A little while back Chris Rice presented an idea for a new GURPS magic system on his blog. His main goal was to use the ‘long-term fatigue’ idea from GURPS: ATE. Naturally, it immediately gave me an idea that didn’t use that at all. Instead, I turned to the concept of tally from Threshold-Limited Magic in Thaumatology.

The world flows into existence from the commingling of the four elements: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. All magic is the process of letting the power of one of the elements flow through the caster to affect the nature of the world around him. This, however, pushes him out of alignment with the universe’s balanced state, sending him down a destructive path that can consume him if left unchecked.

This system uses two tallies (or four if it’s easier for you to think of it that way), one for the opposed elements of Fire and Water, and the other for the opposed elements of Air and Earth. Casting a spell incurs tally in that element as given on T76. This should also use the Auras optional rule; anyone who can see magic will be able to see the unbalanced state of the caster’s mystical makeup, and very possibly a non-magical physician should also be able to see this through observation of the four humors in his patient. I would also recommend allowing the Automatic Maintenance option with free ambient energy. The main way to reduce a tally is to cast a spell in the opposite element.

In terms of actual spells, instead of using the standard spell system’s elemental colleges (which each have a standard attack spell, etc.), the elements are effectively Realms as in Syntactic Magic (T188). Each element has its own role to play, and mages don’t get to just alternate between Fireball and Water Jet in combat to stay balanced.

  • Fire: The realm of energy and destruction. All methods of directly damaging something come out of Fire.
  • Air: The realm of movement and thought. Travel and divination spells come from Air.
  • Water: The realm of renewal and change. Healing and transformation spells come from Water.
  • Earth: The realm of stability and resistance. Defensive spells and many ‘buffs’ come from Earth.

Part of the point here is keep combat-useful spells from being on both ends of the same tally scale. There’s still potential for multiple ways to get something done though; Heat Room would be a Fire spell and Resist Cold would be an Earth spell…. From here, there’s a few different routes that could be taken. A complete reorganization of the standard spells as per Changing the Colleges (T41) would work (and be a lot of work), but the concept seems well suited for Syntactic magic as mentioned before, or use as an alternate structure for Ritual Path Magic. (Here’s a question: Taking a glance at Realms as Powers on T190, is there any established mechanism for having abilities rack up tally?)

An extra possibility is for each element to differ slightly in casting. Earth spells may last longer, but be shorter ranged (say by adding one to the Margin of Success for time, but subtracting one for range when using Parameter Effects, T181), while Air spells are longer ranged, but have shorter durations. Water may take longer to cast, but have a wider area of effect, while Fire is faster but must be tightly focused.

Ignoring the details of actual spellcasting, there’s other details that need looking into. This is meant as a fairly difficult/dangerous form of spellcasting, so I figure every spell costs one fatigue point as well as the tally to keep mages from just casting their way to zero after racking up a large tally (no, energy reserves and external sources of FP are not normally available). Tally recovery is slow and my initial thought is for it to be zero, and all recovery is through actually casting opposing spells. However, if you want mages to at least have the option of being specialists, recovery of 1-4 tally per day would be better. Another option is recovery by prolonged exposure to the appropriate element: sitting under a waterfall to reduce Fire tally. (I seem to remember a vague mention of just this type of thing somewhere in one of the Thaumatology books, but can’t find it.) This could lead to the seemingly counter-intuitive situation of fire mages running a water temple, or earth mages congregating on windswept mountaintops….

Each element would have its own Calamity Table (T77), though they should closely mirror each other, and can probably be put into one table with a column for each element’s particular effect. In opposition to the problems of the rest of the system, calamities are less immediately aggressive here. Use the normal threshold of 30 and +1 to the table per 5 points of tally over threshold, but only roll 2d6 on the table (this probably needs more rework, but the idea is that the current tally drives the results more than in the standard). I’d be looking at a table progression like the following:

2-10 Nothing
11-12 Quirk related to appropriate Humor
13-15 Threshold reduction
16-18 5-point disadvantage
19-20 It becomes more difficult to cast opposite-element spells
21-24 Caster has an elemental aura around him (always raining, increased temperature…)
25 10-point disadvantage
26-30 Caster is Terminally Ill
31-39 Caster death by turning into an element (gust of wind, exploding in flames…)
40+ Permanent elemental locus where the caster was

As a final note, while initially discussing this with my roommate Smudge, she came up with the idea of using a five element system (such as the traditional Chinese elements) where the goal was to stay in harmony with all five. Effectively, your tally would be the difference between the element where you’ve used the most magic, and the element where you’ve used the least.