By S. John Ross
Second Revised Version (v3.0), January 1999 | Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games
Standard GURPS magic is "tactical;" mages can create dozens of small effects in a given day -- but very few (if any) world-shattering miracles. Manipulations of mana, the force behind spells, leaves sorcerers drained and weak. Thus, GURPS wizards are limited by their knowledge (which determines their flexibility) and their physical stamina. "Powerful" wizards are wizards that know more spells at higher levels than others.
Absent from this basic structure is the concept of Raw Power - wizards that can crack a castle in half or drown an army in flames.
Fantasy novels that feature such levels of power rarely have mages that get ``tired out'' by magic. Instead, extreme effects threaten the fabric of the universe, creating a situation in which wizards can create true miracles in times of need, but do not use their powers frivolously. When their companions ask for more magic, they will drone cryptically "To draw too deeply on my Gift can lead to madness and death. Do not demand of me what you do not comprehend."
Fantasy writers need character balance as much as GMs do. While it's exiting to establish that a sorcerer can wreak serious havoc when needed, it's boring to let him overshadow the rest of the characters. That cryptic doubletalk exists as a handy plot device, no less than the wizard himself.
This approach to magic has been left untouched in gaming, and for good reason. It's easy for a writer to create a wizard that will be prudent with his arcane wisdom. Trying to get an ambitious fantasy gamer (even a well-meaning one) to do the same is risky at best. GURPS has no such bounds, however. The magic system is flexible enough to permit Unlimited Mana that will balance in ANY fantasy campaign, even the lowest of "low fantasy!"
The Power Tally
"Unlimited" isn't a mana level, it's a mana type. In an Unlimited Mana (Umana) campaign, spells do not cause fatigue.
When a mage casts a spell, he should record the cost in a running tally, instead of taking the cost from his ST score. All normal rules for costs (skill reduction, etc) remain in force.
Every mage has a Threshold (Thresh) score -- this defines the safe limits of his magic. If his tally remains at or below his Thresh, everything is fine. If his tally exceed his Thresh, Bad Things can happen, and the mage must roll on the Calamity Table. The "default" Thresh score is 30.
"Calamity Checks" are made by rolling 3d, and adding 1 for every full five points by which Thresh has been exceeded. The spell that first brings the mage's tally over Thresh triggers a check. After that, ANY spell cast by the mage (even those that cost no energy), will also trigger new Calamity Checks at the current level of excess. Calamities take effect immediately, but their nature may not always be apparent to the mage (see the table for details). Calamities do not normally cause the spell to fail (but see results 29+).
Note that any Calamity that refers to the "spell cost" means a number equal to the energy cost of the spell that triggered the Calamity.
The Recovery Rate
Once per day, the mage's Tally is healed by an amount equal to his Recovery Rate (RR). The "default" RR score is 8, with recovery occuring at sunrise.
The numbers above create an overall power level equivalent to the current rules. Mages can't cast nearly as many smaller spells, but they can (in emergencies) cast some very LARGE spells. Area spells, in particular, become more of an option in combat, and more "strategic" levels of magic become possible.
These basic numbers, however, are open to change. Thresh and RR defaults are a campaign decision for the GM. A Thresh of 50 and a RR of 1 per day would allow mages to cast REALLY powerful spells safely, but would cripple them on a day-to-day basis. A Thresh and RR of 40 each would make for a world where mages are godlings that walk the soil - Unusual Background would be appropriate to keep them balanced! At the other extreme, Thresh and RR of 5 each would create a distinctly low-magic world, where mages could still use relatively mighty magic in times of dire need, and at great personal risk.
The third assumption -- that Recovery occurs daily at sunrise, is also variable. Even with a standard daily rate, wizards might have their own ``hour of recovery'' chosen at play. Alternately, a campaign might feature recovery every hour, or every week, or every (gasp!) month. The latter would lead to a dramatic thinning-out of magical activity just before "payday," but some GMs might like that idea~!
New Advantages, Further Ramifications
This advantage may only be taken by mages. For each level of Increased Power that you have, increase your Thresh by 20%, and your RR by 25%, of the campaign average (round normally).
Each of these effects can also be purchased individually for 5 points/level, as the Increased Thresh and Rapid Recovery advantages. Mages may not purchase decreased levels of Thresh and RR; the campaign default defines the weakest levels of personal power.
This advantage may only be taken by mages. Your calamity rolls are at +1 for every 10 points of excess, instead of +1 per 5. Every additional level doubles this effect (+1 per 20, +1 per 40).
This advantage may only be taken by mages. Your Tally heals twice as often as that of a mage without this advantage. If, for example, "normal" recovery is equal to RR once every 24 hours, you get RR once every 12 hours. Mages with this advantage must pay 15 points/level for the Increased Power advantage, and 10 points/level for the Rapid Recovery advantage.
With unlimited mana, mages can now be defined in terms of both versatility and raw power -- a 250-point mage might have a vast grimoire, or a limited, predictable repetoire and earth-cracking mana-resources! This gives players and GMs more freedom, and has many small side-effects that need the GMs consideration. Powerstones, for instance, become less desireable for many wizards, and some spells formerly limited to Ceremonial Casting can be cast by individual wizards! GMs fond of adding new spells to the campaign can add VERY powerful ones, balancing them with costs as high as they see fit, and even Thresh or RR-based prerequisites.
That's all there is to the basic Unlimited Mana option, but this basic framework can be built on to make all sorts of dramatically different uses of the GURPS magic rules. Consider any of the following:
GURPS Magic rules are standard, and mages may still expend ST to power their spells. However, they may draw additional power ``out of the ether'' via Unlimited Mana, but the campaign Thresh is ZERO, and may not be improved. This means that any ``free lunch'' casting automatically causes a Calamity Check. RR should probably stay in the low range (1-10 daily). A slight (10-point) Unusual Background for mages would be appropriate; this option makes magic more powerful than in the normal rules.
Mages may spend energy to make their spells faster (4 points per second of reduction, which will even affect missile spells and bring spells to ``zero time'' if sufficient energy is spent). They may also increase their odds (1 point of energy per +1, or 3 per +1 if the spell is to be resisted). At the GM's option, even the odds of hitting with a Missile spell can be increased on a +1 per point basis!
This option actually works very nicely in play, allowing much greater flexibility for mages at appropriately high energy costs. Players tend to overspend at times, but the rules keep such mages nicely in line . . .
Option to Spend
Mages may take fatigue to help power their spells, but it costs 4 fatigue to produce 1 point of spell energy. Thus, mages won't bother with using their ST for most castings, but in an emergency they can exhaust themselves for an extra point or two of power.
The GM could design an expanded Calamity Table, or have different tables for different races, regions, etcetera (``the universe seems less forgiving in the Dark Lands, Wiltshire . . .'') Perhaps overspending summons hostile entities, or affects only weather.
Every spell cast causes 1 fatigue, in addition to the increase of the mage's tally. This limits the NUMBER of spells a mage can cast in a given scene, without limiting their power.
In a Variable-Threshold world (or region), the default Thresh changes like the weather. Mages might or might not be aware of the current level; if they aren't, this will increase spellcaster caution.
Instead of RR being a flat rate, it can be a die-roll. 2d+1 averages to a roll of 8, but makes recovery less certain. Increased Power would give a flat bonus to the roll (+2 per level, if the default value is used).
Limited High Mana
With this option, non-mages can cast spells as if the world were High Mana, but spells cost 10 times as much for them (or some other multiple as determined by the GM). Likewise, mages with Single-College Magery (see GURPS Magic or GURPS Compendium I) could cast spells outside of their sphere for the same x10 multiple to cost.
The daily recovery needn't be automatic. Perhaps the mage must burn incense and meditate, or (in a dark fantasy world) perform animal sacrifices or demonic rituals. Likewise, there might be some rituals that will trigger additional levels of recovery beyond the daily standard.
Mutable Thresh and RR
Mages may choose any starting Thresh and RR they like, provided Thresh multiplied by RR doesn't exceed a value set by the GM (240 in a ``default'' setting). A Thresh/RR of 60/4 balances equally with a Thresh/RR of 30/8 or 15/16 . . . Increased Power is then based on the individual mage's values. The GM may wish to specify that Thresh must be a multiple of 5 and RR a multiple of 4, to keep the math simple.
"Still Kind of Limited Mana"
There are limits to the energy a mage can spend on a single spell. This can be either an arbitrary value ("no spell bigger than 100 ST"), or a derived one ("no spell bigger than the Square Root of [The mage's IQ x Magery x RR x Thresh], rounded down"). This option is useful if the GM wants a campaign where "heroic" magic is possible, but where PCs aren't able to blow themselves up (and possibly scar the game-world) without having to work for it a bit. Note this this limits only what a single mage can accomplish - if you have a circle of five mages who can contribute 100 each, you can cast a ST 500 spell. Now it's just a matter of assembling that circle . . .
There are two kinds of mages in the world - Umana mages and standard ones. By making Umana optional, players can choose from two "flavors" of mage.
These options represent only the tip of the iceberg, and any GM or player will likely have several ideas, from new advantages to strange variations on the concepts of Thresh and RR.
Special thanks to Scott Maykrantz, Bill Collins, and the other contributors to All of the Above for their comments on earlier versions of this article. Very special thanks goes to my local gaming group, the Lower Reprieve Generals' Club, for playtesting this with me for the past three years.
CALAMITY TABLE (3d + Excess/5)
This spell is used to erase any ``regional'' or global change brought about by magical Calamity. It requires at least three mages and Ceremonial Magic (even if one mage has sufficient Threshold and Recovery to cast the spell, it cannot be cast by fewer than three mages). The mages must work together at least 8 hours per day during the casting, and may only rest and eat with the remaining time; they may not even study.
Example: Mordecai the Necromancer blew himself up trying to turn a dead Leviathan into a Zombie, and his calamity roll was 54, resulting in global ceasing of all rainfall that will last for months! To restore normal weather, a group of mages must work this spell for 4.5 days, spending a total of 6 energy every hour!. This will require a lot of powerful mages, all of whom must know this spell at a level sufficient to share the cost . . . When the world is at stake; things aren't cheap. After the casting is complete, the mages will likely want to summon up Mordecai's spirit from the afterlife, and beat the shit out of it. Fair is fair.
Reprinted from Pyramid magazine #9 with permission of Steve Jackson Games. GURPS is a registered trademark, and Pyramid is a trademark, of Steve Jackson Games, Inc.
More information about Unlimited Mana and it interaction with GURPS Magic and Grimoire can be found in S. John's More Tech Magic article, in the Pyramid archives. For more about S. John and his other GURPS writing, visit his homepage, The Blue Room.