Alternative Magic Systems

The usual DnD Vancian casting was never to my liking. I prefer a bit more low key magic like in Beyond the Wall, where spellcasters don’t throw magic missiles or fireballs. Where magic is more like a tool while not invalidating entire class concepts (don’t like classes either but that’s a different topic). Some of my favourite magic systems are Maze Rats, Barbarians of Lemuria, Wonder & Wickedness / Marvels & Malisons. There was also a keyword based one I don’t remember the name of. Any others in that vein I don’t know yet? What are your favourite alternatives, if any? Collecting some reading material to tinker on my own variant.


I’m assuming you’re thinking of Maze Rats.
I would also suggest Whitehack and Macchiato Monsters.

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I once read of people using a system where you had to rhyme. It was back in the day of forums and the forge I think. It doesn’t work for serious games I think, but eh. I also think that the system in Godbound is pretty solid. It uses keywords or spheres of influence. Maybe that’s what you were thinking about? I also like the way some FATE games do it, where it’s at once powerful, but also more flavorful. But then we are way out of OSR territory, though NSR straddles genres right?


I am technically working on one, though its nowhere near presentable yet! Making magic based on open interpretation, and ‘items’ all magic being an item (either physical or metapsychical, a spell to blot the sun out would take a slot for example).

The magic itself, well I favor leaving the actual implementation rough and up to on the spot adjunction informed by description (which is why I favor more specific gimmick magics like ‘stick nail in someone and you can control them’ or ‘as long as you say this chant all around you is darkness’ where the limits are fairly easy to work out and agree on) and if there’s no readily available answer I like to go to Costs and Sacrifices so a player can give up something to make magic work.

Generally also I just like to use a ‘what feels right’ approach with bias given to player creativity. So a player who can purify something could purify a barrel fine but an entire pool defiantly feels like a bit much.


Errant has a system with a bit in common with Maze Rats, in that spells are a combination of keywords. But they are a bit more fixed. In Errant to cast a spell you need a grimoire. When you discover a grimoire you roll an effect and a sphere, and can then create ‘sorceries’ with that grimoire based on the results. It also has a very cool set of grimoire types that each have individual requirements and miscast results.


I really like Freebooters on the Frontier’s magic system, which has you assign points to different aspects of the spell to determine it’s effect.


I don’t think it’s important to constrain things to OSR too strictly. I am very much into OSR, but … I identify more with “RPGs that I like” first and foremost. (I ran a lot of Fate for about a year, circa 2018.)

@chaosmeister, just to widen the conversation a little, are you familiar with the Spheres system from Mage: The Ascension? It wasn’t a perfect system, but it definitely encouraged a very high degree of player creativity *as well as GM rulings rather than strict rules.

As for more recent rules, I agree about Wonder & Wickedness and its sequels. I’ve only used a few of the spells so far, but looking forward to trying more!


To me it seems that you are looking for discussion about two things:

  1. non-Vancian magic use
  2. non-combat magic

Both of these are standard because of the roots of D&D in wargaming. Magic-users in miniatures battle were allotted a fixed number of magical shots in a single battle. When a continuous campaign focused on individual characters evolved, transcending single battles, “shots (per battle)” became “shots per day” or shots per cycle of reloading. That’s the system we have now, and it was justified after the fact as having a basis in pre-D&D fantasy fiction as “Vancian.” Magic was mostly fireballs and lightning bolts at first, with various other magical effects added on as the potential for magic in war was explored. In short, magic use was at first just fantasy artillery, and we are still stuck with that to a great extent.

Already many the first players of D&D were trying to break out of that. They said that the magic system wasn’t “realistic,” meaning it wasn’t true to the fiction they imagined, but people like Gygax mocked them for wanting “realism” in magic. They had chosen the wrong word. They meant “true to the fiction” that they wanted to emulate, and most fiction isn’t Vance. In short, the two sides didn’t communicate very well, one of the early negative side-effects when a game planned as a wargame came into the hands of sci-fi fans, the latter of whom created the boom of D&D.

Alternatives to these two wargaming features of magic exist aplenty, however. The fertile imaginations of Californian players were inventing spell point systems already by 1975. (Gygax feared that spell point systems made magic-users too powerful, unstoppable. He was wrong.) I’d look at Tunnels & Trolls (1975) for the first system in which STR was spent to cast spells and each spell has an INT and DEX prerequisite. Chaosium games (start with RuneQuest) innovated the POW (power) stat which was the basis of Magic Points (spell points). There are games like Call of Cthulhu that use that framework to make a magic system not quite true to Lovecraft’s fiction but definitely more “occult” in its feeling, not combat magic for the most part.

The earliest working creative magic system, where players combine elements to make a spell that they imagine on the spot, was the one in Ars Magica (1987), where a wizard combines one of five verbs with one of ten nouns to make magical effects. Wizards have different specializations in those noun- and verb-effects, with stats for each. It worked in play, as I can attest from a long time ago.

If I remember rightly, the original Pendragon RPG had no magic system. All PCs were knights, and magic was simply part of the setting as devised and imagined by the referee. You can have a magic world with no magic rules! But some players just love to play wizards, don’t they?

Take a more recent alternative, Tiny Dungeon. There, magic-users are either “Spell-Touched,” capable of any little cantrip that the player can devise on the spot, as adjudicated by the referee, or “Scroll-Readers,” who can (you guessed it) read scrolls, which offer one shot of a spell each. The Micronomicon supplement for Tiny Dungeon has some other new ideas in it. I got it, and I’m not that thrilled with it (a lot of it is fluff and setting ideas, not my object), though it is full of interesting ideas.

Maybe these old and new will contribute to your tinkering.


I’m a big fan of “gutter magic” from Unknown Armies. It asks the mage to improvise spell rituals based on symbolic elements that makes sense in the mage’s head. As long as these symbols actually do carry weight in both the caster’s consciousness and the public consciousness, the spell has potency. Interestingly, it also works for enchanting items to create “artifacts.” For example, you can create a “magic bullet” that always finds its mark by collecting a bullet casing used to unjustly or accidentally kill someone and then refilling it yourself.

Unknown Armies is in general a good source of ideas for OSR stuff, but the gutter magic rules and examples are especially useful.


Thank you all very much, so many good suggestions and interesting thoughts. I also “stumbled” upon my collection of Microlite20 again which also has a lot of cool ideas. I will look at Errant, Freeboters, Unknown Armies and Mage, I have not done so yet. I feel the trick is to walk a line between it being a cool bit to play with but not being so convoluted it dominates the game. Unless everyone plays mages :slight_smile:


And I just found the four by five magic system I couldn’t think of before. Four-by-Five Magic System for Fudge RPG

Does anyone else combine multiple magic systems within a single game? I’ve been experimenting with porting spells between games without mechanically translating them (or altering them as little as possible.)

Maybe you have a Knave spell that you can cast once a day from a book, but maybe you also have a DCC spell where you roll on a huge table of effects, but you also have some spells that cost HP etc.


That sounds like a fascinating idea. Not my cup of tea except maybe for a unique item or scroll. But still, very intrigued. Have you done this in practice? How did the players take it?

The dream is to redesign magic entirely around components, and make it a “player skill” rather than a character skill. (I usually hate “player skill” terminology because I think it’s too vague, but here I think it’s appropriate enough.)

So, imagine you’re a player in my game and you want to know magic. I give you a physical, “in-world” book that contains possible spells and the components needed to cast those spells.

Your character starts with some components, but you have to find most of them in the world. Being a “good wizard” just means remembering all the spells in your book and recognizing when there’s a component in the environment you can harvest.

I like this idea because, from what I’ve read, it’s a lot truer to how magical practices in the real world work. At the same time…

  1. Would it be an easy book to write?
  2. Would it be fun for a player to have to remember all that?
  3. Would it be easy to design adventures to make sure they always include useful magical components?

The answer seems to me, “probably not.” So, it’s just a pipe dream.


I’ve started a little bit. My players seem to be on board so far. I’m thinking extended play might reveal problems but we will have to fall off that bridge when we come to it.

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This is a really cool idea, I love it.

Thanks. I’m realizing now—in case I wasn’t clear: There would be no additional requirements to cast a spell beyond having the components, and the components would often be consumed by the spell.

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Yeah, I really like that concept. Anything that gets players engaged with the fiction as opposed to engaged with mechanics is a great thing.

I think you would need to list components that are broad enough or common enough to be found regularly.

On a related note I’ve been working on a list of what I am calling “diegetically limited spells” inspired by the disguise spell in Onward where players must engage certain roleplaying challenges or partake in certain in-world behaviors in order to cast spells (you are disguised as long as you don’t tell a lie).