Unlimited Mana

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.

Example: Magus Wiltshire finds himself caught in a besieged city. He has not used magic in a while, and feels that the present emergency justifies it. In his attempts to escape unnoticed, he casts a huge (cost 21) Mass Sleep spell on a group of guards. Three guards are unaffected, and Wiltshire, furious, casts an Entombment spell on one of them, which increases his tally by 10 points to 31. Two guards remain . . .

[Blue Room GURPS: The Craig Roth Collection]Threshold and Calamities

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.

Example, Part II: Magus Wiltshire, a normal (Thresh 30) mage, exceeded his Thresh when he cast the entombment spell. This requires a calamity check. Since Wiltshire exceeded his Thresh only by 1, there is no modifier to the roll. If he decides to entomb the other two guards, each new casting will trigger a fresh calamity, and modifiers will begin to apply.

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

Increased Power 10 Points/Level

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.

Safer Excess 10 Points/Level (Limit 3 Levels)

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).

Double Recovery 25 Points

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.


Optional Expansions

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:

Emergencies Only

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.

Spending Options

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.

New Tables

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.

Partial Fatigue

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.

Variable Threshold

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.

Variable Recovery

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.

Recovery Rituals

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 . . .

Mana Mash

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.

This revised version is dedicated to Marty Franklin, who played Cormidigar, the first Umana mage to explode in play. Every campaign needs a Marty. We have a really big, blonde one.


CALAMITY TABLE (3d + Excess/5)


Nothing bad happens, AND the mage's gets (1d x 5) points of free, instant Recovery!


Nothing happens - this time.
10 The mage's skin and clothing crawl with strange energies, sparks, or other visual effect for 3d minutes, and his eyes glow bright, making Stealth impossible and frightening small animals and many "mundanes."
11 The mage is struck with violent headaches that prevent any action other than suffering (treat as physical stun) which lasts 3d turns (Or a number minutes equal to the cost of the spell that triggered the calamity, if a HT roll is failed - minimum 5 minutes). Result 10 also applies.
12 The mage becomes horribly nauseous and weak, taking a -4 to DX, IQ, ST and skills. This lasts a number of hours equal to the cost of the spell (minimum 2), after which the mage must make a HT-4 roll every hour to get over the sickness.
13 The mage is cursed with nightmares for 3d days (plus a number of days equal to the spell cost). After the first night, the mage is at -2 to DX, IQ, ST, and skills. The penalties last until the mage gets a normal night's sleep!
14 Any failed casting roll that the mage makes is treated as a critical failure! This lasts for 1d+1 weeks.
15 The mage's mind is bent. The GM should assign one debilitating (15-point) mental disad by fiat. It takes effect immediately, and lasts 1 day. Each day thereafter, the mage may make a Will roll to shake it off. If the spell cost was higher than 25, the disad lasts for (spell cost/25) days, rounded up.
16 The mage has weakened the binding forces around him. His Threshhold for the next 1d weeks is reduced by 2d+5. The mage is aware of a drop, but not of it's severity! Result 10 also applies.
17 The caster gains a 5-point disadvantage. After 3d days have passed, the mage has the option of buying it off (it will simply fade away). If the mage does not wish to, or doesn't have the points, then it becomes permanent. ANY disad is legal; the mage can get ugly, go insane, and so on.
18 The mage's Threshold is reduced by 4d+(the spell cost); the change lasts 1d months, after which the Thresh "heals" back to normal at a rate of 1 point per day. Thresh cannot be reduced below zero. In addition, the mage's spellcasting will be at a -3 penalty for 2d weeks. Result 10 also applies.
19 As per 17, but the disad is worth either 10 or 15 points (50/50 chance of either).
20 The mage is aged 2d+13 years, or a number of years equal to the energy cost of the triggering spell, whichever is worse!
21 Roll again (same modifier) but the result affects a companion of the mage (chosen randomly).
22 The mage gains multiple disads worth a total of (2dx5) points, or a number of points equal to the spell cost, whichever is worse. These are permanent.
23 The mage loses permanently the ability to cast a single spell. The skill is still known, but it cannot be cast. The mage must make a (Will-6) roll. If it is sucessful, he chooses which spell "dies." If not, the spell is chosen at random. On a critical failure, the GM chooses the mage's most useful or favorite spell!
24 The mage loses 1d x 5 points of advantages (or has an attribute lowered). Choose randomly.
25 The mage becomes a wandering Mana-Scar! Spells cost double within a 2d+3-mile radius of the mage, and Recovery is HALTED in the same area! Every mage in the region will be gunning for him . . . The duration, in days, equals the cost of the errant spell, plus one. Result 10 applies for the ENTIRE duration.
26 The mage's skill at spells is reduced by 3d+5, or by a number equal to the spell cost, whichever is worse. The mage must make a Will roll. If it is successful, the penalty will heal at a rate of one per day. If not, the healing rate is one per week!
27 A plague or curse (locusts, storms, etc) descends on the region, lasting for 3d+ weeks. No one will be able to trace this to the mage (-20 to divination attempts on the subject), but the mage will know the fault is his . . . Be grotesque and CRUEL.
28 The spell propagates out of control. Harmful Regular or Area spells will affect everybody and every thing nearby, allies and enemies alike. Beneficial spells will do likewise, but will go "over the top" and cause dangerous side-effects (a healing spell might raise all the local dead, creating a horde of restless zombies out for revenge!) Information magic will overload the mage's mind (Fright Check at -20); Missile Spells will seem normal to the caster, but have so much punch that they drill through their target and through EVERYTHING ELSE FOR MILES beyond, and so on. The GM should be creative and unpredictable with this result.
29 The mage permanently loses the ability to cast spells, (but not the skills - small comfort). At this level and above, the spell that causes the roll fails unless a Will roll is made by the mage. The roll is at a penalty equal to 1/10 the spell cost (round in favor of the mage), and at a bonus equal to the mage's level of Magical Aptitude.
30-39 As per 29, and something happens to the region the mage is in. If the result on this table was an even number, magic itself is changed (the region becomes aspected, certain spells function erratically, or some such). If the result was odd, the change is to the physical world - the weather, birth rate, crops, or something else. Sometimes the result is good, sometimes bad, sometimes just strange - determine the nature of the result randomly, or by fiat, or whatever is deemed most amusing to the GM. The duration of the change is typically equal to the cost of the spell, in days, but some very dramatic effects last only a moment, and some very subtle ones last indefinitely.
40+ As per 30-39, but a GLOBAL change occurs. In addition, the mage must make a HT roll at -6. If this roll is failed, the mage is consumed in a backlash of magical energy, and explodes. The explosion does concussion/burning damage like a grenade doing the mage's (Will+Magery) dice of damage! If the HT-6 roll is made, the backlash is less dramatic; the wizard takes 2d DICE of internal burning damage, and doesn't explode.

An Adobe Acrobat printout of this table is available at the end of this article


Heal Calamities (M/VH) Special

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.

Casting Time: Equal to the die-roll that caused the calamity, times 2 hours. Thus, a roll of 35 would require casting of nearly 3 days! The casting circle must remain awake; alternate mages can take over ``shifts'' if need be, but at least 3 mages must remain in the circle at all times.

Cost: Equal to 1/10 the die-roll that caused the calamity (round up), EVERY HOUR OF THE CASTING. This may be divided among the casting mages in any way they can agree upon.

Prerequisites: IQ 15+, Dispel Magic, and a RR of at least 12.

This is a meta-spell.

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.

Click here to download a copy of the Calamity Table in PDF format (about 42k). It prints out clearly on a single page. You'll need the free Adobe Acrobat Viewer to use this file.

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.

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