i'd like to ask you if any of you has ever played an rpg where players we're entitled to make their own spells, and how it turned to be. Also, i'd like some answer to a problem concerning this topic

I'm writing a very rules lite fantasy tabletop, and i got everything covered but magic.

I'd like to make it as easy as making a stat called "magic", that covers how good you are at it. Some other stats, like will or charm may be used too in some spells.

The problem is that i dont want to make a spell list, because the more i write, the more spells i feel that i'm leaving behind. So following the "less is more" philosophy of buda, and the "doing nothing, nothing is left undone"; i choose making it a freeform magic rpg.

That left me with 2 choices, but i have troubles with both.

First one is making players invent some spells BEFORE the game starts, in the character creation. The problem here is on balancing it. How to know how much to give a player. Still the best option of the two.

The second one is letting players walk the world and decide in every moment what they want to do. "i turn this man into a chicken". "I drink all the water in the river" "I Fly over the house, i turn invisible, and i make the cow explode". The problem here is obvious: how do i limit this power?

How did or how would you do it?

I like a lot the idea of using components, but without stating from the very start which components are needed for everything, it would be like cheating. The characters are supposed to know which components they need for their spells, and their rites. It would be cheap for me to just say "oh, no, boy, you can't exchange the soul with a bear, because you lack a 'mcguffin'". A component based magical system would require a spell list for it to be fair, and thats what i'm trying to avoid.

I'm explaining the setting a little for you to visualize better what i have in mind

In the setting i've formed in my head, Magic is the kind of magic that ancient tribes used to believe in, in a sense that almost everything is ruled by magic. But in this setting, this magic is real.

Healing, using medicines, is magic. Bonfires are not lighted bu sparks, but by summoning fire. The sparks and sticks are just part of the ritual. Crafting a sword is not a dexterity challenge, but a magic one. It requires for the forger to convey all his will into the blade to make it realize its own nature. This is the magic that people with low or medium Magic Stat can do. Maybe they can use it better in some fields than in others. Your average elder woman in the village that can heal by laying hands and also reads the future, or the commoner whose grain grows better than their neighbors are the best examples of this. But the idea is that everyone has at least a little magic on them, its just low power or very difficult for them to use it.

In the other hand, people that knows enough magic are called wizards, and can do awesome things as changing their own faces, launching fireballs or opening doors just by commanding locks to open. I have in mind people like Randall Flagg (the dark tower) or John Constantine (hellblazer) when i think of this wizards: their powers seem endless: their spells range from little cantrips to big shots, but they got something for every situation.

In the end, i want things like lighting candles at will, or putting little curses on people, to be common things and allowed to more or less everybody.

on the other hand, i'd like things like flying, turning invisible or becoming a horse to be possible, but not for everybody.

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    \$\begingroup\$ No time to write a full answer to this, too bad. You'll probably want to look into effect based systems like Mutants and Masterminds or BESM. If you're OK with a little more breadth and less care for balance, Ars Magica or Mage may be a good source of inspiration. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nigralbus
    Oct 28, 2013 at 11:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please don't let my answer drive you away from the site - I'm just explaining why I think you need to focus this question and why I'm not venturing an answer myself yet. As a designer myself, I have faced similar issues, but we just don't know enough yet to help you with this one! Welcome to the site and stick around! \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Oct 28, 2013 at 11:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ thank you everybody! im editing with some more explanations about the setting, if that can be of help broading the question a little. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2013 at 12:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ IF you want freeform magic with few rules, you should try the fate system. Fate core has some good hints. If you do not mind to explore more complex systems, you may look for those already mentioned (ars magica and mage:the ascension) and if you can find it, elements of magic for the D20 system. \$\endgroup\$
    – MACN
    Oct 28, 2013 at 21:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ The philosophies you quoted are associated with Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoist philosophy, not with Buddha. \$\endgroup\$
    – octern
    Oct 28, 2013 at 21:31

6 Answers 6


Ars Magica has a system that allows for dynamic spell casting within their own framework. But spontaneous magic (as it calls it) is rooted into the existing system and it is not a light one. Mage: The Ascension, despite its numerous flaws, had an interesting system for creating magical effects. Again, it was derived from a few magical skills that one could learn.

In both cases, the key is to build up examples and/or rules for power vs difficulty and cost.

Your players will abuse the system: this is a good thing that you should embrace. One way to curtail power mongers is to have a cost that is determined by how powerful the effect is under the current situation. Otherwise, you should let the player come up with clever on the stop solutions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, the concept of Paradox, Reality's punishment for pushing too far, lets you regulate the magic in-universe. If you borrow nothing else from Mage, borrow that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Josh
    Oct 28, 2013 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is indeed what I was referring to as cost: something arbitrary that the GM and/or other player(s) can inflict on the magic user. "Reality" in M:TA is utterly broken and most if not all of Lila was misunderstood. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2013 at 15:19

From your description it sounds as if your system is intended to be absolutely minimal in use of rules. In that case, you're correct to worry about listing all the spells in advance - you could spend years sorting out balance and abuse problems, and still not have anything that remotely resembles what a player actually wants to do. Spells you design should be examples to demonstrate what's possible in the system, not an exhaustive list.

There are a lot of systems with rules for freeform magic, but the most obvious candidates (Ars Magica, Mage, Torg etc.) are all rules-deep systems which are unlikely to provide any solutions light enough to fit. (It is not a coincidence that in all three the magic is tightly tied to the setting.)

The closest system I know of to what you describe is Everway, which you should definitely examine for inspiration. The system has only four "stats", from 1-10 - Earth, Air, Fire, Water - with wizards putting points into a fifth "Magic" stat.

Wizards then describe (on character creation) the kind of things their magic does and how it is worked, and the GM uses the Magic stat to measure the amount of effect they're capable of. (There are some reference examples in the rules, for comparison.)

However, this works in part because Everway is resolution-system-free - task success depends only on GM-interpretation-fiat.

For a still-light but more specific system, fans have hacked Everway by making the available Magic points into a measure of total effect power, out of which you pay for the area you want to effect, the power of the effect, and the time you want it to last. (The revision I usually use is at Alexander Cherry's Twisted Confessions site.)

This brings to one other obvious reference point in the FATE Core rules, which provide a strong general-purpose special-effects engine. The archetypal system for freeform magic in FATE, Dresden Files, is too heavy for what you want to accomplish, but I strongly recommend borrowing its fundamental concept - points of magical success on the die roll are turned into an amount of effect of the spell. (So a roll 5 higher than needed on the magic skill check could be an instant 5-points-of-damage effect, or a smaller effect covering more area or lasting for longer.)

It's that kind of system - a general engine for handling power-of-effect - that you'll need in order to make this work.

  • \$\begingroup\$ i'll look into it, thank you! The hacked one looks very good, though i'll have to readapt it if i end up using it. I will left the question opened for i'd like to hear about some more options! \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2013 at 13:12

The problem you are having is that magic is more thoroughly entangled with setting than most aspects of a gaming system. Whatever decisions you make about the magic system inform your setting, and vice-versa. Here's what I mean:

In most fantasy settings, you will find swords. There will be different styles, different techniques, etc.. But swords work the same all over - they cut or poke people until those cut or poked stop being alive. Whether you have mighty-thewed barbarians wielding black iron greatswords or nimble dandies with flashing rapiers, the base assumptions are the same: Shoving sharp metal into someone is bad for them. If your system has some way of figuring out whether someone gets cut or poked, and if so, how bad that was for them, you're done.

By contrast, magic can have a huge variety of concepts with wildly differing base assumptions and when you create game mechanics, you've got to have some way of representing the concrete implications of those assumptions. Is magic in your world dark and dangerous, posing grave risk to those who would wield it? Your system will have to model those risks to the characters. Does your magic require stuff to be consumed? How is that depicted in the system - through inventory or some "spell components" rating?

We cannot provide a concrete answer to this question because you're not asking about something that exists, you're asking us to help you design your system. I think you've got to come back to us when you have a better idea of what kind of magic exists in your setting.


I once tried to do this. Gave up before I got very far. My idea was that you can quantify effects as havign a certain number of points. Each spell must be made up of things on the list. Add together the total number of points for the rating of the spell. your "magic" score results in how many points you can cast per spell or per day...

  • 1 point to do 1 damage
  • 3 points per additional guaranteed point of damage
  • 2 points to do 1d4 damage
  • 2 points per larger die replacement (+4 for 1d6, +6 for 1d8, +8 for 1d12)
  • cost of a die for additional dice (ex. 1d6+1d4 dmg = 4+2 pts = 6 pts)
  • 1 point to affect a single target +2 points per additional target
  • 2 points to affect one cubic foot of space
  • 2 points per additional cubic foot affected

Add things and adjust as you feel necessary. Build a few spells yourself and see if spells that you thing are "equal" in strength wind up similar in the point scoring system.


This is a great question and one I also tried to solve in a homebrew rpg I wrote, with a sort of "Magic Physics" that gave base principles for deriving spells. It's a tough problem, and unfortunately I can't say I solved it, but here's a few of the design ideas I used:

Divide magic into different types - fire magic, mind magic, summoning, portal magic, telekinetics, etc. For each type of magic come up with some first principles that let you relate spell properties and behaviors such as mana cost, range, aesthetics, precision, effect size and shape, and so on.

Where possible try to express magic in basic properties rather than direct effects - so for instance instead of saying a fireball does 4d8 points damage, say it produces thus-and-such amount of fire and heat, and use your RPG's rules for fire damage to determine the hp's done.

Even better is if you can tie the magic to real world physics, because this allows your players to do a lot of the spell design work themselves at their college library. For instance, instead of saying it takes 6 mana to lift a 1 ton block of stone by 10 feet a round, say that X mana per round produces Y units of force per round, and let the player decide how, where, and when to apply that force, and calculate what the effect would actually be.

Two things to beware. First, set up your magic system to restrict the degrees of freedom in a spell, by making the number of variable parameters be a big cost multiplier. So for instance you could have a spell that exerts exactly 1 Newton of force but in any direction, or a spell that exerts variable force but only directly downward. Limiting the number of variables helps restrict the amount of tedious algebra that players engage in during the game.

Second, in freeform magic systems there are going to be lots of ways for players to really abuse things. For instance, consider a teleportation spell that teleports only a single 1" cube of matter, and moves it a single foot to the left; seems like it could be a cheap spell, but imagine if it's targeted to the inside of a creature's head - insta-death. There will be lots of things like this, you'll just have to review each spell (and all spell uses) on a case by case basis, and adjust the rules as you go. (So maybe flesh is magically more expensive to displace than say stone or earth.)

Finally, I'd +1 all the suggestions to look at other existing magic systems. If you can crib off of or even reuse one of them, you're going to save yourself a LOT of time and trouble!!


In Pathfinder there's a alternate spellcasting system called Words of Power that you could use. It's in Ultimate Magic.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What's good about this Wordsof Power system? How does it cater to the querent's needs? \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Oct 28, 2013 at 13:52

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