consuming. Since GMing "improv" requires some thought and page-flipping, it was decided that improvising combat spells would slow things down too much.

However, in the months that GURPS Magic has been out, there has been a lot of feedback from players who want to be able to improvise spells more quickly and surely. And now that GURPS Supers is recommending the technique, it is time for some rules on Improvisational Magic as the only magic in a gaming world. The current rules in GURPS Magic are fine for improvising in a world where the spell lists are known, but don't attempt to cover any other situation, unless you want to introduce Rune Magic.

The Rules for GURPS Magic

If Improvisational Magic is the only magic in a fantasy gaming world, some sections of Chapter 4 in GURPS Magic will need major changes. If something is not listed below, assume the improvisational rules in GURPS Magic still hold true.

Summary of Changes

There is no spell list. Instead, skill with a given Word is studied directly – see below. There are no memorized spells – as in Rune Magic, no specific combination may be perfected. Each casting is improvised, even if the desired results have been achieved before.

There are no prerequisites, except that the GM may require Magery 2 or 3 as a prerequisite for any given spell – see below.

There is no extra time to cast improvised spells. Most spells require only a second to cast – use GURPS Magic as a guideline. If a spell in Magic requires longer, so should the improvised version, unless it is significantly reduced in effectiveness.

There is no extra fatigue if Improvised Spells are the only magic system. Fatigue costs are the same as appropriate spells in Magic. Use the guidelines in Chapter 4 to estimate spell costs and time to cast, but do not add 2 fatigue to that amount. This includes Control and Transform – there is no additional fatigue for casting spells with either of these verbs.

The rules for automatic and critical failure follow the normal rules in the Basic Set. 16 is not an automatic failure, and 17 is a critical failure only if your skill is 15 or less.

Totally failed spell rolls do cost 1 point of fatigue, as if the mage had failed while attempting a regular GURPS Magic spell.

Optional One-Roll Spells

If Improvisational Magic is the only magic, the GM may allow the players to roll only once per spell, instead of once per Word. The final skill level is determined by averaging the levels of all the Words involved in the spell, rounding down. This makes it slightly easier to cast spells, as the odds of failing rise as more rolls are required. The GM may use this rule to govern the level of magic in his world. For more effective magic, average the rolls.

There is a ceiling for determining average rolls. No average roll may be more than 3 levels higher than the lowest skill involved in the spell. Thus, if a mage knows Weaken at 20 and Body at 10, the averaged roll would be 13, not 15. Likewise, if he knew Weaken at 20 and Earth at 6, the averaged roll would be treated as 9, not 13.

As examples of One-Roll spells, Morris's Waterproofing spell on p. M76 would require a single roll at skill 14, and his Weaken Air/Body skill on p. M78 would depend on his Body Word skill, which is not listed. Assuming it is 11, 12, or 13, his level in that spell would be 12. If his Body skill were 15, though, he would roll once at 13 (11 + 14+15=40, 40/3 rounds down to 13).

Learning Words

The list of Magic Words on p. M77 contains all the Words that can be learned. (Note: Create, Control and Transform are covered below.) If the GM wills, Darkness can be learned as a separate Word, or simply handled by Weaken Light.

Magery is not added to IQ to determine skill levels when the campaign uses Improvisational Magic as the only magic system.

Learning Magic Words is treated like learning Super Skills in GURPS Supers. The level a given Word is known at is determined on the Super Skill Cost Table, reprinted here from p. SU15:

Final Skill LevelCostFinal Skill LevelCost

(IQ-4 is the minimum level for Words; IQ+3 is the maximum level for Words)

Thus, an IQ 14 mage who puts 12 points into the Word Move, and 20 points into Body will know them at 14 and 16, respectively. He would have to have at least Magery 2 to know Body 2 levels higher than his IQ, however – see below.

Divide the number of points put into learning Words by 4 to determine point values for age purposes. Thus, someone who has 12 points into each of two different Words and 16 points in another two Words has spent 14 points toward the "minimum age equals points divided by 2" guideline.

Literacy and Eidetic Memory

The rules above assume a mage can read. If a mage is illiterate, treat his IQ as one less than it is for learning spells.

Likewise, first-level Eidetic Memory grants a +1 to IQ for learning Words, and second-level Eidetic Memory grants a +2. It grants no other bonus toward learning Words.

The Role of Magery

Note that the level of Magery is not added to IQ to determine the level that a Word is known. Aside from aiding in identifying magic items, magery does grant three benefits:

The number of Words that can be learned is limited by the level of Magery:
No Magery: No Words may be learned.
Magery 1: Up to 6 different Words may be learned.
Magery 2: Up to 12 different Words may be learned.
Magery 3: All magic Words may be learned.

The player determines which Words his character can learn, unless the GM wishes to restrict certain Words.

As in GURPS Magic, the maximum level a mage may know any Word is equal to IQ + Magery or 20, whichever is less. In high-level magic campaigns, the GM may extend this to 25 or IQ + Magery + 5, or any other limit he desires.

The GM may rule that a certain level of magery is a prerequisite for casting the more powerful spells – use GURPS Magic as a guideline.

Special Verbs

Control is handled much as it is in GURPS Magic. This verb is not studied as a separate Word, but is treated as an inherent aspect of learning any other Word. Thus, a spell to Control someone's Mind is made at Mind skill with a penalty of 5.

There is no extra fatigue for casting a Control spell, however. Nor is there any extra automatic failure rule. This is also true for Transform – fatigue costs and failure levels are as for all other spells.

Create and Transform are Words that can be learned under this system.

Create has four prerequisites: the mage must know each of the four elemental Words – Earth, Air, Fire and Water – at level 12 or better. Learning the Word Create grants the mage the ability to cast the Create Object spell, exactly as it appears on p. M46. This is done with a single roll against Create skill.

Create may also be used as a regular verb with other Magic nouns, as the GM allows. Thus, the Create Servant spell could be simulated by Create, Body and Mind.

Transform is treated as any other verb, except that two nouns are required if the transformation is between two different substances. In that case, three rolls are needed, one against Transform and one for each of the nouns. There is no penalty to any of the rolls.

If the starting and ending material are both governed by the same noun, only two rolls are needed (Transform and the noun), but the lesser skill is at -2. The rest of the discussion on Transform on p. M80 is still valid.

Multiple Nouns or Verbs

Chapter 4 of GURPS Magic treats each spell as two rolls – one for a verb, one for a noun. It is possible to borrow the rule from Rune Magic that more than two Words may be used in a spell. This is detailed at the top of p. M82, and works well in this system.

Basically, the GM should require that Body be used in spells that are to act directly on the Body, as in the Weaken Air example on p. M78. Likewise, Transformations between substances requires three Words – see above. The GM may specify a third (or even a fourth) Word at any time he deems it necessary. Otherwise, use of additional Words is optional.

If an additional Word is required by the GM, there is no negative modifier, but if the player voluntarily uses additional Words, there is a -1 per Word over 2 used. The Words must make sense in the spell – the player may not simply add a Word to a spell because he has a high level in it and wishes to raise the average! Doubling casting time per Word over two is also recommended. If the spell succeeds, the GM should be generous with results.

Magic Rituals

Do not use the GURPS Magic ritual rules in the main text on page M7. Instead, use the Alternate Magic Ritual Rules in the sidebar on that same page. Penalties apply to every roll needed to cast a spell. Thus, if Morris the Mage, who knows Move at 17 and Plant at 15, wanted to cast a Move Plant spell without speaking, he would roll against 13 and 11 instead of 17 and 15.

Reduced Time and Cost to Cast

A mage may attempt to cast any spell in reduced time or for reduced cost. However, this is not automatic at level 15. Instead, use the Time, Energy and Cost Tradeoffs option on p. M109.

In brief, this means that for every -3 to skill (applied to every roll in a given spell), a mage may reduce the time to cast by half. If improvisational magic is the only magic in a campaign, time to cast may be reduced to instantaneous – "No Concentration."

Likewise, each -3 to skill reduces fatigue by 1. This will also affect maintaining the spell. This is a separate modifier from the -3 to reduce time to cast.

Example: Morris knows the Word Move at 17 and Animal at 12. An improvised spell to increase his horse's speed would require two rolls, one at 17, one at 12. Fatigue cost and time would be similar to Haste, as figured for a 3-hex creature. If Morris wanted to cast it for one less fatigue, he would have to roll a 14 for Move and 9 for Animal. This would reduce the fatigue by 1. To reduce it by 2, he would have to roll against 11 and 6 – something he's not ready to try!

Taking extra time to grant a bonus to skill or fatigue is also possible, but the maximum bonus should be limited to +3 skill or -3 fatigue if extra time is taken.

Penalties apply to every roll necessary to cast the spell. Bonuses accrue only if all rolls are eligible. Thus, to get each of two rolls at a +1 to skill, the mage would need to concentrate four times as long as normal! Likewise, to get 1 fatigue reduced on a spell with two rolls, the mage would need to concentrate four times as long or take a -3 to each skill roll. It is possible to take a -3 to one of the skill rolls, and a doubling of time for the other (which, of course, affects the whole spell) to achieve -1 fatigue.

If the Words are averaged to arrive at one skill roll, doubling time to cast is sufficient to grant a +1 to skill or -1 to fatigue.

Improvised Magic in GURPS Supers

GURPS Supers recommends that the Words be learned by spending 5 points per level, not as Super Skills. While creating a 500-point character with the system described above would indeed be abusive, 5 points per level is too expensive. In order to get 6 Words at level 14 (not an unreasonable request) the mage would have to spend 420 points just on those six magic words!

The 5-point-per-level system does not take IQ into account, either – the levels cost the same for morons and geniuses. As written in Supers, you can make a better mage with IQ 8 than with IQ 14 by using the points saved to raise skill levels! Obviously, something must change if you use the Improvisational Option listed in Supers.

A better approach is to use the Super Skill table, but to make each Word a special Level 6 Enhancement. Thus, it would cost 36 points to get one Word at IQ level. An IQ 14 mage could then spend 216 points to get 6 Words at level 14 – a much more reasonable amount. If this system is used, the lowest amount that could be spent on any Word would still be IQ-5 – 16 points each in this case! This would be reduced if Limitations are taken.

Limitations may be taken for individual Words, but such limitations affect the whole spell if that Word is used in any spell. If one Word is limited with "Accessible only while flying," and another is limited by "Touch only," then use of those Words together can only be done while flying and touching the subject. Note that "Accessible while saying Magic Word" is not appropriate as a limitation, and should be disallowed – see the discussion on Ritual, above. The GM may disallow other limitations on Words as he sees fit.

All spells would then be run as suggested in Supers, as modified by the rules above. P. SU42 is correct in recommending that each spell take only a single turn, to keep magic in line with the other powers. "No Concentration" can be handled by the guidelines above, or the GM may follow the No Concentration enhancement rules in Supers. If that were the case, all words in a spell must have the enhancement in order for it to be cast instantly. This would also be true of other Enhancements – they do not apply unless all Words have the same enhancement. If an enhancement's effect may be halved, the GM may allow that result if only one Word has the enhancement.

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