Sunday Inspiration: Being Useful

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.
—Charles Dickens


Let’s Make an RPG Magic System (or Three)

So lately I’ve been thinking about role-playing games. So when I saw Codey Amprim’s post at Mythic Scribes on “Using Role-Playing to Rein in Your WIP,” I knew I had to read it. Codey’s point is quite simple, to the point of being self-evident: you can learn a lot about your world-building, characters, settings, etc. simply by inviting your friends to role-play in your setting. If you’re into RPGs (and have some friends that are, too), running a session in which your friends can not just read your WIP but experience bits of it firsthand can open your eyes to what is working and what isn’t. Codey writes,

In my opinion, this is just as valuable, if not more (depending on how serious your role-playing companions get), than using beta readers. You get to take in their reactions, not just their words. You get the chance to see how they respond to your WIP, by directly engaging them and their imaginations – without a manuscript. It’s a great chance to test the waters of your work while having a good time.

I’ve been world-building a new WIP to within an inch of its life lately, and I’ve been intentionally thinking of the magic system in terms of “game mechanics.” What should the characters I’m imagining be able to do? What would be too hard? What shouldn’t be possible at all? As a former old-school gamer (from back before there was a new school!), I find it helpful to quantify things like that—even if I eventually scrap or retcon some things in the course of actually writing!

To me, the easiest system to “hack” with a home-brewed magic system is Fate Core, which has the advantage of an excellent online source reference document (SRD) where you can read pretty much the whole rule set for free. There’s also Fate Accelerated, a stripped-down version especially suitable for new or younger gamers. From here on, I’m going to say Fate, but I’m talking specifically about Fate Core. As a system, Fate is immensely customizable to fit any conceivable genre.

Disclaimer: I’ve never played Fate, so I can’t comment on how it works at the table. I understand it’s not every gamer’s cup of tea. But from a writing point of view, it was just what I was looking for.


If you’ve never heard of Fate, the basic mechanic revolves around aspects, which are brief phrases or descriptors that describe a character (or a scene, or a magical artifact, etc.). Aspects underline what is most crucial to understand about something, both positively or negatively. Harry Potter might have aspects like “Lord Voldemort’s Nemesis” or “Good at Flying.” Percy Jackson might have aspects like “Son of Poseidon” or “Would Do Anything for his Friends.” Your aspects can give you advantages on certain dice rolls, but they can also be used against you to complicate your character’s life.

There are also skills, drawn from a fairly limited set—although these can be customized to fit the needs of the genre of game you’re playing. Finally, there are stunts, which are essentially “super-skills,” the signature moves or amazing, unique abilities that characters possess. Where skills are somewhat narrowly defined, stunts can be pretty much anything. Hermione Granger probably has a stunt that lets her do magic far beyond her baseline ability as long as she has time to do the appropriate research. Annabeth Chase definitely has a stunt that lets her analyze conditions on a battlefield and use what she learns to create advantages for herself or her teammates.

You get a certain number of stunts for free. After that, you have to “buy” them with points of Refresh. This number indicates how many Fate Points a character starts each game session with, generally set at 3. You use Fate Points to invoke your aspects, using them to get dice bonuses. You gain Fate Points when someone invokes your aspects against you (called “compelling”). (This is important to playing Fate, maybe not so much to using the Fate system to describe a work of fiction!)

So here’s what I was aiming at, and some rough notes about how I think it can be translated into a Fate rule set.

  • First, the basic conceit of my WIP is the existence of supernatural beings—elves, dwarves, mermaids, trolls, etc.—living undercover, beneath the radar, in the contemporary, mundane world. Some are just passing through. Some have been exiled from the supernatural realm and can’t get back. Some, however, are on the run from someone or something and never want to go back. The classic American immigrant story, just with magic!
  • A secondary conceit is that these beings roughly correspond to the elemental spirits described in the 16th century by Paracelsus: sylphs, undines, gnomes, and salamanders, each spinning off with bewildering diversity of form and power level, but generally corresponding to one of the four classical elements: air, water, earth, or fire. (I eventually added a few others just to keep it interesting.)

I found it actually quite easy to translate what I was looking for into Fate terms. Actually, works similarly to the Stormcallers magic system suggested in the supplemental Fate System Toolkit. My system favors magic that is more versatile and yet more subtle than Stormcallers, however. For example, you can’t use the basic Magic skill for combat rolls—if you want to lob fireballs or whatever, you need to buy a stunt for that.

Here’s the 30-second version:

  1. Each character must buy an aspect that indicates their kindred (elf, dwarf, etc.), the “flavor” of their magic (Air Magic, Earth Magic, etc.), or both.
  2. Buy the (newly invented) Wild Magic skill. Reduce the character’s Refresh by 1.
  3. Declare which elemental chaos powers the character’s magic: Air, Earth, Fire, Ice, Lightning, Metal, Water, or Wood.
  4. If desired, buy additional Wild Magic skills in other elemental chaoses. A second Wild Magic aspect does not reduce refresh, but a third aspect requires another one-step reduction.
  5. If desired, build one or more stunts related to the characters magical skill(s).

From there, it’s mostly a matter of figuring out what each elemental chaos is all about. Here, I turn to classical alchemy, neo-paganism, and pervasive cultural symbolism surrounding each element. So Water Magic also has to do with intuition, the subconscious, and healing arts, for example, while Air Magic also governs thoughts and perceptions. Anything suitably subtle can be done with the basic skill. Anything flashy or notably dangerous has to be bought as a stunt.

In my WIP, it’s also possible for mortals to practice magic, although theirs works a bit differently…and will have to be addressed in another post down the road.