Fiddling Friday–Fate Magic Without Hack

TL;DR: Fate had a minimal magic system and you can jump right to it or skip my stuff entirely and go for an absolutely fabulous alternative from someone else.

My first AD&D 2E gaming group included a theoretical physicist, a couple of engineers, and a logician-in-training (myself). With backgrounds like these, one of us would often challenge a rule amidst some action the others did not want to interrupt. And so, we had a saying around the table that we’d default to anytime we felt the attempt was untimely: “ta gueule, c’est magique!” (“Shut up, it’s magic!”).

Read: “Magic doesn’t have to make sense, we roll with it for the sake of having fun playing, so let’s do that with rules, too.” We eventually homebrewed a rule system that made sense—but it ended up looking like GURPS, so I picked that one instead. I never played with any of the GURPS magic systems, though—they felt too much like engineering.

By contrast, Fate has a system that makes mechanical sense even when magic would resist systematic understanding. Of course, there are other ways to handle it in Fate. However, this tells you why I favor Fate’s minimal approachI generally find uncertainty about magic more interesting than metaphysical explanations of its origin.

Now, and to be honest, I’ve rarely found players who shared those preferences, and I usually roll with theirs. And so, I won’t merely push mine and will include suggestions to make Fate minimal magic, well, less minimal. There’s a little bit more about what “flavor” of magic I’m after that you can skip if you just want the mechanical bit.

The Skippable Bit: Magic Under Uncertainty

The first Fate campaign I GM-ed—a “Fate of Conan” game—had powerful and hidden magic that PCs feared and would not try to comprehend. By High Concept, the single magic user PC was a Shaman. He brewed enchanted decoctions with Craft and found recipes through dream-inducing rituals. Mechanically, the player would Create an Advantage (CaA), the resulting Aspect materializing the spell’s effect.

Fast-forward a few years. Cancer hit, and when I was back, the players had moved on. I looked into online RPG-ing, found a group of ex-D&D players willing to try out Fate and collaborative storytelling, and jumped in. Initial discussions left the impression of shared preferences for a loose magic system based on narrative permissions. And I thought I could pilfer that Shaman concept and have some fun with it.

But I hit a snag. The group wanted to keep some D&D-like schools or domains, which a magic user’s High Concept would reference. “Shaman” was trampling school boundaries, with a risk to unbalance the game. In a conciliatory effort, my GM tried to zero in on a school by asking: “what is the essence of being a shaman?”

Now, that’s a question whose answer would totally kill the uncertainty about magic I find interesting. So, I politely declined to consider and dropped any notion to play with magic in that game—a decision I don’t regret because I came up with an awesome replacement.

Not that my GM’s question was a bad one. But even in real life, I could never make any sense of “essences”—and as an academic logician, it left me an outsider (most logicians are essentialists). And I won’t engage with game mechanics if it feels like arguing with colleagues at the office.

Player Advisory--Explicit Metaphysics
Player Advisory — Explicit Metaphysics

Fate Minimal Magic System

I prefer keeping rules for magic independent of any underlying metaphysics—if you skipped the first section: metaphysics is my job, not my hobby—and use my go-to recipe for game mechanics not explicit in the Fate books:

  • Character Aspects, for narrative permission; and:
  • vanilla Skills, and the Create an Advantage action.

Nothing specific to magic so far, so let’s dig a little deeper.

The Basic Stuff

Unlike “cyberpunk magic,” I wouldn’t necessarily specify a Skill for magic-magic. For one thing, no single skill from the vanilla list foots the bill. Lore fits some “traditional” Mage-Types (say, Conjuror). But a good character concept could magic the shit out of Academics (Scholar Mage or Astrologer), Craft (Alchemist or Enchanter), Notice or Investigate (Seer), or even Contact, Empathy and Rapport (Mesmer). 

Still, here’s an alternative: add a [Magick] Skill—substituting [Magick] with a cool-sounding gimmick name—as either a “catch-all” skill or as a “dump” for effects that would not fit some other skill. I usually stick to the 55% Rule, but I wouldn’t bother with [Magick] because it unbalances everything anyway (see The Fine Prints).

One may want to gate magic behind a Stunt, if it’s uncommon, or add magic-based Attacks and Defenses to the Skill a PC does magical stuff with. A Seer would probably not need them, a Conjuror most certainly would, and a Mesmer might consider. But I’d rather not constrain the players a priori—who knows, one might surprise me with a Battle Seer. Below is a sample write-up where words in [Square Brackets] are placeholders for your favorite flavor text.

[Combat/Battle][Mage Type]: Because I can [do some cool offensive/defensive stuff] with [Skill], I can Attack and Defend when I [do magical stuff] with [Skill].

How far you push the Stunt logic depends on how strongly you want to gate magical effects. Use it with [Magick] for full-on high-fantasy magic or on a “one Skill, one Stunt” basis for rarer magic. For a middle-of-the-road solution, omit “with [Skill]” and ask for a Fate point. However, there is an alternative to that Stunt, but it topples over to more advanced stuff.

A (Not-So) Advanced Option

Fate Condensed is liberal with Attack and Defense. I like to stretch that logic (and the Silver Rule) to the point of Defense-libertarianism—let N/PCs defend with any Skill that makes contextual sense and never require a Stunt for it. This leaves Attacks to deal with, which I do with a Campaign stunt (available to all) as below.

Offensive Advantage: Because I can press my advantage, whenever I Succeed with Style at Creating an Advantage, I can trade (exactly) one free Invoke for two shifts of harm if the Aspect I created would cause Stress (or a Consequence).

Offensive Advantage deserves its own discussion (sketched in The Fine Prints) but I’ll leave it for another day and move now to a somewhat more advanced but absolutely fabulous magic option—and I can write that because I’m not the author.

Absolutely Fabulous: Dexter Magic

I owe this one to Dexter Dunbar from the Fate Core | Accelerated RPG FB group—the group is private, so the link may not work for you, and that’s why I did not link Dexter’s profile—who left on my previous post on magic the comment below.

“Because I am _______ and want to use magic to ______, I will need ______. The caveat to my spell is ______.”

The effect walks up the Ladder. The caveat walks down the Ladder. The trappings and your personal qualifications can go either way. That’s all you need for FATE magic IMO.

Dexter Dunbar

When I asked Dexter for a few more details about the “________” parameters, he volunteered a gameplay example that I’ll paraphrase—it’s easier on the eye than a quotation block and more reader-friendly than the style of a FB comment.

“Because I am A Bridge Between Life and Death and want to curse the mirrors of this forsaken town to be haunted with the vengeful ghost of a murdered child, I will need the necklace of the murdered girl. The caveat to my spell is that her vengeful spirit will remain restless until all those who wronged her have perished.”

In-game, Dexter applied modifiers as follows: a gritty setting defaulting to Great (+4) difficulty rating; a relevant PC’s Aspect (-2 on the Ladder); a long-lasting effect (+4), an easily accessible but narratively interesting component (-1); and a caveat that could affect the PCs harshly (-4). The result became an Average (+1) Create an Advantage roll, resulting in the Aspect Curse of the Mirror-Traveling Ghost inflicted upon the town. The aftermath?

This solved the killer, but like a monkey’s paw wish unleashed unintended consequences on the town. Innocents were killed and even the players got caught in the crosshairs for causing the spirit unrest. It became a great story.

Dexter D.

Below are Dexter’s guidelines, paraphrased for readability and slightly modified: instead of negative modifiers on the Ladder, I used positive modifiers to [Skill] (arithmetically equivalent, but I have ulterior motives I’ll pursue in upcoming posts):

  • Components: from +1 (unchallenging to procure) to +4 to [Skill] (a dangerous side-quest).
  • Caveats: from +1 (1-2 Stress) to +4 to [Skill] (fallout might spur an entire storyline).
  • Spell Effects & Trappings: +0/2/4/8 to Default Rating if altering an Exchange/a Scene/a Session or Episode/a whole Campaign. 

Dexter’s indicative guidelines reminded me of my favorite RPG Vancian magic system of all times—from Castle Falkenstein. But as much as I’d love to reminisce, this post is already unusually long, so let’s leave Dexter the last word.

As with most things FATE, you just have to make a judgement call based on the setting you want to portray. A gritty setting should default to great challenges, whereas a supers game should have normal ones. […] If you want to limit casting then make it cost Fate points to attempt. Mostly just do what works for the narrative.

Dexter Dunbar

The Fine Print

[Magick] is my skill list. Given a choice between High Concept [Non Magic User] with Great (+4) [Skill] and  [Magic User] with Great (+4) [Magick], the second option will always trump the first if the player can trust their creativity. Why so? Because Fate Skills overlap, choices between Skills are for dramatic purposes (not mechanical effect) and narrative differences (between descriptions of successes and/or costs). A PC may dismantle a lock (Craft) or pick it (Burglary); obtain information through conversation (Rapport), networking (Contact), or careful observation of interlocutors (Notice, Empathy, or Investigate). A [Magic User] with Great (+4) catch-all [Magick] and good-enough imagination could achieve all of the above. The only safeguard against abuse is consistent GM arbitrariness—good enough for fairness but not a guarantee for it (as argued here). And because of overlap, a [Magick] “dump” skill is not necessarily less OP than catch-all [Magick]. So I’d stay away from [Magick] either way.

Pressing the AdvantageOffensive Advantage applies beyond magic—think of a Called Shot Aspect (Shoot) or A Very Foul Blow About Four Inches Below The Belt (Fight of Deceive, leave a comment if you get the reference). Both are Aspects you can “prepare for […] with the create an advantage action” (aiming, deception) to “use the free invokes generated on your next attack” (they have lingering effects). Still, both Aspects should narratively inflict harm (Stress, or if spent, a Consequence). Offensive Advantage prevents postponing damage until the next Attack. For balance, it’s on a par with “reduc[ing] the shift of a hit by one to get a Boost” when Succeeding With Style on an Attack, since the latter requires no Stunt. The free invoke may only be traded if the N/PC exceeds the target’s effort by three but only grants two Shifts of harm. I have other reasons to like this Stunt, but I’ll keep them for another day.

Wrapping Up: How (Not) To Add Crunch

Fate does not have a default magic system, and that’s a strength. Unlike D&D’s or GURPS’ schools (or domains, or whatever they are called, for all I care), Fate does not force-feed a spoonful of half-baked metaphysics with every spoonful of magics. Even better: you can add whichever fully-cooked fantasy metaphysics without adding to the crunch.

Here’s an example from gameplay. Zelazny’s Amber has wonderfully intricate magical metaphysics. The Corwyn cycle has Trumps (as in “card game,” not “crony capitalism”), the Pattern, Shapeshifting, Shadow walks, and Hellrides. The Merlin cycle adds the Logrus, Computational Magic (with a dash of quantum computing), and Vancian-style sorcery.

With that rich background, what system would you bet the GM of my FAE-based Amber game went for? Well, despite that well-defined metaphysics, the magic system is pretty much the minimal one from this post—Aspects and CaA, all the way down! Our GM uses Stunts for Pattern, Logrus, Trump Mastery, Sorcery, and Shapeshifting, but they function as paid Aspects.

“Wait,” I can almost hear the Zelazny-literate D&D player (I’m totally making that one up) say “what of Merlin’s Sorcery? It Vancian! You need a Spell list!” Well, you got me. We do.

But my GM won’t lose sleep on that. Sure, we maintain lists of Trumps we’ve pocketed or Spells we’ve “racked” (with effects eyeballed from guidelines not unlike Dexter’s). Any intrusive roll? No, sir. Come time to use them, the lists are narrative permission to use CaA actions to cast those spells.

Now, you could have a crunchier Fate-based version of Vancian Magic. But if the minimal system (including Dexter’s variant) is good enough for Amber, why bother with anything else?

And that will be all for today, folks!

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