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I'm trying to cobble together a solely magic-based campaign that will have a really flexible system of magic. I've always been a fan of the D20 system, but it does have its limitations: for this purpose, D20 has way too many cumbersome concentration checks.

What would be some good rules that would leave strategy and a small element of chance, while making magic simple, fast paced and engaging?

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

Welcome to the site! Is this a D&D/Pathfinder game or a different kind of d20 system? Are you expecting people to cast spells from the standard spell list until one person gives up? What do you know about systems like Mage: the Ascension/Awakening, Ars Magica and the Dresden Files RPG which make magical duels more of a skill check than a combat? – Simon Gill Dec 31 '12 at 17:13
This seems to be more of a d20 criticism than a solid question. Focus on the gameplay elements you want to develop. – MadMAxJr Dec 31 '12 at 22:05
One of the most amusing ideas for a mage duel that I've heard was for 3.5's Wizards: the two incredibly-intelligent Wizards sit down and read each other's list of prepared spells and contingencies (using Craft Contingent Spell) over a cup of tea. Both being super-smart, they could tell who would win, and could agree that it was better to just accept this than waste their resources on the actual fight. Not an answer, but seemed worth mentioning for an alternative image of the duel. :) – KRyan Jan 2 '13 at 5:52

2 Answers 2

I can think of four systems that might fit the bill.

I'm basing these recommendations on the following assumptions, two of which I'm assuming are implied from the question and the rest based on my experiences running a system specifically focused on one-on-one player combat (Street Fighter: the Storytelling Game, which was centered around group/singular martial arts combat).

Tactical Diversity

In order for there to be tactical diversity, you need a wealth of options, either in the ability for the player to create their own options or have a huge list of them to choose from.

Low Handling Time

I assume this is another way of saying "few die rolls" or otherwise streamlined combat mechanics. All of these systems use either no die rolls, single die rolls, or single attack-vs-defense rolls, resolving effects quickly. In addition, most importantly their mechanics are universal, meaning that it doesn't matter what the actual effect is; they're all resolved the same way. This is especially important in a game with a wide variety of powers because it's only a matter of time before two spells interact in a way the designers never intended and you have to stop the game to figure out what to do.

Dueling stuff

I've found, in my experience, that despite duels simply being one-on-one battles there are a couple of important factors to consider. The two most relevant ones are system lethality and character balance. Lethality, because if duels are particularly deadly then players are discouraged from participating in them, and character balance because if characters are physically weak or otherwise unable to defend themselves, they risk being one-shotted or otherwise kicked out of the duel for reasons beyond their control, which is exacerbated by the system lethality; not only did you lose because someone was lucky enough to pick paper when you picked rock, but now you're dead. That's no fun.

The games;

The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game by QED Games (out of print)

The MURPG system is a resource-based RPG; players have energy pools and spend points from those pools to activate their super powers. Although a superhero game, any existing power can have the source "Magical", which automatically makes it a magic power, and there are specific magic-based powers like Mastery of Magic, Magical Travel, Summoning, and Sorcery. All actions are stones (energy points) spent vs. opponent's defense, and opponents can spend points on defense in addition to their "always-on" defenses.

The magical powers, Sorcery especially, is only limited by what the player can describe, and there are a wealth of existing powers. Clever power use is the bulk of your tactical ability, and since there is a single combat mechanic the system, in my experience, never bogged down. Selecting your powers for the turn, balancing your energy between attack and defense, and figuring out exactly what to do with your powers provided a very flexible, open-ended experience.

Since the player could use any power to defend, and had passive defenses as well, it was pretty difficult to simply splatter someone out of existence with a single roll, even if one player vastly outclassed another. The one time one of my players dueled Dr. Strange, clever power use and defensive play allowed him to hold his own for quite a while despite Strange's greater skill.

The system is also fairly non-lethal; if a player takes damage in excess of their current health, they can declare themselves to be knocked out instead.

Mutants & Masterminds by Green Ronin

D20 superheroes with extremely simple mechanics; by third edition all rolls used a single d20 versus either a defensive save or flat defensive score. Similar to MURPG, it's possible to create a magical character purely by selecting/building powers and then saying "My character's powers are magical." The power-building system, especially by third edition, is one of the most flexible I've ever seen, allowing you to come up with a wealth of different abilities.

All damage in M&M is considered non-lethal by default, and there are no "character classes" in the sense that it's possible to build a mage character with similar defenses to a more physically-oriented character, as well as use their powers to defend as well as attack. I've played a mage in M&M; once your powers are built it's a bit more rigid than MURPG but battles against non-minion opponents could be outright slugfests, requiring numerous good rolls to defeat. (3rd edition, specifically, requires you to "wear down" your opponents, stacking penalties on them until they fail a save.)

Mage: the Whatever by White Wolf

I've only played Ascension, which is like, old, n' stuff. There's a newer edition out now. I home-brewed a campaign setting using its magic system based on Magic: the Gathering, though; it benefitted from a tweak or two but otherwise worked just fine.

Mage's magic system is freeform, which allows players to describe their own effects, all of which are as strong as the number of successes you roll to activate them. In order to pull off an effect, though, you need enough dots in the proper Sphere (there are ten Spheres). Using Spheres on their own, or combining them with other Spheres, provided an infinite number of effects, but again, they were all resolved with a basic attack/activation vs. soak/defense check.

In addition to free-forming it, there are Rotes - pre-defined effects that spell out what happens and how many dots in the proper spheres it required. (For example, "Fireball: Forces 3"). To keep the "Magic" flavor I simply created a ton of rotes patterned after various Magic cards.

All Mage characters are equally "squishy" - they're normal humans, which means one good roll from the right effect can flatten one. To counter this, I created a Prime rote called Dueling Barrier that mimicked the life points from Magic; invoking this rote at the start of the duel gave a player 20 points of barrier than had to be broken down by attacks/effects, at which point the player would be quite inclined to forfeit.

and, of course,

Fate Core and/or Dresden Files by Evil Hat

Fate Core doesn't have a magic system in and of itself, but the Fate Core Toolkit has a bunch, and you can roll your own quite easily. Dresden Files does have a magic system, but I haven't personally used it. The Contest mechanics use disrupting an enemy's magic ritual in the example text. Although my experience with Fate doesn't extend to using it for magical dueling, the fact that it's both rules-and-rolls-light, that magic would be no different than any other conflict, and the open-ended nature of both the system and the narrative power of the players would make it a good choice if you needed to create your own system, since the magic rules would be whatever you needed them to be.

Fate does, however, strongly advise against killing characters, so most of the time if a player is losing a duel they can simply Concede the Conflict/Contest and take a Complication. Characters are also considered competent, and in most cases will be fairly even in terms of the amount of physical/mental stress they can take. This, coupled with the typical flow of Fate combat (creating advantages, invoking them for bonuses) provides for a fairly strategic back-and-forth that most likely won't kill you.

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Could you please edit this to include the justifications for these recommendations, based in your own or another's experience using them for exactly the purpose in the question, as is required of game-rec answers here? – SevenSidedDie Jul 16 at 19:29
Done. If I'm missing anything let me know and I'll add it. – Sandalfoot Jul 16 at 23:31
I don't see anything (edit: I see it now for MURPG) added about having used these for tactical magical duels? Right now this is reading as a "I think these would work" answer, which is what the game-rec guidelines are there to prevent. The bit about Mage is tantalisingly close, but did it ever succeed in testing? – SevenSidedDie Jul 16 at 23:44
The section on MURPG describes how one of my players dueled Dr. Strange and I created a Magic: the Gathering hack for Mage, also described. Also, honestly, a duel is just a one on one battle and I don't see anything overly special about what the OP is asking that would require special mechanics for it. I gave four recommendations for very player-strategy-driven systems that use magic. I'm not clear what else is necessary, especially when the top-voted answer so far is "Use Deadlands, it has poker!" – Sandalfoot Jul 16 at 23:47
What might be necessary is leaving it to someone who's done it explicitly. Recommendations must clear that minimum bar, and yeah, there isn't any way to rescue a recommendation that lacks it. (Note that the other answers are old, and having been bumped onto the front page, are likely to be deleted soon if not brought in line.) – SevenSidedDie Jul 16 at 23:49

Since you're looking for "solely magic-based", you might consider looking into some of the systems originally designed for superhero roleplaying. They tend to focus on powers and combat/duels, and several of them are designed with quick/simple mechanics. Most of them are designed to let you build unique powers, which makes them very flexible, but they can be easily adapted to describe fixed spells and items and such. I've had some experience using the Hero System for high-fantasy gaming (i.e. magic-heavy) and with a little creative structuring it can give you some nice results.

Hero is a generic system, so it requires some effort to build the bits you want. Powers in a Hero supers game are built from a set of very generic effects that pretty much cover anything you can think up. Like you, we wanted maximum flexibility, so we built a list of available spells using the powers rules, with the option for players who were skilled with the system to build new spells and submit them to the GM to edit/accept/deny. Basically our mages could create any type of spell they wanted, and the system let us keep the power levels relevant.

Modifying limitations (concentration, materials, foci, etc.) are built into the system rules and don't require additional rolls like skill checks to execute them, so they won't bog things down as you described for D20. Ultimately they all manifest as +/- modifiers to the attack roll. We picked a specific subset, including Greater and Lesser Foci, Ritual (gestures + incantations + concentration), and Coven (requires multiple casters).

Likewise, we limited the choices of modifying advantages (range, area effect, persistent) as spell manipulation talents that could be bought separately.

In this way, because spellcasting was built using the powers rules, using spells was no different than physical attacks for purposes of rolling and adjudication of damage/results. If you're comfortable with the pacing you get using Hero, this can work for you.

Note: I originally focused on the body, not the title, of your question. We didn't use a separate system for magical duels. They were just run as magical combats like any other, so I don't have any examples for handling that element differently.

I'd start by reviewing this question: Superhero cinematic gaming -- looking for a system. They had some good recommendations, and "quick" was one of the criteria they were looking for as well.

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