Inverting Your Mage's Power Progression

Copyright Ben Wolcott © 2003

Edited by Peter Mork for The Guild Companion

"Why don't mages advance more like fighters?"

Over many years of playing RM2 and RMSS one thought resurfaced time and again in my mind: "Why don't mages advance more like fighters?" That is, logarithmically rather than exponentially. Even without number-crunching, mages in the rules as written can ascend to amazing heights of power, and fighters (or, goodness gracious, sages) cannot hope to keep up without regular injections of incredible equipment.

RM2 magic was almost entirely level-based: you gained your Power Points by level, level determined casting times, etc. (also it was almost impossible to do anything without a power point multiplier, but we'll let that slide for the moment). RMSS moved more toward skill-based magic, with the introduction of Power Point Development and Spell Casting maneuvers.

What follows is an attempt to free the magic system even further from level constraints. First, I will detail alternate rules, then the philosophy behind them, and finally a few suggestions and loopholes you ought to be aware of.

Be warned, this system is a significant departure from standard RMSS spell-casting.

Changes:

Spell Lists

The coolest part first. Under the new rules a spell user can now attempt to cast any spell, of any level, if it fits thematically with any list he knows.

That's right. Learn Fire Law, cast any fire based spell. You can actually attempt to cast Triad of Flame at level 1. Learn Rapid Ways, cast any speed/reflex enhancing spell. Go straight for Haste X, or make up your own version (Haste XVII, anyone?). If your outrage or irrepressible joy is already rising to the fore, you should probably skip to the philosophy section or the loopholes section.

Mechanics

All spell lists now advance at the Combined Progression of -30·5·3·1.5·0.5 instead of the original progression of 0·1·1·0.5·0.

The Spell group uses the statistic modifiers PP Stat / (Me or Re or SD depending on Realm) / PP Stat.

Realm

Stats

Channeling

In/Me/In

Essence

Em/Re/Em

Mentalism

Pr/SD/Pr

Channeling/Essence Hybrid

In/SD/Em

Channeling/Mentalism Hybrid

In/SD/Pr

Essence/Mentalism Hybrid

Em/SD/Pr

Arcane

In/Em/Pr

All spells now require a Spell Casting Static Maneuver (no automatic spell-casting!). Resolve on the regular SCSM chart. Also, use the regular SCSM chart modifiers, except that rounds of preparation are not level dependent; instead use:

Rounds

0

1

2

3--4

5--6

7--8

9+

Bonus

0

+5

+10

+15

+20

+25

+30

There is no longer a level comparison between the caster's level and the spell's level. Instead all spells impose a uniform penalty of --5 per level (to a maximum of --200).

There is no automatic +50 to SCSM rolls. Note that the modifiers for type of spell list still apply (e.g., +10 for own base, +5 for open own realm, etc.).

Certain magic items are allowed to modify SCSM rolls.

Instant spells (those denoted by an asterisk in the spell lists) get an automatic +20 to the SCSM roll, or the caster can choose to cast them as a non-instantaneous spell (in order to gain the greater bonus for preparing for than six rounds).

The caster gains a +1 to the SCSM for each PP over the spell's level that he spends. The caster suffers a --5 penalty to the SCSM for each PP he "shorts" the spell (sometimes known as "undercasting"). No spell may be cast for less than 1 PP.

To resist a spell, the target must make a Resistance Roll of at least 50. This roll is modified by +1/level of the target and --1/level of the caster. (See below for additional defenses.)

Development

Spell Group costs:

Pure Spell User Base: 6/12 Open: 8 Closed: 10 Other: 2x RMSR written costs

Hybrid Spell User Base: 6/12 Open: 8 Closed: 12 Other: 2x RMSR written costs

Semi Spell User Base: 10 Open: 16 Closed: 20 Other: 2x RMSR written costs

Non Spell User Base: N/A Other: 2x RMSR written costs

Notice that only Pure and Hybrid spell users can develop more than one rank per level. Also remember the RMSR restrictions on developing more than 5 lists per level.

Spell users receive 2/3 of the indicated ranks in spell lists gained from training packages. Pure/Hybrid spell users start with 1 (free) rank in 5 base lists of their choice. Semi spell users receive 1 rank in 2 base lists of their choice.

The Magic Ritual skill has been eliminated. Use the skill bonus for the appropriate spell list instead.

Resistance Rolls are modified using a new skill category: Magical Hardening (no stats; 0·1·1·0.5·0 progression; costs 6/12 for all professions). This category contains the individual skills Channeling Hardening, Essence Hardening, Mentalism Hardening.

Skill description: As a 10% action, the character receives his Hardening skill bonus to Resistance Rolls versus spells from that realm (or partially from that realm) for the remainder of the round. The character also subtracts his skill bonus from SCSMs for spells of that realm (or part of that realm) for the remainder of the round.

(Alternative resistance skills can be found in School of Hard Knocks.)

Spell Failure

When a spell user fails a spell, roll on the spell failure chart, adding the spell's level penalty (double or tripled in the case of Absolute or Spectacular Failure). For example if Firedaddy the Magician rolls a final total of 55 when trying to cast a 3rd level spell (which subtracted 15 from the SCSM), he adds 15 to his spell failure roll. If his final SCSM total had been a --34 (Spectacular Failure!), he would have added 45 to his spell failure roll. Ouch.

Miscellany

When allocating extra attacks (such as those gained from adding "extra targets" via Spell Mastery), the caster divides his OB among those attacks as he wishes. (In other words, he does not apply his full OB to each attack).

PP Recovery: Spell users recover:

  • 2x (average of PP stats) per hour "resting" ó praying, meditating or studying
  • 0.5x (average of PP stats) per sleep cycle

(I did not invent this idea; it came to me via hearsay. Thanks and kudos to the real originator, whoever that may be.)

Example:

Firedaddy is a 1st level Magician who wants to focus on fire and light spells, with a little wind thrown in on the side. He's a Common Man who grew up in an urban setting and he's about average for a Magician (+5 Em and +5 Re bonuses). He throws his five "free" ranks (for being a Pure spell caster) into Fire Law, Light Law, Water Law, Wind Law and Earth Law. As an urbanite he also gets two ranks of Open spells so he chooses Detecting Ways and Elemental Shields. Firedaddy gets two ranks of spells from his Amateur Mage package; he dumps one each in Fire Law and Light Law. The best spell-casting talent/item he gets from his background options is a +10 staff. In olden times this would have been +10 to OB, but Firedaddy is excited about using a staff for wizardly purposes, so he allocates the +10 to Fire Law. Poor Firedaddy, no quarterstaff dueling for him. For the purposes of spell-casting, the GM rules that the hand holding Firedaddy's staff counts as a "free hand."

Firedaddy's spell bonuses so far:

Fire Law: +10 (2 ranks) +15 (Em/Re/Em) +5 (profession bonus for Spell Group) +10 (own realm own base) +10 (magic staff) = +50 (total)

Light Law: +40 (total; no staff)

Wind Law and other known lists: +35 (total; no staff and only 1 rank)

All others: ---30 (0 ranks) +15 (Em/Re/Em) +5 (profession) = --10 (usually; varies depending on whether it's an Open, Closed or Base list)

Power Points: 6 (1 rank) +5 (Em) +10 (profession) = 21

Firedaddy steps out of the academy with staff in hand, feeling confident. He wishes to cast an Ignite spell (level 1). He's so confident, in fact, that he's going to do it without preparing. Skill bonus of +50 +0 (preparation) +0 (one hand) +0 (normal voice) --5 (spell

level of 1)= +45. This means Firedaddy has to roll a 31 or above in order to cast Ignite in any fashion whatsoever.

Firedaddy is not excited about a 30% failure rate. He takes some precautions. Skill bonus +50 +10 (2 rounds preparation) +10 (two hands) +0 (normal voiceóthe town guard has had words with him before about shouting spell formulae after hours) --5 (spell level of 1) = +70. Firedaddy will only fail if he rolls open-ended low. Success is within his grasp!

Firedaddy is so excited by his Igniting prowess that he decides to throw a Firebolt (level 6). Take care, Firedaddy... Skill level +50 +30 (9 rounds of preparation) +10 (both hands) +5 (shouting) --30 (spell level 6) = +65. If he can roll an eleven or higher, and if whatever he is Firebolting hasn't moved out of range in the past minute and a half, Firedaddy is in business.

Now Firedaddy's head swells to great size, and he decides to cast a level 16 "Fire Blast" that uses a modified version of the Lightning Bolt table with a 300' range. (His GM is kind and allows this tinkering.) Skill bonus +50 +30 (preparation) +10 (both hands) +5 (shouting) --80 (spell level 16) = +15. Yikes, Firedaddy has a 60% chance of failing, and the results on the spell failure table if he does fail will probably blow him right into his next character.

Firedaddy would have more luck with this spell if he gained a few levels. Let's pretend that at level 10, buying one rank of Fire Law per level and having reached his potentials for Em and Re, his new bonus is +53 (11 ranks) +21 (Em/Re/Em) +5 (profession bonus for Spell Group) +10 (magic staff) +10 (own base own realm) = +99 (total). His bonus for "Fire Blast," using the same modifiers as earlier (+30 +10 +5 -80) would be 64. Still not a guaranteed success but Firedaddy does have to admit he fears considerably less for his skin with such a total.

Philosophy:

This is not an attempt to emulate any wizard in any story or movie; I designed it solely for gameplay purposes. In general, this system is an attempt to put spell users more on par with fighters; they start out weak, get stronger at a reliable rate, and start to require more and more effort for those higher level powers. In case you were wondering, yes, there was a little influence from Mage: the Ascension here.

The intended results of this system are:

1. Spell users tend to trade power for diversity. Either they specialize in one area and become quite proficient, or they generalize with a lower power level overall.

2. There is a smooth progression of power. Lower level spells are never completely safe, and higher level spells remain difficult and dangerous to cast throughout a mage's career. 25th level spells and above are very difficult to cast no matter what level the mage is, and 15--20th level spells are a challenge throughout a mage's career.

3. Magic is almost entirely skill based. A mage's power in a spell list only increases when his primary statistics rise, when he finds some kind of enchanted item, or when he spends development points on the skill.

4. Magic is as flexible as any other type of skill. (No longer will users of Solid Manipulation be confined to 9 levels of heating and cooling objects before they learn some other ability. Sheesh!)

5. The reversed PP recovery rate revokes a high level character's "endless PP" syndrome. I think this makes for more interesting tactical decisions on the part of mages.

6. New RR rules eliminate the need for cross-referencing on the table and make RR-based spells worth using, even if there is a significant level difference between the mage and the victim. (I don't know about your group but in mine no low-level mage ever even tried to use a Base Attack Spell on a high-level monster.) Hardening skills give fighters (and everyone else for that matter) a defensive option against these spells.

In creating this system I made a few assumptions:

1. Semi spell users usually pick just 2 or 3 of their base lists and focus on those for most of their career, weaving together magic and normal skill use.

2. The laws of probability will punish profligate use of magic. Any spell user who consistently plays it dangerous will die. (This means if you have someone in your group who never, ever rolls below a 95, this is not the system for you.) If the players understand the system, it should encourage them to use their high level spells sparingly, because the level of the mage has no impact on the magnitude of spell failure.

3. The system allows for magic-enhancing "things"ómagic staves, spell components, dragon teeth, what-have-you. For example, the ashes of a Fire Elemental might add +5 to Firedaddy's Fire Law skill, and perhaps the magic consumes them after 5 uses.

4. Players prefer flexibility in their magic. Players get overwhelmed with options when they know 15+ spell lists. GMs get overwhelmed running NPC mages who have 15+ spell lists. GMs don't always want to be looking up the exact rules of a spell in the middle of an action sequence. GMs get tired of answering, "Why can't I just research a version that does so and so?" or "Why can't I learn another spell if the level slot is filled?"

5. You are not running a high fantasy campaign. If wizards are supposed to be insanely powerful when they get old, or if magic is not all that risky in your world, or if your game involves a low threat level, this is probably not the system for you.

Loopholes or Potential Problems:

All right, you naysayers, here is where you have your day.

Number Crunching

The very first thing you thought about was probably crunching up a character who can cast 20th level spells right out of the box. You munchkins!

Well, it's possible. Without much difficulty, I was able to make a level 1 character who could cast 19th level spells reliably. Not that he could do much else, mind you. But before you collapse in a fit of terror, please remember that first, such a character will only be able to do this maybe once a day (Power Point restrictions); second, every time he employs his super powers he's risking instant death (+95 to his spell failure roll, should he roll open-ended low); and third, he will never get much more powerful (due to diminishing returns on his spell skill).

You may have also noticed that characters now have the ability to cast low level spells from any realm or list, given enough prep time and PPs. If this bothers you, you could rule that a character must have at least one rank in a list to attempt casting any spells from that list.

A third objection is that by attempting to cast a 500th level spell, players can turn themselves into a human bomb which, depending on the spell failure column they're using, might just take out the whole enemy base. (Arcane spells come to mind. Even a 1st level character could inflict serious damage via this method.) Or at the very least provide them with the perfect suicide device to escape an enemy's clutches (perhaps for later resurrection).

Frankly I don't have a good solution for this. You might impose a spell level cap, but then they would just penalize themselves by undercasting to 1 PP and not using hands or voice. You might impose a maximum penalty cap ("you may not attempt to cast a spell that lowers your total skill to --10 or less"), but then you remove the very flexibility the system was supposed to provide. In this case, you will probably have to rely on the good sense and fair play of your group. Let me know if you come up with a better solution.

A final danger is the risk inherent in open-ended rolls. Now that all spells require a SCSM, every spell is more dangerous than Arcane spells are in the regular rules (to those of you without Arcane Companion, Arcane spells fail on an UM 01--04). No one wants their character to die with the ignominy of miscasting an Ignite at the fire pit. Recall that it is this possibility that restricts widespread use of magic. The fact that spells are so dangerous, and given the difficulty of recovering PPs, these rules ought to keep mages from tossing spells around willy-nilly (like yesterday's pie), and return some of the mystery of the wizardly order.

Other Observations

If they stick to developing one rank a level, spell users will actually spend fewer development points on spells in this system than as written in RMSR.

As I said before, this system is not for high fantasy or high magic campaigns. It requires careful GM attention (approving "new spells" on the fly, being careful about introducing new spell-casting items) and discretion and responsibility from the players. Many things will probably have to be altered in order to make things "fair" for your game (for instance, I would probably collapse several of the Channeling healing lists, and Firedaddy should probably not have to learn Fire Mastery in addition to Fire Law). You will have to think carefully about what kinds of interactions this will have with Spell Mastery (because the players will be able to duplicate Spell Mastery effects by simply casting a higher level version of the spellóthis turns Spell Mastery from a power-enhancer to a risk-reducer: e.g., by allowing a player to create his 300' Firebolt as a 6th level effect instead of 14th).

Wrap Up

So my final suggestion is, examine this carefully before you toss it into your campaign. There's a lot that can be abused here and if you're not comfortable wielding your authority the players may turn your game world into a smoldering ruin.

On the other hand, it might breathe some life into your group's mage, even when he's climbed to a respectable level, and add an extra spice to your action scenes as the NPC Mentalist struggles to throw a surprise Mind Shout or the group's Healer makes a last ditch effort (and invents a high level effect) to Transfer every wound in the party to himself simultaneously. After all, the game is ultimately about a good story. If changing the magic system improves the stories your group tells, go for it! If it ain't broke, on the other hand, why fix it?

Ok, you can go back to killing bugbears now.