A roleplaying magic system can be a pretty cut and dry thing: a spell list, damage, area of effect, and so on, but if done correctly, it can do so much more. Properly done, a magic system can be used to deepen the setting’s theme and background, informing the players and DM about the world, the peoples, and cultures.
All “magic” systems rely on manipulating reality through the use of magic power, “special effects,” technology, innate abilities, or mutations to create an effect, such as healing, damaging others, buffing, disguise, summoning, animating and so on. The generation of these effects typically takes time to produce and generally drain the character’s health, energy, memory, spiritual power, etc. Such systems are often limited in how much can be accessed at any given time, subject to failure or interruption, through various methods and mechanics. These articles examine each of the abovementioned aspects at a high level.
Note: Part 1 can be found here
Magic Time Frame
All magic takes time. Even “self-generated powers,” such as are seen in mutants, metahumans, and monsters, follow this same rule. But the time that magic or powers take to form will vary from system to system. Does the power form instantly in reaction to virtually any circumstances? Are casters able to weave it in a few seconds? That is, provided they have the proper spells memorized. Do casters need to plan carefully and set up elaborate ceremonies to cast magic?
Furthermore, do the spells need expensive material components? Lengthy magical chants? Complex gestures? The proper focus? Artifacts to focus or empower the magic? All these variables will affect how long the magic takes to cast.
Taking cues from collectible card games such as “Magic the Gathering,” one can examine how time affects gameplay. The first thing one needs to do is figure out the resolution mechanic. The most common ones are:
LIFO – Last In First Out. The last spell cast gets resolved first.
FIFO – First In First Out. The first spell cast gets resolved first; this also means the last spell gets resolved last.
FILO – First In Last Out. The first spell cast gets resolved last
Why does resolution order matter? It matters because it determines how resistances and vulnerabilities and counterspells play out. If your magic system doesn’t have a resolution mechanic, it’s not all that robust.
Each of these effects has limits as far as what they can do based on the specific strength of the caster that allows them to cast the spell, but there may be other limitations as well. Many times the game’s magic system(s) disallow(s) certain types of armor or weapons. Conversely, it might make the user(s) less able to use them due to the magic user’s dedication to the craft. In some systems, it is the metal in and of itself that makes the casting difficult, and the more metal surrounding the caster, the more difficult it becomes to cast the spell.
Magic’s use also limited by the imagination of the caster/ player. Even relatively “set” spells can be used for a variety of purposes to suit the situation, if one has a bit of imagination for alternative uses for the spells.
Magic Failure or Interruption
If the magic is interrupted, one of several things can happen:
Nothing: the spell fails. The spell is not cast, neither does it expend the slot it takes.
Loss of spell slot. ‘Nuff said.
Success with difficulty: The caster has to struggle to get the magic under control.
Success with problems: The cast spell is not as effective as it usually would have been, either in duration, damage, less area or some other variable
“Goes wild:” the magic power is accessed, but something goes wrong with the spell. Another spell other than the one intended is cast. Sometimes the results are good… sometimes they are terrible, but that’s the “luck of the draw.” Some magic-users depend on this randomness and adjust for it.
Backlash: The spell rebounds on the caster, damaging him.
Burnout: the spell works (or doesn’t) but causes the magic-user to lose all his/her magical abilities. Very often if a magic-user or powered individual suffers burnout, s/he needs to go on a quest to get their powers back.
Those using magic typically have a price to pay for its use.
Assimilation Backfire: Those that can absorb or assimilate powers/ abilities, need to be careful of powers’ weaknesses they steal. A classic example of this is Superman’s nemesis Parasyte, who takes Superman’s powers, but retains his vulnerability to Kryptonite.
Addiction: using power is habit-forming; this is a common trope of the World of Darkness games. “Humanity” or similar stats to show how much the player has given in to the “inner beast.
Armorless: Armor somehow interferes with spellcasting, so most magic users go without it. One real-world reason this might be is that armor may interfere with movement. Another in-universe explanation might be that the energy needs to leave the mage’s body, and metal armor blocks that.
Beneficial Disease: character has a disease that is useful in some way. Perhaps it protects them from another, more deadly disease. In other cases, the disease might be fatal but give the person extraordinary powers.
In Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Alice gains superhuman strength, speed, and agility because the T-virus (the virus that causes people to become zombies in-universe) bonded with her on a cellular level.
In Phenomenon, John Travolta’s character develops hyperintelligence and even psychokinesis because of what is eventually discovered to be a terminal brain tumor
There are examples in tabletop RPGs where diseases give their hosts a litany of powers. Lycanthropy, and at times, vampirism (depending on treatment) are some examples.
Conditional Powers are abilities based on things that the user needs to do – or avoid.
Corruption: is a force of chaos that gives some of its victims a Superpowered Evil Side before (or while) it mutates them into mindless monsters.
Clingy Artifact: the item in question has one specific quirk: you cannot get rid of it. It cannot be removed, lost, given away, buried, thrown in the ocean, blown up, or separated from the owner in any way. It returns if disposed of; removing it is nigh impossible.
Dastardly artifact: the object in question invariably causes the demise of its owner/ wielder.
Deal with the Devil: many times, Warlocks in D&D count as having this.
Fantastic Fragility: Everything has a weakness, every lock has a key, every curse a loophole, and the flaw will come into play to bring down the device. The technique or device’s creator may incorporate a drawback that will make it stronger while also a giving way to defeat it.
Horrific True form: the power is such that it warps the user
Hunger or exhaustion: the magic-user is ravenous from using their abilities.
Insanity: the magic-user trades power for his sanity.
Intangible Costs: the power has a price, but it’s not physically representable.
Limited Uses: the magic has X number of uses
Magical Attraction. The power’s use attracts disaster.
Oathbound Powers are ones that depend on the adherence of its wielder to a particular creed, ethos, set of laws, virtue, trait, etc. Paladins are an example of this.
Pent-Up Power Peril. The character has magical abilities that are always trying to get out. Magic builds up inside the character if not used until it has no place to go but out. Being too full of magic may cause it to slip out. Or, if the powers are unable to escape, it creates all sorts of problems.
Powered by a cost too dear: a power that doesn’t work unless you pay a ghastly price or have someone else pay that price for you.
Power-Strain Blackout: The character faints after using their powers
Power Wields You: A character has to give up free will to access the ability, power, or magic.
Rapid Aging: using the power ages the user rapidly.
Scarring: This is a common trope, though the scarring isn’t always such that it really hinders its user.
Marvel Comic villain “Doom” is scarred. If you listen to Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), it’s not that bad. Doom made his scarring worse with the mask he donned before it cooled.
Raistlin in the Dragonlance series is permanently orange, and his pupils are hourglasses. In Disney’s Aladdin the TV series, Mozenrath’s gauntlet gives him remarkable magical powers, but at the cost of the flesh of his hand.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, all of the homunculi have tattoos that mark them for what they are.
The Bleach anime the vizards and arrancars all have skull masks
In Tokyo Ghoul, some Ghouls have white hair and black nails.
Soul Pains. Characters using the magic feels horrid nonphysical pain. This pain might be psychological, in their soul, heart, spirit, or mind, but it never leaves a physical mark.
Squishy: the magician may be powerful, but hurt or killed easily when without access to magic
Time Dissonance: Characters aren’t in sync with the rest of reality because time flows differently for people depending on their age, mood, and perspective.
Weaksauce weakness: the magic or power has a ridiculous defect, like fire or the color yellow.
Uncontrolled: the power is incredible, but the character can’t control it properly – or at all!
As you can see, there are a variety of ways to build a magic system for your game. Figuring out a time system for magic and powers, magic limitations, how magical failure works in your game, and the built-in weaknesses of the system will help build a magic system that is more comprehensive and real.