Magic is at the core of Fantasy Role-Play. In many ways, a campaign without magic is just historical recreational role-play in a parallel universe. Magical spells, items and creatures provide the fantastic element, and it’s hard to imagine any fantasy game without magical spellcasters.
This post is aimed at players and GMs alike. In later sections, it gives advice on how to design Magic-User classes using the rules at Basic Fantasy RPG, and how to decide what supplemental resources are right for your character or campaign. BFRPG is a modular system and there are a variety of different supplements available that you can use according to your preferences.Let’s begin by asking a few basic questions about magic in your game. What do you want it to be like?
What is Magic Like?
Rare or Common?
One of the strange ironies of magic in an RPG is: the less you include, the more your game will centre on it. Some campaigns feature magic as a replacement for technology; it’s so common that the streetlights are run by magic, and many PCs and NPCs knows a few spells. While the action in these games will certainly include magic, the plot will usually centre on other things, because you don’t have to look far to find magical knowledge and training. On the other hand, if you make magic rare and elusive, you can bet that your characters will chase after it and finding it will become a focal point of your narrative.
Old School Role-Play is typically somewhere in the middle. Magic isn’t exactly ubiquitous, but it’s certainly not unknown. That’s a comfortable middle ground if you don’t want to go to the Low Magic or High Magic extremes.
An unusual alternative is to make magic something only the bad guys use. Your Cleric or Druid will be the only caster in your group, and perhaps an evil electricity wizard named Tesla Doom is the main opponent….?
Old, New, Hidden, or Rediscovered?
Most fantasy role-play games include magic that has been around for hundreds of years, if not thousands. This means that skills like ‘Arcana’ and ‘Spellcraft’ might reasonably exist, because it would be possible to learn about what other mages have done in times past. It also means there might be a wealth of information about where to find magic spells and items, as magic will have become fully embedded in written and oral culture over the centuries.
Another possibility is that your characters are among the first people to discover magic. Your MU character gets one spell to begin with, which he has discovered after many hours of experimentation and study. After that, new spells may be invented using magical research techniques. You can’t go out and find new spells and items in the world, because there aren’t any…until you make them. There probably isn’t much call for a skill like ‘Knowledge: Arcana’ because there wouldn’t be any extant knowledge that characters could possess.
A third option is that magic has been suppressed (usually by a government / religious organization), and so magical practitioners are scattered in lonely villages, taking pains to not get found out. It might be hard to get them to give up their secrets, and you might have to be secretive yourself. A fourth choice is that magic has been lost or forgotten in some Dark Age, and your characters are on the trail of it and must hunt around in old ruins to find it.
Feared or Revered?
A related question regards the cultural status of magic. Are wizards revered, feared, mocked, shunned, or thrown in jail? Perhaps they run your starting kingdom or take powerful positions in the court. Or perhaps they are crazy loners who live in towers on the edge of the woods? Magic might be frowned upon, the sort of thing only desperate people would do, or considered to be the domain of the upper-class and not a thing for commoners to meddle with.
You might decide that some magic has been deemed acceptable (light spells, protection charms, and so on), bit other types of casting (charm spells, necromancy) are considered abhorrent. In this case it’s best to develop different traditions of magic, some practiced openly, some in secrecy.
Once you have thought about these basic questions, there’s an even bigger question to ask, one that will determine many of your choices later. Are you using the simple, universal understanding of magic, or one that locates magic with cultural traditions?
The Core Rules for Basic Fantasy say that Magic-User spell-books “are written in a magical script that can only be read by the one who wrote it, or through the use of the spell Read Magic.”
The conception of magic in early editions of the original Dungeons and Dragons system is based on the notion of a universal magical language (a series of sounds that make magical effects occur). This language is the same across all races and cultures, but each culture has discovered it independently. The verbal component of all spells is spoken in this language. Essentially, each spell-caster has invented his or her own alphabet to describe the sounds of the magic language.
This universal understanding of magic makes magic easy to understand and use in basic fantasy campaigns. It answers the following question: what is the exact nature of the skill that the MU has that other people do not have? The answer is: knowledge of the universal magic language.
For me, the universal understanding of magic leaves a few questions unanswered. For example, if a wizard is trained by a teacher, surely their teacher would teach them a certain way of writing the magic? Otherwise, what are they teaching? If magic was taught in such a way, cultural traditions of written magic would develop. You might have a series of traditions in your campaign.
Here’s a sketch of the magic traditions in a recent campaign of mine.
- Old Imperial is a magical tradition using a script like Latin. All basic European-style wizards know this language for free. Most of the spells in the Basic Fantasy Core Rules are available, except ones that fit better with the traditions outlined below. Many spells from the supplements are also available.
- Elf Magic is written in Elvish, and only elves can use it, as it is linked to their blood. The spells focus on flight, forcefields, and telekinesis spells.
- Gnome Magic is written in a special code. Read Magic is required to decipher it by non-Gnomes. Gnomish spells focus on charm and illusion spells.
- Old Bone is a rare tradition of necromancy in an ancient and demonic script. Casters are usually bad guys rather than players.
- Wild Magic is sorcery. Sorcerers don’t need spell-books; magic just happens when the need it to, although there is always a risk of something crazy happening instead.
Those are the five options if someone wants to be a caster in my campaign and I have spell-lists for each. If a player suggested a new tradition, I’d listen, but only if what their new idea was significantly different to what I already had.
Tweaking The Core Rules Magic-User
Now you’ve thought about what sort of Magic-User class (or classes) you want in your game, we’ll start to look at resources available on the BFRPG website. Remember that this is an open-source site, so there is going to be lots of overlapping material and different versions of the same archetypes presented. If you pick some supplemental material, you won’t be able to use other versions of the same idea.
The basic MU, with no tweaks at all, knows one spell (and Read Magic) at 1st level and must find or create all other spells they use. The spell may be chosen by the GM or rolled randomly. The Core Rules MU can learn and cast one first level spell per day. They do not get their Intelligence modifier in additional spell level. (They get additional languages based on their Intelligence, but not additional spells.)
The creator of this system, Chris Gonnerman / Solomoriah, has done a lot of playtesting and worked out that the MU class in the Core Rules isn’t too weak at lower levels (provide the spells are used in an inventive way and the player is pretty careful). Further, the class is very strong at higher levels. Many of us know the joys of slowly watching your newbie low-level caster turn into a mystical powerhouse as the game goes on. Nurturing the character in the meantime is part of the character and narrative development in the game.
Nonetheless, many players – especially in one-offs or shorter games – will want to tweak the MU class from the outset, and it’s always to beef it up; no-one ever wants to tweak their character to make it weaker. There are a variety of ways to tweak the basic MU. The best place to start is Magic-User Options, a supplement co-written by Gonnerman, and one of the original supplement volumes to the game. Incidentally, the Backgrounds and Specialties supplement in the Showcase section contains an entirely different set of ideas for how to develop an MU character. I’ve chosen to work with the Options supplement as it is more explicitly about Magic-Users in this post but do have a look at the other supplement in case you prefer it.
The Options supplement contains a handy list of all the all the other supplements relevant to the MU class on page 5. There is also a list of which options to pick depending on what type of campaign you want to run. I will add my own thoughts to that list here.
1 – More Spells Known. The Core Rules say that some GMs may want to give the starting wizard more spells in their spell-book (i.e. more than one spell and Read Magic). In my game, I allow a choice of one known spell, or, the player can roll two.
2 – More Spells Prepared Per Day. Use the Wizard’s intelligence bonus to grant extra spells per day. See the table on Magic-User Options, page 4. I use a variant of this rule because otherwise there’s no major incentive for a Magic-User to have a high Intelligence score, and the player is often better off putting their best score on Dexterity. Also, I have a campaign in which finding or researching new spells can be quite hard, and so I want characters to get maximum value out of the spells they already know. In a game where magic is more commonplace, you might choose to have a character who knows more spells but is more limited in terms of how many they can cast per day.
3 – More Choice in Casting. Some GMs like their players to have greater choice on which spells they cast at any given moment. See Magic-User Options, pages 2-3. For me, this takes out some of the challenge of being a Magic-User; you no longer need to pick exactly the right spells for the situation you are planning. For this reason, I don’t normally use this option, but it’s good for light-hearted games, especially with kids.
Another strategy is to make some basic spells (especially Read Magic and Detect Magic) free to cast. This will free up the character’s prepared spells for other spells. I do this in my game because the party are always searching for old magical secrets, and the MU character would rarely get to cast anything else, unless I used this option.
A third strategy is to use the ideas in the Spell Channeling Items supplement. These are special items that allow you to cast the energy in one prepared spell as though it were another spell. The items don’t give you additional power, they just allow you to be more flexible with your casting choices.
4 – Zero Level Spells. Some GMs include ‘cantrips’, a type of minor spell that is lower than 1st level. There is a list of them in the 0-Level Spells Supplement. Another supplement in the Showcase, 0 Level Magic, gives an alternative set of rules for the same thing. Some GMs allow cantrips to be used freely. Most GMs will have a daily limit based on the rules in the supplements. I do not use cantrips because they make magic seem too commonplace. In my campaign, magic is very rare, so it doesn’t make sense to have casters using it to hold a saucepan or mend their robes.
A word of warning: inventive (and pushy) players will try to take advantage when using cantrips – i.e., they will want their Flare cantrip to blind foes, or their Push cantrip to knock over an ogre! The spell descriptions are brief in the supplements and there’s room for interpretation, so the GM should be careful that these spells do not end up taking on the power of 1st level spells or higher. Rule of thumb: if the player wants their low-level spell to do something that a higher-level spell is designed to do properly, the GM’s answer should be no.
5 – Arcane Bolt. Many players want their caster to be able to fire off a bolt of energy at will, without using spell slots. See Magic-User Options, page 1. The damage done isn’t great. In many ways this has the same outcome as having an MU throw darts or daggers every round once their spells have all been used. I use this rule in my games because most wizards in the movies are not seen wearing a bandolier of darts or daggers! It;s a good option for adventuring wizards, but you should avoid the arcane bolt rule if you want your Magic-Users to appear as bookish scholars who would never go anywhere without an armed guard.
6 – Battle Wizards. It’s possible to tweak the Basic MU class by allowing the use of armour, better weapons, giving maximum hit points at first level, and so on. All of this is covered in the Options supplement. I avoid doing this, because I would rather the player just pick a Fighter-Magic-User multi-class package and be done with it.
7– Familiars. Familiars aren’t in the Core Rules, but many players expect to have one, and there is a Familiars Supplement to cover them. I include Familiars in my game, but I make the spell a 2nd level ritual that is acquired for free.
8 – Automatic Spell Acquisition: This isn’t an option I have seen listed anywhere on BFRPG, but I have certainly seen it in play many times. When a character acquires the ability to know a new spell, the GM declares they automatically get one, somehow, without doing any research, finding the new spell, or having it taught to them. I never do this because finding or researching magic is the whole focus of my campaign, so giving it away for free would be self-defeating. But that’s a personal preference. Some players find the research and training aspects of the game tedious. If you have that sort of player, it’s a good idea to include spell-books as treasure every so often, just to give them new spells to learn. It’s a good idea to discuss this sort of thing with your players before they level up their Magic-User.
Incidentally, there is also an option (in MU Options supplement) to lower the EXP requirements for an MU so they level up about the same as a Cleric or Fighter, but I never use that option in my game as I like the idea that magic is harder than other classes.
A word on game balance
Obviously, a Magic-User with 2 hit points, a staff, a robe and a ‘Ventriloquism’ spell, is very different to a Magic-User with maximum hit points, free casting of three spells, cantrips, a powerful familiar, a sword and chain mail. If you use the Magic-User Options supplement you need to be careful that your Magic-User class doesn’t unbalance the game. (If you are going to let one class use options to increase power, it’s a good idea to let the other classes do so, as well.)
In the immortal words of Mr. Gygax, it is never wise to bow to the wishes of munchkins. Many of your players will want all the options that make their MU character more powerful. At your discretion, MU option selection could be limited to three or four of the options presented – with more powerful options counting as two choices.
|Wear Armour||1 or 2|
|Bonus Spells based on Intelligence||2|
|Cast At Will||2|
|Acquire New Spells More Easily||1|
|Free Cantrip Use||1|
|Inherent Detect and Read Magic||1|
(I haven’t included New Spells or Equipment in this list because they don’t necessarily make the class more powerful. Equipment must still be found or purchased, and spells must be learned and cast according to the same rules, no matter what resource they come from.)
Things That Aren’t In Basic Fantasy
Anyone who grew up with the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons might expect their MU to be carrying around a pouch full of material components, like grasshoppers’ legs and so on. Well, in BFRPG, you don’t need to do this. There is nothing in the Core Rules about it, or in the Options Supplement either, and there is no mention of components in the Equipment Emporium or other sources describing a Magic-User’s starting equipment. If you really want your MU characters to use material components, you could recognize that it is a disadvantage in play, and you may wish to give them some appropriate advantage. (There are no Core Rules for somatic components either but that is less of an issue.)
You may also expect to see ‘Schools of Magic’: Evocation, Conjuration, and the like. These definitely aren’t in the Core Rules or Options supplement and are not generally part of the OS ethos. I prefer the notion of different traditions, described above. Drawing up different spell-list for your traditions is a good replacement for the ‘Schools of Magic’ idea.
Finally, there are some campaigns where casters may use their hit points as spell points, drawing on their physical reserves to power their magic. This idea is present in the Tiny Magic Companion by Alexander Lars-Dahlmann but is otherwise generally not part of the OS ethos represented on this site.
New Classes, Spells, and Skills
Once your Basic Magic-User class has been established, you might want to add in new ones. These might be because your campaign stretches into new cultures, and you want to develop the magic of the Sea Elves, or the Ogre Magi, for example. Or you might just want different styles of magic in your starting kingdoms. Either way, there’s various ways to add in new classes.
1 – Basic Rules tweaks and options described above. You might decide that an Orthodox Mage uses the Basic MU model plus free casting of Read Magic and Detect Magic, and the ‘Hand of Gotar’ is a special type of battle mage that gets to wear chain mail and has extra spells based on intelligence and, liberal casting rules. These now function as different ‘classes’ in your game without having to use anything but the Core Rules and the MU Options Supplement.
2 – New classes in supplements. As I write this (2022) there are supplements in the Downloads and Showcase pages for Illusionists, Fey-Mages, Necromancers, Sorcerers (and Blood Heritage Sorcerers), Pyromancers (Fire Wizards), and Spellcrafters. (I haven’t fully checked the Workshop, there are likely to be new Classes as WIP as well.) That’s not including other classes like ‘Mystic’ or ‘Bard’ that could easily be redefined as MU classes in your campaign without changing their content at all. These classes work quite differently to the Basic MU and have their own spells listed in the supplements. In my game I use a variant of the Necromancer, and the Sorcerer, and that’s it. I find that less is more when it comes to magic.
3 – Multi-Classing and Quasi-Classing.
As I said before there are good rules for creating interesting MU characters through multiclassing in the Core Rules. You could also use Kevin Smoot’s Quasi-Class mechanic to overlay an additional archetype onto the basic MU – for example, an archer mage or an MU that is also a Sage. (Martin Serena has another supplement of the same type with even more options).
4 – Flavour
There is nothing wrong with using ‘flavour’ to distinguish between your MU classes. Your Basic Mage might wear robes and a pointy hat, use a wand and speak in garbled Latin. Your exotic Desert Mage might wear dark glasses and cast spells from gemstones. The actual rules used might be exactly the same, and the players will still get the feeling that the two are totally different types of magic.
There are numerous sources of new spells on the BFRPG site. I strongly recommend developing different spell-lists for your different types of MU. Nothing distinguishes more effectually between different types of magic than the fact that only one type gets access to a certain spell. If your party discovers that only Gnomes know Invisibility, your party will be tracking down Gnome NPCs soon enough. It’s a great plot driver in my experience.
New Spells Supplement does exactly what it says on the box. Plenty of new spells beyond the basic list to hep you add in new classes or new ideas in your game.
Libram Magica compiles spells from other supplements and adds new ones. I recommend you look at the alternate magical research rules in this supplement and think about how you are going to handle this aspect of the game.
There are also new spells in the Options supplement, and in many of the class supplements as well.
As a final word, there are two common skill archetypes in fantasy role-play that the GM may need to address: Spellcraft and Arcana. These are not present in the Core Rules and in many early versions of Dungeons and Dragons, but they are present in later editions and some of your players – especially ones who have come back to Old School gaming from newer games – may expect to see them in your ruleset. Omer Golan-Joel’s Background Skills supplement does not include either skill. It is probably the closest skills supplement to the spirit of the Old School. Conversely, Ray Allen’s Secondary Skills supplement does include both these skills and using it will bring your game a bit closer to 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons. The choice is entirely yours.
The use of a Spellcraft skill is a decent addition to Old School games, in my view. It is reasonable to assume that if a caster knows the universal magical language and another caster performs a spell in front of them, the first caster would be able to work out what just happened. However, the GM needs to determine how the idea of different cultural traditions affects this. If you have very different traditions of magic in your campaign, you might rule that a caster can only use Spellcraft to identity magical effects of spells in their own tradition, not in traditions that are totally foreign to them.
The Arcana skill can be a good addition in an OS game, but it depends on your campaign style. If you have a game in which magic has been well-known and studied for hundreds of years, an MU (or any character) might reasonably have a chance to know information about an old rune or riddle they find. But if magic is hidden, very rare, or has only just been discovered, there is far less chance of that. Further, players will tend to use this skill repeatedly rather than relying on their own knowledge of things they have learned in the game. If your characters have seen a certain symbol numerous times, and each time there was a trap just beyond it…you want the players to notice this, rather than letting the dice do their thinking for them every time. I personally do not allow the Arcana skill in my games. I decide based on my own judgement if a character would know something. If they do not, they can go and so some research to find out.
In regard to Magic-Users, there’s a lot of flexibility within the Core Rules, even more if you add on a single supplement (the MU Options supplement), and an almost endless variety of you add in additional material. It really all depends on what you want magic to be like, in your game.
The simplest approach is to use the Core Rules to design your basic ‘European-style’ fantasy wizard and use supplements and other rules to add in additional classes where necessary. Your players will appreciate that the rules are being introduced to fit their choices and interests, and, that they do not have to flip through pages of rules on special classes they aren’t using. It all adds to the sense that each campaign is being tailor-made around them, and that’s really what the Old School is all about.
Steve (Longman) McKenzie, July 2022.
PS: years ago, I wrote a similar piece on Rangers, and all the options there are for making a Ranger archetype character in BFRPG. This post is the second in the series on how to explore this website. I hope you enjoyed it.