RPG Design: The Elements of Magic

   For most games, magic – whether in the form of high-technology, psychic powers, or “true” magic – is one of the major setting elements. While there are an immense variety of magic systems available, all of them must account for the following basic elements.


  • A) Near-Limitless; Magical power can be used for any purpose, limited only by the users raw power, imagination, and general knowledge. This is a relatively common option in fiction, but is difficult to run in a game, since a mage may attempt to do anything whatsoever. It also has the disadvantage of making all powerful mages look alike.
  • B) Focused; Magical power is channeled through mystical paths, personal affinities, and ancient secrets and can only produce effects in keeping with the nature of those paths, affinities, or secrets which the user possesses. Magic may still be capable of almost anything in theory – but few individuals will wield such power.
  • C) Narrow; Magical power is channeled through specific gifts and talents, whether those are inborn or granted by supernatural forces. They can only be used in specific ways, and are not readily teachable, although it may be possible to acquire new knacks in various difficult ways. In general, there are few “wizards” – although there may be many dabblers.

Ease Of Use:

  • A) Frighteningly Easy; Magic is easy to invoke, but difficult to control. A small child or random individual who stumbles across a technique, or dabbles in occultism, may unleash terrifying forces.
  • B) Skilled; Magic is relatively common, but can only be summoned and commanded by someone with the appropriate skills and training. Powerful magic is usually reserved for masters of the art, although modest studies may suffice for minor tricks and household charms.
  • C) Professional Only; Wielding magic is a job for those with extensive training and well-practiced skills. Dabblers can accomplish little or nothing.

Power Source:

  • A) Unlimited; Magical power is freely available. It can be drawn on virtually without limit.
  • B) Limited; Magical power is available, but limited. It may be limited according to the total number of spells that can be cast in a day, the total power of those spells, by the type of magic invoked, either personally or to specific area, or by the scarcity of some vital component. In any case, mages must take some care to manage their resources.
  • C) Very Limited; Mages either have very little power to draw on at any given time or must go to great lengths to renew their resources – spending long periods in meditation, working exhausting rituals, performing services for various supernatural beings, or otherwise going to a great deal of trouble to build up their magical reserves. If magic can be accumulated mages may have a great deal of power to draw on in an emergency, but it may take them a very long time to recover and they will not casually expend their resources. If very small amounts of magic are available all the time, expect mages to have many minor tricks which they use at every opportunity. (See Imbuement, below).

Side Effects:

  • A) None; There are no side effects to wielding magic. Mages may employ their power without limitation or fear of supernatural consequences – although social consequences may apply.
  • B) Fatigue and Strain; Wielding magic requires great effort. Mages can easily exhaust themselves or knock themselves unconscious.
  • C) Corruption; Magic is inherently dangerous and may may cause severe side effects if overused. This may range from rapid aging or physical degeneration through various mental effects, spiritual corruption, or being forced into debt to eldritch horrors. In any case, magic is bad for you. Major spell casters are likely to be enemies rather than player characters.


  • A) Few; There are very few defenses against Magic or areas in which it will not work. Most targets will have no defense against magical attack.
  • B) Occasional; There may be relatively common defenses which slightly weaken magical attacks, rare defenses which offer excellent protection, or numerous items/areas which offer modest protection.
  • C) Common; Many targets possess inherent resistance to Magic or there may be numerous areas – such as consecrated ground, areas with a great deal of metal around, barren lands, or high-technology zones – where magic will not work. Alternatively, protections against magic – amulets and other bits of folk magic, carrying metal, or natural talismans – may be common.


  • A) Complete; Magic is quite reliable. It hardly ever goes wrong, and those instances can normally be traced to bungling on the part of the caster. This isn’t very mysterious, and isn’t very classical, but is eminently gameable.
  • B) Some problems; Magic is either very tricky to use, or sometimes simply fails or goes badly wrong for no apparent reason. In either case, spell failure is an occasional fact of life for any mage.
  • C) Very Unreliable; Magic simply cannot be relied on. Even the most skilled mage will often find his or her magic often going badly wrong. This is best suited for comedic settings. In such worlds few player characters who want to bother with magic unless it’s extremely easy anyway.


  • A) Large; Magic is capable of affecting massive areas. For example; a spell which transforms an entire city.
  • B) Moderate; Magic is limited to affecting relatively modest areas, such as a house or – at most – a ship or city block.
  • C) Small; Magic can affect a single modest vehicle, or perhaps one or two individual targets.


  • A) Blatant; Magic can produce unmistakable effects – transformations, massive balls of fire, flight, conjurations of magical creatures, and similar tricks.
  • B) Quiet; magic can produce obscuring illusions, open locks, induce malfunctions, bend wills, and produce effects which could plausibly be mistaken for (extreme) coincidences, special effects, the use of skills, and trickery.
  • C) Subtle; magic can manipulate how things are perceived, alter attitudes, suggest thoughts, cause small environmental effects, and shift odds, but its effects are mostly invisible – and often undetectable by technology.


  • A) Unlimited; Magic can be placed in particular phrases, thoughts, or ideas, channeled into a construct and sent off on its own, or simply hang about in a cloud. Delayed, enduring, and triggered spells are easy to construct.
  • B) Artifacts; Magic can be stored in physical objects, imbued in places, or flow through the earth. It is not, however, stable on its own. Delayed, and uncontrolled continuous spells, are rarely practical. In some cases magic can only be placed in living things, rather than in any object, even further restricting enchantment.
  • C) Unstoreable; Magic cannot be stored or accumulated, only actively manipulated or generated and used. Long-term enchantments must be actively supported by a spellcaster, spirit, or other active entity. There may be some tools which help in using magic, but there are no independent enchantments.

   Hm. Just the combinations there – exclusive of the variants and the details of the magic system in use – covers some 59,049 possible magic systems. Sadly, quite a few of them won’t make much sense, but hopefully that will still inspire some ideas.


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