Sunday, December 20, 2020

Outline of Brave's Magic System

God I fucking hate magic systems.

Seriously, is there anything that epitomizes pure nerdiness more than designing magic systems? Part of me feels like I seriously wouldn't mind playing fantasy dungeoncrawl RPGs with absolutely no magic for eternity.

But I also love wizards, dammit.

Okay, I assure that what follows will not be lame and cliched. No "elemental spheres of magic + soul + positive + negative + whatever other stupid word" diagrams. I don't want to pick on anyone specifically because worldbuilding is very personal to people and it can be difficult to open up and share. But just go on and search "magic system" and you'll see plenty of examples of the kind of diagram I'm talking about. I will not abide such rampant nerdiness.

The logic of my system that follows is mostly a response to issues with the conventional D&D magic system and inspiration from Necropraxis's Wonders & Wickedness and Marvels & Malisons. The basic goal is to open up possibilities and begin allowing for far more, zanier ideas about what can constitute a "school" of magic.

First, My Issue With the D&D Schools of Magic

I'm not about to say anything that hasn't been said before, but I'll put it here anyway so you can see the train of thought that led me to my conclusions. As review, D&D traditionally has 8 schools of magic: 

  1. Abjuration (spells that defend, reflect, or negate)
  2. Conjuration (spells that move stuff through space)
  3. Divination (spells that reveal information)
  4. Enchantment (spells that affect the mind and emotions)
  5. Evocation (spells that have never had a coherent definition with any meaning outside of its own context but is vaguely understood to be "raw magic," i.e. blast spells)
  6. Illusion (spells that manipulate the senses)
  7. Necromancy (spells that have to do with the perversion of life)
  8. Transmutation (spells that change the properties of creatures, material, space, etc.)
Every spell in the game is categorized into one and only one of these schools. They only really matter for wizards, who select a specialty school. But even spells that aren't accessible to wizards are still assigned a school anyway. Casting detect magic usually reveals the school that any source of magic would belong to. Where did D&D get this list from? Fuck if I know. But it has inspired countless others and has been stolen by lots of RPGs. The spell schools in The Elder Scrolls was adapted from this, since it originated as a D&D campaign setting.

The first big problem with this list is that it has no consistent logic to it. The quality that defines one school from another is sometimes completely unrelated. They fall into three categories:

Schools that are defined by how they are creating their effects:
  1. Conjuration
  2. Transmutation
Schools that are defined by what effects they achieve:
  1. Abjuration
  2. Divination
  3. Enchantment
  4. Illusion
Schools that are defined by, just, like, a theme:
  1. Evocation
  2. Necromancy
You can see how lots of spells would almost certainly have overlap. Transmutation is filled with spells that change properties of the body, affecting your biology and mind and stats and whatnot. Could you not say that the mechanics of most Enchantment spells are achieved through Transmutation methods?

What about a spell like "Raise Spirit"? You conjure up a ghost from the afterlife to ask it questions. It's one of the most classic spells in all of human history, shown in the Bible, the Odyssey, and more. Well, what school should it be? I think you could argue that it belongs in Conjuration, Divination, and Necromancy.

But instead, it is canon to the lore of all official D&D settings that all magical spells belong to one and only one of the 8 schools, as the schools are themselves an intrinsic property of magic itself. The universe is built with those 8 schools as part of the equation. If a new spell came into existence, it would be a part of one of those schools even if the wizard who discovered it didn't know. This creates a problem for Wizards of the Coast, because it's kept them from being able to expand the wizard class in 5th Edition.

See, all classes get sub-classes they have to choose from. And lots of classes get new ones added in all the time. It's easy to come up with fighter sub-classes because you just come up with new martial traditions. But they decided that the wizard sub-classes would be the schools of magic. That started them off with the highest list of sub-classes in the core game (a whopping 8!) but has since left them the least room to expand... because these are the only 8 schools possible in the universe. The few new wizard archetypes since then have shakily avoided it, but it's painfully obvious how boxed in the class is.

See, there's a setting supplement for 5E by Matt Mercer called Explorer's Guide to Wildemount, an official WotC-published book for the Critical Role setting. It's neat. And it comes with some new sub-classes, including two wizard ones: Chronurgy (time magic) and Graviturgy (gravity magic). Fantastic ideas! And like the other wizard sub-classes, they get their own list of special spells... but they're still each categorized within the original 8 schools. See that list to the right? Yeah, every "chronurgy spell" is actually either a divination, transmutation, conjuration, or necromancy spell. Can you imagine anything as clunky as this?

How is Magic Categorized in Brave Then?

My own game, Brave (a hack of Ben Milton's Knave), which you can find on the sidebar of this blog, is going to get a "spell school" system introduced. I've been operating using only the 100 spells that Knave originally came with, but I'll be adding some complications soon enough. I'm keeping it mostly the same, though. Spells will remain level-less. That means that every spell either has an absolute effect or its effect scales with the level of the spellcaster. No more spell levels. Spells are cast from magic tomes or other fancy items, but they always take up an item slot and can be cast once per day (maybe more if it's a super powerful wand or something). To be a well-equipped wizard, you have to load up your inventory with spell tomes and enter the dungeon like a walking library. Common factors like the range and duration of spells will be keyed to level unless said otherwise, and they still prompt Intelligence checks for contested rolls if a creature is trying to resist the effect.

But there will exist schools of magic devised by wizards, warlocks, and other sorcerous-types. From grand universities to lonely hermits, organizing magic into curricula to better understand it is pretty much universal. The key is that the schools are completely made up.

"Schools of magic" are a social construct with no basis in the in-universe reality of magic. They are attempts by humans to impose categories, the way that human brains are naturally built to do, but do not reflect any intrinsic properties of magic itself. Magic is weird and chaotic and inconsistent and confusing. This is, fundamentally, an extremely soft magic system. It's still more Lord of the Rings or Conan the Barbarian than anything Brandon Sanderson or Robert Jordan would have written. The fact that there are meticulous categories is misleading: there aren't truly rules to magic, just patterns that humans are desperately trying to connect.

What does that mean for the game? It means you can come up with as many traditions of magic as you want, with as much overlap as you want, and as weird of themes as you want. What's the purpose of magic schools for gameplay? Well, when I finally get around to making my wizard class, it'll be pretty important. See, most knaves just find spellbooks while adventuring and use them as tools like any other. Obviously, they're really powerful tools, so they try to collect a bunch if they can. But someone who wants to truly study magic, learning some magical tricks and having access to way more books and being able to research and copy spells, well... they can't do that without access to some great source of wizardly know-how. And any source of wizardly know-how, whether it's an expensive university or an old hermit living in the woods, can only offer magic defined within one or several schools.

Basically, to get access to the wizard class, you'll need to study under a master wizard or a wizard institution. And you'll be enrolled in some school of magic, giving you access only to spells within that school and bonuses for those spells once you've mastered the school. There is no "universalist wizard" living out there in the woods. There is instead the Illusionist of the swamp, or the Vivimancer of the island, or the wandering Psionicist of the desert. And if you study under them, you specifically study Illusions, Vivimancy, or Psionics. And if you go to the fancy-pants Classical University, then they offer their own schema of 8 traditional schools of magic (the D&D 8) that seems pretty comprehensive. They would force you to enroll in one of their curricula, without much overlap. But if you go to the Chaotic University of Hell, then you instead get a different set of curricula like Diabolism, Blood Magic, Necromancy, and the like (although their list of Necromancy spells is indeed the same as that found in the Classical University's curriculum). See what I'm driving at?

I'm thinking you need at least 8 spells to form a new school, but the lists can go on and on and on as long as you can keep adding to it. Currently, there are 32 spells in the Transmutation school, 28 of which I assigned just from the base list of spells in Knave. And there's no reason why different schools can't share spells. Indeed, Raise Dead is on the list for Conjuration, Divination, and Necromancy. The Psionics school is comprised almost entirely from spells that could be found on the Enchantment, Divination, and Conjuration lists, but also has some unique spells. They're simply all united by the theme of "classic sci-fi / conspiracy theory-style brain powers."

The Current List of Spell Schools (and where to study them)

First, the ones that can be studied in an institution. Alternatively, any of the following schools could also be learned by someone whose mastered it from studying at these institutions.

Classical University’s 8 Schools (defined as in the D&D list)
  1. Abjuration
  2. Conjuration
  3. Divination
  4. Enchantment
  5. Evocation
  6. Illusion
  7. Necromancy
  8. Transmutation
Chaotic University’s Wicked Schools
  1. Necromancy
  2. Vivimancy (body horror)
  3. Blood Magic
  4. Diabolism (demon magic)
  5. Arachnomorphosis (spider magic)
Lawful University’s Heavenly Schools
  1. Cosmology (the opposite of Diabolism)
  2. Physiurgy (the opposite of Necromancy)
  3. Chronomancy
  4. Geometry / Architecture / Symbol Magic (I don't have a great name yet but this is the one for glyphs and math and ley lines and whatnot)
  5. Apotropaism (luck and fate and warding against evil magic)
Neutral University’s Olde Schools of Druid-y Stuff
  1. Elementalism (it has sub-schools for Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Geomancy, and Aeromancy)
  2. Herbalism (plant magic)
  3. Fairy Magic (the kinds of bullshit fairies and elves get up to. Lot of enchantment, illusion, nature things, time effects, stuff with mirrors, etc. I'll come up with a better name maybe)
  4. Onomancy (language magic. True names, written word, communication, curses and blessings, etc.)
  5. Beast Magic (animal magic. I'll come up with a better name)

Then, there are the weird unique schools you can learn from obscure sources.
  1. Speleo-spells (Underworld spells, from Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth)
  2. Technomancy (magic relating to equipment, Rope Trick, candle magic, chalk door teleportation, Knock, that sort of stuff. Great for knaves)
  3. Song Magic (I don't have anything for this yet but I know I want to have a school based on music and singing)
  4. Psionics
  5. Gourmancy (anything food-based but more specifically halfling-themed. Name subject to change)
  6. Ouroborism (as in, inspired by the Ouroboros. cycles, serpents, fertility, change, knowledge, anything hyper flexible, soil, etc. Credit to the Questing Beast Discord for this gem)
The thing is, I know that there could totally be way more schools. People have suggested many others. Cartomancy, Papyrumancy, Bondsmithing, Ooze Magic, etc. But for those schools to be added in would require that you be able to assemble a robust curriculum of spells for them. So while they are not currently on my list, all it would take is for someone to come up with 8 “paper / ink” spells for Papyrumancy to be created. And I would totally allow players to do this. If a player is an experienced wizard with a large enough spell collection, they could devise their own new "school" by assembling 8 spells with a convincing theme matching them.

For example, if my player came to me and said, "hear me out: bird magic" I'd listen. "See, I was looking through the spell list and noticed a bunch related to birds. There's one that lets you turn your arms into wings, one that lets you talk to birds, one that lets you summon birds, one that lets you see through a bird's eyes, etc." and if they had 8 or more of these, I'd say, "I'm sold. Bird magic is real. Congratulations on becoming the world's first expert on Ornithomancy." And with their newly defined school, they can begin acquiring wizardly spellcasting bonuses to the spells within that school, showing how they're specializing in it.

I'm in the process of compiling a list of what spells each school has, which is going to expand the total spell list in the game considerably. While one of the strengths of this system is that you can now add as many spells into the game as you want without worrying about messing up the "system" (lots of DIY RPG books offer spells to add into your game and I don't want to deny you that), I'm still going to try to make sure every spell needed to fill out the 29-ish schools I have so far will also be able to serve as a thorough "master list" for the base game of Brave. This is especially helpful because, in Brave, you can roll to get a random spell at character creation, and I want that roll to cover as comprehensive a variety of spells in the game as possible. For this reason, my original plan was to expand the list from 100 base spells to 216 (a 3d6 roll for 6 chunks of 6 charts with 6 results each), and that every spell in my 29 schools would be found in that 216. Well, it's beginning to look like it might need to be 300 instead (d3 for which chart, then d% within that chart). Oh well. More spells for you.


You know what else I realized is cool about this? If you wanted to play with my rules but customized to your setting, it would be the easiest thing in the world to just pick out the schools that exist and only allow those. Recreate D&D by only allowing the 8 classic schools. Recreate Dark Sun by only allowing Psionics and maybe a custom school for Preservers and Defilers. What about Final Fantasy? Create a White Magic school, a Black Magic school, and a Red Magic school. Boom. Schools are just themed spell lists.



  1. Have you encountered GLOG?

    Also, candle magic? What's that? That is the most interesting "technomancy" I've seen in a while

  2. Hey, good stuff in this post. I'm writing a series of posts about magic and my next post is somewhat related to this.
    By the way, in earlier editions spells do belong to more than one school.

  3. Also, unrelated, it beats me why evocation was not called elementalism (its name in W&W). As spells were in multiple schools in earlier edition it would not have precluded stuff like fire charm and fireshield from being in other schools too. Especially because wizard schools are based either on practice, deep knowledge of a topic, or outcomes.

    1. See, I've seen the "elemental" description given before. But the problem is the number of "force" effects, healing spells, light effects, random stuff like the "sending" spell, etc. break that theme.

      Oh, and I'll be keeping an eye out for your next post, I'm very interested.

    2. Most of those channel one of the elemental, quasi elemental or pseudo elemental planes, so they do fit. Healing channels from the positive elemental plane. Sending, no, that's just dumb shit.

      "If it fits nowhere it's transmutation" but it's a form of thought projection and is mind affecting so it should be enchantment.

      Channeling would also be a better name for Evocation.

  4. Each school writes their spells in a different language.