Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Reviewing the GURPS Magic Default System

I am going to review the various ways to handle magic in GURPS.
Unlike most other games GURPS provides several distinct options in an effort to give the GM the ability to get a system that meets the needs of their setting. This includes most fictional works, and folklore.

First up is GURPS Magic 

This is the default system introduced in GURPS Basic and has been around with minor changes since its first edition. The concept was pretty unique for the time and to this day still has a lot going for it.
It is a spells as skills system where each spell is its own learn-able skill and spells are organized into a hierarchical and thematic grouping called spell colleges. The idea is first you have to learn simple spells before you move onto more complex ones. For example Ignite Fire, Create Fire, Shape Fire then Fireball.
Higher skill levels provide better benefits, including easier casting and the ability to absorb penalties such as range or magic resistance.
 It has no formally acceptable name, unlike later systems that needed unique names to separate them for the readers to easily know what magic system is in play. Informal names include Hawthorne magic (after a mage write up from earlier editions) and College magic for how spells are organized.

It has its own book, web page and several supplements at the time of this writing. 
GURPS Magic Plant Spells expands an existing college, GURPS Magic Artillery Spells and GURPS  Magic Death Spells provide spells by function rather than college. GURPS Thaumatology: Magical Styles gives examples and rules to create specialized mages, similar to martial arts styles. GURPS Locations: Worminghall describes a quasi medieval magical school. Also Pyramid (monthly GURPS magazine) includes many special spells. This forum post lists various sources of many GURPS Magic spells and GURPS Thaumatology offers a lot of options to tweak it for different settings. Here is a list of Pyramids with relevant articles.
3/25 Epic Magic Essential Magic
3/25 Epic Magic Quartermaster Mage
3/36 Dungeon Fantasy All Charged Up Over Magic Items
3/43 Thaumatology III Cultists of The Elder Gods (Psi and DF priests)
3/43 Thaumatology III Magic as Technological Progress
3/48 Secret Magic Eidetic Memery: Bibliomancy
3/48 Secret Magic Anything For Power (Symbol Drawing)
3/60 Dungeon Fantasy III Wizardry Refined
3/66 The Laws of Magic Thoroughly Modern Magic
3/66 The Laws of Magic The Material Difference
3/66 The Laws of Magic Designers Notes: Wilderness Adventures
3/76 Dungeon Fantasy IV Hidden Knowledge
3/91 Thaumatology III The Thaumatology of Metallurgy
3/114 Mind Over Magic EM: Glass Magic and the Specularii
3/115 Technomancer Every article in it seems to have something, spells, new options, discussion on enchanted equipment, etc.

This system really attracted positive attention from a lot of my D&D friends at the time, though some twenty years later it has garnered its share of critics. Here are some of the talking points.

  • Creating new spells: Some complain its too hard to create new spells, though it has about two pages on creating new spells, with additional material in GURPS Thaumatology. Some eyeballing is needed but I do not find it hard to do.
  • Some spells are very powerful and many can break the standard medieval fantasy economy. If you think about it this is true of any magic system, though most spells can be learned well enough that a mage could cast them for hours, over and over again. This typically takes a specialist who focuses on one or two signature spells with the rest as backup or out of combat spells. There is advice on banning certain spells or fiddling with duration to address these concerns. The Wizardry Refined article in Pyramid #3/60 is a great source for this.
  • Mages can invade other character types niches. Since there are no character classes this is less an issue than you might think, and in fact most character types could learn a few spells to help them out. However mages in GURPS can be Swiss army knives with a spell for nearly any situation. Magical Styles or templates such as the Dungeon Fantasy line or the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game simply prohibit certain spells to deal with this.
  • This system works best for low powered to cinematic games and tends to become overpowered at higher point totals. I learned the hard way not to allow this system in my Supers games :)
  • Mages dont deal enough damage, either compared to cinematic warriors and scouts, or  modern and space opera weapons. Most who make this complaint haven't actually bothered with the math or tried to think creatively. First up a mage is versatile in combat so its fair to have a trade off for that versatility compared to someone who has more limited options. Most people think of a missile spell such as fireball or lightning bolt when making this statement. An archer has to carry a bow and use up arrows, the mage just needs to rest up or cast spells at no energy cost. An archer will do 1 or 2 dice of damage, a warrior could do several dice in a cinematic game but of course have to get in close. A mage who has a signature missile spell does on average 1d per 1 fatigue point they put into it and they reduce that by 1 point for skill 15, 2 points for skill 20 (extreme skill but comparable to a swashbuckler or scout) or 3 points for skill 25.  So a mage with fireball 20 can cast 1 or 2d fireballs over and over again. This takes 1 turn to cast then another to throw it at the target which is slower than a cinematic archer. So the mage is weaker at damage per second! On the other hand when your up against a heavily armored foe the archer cant increase their damage by much if any, while the mage can easily do so,  The mage can charge up the missile spell up to their level in magery per turn for up to 3 turns. That means with magery 3 (pretty common for cinematic mages) and skill 20 can fire a 2d fireball every other turn at no energy cost or power up for a big 9d fireball at 7 fatigue cost for three turns and toss it on the fourth. He wont be doing that often but that is a LOT of damage, more than most modern small arms, including blaster rifles!
  • Mages are versatile in combat. Missile spells are the obvious choice, and most mages should have 1 or 2 at skill 15+ as they work at pistol to bow range. Jet spells are great for melee combat as they can be maintained from turn to turn and can have the range of a pole-arm yet still work if your opponent closes. Area spells  cost a lot of energy but can control the ebb and flow of combat. Regular spells are the typical bread and butter and are the classic "Save or Else!" type spells and can sleep, stun or worse to a foe. Move and Shape spells can control the environment and obstruct paths or create openings.
  • Changing the paradigm: There are a lot of published tweaks available for this system to help the GM get it just right for their own setting. Ritual Magic replaces individual spell skills with college skills so they are more versatile on fewer character points. Mass magic allows casters to group up to cast bigger spells. Mana levels can be adjusted to make magic easier or harder. Material Magic, powerstomes, power objects and Energy Reserves help extend the number of spells that can be cast. Threshold Magic encourages more powerful spells but fewer castings by rationing the energy per day rather than relying on personal fatigue. The system can be used as the basis for rune or symbol magic.
To summarize, GURPS Magic is a pretty versatile system that gives casters a lot of flexibility and power and is easy to use in play.  There are also a lot of published options for customizing and it has a very large spell list. However it can be too powerful for some settings so it wont be right for everyone.
Thank you for reading this entry and I hope it gave you a good feel for just how versatile GURPS Magic is,

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