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We've been looking for a system that fits our current requirements for a while and we seem to be failing miserably at it... Does anyone know of a system that fits the following?

Magic system

Freeform magic system: A mage creates spells/effects by combining his skills. So if I have earth + fire of the right level I can make a volcano erupt.

An important note here is that the system can't be too free. If I just finished creating my character I shouldn't be able to cast the most powerful spell. Some games like Desolation allow for that, and even if the chance is very low, my players end up doing it...

Magic system must support progression: In the form of skill advancement or of collecting premade spells that are easier to cast, some sort of progression is important.

Fantasy setting

Decent amount of fantasy source material available: I don't want to have to adapt a modern system into a fantasy setting. While I like Mage: The Awakening system, I would have to create lots of stuff to make it work on a fantasy setting, which I don't have time for...

Balanced Combat vs Roleplay

The game can't be too rules heavy or too rules light. Pure roleplaying systems tend to have too little mechanics and we like to feel progression in the way of stats, gold, items, spells, etc. We don't need progression on all those categories if that's the price to pay to not be rules heavy like GURPS or Pathfinder/D&D

The systems we've tried/analyzed are:

  • Pathfinder/D&D 3.5: Fails at magic system (it's spell and memorization based) and at being too rules heavy
  • Mage: Fails at not being in a fantasy setting, so a lot of work has to be done to create materials
  • Desolation: Fails at not having a large community or materials and at being too loose, there's no sense of progression
  • GURPS 3rd and 4th: Very rules heavy, and while we can choose not to use the rules it's too easy to fall into the "lets check the rules" trap
  • Fate Core: Haven't played it yet but it seems very light on stat progression, we're counting on waiting to see if any book gets released in a setting we like

Is there a system that fits our criteria?

Thanks in advance!

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As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  mxyzplk Mar 16 '13 at 18:23
Assuming you mean medieval fantasy you should say that - any setting with magic is fantasy. –  mxyzplk Mar 17 '13 at 3:41
Adding to what mxyzplk said, a good few settings without magic are also fantasy. –  GMJoe Apr 8 '13 at 5:32
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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!

4 Answers

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Ars Magica seems to fit your requirements quite nicely. Let's go over them one by one:

  1. Freeform magic system. Ars Magica's magic is very flexible, being comprised of five Techniques (Create, Destroy, Move, Change and Know, roughly) and ten Forms (the four elements, Body, Mind, Animal, Plant, and so forth). Any spell is a combination of Technique+Form. The system allows for both Formulaic spells, specific spells known by the mage and limited by his score in those magical arts, and Spontaneous spells, ad-hoc magical effects that are weaker than pre-researched formulaic spells, but much more flexible. Rather than having a fixed number of memorized spells, casting spells instead has a fatigue cost, so casting too much will leave you tired out. Magical progression is very strict. You must spent months in the lab to improve your score in techniques and forms, and the system has good guidelines on what level a given spell or spontaneous effect should be.

  2. Fantasy setting. Ars Magica was designed for a fantasy version of Medieval Europe, and a lot of it is grounded in it (the Techniques and Forms are originally in Latin). That said, it can be easily converted to any relatively realistic setting.

  3. Ars Magica has quite a few rules, especially around magic, but many of them can be glossed over rather quickly. More importantly, it offers a lot of interesting roleplaying aspects, such as the Troupe-Style play where everyone plays one major character and several minor ones.

I've played Ars Magica since the 3rd edition (it's now in its 5th) and can heartily recommend it as a good system and an interesting setting. It's been around for years and has a lot of resources, both officially published and online. It has its faults (it can be very deadly, since it takes a rather realistic view of wounds) and has a different pace than most games (pausing the action for whole seasons spent in the lab is standard), but it's a great game, and a wonderful magic system.

If you'd like to examine the game, the Fourth Edition is available as a free download from e23.

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Oh, good. I can just vote your entry up rather than compose one of my own. –  Jadasc Mar 16 '13 at 17:48
Oh, good edit, @Jadasc. I have to say that even though some of the balance there was broken, I think I preferred the fourth edition over the fifth. –  lisardggY Mar 16 '13 at 17:52
+1, this is what I was going to answer... –  mxyzplk Mar 16 '13 at 18:30
I've been in an Ars Magica game for years and this does seem to fit your requirement. Be advised that you must intentionally set your level of "crunch." ... Done to the point I do it in my games, a PhD in philosophy is recommended. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 17 '13 at 9:42
Thanks for the tip, I'll give it a try! –  Rui Casais Mar 18 '13 at 19:09
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Burning Wheel Revised has a Magic Burner supplement with alternative magic systems. In particular, the Art Magic or the Abstraction and Distillation systems sound like they could work for you.

Art Magic

With Art Magic, the sorcerer picks one or more of nine different effects (e.g., Hinder, Evoke, Destroy with Sorcerous Fire, Illusion) and the severity, breadth, and duration change the obstacle, which ramps up quickly. Like most things in Burning Wheel, easy things (hindering your opponents in a fight) are easy and difficult things (destroying the ocean with Fire) require preparation, help, and spending lots of artha. Art Magic also supports player-defined schools of magic, which limit sorcerers to a particular magical idiom, similar to the fire-and-earth example in the question.

Abstraction and Distillation

Abstraction is the generalized Sorcery that the base game uses. You can either modify or augment an existing spell (easy) or construct the spell you want from basic Elements (e.g., Earth, Fire, Heaven), Impetus (e.g., Control, Create, Destroy), Origin, Duration, Area of Effect, and so on. Creating such a spell on the fly is difficult, but if you manage to pull it off enough times, the Abstraction can be formalized and Distilled into a formal spell with easier obstacles.

Failed castings can produce wildly divergent effects which, personally, I find to be the best part of Sorcery. These unintended effects can also be learned!

Burning Wheel

The current, newest version of Burning Wheel is Burning Wheel Gold. The Magic Burner is a supplement for the previous edition, Burning Wheel Revised. Art Magic is can be used as-is in BWG. Abstraction and Distillation need some adjustment due to the changes in how casting works between BWR (Will + Sorcery) and BWG (Sorcery with help and fields of related knowledge).

Burning Wheel also has natural magical systems tied to race, like Human Faith-driven miracles (in addition to Sorcery), Elven songs, Dwarven crafts, and Orcish blood magic. These are not really freeform magic, though.

Advancement in Burning Wheel is organic in the sense that you have to use a skill to improve it. Burning Wheel also includes subsystems that let you change the complexity as desired; these should be introduced slowly during play, not all tossed in at the start.

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I've used Art Magic with Burning Wheel Gold. It's absolutely painless: you don't have to change anything, really. Abstraction & Distillation is just a bit trickier because the skill check mechanics for vanilla Sorcery are different (Sorcery + Will in BWR, Sorcery in BWG). –  Alex P Mar 16 '13 at 23:04
@AlexP I added your experience to the answer. –  okeefe Mar 17 '13 at 4:16
Sounds interesting, will take a look, thanks! One question: Is there an active community and are there books/settings to draw inspiration from or is it the more barebones type? –  Rui Casais Mar 18 '13 at 19:12
@RuiCasais There's the Burning Wheel forum. BW doesn't have an explicit setting, but there's one implied from character creation. The elves and dwarves are very Tolkien inspired. Sorcery reminds me of the Earthsea books. –  okeefe Mar 18 '13 at 19:31
@okeefe cool, that's good to know, will check it out, thanks! –  Rui Casais Mar 19 '13 at 20:35
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You may want to look at Mage: Dark Ages. It's rule system is very similar to Mage: The Awakening but it is set in the Dark Ages. It still isn't high-fantasy in the way that Dungeons and Dragons is, but it comes much closer and you could easily incorporate more high-fantasy elements if you wanted.

I'll also second the suggestion for Ars Magica as a good system, though it gets a bit complicated and rules bound for my personal tastes.

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You may want to check out Gemini, a dark fantasy RPG from Sweden (it is in English). It has freeform magic with skill specializations for the various aspects of magic (earth, fire, kinetics, etc.).

It fits your requirements, except for the large community and many accessories, which it lacks. Still, it is worth a try, as it has a nicely done sinister setting, as is normal for games from Sweden. :)

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