Have you ever liked an RPG but hated its magic system? What if you have an idea for a magic-users' campaign, but the system you want to use doesn't have magic? Do you give up and play something else? Do you play without magic?
What if you could use any magic system you wanted with any RPG you played? Does that sound good?
Today, we'll look at how to do just that.
If it's not Broken…
"…sometimes, just like poems, magic can become stale and clichéd. Through repeated exposure, its novelty can wear off, and certainly, thirty years of magic missiles and fingers of death have been enough to render many fantasy gamers jaded."
— Elements of Magic, Revised Edition by Ryan Nock, p. 3
People often ask, Why mess with a system that isn't broken?
Sometimes, a GM just really hates the magic system that much. I have friends that feel this way about Vancian Magic. They won't run D&D unless they swap it for, say, Spell Points.
Other times, you like an RPG for your setting, but you'd prefer a different magic system. Maybe you're running a low-magic dark medieval campaign. You want the simplicity of 5E (Well. Maybe if you're taking an E6 approach to it…), but its magic is wrong for the setting you envision. Instead of giving up on your desired world, you take the core rules from 5E and E6. Then you mix in the fascinating, atmospheric Pillars of Magic from Dark Ages: Mage to give it the proper dark gothic feel you're after.
Or maybe you want the mind-boggling fantasia of Record of Lodoss War, but you don't have the 5E Anime book yet. You need the classic fantasy feel of D&D. It can't capture the stylized enigma and breadth of Deedlit's Spirit Spells and the straightforward grace of Etoh's Priestly Prayers, though. And you're not proud of it, but you just can't wrap your head around Fuzion. So you use the core rules from AD&D 2nd edition, but you fold in Dynamic Sorcery from BESM 2 to give you a bit more narrative license than D&D magic allows.
See? Two perfect reasons to change a magic system that isn't "broken", per se. And it doesn't require coming up with brand-new rules from scratch--all it takes is taking a ruleset you like and mashing it up with another. With some thought and maybe a little stitching, it's easy as patching an old pair of jeans.
A Well-Oiled Machine Operating Simultaneously in Two Theatres
"Welcome, operative. If you're reading these words, and you have the proper security clearance to understand them, you've obviously been accepted as an Enlightened agent within the Technocratic Union. Congratulations! If you don't yet have the proper security clearance, don't worry. Remain exactly where you are. Operatives are being dispatched to your location to help you transition into the next stage of your existence."
— Technocracy Reloaded, (2021) from Onyx Path.
Any time you choose to change the magic system in an RPG, you're operating in two distinct theaters: narrative and mechanical. Each has its own considerations and difficulties.
On the narrative side, you're changing the economy of spellcasting. Depending on how extreme, you may be upending whole schools of magical thought, canceling entire economic models. In most modern RPG settings, magic is a fine-tuned beast that walks a razor's edge between all the other elements in the world, influencing and being influenced in turn. When you change how magic works, you have to consider the impact those changes will have on the practitioners, the teachers, the hedge wizards, the talismongers of your new world. Otherwise, you may find after the fact that you've written your questgiver NPC out of a job.
One example is Vancian magic, the D&D standard. In it, sorcerers read arcane litanies from ancient tomes thrumming with mystical resonance, setting loose the living spells on their pages into the fertile grounds of their own minds. These willful constructs inhabit the mage, taking up residence until the caster unleashes them on the physical world. As the mage grows in experience, ze can hold more spells at one time. This limits the number of spells a single caster can use, especially at lower levels. As such, the magic system compensates with arcane items that fill out a wizard's arsenal while warriors hack through multiple battles a day.
As you can see, the narrative of arcane magic in a world of Vancian Magic like the Forgotten Realms is honed and delicate.
In the mechanics, changing magic is no less dicey. Magic systems are balanced and streamlined against other rule mechanics. If you change spellcasting, you may need to tweak different rules to compensate. You'll certainly have to adjust your new magic rules to fit the idiosyncrasies of the overarching mechanic.
Consider Shadowrun. It's a d6 success-based skill system: in it, you roll a dice pool based on your skill and, depending on the edition, your attribute. The more successes you score, the better effect you achieve. If it's an attack roll (or a spellcasting roll, in this case), the target also gets to dodge or resist the effect. For a mage or shaman, that works out like this: the spell caster makes a Sorcery check to cast the spell. The target, if appropriate, makes a Resistance check to determine the effects. Then the mage makes a Drain check to resist the trauma of channeling the spell from the Astral Plane into the Material Plane.
See? The magic system in this game is fine-tuned to feel consistent with the rest of the mechanics.
And what's the moral of this story? Simple. Changing a magic system may not be challenging, but it does take determination and thorough planning.
And Now for a Bit of MMORPG Logic
"You hold in your hands several pounds of paper detailing some of the best fantasy ever created and opening the door to some of the best fantasy yet to be created… by you. Welcome to the EverQuest Roleplaying Game!"
— EverQuest Roleplaying Game: Player's Handbook (2002) from Sword and Sorcery Studio, p. 5
Back in 3rd edition D&D, Unearthed Arcana presented an alternate magic system for casting cooldowns, which were becoming popular in MMORPGs at the time. (You can find the rules on d20SRD.) It used Spell Slots, but it did away with Spells Per Day in favor of a random recharge duration. Normally in 3rd edition, a spellcaster gets several slots at each spell level and casts each once per day. In this variant, each caster has one slot at each level. Ze can cast spells in that slot repeatedly but has to wait for several rounds between each use.
Take Ona the 7th level Half-Orc Bard. She casts Hold Person on the enemy leader, a 2nd-level spell. The recharge time on that slot is 1d4+1 rounds, and Ona's player rolls 3: it'll be 4 rounds before she can use another 2nd level spell. Next turn, she casts the 1st-level Cause Fear on a meaty bruiser and rolls 2 rounds for the recharge. She's holding her Level 2 spell slot in case she needs to cast Cure Serious Wounds. On her next turn, Ona takes her ax and starts laying down some discordant strains.
Some spells in this system, especially ones with longer durations like Heroism or Eagle's Splendor, have specific cooldown times like 30 minutes or 6 hours that put them outside this standard recharge duration. (They have a list. It's a thing. Not a good thing, perhaps, but...) That gets a little complicated, granted, but it addresses issues like casting extended-duration enchantments on large groups of people one at a time. Or spamming a bunch of divinations to cheat the system.
For groups that disliked magic items or never got the hang of the traditional magic item economy, (read: had a lazy DM) this system was brilliant. It allowed spellcasters to participate in combat without depending on scrolls and wands or stopping to rest after every battle. I always thought Everquest or World of Warcraft should have snapped up this magic system to power their own d20 rulesets--that's how much I liked it.
Shadow of the Dungeons & Dragon Lord
"Spell Law deals with the integration of magic and spells into a fantasy role playing environment. It is designed to be used as part of the Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS) or as the spell system for other FRP games. In the latter case, it can be used as a whole or in parts."
— Spell Law (1997) from Iron Crown Enterprises, p. 4
Let's say you've been considering that grimdark fantasy campaign we mentioned above. You like Dark Ages: Mage, but you feel it may be easier to adapt magic from Shadow of the Demon Lord than from a dice pool system. Besides, for this campaign, you prefer the tradition-based approach in Shadow of the Demon Lord over the faction-based paradigm from Dark Ages: Mage.
Why change the system, you ask? Why not just play Shadow of the Demon Lord? Good question. Maybe your players refuse to play anything but 5E. What if you just prefer task resolution in d20? Perhaps you like the Fighter and Rogue classes from 5E, but you want to use spellcasters from SotDL in this setting. When you're comfortable with home brewing, the question becomes: Why not?
So, the first thing you notice: the primary difference between Shadow of the Demon Lord and 5th edition D&D is that SotDL only goes up to Level 10. However, since you're using E6 rules, that shouldn't be an issue. Essentially, you're capping magic-users at their Level 6 Expert Path instead of advancing them into a Master Path. You may let them gain Master Path abilities through Feat advancement, per E6 standards.
Shadow of the Demon Lord doesn't have alignment, so there are no magic spells keyed to such. Therefore, there's no call for characters in this system to be restricted—er. Defined—by an arbitrary alignment system.
Corruption from Shadow of the Demon Lord is worth noting. You like the idea of dark magic affecting the caster's soul in a grimdark world, so you decide to carry the Corruption and Insanity rules from Demon Lord directly into your game. You'll base Insanity on Wisdom instead of Will, of course. You think the two games' cores are similar enough to use the rest of the additions as-is.
Ability Score Increases in 5E tend to come at Level 4, but in SotDL they come at Levels 1 and 3. That makes sense. 5E adds a Proficiency modifier to most d20 rolls, while SotDL is attribute-based. Since you're basing this campaign on d20, you'll ignore the ASIs from Paths and instead give each magic-user a single Ability Score Increase at Level 4, as in most 5E classes.
While we're on the subject of Proficiency modifiers... You'll have to add Proficiency to spell checks or attack rolls called for in a spell description. This works both for pure magic users and multi-class mages. Pure magic users will have the advantage in Power level and number of Spells—they don't need a Proficiency gap on top of that. In addition, you're going to replace the Attribute Challenges they talk about in spell descriptions to Saves. You can probably use the same formula for spell DC that 5E uses: 8 + Proficiency + Tradition Stat Modifier.
Also, note the attributes in SotDL are different than D&D. You can resolve this with a simple translation map. Strength in SotDL is a combination of Strength and Constitution in d20, so go with Strength when a spell depends on physical force, or Constitution if it calls for resistance or endurance. Agility maps directly to Dexterity. Intellect maps to Intelligence. Will combines d20's Charisma and Wisdom, so spells that depend on perception or willpower will use Wisdom as with the Earth tradition. As with the Song tradition, those that call for force of personality or charm use Charisma instead. Note that Enchantment is Intellect-based in Shadow of the Demon Lord. We'll file it under Intelligence and leave it at that.
This obviously will require case-by-case DM rulings, making it one of the most involved adaptation processes between the two systems.
Shadow of the Demon Lord uses Boon and Bane as its advantage and disadvantage mechanic. Since you're using 5E for the core rules, you'll substitute 'Advantage' any time a Path or Spell mechanic indicates one or more Boons. Substitute 'Disadvantage' for Banes.
Health in Shadow of the Demon Lord starts out slightly higher than Hit Points in 5E. However, damage ratings scale almost identically. And since you're using E6 rules for 5E, your players won't be gaining more than 6 HD anyway. The martial types will probably end up with more hit points than their SotDL counterparts (Fighters in SotDL gain a flat 5 Health per level), but you don't think it will cause problems.
You need to define which classes the setting uses. Players can choose the Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, and Rogue classes from 5E. Alternately, they can select the Magician or Priest Novice Paths from SotDL. The Ranger is a puzzle. You'll have to think about that one.
One strength of SotDL is the way it handles multi-classing: with Expert and Master Paths. You can capitalize on that, letting non-mage players swap out Levels 3 and 6 of their chosen classes for levels in Expert Paths instead. A Fighter would give up hir Martial Archetype and an Ability Score Improvement. The Barbarian would lose a Primal Path and hir Path Feature. For a Monk, ze would trade hir Monastic Tradition and the ability to Deflect Missiles, Ki-Empowered Strikes, and a Monastic Tradition feature. A Rogue would exchange hir Roguish Archetype and Expertise. Say… these seem to work out suspiciously well. Do you suppose Charles Schwalb meant for his paths to be hot-swappable with 5E classes?
Since you're allowing multiclassing into mage and cleric Paths, this also solves your Ranger issue. Instead of using the 5E Ranger, you'll let your players multi-class into the Ranger or Scout Paths. That gives your players the flavor of Ranger without all that pesky spellcasting.
The next difference you notice is that magic in SotDL is based on a characteristic called Power instead of Caster Level. This determines both spellcasting ability and each spell's Castings per Day. Since it's gained through Path levels in that system, though, you don't think it'll be an issue. Just clarify to your players that everybody starts at Power 0 and that having Power 0 doesn't mean you can't cast spells.
We need to verify the specifics of using the magical Paths in our 5E game. At Level 1, a Magician gains +1 Power, 4 Traditions with two Cantrips and one Level 1 Spell each, and the Level 0 Sense Magic Spell. Level 2 grants 2 more magic picks: either a new Tradition or a new Spell in a Tradition the caster already knows. Ze also learns the Spell Recovery talent, which recovers one-quarter hir Hit Points and one Casting of one spell. Once ze gets to Level 5, the Magician gains +1 Power, another Tradition or Spell, and the Counterspell talent. No worries on that Path.
Let's do the same for Priests. It looks like one of them gains +1 Power, along with one Tradition (and a Level 0 Cantrip) and two more magic choices. Ze also gets the Shared Recovery talent at Level 1, which recovers one-quarter Hit Points for both hir and one other creature within 5 yards. All those seem in keeping with your desired power level. At Level 2, the Priest gains two more magic choices and the Prayer talent, which functions like a single-target Bless the character can use once per round. At Level 5, the Priest gains +1 Power, one spell, and the Divine Strike talent, which adds d6 damage when ze uses Prayer to assist an attack roll. All this looks fine.
Checking out the 10 magical Expert Paths from SotDL, it looks like most give the PC +1 to Power at Level 3. That means pure magic-users in your campaign will have 3 Power at Level 5, which tracks precisely with D&D classes. As such, it'll feel very familiar to your players. On the other hand, martial classes that choose to take a magical Path for Levels 3 and 6 will get 1 Power, which lets them use each Level 0 spell 2/day and each Level 1 spell 1/day. That also feels appropriate.
Finally, you need to go through the Magic Traditions and ensure that each one is suited for your campaign. Since the scale of SotDL is so similar to D&D, the power level probably isn't an issue. More at stake is whether any traditions feel out of place. Say you don't want the gearpunk elements from SotDL to bleed into your grimdark world; you might disallow Technomancy. If you don't like the feel of Spirit Magic from the Demon Lord Companion, you can forbid Spiritualism. If you don't want your players dabbling with demon summoning, you can restrict Demonology to NPCs.
Now that you've hashed out the fundamentals of your magic system, you need to give a thought to how you're going to express it beyond Character Level 6. E6 provides feats for increasing Ability Scores, but its solutions for magic users won't work.
First, you'll probably want to invent a feat so your players can learn new spells:
Expanded Spell Knowledge
You delve deeper into the mysteries of your chosen Tradition.
Requires: Knowledge of a magical Tradition
- Choose a spell from one of your Traditions with a level equal to or less than your Power. You learn the chosen spell.
Note: You can take this feat more than once. Each time, choose a new spell.
You don't have to, but you can also create a feat to grant your players new Traditions.
Through dedicated study, you have unlocked the secrets of a new magical Tradition.
- Choose one magical Tradition. You discover it.
Note: You can take this feat more than once. Each time, choose a new tradition.
Beyond that, you might allow your players to attain higher levels of magic:
You have looked into the Abyss and discovered the true limits of your mystical potential.
Requires: At least one other Feat above Level 6
- Increase your Power by 1.
Note: You can only take this feat once.
This will let your pure magic users reach Power 4, giving them access to all but the most potent spells in SotDL. You can restrict access by imposing special training requirements, ability score requisites, or similar conditions.
Finally, you can use feats to permit features from Master Paths without the level gain that would typically accompany them.
You've devoted time and effort to expand your professional skills.
Requires: 3 or more other Feats above Level 6
- Choose one Master Path from Shadow of the Demon Lord. You gain the Talent(s) from Level 7 in that Path. You do not gain any listed Attribute or Characteristic increases nor Languages.
Note: You can only take this feat once.
Professional Mastery, Greater
Your efforts toward your professional advancement continue apace.
Requires: 9+ other feats above Level 6, Professional Mastery
- You gain the Talent(s) from Level 10 in the Master Path you chose for Professional Specialization. As before, you do not gain any listed Attribute or Characteristic increases nor Languages.
If you allow your players to multi-class using Expert Paths from SotDL, you can also use a feat to allow them to progress further in that Path. Even if you only permit multi-classed spellcasters, you can use the following feat for their benefit.
Devotion to your professional Path has led you to greater heights of achievement.
Requires: 6+ other feats above Level 6, multi-classed into Expert Path
- You gain the Talent(s) from Level 9 in your chosen Expert Path. You do not gain any listed Attribute or Characteristic increases nor Languages.
Putting together your own ruleset from pieces of other games can be intensely rewarding. You can adjust a system to better reflect the feel you want for your campaign world. Or you can play exactly the RPG you desire. In any case, you have control!
Have you mashed up a ruleset before? Did it work out well, or was it a horror story? Tell me about it in the comments!
Until next time, game well, my friends,