4x4 Magic for Fate

A long time ago, I adapted the 4x5 Magic system for FUDGE to a Fate-based fantasy game that I was running. I recently re-found my notes on it, so I thought that I’d share it here, in case someone finds it useful.

Why?

At a high level, the goal of this kind of magic system is to allow for free-form magic, rather than a constrained spell list. Ideally, we would like to say something like “this Wizard has moderate power” and then let the player playing that Wizard find creative ways to use that magic in order to solve problems in the game. That creative problem solving is the part of the gameplay that we want to unlock. On the other hand, too much freedom stifles creativity (“the door is locked, what do you do?”/“I cast a spell of unlock-the-door”), so we need some way to delineate what is possible from what is impossible.

How Magic Works

Firstly, this magic system separates magic into four Spheres (Body, Energy, Matter, and Mind) and four Effects (Sense, Enhance, Diminish, Control). This is the first step to restricting what magic can do - if it doesn’t fall into one of these Spheres and Effects, it can’t be done. Every combination of an Effect with a Sphere produces a spell, making 16 total spells, which can conveniently be layed out in a chart like so:

Spells Mind Body Energy Matter
Sense
Enhance
Diminish
Control

A given character will have access to 0 or more of these spells, and for each will have a rating, just like they would for any other skill. This is the first, and largest, barrier to magic. If a character doesn’t have the Control Body spell, then there is no way that the character could do something like animating the dead. It’s off the table. We’ll get into how the spells and ratings are assigned shortly, but for now, let’s talk about what each spell might do, and how to assign difficulty for accomplishing a given effect with a spell.

Effect Difficulty Numbers

The spell Diminish Energy is vague in its’ possible effects. Can this be used to extinguish a candle? From across a room? What about in another city? Could it quell a thunderstorm? Could it turn off the sun? We can pretty easily determine that this list is ascending in difficulty, but how do we get down to the numeric difficulty of each?

As a first rule of thumb, I decided that if a given task could be accomplished by both magical means and non-magical means, then it should always be 1-2 levels more difficult to accomplish it by magical means. So if sneaking past a guard would require Superb (+5) Stealth, then using Diminish Energy to reduce sound of movement and deflect light to accomplish the same thing would be Epic (+7). This helps to ensure that magic users can’t steal the spotlight from non-magic users, and keep things balanced.

On the other hand, we want to encourage this kind of creative thinking, so in general we should make it much easier to do a partial result. We might say that the Wizard here could use Diminish Energy to Create the Advantage “sound-dampening field” with a difficulty of only Great (+4), which someone could then invoke for a +2 to their Stealth roll.

This rule of thumb can be boiled down to this: using magic alone to entirely achieve a result is very difficult, but using magic to assist in acheiving a result is much easier.

Since I wrote this, though, I’ve been reading through the playtest documents of the second edition of Freebooters on the Frontier, which has a very good system of spending power to increase a freeform spell’s effects in a defined way (increasing any of the area of effect, the duration, the range, possible damage, or possible bonus number each costs 1 power). I think that could be adapted by defining a baseline +0 effect for each spell, and then increase the difficulty of an effect for each of the ways that it is harder.

At the end of the day, it’s something that you’ll need to find for your setting through trial and error, and through consensus with the group. Writing down a bunch of effects and their difficulties would help tremendously.

Character Creation

Next we need to determine which spells a character has access to, and the ratings of those spells. I used the rules for extras from Fate Core, along with the skill modes rules from the Fate System Toolkit, where the various modes correspond to groupings of skills from the skill list. For context, the skills that I included were Athletics, Contacts, Deceive, Empathy, Lore, Magic, Melee, Notice, Physique, Provoke, Ranged, Rapport, Stealth, and Will. The modes were

  • Arcanist (Magic, Rapport, Will)
  • Assassin (Deceive, Melee, Notice, Stealth)
  • Disciple (Contacts, Magic, Will)
  • Explorer (Lore, Notice, Physique, Ranged)
  • Performer (Empathy, Lore, Provoke, Rapport)
  • Smuggler (Contacts, Deceive, Empathy, Stealth)
  • Survivalist (Athletics, Physique, Ranged, Will)
  • Warrior (Athletics, Melee, Physique, Provoke)

The last two modes are the special ones, as taking either one unlocks the magic extra in a particular way. For the Arcanist, it unlocks all of the spells in a single Sphere, and for the Disciple, it unlocks all of the spells of a particular Effect (in my setting, I had the effects correspond to the dieties of a simple pantheon that I came up with).

After a character picks their modes and ajusts skills, they might end up with a rating for the Magic skill, as well as a number of unlocked spells. Beginning with their overall magic skill rating, they assign a rating to each of their unlocked spells, decreasing by one each time. Any unlocked spells that are unrated, or would be rated at less than +0, end up rated at +0.

Here is a complete example, including mode selection.

Jane chooses the following modes for her character Zander: Good (+3) Arcanist, Fair (+2) Survivalist, Average (+1) Performer. For the Arcanist mode, she chooses to unlock the Energy Sphere. By combining the skills, Zander ends up with +3 Magic, +4 Rapport, +4 Will, +2 Athletics, +2 Physique, +2 Ranged, +1 Empathy, +1 Lore, +1 Provoke. Jane can now spend 7 points to improve some of these skills, and we’ll suppose that after she does so, Zander has Good (+3) Magic. Jane chooses to assign the ratings to Zander’s spells as +3 Control Energy, +2 Enhance Energy, +1 Diminish Energy, and +0 Sense Energy. Zander can only cast these 4 spells, with the given ratings.


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