This article originally appeared in Pyramid #9

Unlimited Mana

"Like a blue deck for your GURPS game."
By S. John Ross

Standard GURPS magic is "tactical"; mages can create dozens of small effects in a given day -- but very few (if any) world-shattering miracles. Manipulations of mana, the force behind spells, leaves sorcerers drained and weak. Thus, GURPS wizards are limited by their knowledge (which determines their flexibility) and their physical stamina. "Powerful" wizards are wizards that know more spells at higher levels than others.

Absent from this basic structure is the concept of Raw Power -- wizards that can crack a castle in half or drown an army in flames.

Fantasy novels that feature such levels of power rarely have mages that get "tired out" by magic. Instead, extreme effects threaten the fabric of the universe, creating a situation in which wizards can create true miracles in times of need, but do not use their powers frivolously. When their companions ask for more magic, they will drone cryptically, "To draw too deeply on my Gift can lead to madness and death. Do not demand of me what you do not comprehend."

Fantasy writers need character balance as much as GMs do. While it's exciting to establish that a sorcerer can wreak serious havoc when needed, it's boring to let him overshadow the rest of the characters. That cryptic doubletalk exists as a handy plot device, no less than the wizard himself.

This approach to magic has been left untouched in gaming, and for good reason. It's easy for a writer to create a wizard that will be prudent with his arcane wisdom. Trying to get an ambitious fantasy gamer (even a well-meaning one) to do the same is risky at best. GURPS has no such bounds, however. The magic system is flexible enough to permit Unlimited Mana that will balance in any fantasy campaign, even the lowest of "low fantasy!"

The Power Tally

"Unlimited" isn't a mana level, it's a mana type. In an Unlimited Mana (Umana) campaign, spells do not cause fatigue.

When a mage casts a spell, he should record the cost in a running tally, instead of taking the cost from his ST score. All normal rules for costs (skill reduction, etc.) remain in force.

Example: Magus Wiltshire finds himself caught in a besieged city. He has not used magic in a while, and feels that the present emergency justifies it. In his attempts to escape unnoticed, he casts a huge (cost 21) Mass Sleep spell on a group of guards. Three guards are unaffected, and Wiltshire, furious, casts an Entombment spell on one of them, which increases his tally by 10 points to 31. Two guards remain...

Threshold and Calamities

Every mage has a Threshold score -- this defines the safe limits of his magic. If his tally remains at or below his Threshold, everything is fine. If his tally exceeds his Threshold, Bad Things can happen, and the mage must roll on the Calamity Table. The "default" Threshold score is 30.

"Calamity Checks" are made by rolling 3d, and adding 1 for every full five points by which Threshold has been exceeded. The spell that first brings the mage's tally over Threshold triggers a check. After that, any spell cast by the mage (even those that cost no energy) will also trigger new Calamity Checks at the current level of excess. Calamities take effect immediately, but their nature may not always be apparent to the mage (see the table for details). Calamities do not normally cause the spell to fail (but see results 29+).

Example, Part II: Magus Wiltshire, a normal (Threshold 30) mage, exceeded his Threshold when he cast the Entombment spell. This requires a Calamity Check. Since Wiltshire exceeded his Threshold by only 1, there is no modifier to the roll. If he decides to entomb the other two guards, each new casting will trigger a fresh calamity, and modifiers will begin to apply.

The Recovery Rate

Once per day, the mage's Tally is healed by an amount equal to his Recovery Rate (RR). The "default" RR score is 8, with recovery occurring at sunrise.


The numbers above result in an overall power level more or less equivalent to the current rules. Mages can't cast nearly as many smaller spells, but they can (in emergencies) cast some very large spells. Area spells, in particular, become more of an option in combat, and more "strategic" levels of magic become possible.

These basic numbers, however, are open to change; Threshold and RR defaults are a campaign decision for the GM. A Threshold of 50 and a RR of 1 per day would allow mages to cast really powerful spells safely, but would cripple them on a day-to-day basis. A Threshold and RR of 40 each would make for a world where mages are godlings that walk the soil -- Unusual Background would be appropriate to keep them balanced! At the other extreme, Threshold and RR of 5 each would create a distinctly low-magic world, where mages could still use relatively mighty magic in times of dire need, and at great personal risk.

The third assumption -- that Recovery occurs daily at sunrise, is also variable. Even with a standard daily rate, wizards might have their own "hour of recovery" chosen at play. Alternately, a campaign might feature recovery every hour, or every week, or every (gasp!) month. The latter would lead to a dramatic thinning-out of magical activity just before "payday," but some GMs might like that idea!

New Advantages, Further Ramifications

Increased Power 10 Points/Level

This advantage may only be taken by mages. For each level of Increased Power that you have, increase your Threshold by 20%, and your RR by 25%, of the campaign average (round normally).

Each of these effects can also be purchased individually for 5 points/level, as the Increased Threshold and Rapid Recovery advantages. Mages may not purchase decreased levels of Threshold and RR; the campaign default defines the weakest levels of personal power.

Safer Excess 10 Points/Level

This advantage may only be taken by mages. Your calamity rolls are at +1 for every 10 points of excess, instead of +1 per five. Every additional level doubles this effect (+1 per 20, +1 per 40, +1 per 80, and so on).

With unlimited mana, mages can now be defined in terms of both versatility and raw power -- a 250-point mage might have a vast grimoire, or a limited, predictable repertoire and earth-cracking mana resources! This gives players and GMs more freedom, and has many small side-effects that need the GM's consideration. Powerstones, for instance, become less desirable for many wizards, and some spells formerly limited to Ceremonial Casting can be cast by individual wizards! GMs fond of adding new spells to the campaign can add very powerful ones, balancing them with costs as high as they see fit, and even Threshold or RR based prerequisites.

Optional Expansions

That's all there is to the Unlimited Mana option, but this basic framework can be built on to make all sorts of dramatically different uses of the GURPS magic rules. Consider any of the following:

Emergencies Only

GURPS Magic rules are standard, and mages may still expend ST to power their spells. However, they may draw additional power "out of the ether" via Unlimited Mana, but the campaign Threshold is zero, and may not be improved. This means that any "free lunch" casting automatically causes a Calamity Check. RR should probably stay in the low range (1-10 daily). A slight (10-point) Unusual Background for mages would be appropriate; this option makes magic more powerful than in the normal rules.

Spending Options

Mages may spend energy to make their spells faster (4 points per second of reduction, which will even affect missile spells and bring spells to "zero time" if sufficient energy is spent). They may also increase their odds (1 point of energy per +1, or 3 per +1 if the spell is to be resisted). At the GMs option, even the odds of hitting with a Missile spell can be increased on a +1 per point basis!

This option actually works very nicely in play, allowing much greater flexibility for mages at appropriately high energy costs. Players tend to overspend at times, but the rules keep such mages nicely in line...

Option to Spend

Mages may take fatigue to help power their spells, but it costs 4 fatigue to produce 1 point of spell energy. Thus, mages won't bother with using their ST for most castings, but in an emergency they can exhaust themselves for an extra point or two of power.

New Tables

The GM could design an expanded Calamity Table, or have different tables for different races, regions, etcetera ("the universe seems less forgiving in the Dark Lands, Wiltshire.") Perhaps overspending summons hostile entities, or affects only weather.

Partial Fatigue

Every spell cast causes 1 fatigue, in addition to the increase of the mage's tally. This limits the number of spells a mage can cast in a given scene, without limiting their power.

Variable Threshold

In a Variable-Threshold world (or region), the default Threshold changes like the weather. Mages might or might not be aware of the current level; if they aren't, this will increase spellcaster caution.

Variable Recovery

Instead of RR being a flat rate, it can be a die-roll. 2d+1 averages to a roll of 8, but makes recovery less certain. Increased Power would give a flat bonus to the roll (+2 per level, if the default value is used).

Limited High Mana

With this option, non-mages can cast spells as if the world were High Mana, but spells cost 10 times as much for them. Likewise, mages with Single-College Magery (see GURPS Magic) could cast spells outside of their sphere for the same x10 multiple to cost.

Recovery Rituals

The daily recovery needn't be automatic. Perhaps the mage must burn incense and meditate, or (in a dark fantasy world) perform animal sacrifices or demonic rituals. Likewise, there might be some rituals that will trigger additional levels of recovery beyond the daily standard.

These options represent only the tip of the iceberg, and any GM or player will likely have several ideas, from new advantages to strange variations on the concepts of Threshold and RR.

Special thanks to Scott Maykrantz, Bill Collins, and the other contributors to All of the Above for their comments on earlier versions of this article. Very special thanks goes to my local gaming group, the Lower Reprieve Generals' Club, for playtesting this with me for the past three years.

Calamity Table

(Roll 3 Dice + Excess/5)
3-10 Nothing happens -- this time.
11,12The mage is cursed with nightmares, and cannot rest. After the first night, the mage is at -2 to DX, IQ, ST, and skills. The nightmares persist for 4d days.
13 The mage has weakened the binding forces around him. His Threshold for the next 1d weeks is reduced by 2d+5. The mage is aware of a drop, but not of its severity!
14 As above, but it's 4d+10 and lasts 1d months! In addition, the mage's magic will be at a -3 skill penalty for 2d weeks.
15 Any failed casting roll that the mage makes will be treated as a critical failure for 1d+1 weeks!
16 The caster gains a 5-point disadvantage. After 3d days have passed, the mage has the option of buying it off (it will simply fade away). If the mage does not wish to, or doesn't have the points, then it becomes permanent. Any disad is legal; the mage can get ugly, go insane, and so on at the GM's whim.
17 As above, but the disad is worth 10 points.
18 As above, but the disad is worth 15 points.
19 As above, but there are multiple disads worth 2dx5 points.
20 As per 15, but it lasts for 1d+1 months. At the end of that period, the mage should make a Will + Magery roll. A failed roll means the condition is permanent!
21 Roll again (same modifier) but the result affects a companion of the mage! The companion should be chosen randomly.
22 The mage loses 1dx5 points of advantages (or has an attribute lowered). Choose randomly what is lost. Anything goes.
23 The mage loses permanently the ability to cast a single spell, chosen at random from his spell list. The skill is still known, and it still counts as a prerequisite, but it cannot be cast.
24 The mage becomes a wandering Mana-Scar! Spells cost double within a 3d mile radius of the mage, and Recovery is Halted in the same area! Every mage in the region will be gunning for him...
25 The mage's skill at spells is reduced by 3d+5. This penalty heals at a rate of 1 per day.
26 As per 25, but the "healing rate" is only 1 per week!
27 The mage is aged 2d+13 years.
28 A plague or curse (locusts, storms, etc.) descends on the region, lasting for 3d weeks or more. No one will be able to trace this to the mage, but the mage will be aware that the fault is his... This has driven a number of mages mad as they witness the suffering and destruction thus wrought. Be grotesque and cruel.
29 The mage permanently loses the ability to cast spells, (but not the knowledge -- small comfort). At this level and above, the spell that causes the roll fails unless a (Will) roll is made by the mage. The Will roll is at a penalty equal to the mage's level of excess/5 (in other words, equal to the bonus to the roll on this table).
30-39 As per 29, and something permanent happens to the state of magic in the region. Perhaps all spells are at -2 in that kingdom from then on, or a certain spell functions erratically. Be creative. If the mage is found to be the culprit (and every concerned and able group will have a diviner on the job) then he could be a hunted man.
40+ As per 29, but a global change occurs. In addition, the mage must make a HT roll at -6. If this roll is failed, the mage is consumed in a backlash of magical energy, and explodes. The explosion does concussion/burning damage like a grenade doing the mage's (Will + Magery) dice of damage! If the HT-6 roll is made, the backlash is less dramatic; the wizard takes 2d dice of damage, and doesn't explode.

Article publication date: October 1, 1994

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