Handling Player Magic (As Psionic Powers and Ritual Path Magic)

One of the interesting things about The Land of the True Game setting is that there are so many possible overlapping and contrasting gameplay mechanics. In this post, I’ll outline my approach to statting multiple magic systems that work in the same game. (Big ups to the GURPS Forum users who helped me hash this out.)

“Normal” Magic System 1: Talents (Human Gamesmen)

OK — as I said, this setting has multiple magic systems. The big distinction is that there is one “normal” one that all of the players in the campaign are expected to have: that of the “gamesmen.” In the setting these are called “talents” but this has NO RELATION to the meaning of that term in the GURPS rules. Another way to think about this system is: Almost all of the humans who have magic have this.

The setting sources tell me that this magic:

  • is an innate, inherited genetic ability
  • can’t be improvised
  • can be used almost instantly
  • tires you out when you use it
  • spells or powers can’t be enchanted or imbued into objects, but defensive objects and bonus-producing objects are possible with high technology (TL 9)
  • can’t change the character or nature of places
  • requires heat when you use it (that’s an unusual one, isn’t it?)
  • is unaffected by where you are (there doesn’t seem to be any concept like “mana”)
  • can produce better/different effects when multiple people work together
  • can be blocked by certain people who are immune to it (The Immutables)
  • is fixed at birth (although you can get better at using what you have)
  • consists of only about 12 major spells/powers (Barish’s Eleven, plus The Immutables), although sometimes they are combined in ways that are tricky

These magic users are typically your fireball-throwing dudes, your flying dudes, your mind-reading dudes.

Secret System 2: Wize-Art (Aliens, plus a few Humans)

Then there is a secret second system that few humans know about. It is a totally separate system involving the magic of the planet itself. Since there is one class of player that is most closely associated with this system–the wizards–this is called “the Wize-Art” by them and I’ll use that term. However, fundamentally it is also the system of magic used by some other humans and all of the alien races who use magic. That includes: Dervishes, The Council, Monsters (if they are magical), Eesties, Shadowpeople.

A super-cool thing about this system is that whenever anyone does things with it, people usually mistake it for system one, and that leads them to totally incorrect conclusions about what is going on. e.g., if the Shadowpeople (aliens) do some magic and a typical human notices, the human would just think:

“Oh, that’s weird. I don’t see anyone, but I guess a human gamesman must be nearby doing this with their magical talent.”

Or they’d think:

“Huh. I didn’t think talents could do that (or: worked that way), but I guess I was wrong!”

I hope this kind of confusion can lead to some interesting plot points. The setting sources tell me the second system is very different than the first. Wize-Art magic:

  • is learned via years of apprenticeship
  • yet can be learned incrementally (simple spells can be learned easily)
  • is secret, but can be learned by anyone who is taught the secrets
  • has improvisational, open-ended elements
  • is very slow
  • can be researched/invented to discover new spells
  • can produce magical objects but these are produced with the magic itself, not technologically (objects are “enchanted”)
  • can affect places (to make them sacred, defiled, protected, or traps)
  • can be aided by human and animal sacrifices
  • sometimes requires elaborate ceremonies
  • sometimes requires rare ingredients
  • can be greatly affected by where you are — there are nexuses and dead-zones — it looks like a “mana” concept
  • no one is “immune” to it, but it can be blocked by other magic users (wizards) who know the same kind of magic and use defensive spells

There are also some similarities between this system and the previous one. Both of the first two magic systems:

  • tire you out when you use it
  • can produce better/different effects when multiple people work together

These magic users are aliens or they are wizards wearing a pointy, starry hat and (sometimes) holding a wand, mumbling for hours with bags full of weird ingredients.

According to the source material, casting a powerful spell in this second system is a big pain in the butt. At one point a character in the middle of the wilderness needs to use something the book calls “window magic” to obtain information… and there is no way around it other than to build an entire house in order to meet the ritual’s definition of a “window,” which requires a home. To be fair, the character builds a one-room house and they manage to roof over a ruin that they uncovered nearby — it wasn’t quite as slow as building a McMansion with a general contractor — but still my point is that they had to build a whole house to do one information spell.

However, the source material is a little inconsistent. There is also a package of “basic” magic that a wizard seems to be able to cast easily, for free. The common denominator of these “free” or easy spells is that they are minor and mostly defensive in nature: wards, a self-hiding spell, detecting magic, consecrating spaces, and detect poison. These don’t require materials, rituals, or apparently (this is not clear) energy.

(Side note: Tepper also put “automatically make someone fall in love with you permanently” in that trivial-to-cast list but there’s no way I’m allowing that as it seems very game-breaking.) 

Even More Secret System 3+: The Old Gods, Planet Magic, etc. (Aliens Only, NPCs only)

It is possible to think about some additional systems in use by some of the aliens in the setting: the Eesties, Elementals, and Lom. The Elementals and Eesties in particular seem to be able to do some crazy s**t. But I am going to table that idea for now and just specify that all alien magic comes from the same source — it is magic based on the qualities or the source of the planet, even if the mechanism in which it is expressed might be different. Then I’ll leave the stats/rules/mechanics for other systems to deal with later, which will probably mean never.

Since I expect the players will be forbidden from trying out system 3+, this can all be done with GM fiat. The magic of the “old gods” does amazing stuff, but only the old gods get to use it. They instantly and without apparent effort do things like:

  • stop time, slow it down, speed it up
  • fold space/time and move groups of people to different places/times
  • dramatically change their own size and shape, or yours
  • re-route major rivers
  • raise armies of beasts or creatures
  • produce a storm that wipes out all of the major cities on a continent

Yet another magical system I could add here is the “herbary” system based on the planet’s alien plants and minerals. At at times this seems pretty darn magical. e.g., in the source material this system includes some whopper effects like:

  • Chew this alien leaf and mind-readers can’t read your mind anymore.
  • Touch this mineral on your tongue once briefly and it reprograms your mind forever.
  • Eat a naturally occurring crystal and become immortal.

But I’ve already got enough to chew on with everything I’ve listed above. So let’s table herbary too.

Meta-Magical Considerations

I want these first two magic systems to work well together in the sense that I don’t want the gameplay to become unbalanced because there are two different systems at work — I want gameplay to seem balanced even with two PCs in the same party potentially using different systems of magic (e.g., one wizard pretending to be a gamesman, the rest talents who are actually gamesmen).

I also want the systems to have contrasting (not similar) mechanics. This is more of a GM style choice I’m making. I sometimes do get the feeling that “everything is a skill” in GURPS and I’m interested in experimenting with contrasting game mechanics to ensure that the two systems feel different. I can also make them feel different with lore/fluff, I know. And I will do that. But I think mechanics might help me.

Since players are going to either do one system or the other, I don’t really have to worry about adding too much rule complexity except for the GM (me). And I like it. After all, I’m a GURPS GM.

In the source material both systems are powerful but the first system (Talent) is fast but narrow and inflexible, while the second (Wize-Art) is versatile but slow and fiddly. I think I can emulate this with rules.

Thaumatology p. 222-223 says I should decide how the two systems of magic interact right now — when I am choosing them. After thinking about this, I’m going for what the rules call “Limited Interactions:”

Limited Interactions (Thaumatology p. 223)

  • differing magic systems are “roughly equal in power or significance”
  • they do “not interact much except on a gross physical level.” In practice:
  • Magic within the same system works fine:
    • if a wizard summons a spirit to attack another wizard, the victim can put down the spirit with a defensive spell. (A wizard casts a summoning spell, but the intended victim casts a ward spell or a dispel summons spell.)
    • if a gamesman uses talent to summon a spirit to attack another gamesman, the victim can put down the spirit with talent. (A necromancer raises a corpse and sends it against a necromancer, who puts it back down with necromancy.)
  • Magic across systems only affects physical manifestations:
    • if a wizard summons a spirit to attack a gamesman, the gamesman can’t put the spirit down — but the gamesman can use talent to attack physical manifestations, if there are any (e.g., she can throw fireballs at a skeleton) or to change her physical situation (she can fly away, become armored, change into a horse). But e.g., necromancy won’t work against a spirit raised by a different magic, and demons can’t sense (or read the thoughts of) a spirit raised by a different magic.
    • if a gamesman summons a spirit to attack a wizard, the wizard can’t put the spirit down — but the wizard can use Wize-Art to attack physical manifestiations, if there are any (she can cast a fireball spell at a monster’s body) or to change her own manifestation (she can cast a hiding spell). Wards, detect magic, or dispel magic won’t work for her, as “talents” aren’t Wize-Art magic.
  • The explanation for all this is that different systems “manipulate different energies.”
  • Players ARE ALLOWED to learn both systems, although not at the outset of the campaign.
    • Since only one system can be learned after character creation (the Wize-Art), I might use this as a high-CP reward or adventure reward.

Next Steps: The Stats

So I’m still thinking through a few options to stat out the second system while retaining a basket of defensive exceptions or easy-to-use spells. I’ll reveal the builds in the next post. Foreshadowing: I decided to use Psionic Powers for the first system (Talents) and Ritual Path Magic for the second system (Wize-Art), with a few fairly minor modifications to both. To be clear, nothing in the setting calls system 1 (Talents) “psionic” — they describe this as magic. Yet the effects are so similar I think that’s the way to go. I don’t want to get hung up on labels.

I was somewhat inspired by discussion I found online about mixing Psi and RPM in the same game — I’ve never tried to run two magic systems at the same time, or to run a game with both psi and magic. Yet finding this thread suggests to me I’m not crazy. The GURPS forum thread I mentioned earlier also endorsed my plan (thanks again, team).

Interestingly enough, on the reddit thread someone suggested that the Psi characters are going to be way more combat effective than the RPM ones. That’s what I would guess, but on the GURPS Forum thread someone suggested exactly the reverse. I guess I’ll find out!

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