Monday, 28 January 2013

PowerFrame: Revising Mysticism

"Mysticism" is the catch-all term for supernatural effects in PowerFrame, regardless of whether they are caused by magic, miracles, psychic abilities, martial arts, or innate powers. Effects are referred to generically as spells, but they may take on a new flavour depending on the caster - divine revelations, powers, techniques. The original spellcasting system was built on the following principles:
  • Spells have a Level from 1 to 6, which rates their power and difficulty.
  • To successfully Cast a Spell, the Caster must make a Magic Ability roll, with Resistance depending on the Level.
  • You can attempt to Cast any Spell that you know, at any time. Each Spell costs one point of Mana per Casting attempt.
  • The number of Spells a Caster can learn is limited by their Magic Ability, and the Levels of the Spells.

Some Caster types modify these basic principles; some priests, for example, don't learn Spells - they can choose any Spell off a restricted list, defined by their deity. Creatures with Innate Powers usually don't need to spend Mana to activate their effects, although they may need to temporarily spend Endurance instead.

The spell list started out fairly short, but as we played many games over the years, it expanded until it contained over 300 unique spells! When I started working on a new edition, it looked like Advanced Magic, as it was known at the time, would need to be a separate book. This was problematic, as the use of spells to describe some creatures' unusual powers meant that the spell system was already integral to the system. Initially I thought about presenting a stripped-down version in the main rulebook, with just the most commonly used spells. But then, I began thinking about new ways to describe mystical effects.

+Melysa was one of the main contributors to the expanding spell list. We'd often make lesser or greater versions of a spell by adding restrictions or extra features. Each bonus or drawback was worth about a Level, but basic Levels themselves were determined arbitrarily, by comparison with existing spells. The basic array of damage-dealing spells was the most uniform example of this:
  • Level 1: Ignite - Sets fire to one target at range.
  • Level 2: Fire Bolt - Deals damage and sets fire to one target at long range.
  • Level 3: Fire Breath - Deals damage and sets fire to everyone in a cone projected from the Caster.
  • Level 4: Fire Storm - Deals damage and sets fire to everyone in a radius around the Caster.
  • Level 5: Fire Blast - Deals damage and sets fire to everyone in a radius around a point at long range from the Caster.

That progression was repeated for various different elemental effects - acid, poison, wind, and so on. I realised that spells like this could be broken down into their component elements, and then rebuilt in a much wider variety of configurations. This would not only increase the range of spells that could be described, but would also take up fewer pages!


Parameters form the framework that defines the space and time that the spell operates in. Four types of Parameter define how long it takes to cast the spell, at what distance from the caster it takes effect, what area is affected, and how long the effects last.

Parameters are written in curly brackets and/or italics.

Major Arcana

Major Arcana form the core of a spell, defining its actual mechanical effects. Major Arcana define the basic syntax of a spell, by defining which Parameters can and can't be used with it, and by specifying required or optional Minor Arcana (see below). 

Major Arcana are usually written in all CAPITALS.

A Spell may usually only contain one Major Arcana, but there are exceptions. My first draft attempted to say "you can string together multiple Major Arcana if you want, in any combination" because there were some old spells that had this sort of structure, but it became too complex and difficult to adjudicate. Instead, there are some limited circumstances where certain specific Major Arcana can be used together.

Minor Arcana

While Parameters define the where and when, and the Majo Arcana defines the how, Minor Arcana provide the what, specifying the subject of a spell. Not all Major Arcana require a Minor Arcana, although some need more than one, and some are optional.

For example, the DAMAGE Major Arcana provides the syntax DAMAGE [damage-type] (condition). Square brackets list required Minor Arcana (you have to specify what sort of damage it does), and those in parentheses are optional (you can choose to also inflict a condition such as Acid, Burn, or Prone).

Minor Arcana are written in all lowercase.

Spell Resistance

Each spell fragment has a Resistance, which indicates its casting difficulty. It's a simple matter of adding together all the relevant Resistances to get a total Resistance - the number that needs to be beaten with a Magic roll to successfully cast the spell. This value can be converted into an old-style Spell Level, for ease of use with some of the variant caster types.

This is not to be confused with the Resistance roll that targets may be able to make to resist the spell's effect, although in practice the two are similar; if a target gets a Resistance that's equal to or higher than the Magic roll, then the spell fails to affect them.

Spell Syntax
So that old Fire Breath spell now looks like this:

Action:limited, Range: touch, Area:cone1, Duration:instant DAMAGE energy BURN: Spell Resistance 5 (Level 3)

In fact, apart from Ignite which just uses BURN by itself as the Major Arcana, all of those example spells use "DAMAGE energy BURN", but with different Parameters.

Arcane Academy

We're about to launch a mini-campaign to test out the new spellcasting system. We'll be seeing if there are any problems assembling or interpreting spells, or if any Arcana need to be reclassified, broken down, merged, rewritten or removed, or if we need to make new ones to fill any gaps in the repertoire. Reports of that campaign will be filed under the Arcane Academy label.