GURPS Magic and Me


One of the things that sold me on GURPS as a system back in ’88-’89 in addition  to the cool advantage  and disadvantage  write-ups  and the way skills were treated, was the magic system.  I had issues with Vancian  magic at the time, although I   keep Tales of the Dying Earth in a special place on my shelves, near The Magicians, The Name of the Wind, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Also occupying a sizeable portion of my shelves is my collection of occult books. I am a practicing pagan, and my assorted collections of folk magic have a personal meaning to me. One of the authors in the world of neopagan publishing happens to be Isaac Bonewits , the only known person to have graduated  UC Berkeley  with a BA in Magic. He also wrote a gaming supplement  publushed by Steve Jackson  Games called Authentic Thaumaturgy .  I had seen it at a game shop  years ago, but only picked it up in the last few years.

Some of his concepts about the Laws of Magick made it into very popular  book The Master of the Five Magics, by Lyndon  Hardy.  Traces of them show up in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden  books, and in David Edding’s Belgariad.  Some of them are dealt with neatly in Fritz Lieber’s ConjureWife, and Robert A Heinlein also approached them in Waldo and Magic, Inc.

The GURPS “vanilla” magic has little to do with these narratives. There was a hint of something in the improvised rules, a little in the Rune magic system in Magic, and some bits I don’t  recall well from a White Wolf Adaptation of Mage (there weren’t  enough pre scripted spell effects for my taste). When GURPS  Voodoo came out, we saw the birth of what would later become Ritual Path Magic . It was interesting, but my game operated at a much lower  point range.

Technomancer  was an awesome addition to the field; I used a lot from this.

A few years later, there was Unlimited  mana magery, or umana, which in some ways echoed aspects of the spell  failure system  from Mage the Ascension. A major campaign  event in my game was the result of a catastrophic  umana event.

Aftet this came 4e, and Thaumatology. Then came DF, the subsystem I play, (which has this awesome kickstarter as a game that makes a better intro to GURPS  than anything else, please go back this!)

There are a lot of in depth discussions about Thaumatology; some of the better ones are on Psedobobo’s blog Let’s GURPS.

There have been a number  of alternate systems for magic since then; Sorcery, which does a magic as powers thing, precedented with the introduction of Magic Bolt in DF 11: Power Ups, and in keeping with GURPS  Powers, but not holding a flavor I really like. There is also Ritual Path Magic, which has heavy fan support, but is a little mathy and sparse on the Grimoire end for my preferences. I am much more of a plug and play kinda guy; I am not trying to design advantages and rituals; I  have too many munchkins in my  game to not be checking the math, and it isn’t  my strong suit. Ymmv.


Ghostdancer, my good friend Christopher Rice,  together with Antoni Ten Monros, has just released DF 19 Incantation Magic, which primarily  is RPM for DF, but has something rather brilliant in it.

One of Bonewits’ criticisms  of Vancian (and most roleplaying  game depictions of magic) is the ideas that spells, once cast, are forgotten,  and, that they can be cast quickly. He proposedthat one might, through a careful, lengthy, and preplanned ritual, build an “astral machine” designed to generate a magical effect, and store energy for the effect, that the practitioner  could then release later with a ritual shortened by autohypnotic trance; effectively building a spell in reserve before the adventure, and rapidly releasing it with an abreviated casting during it.

Not too  far fromt he characters in   the Dying Earth who would arm themselves  with a few spells, and feel them buzzing about in their heads until released.

Not far at all from Incanters attaching prepared and extensive rituals to their auras and quick casting later. I checked with Ghostdancer, and Authentic Thaumaturgy  was not on his list of researched books for DF 19;  great minds think alike, it would seem. Incantation  magic has it’s  casters preload spells to cast later, and are limited to otherwise weak improvised  magic. It sounds like classic dungeon wizardry, and should appeal to those who find the standard system  too vanilla. Go pick it p!


6 thoughts on “GURPS Magic and Me

  1. To correct the history, Authentic Thaumaturgy was originally published by Chaosium, and was later revised by Bonewits and reprinted by SJG.

  2. I recall a system Zelazny wrote up for “hanging” spells for Merlin in the second amber series. This sounds pretty similar. It’s a nice option for motivated spellcasters. I suspect most would prefer a spell list, though, for the simplicity.

  3. I really liked the ritual magic system introduced in GURPS Voodoo back in the early 90s. I haven’t kept up with development of GURPS in the last 15 years, but I did try combining ideas from the Voodoo and Martial Arts books for the 3rd ed. to simulate “real” magic, towards the bottom here:
    Sounds like the “Ritual Path Magic” book covers the same ground. I hadn’t heard about Bonewitz’s book at the the time, and still haven’t read it, so my version is probably pretty crude now. 😦

    • Bonewitz’ book had a percentage based system, and conflated Vancian style magic with activation of previously prepared rituals, built as astral machines churning away until their stored energy was released. He otherwise looked on magic as something that was not instantaneous, and would strengthen with repetition. He did not accept that a spell would go away once cast, but that perhaps the energy or the time might not be present in order to re cast a spell.

    • mikemonaco: There’s a lot of confusing terminology being used these days in GURPS. The system that derives from GURPS Voodoo and was refined in GURPS Spirits among other places is now called “Path/Book Magic” (clunky and stupid name, in my opinion), which takes its name from the Paths plus the new concept of “Books”, which are like Paths but don’t need to be about a coherent theme.

      There’s a new magic system that can be tuned to be more or less fantastical that is called “Ritual Path Magic”, but it is significantly different than the GURPS Voodoo “Ritual Magic” system. I don’t know it well, but my current understanding is that it centers on a set of nine “Paths” that are more like the Spheres of Mage: The Ascension than the Paths of GURPS Voodoo (they can be adjusted to conform to specific settings, and to more or less than nine, but that’s the default – plus one additional, optional one listed in the rule supplement; they still resemble Mage: The Ascension more than GURPS Voodoo, though). These can be affected by Rituals that are classed first as Greater or Lesser, then as Sense, Strengthen, Restore, Control, Destroy, Create, or Transform, then further modified by the specific type of effect. For example, a Ritual called Alertness is defined as: Lesser Strengthen Mind + Bestows a Bonus (+2 to all Sense rolls) + Duration (10 minutes). On the whole, the system strongly resembles that of Mage: The Ascension, but as if that game had been properly developed by people who understand how games support narrative instead of by people who were only interested in the narrative elements.

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