Designer's Notes: GURPS Thaumatology

Style and Substance

by Phil Masters

Three times that stately, violet-robed figure gestured with lifted arms, and three times the living flame deepened and paled. Then Jarisme's voice soared in a high, triumphant cry and she whirled with spread arms, facing the company. In one caught breath, all voices ceased. Silence fell upon them like a blow. Jarisme was no longer priestess, but goddess, as she fronted them in that dead stillness with exultant face and blazing eyes.
- C.L. Moore, "Jirel Meets Magic"

The idea behind GURPS Thaumatology is pretty simple; the execution turned out to be . . . well, a 272-page, rules-dense book's worth. GURPS Third Edition accumulated a number of different magic systems and variant rules for magic over the years; when the Fourth Edition appeared, people naturally wanted to carry them over. The baseline "spells as skills" mechanic, as defined in full in GURPS Magic, works more than well enough for many games, but fantasy magic is idiosyncratic and infinitely varied by its imagined nature, and it helps to have a really big toolkit when working on this stuff. A Big Book of Variant Magic seemed in order.

I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

So I got the job. But doing this properly meant more than just working a bit of Fourth Edition jargon into such classic pieces of design as S. John Ross's "Unlimited Mana" mechanic (now renamed "Threshold-Limited" magic) or C.J. Carella and Stephen Kenson's ritual systems (now slightly expanded as "Path/Book" magic) . . . important though this was, given the fan base for both those creations. This had to be as complete as possible a guide to making magic work right for any given setting and conception, which meant reviewing pretty well the entire pre-existing GURPS product line for systems and ideas, and then generalizing them. Many of the specific cases survive in Thaumatology, though, because they make really cool worked examples or because they're too rich and interesting to lose -- which means that, say, Ken and Jo Walton's restructuring of the spell college system for Celtic Myth, and Ken Hite's catalog of Hermetic/Decanic modifiers, now have a new home. Like I said, 272 pages.

But magic, as everyone knows, has a price.

I did come to wonder about this project, actually. During the time I was working on it, I suffered two brief but interesting medical problems -- I'm claiming it cost me part of one eye and a day's memories -- and other people involved also had some incidents. We should probably be selling this book as Extreme Roleplaying: Read It At Your Own Risk. Less acausally, the playtest was, well, a substantial business, though a useful one; several parts of the book are definitely much the better for it.

And there were enjoyable moments, too. Finding appropriate pullquotes was an excuse to dig around some slightly obscure texts, not to mention a couple of my favorite comics and webcomics. Most of them made it into the finished book, I'm happy to say, though the C.L. Moore quote above and the closing lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" were squeezed out.

And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

And there were the examples and vignettes. The opportunity to kick back and write a paragraph or two of (okay, rather pulp-ish) fiction can be a pleasant break from intensive rules tweaking. However, with a project like this, I do try and make sure that the fiction illustrates and relates to the accompanying game material -- or, to put it another way, I like to think that the game mechanics can be used to create and play interesting characters, like the ones who I try to put in the fluff text. A couple of examples have made their way into the e23 product -- GURPS Thaumatology: The Age of Gold, which is being published as a companion to the main book -- but just for the interest, here's another:

Montmorency de Rouen

Montmorency sees himself as tragic proof of the adage about a little learning being a dangerous thing. He is by nature (he would say) a quiet, harmless scholar, who would like nothing better than to huddle in some quiet garret on the Left Bank in Paris, burrowing through the library of the University and teaching a little natural philosophy to earn an honest crust. Unfortunately, his fate was instead to become entangled in a desperate secret war.

The fact is, however, that Montmorency is at least partly a victim of his own restless intellect, and to a lesser extent of his conscience. Born to a modest urban family in Rouen in 1474, he demonstrated a keen mind and earned a place at the University. While studying there, he developed an academic interest in certain rather arcane or even occult topics, and started digging through various bookshops and obscure areas of the library in search of hidden lore. On one occasion, however, he realized that someone else was evidently looking for the same manuscripts, and perhaps foolishly, he ignored warnings to leave that subject alone. As a result, he was kidnapped from his lodgings and dragged off for some very rough interrogation.

His captors came to understand that he really didn't know what he was involved in. They also learned he knew almost as much as them about certain supposedly secret topics . . . a fact which could have proven very dangerous for Montmorency. Fortunately, however, he was rescued in the nick of time by a band of swashbuckling swordsmen and mercenaries lead by a woman known as Ludovine L'Ange Dentelé (the Jagged Angel). Even more fortuitously, he was actually able to assist his rescuers with advice when his captors counterattacked, somehow sensing when magic was used against them and even suggesting effective countermeasures. The latter knowledge came from his studies, but the awareness surprised everyone; it seems that the stress and pain he'd suffered as a prisoner may have unlocked a latent gift. Among other things, this sense caused him to notice a tarnished silver amulet which was lying unremarked amongst a heap of small items which his captors had acquired for some reason; thinking that it was special without knowing why, Montmorency quietly picked it up as he passed.

Ludovine and her band decided that this half-crazy, battered scholar should be introduced to their employers, a mysterious group who call themselves the Order of the Rosy Cross, or "Rosicrucians" (not a term which is widely known in the world at large at this date). They in turn perceived that he had a magical gift, and recruited him to their cause, partly with the temptation of arcane lore which few but themselves could teach, and partly by telling him that his captors wouldn't now forget him or leave him alone, and suggesting that he'd be better protected among a band of skilled and knowledgeable warriors than he would be alone. He's not now sure if this was such a good offer, though; he finds that he's expected to go out on missions with those warriors, so whether or not their opponents are still after him, he certainly gets caught up in their fights -- and it turns out that their chief opponents are secretly minions of Rodrigo Borgia - alias Pope Alexander VI. The Rosicrucians, it seems, are locked in a secret war with the Borgias and other factions for control of the powers of the supernatural, and claim that the very future of the world is at stake. The trouble is, they are probably correct -- and in that case, Montmorency feels that he cannot desert them. Furthermore, the aching torture scars on his limbs often remind him that he owes a debt of vengeance.

However, Montmorency doesn't always let his situation worry him. He has learned a deal about magic in this new life, and when he's in a confident mood, he wields it with some enthusiasm. The trouble is, magic has a tendency to bite back, and fear of such hard reminders tends to throw Montmorency into a black and nervous state of mind. Worse, he has severe difficulty explaining the capabilities and limitations of his magic to his allies, who thus have come to regard him as an unreliable miracle-worker. He can understand why, but he's not sure how best to stay alive in a war which he didn't even know was happening until he became a battle-scarred casualty.

The Magical Context

Montmorency is active in a version of late 15th/early 16th century Europe in which magic works, but is very rare; specifically, characters in this setting use Threshold-Limited spell magic, with a standard recovery rate of 5 and threshold of 20. (Montmorency's threshold is raised to 32 by his amulet.) The effective local mana level is normal, with few or no variations, but possession of any magical training at all (knowledge of any spells or Thaumatology skill) requires a 10-point Unusual Background. Montmorency initially started to unlock his own potential as a mage by experiments and study of a text which he found deep in the libraries of the University of Paris, and the stress of torture somehow completed the process, but much of his training comes from hints and partial texts given him by the Rosicrucians -- and he's smart enough to worry about this, as it may well leave him subject to manipulation and control in ways that he can't anticipate. The fact is, though, that worthwhile magical training in this setting really requires study of some kind of "style" or "tradition," and all such systems have peculiarities, gaps, and assumptions; the Rosicrucians aren't by any means the worst in this. They've certainly pushed Montmorency to learn a certain amount of "combat magic," in which he finds some cold comfort. Because of this training, he tends to use very mystical, poetic jargon when discussing magic, which sounds quite weird even by the standards of Renaissance Hermeticism.

Montmorency's effectiveness as a practical wizard also depends heavily on the amulet which he acquired while being rescued, which he has found allows him to use rather more magic than many mages in the setting, but which also represents a vulnerability. (It seems amazingly robust, maybe even indestructible, although it appears to be made out of ordinary silver; he has to wear it next to his skin.) He's managed to keep the fact secret so far (except from the Rosicrucians, who regard such things as toys and beneath their dignity), but he's still subject to the envy of other scholars of the occult; a few suspect that his power may be stealable in some way, and might yet make some move to see what they can get from him.

Montmorency de Rouen

200 points

A sallow, sharp-featured scholar, clean shaven and usually plainly dressed, prone to very visible mood swings.

ST 9 [-10]; DX 11 [20]; IQ 14 [80]; HT 11 [10].
Damage 1d-2/1d-1; BL 16 lbs.; HP 9 [0]; Will 14 [0]; Per 14 [0]; FP 11 [0].
Basic Speed 5.50 [0]; Basic Move 5 [0]; Dodge 8; Parry 8 (Shortsword).
5'7"; 135 lbs.

Social Background

TL: 4 [0].
CF: Western (Native) [0].
Languages: French (Native) [0]; Arabic (None/Semi-Literate) [1]; Classical Greek (Broken/Native) [4]; Hebrew (None/Semi-Literate) [1]; Italian (Broken) [2]; Latin (Accented/Native) [5].

Advantages: Increased Threshold 3 (Gadget: Can Be Stolen: Can only be taken by stealth or trickery, -20%; Unique, -25%) [9]; Magery 0 [5]; Magery +2 (Gadget: Can Be Stolen: Can only be taken by stealth or trickery, -20%; Unique, -25%) [11]; Patrons (The Order of the Rosy Cross; 12 or less; Special Abilities: magical powers in largely nonmagical world, know many secrets; Minimal Intervention) [30]; Serendipity 1 [15]; Status +1 (Scholar) [5]; Unusual Background (Magical Training) [10]. Perks: Magical School Familiarity (See below; Rosicrucian Training). [1]

Disadvantages: Appearance (Unattractive) [-4]; Curious (15) [-2]; Duty (Service to the Rosicrucian Conspiracy; 12 or less) [-10]; Easy to Read [-10]; Enemy (Occult Borgia Minions; medium-sized group, some formidable or super-human; 6 or less) [-15]; Missing Digit (Missing Finger on left hand) [-2]; Post-Combat Shakes (15) [-2]; Sense of Duty (Those who've helped him in the past) [-5].

Quirks: Broad-Minded; Fears capture by the Borgias slightly more than death; Heavy scars on limbs (Easily identified when these are exposed, may attract all sorts of comment if noticed); Suffers from Overconfidence (12) whenever he has no more than a point or two on his Power Tally; Very nervous about magical Calamities. [-5]

Skills: Area Knowledge (Paris) (E) IQ [1]-14; Brawling (E) DX [1]-11; Expert Skill (Natural Philosophy) (H) IQ-1 [2]-13; History (Classical Roman) (H) IQ-2 [1]-12; Linguistics (H) IQ-2 [1]-12; Literature (H) IQ-2 [1]-12; Occultism (A) IQ-1 [1]-13; Philosophy (Classical) (H) IQ-1 [2]-13; Physician/TL4 (Human) (H) IQ-1 [2]-13; Public Speaking (Debate) (E) IQ [1]-14; Research/TL4 (A) IQ+1 [4]-15; Riding (Equines) (A) DX-1 [1]-10; Savoir-Faire (High Society) (E) IQ [1]-14; Shortsword (A) DX-1 [1]-10; Stealth (A) DX-1 [1]-10; Thaumatology (VH) IQ-1 [1]-13*; Theology (Christian) (H) IQ-2 [1]-12.

Spells: Create Air-14 [1]; Create Fire-14 [1]; Daze-14 [1]; Detect Magic-14 [1]; Divination (Pyromancy)-14 [1]; Dream Sending-14 [1]; Dream Viewing-14 [1]; Earth to Air-14 [1]; Earth to Stone-14 [1]; Earth Vision-14 [1]; Extinguish Fire-14 [1]; Fireproof-14 [1]; Foolishness-14 [1]; History-14 [1]; Ignite Fire-14 [1]; Illusion Shell-14 [1]; Missile Shield-14 [1]; Mystic Mist-14 [1]; Phantom Flame-14 [1]; Purify Air-14 [1]; Purify Water-14 [1]; Seek Earth-14 [1]; Seek Water-14 [1]; Seeker-14 [1]; Sense Danger-14 [1]; Sense Foes-14 [1]; Shape Air-14 [1]; Shape Earth-14 [1]; Shape Fire-14 [1]; Shield-14 [1]; Simple Illusion-14 [1]; Sleep-14 [1]; Trace-14 [1]. (All spells include +2 for Magery.)

• Includes +2 for Magery.

Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.

It should also be noted that Thaumatology isn't just about resurrecting old, Third Edition stuff; it also provides an excuse to examine many game mechanisms which have arrived or been expanded with Fourth Edition, applying them to conceptions of magic. There's a whole chapter finding new, magical uses for the "powers" idea which underlies GURPS Powers, for example, and a lot of examination of enhancements and limitations as applied to character advantages such as Magery. But not every new idea appeared in time for me to adapt it (which is probably just as well, given how much the book grew in the writing as it was). One such very recent possibility -- not one I thought of first, I admit -- is to apply some of the "Style" rules from GURPS Martial Arts to magic.

At heart, a Martial Arts-type "style" is mostly a bundle of skills, some mandatory, some optional, which are taught to stylists, along with some advantages, perks, and disadvantages which they often acquire. In this respect, the application of the idea to magic is obvious and straightforward. A magical style may be associated with a college, academic lineage, theological tradition, etc., and can consist of a set of spells, rituals, alchemical formulas, or whatever, known to the style's adepts. Careful choice of ingredients can give the style a very distinctive flavor, whether this means Fire College spells for a school of combative battle wizards, Path of Nature rituals for an order of pacifist priests who serve farming communities, or symbols of Knowledge and Pure Magic for highly academic scholar-mages who work a lot from first principles. Indeed, Thaumatology already covers some such ideas, with discussions of Priestly Spell Lists, Books of thematically linked rituals, and so on -- but introducing explicit magical styles takes things a bit further.

One thing to note here is that styles are only worth having if they give stylists an advantage of some kind over non-stylists. If non-stylists can freely learn anything that's taught in any style, but styles come with built-in restrictions, players won't generally want to look at them; any who do, for roleplaying or aesthetic reasons, will effectively be penalized, which is hardly fair. In Martial Arts, the main reason to study a style is that non-stylists may be restricted from buying up combat techniques, while study of a style gives a good (possibly required) excuse to take Trained by a Master or Weapon Master, and to learn various cinematic abilities for which those advantages are prerequisites. In addition, the Style Familiarity perk attached to each style gives small but worthwhile advantages. Magical styles need to offer as much.

But in, say, the standard spell-as-skill magic system, characters who can learn spells can generally learn any spell in GURPS Magic. Similarly, Thaumatology implicitly assumes that any ritual magician will have access to all or most of the rituals known in their setting, any alchemist can attempt any formula, and so on, unless the GM explicitly rules otherwise. In such cases, finding something for styles to offer is tricky. The obvious answer is to make specific lists of the spells (or spell colleges -- or rituals, or symbols, or whatever) known to each school, and to prohibit non-stylists from learning many or all of the magical options known in the setting. This can certainly generate a very "school-based" magical environment; however, the GM should watch out for problems with, say, spells that require prerequisites from other colleges, or overly severe restrictions on magic due to the fact that nobody with training in only a single school can actually do more than a few things, and nobody can become a really impressive wizard without a lot of cross-training (which schools may even prohibit). It may be better to make much of the magic system available to everyone, but make some high-powered effects -- devastating area attack spells, symbols for supernatural beings, crucial Hidden Lore skills, or whatever -- the "inner secrets" of certain secretive schools. This in turn brings up another point about magical schools; the GM will have to decide how they see each other, how their internal politics work, and so on -- and most especially, how easy or hard it is to join one, and then how hard joining the first school makes it to join a second, or a third . . .

Also, magical schools may also have their own etiquette and complex internal rules, much like many martial arts schools (and with similar benefits in terms of discipline, prevention of accidents while learning to use deadly force, and so on). To reflect this, GMs may borrow the idea of Savoir-Faire (Dojo), or introduce a new specialty of that skill, "Savoir-Faire (Magical College)." Note that possession of the School Familiarity perk (below) for a school means that a character never suffers cultural familiarity penalties when using this skill within the school.

And finally, it's also worth borrowing one small but flavorful additional detail from the Martial Arts style rules: the Style Familiarity perk. In fact, the esteemed line editor, Sean Punch, has already tackled this in GURPS Power-Ups 2, creating the Magical School Familiarity perk. Now let's take this a little further, applying it to the more general concept of magic provided by Thaumatology.

New Perk: Magical School Familiarity†

You have studied with a particular master, academy, or guild that teaches a specific style of magic: a limited set of spells, alchemical formulas, ritual paths, books, or whatever. Paying a point for familiarity with such a school gives these benefits:

• You understand the arcane principles that undergird the school's magic, and you know at least the outlines of most of its teachings. You may have at least +1 to skills such as Occultism or Thaumatology, at the GM's option, when using them to identify or analyze magic performed by someone else using the school's teachings. The smaller the school's set of standard teachings, the larger the bonus you should receive, and for very standard procedures, recognition may often be automatic.

• You understand the arcane principles that empower the school's magic, or at least you are fully conversant with its flaws and foibles. Hence, you can always use standard countermeasures or defensive measures against that magic, and you don't suffer any sort of familiarity penalty, even if you don't know how to use the ritual, elixir, etc., that you are trying to defeat. Where appropriate, you can always use measures such as Counterspell or Ward spells at full effect against any of the school's magics, even if you don't know the actual spell or whatever you're trying to defeat.

(It's up to the GM to decide whether you can always counter a spell or whatever that the school teaches, even if it's being used by someone with a completely different training background. That depends whether the thing only has one possible form, or whether the versions taught by different schools are substantially different.)

• Because you have a solid grounding in the school's magic, you can generally extend your abilities with it without having to seek further teaching or even reference material. For example, where the school has a set of spells, rituals, or techniques which the GM defines as central to its teachings, you can acquire or improve them by spending earned points in play, wherever you find yourself at the time.

• You're acquainted with the school's culture. When dealing with another wizard who has the same perk, neither of you suffers -3 for lack of Cultural Familiarity when making Savoir-Faire rolls, Teaching rolls to pass along the school's ideas, or similar.

• You probably have the equivalent of a 1-point Claim to Hospitality (p. B41) with an academy, guild, or archmage. This mostly means that you have somewhere to stay while studying.

Note that this perk should be restricted this to settings with a fair number of different magical schools or styles active; if everyone uses the same style, Style Familiarity becomes a dirt cheap multi- purpose skill bonus with extra benefits.

Article publication date: October 10, 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to