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Arcane Knowledges: A Power Meta-Framework for Magic in Hero

Note: This article was originally published in the issue 20 of the Haymaker API (sometime in 1999?) under the title "Notes in the Key of Q"

One complaint that has been popping up on Usenet lately is the difficulty of creating magic systems for use in Fantasy Hero. This struck me as an interesting problem, particularly given that my contribution in the last issue (my Dimension Generator v1.4) included a list of several different structures for magic systems (Tables 7 and 7a). So, I’ve decided to try to devise a magic system. My starting point was the entry for “Divisional/Scientific Magic”, a structure composed of several magical principles (Arcane Knowledges) which as a group encompass all achievable magical effects. Examples abound in gaming, including the main systems in Ars Magica and Torg. There are several features I wanted to incorporate into a Divisional structure:

This last point is important. Rather than build a power or power framework, which would be more or less static, I have tried to create a Meta-Framework, a template for campaign-specific Power Frameworks. As a result, these guidelines are intended to help GMs to devise magic systems which will be an integral part of a specific campaign, matching the GM’s own view of game balance for that setting.

Basic Mechanics
In this system, a character’s magical abilities are measured by their training in Arcane Knowledges. The simplest way to think of an Arcane Knowledge (ArK) is as a variation on a VPP with a 0-phase change and a Skill roll. A character will have a pool of active points available in any ArK that they have studied. As with a VPP, they must make a Magic roll to use the points in the ArK, taking a -1 to their skill roll for every 10 real points in the spell. Unlike a VPP, however, the number of active points in the ArK gives a bonus to all skill rolls. When casting a Persistent or Constant power, the mage need only make a Magic roll once (upon starting the effect). Instant powers must be rolled for each time they are used. In either case, the active points of the spell must be less than or equal to the points available in the pool.

Envisioning the System
There are three basic elements that the GM will need to lay out in creating a framework for a specific campaign:

  1. A list of the different Arcane Knowledges which are known to mages in the setting.
  2. How powerful this type of magic is supposed to be
  3. How difficult it is for a mage to cast a spell using her full capabilities
The list of Knowledges should be decided upon early in the process, as the number and type of Knowledges will have direct impact upon how Power and Difficulty should best be implemented within the framework; a small group of Knowledges requires less specialization to become generally powerful, while a set of Knowledges covering a very limited range of effects may justify easing restrictions on Power.

Examples:

The Price of Magic: Setting costs for the Framework
With an image of the end result in mind, the main mechanical step is to set two ratios that determine how Knowledges behave:

A reasonable default for these is 2 character points per 1 active point in an ArK, and 10 active points / +1 to skill rolls, but depending on the campaign concept, the range could be wide.

Examples:

Setting the Details
With the basic framework in place, there are several details that should be considered before setting the rules before the players:

Magic Skill
The details of the Magic skill roll are as central to establishing the flavor of the framework as the choice of Knowledges. The most basic issue is which stat the skill is based on, or whether it is based on one at all. Common choices would be to base it on either Intelligence or Ego, using the standard 9 + (Stat/5) value. In the first case, magic is the result of extensive training and great scholarship; in the latter, magic is a form of will-working. These choices are only the most obvious, however. Depending on the underlying special effects of the system, Presence (ex: spirit channeling), Body (ex: essence projection), or even Comeliness (ex: ensorcellment) might make more sense. Finally, the GM might either base it off of a flat 11- roll (everyone is equally talented at base), or perhaps use some sort of leveled “Magery” advantage which has other consequences in the game beyond it’s impact on the skill roll (9 + Magery).
Whatever the Magic skill roll is based off of, players should not be allowed to buy up this skill directly. However, the GM may decide that a framework will allow players to buy Skill Levels to represent either inherent talent or specialization in a narrow area. As a general guideline, a Skill Level with a single ArK should probably cost as many points as the Difficulty for the Knowledge (i.e. the number of active points required for a +1 to skill). More narrow Skill Levels should cost proportionately less. Depending on the framework, the GM may wish to charge more or less per level, or require that all Skill Levels be narrower than an entire ArK.

Complementary Skills
Beyond the Magic skill itself, the GM may want to allow other skills to factor into spell casting. Possibilities could include anything from Meditation to Philosophy to Poetry (for rhyming magic). The simplest approach to this is to apply them as Complementary Skills (from the Hero rules), boosting the Magic skill total prior to the casting roll. Other possibilities include requiring additional skills to combine multiple Knowledges in a single spell (see Multiple Knowledges,below), or allowing a skill roll to reduce or eliminate the costs for casting a spell (see Casting Costs, below)

Multiple Knowledges
Depending on the specific Knowledges involved, it may be either necessary or logical for mages to combine them for some effects. Knowledges beyond the first can either be Complementary, in which case a mage adds together their pools when creating an effect with more than one; they may serve as Requisites, in which case the caster uses the lowest pool of all the Knowledges involved; or they may be Opposed, in which case one ArK is “primary”, and the caster may only use the amount by which it exceeds the other ArK (30 Fire primary, 10 Water Opposed = 20 active points available). Depending upon the concept for the magic system, it may be appropriate to combine these options.

Casting Costs
For some frameworks, the GM may wish to balance low costs for Knowledges or high skill bonuses with some type of cost or penalty associated with casting spells. Some common concepts include magic which is exhausting or physically dangerous (caster takes xd6 of End, Stun or Body), magic which is psychologically risky (caster gains temporary psychological disadvantages), or magic which requires time and/or concentration to cast (caster must spend one or more phases at ½ DCV or 0 DCV to cast a spell). Alternately, similar costs might be incurred for a failed Magic roll.

“Pushing” Magic
Many of the penalties listed suggested above may alternately be made available to mages as options when casting a spell, in exchange for increasing the active points available or providing an additional bonus to the Magic roll. A good guideline is to match the point value of the penalty half of the character points (when raising the active point limit) or active points (when raising the Magic roll bonus) of the benefit desired.

Learned Spells vs. Spontaneous Casting
As presented, ArK spells are cast spontaneously; like a VPP, mages are not restricted to predefined effects. Beyond the question of whether the GM wishes to require players to submit spell write-ups before they are used (which is not a rules issue as such), it may make sense in some settings for mages to use “Learned Spells”, fixed effects which may be created with Knowledges. A Learned Spell must be paid for, and depending on the campaign, may either enhance the functioning of Knowledges, or be required to use an ArK at all. A Learned Spell should probably cost no more than 1 point per 10 real points in the effect (the same ratio as for Multipower Ultra slots). In frameworks where Learned Spells are optional, the GM may assign special benefits to using them, such as doubling the maximum number of active points available (so a mage with 20 pts. in an ArK could cast a 40 AP Learned Spell), doubling the Magic roll bonus, or negating casting costs.

Continuing Effects
Depending upon the vision of the GM, it may be simple, difficult, or impossible for a mage to make use of more than one spell at a time.

Advantages and Limitations
For the most part, Advantages and Limitations should be relatively simple to apply when casting spells, but a few should be commented on:

Detail Examples
Elemental Magic
Arcane Knowledges: Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Light, Dark

Magic Skill: 9 + (Int/5)
Skill Levels: Mages may purchase +1 to Magic skill rolls for a particular specialization of an ArK for 5 pts. each.; +1 to Magic skill rolls for a particular Learned Spell (see below) cost 1 pt. each
“Pushing”:
Complementary Skills: Each ArK has a Complementary Skill (full phase action) Continuing Effects: Mages may only have one continuing effect in place at a time
Learned Spells: Learned spells cost 1 point for every 20 real points in the effect. Learned spells double the Magic bonus from active points in the ArK.

Space Opera Magic
Arcane Knowledges: Energy, Matter, Force, Life, Space, Time, Telepathy, ESP, Mecha-Psi, Probability

Magic Skill: 9 + (Ego/5)
Skill Levels: +1 to Magic skill rolls for a particular Learned Spell (see below) cost 1 pt. each
“Pushing”: A mage may increase the active points available for a spell by the amount by which he makes an Ego roll. If he fails the Ego roll, he suffers 1d6 Stun for every point by which he missed.
Continuing Effects: Mages may maintain multiple effects up to the limit of their active point pools at a Magic skill penalty of -1 each.
Learned Spells: Learned spells cost 1 pt each. Learned spells may use multiple Knowledges, and treat them as Complementary.