Ever since the dawn of role-playing games, when Gygax himself first walked the untrodden grounds of mystical tabletop storytelling, magic has played a key role in this wonderful hobby. How many spells have been slung, creatures conjured, fireballs flung, and missiles magicked over the many years, and in how many ways? I’m certain I couldn’t list them all, but I’m happy to bring to you the most incredible and interesting five sorcerous systems.
1 . Dungeons and Dragons
We must, of course, pay our respects to the progenitor of prestidigitation. D&D, throughout its many iterations, has presented the player with a simple and effective means to cast spells. A wizard receives a certain number of spells each day, and must recover this knowledge by resting and studying the spells again. Within the cannon of most official D&D settings, this mechanic exists because casting spells actually removes the knowledge of the spell from the casters mind and memory, and they must again learn it before they can use it once more. While newer editions don’t touch on this little tidbit (and divine casters ignore it entirely), the mechanic makes for an easy way to introduce players to the role of a spellcaster; a method that also allows for a mage’s book of spells to grow in power and complexity as the player learns new strategies. Thank you again, Gary!
2 . Call of Cthulhu
This entry may surprise some of our readers. Magic? In a horror game? Many may think that it is simply a tool for the Keeper to throw at poor, squishy investigators in order to watch their skin bubble and slough off (yes, that’s indeed spell in CoC). However, veterans of this madness-inducing game will know that over a long campaign, especially curious players may find themselves nose-deep in any number of ancient tomes, plumbing the secrets of the old gods to use against their adversaries. We Keepers are well aware that even just a little power will corrupt a player quickly. What’s more, each time they cast their spell, they expend precious sanity points as the true nature of the universe unravels their feeble human conceptions of space and time. Soon, they will acquire so much knowledge and power that the Keeper will watch that last bit of sanity drain, and the game gives birth to yet another cultist. This “price of power” mechanic is absolutely wonderful to behold for players and GMs alike, and really sets Call of Cthulhu apart from other magical titles on our list.
3 . Ars Magica
Here’s a title I’ve been dying to try. The magic system is based heavily on Hermetic Magic, following the Technique/Form (verb and noun) combinations that gave voice to their power. The wizard in question uses the Technique of their choice, be it Muto (“I transform”), Perdo (“I destroy”), or others, along with the Form they wish to affect (such as Corpus for the human body). There are five Techniques and ten forms to specialize in, making a mage’s skill vary from spell to spell. Each wizard is also bound by Greater and Lesser Limits which stop them from altering someone’s soul or unmaking the universe. The system also allows and encourages players to gain experience from just reading, something of which many wizened wizards would approve. If anyone has experience running this game and would like to share said experience, please contact me on my website listed below!
4 . Mage: The Awakening
Of the two Mage titles by White Wolf, I decided to go with the one I know better. The Awakening is one of the most incredibly written core books and settings I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and thus makes for some truly poetic gaming. The magic system, while complex, has a very simple rule. If you possess the required knowledge and power, you can achieve anything. Mages “Awaken” to one of five towers which bestows upon them immediate knowledge of two distinct Arcana. The mage may learn other arcana from other towers, but the aforementioned two will be their favorites. As they learn more about these Arcana, they can accomplish greater deeds within the Arcanum’s purview. For instance, if a mage has only one dot (or rank) in the Death Arcanum, they can perceive death supernaturally, sensing ghosts where others would see nothing. If they graduate to the second rank, they can now interact with these dead things in a supernatural way. At rank four, the mage can raise the dead and imbue them with special powers, or destroy ghosts just by looking at them. When they become masters at the fifth rank, they can accomplish almost anything they can think of, so long as it pertains to Death. While the book does outline “suggestion” spells for each Arcanum, the player is encouraged to improvise their own spells. Yet each mage must use caution. If a spell is cast in broad daylight with many witnesses who have not yet awakened as mages, they invite Paradox, a destabilizing force that punishes the mage for rocking the boat. Some of the finest and most incredible magical workings have come from this amazing title. If you can’t already tell, I highly recommend it!
5 . Anima: Beyond Fantasy
Whereas Mage: The Awakening allows players the freedom of true magic, Anima gives players the crunchy, powerful spells they are likely to witness in movies and video games. If a player chooses a spellcaster, they select their Path and Sub-Path of magic which gives them access to their spells. As they learn more of their Paths, they gain access to greater mystical workings. Each spell costs Zeon, the setting’s version of mana, which must be accumulated over time. Thus, a player can become the mage standing on a hilltop and looking down at a city as she pulls power into her hands, weaving a terrible fate for the denizens below who dared to cross her. More martially inclined characters can serve as the mage’s bodyguards while she accumulates her Zeon. She can even boost her spells for greater power, should her energy reserves and arcane knowledge allow for it. Finally, and most importantly, the game has a built in system for spell clashes. Two mages hurl volleys of power at one another until two blasts of energy smash into one another. Only the strongest, most focused mage will survive that epic duel.
It could be argued that magic has been and remains one of the key tenets of the role-playing hobby, at least when it comes time to start up the next fantasy campaign. I would wholeheartedly agree, and I encourage each of you to check out the titles I’ve detailed above and share your favorite magic systems with me.
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, check him out at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.