A system-agnostic magic system?

System-agnostic seems like a contradiction in itself. Let it be a conundrum to solve (thanks @anahata).

What I’m actually pondering here is a set of magic rules for tabletop rpgs, that would work across a variety of systems. Say it should plug in effortlessly into OD&D and Classic Traveller, but also work with GURPS or Fudge, and maybe even more story telling focused games like FATE or PbtA-Games.

If you think of magic spells as entities that actually break or alter the rules of any given game, it doesn’t seem too far fetched, to have them interface in a sensible way with differing base rules … I hope.


The undeniable advantage of popular gaming systems is their relatively wide spread availability, a lot of players might already have the relevant book, or can access it easily.

As I like to play old games, or maybe not so popular game systems, I usually don’t expect my players to shell out money for a non-main stream gaming book, or to tediously search the second hand market for a copy.

For players of mundane types as fighting-men, rogues or simple adventurers this usually isn’t a big deal, but the magic users player will at some point want to reference the exact wording of some spell … so she’ll need a book … a spell book possibly.

For this exact situation a freely available (think Creative Commons, OGL …) and easily accessible (free indexed PDF, print yourself at cost at the local copy shop) would be ideal.

So let’s see what can be done …

What’s in a Spell?

I think if you look at the various spells in, say D&D and GURPS, there are certain recurring elements:

  • The spells effect
  • Time to cast
  • Range to cast
  • Duration of the spell
  • Restrictions

The spells effect usually conveys a narrative right, like legitimating the player to state how the magic user moves through a wall, conjures a demon or transforms into a giant mantis or whatever. Under other circumstances, this narration would break the rules of the game. That’s why you need magic. Sometimes the narration directly accesses gaming mechanics, like a fire ball doing 6d6 damage … that’s rules system specific … that’s going to be the difficult part.

Time to cast, range and duration are simple and universal. Even in the far future or in the most unlikely fantasy realm time will come in seconds, minutes and probably also hours days, and so on, and range can always be measured in terms of real world length measurement. Nothing gamey here, use SI units.

Restrictions are important – they tell you when, and only when it is allowed to break the rules by using magic and what kind of effect this has on the base game moving along. Those restrictions make the game fair and playable. Common restrictions are:

  • Spell slots
  • Spell levels
  • Spell cost, in terms of mana, fatigue points, gold, rare ingredients
  • Time and range also act as restrictions
  • agreement and / or support of some super natural being in case of clerical magic

As already said, time and range come in real world SI units, and gold, ingredients and a deities opinion about magic are part of the narrative. But spell slots, levels, mana points are rules-specific, so this is where a “system-agnostic” system would need to substitute alternative, self-contained rules.

First take at universal magic *rules*

This is a work in progress … two basic ideas:

Spells have varying impact and effectiveness, this could be modeled by an abstract spell complexity on a range from 1 (low complexity, easy to cast), to 10 (high complexity, hard to cast).

Magic users probably will be more or less apt at working spells. This could be modeled by some magical aptitude stat. This might be an existing stat, like intelligence (INT) in the original game, it might be derived from a combination of existing stats, or it might be newly added to a given game system.

I think a magical aptitude in the usual 3d6 range from 3 to 18 should be in order. I know, this is somewhat specific, but it also is a very common range for gaming stats, facilitating success rolls with 1d20, 3d6 or derivatives thereof like 2d6, 4d6 or 2d20 with advantage/disadvantage. Also, if multiplied by 5 the 3-18 range converts to 15-90, which is convenient for percentile based systems, and there are commonly known ways, do convert 3-18 to the -4 to +4 range as used in Fudge and FATE.

Now put this together … How about this, just set up a matrix with the difference of magical aptitude and spell complexity:

Spell Complexity

This already seems to be somewhat usable to me.

For example, if a magic user with magical aptitude of 12 wanted to cast a spell of complexity level 2, he’d need to roll a 10 or lower on 1d20 or 3d6 … depending on the base rules in action. On a success, the spell would work as expected, on a failure it would fail with some narrative consequence told by the GM.

In a system with vancian magic spell slots, this success roll could indicate, whether the mage managed to learn the spell, and is able to use it safely from then on.

It’s obvious that a character with low magical aptitude and little experience will never manage to work high complexity spells. Or only under certain circumstances, yet to be defined. Seems alright to me.

Now, since those odds seem somewhat depressing, lets add some modifiers:


Measured on an abstract scale from 1 to 10, experience could be used as a direct modifier. The experience number could represent years of study in a story telling game, or be a derivative of character level in a more classical approach.

As an example, a Mage with aptitude 12 and 5 years of experience would need to roll a 12 or less in order to work a complexity level 5 spell (base number 7 and +5 for experience).


A magic user might invest more or less time into working a spell. Modifiers could look like this, with a basic time to work a spell being hours:


In essence, this would make it possible for a high experience mage to cast a spell within seconds, while his apprentice might take month or even years to master the complicated ritual.

The time to cast could be further quantified by rolling a d6, so 1-6 seconds for a combat spell, or 1-6 days for some necromantic ritual.


The magic users might invest a fraction or multiple of the base cost into working the spell. Again, think mana, fatigue points, gold … what ever your system uses. Modifiers could look like this:

Cost multiplier1/101/41/21210100

You might think of yet other possible modifiers, but I think this basically covers it.

The actual Spells

I think in order to approach a wide range of spells in a generic way, I’d try a syntax based approach like in GURPS improvised magic, Maze Rats or Magic in the Moment, over on the Papers and Pencils blog: combinations of generic magical nouns and verbs like conjure, banish, hasten, heal, harm, fire, water, demon, monster and so on.

The actual number of magical words going into a spell could be used as yet another modifier. The more words, the higher the penalty ….

As I said, it’s a work in progress. I’ll try to model some commonly known spells with this system and see how it goes. Maybe start with good old light, heal light wounds, sleep and fireball. The players will certainly want those 😉

How’s your campaign?

On his blog @kensanata asked about peoples campaigns and posted a bunch of questions. As others have written already, that’s a fun way to reflect about one’s own campaign, so here we go:

  1. How many sessions have you been playing, more or less?

    About 24.

  2. How long have you been running this campaign?

    We started in April 2017 I think. Played about once a month, and now about every two weeks.

  3. Have you had long breaks? If so, how did you pick it up again?

    Yes, we paused over the summer months. I feel it was not difficult to pick up again. We just did it. Last year a bunch of new players joined the group and at the same time the PCs basically left the place they had been adventuring at over the first sessions of the campaign. So that was kind of a new start.

  4. How many people are at the table when you play?

    Usually around 5 players plus GM, we had sessions with 9 players though and also one or two one-on-one sessions for side quests.

  5. How many characters are in the party when you play?

    Usually every player plays one character, so about 5 PCs, and most of the time they manage to get some NPCs to come along. We had never more NPCs than PCs in the party.

  6. How many players have you had in total over that time period, not counting guest appearances?

    11 regular players in total, right now there are 6 regular players.

  7. Have you had guest appearances? How did it go? Did you gain regular players that way?

    Yes, a few. 3 – 4 I think. Some stayed for 2 – 3 sessions, and then left again. I think most players who joined and stayed were sort of determined from the beginning.

  8. What have the character levels been over time?

    The highest level so far was 5th level. Right now, there are two level 5, one level 4, three level 3, and two level 1 characters.

  9. What classes did the players pick? Did you add new classes over time?

    Mostly standard classes, so fighting-men, magic-users and clerics, now and then we had a thief join the party. Almost all of them are human, very few are halflings. I think there was only one elf and one dwarf character in the whole campaign so far.

    And yes, we have a custum class I’m particularly proud of: Punks! Perfectly normal punks from our timeline, sporting mohawks and leather jackets (AC 7) and wielding clubs or even baseball bats, it they managed to take them along as they were pulled through the limbo to the fantasy world. One of our players has even gathered an NPC punk rock band around his character. They have to get along with medieval instruments though – no electricity in the borderlands 😉

  10. Tell me about some adventures you ran over that time that I might enjoy hearing about?

    Hm, that’s sort of a tough question I find, since everything has been continous events in a sandbox. But here’s one event, that particularly baffled me:

    The party was hunting down some evil wizard who had supposedly kidnapped an NPC female magic user who had helped the party before. The evil magic user had summoned a bunch of minor demons and had a horde of gnolls at his disposal. The party lost 1 or 2 NPCs on the way to the magic user. So a pretty normal dungeon crawl up to the point, when they actually faced off their main antagonist: That evil magic user, crit failed his saving throw against a charm person – so what should I do with the boss going out of commission in the midst of the session?

    I decided to have the demons rip him apart, since being charmed by an opponent he had lost control over them. The demons then took his remains with them to the underworld, so at least some of his mightier magic items were out of reach of the player characters – just for the time being. Then I decided to let the dragon come in early, who had an appointment to get some plunder from the evil magic-user. What finally happend was, that the players didn’t care too much for the kidnapped girl, who was left to the dragon, but managed to get all the plunder and run away with it … oh my … 😉

    I also liked how on some other occasion the party basically took a whole session to plan and set up an ambush on a tribe of orcs. Decent planning, lots of NPCs involved, and our first delve into actually using the Chainmail mass combat rules. Handfuls of dice and the most successful session in terms of XP and gold we’ve had so far.

  11. Have the rule changes over that time? Do you maintain a house-rules document?

    Quite a bit actually. We started with BECM rules as written, but added house rules rather quickly – then, after tinkering with some rules additions from AD&D 1st edition, I decided to take two steps back. What we do now is basically 3LBB plus a bunch of house rules. I like to use d6s for hit dice, attribute bonuses are somewhat deemphasized compared to BECM, and if the players would let me, I’d happily do away with variable weapon damage.

    The house-rules document we use has almost evolved into a stand alone edition. It’s written in german, and is available here.

  12. Has the setting changed over time?¹

    Not much. We started at the *Keep on the Borderlands* at it’s canonical location in Mystara and I added in Hommlet, Nulb and the Temple of Elemental Evil about four days to the west. Everything else is out of the box Mystara.

  13. How much in-game distance did the party cover, how big is the area they have visited?

    Including a side quest, which was an overland journey in which only 3 PCs took part, about 160 miles from east to west. Most PCs have only seen the area between the Keep and Hommlet, so about four days of travel. So the whole area would probebly be about 20 x 120 miles.

  14. Have you used proprietary setting books? Like, could you publish your campaign or would you be in trouble if you did?

    Yes, the B2 *Keep on the Borderlands*, Mentzers *Expert Rules*, and T1-4 *The Temple of Elemental Evil*.

A free and open source setting for role playing games?

Yesterday on Mastodon @BindRPG asked about popular libre settings for rpg gaming. Interesting question I thought, some chatter went back and forth, and … man, this really got me thinking.

I mean, there are a whole bunch of gaming systems realeased under some sort of libre license. Prominently Fate core and Dungeon World come to mind, which both are available unter Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 for example. But there are others under some kind of creative commons license like Gumshoe, Eclipse Phase, Freeform Universal (disclaimer no 1: please check the respective web sites for exact licensing terms). Apart from that, there are hundreds of games released under the Open Gaming License, which might be considered less libre then creative commons, and hardly anyone of those is open source, too (Basic Fantasy RPG being one exception). And hey, since yesterday I know of BindRPG, which is even released under the GNU General Public License.

But a libre setting? When I think about settings, various creations come to mind, most of which are big companies interelectual property – most probably with some big time fierce lawyers just waiting for you to stray into their territory.

But do we actually need a libre setting?

Well, not if you just want to play in, say Hogwarts, or on the Planet of Tatooine. In those cases you’ll likely have payed for a commercial setting book anyway, which of course is meant to be used just for that. And if you home brewed your way into that other setting, the lawyers simply won’t find out. And even if they would, such use would always be covered by the concept of fair use.

At your gaming table, you could always take the Infinite Worlds mega-setting from GURPS, and include just about any other setting there is, but again, Infinite Worlds is intellectual property of Steve Jackson Games.

And don’t even think about doing anything commercially for some others intellectual property setting. Don’t do it – unless you really want to, know what you do, and have put some money aside to pay the lawyer.

So in fact, having a good libre setting would allow folks to not only play in a cool setting, but anyone could publish for this setting, and thereby add to it, for everyones gaming fun and pleasure.

And opposed to commercial licenses, open source and a libre license substantially facilitates crowd sourcing and collaboration on a common shared setting.

So, do we need a libre setting? I think yes, it would be terrific!

So, but what is a setting, really?

Role playing settings can be as small as a map of a village, some hills and a cave or dungeon just behind those hills. But a setting can also be huge, spanning one or even multiple planets, multiple star systems, and rather often than not, multiple planes of existence, epochs far in the past and future, accessible by some means of time travel.

So, on the small scale, a setting would need definitions of:

  • local geography
  • climate and wheather
  • local fauna and flora
  • local culture
  • spiritual entities and religious beliefs
  • technology, trade goods and commercial system
  • professions (which might lead to character classes)
  • political system and circumstances
  • presence or absence of magic in the broadest sense
  • notable Non-Player Characters (NPCs), who in some way represent all of the above.

On the large scale, a setting would need a common idea of the cosmology and the universe, and rules to join multiple small scale settings in different locations and epochs within the large scale setting.

How to go about it?

I think for a crowd sourced, collaborative, libre setting we would need basically a set of common rules. Rules to define those items mentioned above for the small scale setting, and rules to find out where to put small scale subsettings within the large scale – a common reference system, location wise, and time wise.

I believe the way to define all these things should be system neutral, since being specific for any one particular gaming system would run counter to the idea of a common shared setting. So any definition of setting items should use normal language, real world units, and reference to items and things of everyday life for comparison. For example some humanoid tribe could be “twice as strong” as normal humans, and a particular kind of dragon could be “as large as a blue whale”, while some gnomish folks could be “as small as cats”.

The large scale would probably need a common time line, and a common spacial map – I’m thinking of something like the subsector maps of the Traveller RPG. Subsector maps could have multiple layers, to represent multiple dimensions or planes.

I also like the idea, that the expansion of a common cosmos, is actually an in game thing. So in order to find a new place, player characters have to go exploring, and to expand into new planes or alternative dimensions, mighty rituals have to be performed, or new science has to be discovered – in game. So the common mega-setting would need rules for this, too.

I’m envisioning a core book, which would lay out the common time line, a common multidimensional reference system, and all of those common rules on how to define a subsetting. A basic core “Elves, Dwarves and Orcs”-Fantasy subsetting would be nice, too. As an example, and a common, canonical default place to start playing in. Individual subsettings could be added as zine-format gazeteers.

So, will it happen? Anyone else interested in this?

2d6 – the original tabletop role playing dice mechanic

Is 2d6 a hype? I see it everywhere. It’s in games Powered by the Apocalypse like Dungeon World, it’s in Maze Rats and Stars without Number.

Powered by the Apocalypse games introduce three possible outcomes to a roll of 2d6:

10 or more: you succeed

7 to 9: you succeed, but there’s a problem

6 or less: the game master gets to make a move, probably introducing even more complication.

That’s cool, it drives the story forward.

The B/X edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1981), which has become sort of lingua franca in the OSR scene, has morale and reaction rolls based on 2d6. In the lack of persuasion skill rolls like deception, fast-talk or savoir-faire, reaction rolls are an important, and actually quite universal mechanic to adjucate non-combat encounters. It goes like this:

2d6monster reactionretainer reaction
2 or lessimmediate attackoffer refused;
reaction -1 on the next roll
3 – 5hostile, possible attackoffer refused
6 – 8uncertain, monster confusedroll again
9 – 11no attack, monster leaves
or considers offers
offer accepted
12 or moreenthusiastic friendshipoffer accepted; morale +1

Quite a lot of role playing opportunity stuffed into this table. Especially the 6 – 8 range should prompt for some interesting social interaction. Of course the GM can liberally count in charisma modifiers and bonus points for good role playing, bribes offered, or penalties because of overall bad behaviour.

Then 2d6 is the principal die roll in many iterations of the Traveller rules up to Mongoose Traveller and Traveller 5. Classic Traveller was released in 1977. And by the way, there is also the Cepheus Engine, an OGL’ed science fiction system based on Mongoose Traveller 1st edition. There are many supplements for Cepheus, also for non-sci-fi genres, turning it into something like generic universal 2d6 based role playing game system.

But it goes further back. Just look at Chainmail, D&Ds supposed predecessor, published in 1971. The man-to-man combat table uses 2d6 against armor class, just like Classic Traveller.

Blackmoor obviously was the first ever tabletop role playing fantasy campaign. Some time ago, I discovered a post on the gaming experience in Blackmoor. Guess what kind of die rolls were done most of the time? Some character sheets from the Blackmoor campaign have been preserved. Isn’t it suggestive, that attributes and skills had numbers mostly in the range of 2 – 12? The Secrets of Blackmoor documentary released recently is well worth a look if you’re interested in the history of geek culture.

Now I find this quite intriguing. Most people think of a d20 when it comes to role playing and iconic images of dice, but rather likely the original role playing dice were 2d6. In one of my recent posts on reddit I asked how the Classic Traveller rules might be related to the Blackmoor campaign. An interesting discussion ensued and of course the answer is obvious. The designers of Blackmoor, Chainmail, D&D and Traveller knew each other, probably exchanged ideas on game mechanics, 2d6 was commonly used in war games, even before Blackmoor, and after all, d6s were much easier to get at then those funky dice D&D demanded.

Just as a reminder, 2d6 result in a simple bell curve (well, more of a roof top curve actually). Here are the odds:

2d6absoluteat least
22.78 %100 %
35.56 %97.22 %
48.33 %91.67 %
511.11 %83.33 %
613.89 %72.22 %
716.67 %58.33 %
813.89 %41.67 %
911.11 %27.78 %
108.33 %16.67 %
115.56 %8.33 %
122.78 %2.78 %

Finally let my cite this awesome catch all 2d6 based roll playing mechanic found on Norbert G. Matauschs blog, the post is called Back to really simple role playing:

we both roll 2d6; if I’m higher, I say what happens, if you’re higher, you say what happens; if we’re close, we negotiate

What more do you need?

Rules for traveling and hanging around

Here are some house rule for open table fantasy sandbox games.

Hanging around at the tavern

Player characters who don’t take part in an adventure, because their players couldn’t make it to the session, are supposed to hang around at the local tavern. It costs them 1 gp per day to stay there. This may well lead to going into depts, but that’s their problem.


Player characters who need to travel quickly in order to catch up with a party may travel 18 to 90 miles or 3 to 15 hex per week. It costs them 15 gp for a week of traveling. Roll on the following table for each week traveling (i.e. if you need to travel 16 hexes, you need two weeks, so roll twice!). You gain the number cast on 2d6 times 20 XP per week!

2d6 event
2 you disappear and become a non-player character. Only the GM knows what happend. You might be found and become a player character again if the party successfully finds you.
3 Something bad happens. You’re traumatised and lose one level.
4 you’ve been assaulted and robbed. You reach your destination with nothing but rags (AC 9) and a cudgel (1d4).
5 you get injured and lose one week of traveling time – roll again.
6 you get help from some higher npc – you owe him a favour now.
7 you make an interesting discovery. You couldn’t gather much, but you’ve found (1) the entry to an unknown cave system, (2) ancient ruins, (3) the lair of a terrible monster, (4) a gate to another world.
8 you meet a traveling companion, roll again with +2. You get +2 on a reaction roll, if you want to hire him as a retainer.
9 you find some work on the way, and earn 3d10 gp
10 somehow you come in possession of a treasure map
11 you find a valuable gem (1d10*100 gp), lucky you
12 you find a magic item (GMs choice)

9 to 5 jobs for adventurers

Characters who stay at some place for a longer period of time might try to find work. Roll 2d6 plus charisma modifier. On a result of 8+ you find a job and earn 2d4 * 10 gp per week. If you miss you have to wait for a week and earn nothing. On a critival miss (2 on 2d6) wait two weeks before roling again.

Hello world!

So, this is it. After doing a lot of posting on reddit and mastodon on rpg related stuff, I felt I should take this step to have a place to put my thoughts. I hope to give something back to a community of online rpg-heads, which I found surprisingly welcoming and friendly. So thanks all!

I’ll probably be writing in english most of the time, but there might also be some posts in german. Let’s see how it goes.

Wanderer Bill is the alter ego of @lskh and /u/lskh3004, yay, that’s me.