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.


Some Ships Were Never Meant to Sail, But…

So my biggest fans remain my daughter and her friends. I’m actually cool with that; writing is a hobby for me, not a retirement plan. I’m pleased to have been able to bond with Rebecca through my writing projects, and I’m pleased that my books have given her a way to bond with some of her classmates. With the first copies of Oathbreaker heading our way, interest in my novels is on an uptick in Macon, Georgia.

Recently (okay, yesterday) a new friend was first initiated into the Wonder through a gift of book 1, Children of Pride. Somewhere in an early chapter, she made the same reading leap that another friend had made a year or so before in “shipping” the protagonist, Taylor, with her soon-to-be mentor, Danny. This is fascinating to me:

  • Danny is explicitly described (while impersonating a teenager) as socially awkward, not too bright, and not very good looking.
  • In that scene, Taylor explicitly hopes Danny isn’t developing a crush on her.
  • A chapter or two later, it is revealed that Danny is actually over 200 years old and not at all interested in Taylor.

Apparently even that last part isn’t enough to dissuade them from hoping for this ship to sail. (One girl said, “That’s not as bad as Edward and Bella.” Rebecca said, “Don’t you dare compare my father’s novels to that book!”)

I choose to believe the utterly unforeseen Taylor-Danny ship says something positive about the quality of friends my daughter has chosen to associate with. They are the kind of people who look beyond outward appearances. They are the kind of people who aren’t ready to write anybody off too soon.

And I’m actually cool with that, too.

Oathbeaker Now Available on Kindle!

Here’s how it starts:

* * *

Taylor scowled at Bledrus Dingle. For his part, the spriggan didn’t seem to notice. He looked at her from across the table and shoveled another bite of turkey into his misshapen mouth.

The Route 80 Diner in Manchester, Kentucky was a quaint little place. The décor might have been described as Early Modern Basketball: photos of local high school teams going back thirty years or more adorned the walls, along with donated jerseys and some autographed pictures of people Taylor would probably recognize if she cared anything at all about sports.

The place was mostly empty. Besides Taylor and her repulsive dinner date, the only other people in the tiny restaurant were a couple of county sheriff’s deputies and a homeless guy the manager had taken pity on. It was Thanksgiving, and most people were enjoying the holiday at home with their loved ones.

Taylor was sharing the holiday with her personal jailer, who had glamoured himself to look like an angel-faced ten- year-old. But Taylor had no trouble discerning his true, hideous appearance behind the illusion.

“You’re enjoying this,” she said.

Dingle’s face revealed nothing. “I’m just doing my job.” Taylor scowled at him and poked at her mashed potatoes.

The waitress approached them and asked if they’d like dessert. Her nametag said “Wanita.”

“None for me,” Taylor said.

“Do you have pecan pie?” the spriggan said. Even his voice sounded like a kid’s. Most spriggans didn’t have that much skill. “Is that okay, Mom?” Wanita asked Taylor. Taylor wasn’t any good at the kind of husks Dingle could project to mask his faery nature, but over the last thirty-six hours, she’d had plenty of practice honing her power of suggestion. Nobody in the diner questioned that she could be somebody’s mom. As far as they were concerned, she was just an extremely young-looking thirty-something woman.

“Fine,” Taylor said.

“You ought to have some, too,” Dingle said. Sweet treats enhanced faery magic. William Matthews thought it might have something to do with boosting the level of serotonin in the brain.

“I’m good.”

“Please, Mom?” Dingle said. Beneath his husk, he furrowed his brows: a subtle threat?

Taylor sighed. “Do you have pumpkin?” If she were home, she’d be digging into a slice of her mom’s pumpkin pie about now.

“One pumpkin pie and one pecan, coming right up,” Wanita said.

As soon as she left the table, Dingle said, “You’ve got to keep up your reserves. Mrs. Hellebore wants to see what you can do.”

“Yes, she’s made that quite obvious,” Taylor snapped.

“Like I said, I’m just doing my job.”

“Uh huh,” Taylor said. “I go through these stupid tests, showing you how good I am at glamours. You watch me and report to Mara on my progress. And along the way, you make sure I don’t do anything tricky.” She wondered, though, if anyone was watching Dingle.

* * *

Now go see how it ends. I know you want to.

A Note on Air, Wood, and Elementals

I’ve been doing some research about the classical elements (earth, water, air, fire) and their semi-equivalent in Chinese philosophy, the wu xing or “five changes” (wood, earth, water, fire, metal). Yes, this has something to do with a new writing project I’m considering—something with a more “Renaissance-y” feel to it: Hermetic magic, alchemy, the classical elements, etc.

My half-dozen readers may have already predicted that I’d like to expand the scope of this by including aspects of other world cultures. The classical elements are known as far east as India and even Japan, but the Chinese wu xing is notably different in some regards. The overlap between these two systems is obvious: both include earth, water, and fire. And it might be possible to consider metal as a subset of earth. But what about air and wood? Until quite recently, I wasn’t entirely convinced these two “elements” belonged together. Then I remembered my high school science classes.

Here’s what finally dawned on me (thanks to this YouTube video). Do you know what plants are made of? Mostly air, it turns out. Plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combine it with hydrogen from water, and use these molecules to create carbohydrates. About 90% of a tree’s mass comes literally out of thin air!

Furthermore, what do plants do with the oxygen that’s left over after they’ve taken hydrogen from water? They expel it as a waste product into the air, where humans and other animals breathe it to live.

In short, plants are mainly made of “air,” and they cleanse the air to make it breathable.

The Perfect Beta Team

I am blessed with what is very likely the ideal team of beta readers. Though it only numbers three members (I know some authors like more; I wouldn’t turn down a serious request to be enlisted for the next go-round), they each bring something helpful and necessary to the process.

Reader 1 gets into the thick of it, finding clumsy word choices, unclear motivations, questionable characterizations, and weak pacing. She is also the reader most likely to go full fangirl when characters do something awesome or, more often, find themselves in desperate scrapes.

Reader 2 takes a more big-picture approach. He doesn’t leave me as many comments as Reader 1, but what he leaves is gold. Reader 2 is more likely to alert me to larger issues: whole scenes that just aren’t working, or that need to be placed in a different order; continuity errors; places where I may be expecting too much of my readers’ memory of previous volumes.

Reader 3 is a big-picture reader somewhat like Reader 2, but he brings an eye especially for mythological detail. Reader 3 is the one most likely to question whether what I’m writing has remained true to what I’ve already established about how magic works, for example, or about aspects of culture in the Wonder. Sometimes I think he understands my “rules” better than I do!

Mind you, I had none of this in mind when I invited these three to beta for me. I doubt I could have even predicted how they’d do what I’d asked them to do. But as The River of Night hurtles toward the finish line, I’m grateful to have (accidentally!) assembled such a team. Thanks, guys!

Technology and the Fair Folk

When I first decided to have Fair Folk in my Into the Wonder series fire elf shot from shotguns, it was purely in service of a pun. Mortals may have buckshot and birdshot, but the fae have elf shot! This one decision, however, ultimately exerted a good bit of influence over how I imagined the Fair Folk interacting with technology. Suddenly, they were not mired in medieval stasis but open—at least at some level—to later technological innovations. This was fine, of course, because much of northern European faery lore comes from a later (though still pre-industrial) stage of history, and that was where I had started in working out the “rules” for my fictional world. But shotguns strongly implied machine tooling, and that set me to thinking about other ways modern technology might impinge upon the lives of elves, pookas, goblins, and the daoine sídhe. Here, then, are some of my semi-random thoughts on the matter.

Technological innovation in the Wonder has moved more slowly than it has on human earth. In general, Wonderling society in North America operates at technological level comparable to that of late in the Age of Exploration or the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution (roughly AD 1700–1800).

The Relative Rarity of Tech

Wonderling tech is not as prevalent in their society as it was in ours in the late 1700s, however, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, inhabitants of the Wonder are able to use magic to accomplish many of the goals for which Topsiders must rely on technology. There is little incentive to develop technological ways to enhance a farm’s yield when all one needs to do is turn a few friendly pookas or poleviks loose in the fields! Why develop technological means of transportation and long-distance communication when the ring network and a good Seeing Stone can work at least as adequately as anything mortals have devised—if not far better?

Another limiting factor is the widespread aversion to iron and steel among the true fae. (This is not a significant factor for other denizens of the Wonder such as dwarves, little folk, trolls, etc. It does, however, limit the overall demand for products made of iron or steel.)

Add to this that many inhabitants of the Wonder have a deep connection to and appreciation for the natural world. Beings who have lived for centuries in harmony with springs, fields, forests, and trees are not likely to forsake these things for technological advances that, left unchecked, may threaten to mar or even destroy them.

Furthermore, the Wonder in general lacks an economic system conducive to widespread industrialization. Inhabitants of the Wonder engage in barter with strangers or outsiders and cultivate complex networks of patronage with their associates in an intricate social hierarchy. In such an arrangement, there is little to no incentive for a young sprite to leave the farm in order to work in large urban factories. Therefore, whatever technology is available is still almost exclusively the product of small cottage industries.

The final limiting factor is purely cultural. Although the inhabitants of the Wonder benefit from eighteenth-century technology, their clothing, values, and other aspects of culture are generally closer to fifteenth–sixteenth century. Many in the Wonder are wary of technological innovations beyond this Renaissance-era horizon.

Technological Diffusion from Topside

It should be noted, however, that some Wonderlings are quite acquainted with the Topside world, both in historical times (Mara Hellebore knows of Shakespeare and Spenser) and more recent decades (Danny Underhill is familiar with Walt Disney, Janis Joplin, and Michael Jordan). It is quite possible that a well-read fae could be the equal of any Topside scientist or engineer in terms of the underlying principles of modern technology even if his or her society has not produced all the intermediate steps needed to reproduce it. Algebra and calculus, the germ theory of disease, modern genetics, atomic theory, and other advances are easily comprehended by astute Wonderlings.

Furthermore, many inhabitants of the Wonder are known to enter patronage relationships with Topsiders (“Friendlies”) which might result in the Topside client trading technological trinkets for magical favors.

I have left a number of hints about Wonderling technological capabilities here and there in the Into the Wonder series, however. Moe Fountain’s home has indoor plumbing, including a heated shower (steam pump?). A guard reads a periodical magazine (printing press), there is a clock in the dining hall of Dunhoughkey (clockworks, machine tools?), and various characters deliver elf-shot using blunderbusses, muskets, and shotguns (gunpowder, machine tools). All of these fit very well within eighteenth-century parameters.

Two Borderline Cases

There are two instances of technology more clearly associated with the early nineteenth century. In The Devil’s Due, Lawdwick Vesper carries canned foodstuffs in his pack (c. 1810), and in Children of Pride, Shanna Hellebore’s cell at Dunhoughkey is adorned with photographs (1839). I’ll admit I hadn’t nailed down the tech level in the Wonder as precisely as I since have when writing these details, so what follows may be something along the lines of a writer’s saving throw. Be that as it may, here is how I might be tempted to justify these details.

In the case of Vesper’s canned rations, (1) this innovation is so close to the AD 1800 cut-off as to be virtually negligible, and (2) Nicolas Appert first began working on his food preservation method after a chance observance that food cooked inside a jar didn’t spoil unless the seals leaked. Had the same observation been made fifty to a hundred years prior, canning would be an eighteenth-century invention. Furthermore, (3) since some inhabitants of the Wonder are aware of mortal innovations, there is nothing inherently implausible about canning foods using eighteenth-century technology—all that is really needed is a suitable canister, a pressure cooker, and a heat source.

In the case of photography, Shanna’s cell décor is perhaps best explained by appeal interactions between Wonderlings and Topsiders. Well-read inhabitants of the Wonder would know the basics of photography as it is practiced on human earth—in fact, many of the necessary technical innovations are pre-nineteenth century: the camera obscura, silver nitrate, silver chloride, and the photochemical effect. Indeed, a passage in the novel Giphantie by Tiphaigne de la Roche (1760) anticipates photography.

The first attempt to capture the image in a camera obscura on a light-sensitive substance was made by Thomas Wedgwood around 1800, and it is not inconceivable for Wonderlings to have developed a process something along the lines of a daguerreotype (1839) or perhaps even the wet collodion process (c. 1850).

What do you think? Is there room in Faery Land for gunpowder, machine tools, steam engines, and the cotton gin? Or do you prefer your fantasy races to be strictly medieval?

The Pooka’s Day 5

Claudia’s hunter hoisted Danny by his belt and collar and flung him through the cabin door. He flew a good ten feet, hit the ground with a crunch, and rolled two or three times before stopping flat on his back.

“Underhill!” Greycoat called.

The hunter bounded after Danny. Claudia stood defiantly in the doorway.

The mist-man scooped Danny up and slammed him against a tree.

“Oof!” Danny gasped. Take it easy, you misty oaf!

“And never trouble my passengers again!” Claudia rumbled. She held her figurine aloft. The hunter dissolved into fog and wafted away.

Danny slumped to the ground.

Claudia disappeared inside the cabin. Seconds later, a parade of figures departed: Claudia, Elijah limping beside her, Betsy, and Susanna taking up the rear with a sleeping Timothy in her arms.

They made for the mushroom ring and passed out of sight.

“Underhill, dost thou hear me?”

“I hear you, Mr. Greycoat,” Danny muttered. He summoned an orb of faery fire into his hand. “That witch was…just too much for me.”

He struggled to his feet and stumbled toward his landlord, still trapped inside Claudia’s magic circle.

“So it appeareth,” Greycoat said. “Alas, those youngsters would have completed thy yearly charge. I fear thou must find me another deathling child, Underhill.”

“Another one, sir?”

“Aye. That was the favor I bespoke. Or hath the witch’s enchantments addled thy brain?”

“No, sir,” Danny said. He kept his eyes down. “It’s just—”

“Just what, Mr. Underhill? The terms of our agreement haven’t changed this past hour.”

“Of course not, sir. It’s just…”


“Well, I sort of figured you’d ask me to set you free from that circle.”

Greycoat’s mouth dropped open.

Then his eyes grew wide.

“Thou meanest to keep me trapped here?” Greycoat’s cheeks, usually pale as chalk, turned rosy pink.

“No, sir! Not at all, sir!” Danny protested, still limping forward. “I overheard the witch talking about how she…uh…inconvenienced you like she did. I’m pretty sure I can reverse it. In fact, I know I can.”


“Of course, if you’d rather have a mortal child, I can run out and find you one right quick. It shouldn’t take more than a couple days. A week at most.” Danny gestured dismissively. “There ain’t no way that spell’s gonna last that long, d’you think?”


“But it’s all up to you, Mr. Greycoat. Whatever you want. You’re the boss, after all. You want a deathling kid? You got it! I’ll get on it right away.”

“Get me out of here!”

Danny paused. He dared to look up into Greycoat’s eyes.

“Well, sir,” he began. He took a breath. “If that’s the favor you’re asking of me, I’m oath-bound to deliver.”

Greycoat growled.

“And that makes us even, right? I done everything you asked.” He chuckled. “‘Cause everybody knows a fellow as close as you are with the Erlking would never go back on his word.” He laughed out loud. “Could you imagine what the Erlking would do if one of his biggest buddies made a bonehead move like that?”

Greycoat clenched and unclenched his fists, helpless behind Claudia’s magic circle.

“So…if you’d like me to set you free…and that settles our accounts…you just say the word…Sir.”

“Free me,” Greycoat whispered. “Now.”

“I’ll be right back,” Danny said. He disappeared into his cabin long enough to retrieve a pouch of powdered herbs Claudia had left for him.

He tossed a handful of the powder into the air in front of Greycoat, and the magic circle collapsed at once.

Greycoat took a step forward. Danny backed away.

“If you’re still interested in those deathling kids, I think they went that way,” Danny said.

“This is not over,” Greycoat said.

“Actually, sir,” Danny said, “I’m pretty sure you gave me your word that it was.”

Greycoat huffed. He retrieved his sword and returned it to his sheath. He stalked into the woods.

Danny sighed.

He shook his head.

He hobbled through the front door of his cabin.

“How was that?” he whispered.

“Perfect!” Claudia gushed. She held Susanna’s hand. Elijah was sitting up at Danny’s table with his arms around his children.

“But you sent Greycoat after your little friends,” she pondered. She led Danny to the table and sat him down. His back was stiff. He ached all over.

“I sent him after you—Ooo!” Claudia began massaging his shoulders. It hurt like fire at first, but the cool touch of her hands soon eased his aching muscles. “Little folks are tops when it comes to glamour tricks like that. But I expect they took off those husks as soon as they were out of sight. Even if he runs into them in the woods, he’ll never suspect they were the runaway slaves he saw leaving the cabin.”

“You’ve got a devious mind, Mr. Underhill,” Claudia said with a smile.

“I know another way back to human earth. When you’re ready to move, I’ll show you. It comes out by the Crawfords’ place. They’re Quakers, so they won’t give you no grief if they catch you sneaking around. They might even put you up for the night. And it’s Danny, if you please.”

She came around in front of him and offered her hand. “You’re too kind.”

Then she turned serious. “There’s no telling what Greycoat will ask of you next year.”

“Well, that gives me a year to make other plans. See a little bit of the world. Maybe do a favor or two for the Erlking myself—just to be on the safe side.”

“Something tells me you’ll come out on top,” Claudia said. “I’d like to think you’ll be here next time I pass through, though. We got off on the wrong foot, I know. I’d like the opportunity to show you I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault I left the blamed door open.”

“No,” Claudia agreed. “It wasn’t.”

“Seems to me I owe you something for all your trouble,” Danny said. “So if you do ever pass this way again, come on by. I’ll show you and your passengers a fine time, and that’s a promise.”

“Perhaps I’ll take you up on that, Mr. Un—Danny.”

“I’d be honored if you did, Miss Claudia.”