Truly Different Magic Systems in RPGs

Pretty much all fantasy role-playing games have magic – in fact its the definition of for the title Fantasy.

So here’s a breakdown of some magic systems – and how they’re used. A lot will be in relation to how it would work within D&D5e.

Vancian Magic

This is how magic has always worked in D&D, and comes from the Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer Jack Vance – and is where the magic systems name comes from. His ‘Dying Earth‘ series is where the idea of:

  • A distinct spells that have one fixed purpose: A fireball cannot be turned down to light a candle.
  • Spells are prepared, cast, and effect happens.
  • Spell-casters have a finite capacity for what they can prepare for spells – which is a measure of their skill.

Mage: The Awakening

Spells are almost spontaneous, as the first step in casting a spell is deciding what the spell is supposed to do. The limits are the mages imagination and their knowledge of Arcana.

To be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out how spells are built and cast. There are quite a few steps and formulas to get a spell effect cast, and then you also have to worry about ‘Paradox’s’ which happens when people who don’t know or believe in magic, witness magical, and highly improbable effects.  A lot of the spell casting in Mage is convoluted because of a lot of words being used without acquitted explanations. Its also possible the system is built this way as Mages are Awakened.

The effects of spells and Paradox’ are, for the most part, role-play events. You’re caught doing something or being somewhere you shouldn’t, so you’re character quickly creates a spell to make the person(s) forget they ever saw you. There is then the slow process of seeing if the spell got off, worked, and if there’s a Paradox [game mechanics]. The GM [StoryTeller] and the Player then describe the effects of the spell and any Paradox’ effects.

Changeling: The Lost

Another magic system by White Wolf (Mage: The Awakening being the other). The magic of the Fey is very powerful but bound by ancient laws.

The changeling characters were changed by their expieriances with the Fey, and took on aspects because of their time in the Fey’s Realm [D&D5e: Feywild].

  • Beasts: Changelings that share qualities with animals both mythical and mundane.
  • Darklings: Changelings that represent the aspects of Fear and Shadow.
  • Elementals: Changelings that have become one with an aspect of nature.
  • Fairests: Changelings that embody the beauty and majesty of the Fae.
  • Ogres: Changelings that were subject to violence and became avatars of it.
  • Wizened: Changelings that served as workers and servants only to become the figure of their profession.

There are two aspects of this:

  • Spellcasting
  • Making Fey Contracts


Spell like abilities are a kind of skill to Changlings. You put ranks towards your skill in say

Example. Communion with Earth Elemental’s

  • Rank 1: Sense Element – After meditating for ten minutes, a changeling may locate the nearest source of Earth element.
  • Rank 2: Primordial Voice – Upon making a small offering to the element, the changeling can ask about events the Earth element has recently witnessed.
  • Rank 3: Distant Connection – If extremely familiar with an element, the changeling may share experiences with an element over a distance.
  • Rank 4: Elemental Servitor – After a large offering, an Earth element can ally its natural form with a changeling [rock skin, mold earth, rock to mud, envelop within the earth, pass through Earth, etc.]
  • Rank 5: Elemental Ally – A large offering bestows an element with form, intelligence, and awareness.

Making Fey Contracts

Contracts can be anything from “Grant protection to this home, and I will give unto you a bounty of gold” to “Give me a 1998 Toyota Camry, and in exchange you get three tickets to the Superbowl,” so long as there are at least two parties willing to make a deal.

Breaking a contract carries hefty penalties, because it’s more than just a mortal promise. The magic of Arcadia is at work! There are even rules for tricking someone into a contract through clever wordplay, which fits fey mythology like a glove.

Rolemaster Fantasy – Spell Law

Spell Law is unique in that it was a system developed for Rolemaster, however it was also made open ended to allow the spell system to be used in any RPG. I’ve had a DM over the years allow D&D characters to learn certain spell lists from Rolemaster.

Spells are grouped together by purpose or phylum – called spell lists. There are 50 levels for many spells. Each level of the spell having a similar,but more powerful effect.

Spell lists are first broken down into groups of how the spellcaster receives and casts their spells:

  • Channeling – spells from other powers channeled through the caster (Cleric and Warlock spells)
  • Essence – spells cast by the caster (Sorcerer and Wizard spells
  • Mentalism – mental (psionic) powers.

Spell casters commonly get to start with six spell lists. The lists are fixed and casters add spells from these lists as they gain levels. The spell lists are commonly filled with more powerful versions of lower level spells, or the ability to modify the spell at higher levels. Meaning a spell list can likely have 20 entries but only ACTUALLY have 3-4 spells.

Call of Cthulhu (CoC)

Magic in this Lovecraftian system is a terrifying force that will unhinge your mind and cause someone to go mad just learning spellcraft. Sorcerers call on the power of beings better left asleep. The powers are organically outside of players abilities.
You want to power to summon great old monsters? All you have to do is become an insane cult leader!

Instead of using spell slots or pools of magical resources, users cast the spell, pay the price and\or die – every time a spell is cast.

Perhaps a PC learns a spell or two, then they must grapple with when to use it, as all spells have a price. The game gets darker when PC’s learn to push the cost of spellcasting (at least in part) onto others.

Spells for Call of Cthulhu by Type and Tome: A compiled list of Call of Cthulhu spells, organised by spell type and the tomes they appear in. [These don’t explain what the spells does or the cost of the spell in regards to game mechanics].

Examples of Spells

An example of the spells investigators (players) could acquire, along with examples of their game mechanics in D&D5e. Note: there is no limit to how often spells can be cast except the limits of the creatures casting them – does madness pull them down at last?

Detect Enchantment. After piecing together fragments of old tombs and scrolls, you think you’ve figured out a simple spell. Wisdom Save DC 12, make the save and you fail to understand the spell. Succeed and get the Permanent Madness of being able to feel enchantments you come in contact with. These cannot be ignored and most enchantments encountered in this way cause you to check for further madness (Wisdom save vs enchantment DC gaining a level of madness of a fail). [The same for Sense Life].

Unmask Demon. You gain a permanent madness for learning this spell. When you perform this ritual on a subject, if it is a demon you unmask it – immediately make a Wisdom save vs the demons spellcasting DC, failure and you gain a permanent madness. You gain a short-term madness on a success.

Withering. Magic-Missile like spell that does necrotic damage. You gain a level of madness each time you cast this spell.

Legend of the Five Rings (L5R)

Spellcasters aren’t just individuals who practice magic, but are priests of the highest order, trained to commune with the elements.

There are two systems of magic in L5R, a D&D style spell slinging system, and the Shugenja’s communing with the elemental spirits that make up everything in the natural world and currying their favor. This emphasizes the role of shugenja as priests rather than wizards and creates a highly social magic system. PC’s must finesse their way into the spirits’ good graces. Providing favors and providing gifts to get the spirits to lend their magic to help the PC’s.

The fire spirit will be much more inclined to help you if given some beautiful poetry to burn. The earth spirit will crush your enemies with an avalanche but only after you’ve arranged its stones into a beautiful shrine.

Elemental spirits are extremely powerful, which can work both for and against the PCs. For every time you summon up a typhoon to drive off invading Mongols, there’s a session spent appeasing an angry water spirit so it won’t flood a tiny village full of orphans.

Shugenja Priestly Powers

Spellcasters learn spells but to successfully cast a spell they must understand the elements needed in the situation of the casting of the spell.

Spells are broken down into their elemental powers.


Resilience and resolve. Health and growth. The end and returning to earth.


Washing away, clarity. Adaptable, transformation.


Least subtle. Destruction, intelligence, rage, inspiration, creativity.


Indirect, subtle. Birds, flying, travel. Intuition and influence.

The more powerful spells – and ones everyone gets as they allow caster to really learn spell-casting, are Commune (with elemental spirits), and Summon (elemental spirits). These powers are used outside of combat and the spirits communed with or summoned can be a great help, or great hindrance to the PC’s depending on any and all interactions.

Sources and Resources

Wikipedia: Changeling: The Lost

Five Great Magic Systems in Roleplaying Games

Know How Your Magic Works


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3 Responses

  1. vishalicious says:

    A minor correction – its Jack Vance, not John Vance.

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