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September 8, 2017

Fate Magic

Fate is a fantastic game.  I don't want to go into all the things that make it great right now, because if you came here looking for a good, balanced, fair, high quality magic system for Fate, you probably already like the game.  It's biggest flaw is that you have to custom-build a magic system for each campaign you want to run.  Well today, I'm going to solve that for you.

The Two-Type Magic System

This is a simple magic system for Fate that works for both Core and Accelerated games.  It's called Two-Type Magic because there are two types of magic in the system, differentiated by how "unrealistic" they are.  It's inspired by Mage: the Ascension's distinction between Coincidental and Vulgar Magick, which was ideal because when I created it, I did so to replicate an old World of Darkness style game.  But it works for everything from twenty sided fantasy to starfaring psionics.   I've spent most of a year playtesting it, and I think it works real darn well.

The basic nature of the system is that anyone with the appropriate Aspect can use magic that fits with that Aspect.  That is, in an urban horror game, "Vampire with a soft heart" gives you the ability to use the magic powers vampires have (turn into mist, disappear from mortal eyes, turn into a bat, control minds, etc.).  In a twenty sided fantasy game, "Gnomish sorcerer with an incendiary personality" gives you the ability to use D&D-style "arcane magic" (fireball, phantasmal force, fly, dispel magic), and in a space opera game, "Crafty betazoid smuggler" would give your trekking n'er-do-well the ability to use empathic and telepathic powers.

"Churlish dwarven fighters" and "Vengeful vampire hunters" would be much more limited.  They could still do some magic, though.  If the dwarf fighter has a "Sentient magic axe of my ancestors," the dwarf might be able to divine information about drwavish ruins, have the axe fly through the air as if possessed, and summon ghosts of the dwarf's ancestors.  Similarly, the vampire hunter's "True Faith" aspect might be able to repel supernatural creatures by brandishing a cross, ward a room against vampires with garlic, and identify supernatural creatures disguised as regular people.  In short, as long as you can justify it with an aspect, you can do magic.

The system is fair because magic typically doesn't work too differently from regular skills and approaches.  Only rarely can you use magic that truly transcends human capabilities.  So the other PCs who don't have magic powers won't feel like they missed out by not having magic.

Here's how it works.  Whenever you use magic (however your setting defines it), you are either using Type A magic or Type B magic.

Type A Magic

Any time you want to do magic that a character in the setting could achieve with regular skills and tools, the magic uses the exact same skills.  It also uses the same amount of time.  And finally, it uses magical tools of equivalent cost and complexity to the mundane ones.

That is, using a "Knock" spell to quietly pick a lock would call for a Sneaky / Burglary Overcome roll.  It would still take about a minute, and it would require a "material focus" that's as easy to get hold of as lockpicks are, such as a silver key or a live mouse.

If the die roll is the same, the skill/approach is the same, it takes the same amoung of time, and the tools are equivalent, why would you use magic?  Three reasons:

  1. The first is for characterization: Your character is a "Gnomish sorcerer with an incendiary personality" of course.  Sorcerers don't kneel down and pick locks.  They cast spells!  
  2. The second is for the cool factor.  You can use a Forceful threat or an Intimidation check to make some threats and chase off a neonate vampire who's been tailing you half the night.  Or you can raise your crucifix and show your True Faith.  Sure, it's the same mechanic, but it's way cooler!  
  3. Third, if magic is secret or rare in the setting, it can go undetected by the uninformed.  They won't let your character bring a revolver into the courthouse, but a blasting rod like Harry Dresden uses just looks like a carved, ornamental length of wood, not even long enough to be useful as a truncheon.

Type B Magic

Type B magic is any magic not covered by Type A.  That is, if you want to do something that normal skills can do, using equivalent tools, but much faster, it's Type B.  If you want to do something physically impossible in the setting, like teleport from Manhattan to Brooklyn in an instant, it's Type B.

Any time you want to work magic that's not possible to do with mundane skills and tools in the setting, you're doing Type B magic.  Serious stuff.  Every use of Type B magic requires you to spend a Fate point and an action (in an exchange during a Conflict) just to try it.  That Fate point confers no bonuses.  The point is expended whether the magic succeeds or fails, and often (but not always) you still have to attempt a roll.

One Fate point is actually a pretty low cost.  That's because it's the bare minimum.  The GM can also call for a die roll, and set the difficulty of that roll as high as they want.

For instance, if you want to cast a spell that incinerates a vampire, and you don't have a magical molotov cocktail, that's pretty simple.  You'll have to spend a Fate point and make a Flashy / Shoot Attack roll opposed by the vampire's Quick / Agility Defend roll.  If you want to cast a spell that cures a vampire of vampirism, in a setting where that is unheard of, that's more intense.  The GM might make you spend a Fate point and make a Legendary (+8) or harder Overcome roll with Lore.  As with everything in Fate, this is negotiated.  The GM might say "it's impossible to cure a vampire of their curse."  Or they might make it easier, taking the story in a weird direction with the PC as a hated/beloved miracle worker.  Or they might make the spell temporary, or require rare and specific components to keep the person from reverting back to vampirism.  The point is, just because you can spend a Fate point and attempt Type B Magic doesn't mean you can do literally anything - unless that's part of the setting premise (ahem, Mage: the Ascension, ahem).

One action in a Conflict is the minimum time Type B magic takes.  Type B Magic always requires an action in a Conflict unless the character has a stunt for that specific use.  Stunts can allow a specific use of Type B magic without an action in a specific circumstance, and should be used to model supernatural powers, such as werewolf transformation (you may spend a Fate point to turn into a deadly wolf-man hybrid crinos monster and gain huge Weapon 2 claws and fangs before taking your action in any Conflict), or vampires escaping in mist form (you may spend a Fate point to turn into mist and shadows just before you Concede in any conflict, preventing your foes from following you after you escape), or alien weirdness (when you make eye contact with someone, you may use a Fate point to instantly learn one of their Aspects).

Considerations for the Action Economy

Fate's action economy in Conflicts is pretty well balanced.  Type B magic has a subtle implication that you need to consider:  By spending Fate points and using Type B Magic, a player can effectively take two or more actions on their turn in a conflict.  That's because Type B magic allows you to do something better or faster than skills and technology in the setting allow, and might have widespread effects.  As the GM, you should counter this by engaging the Fate point economy to help you or by splitting the spell apart.

For instance, a spell that gives you a glowing shield made of a whirlwind of flames (like the D&D spell Fire Shield) might give you Armor 2 against cold magic and also attack everyone standing close to you when you cast it.  Donning armor attacking all the enemies in a zone is more than one action.  You should lean toward allowing these kinds of actions, but make them expensive.  Make the fire shield divide shifts on its Flashy / Fight attack among the enemies around you, and let them each oppose those shifts individually, forcing the gnomish sorcerer to spend even more Fate points on the spell.  That'll keep the gnome from upending the action economy, and it'll make them desperate to get a compel!  Alternately, the GM might declare that each part of the spell is a separate spell.  Building the anti-cold wall of flames is one Type B spell, then using it to attack people around you is a Type A spell or just a standard Attack action (after all, if you're on fire, you can certainly burn people nearby).

Healing: The Delicate Stress/Consequences System

The Fate stress/consequence system is finely honed to offer tiers of threat to characters.  It's the core of the game in many ways.  Changing it with a magic system would be a bad idea.  While they have clear stress boxes, PCs are mostly safe from consequences unless an opponent gets a really high roll.  While their stress is full, they're at risk for consequences, but not really at much risk of being Taken Out.  As their consequences fill, the chance of taking an Extreme (permanent) consequence grows.  Eventually the risk is that they'll be forever Taken Out.  That system is great for building tension.  Don't mess with it!

Using an action to heal damage in a conflict not only reduces the tension caused by this carefully balanced system, it slows the game down because it doesn't move the scene toward a resolution for the PCs (win or lose).  So we've got to restrict healing magic, even with Type B magic.

As you might have guessed, using Type A magic to heal other characters is no different than using an Overcome roll to rename a consequence to begin the healing process.  That's not problematic at all.  It rarely happens in a conflict, and it's almost perfunctory (though it often highlights how tough it is to make a high difficulty Overcome roll after a major Conflict when everyone's tapped out of Fate points!).

Type B magic is another matter.  Closing wounds is the sort of impossible thing that Type B magic is supposed to allow, but the consequence system in Fate shouldn't be undercut by a single Fate point.

Instead, here's what you can do:  Type B magic can substitute a consequence for another consequence of the same level, even if they're totally unrelated.  For instance, "Moderate: Stabbed in the Leg" can be substituted for "Moderate: Very Hangry" (for instance in the Wheel of Time setting where that's how healing works).  If an opponent has a free invoke on that consequence, the spell would require an Overcome roll against the opponent, and it would take away that free invoke.

In addition, Type B magic can clear a single stress box.  There are already stunts that allow the exchange of a Fate point for clearing a stress box, so this doesn't break the stress/consequence system too much.  I would not recommend players use Type B magic for this, though:  Using an action in a conflict and a Fate point to remedy a single stress box is a waste of your action.  It's one step forward and two steps back.  Still, it fits that D&D style of tactical teamwork where one character "tanks" for the party and gets healing to keep it up, while the rest focus on offense and support.  If you're not trying to run that style of game, though, feel free to take this option off the table.

Unless you want to modify Two Type Magic, a single use of Type B magic cannot outright remove consequences or clear more than one stress box at a time.

Fantasy Option:  Rote or Vance-ish Casting

If you want your magic to model D&D, you're mostly out of luck.  Fate doesn't have character levels or a spell list, so gaining "spell slots" and "spell levels" as you grow in power has to be modeled with another custom system that you and your players will have to develop.  However, we can borrow mechanics from Dungeon World and Mage: the Ascension to create a magic system similar to D&D.

Instead of being able to do literally anything, your magic is limited to spells or rotes.  Choose four spells - magic abilities your character has.  Feel free to choose D&D spells if you want.  Pop over to the D&D SRD and choose a few or make some up, then model them with Fate approaches or skills.  Write down what they do, what roll they require, and whether they require a Fate point.  Type A magic spells are your low level spells or cantrips - ones you probably won't run out of.  Type B spells that require Fate points are your higher level spells.  The Fate points are the "spell slots" for your Type B magic.  As you gain levels, you might gain more spells, and each Major Milestone gives you another Fate point / spell slot.

In addition, if you fail a roll when attempting to cast a spell, the GM can offer you a choice:  The spell fails... or the spell succeeds, but you forget it until you have 8 hours of uninterrupted rest.

Any magic you want to perform outside of the rotes/spells you know is either not allowed, or else requires you to spend at least ten minutes casting a ritual spell, and the GM will tell you what is required to make the magic work.

Playtest Results

Having used this system for about a year, I've found it works smoothly.  Everyone remembers how it works.  There's really just the one line you draw between Type A and Type B magic and a little extra for the GM to be mindful of (i.e. protecting the action economy and the stress/consequences system)  My players got it pretty quickly, and they've been good about sticking to what their characters can actually do.

For instance, we've had a player leave the game, and that player had the ability to do Earth magic.  It was established early that the other characters didn't have that sort of magic, and so whenever the PCs need to tunnel into a basement or search under the earth, they regret that their former ally isn't around instead of trying to be cheesy and use magic they didn't have before.

The occasional powerful Type B spell has turned the tide of a scenario, but occasional high rolls fueled with Fate points on Contacts and Lore and Provoke have done so as well.  And all the characters have some kind of magic, and even though the breadth of their magic varies considerably, they haven't complained of any kind of power disparity because of it.