Building an Improvised Magic System from the Ground Up

If one does not want to read through how I think, I'd skip to the .pdfs and let me know what you think. v2 is shorter and goes a bit wilder, but v1 covers the original take. I'd read through both, as they both communicate how the system overall works and what it does at the table in terms of whats being communicated through the mechanics.

As always, happy to clarify what something actually means, given this is an extracted part of a larger system that does a lot of different things.


Anywhoo, so I've finally put to paper my Magic system, and its been an interesting process given I ended up putting down two versions.

The idea behind why Magic is what it is is born out of a vision I've had in my head for a long time. This is that vision:

Imagine two wizards meeting for a duel. They exchange spells, dodging each other.

The first wizard, he begins to conjure a great wave of water about him; a tsunami spell. As he does this, the second wizard, he's faster, a massive fireball erupts from his hands, and he casts it forth.

The first wizard, reacting quickly, throws his tsunami straight into the air, and the fireball smacks the wave, unleashing a torrent of piping hot fog onto the field.

The fog hangs high, and the wizards can't see each other. They circle, unaware of where the other is.

The second wizard, sensing the hairs on his arms and neck standing up, suddenly turns to release another spell but before he can as much as move his hands, a shockwave and a booming noise cracks through the battlefield, deforming the ground in the wake of a massive lightning bolt, which rips through the second wizards heart, and kills him dead.

As the fog dissipates, we see the first wizard, hunched over and tired, and his arm blackened and cursed, deformed by the power he dared to wield, as what was once a brilliant gem crunbles into dust in his hand. He stands up, he gathers himself, and you watch as his arm returns to normal as it's replaced by a deep, dark mark in the shape of a rune.

And reading it back, it appears I forgot to cover how using Materials effects spells. D'oh! I'll talk about that in a bit.

Anywhoo, through that vision, I know the vibe I wanted and the kind of gameplay experience I wanted to foster. A kind of magical combat thats dynamic, high powered, and in general, just cool.

And I went through a number of iterations trying to achieve it, basically aping anything from your DNDs to your Kids with Brooms. Naturally, they all went bunk, before I eventually got introduced to a lovely game called Bludgeon, which is a big 4e style Tactics game. (That I highly recommend by the way)

What Bludgeon does, similarly but much more simply (relatively speaking) to Ars Magica is have you create your spells on the fly as you fight, letting you customize them to a pretty good degree, and integrating with a lot of neat, if haphazardly collected, bonuses, buffs, enhancements, and stacking effects that you can select from to build a mage.

This, of course, sounded perfect, and it was literally after the first session we tried the game that I just had to do something similar. But I also had other fish to fry in other big, high concept systems I've talked about before, so Magic got tabled, until about a week ago, when I wrote the above vision down to describe my concept for magic to other people, and then I resolved to actually nail the thing.

The thing is, though, and this is key to why there's two versions, is that part of how I design is by basically just making crap up at the table and seeing what sticks. And that extended to how Magic worked, so while the last week has been more dedicated testing and iteration for the 6 or so hours we could get online, we've basically been running Magic since we last played Bludgeon a number of months ago.

Through that kind of play, my vision updated beyond just the cool, violent vibe I envisioned originally, to include whimsy. Hence, if you look at the certain, silly sounding spells, you'll find alliteration and a very contrasting tone. But this is what makes it beautiful, because the whimsy just makes magic all the more terrifying.

Having spells like "Tick", "Tock", and "Turn" is super whimsical, but then one can think about what it must be like to be smacked by a fireball and forced to experience it in slow motion. That is just awful and I love it.

So with all that coming into it, we come to what the design is.

In both versions, Magic outside of combat is improvised. Mechanically speaking, this is (one of) my clever way of completely undercutting the capability of Magic to undermine all the other Skills in the game, by tying it to the same basic resolution system. (And theres a lot more that goes into that, but thats the part thats relevant to this post)

So when you've got some sort of obstacle or problem to solve, and you've come to a point where you want to use magic, you'll improvise a spell to do just that. How the spell manifests is up to you, as are its effects, but as the docs describe, there has to be a logic to it, and you can't just say "i do magic at it" to get out of a jam. In other words, its Improv! Have fun with it, don't hijack the game.

But even despite the steps taken to keep whats basically all the utility magic from being a problem (Goodberry bad), its still important to introduce some friction to it, so people will willingly diversify. Hence, my take on Corruptions, which are mostly derivative of how DCC RPG does them, though without the need for full page reference sheets.

They reserve a more solid niche for Mages, keep abuse low, and also serve as a vehicle for expression rather than forcing arbitrary body horror. (Because as funny as it is to me having my eyes fall out is in DCC, I'm trying to be sensitive and junk)

But, Corruptions also do something swell, which isn't covered in the documents in any detail but is pretty important to understand how all this fits together, in that they form the central design of my take on Mage Classes, which largely are still concepts, but are becoming more defined by the day.

The Mages (Sorcerer, Wizard, Warlock, Necromancer, Battlemage, Druid, Cleric) will all revolve around some variation on how they either Purge, Convert, or Embrace their Corruptions.

The Wizard for example, and as seen in the original vision, converts their Corruptions into runic sigils that etch into their body. This lets them convert the penalties to their Talents (think Ability Score and Proficiency, except its all one number) into penalties to their Composure (HP), and in exchange they become more powerful, gaining a number of possible benefits as they stack sigils.

This should not only prove cool, but also handily reinforces the classic trope of a frail wizard who can't take a punch but is an absolute brickhouse with magic. And mine are basically all ink and no skin, also pretty sick.

Now though, we come to the big questions, how Magical combat actually works.

In both versions, each spell comes as a pair of three that escalate into each other, and the idea is that you are conjuring each spell in turn, and through this, can mix and match them together.

There are 10 pairs, split between "Runes" and "Wards", your offensive and defensive/utility magic respectively, and whether your Attacking or Defending yourself or an ally, you can mix and match all 30 individual spells together by progressing from Simple to Complex, and you'll be leveraging the generic combat mechanics (eg Momentum, the main system Combat revolves around) to do so.

While not listed in the docs, there are 10 options to pick from for Elemental Magic, as well as "Force" as generic magic, and these can be dynamically combined for a number of effects, in v1, and virtually anything you can think of in v2.

This gives you a buttload of variety in both versions, and soundly fulfills the goal of the system. But, the two different takes are very different in how they deliver this.

In the v1 take, I went for the typical Tactics design. Each Spell has a specific effect, and these effects combine as you cast them. Its obviously, a whole heck of a lot, even with my idea for frontloading some shorthand so you can keep the whole Spell system on your character sheet (which has been one of the goals for this system).

But, just today, an idea occurred to me as we finished up testing out v1. As I mentioned earlier, up to now Magic as it was in this game was just made up on the fly. My idea?

Why not just make that the magic system?

Now we have v2, which is rougher (i literally just chopped up v1, added some stuff, and put in some examples from testing it this way), but conveys the idea. No prescribed effects at all; its all Improv all the way down.

And it works.

Astonishingly well in fact, given we're pared back from literally making things up on the fly, and now have the system working in the same way my Events system does for exploration. The Spells prompt you, you interpret them, and you manifest the effect.

Balance wise, they're still bound by the games damage and defense dice balance, so even if they try to conjure a Nuke its only gonna do 4 damage if thats all you rolled. They do have more power to get an advantage in other ways, but there again, so does everybody else. (Martials mechanically are near identical under the hood, funnily enough, in both ways at once)

And with general Improv principles, eg collaboration and respecting the established tone, everything else smooths out.

It was actually a lot of fun just thinking through what the spells can do when you have free reign to define them for yourself. The included examples in v2 cover stuff that was largely explicitly present in v1, but the system really is limitless depending on how the group wants to play.

The caveat being, of course, that while v2 is simpler, it does require a lot of upfront creativity, especially in extended combats. Part of what makes that less of a problem, however, is that the the whole Combat system, as robust as it is, is designed for extremely speedy play. You can finish basic combat scenarios in minutes. Some you won't even need the tactical grid for at all, because they'd be over in less than a Turn.

So as a result, we can buy some of that time back for fun. Having such a big vehicle for expression is fun, and while not for everybody, I don't think it can be denied that spending an extra minute or two to express something about how your character fights is hardly a bad thing.

Especially if such things go on to be a collaborative effort. I see the same sort of thing with Events; players start to combine the things they come up with and what emerges is something that couldn't be captured in the books alone.

While it got too late to try mixing archtypes (we did a bunch of mage v mage and mage v monsters for this), I'm very confident that once we have Martials, Summoners and Mystics in the mix that fights are gonna be even more wild than they already were. (And I've still got entire systems to put to paper for those last two! Who knows where itll go?)

But yeah, thats basically the whole design process and how we arrived here.

As an additional note, as I realized its absent from the rules, a note on Spell Materials.

I never intended to include anything resembling Spell Components originally, but as I came to design my take on Crafting, the idea to use what I was making there to do such a thing originated with using those mechanics to craft DND like spells.

Obviously that all got deprecated, but the Material idea didn't, and it quickly became part of the vision.

So, to keep it short, you can utilize Materials (eg, stuff you collect to craft stuff with) to potentially empower your Magic, or even give you bespoke effects. The one in the vision is a type of Gem called Tempestine, a diamond-like gem whose interior resembles a storm cloud. As the vision describes, its going to jack up your Lightning Magic.

Every single Material in the game will have a unique effect if you consume it as part of your spellcasting. Some will be uber powerful and can turn on you, like Tempestine. Others will be more mid, useful but not critical, and others will be practically useless in combat, but could prove valuable in other situations. All in all it helps to integrate Mages more with that aspect of the game; they have yet another reason to want to be out in the wilderness, founding Settlements, or generally just finding stuff as they trod from quest to quest.

As of now, I don't see this changing regardless of whether v1 or v2 is retained.

And one final note for clarity, the 10 Elements are:


And then theres Force for pure magic.


  • Magicv1.pdf
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  • Magicv2.pdf
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A nice clean update. I decided on splitting the difference, giving a default effect but still leaving the spells up to improvisational interpretation. Also returned the bespoke Elemental Welds, and expanded on the idea of Holding spells, which I used as a good vehicle to just include all of the Elements in the document in their own section.

Also cleaned up the formatting considerably so its a little bit less...a lot to read lol.

The Welds I think are going to be changed up some over time, as exploring these has lead to an answer as to what I was going to do with my take on the Druid, so a few of the Welds might change to better support that.


  • Magicv3.pdf
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This will take more time to digest than I have right now, but I like the basic ideas. Ultimately, if ti works in play for you then it probably will for others, too. I think there's better ways to present and organize things, but again I can't get into the weeds about it right now.

This will take more time to digest than I have right now, but I like the basic ideas. Ultimately, if ti works in play for you then it probably will for others, too. I think there's better ways to present and organize things, but again I can't get into the weeds about it right now.

Yeah you're not wrong on the presentation. Where its at now is mostly just to get things down on paper in a way that isn't a convoluted mess of hand written notes and things ive forgotten.

Like for example the fact that I still forgot to cover how Spell Materials work. Got dangit.

Over time as more of the game gets to this stage of formality I'm gonna start in on layput design and all of that to get something really good going.

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