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.
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.
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, 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 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.
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.