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Killer Shrike's Magic System Theory

Shrike Magic System Design

Magic Concepts Control Factors Balance Concepts System Schemas
One of the best things about using the HERO System to run a Fantasy RPG is the freedom to try out different kinds of Magic Systems. Whether using Magic Systems provided on this website, in the Fantasy HERO book, or that you've made yourself, the possibilities for interesting game effects abound.
Designing a new Magic System can be daunting to a new GM or Player, and even some experienced ones hesitate to do it.
This series of documents sets out to help a GM consider some concepts pursuant to designing their own Magic Systems. Links are also provided in places to example Magic Systems that are useable both as comparison points and as is.
First off, some basic terms and ideas are set forth.
Any collection of guidelines and restrictions describing a particular style of Magic use or a coherent grouping of Magical abilities is considered to be a "Magic System". A Magic System should include sufficient flavor and detail to be interesting, but in the context of this document, only the actual game-affecting elements are referred to by the term Magic System.
For the purposes of this document, a Magic User is any character that has one or more Magic abilities on their character sheet with the Special Effect of Magic. Magic Users include Characters that cast Spells, create Magical Items, are bestowed with Magical Gifts, or have inborn natural Magical Abilities.
By definition, any ability not normally possible for mundane people or items stems from some sort of enabling force. There are many possible types of enablers of such abilities like Psionics, Technology, Chi-power or Magic, which are all merely labels or justifications of how abilities work.
 In the HERO System this is known as a "SPECIAL EFFECT", abbreviated SFX. All abnormal abilities dubbed as Magic share a common SFX and therefore may be interacted with collectively as a group, theoretically share some common limitations and scopes of what is and is not possible using them, and possibly even originate from a common source.
Any Skill, Talent, Perk, or Power with the Special Effect of Magic is considered to be a Magical Ability. This is most commonly a Power Construct termed a "Spell", but might be a "Magical Gift", or a Perk such as Spirit Contacts defined as being Magical in nature, or any other ability that is justified as being possible because it is Magic.
Design Considerations of Magic Systems
Designing a Magic System can be a daunting task for a GM, filled with many small but potentially game-shaking decisions. Following are some considerations that a GM might want to keep in mind when designing their Magic Systems.
Magic is a powerful force in most Fantasy Games as it is a pretty open-ended access to unusual powers. In order for non-Magically oriented Characters to remain viable, some form of control must be in effect to maintain Game Balance.
There are many ways of accomplishing this, though many methods will take a little tweaking and application to find the right combination and strictness necessary to achieve a happy medium of fun but fair. Usually this is accomplished by imposing one or more Control Factors upon individual Magic Systems as part of their design.
There are a number of types of Control Factors that might be employed to bound a Magic System's potential for imbalance that are discussed in great detail in the Control Factors document.
As part of an ongoing effort to maintain game balance, a GM should calculate the cost to effect ratio of the Magic Systems they design, including the costs for actual Magical Abilities as well as any overt overhead costs such as Power or Knowledge Skills, Endurance Reserves, associated Talents, and any other specific enablers, as well as any covert or hidden costs such as how much END is needed for typical usage, or how high Skill Rolls need to be for reliability, or the cost of options that are practically needed or typical.
Useful points of comparison are:
  • Entry Level: the minimum cost for a Magic User of this sort; this should also be considered in the context of the number of starting points new Characters receive.
  • Professional Level: the minimum cost for a Magic User of this sort to be considered a competent, skilled professional.
  • Expert Level: the minimum cost for a Magic User of this sort to be considered notable, particularly skilled, impressively capable.
  • Legendary Level: the minimum cost for a Magic User of this sort to be considered one of the best in the world, or ever.
Once the GM has calculated, or at least roughed out, the point costs at the comparison points, they should consider the total actual potency and effectiveness of each such Characters.
Of course, the results of this exercise are useless in a vacuum; the GM should do the same for other typical archetypes within their setting, and other Magic Systems as well. In the end the GM should be able to form a very real and informed opinion as to the relative cost to effect ratios involved and identify any particular means to power that is significantly above or below par.
Not all Magic Systems are created "equal". Some are more powerful than others and are more appropriate to certain levels of play than others. Power isn't necessarily graded in terms of sheer Active Points or dice of effect; it's highly dependent upon a number of variables including comparative Control Factors but also the relative power level of the campaign in which the Magic System is used.
For instance in a fast and loose "Super Fantasy" Campaign where characters start with 350 to 500 total points and aren't even considered impressive until they hit the 700's, which allows characters to buy Powers freely like Superheroes and doesn't fuss over the details of Magic Systems overly much allowing open character design, no Magic System is going to be very powerful within that context unless it benefits from some heavy discounting compared to just buying Powers directly.
However a Magic System designed for such as a setting that seemed fairly lackluster could be overwhelmingly powerful in a lower level 75+75 "Heroic Fantasy" setting with otherwise highly restricted access to Magic.
Conversely a Magic System that allowed access to Spells to be purchased as 1 point Familiarities that is balanced to be not unreasonably powerful in the "Heroic Fantasy" game might prove to be overwhelmingly overpowering in the "Super Fantasy" game if for no other reason than because Characters have so many more points to spend on 1 point Familiarities.
There are a number of Balance Concepts that a GM might want to consider when making Magic Systems that are discussed in great detail in the Balance Concepts document.
A GM should give very close consideration for how potent they want a particular Magic System to be within the context of their setting in general and their campaign specifically. This is less a consideration of what is and is not possible, and more a consideration of what scale Magic Users operate at.
If a GM has multiple Magic Systems in their setting, this may vary greatly from one Magic System to another. This might also vary within the context of a Magic System where the majority operate at one scale but notably capable individuals operate at a much bigger scale.
Not all things come down to attacks, damage, and who can kill who; for instance how do you put a value on being able to do things that otherwise simply are not possible such as take flight? However in practical terms a GM can consider the typical level of attacks being used in their campaign by non-Magic Users as a useful benchmark for gauging the capabilities of Magic Users; particularly in the context of Magical attacks.
Assuming a heroic norm of 1 END per 5 AP, if it is common to have warriors with 2d6 weapons with a 15 STR Min and a 20 STR, then the typical attack has the equivalent of 35 Active Points; further if such attacks cost 4 END and a typical warrior has a 3 SPEED and can also half move before each attack you could correlate that to an expenditure of about 15 END per Turn, which most warriors could likely sustain for at least two Turns.
Working backwards from these numbers it is not unreasonable to say that a Magic System is potentially balanced against warriors if it allows the use of a ~105 Active Point effect as a 1 Turn Action, the use of a ~75 Active Point effect as an Extra Phase Action, the use of a ~45 Active Point effect as a Full Phase Action, or the use of a ~30 Active Point effect as a 1/2 Phase Action, and is sustainable for two to three Turns.
Thus a Magic System that allowed a Magic User to use a 75 Active Point every single Phase would clearly be over the benchmark, while a Magic System that did not allow a Magic User with a 3 SPEED to use more than 60 Active Points total for the duration of a Turn would be below the benchmark.
In a setting where the END cost is a more superheroic 1 END per 10 Active Points, or where Deadly Blow is common, or Characters have higher SPEEDS on average, or where attacks do more damage the benchmark would obviously be different, as is also true if attacks, SPEED, etc are lower. There are also a wide variety of other variables to consider far beyond the ability of this simple comparison to account for.
Nevertheless taking the time to determine this benchmark does provide a simple litmus test; if a particular Magic System is dramatically above or below it at the very least it serves as a clue that further analysis or tweaking of the Magic System is warranted.
In quite a lot of Fantasy RPG source material (i.e. other RPGs), Magic is most commonly broken down into types and subtypes in a hierarchical and well defined fashion. The level of granularity involved in a particular campaign setting depends largely on the preference and needs of the designer of the setting or game system.
At a minimum, most game systems make a differentiation between Arcane and Divine Magic, and some go quite a bit further than that, breaking Arcane Magic into subtypes, and Divine Magic into still more subtypes.
Personally I prefer to genericize and consider Magic in terms of  Personal and Granted in a general sense, using the terms Arcane and Divine only within the context of a particular setting where such meanings might be significant.
This type of Magic is typically, as the name implies, granted to a Magic User by some other entity or force. The Magic User typically does not themselves understand the nature of the Magic at their disposal, did not study to develop their powers, and do not practice to improve their capabilities directly. Their abilities are doled out to them as-is and are often subject to some restriction or use based upon the preferences of the granting agency.
Thus, a major characteristic of this type of Magic is that it is generally static and the Magic Users are effectively sterile -- they do not create new methods of using Magic. Typically all Magic abilities possible with this type of Magic exist on a set list of explicit Power Constructs. Alternately the abilities themselves are not finite, but the types of effects possible is instead tightly defined as a system of restrictions on what kind of Power Constructs or general effects are permissible.
A minor characteristic (one that is common but not necessarily always in effect) is that there is usually restrictions on this type of Magic in the form of behavioral or activity restrictions. The granting agency of this type of Magic User's abilities normally have the prerogative to shut off access to the Magic they grant if they are unsatisfied with the Magic User or if some contractual obligation is broached. This is often expressed in the HERO System as a Power Limitation "Only While Serving Interests Of [Granting Agency], -1/2".
Granted Magic is usually called "Divine Magic" in most Fantasy Settings, and the granting agencies of this type of Magic are typically "Deities" or "Malefic/Demonic" entities. However, other options are possible; other granting agencies that are not supernatural entities are certainly imaginable.
Example Non-Divine Granted Magic Systems
As a hold over from D&D or some other FRPG, most games also have a high level mandate that states only "Divine" Magic Users can use Healing Magic, but correspondingly have much weaker combat-effective Magic available to them. In the HERO System there is no mechanical reason to mirror this trope, but it is certainly something a GM can set if it helps them achieve their desired "look and feel" for a setting.
In contrast to Granted Magic, Personal Magic does not come to a Magic User from some external granting agency, it is either an inherent trait of the Magic User or actively learned via research, study, mentorship, or all the above.
A major characteristic of this type of Magic is that different practitioners of the same Category of Magic often have a different selection of Magic Abilities. Since Magic Abilities are gained by individual Characters via personal development, it follows that there will be at least some variation in the Magic abilities each individual will choose to pursue. As a corollary to this it is commonly possible for practitioners of Personal Magic to create their own custom Magical abilities.
Unlike Granted Magic Users, there isn't much of a rationale for most types of Personal Magic Users to suffer from any sort of behavioral limitations on their Magic use and they usually do not. However some types of Personal Magic Users may have a belief system in place or a setting might have enforceable restrictions that force even a Personal Magic User to comply with certain behavioral code if a GM so desires to design a Magic System as such. The classic example would be something similar to the Oriental "Wu Jen" which are often depicted as having strange behavioral codes.
Personal Magic can be further split into two more groups, Learned Magic vs. Intrinsic Magic. Learned Magic is Personal Magic which is sought out and intellectually mastered, and sources of new Magical abilities are externalized. Intrinsic Magic is a trait inborn into a Magic User and developing new Magic abilities is more of a process of personal growth.