Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mechanics: Syntactic Magic

The final post in my on-going series at looking at different magic systems and mechanics in depth. This time, I am looking at a system that is somewhat of a horse of a different color. Syntactic Magic is a very open-ended system. It is not constrained to any feeble spell lists or monkey business like that. If you can imagine it, and it makes sense that a wizard with your skills can do it, then you can try it. That doesn't mean that it is free-form willy-nilly either. There are a lot of complexities rules of thumb and subjective judgement required to make the system work right, so let's see what Syntactic Magic is.

Which Form

There are two major forms of Syntactic Magic, so let me clarify before I get too deep. 
First off is the "noun-verb" form, which is found starting p. 184 in Thaumatology. Spells are formed of pairs of Noun skills and Verb skills, When casting a spell, time to cast and energy is based off of a function of the nouns and verbs used, and a skill roll against both is required.
This book is critical again
The other option is realm form, which is discussed in detail starting p. 188 of Thaumatology. Realm based magic requires dividing reality into certain classes of existence, like Matter, Energy, Life, etc. And then dividing those into levels, and figuring out their cost as advantages. These advantages are paired with a skill. In analogy, the advantage itself indicates access to a specific noun, and levels of that advantage indicate access to more complicated verbs, but only in relation to that particular noun. Each Realm also has a paired skill, which indicates how easy it is for a character to invoke magic of a certain realm.
To keep this post simple, I am focusing on the Noun-Verb form. The realm form has enough unique features to consider it separately from the Noun-Verb form, but has enough similarities that the "feel" and "flavor" can be somewhat grasped from a discussion of the Noun-Verb form in isolation.


Magery is almost an optional component of Syntactic magic, and it can be handled in two ways. The first method is to use it as a talent like in the traditional magical sense if you want to encourage high level magic and very capable caster characters. The other option is to use it for a cap for skills if you want to reign in power levels. It is interesting to note that either choice will create a very different feeling for the system. Option 3, of course, is to not use Magery at all, giving something of an in-between the two: No cheap shortcuts to phenomenal power, and no expensive roadblocks between it either.


Energy has many options. It can be handled as vanilla magic, coming from mana stones, Energy Reserve, or FP. It can be ignored entirely if desired. It can even be tied to the Threshold Limited system mentioned earlier. These options are explained in detail on p. 194 in Thaumatology.

Learning Verbs And Nouns

Each verb and noun is a skill with difficulty mentioned at the bottom of p. 184 of Thaumatology. A suggested list of a default 24 words are given on p. 185. This list isn't set in stone, as advice reads, and a GM that wants a more comprehensive list, might double the nouns and verbs and decrease the skill difficulty a bit.

Time and Energy to Cast

Each noun and verb also comes with two pieces of important meta-data. An Energy Cost and a Time to Cast. When creating a spell out of multiple words, these values are processed in a function given at the top left of p. 181 for energy, and the middle right of p. 183 for casting time. [The organization requiring jumping here and there in the book is a little frustrating.]
A small example, Weaken has a cost and time of 1 each; Fire has a cost of 4, and a time of 1. If someone wants to put out a fire by using "Weaken+Fire" its energy cost is 1+4 = 5; and its Time to cast is 1+1 = 2. If the GM feels this is an appropriate way for a player to deal with a fire of SM +0 or less (Can you weigh a fire?) then the player may wait 2 seconds, roll against her skill in Weaken, and roll against her skill in Fire, and pay 5 energy.

Parameter Effects

Other Parameters can come into play that can affect either cost, time or skill penalties. Following from the previous example, our player wants to put out a fire. If the fire is so many yards wide, and so many yards away, it could penalize skill or require more energy. Alternatively it can be based on a margin of success. Say, for example, the fire has an 8 yard radius and is 20 yards away. As a skill penalty, that would be a -24 skill penalty [ouch?] as extra energy, 14 more energy is needed, or as a margin of success, succeeding the skill roll by 6 or better would be enough to completely extinguish the fire, while smaller margins might extinguish less (or not reach far enough to deal with it at all.) These rules are explained in detail, starting on p. 180.

Success Rolls

Following from the previous example, if the player succeeds at both rolls then the effect should work as planned. If one fails, then that one component might fail and a different unexpected effect could occur. "Weaken+Fire" could then be "?+Fire" if the Weaken skill roll fails, or "Weaken+?" if the Fire roll fails. If both rolls fail, nothing happens, and if either is a critical failure, then a disastrous result occurs. 
More skill rolls necessarily mean failure is more common than systems with less skill rolls, and Noun-Verb has at least two skill rolls per spell. Guidance is given that one nominal failure + one success should not result in disaster, and might even still help, if not without some form of extra hindrance [Kinda like how some systems would say, "success, with a 'but'"] So in our fire example, one nominal failure will probably still do something to help put out the fire, but also complicate the situation simultaneously. Maybe we get a "weaken+air" effect instead, which suffocates the fire, but also makes breathing difficult until someone can ventilate the room.


Listed as an extra option on p. 193, although Syntactic magic is meant to be super free form, if a caster finds they need to use a certain spell repeatedly, it could be statted up as a technique. Maybe a favorite attack and support spells for example. This can allow something similar to a spell book. If it were me, I'd almost try converting the technique into a power to start adding enhancements like costing less FP or taking less time as well.

Useful Material

To my little knowledge, there is not a lot of supporting material besides that which is given in Thaumatology. It is kind of hard to think of ideas to add to a system that requires spinning up spells on the fly. Some of the concepts like perks and talents in Magical Styles might help, but they will probably require a bit of work to make it fit the paradigm.


The system has a lot of options and a lot to remember. A GM will probably want to be able to quickly reference costs and times per each noun and verb, and rules for parameter modifications as spells are spun up often on the fly, though I could see someone slowly memorizing all the modifiers if using the system regularly. The Realm version of the system, although I didn't talk to it much also seems pretty interesting. In honesty, I haven't played this system, I just look at it speculatively and think, "one day, I really want to try this," but it seems just a bit outside the grasp of what I'm ready to take on. It requires a good GM that knows when to say yes and no, and a good player that knows when to accept yes and no, and both need to be ready for lateral solutions for "impossible" problems.

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