Ink-Stained Scribe

Tabletop Magic for Your Novel

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This past week, I've been worldbuilding for Beggar's Twin. One thing I never really did with my other two books was sit down and hammer out details of how the Magic works before I wrote the story. I ended up regretting that during every stage of the process - I didn't know how to describe it while I wrote my rough drafts, and it affected the plots during revision and made them take longer. Sure, I eventually got all the pieces figured out, but it slowed me down.

Beggar's Twin has a very complicated magic system - more complicated than any I've written thus far. Not only are there a number of different branches of magic, the casting style is singing-based, which creates a whole new set of issues. I knew I was going to have to do a bit more planning here in order to keep everything straight, so I sat down with my friend Eric (an avid tabletop gamer who paid a lot more attention to the rulebooks than I ever did) and hammered out some rules for the magic system as if it were a tabletop RPG.

Here's how we got started:


First, I described to him the basic construction of the magic system. I'd like to point out that I already had the basics in mind. The following diagram is the division of magic: what type of magic it is, what effects it has, how it's categorized, who can have it, how many branches can they have. This is all information you need to know before you begin.

A few points of pertinent background information (and the notes and ideas they spawned) are as follows:

1. Each branch of magic resonates with a particular key. There are six branches of magic, and there doesn't appear to be a rhyme or reason for the particular key it's associated with. (There are probably professors at the University who devote their lives to finding significance in these keys, but in terms of the story, nobody knows.)

2. Sound is vibration, but not just any sound can be used for spellcasting - it has to be voice. However, I decided that outside sounds would certainly disturb the spellcasting, because of interference. (You know what that means for historical warfare? WAR GONGS.)

3. Given the above, Professors at the University will have something akin to giant tuning forks in a dissonant key to their area of teaching, so they can disrupt any student spells likely to go awry. All Magicsingers carry small ones to act as a pitch-pipe before singing.

After establishing the background information, Eric and I decided to work with the D20 system, since it's what I'm most familiar with. 

If this were to be a real tabletop game, I would probably spend ages and ages coming up with a whole bunch of spells for each branch of magic, plus a couple of spells that could be done with particular combinations like esper/divintion telepathy. This, however, is not something I'm concerned with working out before I write, so I'm skipping that part (for now).

Next, we started coming up with what's know in tabletop gaming as "Feats".

In the d20 System, a feat is one type of ability a character may gain through level progression. Feats are different from skills in that characters can vary in competency with skills, while feats typically provide set bonuses to or new ways to use existing abilities.

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Feats are all those special little quirks that make your unique magic system even cooler. In terms of narrative, they're what will help you show off your magic system in plot and interaction. Flaws are similar to feats, but hinder the character. Here are a few of mine:

Perfect Pitch: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Your character will never have problems with pitch. +5 on all casting checks.

Resonance: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Resonance occurs when the spirit is in perfect resonance with one branch of magic, allowing that person the ability to become more proficient in that magic quickly. It also cancels dissonance penalties for the target branch.

Dissonance: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Dissonance occurs when the spirit is in a dissonant key to a particular branch of magic. Non spellcasters may take this feat without penalty and receive a +20 to Armor Class against the target magic. Spellcasters may use this as a flaw.

Focus: (GM awards this feat at any time) When a character has devoted significant academic study to his or her singing, they may be awarded focus, which allows the caster to subtract five points off all casting checks.

Tone Deaf: When a character is tone-deaf, he or she will have significant difficulty casting spells. No one likes to sit next to this character in class. -5 on all casting checks. -10 if another character is singing a spell in a different key.

Beautiful Voice: Teachers always say it doesn't matter how good your voice is, as long as you can sing on key...but spells always seem more effective when cast in a lovely voice. Teachers are also more likely to favor students whose voices don't inspire dogs to howl. +1 on all "damage" rolls.

Obivously, there's a lot more that goes into creating a tabletop game than just background, spells, and feats. This is, however, a really good start.

Do you play tabletop games? If your magic system were a tabletop game, what feats and flaws would you have? How would you use them in your story?