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I'd like to build a magic system in which every spell is a one-off. A spell is created to serve a particular purpose and is cast once. I'm thinking that the time and place of the casting would be important in how the spell was constructed and so a mage couldn't simply trot out the same ritual and get the same effect each time, because this would probably lead to players 'inventing' the fireball spell and then just using it at every opportunity.

Any list of spells or specific effects is of limited use, because the nature of the magic is too open ended, so how do you apply constrains to such a system such that more powerful characters can get more powerful results while not specifically defining what effects are available?

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Art Magic in The Burning Wheel's Magic Burner handles this kind of thing really well, I think. –  Cthos Oct 25 '12 at 19:22
I'm strongly of the opinion that this kind of thing cannot be balanced. The sheer open-endedness of the concept means that it's literally impossible to balance all of them. If you want this sort of system, I think you have accept that. –  KRyan Oct 25 '12 at 19:37
I think this is a question best answered with resources than an outright answer: there is lots of prior art to learn from, so go forth and read! :) True Sorcery, Burning Wheel, Dresden Files RPG, Bhaloidam would be my first recommendations. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 26 '12 at 6:03
D7, did you write the Mage playbook for DW? If that was you, you did a really good job. I like how it works out in play. The Mage player in my game doesn't use magic very much because of the possible repercussions. Yet, he is still confident in his ability to create useful magic effects when he needs to. –  Ich Feb 13 '13 at 16:21
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I'd like to build a magic system

in which every spell is a one-off.

Learn and burn, got it. A way to control this aspect is with the cost of learning, and/or the cost of burning (involving actually destroying the information once it has been used)

"I'm thinking that the time and place of the casting would be important in how the spell was constructed and so a mage couldn't simply trot out the same ritual and get the same effect each time, because this would probably lead to players 'inventing' the fireball spell and then just using it at every opportunity."

The Sun, Moon, and Stars are a great way to alter what effects come into play. You could literally use the night-sky as your proverbial dice and base the outcomes on the time of night and the position of constellations, real or imagined. It would literally take them eons to get the same result, and as such, would thusly require different spells or spell components (physical or otherwise) to acheive the same spell they completed hours, if not minutes ago. If you'd like something a bit more observable, you can use the real world time to affect the different aspects of the spell effect, whether that ice ball becomes a fire ball, or that mind control becomes charm or berserk effect. The balance in this case would come from the position of the stars being favorable or unfavorable.

How do you apply constrains to such a system such that more powerful characters can get more powerful results while not specifically defining what effects are available?

On one end of this equation when you first create spell effects, like in Shadowrun's latest edition, you have to acquire rather expensive spell components.

(NPC Bob tells you "Pure Eye of Newt Extract goes for 500 nuyen these days, up from a measly 20 and change! It's highway robbery (Occasionally)," ).

A more powerful magic user ("Adept", "Magician") can afford those more expensive spell components by virtue of their previous success (power).

On the other end of this equation is the "repair" cost for casting. More powerful magicians could end up paying a smaller cost for the same effect of a less powerful magician, or have the option of paying more of a resource to have a bigger effect.

A friend of mine created a "Nomenclature Casting System" involving "true names" of people, objects, ideas, locations, and the like. Each true word had a value. Bigger constructions of sentences had a bigger value and thusly did a larger effect. You could try something similar in requiring a "true name" for each spell that is consumed by the caster for that particular target. (The Balance in this case comes from being price prohibitive.)

If that won't work for you, perhaps I can suggest randomly generating each spell from a list each time it is cast. Let the magician choose the element, roll for the different aspects of the spell, let them see what it can/will do and let them pick how to attach it to the world at large. In this instance, most things are available, and are once again dependent on your general ability with magic. As the character's power grows, let them add more aspects to the list and slough off the used ones into the trash bin. The Balance in this case comes from what you are willing to allow the casters to use as a list of effects.

For instance, PC Pryogolath wants to burn NPC Bob to a crisp! He begins summonning. [Pyrogolath chooses the element 'Fire'. He rolls a d10 and the adjective "Melt" is chosen. He rolls another d10 and the noun "Head" is chosen. He rolls a final d10 and the range "Touch" is chosen. Pyrogolath understands the complex magic that he has just casted and can see its requirements to finish the spell and its effect upon success.] Pyrogolath's hands become redder, and start to glow, bubble, and drip with lava. The next thing he Touches in the Head will Melt in a pool of Lava.

This style of magic changes with each casting and should keep things rather new, pending that you are able to continue adding words to the list and keep track of ones that are used already. Words that are lower on the list could have more power, or that could also be randomized within a rage appropriate for the caster.

And if THAT doesn't work for you (too "crunchy", perhaps?) you could have the players come up with an adjective to describe the action. The better the adjective, the better the bonus. It's incredibly ill-defined, limited to what words you accept, and even nebulous in what sort of benefit it gives the character. (And it makes you break out the Thesaurus!) Once a player has used that word, it can't be used again, or can't be used until some sort of time limit expires. In this idea, everything is available, and power is only limited to the bonuses you give for creative word usage. (It has limited use in a continuing campaign, but breaking out dictionaries and thesauruses will make everyone at the table look like they are reading from tomes. Added bonus!) The balance in this case comes from the completeness of the source they use, as well as a consensus between the other party members and the GM him/herself.

(ex: Magician Crytos the Magificent says "I sublimate his ice armor into steam," [GM >grants +3 for a 3 syllable word and +2 for obscurity!])

If you're looking for something more punishment based, you could borrow from Changeling the Dreaming (White Wolf Publishing) and lower one of the good stats/raise a bad stat ("Banality") of a character for repeating the same action in the same manner over and over again. This allows some repetition, but has the chance to seriously damage the character.

Actually,... I'm going to go ahead and more fully recommend you use Changeling the Dreaming's Magic system and just rename Banality to something more appropriate for your campaign. You get a sphere of influence and the ability to affect a certain type of target. Call "No repeat-sies: if you do, it fizzles," and watch them turn trees into houses and flip people like quarters. The system is already put together. I have had first hand experience with it, and while a few things may be confusing at first, the system gets easier to use over time. "C:tL" uses "Wyrd" as a "mana pool". Out of Wyrd? Out of Mana. You can opt out of spending mana in the first place by following a particular Ban, negating its cost. The Balance in this case comes from difficulty of skipping costs (For instance, Eat naturally formed ice before wreathing yourself in an aura of flame -- Great for Summer/Desert campaigns).

So, in summation, you could:

  • make it dependent on the motions of the heavens (month/day/year/astrology) or the hands of the clock.

  • make it a randomized list within a range of possibilites and scratch off the ones used.

  • make the characters describe it and never use that description again.

  • Hack away at Changeling: the Dreaming for its magic system and rename things that don't make sense.

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-1. While this answer does have some fascinating descriptions of how a system of magic might be implemented, it almost completely ignores balance, which is what the question was asking for. –  GMJoe Oct 29 '12 at 2:11
My concern has been addressed, and my downvote reversed. –  GMJoe Oct 29 '12 at 5:11
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I disagree with KRyan - I believe that a magic system like the one you describe would be extremely easy to balance, for a very simple reason: As you've said, each spell designed would only be used once, in one specific circumstance, and you will always know exactly what that circumstance will be.

In other games, you have to worry about every possible circumstance in which a spell can be used, and define the balance in terms of that - but you don't have to worry about any of those other potential uses, because all spells will only ever be used once. As GM, you will always know the exact degree to which the outcome of a scenario will be altered by the spell - So just balance the game in terms of that.

For example, you could say something like, "All magical effects are defined as having a level of difficulty dependent on the extent to which they alter the course of fate. A Level 1 effect can only bring about a change that could have have occurred naturally even without the spell being cast. For example: causing someone to go temporarily blind in a room illuminated only by a guttering candle, or causing the pocketknife of a forgetful man to be teleported to a random location he has visited in the past 24 hours. A Level 2 effect can bring about a change that, while significant, does not substantially go beyond what could be achieved with human effort. For example: calling fire from air to injure an opponent in battle, or causing a man recovering from a wound to be fully healed in days rather than weeks. A Level 3 effect can impose upon the world in such a way as to alter the outcome of events drastically, provided that its repercussions are limited in scope and do not substantially change the course of history. For example: Creating enough food to feed an army for another three months of siege, or creating a temporary bridge over a raging river. (Note that a permanent bridge could potentially affect the lives of thousands, and so can only be achieved with this level of magic in rarely-travelled locations, or in places where other bridges are readily available.) ...And so on.

That example assumed that fate is a real force in your universe, but that's really just a mask for the real mechanic: The way you balance spells is by how much they could affect your plot. A spell that causes injury in battle is no different from a sword in its game-breaking-ness, whereas one that allows you to mind-control a country could change the course of all but the most epic of adventures.

To summarise, all you really need to do is come up with a way of classifying magic by power level (where power level is determined by the amount of impact on the outcome of plot events, rather than on the degree by which natural laws are bent), set some mechanics to determine how much difficulty players have using each level of magic, and come up with an in-world justification for the difficulty of magic being related to the amount of convenience it offers... Perhaps something to do with magic coming from spirits who don't like things being too unstable, or a variation of Terry Pratchett's "Law of Conservation of Reality."

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I agree that this makes it relatively easy for the DM to keep a handle on things. But how should the rules address it in a systematic way? Your level 1 effects don't seem to match the definition, either. Still, these are good ideas and you make a good point. –  KRyan Oct 26 '12 at 5:36
@KRyan I can't really tell you how the rules should address the matter in a systematic way without knowing more about the system you're designing - most importantly, how accessible you want magic to be, the function of magic in your setting, what magic 'is,' and so on. I need to know what you want before I can make any suggestions that don't risk barking up the wrong tree. And yeah, the level 1 examples aren't great... I was trying to make it clear that the degree to which an effect was blatantly supernatural is unrelated to the effect it has on the outcome of events, but I think it backfired. –  GMJoe Oct 26 '12 at 6:06
+1! Another way of framing this is: Don't try to balance the magic system in isolation—look to the rest of the system in which it's embedded for the counterbalances. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 26 '12 at 6:06
This sounds a heck of a lot like the magic system in the Death Gate Cycle, so you could even use some of the magic used in the later books and the appendices for inspiration. –  Tacroy Oct 26 '12 at 17:31
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I agree with @KRyan. In this case, balance is directly linked to the creativity and cunning that the player has to use the magic with. A similar system is in Mage from the World of Darkness set ( either one, really ) - there are specific 'rotes' which mages can cast at an easier difficulty, but most creative magic is completely based on the player to come up with on his own.


I recently ran a play test of a game I am developing, which has a system of 'open magic', which I more or less specifically leave unbalanced. The players had problems coming up with ideas on how to use their magic. After a couple of examples from an NPC, they had a much easier time thinking of ways to use their magic. They needed a little push to bring their balance level up.

In a completely separate play test, with a much more experienced group, I had problems explaining to people why they could not use their magic for something creative and cunning, and completely game breaking in the long run. Sometimes the simplest uses are the most effective.


The chief method for a DM to 'balance' magic in a game which has very little in the way of actual concrete rules or listed effects is to do so by hand, and to write every ruling down. You may be able to sort-of limit people by having one roll to think of the spell, and then another to actually cast it - though I don't think that is a particularly good idea, it is an idea.

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What's with your two 'tan' quotes? –  Jonathan Hobbs Oct 26 '12 at 4:57
@JonathanHobbs possible tangents. –  Phill.Zitt Oct 26 '12 at 5:36
Mage sounds like a good avenue for exploration - I'll look into it :) –  Tyco Kaine Oct 26 '12 at 21:30
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As Phill mentioned, Mage has a highly open ended system that could be modified for your purpose. If has limits on how how powerful the spell can be while still being open ended. You would need to tweak it to limit each particular effect to a one shot, perhaps by writing down what has been used and you may want to get rid of the idea of Vulgar magic.

Also, you may want to look at the Apprentice Adept series by Piers Anthony. It isn't set as a roleplaying game so he wasn't worried about balance, but the basic idea was that the main character was a powerful magic user that could create a huge variety of effects, but he had to describe the effect he wanted in a poem and he could only use each poem once.

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