I'm about to start running a Fate Core game that focuses on magic-using PCs. As I've conceptualized magic in the setting, it's easy to use but very dangerous unless one has invested a lot in the associated skill. I've been kicking around a few notions, but I'm curious what kinds of mechanics, either in published systems or in your own system hacks, have been used to capture the notion of an inherently risky flavor of magic.

In particular I'm looking for mechanics that dish out stress, consequences, or possibly wider reaching aspects when things go wrong. I've read the Fate Toolkit, and the Voidcallers device of "Doom Points" is one good example, but I haven't run across others.

Edit: Some examples of what I mean by "risk".

  • I do not have in mind social consequences of being a magic user or any thing which might lead to compels just from having magical ability. Nor do I have in mind "mundane" accidents of the kind you could make with a weapon (like hitting the wrong target). Mere unreliability (you try to throw lightning but it unexpectedly fizzles) also isn't what I have in mind.

  • I do have in mind effects that follow from the use of the magic as such; that is, non-mundane effects that could be avoided by solving the problem with some other skill set. This could include, but is not limited to: unusual alterations to one's physiology; your fireball spell is more like a flamethrower spell and you can't turn it off; the use of said fireball spell taints the area for years to come, causing things to periodically spontaneously combust; etc. Succeeding at magic, but failing to manage the risks, should leave the character only slightly better off than letting the bad guys win; and if you fail and also take the side effects, you should be worse off than if you had just let the bad guys win.

I would think of Lovecraftian magic as the extreme end of "risky magic", where using magic at all will probably inevitably destroy you in some unusual way, but it needn't be quite this bad.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Answerers take note: We expect that system hacks have been tried and tested. A good answer will provide assurance of its results either based on personal experience, or on experience it can cite. Solutions invented just now based on speculation about what might work have no guarantee of being any good, and will likely attract downvotes. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 7:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you looking only for consequences that happen/last in a similar timeframe to the "good thing" the magic is used for? Or also for things that are more subtle but far-reaching, or more social and cultural in nature? Examples of the former might be: consequences, wishes being interpreted by an overly-literal-but-not-murdurous genie, etc. The latter might be: ostracisation, obligation to help strangers, being wanted by the law ie. things more on the level of compels rather than consequences. \$\endgroup\$
    – detly
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 7:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @detly - Either. The setting I have in mind tends towards longer term results, but I'm trying to cast the net wide on this question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 8:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ I went back and read The Six Viziers section of the Fate System Toolkit, and it's not as explicit as I remembered, but there are a few mentions of wider social consequences for each of the "classes" in there (eg. paralysing impartiality for the Eye). You might want to take a closer look at that section too. \$\endgroup\$
    – detly
    Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 1:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @detly - That doesn't seem like what I would think of as a "risk" so much as an up-front cost for the character; as I read that section, those are related to how you compel the associated aspect, rather than something that can bite you specifically as a consequence of using the magic itself. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 2:16

1 Answer 1


"...but at cost." and "...but weak against..."

If you tack one of those phrases onto a stunt giving permission to do magic, you introduce a new set of compels that can be made against you: narrative risks customised to the scenario both in what happens and how severe/lasting the fallout might be.

"But at cost" indicates that regardless of success your magic may have unintended consequences. Costs don't have to happen every time you use your magic; they're just permission/invitation for the GM to compel your high concept and dip into "minor cost" options from the success at cost list when that'd make the story more dramatic.

Tainted pyromancy. You can use Shoot to attack or create advantages with unnaturally conjured fire, but at cost.

The nature of this cost would have to be agreed upon by the group; to my mind, it reflects the unnatural origin of the conjured fire. The player could be compelled to have the fire be unusually voracious and hard to extinguish, or become an independent elemental with its own plans.

Dark force. By expending your life energy you can use Physique at range (+1 to the difficulty for each zone away from you), but at cost.

This cost would be directly tied to the PC's life energy: Check off some stress, put a Drained aspect on the PC and give the invoke to an NPC, attract the attention of a nearby vampire.

"But weak against..." is more specific about how your magic creates problems for you: it's effectively adding an extra Trouble aspect to your character by completing the phrase with something you're vulnerable to.

Mental eavesdropping. You can use Notice to create advantages by hearing the thoughts of others (they may defend with Will) but are weak against strong emotions.

This weakness can be compelled to make the character unwillingly acquire the emotions of people around him, making him paranoid or furious or amorous simply because someone near him feels that way--but he then acts on those emotions as if they are his own.

Demon summoning. You can use Lore to create advantages representing the demonic forces which obey your commands, but you are weak against challenges to your authority.

For this stunt I chose to ignore the obvious "demons rebel against you" drawback, instead implying that the act of mastering demons warps the mind of the caster and makes him increasingly egomaniacal. The PC can be compelled to respond disproportionately to any perceived slight against his authority.

By keying magical fallout off compels, this gives you some control over the drama which comes from magic: these compels can be bought off like any other, and when you do accept it you get a fate point. (Don't forget that you can also self-compel.)

If you'd like to distinguish magical cost/weakness compels from other sorts of compels, I suggest adapting a trick that I've used from both and : that particular kind of compel is worth 2 fate points instead of one. If the player accepts the compel, they get 2 FP; if they want to buy off the compel, they must spend 2 FP. Of course, this should come with a commensurate upscaling in the level of drama and complication each magical fallout compel brings to the story. Use the "serious cost" list instead of the minor costs as inspiration.

I've had success with these ideas in Atomic Robo games (which is where the specific phrasing comes from) and elsewhere. A genericised version of these ARRPG mechanics will become open-licensed content soon, and I'll link to them when they are.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any thoughts on how one might make the "success at a cost" results have more bite, if, say, you wanted success at a cost to be worse for magic than other skills? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 10:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I will mark this as the answer because I think it is the simplest general answer to the question in line with the Fate design philosophy, and it works to resolve my own design concerns for the campaign I had in mind. Other responses are still welcome and helpful. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 5:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BESW It might help to edit in a couple of magic stunt suggestions to show the general shape of things, and how you might use their costs and weaknesses. For a start: a pyromancy stunt that lets you perform fire-related overcomes and advantages with provoke at a cost (compel it to go out of control, hurt friends, damage important stuff, or backfire). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 7:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll make some comments in the question about the kind of "riskiness" I have in mind. (Also, "she".) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 12:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MaliceVidrine Hope these examples help! If you'd like to delve into this in more detail, feel free to drop by the chat any time. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 13:53

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