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.


Magic in Early Judaism

This is a bit afield of what I usually post on this blog, but some of you might be interested in a new book about magic in early Judaism. The book is called Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah. Blogger Alan Brill reviews the book and interacts with the author in a brief online interview.

Harari argues that the practice of magic was very much a part of early Judaism (and Christianity), even though we’re predisposed not to see it. (What I do is “ritual”; what the people I don’t like do is “magic.”) Here’s one small snippet:

Magic is may be considered as pre-scientific technology, a scheme of technical practices founded on the belief in the way reality is run. Given the traditional premises concerning what forces that reality, magic behavior was rational.

Jewish magic is founded on a belief in human aptitude to affect the world by means of rituals, at the heart of which is execution of oral or written formulas. It is not different from Jewish normative religious view, which ascribes actual power to sacrifice, prayer, ritual, and the observance of law. Magic also does not differ from the normative views regarding God’s omnipotence or the involvement of angels and demons in mundane reality. It has elaborated as a system parallel to, and combined with the normative-religious one, a system that seeks to change reality for the benefit of the individual, commonly in order to remove a concrete pain or distress or to fulfill a certain wish or desire.

Books of magic recipes from antiquity as well as from later periods show that magic was pragmatically required in every aspect of life. Magic fantasy of the kind of One Thousand and One Nights or Harry Potter is missing almost all together from recipe books, which usually offers assistance in achieving targets that may be achieved also without magic. According to these Jewish books, magic power can be implemented personally or by an expert. Expert magicians offered their help in choosing and performing the right ritual and in preparing adjuration artifacts and other performative objects, such as amulets of roots and minerals.

Brill’s review mentions connections between early Jewish magic and Greco-Roman magical practices, something I’d certainly be interested in checking out.

Irish Mythology: Culture or Commodity?

Here’s a very thought-provoking article by Brian O’Sullivan on how elements of Irish culture and mythology have been used—and more often abused—in fantasy fiction. His main point is found, I think, in the these two paragraphs:

The problem, however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale, but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.

From an Irish perspective therefore, when you see your native cultural icons plucked from their normal environment, repackaged in some pseudo-Celtic [nonsense] and then reproduced out of context in a fantasy product, you can start to appreciate why other native groups complain about the commercial appropriation and exploitation of their cultures. For Irish people in particular, it feels as though we’ve been bombarded by mawkish, overly romanticised and culturally inaccurate interpretations of our own mythology for decades.

O’Sullivan is clearly and rightly passionate about this, and he provides much food for thought. I’m grateful for his raising my awareness of how things things are experienced for people who cherish these mythological elements, even if they don’t literally believe in them.

He later mentions the backlash over J. K. Rowling’s handling of Native American mythology in her “History of Magic in North America.” I’ve shared some of my thinking on that matter elsewhere, and much of what I say there applies here as well. My fiction is set in the United States of America. To write authentically, I feel I have an obligation to deal with the entire melting pot of cultures that I see around me on my way to work every morning. Therefore, this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to say Native American beliefs and folklore concerning magic, fantastic beasts, and so forth are off limits for fantasy writers. Nor, for that matter, should be the mythology of West Africans brought to North America as slaves. To be honest, leaving these elements out strikes me as more colonialistic than including them. Writing off black, Native American, or other non-white contributions to American life and culture leaves a story at best only half-told.

The challenge, especially for someone of European descent (something Ms. Rowling and I have in common), is to listen to these other cultures and go the second mile in attempting to depict them with dignity and integrity.

Of course, it’s up to you, my readers, to decide whether I’ve met that challenge.

Of Beans and Vampires

Today I learned that apparently you can use beans to trick vampires. By some sort of leguminous magic, vampires are prone to mistaking beans for pregnant women (and possibly other kinds of humans). Who knew?

This tidbit may or may not be related to my previous post about commodity items as media of exchange. Time will tell.

Also, leguminous is an adjective meaning “relating to or denoting plants of the pea family” (including beans).

It’s Not Rick Riordan Tackling Other World Mythologies, It’s Better

Next year, Rick Riordan’s Disney imprint will feature three new books by three different authors, each dealing with the mythology and folklore of “underrepresented cultures and backgrounds.” He writes,

Basically, our goal is to publish great books by middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage. Over the years, I’ve gotten so many questions from my fans: “Will you ever write about Hindu mythology? What about Native American? What about Chinese?” I saw that there was a lot of interest in reading fantasy adventures based on different world mythologies, but I also knew I wasn’t the best person to write them. Much better, I thought, to use my experience and my platform at Disney to put the spotlight on other great writers who are actually from those cultures and know the mythologies better than I do. Let them tell their own stories, and I would do whatever I could to help those books find a wide audience.

Who are these authors, you ask? Publishers Weekly introduces them as Yoon Ha Lee (Korean), Jennifer Cervantes (Maya), and Roshani Chokshi (Indian).

Can’t wait!

Tolkien and Lewis Were Not Big Fans of Disney

So says Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura:

It’s no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were legendary frenemies. But while they may have sparred over fantasy and religion, they shared one little-known viewpoint: a disdain for the works of Walt Disney.

Literary friendships are often thought of in the driest abstract, with learned people of letters sitting in stuffy rooms debating only the most important intellectual issues. But like anyone, sometimes a couple of authors just go to the movies. And on at least one occasion, the architect of Middle-earth and the father of Narnia went and saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs together.

According to an account in the J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Tolkien didn’t go see Snow White until some time after its 1938 U.K. release, when he attended the animated film with Lewis. Lewis had previously seen the film with his brother, and definitely had some opinions. In a 1939 letter to his friend A.K. Hamilton, Lewis wrote of Snow White (and Disney himself):

Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: and the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius. What might not have come of it if this man had been educated–or even brought up in a decent society?

In another instance, Lewis called the evil queen’s design unoriginal, and described the dwarves as having, “bloated, drunken, low comedy faces.”

It just gets better from there.

Crash Course Mythology

CrashCourse has introduced a new series on Mythology! For those of us who’ve long enjoyed CrashCourse videos on history, literature, and science, this is welcome news. For those of us in that category who also love mythology and folk tales, this is wonderful news!

The first of a projected 40 or so installments, hosted by Mike Rugnetta, is now available on YouTube. Enjoy!