DFRPG Review: Spells

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

This is the third part of the review for Steve Jackson Games’ Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG). The Spells volume is an 82 page PDF written by Sean Punch.

Covers and Front Matter

Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Spells cover
Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Spells

Spells continues the DFRPG approach of full-page, full-color illustrations for the front cover. This scene captures the excitement of magic in dungeon adventuring, as the party casts spells against a fireball-wielding devil creature.

The back cover is a reference page for spellcasting rules. It covers how skill level affects magic rituals, modifiers for mana levels, druidic spell modifiers, and long-distance modifiers, and the critical spell failure table. It also includes page references for rules handling specific spell classes, like blocking spells or jet spells. The page is well designed; the selected rules are likely to be referenced frequently during play.

After the table of contents, there is a one page introduction. Spells is designed to be a reference for players as well as GMs. Surprisingly, players are not warned to avoid looking up spells used by monsters; the assumption seems to be that this information would be known by magic-wielding characters. The introduction also flags that PCs do not, by default, have access to potentially unbalancing effects such as summoning beasts, changing shape, but these effects can be added by expanding to GURPS Basic Set as well as GURPS Magic.

Principles of Magic

This first chapter is an 11-page explanation of how magic works in Dungeon Fantasy. The skill-based system treats spells just like the Basic Set, but there are explicit rules for how the system works in three magical realms. Wizardly spells use the spell system as-is, while clerical and druidic magic have limited spell lists grouped by levels of Power Investiture, as well as different modifiers for their equivalent of mana levels (sanctity and nature’s strength).

The rules for magic are relatively clear. There are a few brief examples in the text, although beginners might benefit from more examples. One improvement from the Basic Set is that the options for learning new spells are enumerated in the Dungeon Fantasy context; heroes can study at temples or learn from spellbooks, but players can’t simply use character points on new spells without a narrative justification.

Adventurers and Exploits both tweak GURPS’ rules so that some of the rough spots of the Basic Set are polished smooth. Unfortunately, Spells does not do as much to improve on the Basic Set experience. The cumbersome modifications to spell cost and casting time based on base skill level are still present, which is a detail that can be very confusing for new players. Clerics and druids benefit from simplified prerequisites, but wizardly casters still have to contend with difficult-to-determine prerequisite chains.

The Spellbook

The majority of the book—58 pages—describes over 300 spells. The spells are organized by college; there are 22 magical colleges that represent different bodies of magical specialization, such as air, food, movement, and protection and warning.

After the spellbook chapter, there is a six and a half page spell table that lists all the spells in alphabetical order, along with their respective college, prerequisites, and page references.

The organization for this spellbook chapter and spell table collectively could be greatly improved. There are two situations in which players will need to look at the spell rules. First, as they are doing character creation, they need to be able to look at spell options for their characters. Second, during play they may need to look up the rules for a specific spell that they are casting. Neither need is easily served by the way the book is organized.

Since the full spell rules are grouped by college, it’s hard to look up a specific spell during the game. The player first needs to consult the spell table for a page number, then look up the spell’s details in the college. Looking up the rules directly is difficult because the player may not know the college that a spell belongs to, and spells that appear in multiple colleges are cross-referenced in the text so the player may need to turn to another college to find the rules if they attempt to skip the spell table and go directly to the college’s listing.

During character creation, on the other hand, there’s no easy way to quickly see the spells available in a specific college. There’s also no comprehensive prerequisite information; the spell table and spell descriptions both list the prerequisite for a specific spell, but don’t list the required spell’s prerequisites. As a result, players have to chase down the prerequisite chains manually.

It would have been better if the full rules for spells were listed alphabetically, instead of by college; that way, the players could look up a specific spell during the game without worrying about which college it is in (or which college it is listed under, for spells that belong to multiple colleges). The spell table, meanwhile, could have been organized by college with a one sentence summary of each spell, making it easier for players to determine what spells they want their characters to know.

The prerequisite problem could have been solved in a number of ways. The simplest way would have been to list all the prerequisites for a given spell, so there’s no confusion about what is required. Alternatively, spell prerequisite charts for each college could have been included.

An even better solution could have used DFRPG as an opportunity to revise the often-criticized GURPS prerequisite system. Clerical and druidic magic are arranged into tiers based on Power Investiture levels; wizard spells could also have been arranged into tiers, with higher tiers requiring either higher levels of Magery or a set number of learned spells from lower tiers. Another option would have been to create a wizard trait that functioned as an Unusual Background (no prerequisites required to learn spells beyond Magery levels). Power-Ups 2: Perks has a 1-point Charm option that allows a character to use a single spell without knowing the spell’s prerequisites; a 10-point Unusual Background enabling players to ignore prerequisite chains is probably a reasonable extension of that idea.

Back Matter

After the aforementioned spell table, there is a half page index and a one page sheet for players to make notes about their PC’s spellcasting skills.

The spell table is a nice idea, but it’s not clear exactly when the players are supposed to use it. It doesn’t have the information you would need for a quick lookup during the game (such as casting cost, like the Basic Set spell trait list includes). It isn’t a great reference during character creation because the spells are arranged alphabetically rather than by college. It has some use as a spell index, but the colleges and prerequisites columns don’t add value in that context.

Overall Thoughts

Both Adventurers and Exploits improve on the Basic Set experience, especially for new players and GMs. Spells treads water: it’s not a worse experience, but it doesn’t markedly improve play either. The biggest value is that the spell list is curated for dungeon delving, which is a big improvement over trying to sort through the entirety of GURPS Magic. The spell lists based on Power Investiture levels for clerics and druids are good additions, and the back cover reference page will see play frequently. However, the organization of the spell lists is not functional, and the pain points of the basic GURPS magic system are not addressed in this volume.

There’s very little that adds atmosphere to this volume. Beyond the cover, there’s almost no art in this book, and even the text sidebars are infrequent (appearing much less than once every other page). The content of this book is good, but between the organization problems and the lack of artistic elements, the production value is low compared to RPG products on the market today.

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic Review

There are a lot of ways for magic to function in game worlds. If you like the idea of wizards and witches that are not limited to specific spell lists, then ritual path magic may be the system for you. GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic, by Jason “PK” Levine, is a 54 page supplement that outlines rules for casting magic by gathering energy from the environment and shaping that energy into spell effects.

Learning Magic

Harry Dresden, a prototypical example of a ritual path magic caster
Harry Dresden, the protagonist of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, is a prototypical example of a ritual path magic caster

The first section, on the character traits that go into ritual path magic (RPM) casters, totals 10 pages. There are four major traits that make up RPM characters: the core skill of Thaumatology, the specific path skills that the caster specializes in, the Magery advantage, and the Ritual Adept advantage.

In the standard GURPS magic system, magic users learn each spell as a separate skill. By contrast, RPM casters can learn just a single skill: Thaumatology. This skill allows the caster to attempt any spell, although there are severe penalties for attempts at default.

Most casters will choose to specialize in one or more paths of study. Ritual path magic uses nine path skills—domains of expertise, such as Path of Body for interacting with living creatures, Path of Energy for manipulating light, heat, and kinetics, and Path of Magic for interacting with mystical forces. Between the nine paths, almost any effect can be created, and the GM is welcome to choose alternate paths to reflect the ontology of his or her world.

To be more effective, RPM casters will usually take the Ritual Adept advantage. Ritual Adept speeds up the casting process significantly, and it also eliminates a variety of casting restrictions such as having to use a consecrated space or needing a connection with the spell’s subject. In practice, a RPM caster without Ritual Adept will be extremely limited or will need to absorb large casting penalties.

Finally, Magery (Ritual Path) works differently than in standard magic. Instead of increasing the effective skill for spells (like a Talent), RPM Magery increases the skill cap on path skills, provides a larger mana reserve for casting, and allows casters to have more conditional spells (which are spells that have been prepared ahead of time and can be triggered at will).

The character traits that make up RPM are clean and elegant. Compared to the long and cumbersome spell list for regular magic, ritual path magic is accessible, logical, and simple.

Performing Magic

The second chapter, on performing ritual path magic, is 9 pages long. There is a lot packed into this chapter, but the basic casting process is straightforward. First, the caster determines what effect he or she will create, and therefore calculates the total energy cost of the spell. Second, the caster determines the relevant skill for the spell. Third, the caster gathers energy, from a combination of path skill rolls, mana reserves, sacrificing HP or FP, and specialized artifacts. Finally, once the energy has been gathered, the caster makes a success roll in order to actually cast the spell.

The first part—defining the ritual—is unique to RPM. Because the spell effects are not determined in advance, the caster’s player and the GM need to define what the spell is. To do so, they will build the casting out of the categories of spell effects.

There are seven kinds of spell effects, ranging from the simple sense effects to powerful manipulation effects like create or transform. Each effect has an energy cost. For instance, creating an itch would require a Control effect from the Path of Body, for a base cost of 5 energy.

The base cost can be modified in a number of ways: by adding bonuses or penalties to the subject, by changing the range or damage, etc. For particularly unnatural effects (like creating lightning from a clear sky), the GM can multiply the spell’s cost by requiring a Greater effect.

Once the spell’s energy cost is determined, the player needs to determine what path skill to use for the casting, which will be the lowest path skill involved in the ritual. The player also determines penalties if the caster does not have Ritual Adept or Magery (Ritual Path).

Step 3, acquiring the energy, is usually the most time-consuming part of RPM casting (in game time, and sometimes in real time). The caster rolls against his or her effective path skill; the margin of success determines how many energy points he or she gathers. Many spells will require multiple gatherings, and each attempt to gather energy takes five seconds (or five minutes for non-adept casters!). The caster can also gather energy by tapping a mana reserve or sacrificing HP/FP.

Once the final point of energy is gathered, the caster makes a final success roll against his or her effective path skill in order to cast the spell.

There’s a lot packed into this chapter, and unfortunately the system requires some page-flipping to find the relevant modifiers. Casting the spell uses the modifiers under Choose the Skill; Acquire the Energy uses both the Choose the Skill and Acquire the Energy modifiers. However, the system itself is very straightforward, and after a few castings the process flows much more smoothly.

Advanced Magic

Advanced Magic, the third chapter, is also the longest at 14 pages. It covers a range of rules for using RPM effectively. Since RPM castings require multiple seconds of game time, there are specialized rules for “blocking” spells and prepared rituals called “conditional rituals” that can be unleashed in a moment. There are also rules for charms and elixers, castings in places of power and with the support of magical grimores, and suggestions for alternative sets of paths.

This chapter isn’t mandatory, but it’s hard to imagine a RPM game that wouldn’t want to use at least some of these rules.

The Grimore

The fourth chapter is a 13-page list of example castings. The samples give a good idea of how flexible ritual path magic is. GMs in particular should read through this list to get an intuitive feel for how to use spell effects to create casting rituals, as well as when to use greater effects in rituals.

Appendix: Botches and Quirks

The last two pages of content list example botches and quirks that the GM can impose on spellcasters. When the caster fails his or her rolls to gather energy for the spell, the result is a complication in the spell. These can be minor quirks, such as nominal damage or visible indications of your casting, or they can be serious bursts of uncontrolled magical energy. The GM is free to create their own botches and quirks; the appendix provides some ideas that the GM can use in their campaigns.


GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic cover
GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic

Ritual Path Magic has quickly become one of the most popular alternate magic systems for GURPS, and it’s easy to see why. For a generic, universal system, the basic GURPS magic rules feel cumbersome and fiddly. By contrast, ritual path magic is truly universal—the casters can create any effect, and the rules don’t require elaborate prerequisite chains or idiosyncratic spell descriptions.

The Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic supplement is a great foundation for this approach to magic. The system is well designed and the rules cover most of the common situations that GMs will need to handle. There are some sections that are very dense with modifiers and occasional sections that are edited down so concisely that they require too much page turning to find the relevant information. But, presentation and layout issues aside, the volume as a whole is a good value.

As with any ruleset, there are advantages and drawbacks. The biggest negative to RPM is that it requires GM oversight to make sure that players don’t create world-shattering effects. It’s not a difficult task, but for new GMs or GMs that have to corral min-maxing players, RPM may be too demanding. However, it is a lot easier to learn the RPM system than the basic magic system, so it may be simpler for a GM to become comfortable with RPM than to master the more convoluted aspects of basic GURPS magic.

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic is available as a PDF download from Warehouse 23 for $9.99.