As a reviewer I get to read a lot of games and almost without fail fantasy games come with magic fitted as standard. When faced with 90 pages of spells for forty three different professions I am simply not going to read every spell. I dip into each one. I read a few of the simpler spells that starting characters have access to, a few mid-range spells to see how things develop, and then some of the most powerful magics to see what greatness a GM will get to throw at players at the climax of their campaigns.
That is... normally. Sometimes you find a system that, before you know it, has you reading every word and that little devil on your shoulder is whispering, “How can I house rule this into my own game?”
Magic is one of those fantasy gaming essentials that is extremely difficult to separate from the setting. When I see a game pitching itself as “setting neutral” I wonder how the creators are going to justify the existence of magic in their world. If a setting has no gods, exactly how does divine magic work?
Setting neutral magic can be done, however, and what I consider the best magic system of all time is indeed setting neutral. In fact, I have played this game on and off since the late 1980s and I only learned last year that there was an official setting for it.
So here are my top three. Each is very different and it made little sense to try and put them in any other order than my own personal preference.
1) HERO System by Hero Games
HERO System is now in its sixth edition. I first played it as Champions back in the 1980s and it was my first introduction to ‘point buy’ as a way of creating characters. HERO System doesn’t really have a magic system at all. What it does have is a system for creating any special or super power, and that includes magic.
The tools provided for creating powers fall broadly into two styles. The first is all about defining one explicit power, or in this case spell. Each would be unique and one would end up with a very long list of such spells. The second set of tools are for grouping powers. A variable power pool is bought using the point buy system and that pool can be reused repeatedly for different effects. The size of the pool balances the magic in play but the sorts of magic that can be created are limited only by the player’s imagination.
You see, it is not the point buy or variable nature that makes Hero System’s treatment of magic outstanding. It is HERO System’s treatment of special effects that make it outstanding. To quote the rules, “If you read through this book, you won’t find any specific rules for things like ‘fire blasts’ or ‘lightning bolts’ or ‘magic’. Fire, lightning, and magic are all special effects, and HERO System rules let you pick the special effects you want.”
What the rules do provide you with are basic power descriptions such as Invisibility, Teleport, and Energy Blasts. You can then apply limitations on those basic powers so a Flame Arrow may be an Energy Blast but you can tailor the effects to emulate its fiery nature. You can also apply advantages that enhance the basic power to further get that spell effect spot on.
It is the coming together of pools of power that can be shaped any way the player wishes, limited only by their imagination, the visual effects that are also limited only by the imagination, and a set of mechanics that support but don’t restrict that makes this a genuinely universal magic system.
2) 7th Sea by John Wick Presents
7th Sea does not go down the setting neutral route. It is the setting for 7th Sea, Théah, that helps make this a standout game for me. The magic system for 7th is perfectly interwoven with this setting and so, naturally enough, it fits it like a glove. The rules define six explicit types of sorcery. Each one is a complete entity in its own right: they do not share game mechanics, and they are most certainly not a shuffling off of spells into piles so sorcerers get these spells, summoners get those and so on.
With 7th Sea each type of magic is a complete magic system. Each could easily have been the core magical system for a different game. Each is related to a world culture within Théah and reflects that cultural flavour. It is analogous to how the magical culture around Haitian Voodoo is totally different to European Wicca and to Native American Spirituality, the latter of which does not see itself as magic at all.
It is this individual treatment of each cultural tradition that makes these magical rules so strong. Nothing has to be compromised to fit in with a guiding mechanic. If one form has a dozen effects and the next two dozen, it doesn’t matter. No one is trying to make everything entirely equal, balanced, or fair. Your magic is your own and you make of it what you will.
When I read these rules the first time I didn’t skip from spell to spell. These pages deserved to be read and actually once I read them rather than moving on to Dueling, the next chapter in the rules, I found myself reading the Sorcery chapter again simply for the pleasure of it.
3) Zweihänder by Grim & Perilous Studios
Zweihänder claims to be setting neutral but it has a certain style, and that style is grim and perilous. The core of the Zweihänder magic, or magick in Zweihänder parlance, system is professions and those professions have lists of spells. This may not sound like a groundbreaking system. It does mean that should you want to translate your existing game into the Zweihänder rules, or play a Zweihänder powered game, in your favourite setting then it will work. The professions will most likely exist and they cast the sorts of spells you expect them to.
That alone is not really enough for an accolade, but there is more. Zweihänder has a rather simple mechanic that works for every single action in the game. It is a d100 game at its core and if you roll an 01 or a double, 11, 22, 33 etc., then that is a critical roll. If it is critical and successful then you get some bonus or beneficial effect. If you get a critical failure, as you may guess, things do not go well for you. Remember I said that this applies to every action? It applies to spell casting as well.
Every single spell in Zweihänder has a list of effects for Critical Success, Success, Failure and Critical Failures. As these are built into the actual spell itself this is not one of those, “Oh you failed, we will roll on the spell failure table,” games. Zweihänder criticals, be they successes or failures, will happen in one in ten attempts to cast a spell. You will fail, and critically fail, at some point.
It may seem odd to praise a magic system for its handling of failure, but this has more to do with its recognition that this is a real part of the magical world, integrating that failure into the spells themselves, and then using that failure to move the story forward.This isn’t a situation wherein a player misses their turn if they roll poorly. In this magical world stuff happens and it is not always good.
These three systems are so very different, with the ultra-flexibility of HERO System, the tightly integrated sorcery of 7th Sea, and the built in fallibility of magic of Zweihänder. What makes these three stand out is that they all have incredibly high design standards. I don’t mean page layout and pretty pictures. I mean that they have coherent and tight design goals and they hit them spot on. I think that their efforts in striving for excellence that makes these three that extra bit special.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Permission for picture given to writer for use in this article.
Story is the main objective of a tabletop RPG. You sit down with a bunch of friends, play pretend, and make an awesome narrative while doing it. Some are better than others at this, and some only come to the table to mess around with math. The industry has started to adapt to this by incorporating rules into games that help the group collaboratively tell the story. They thrust power and agency into the hands of players, giving the GM more dough to knead before sticking it all in the oven for the final moments of a campaign. Since story is inherently system, and platform, agnostic, you can drag and drop some stuff to create a Frankenstein game! Here are some story mechanics that you could borrow from other games to make yours more cinematic, regardless of what RPG you play.
1) Skill Challenge (D&D 4e)
I wanted to get this one out of the way, just so I can stop hearing the moaning and groaning that comes with the territory. The fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons had a plethora of problems, but the product itself had a few shining gems. This was honestly one of my favorite parts of that game. The basic outline of this mechanic is to mimic the passage of time; traveling from one place to another, performing a ritual, climbing a cliff while a battle rages below you, etc. In my opinion, it does that exceedingly well and is easy enough to translate to other games. The way it functions is that the GM determines a number of successful skill checks needed to complete the challenge before a certain number of failures. That scale can be tipped either way, depending on how difficult you want it to be. A house rule that my gaming group used when we played this game was that you couldn’t use the same skill twice in a row or the skill the player before you used, even if you failed. It helps force players (and characters) out of their comfort zone and into a creative one. Cleverly done, WotC.
The DMG one and two explain how to do this specifically for 4e, but the Rules Compendium is definitely the better route to look at. They all give you some example DCs, but if you’re putting this in another RPG, obviously those DCs probably aren’t worth much. The concept overall is easy to adapt, as most all games have some manner of a skill check system. Amp up the creativity and tension with this one.
2) Finding Clues (GUMSHOE)
Investigative campaigns can sometimes be the hardest to implement, especially if you depend on character stats to find clues. Look no more for the fix, because the GUMSHOE system has a way to make investigating easy and effective. GUMSHOE isn’t a specific game, but an engine that runs a few games (Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, etc.). The basic philosophy of this rule is that characters automatically find the important clue. Of course, you have to make them work for it through the narrative, but they ultimately find it. This eliminates the problem of characters bumbling around trying to progress through the story but not having the skill checks work in their favor.
In the GUMSHOE system, you would have to make what’s called a “spend” to get more information than the clue itself at face value. For example, you automatically find the candlestick, but you would have to make a spend to make the connection that it’s sitting on top of the book that Colonel Mustard reads every night before bed. Replace this spend concept with a skill check and voila, you can put it in any game. It helps keep things moving, prevents the players (and GM) from becoming frustrated, and keeps the players engaged. What’s there to lose here?
3) One Unique Thing (13th Age)
I talk about this game all the time, I know. I just can’t help it, I love it so much, and this rule is testament to that fact. Every character in Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age RPG has a trait called a One Unique Thing. Basically, it’s something that is unique to your character that nobody else in the narrative is allowed to have. It can’t affect stats, it can’t give you an unreasonable edge. So, no, your one unique thing can’t be that you can fly faster than a speeding bullet. It can, however, be that you’re the child of the story’s big villain who ran away at a young age.
It doesn’t always have to be that drastic, but I find that the more drastic and rooted the OUT is, the more fun it is to play with. This mechanic serves as a springboard and idea cache in my home game. I’m always adding story elements to my campaign based off of my players’ OUTs. Never before have I seen someone so invested in the main story of a game. Obviously, since this legitimately has no mechanical benefit, this one is incredibly easy to bring to other systems.
4) Character Questionnaire (Dread)
You don’t have any stats, just the deftness of your steady hand to remove that block from the tower. Dread is a fantastic game on its own, but the way player characters are created can most definitely be put into other games. The character questionnaire is all you have; the answers to those questions are the foundation of who your character is and what burdens they carry. It’s awesome to see a situation be presented, a player look down at their sheet, look back up at the tower, and make a nervous gulp when you ask them how they react to a situation.
The character questionnaire usually helps identify flaws in a character’s… well… character! The questions can help players think of traumatic experiences their character has been through, their pet peeves, their relationship with the rest of the party, and even some random personal quirks like a drug habit or a stutter. A perfect tool for a session zero, if you ask me.
5) Character Death (7th Sea)
This one caused the pot to boil a bit in the RPG community, mainly because it seems that most people like gritty, mechanical games. John Wick’s train of thought with this one seemed to be, “Let’s make a movie into a game!” Let me tell you, based off of what I’ve read in the book, he did it exceedingly well. In movies, you very rarely see an important character killed by a random environmental hazard, trap, or crummy happenstance. 7th Sea’s take on character death definitely mirrors that.
Player characters can only be killed by a villain or hero. That means if a building comes down on your head, the GM (or players, I suppose) has to think of a way to explain how this wasn’t the end for the heroes. It makes things incredibly cinematic, though some people would probably whine calling this idea “plot armor.” I disagree. It just makes death more rewarding when it comes to claim you!
I’m a little biased towards all of these, as I’m a GM that’s overly focused on story. These ideas help make a game more robust and fun; far more fun than rocks fall, everyone dies, methinks. Explore around games that you haven’t read before, as almost every single one has something fun to take from it. Maybe it’ll even inspire you to create a game of your own!
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
The second edition of 7th Sea from John Wick Presents is best described right inside the book:
“7th Sea is a tabletop roleplaying game of swashbuckling and intrigue, exploration and adventure, taking place on the continent of Théah, a land of magic and mystery inspired by our own Europe. Players take on the roles of heroes thrown into global conspiracies and sinister plots, exploring ancient ruins of a race long vanished and protecting the rightful kings and queens of Théah from murderous villains. It is a world of sharp blades and sharp wits, where a cutting retort can be just as deadly as a sword’s point.”
I would like to make a point before we get into it; the rule book is a guide and not a set of rules that you absolutely must follow. If something here doesn't suit your fancy, rip it up and throw it away! Not literally though, don’t do that; it's a pretty book. Hoist the sails ladies and gentlemen, because today, we set sail for adventure!
1) The World And Lore
Théah is a wonderful world based off of Europe, the parallel encompassing both culture and environment. It isn't a carbon copy of Europe, but it helps you really grasp what the place you are in can look like. I’m not going to get into every country in Théah’s continent but I’ll use Eisen as an example. Eisen is a country that was obliterated during the War of the Cross, leaving the land to become inhospitable for farming. The people of Eisen are proud that they carved the path for the Vaticine Church. As if war and muddy farm lands were not bad enough, there are monsters too. The population was around 24 million, fallen to only around 10 million currently. Between people fleeing, starvation, and plague, the country has dwindled quite a bit since the war. The crest of the Eisen nation is that of a Drachen (dragon). There is so much detail to the countries that you can find information about topics ranging from politics to what kind of clothing people wear. Now depending on where your character comes from you gain certain bonus to skills and the opportunity to delve into magic. I have to admit, the amount of detail in this book is beyond inspiring. Have to hand it to John Wick on this one.
2) It’s A Big World For A Hero
One of the rules I found whilst wandering through the book was a very interesting mechanic that I’ve never seen in a tabletop RPG before. 7th Sea is more about storytelling than anything else, and it seems they took inspiration from Disney with how they tell stories about heroes. Heroes can't die unless the the villain kills them. I thought this was a strange rule at first glance until I’d really thought about it. It obviously makes it super fun for you and your players. As long as things are based in the realm of reality and physics, your heroes can be the swashbuckling, daring monstrosities they want to be. Why can't we sword fight along a wooden beam for the sail? The game allows you to become Jack Sparrow or the Three Musketeers. Now, this doesn’t mean your heroes can’t fail, because they definitely can. This usually means you get brought face to face with the villain to be killed, but don't worry you’ll make it out (I hope). Being a hero never felt so good.
3) Hero Points And Danger Points
Hero points are a currency out of character that gets passed around from GM to player. Hero points are obtained through story interaction or if the GM buys unused dice (dice that don’t add up to 10, a Raise). You usually gain them by roleplaying a certain way, such as invoking a character’s Quirk or Hero’s Hubris. Hero points can be spent to gain bonus dice, give dice to allies, or even to use special abilities. When you use them they typically force you to roleplay a certain way, adding a flare to the game. An example from a character I played was that he was a homewrecker. When I let a person my character was attracted to get away with doing bad stuff, I gained a hero point. I’m so head over heels for that person, I could look past it. My character was also very loyal and protective of his friends. During a fight I spent a hero point to use a skill called Flirting With Disaster; it allowed bad stuff to happen to me more and less to my allies. In this instance the bad guy wanted to punch me six times every round. In the end, my friends and I were able to make it out alive because of these fun quirks and skills. Thank you hero points!
Danger Points, however, are the nasty ones that the GM gets to use to make the heroes’ lives more (dare I say it?) dangerous! The GM starts each session with Danger Points equal to the number of players, so five players equals five Danger Points. In addition, you gain a point from buying unused player dice. So, by the end of it, buying dice leads to one Danger Point and one Hero Point per die! The Danger points can be used to activate the Villain’s (or his goons’) special abilities, make a check harder, or even murder a hero. Yes, a cruel, evil GM can use his villain and Danger Points to murder someone when they become helpless, which is when you have zero hit points.
4) Dice And Finally Getting That Well Deserved Raise
The dice mechanics in 7th Sea are really fun. They consist of rolling the dice and adding up what are called Raises. So we roll 10 sided dice equal to the stats we are using for the roll. Every point in a stat gives you one die, to a max of five. For this example let's say that I am trying to humiliate the character I am dueling. Everyone describes their actions and determine what dice they roll. I decide I want to use my Panache, which adds three dice because the stat is three, and Weaponry, which is also three. Since this is the first time I am using this particular skill this session, I get to add another d10. I roll my 7d10s and make multiples of ten out of what I rolled. For every ten that I have, it makes one Raise. I find out I have four raises (I rolled 40 as a sum) and the villain has a raise of five. The more Raises you have, the higher you are in the initiative order, which is determined after everyone both explains their action and rolls their dice. In this case, the villain gets to act first. In addition to being an initiative value in Action Sequences, Raises serve as a DC when a character performs a Risk (skill check).
5) “Hello. my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”
So we talked about raises and combat lightly, but how can I talk about a swashbuckling adventure game without the meat and bones of dueling? Théah has a dueling academy that, upon graduation, gives you a pin granting you the right to initiate duels. It also lets you learn really interesting and flashy fighting maneuvers. An example is the good old Riposte, which prevents damage equal to your Weaponry skill and deals that much damage back to the opponent. Then we have dueling styles that grant even more abilities depending on what you choose. Such as the Aldana, which combines fencing and dancing into one fluid dueling style. It grants the hero the ability to use a skill called Aldana Ruse, which adds damage equal to your Panache skill. There are a ton more in the book and we could talk about this forever so let's slash our way to the next point.
6) Wait, There Is Sailing In This Game?
For those who are not sailing savvy, 7th Sea provides all the information you need on sailing. There are four types of Sailors according to 7th sea: we have merchants, naval recruits, privateers, and pirates. The section has awesome descriptions of different crew positions, what their duties are, and who they are in charge of. It even has superstitions that sailors whisper to each other that will foreshadow things to come. One example is the Green Flash that happens at sunset which is just an optical phenomena, but pirates used to say it was a soul returning from the land of the dead, or for those really superstitious types, Davey Jone’s Locker. Pirate battles are a little intense. They work just like rolling for Raises when doing a normal action sequence. These are on a much grander stage, giving the GM an opportunity to go wild. Maybe you can be fighting a villain and his goons while he tries to take control of the Kraken that is currently laying waste to everything around you; who knows?
7) The Villain
I have to say the villain mechanics make them fun for the GM to create and use. Villains have stats that make up their “level”. They are split into two, their Strength and Influence. Strength has to do with the body and mind of the villain, how smart they are, how charming or even how deadly they are with a blade. Strength also determines how many Advantages the villain has. Influence is money, resources, and allies, helping to change the world in their favor. The scale tips either way when it comes to Strength and Influence. Each rank you put into these you add up to make up the villainy rank. Let's say my villain is Influence four and Strength six, making a villainy rank of 10, which is decently strong. Villains get to pull schemes, revealing why villains are so much fun in 7th Sea. When a villain wants to pull a scheme they have to gamble. They invest Influence Points into the scheme, hoping it succeeds. Today we are robbing Avalon’s Royal Bank in order to kill the King, which we invested three of our villain’s Influence Points to do, split up in this manner: capture the banker and take the keys, look for an Avalon artifact, use the artifact to kill the King. If the villain succeeds she doubles the influence she gambled on the scheme, here we bet three so we would get six back. If she failed, well the points are lost; better luck next time. Villains can do a lot in 7th Sea from convincing an ally to betray you, hiring some thugs to rough you up or even introducing another villain.
If you want to try a game that is all about being Zorro or that Robin Hood-like hero... if you want to explore a vast and rich world ontop of seeing monsters and magic.... if you want to feel the breeze of the ocean and the slight salty taste in the winds as you cruise on the giant blue, then you want to try this game out.
“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island.”
Benjamin Witunsky, artist, writer and nerd savant. Co-founder of the NerdMantle Podcast available on Soundcloud, Itunes and Google Play Music.
Picture Reference: http://www.7thsea2e.com/port/forum/official-maps-theah
It is the easy to get lost in a crowd. With the amount of RPG’s coming out (dare I say daily), every now and again, a gem is produced, only to be immediately swallowed by the avalanche. The following are my opinions on a number of rule systems I’ve came across over the last year or so. Some might be much older (or really well know to all but myself), again, it’s only recently that I came across them, and (no offense meant) they feel like they aren’t as popular as some. Without further ado, here they are.
1) 7th Sea
Aaaarrrrrrr, ya scurvy dogs! It be pirates! 7th Sea, presents a fantasy world heavily influenced by the golden age of piracy. Think Pirates of the Caribbean and also every other pirate movie and/or book ever made. The setting surprised me, in the best possible way. The the world given to us is a series of jagged coastlines and islands. Most of these areas belong to different political units, and work very differently from each other. It’s easy to see that this map is a parody of our own world. It shouldn’t be surprising that someone in the 17th-18th centuries with a Scottish cultural upbringing, would be a different person/sailor/pirate than someone with a Mediterranean early life. Also there are fencing fighting styles, it’s really very cool. The dice system is great, involving a pool of D10’s, adding numbers up to 10, and something called ‘raises’ that allow you to do exceptional things.
2) Belly of the Beast
This rule system is pretty straight forward, dice-wise, and the setting is amazing. Centuries ago, a huge asteroid slammed into this planet. Massive crater, some destruction. Decades later, something hatches from the site of the impact. According to the description, it looked like an Arrakis Sandworm, just much, MUCH bigger. After many years eating everything that wasn’t nailed down, (and most things that were), the Beast has grown to the size of a mountain range, hundreds, if not thousands of miles long, and as wide as a country. Effectively, you play a medieval fantasy setting INSIDE THE GUTS OF A CONTINENT SIZED WORM. Oh yes, things, survived being swelled hole, and the digestion process looks like it takes millennia. Imagine. Humans being born and dying without seeing the sky, only knowing the country-sized chambers of the Beast’s digestive tract. Action centers around the physical and political dealings of humans with very little resources (so mostly scavengers and mercs), and there’s a sense of heaviness to the scenario, which I love. Dice are a pool of D6’s, rolling to a Target Number.
3) The End Of The World
On the surface, these Fantasy Flight books are simple post-apocalyptic settings, Nothing exciting about that, surely. What makes it different are the characters. If you, Jane Smit, play the game, your character is Jane Smith. As in, YOU are your character and vice versa. Character creation is a collaborative effort, so your character is, to the best of your efforts, YOU. The idea; the world ends (there’s 4 different books, Zombies, Aliens, Robots and Wrath of the Gods), and you are caught in the middle. Your equipment is whatever you usually have about your person. Mobile phone, lighters? That sort of thing. Dice system, you roll D6 for positives and D6 for negatives, and remove matching ones.
4) Atomic Robo
I like to call Atomic Robo what would happen if steampunk was wound forward to the present. A 21st century, where the past 150 years were dedicated to science. The titular Robo was built by Nikola Tesla in the 1930s. He’s a joke-spewing, nuclear-powered robot, who we follow throughout his career with the US military, then a series of scientific institutions. Robo (to his friends) is a sort of metal scientist Indiana Jones. He travels the world looking for alien artifacts and fighting evil geniuses. In this universe, science reigns supreme, so evil scientists pop up like mushrooms. A fun and engaging background, using the FATE rules.
5) Star Wars D6
This is older than old. The D6 system is, well, old, but I do feel it should get a second look. You roll a number of D6s and you see if you reach a target number. That’s it. It makes the whole game run fast and smooth and I do love it to bits. Also there’s an oldness to the background (I’ve said ‘old’ a lot, bear with me). The corebook, I found, is almost incomprehensibly written, when it comes to character creation, for example. But there’s something amazing about a book about Star Wars that was written 2 years after Jedi. Before the Expanded Universe. Before the Phantom Menace. The good bit is that this is a rule system that is still in common usage, so there is A LOT of fan made content out there, including fantastic, easy to understand versions of the above mentioned corebook.
What less known rule systems have you come across?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, two years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
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