Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: GURPS Magic

Too bad the art inside doesn't
match the cover.
GURPS Magic is the tome for GURPS games that use the vanilla magic system. Without changing very much, this book is a gigantic catalog of tons of spells that have been (lightly) touched up for 4th edition. People who read this blog know it is not my preferred magic system, but I do like having a huge catalog of spells just for the creative inspiration for my more preferred systems, and as I do enjoy Dungeon Fantasy, usage of the system is somewhat unavoidable as it is a little tightly coupled to the foundation. My intent here is to, regardless of my feelings for the magic system itself, approach the content of the book as objectively as possible, so let's take a look.


I have the PDF version of the book, and it comes in at 243 pages, starts on page 5 of the book (or page 7 of the PDF who's pagecount includes the cover pages) and ends on page 222, (or 224), with a absolutely critically necessary index and spell table following. This means 218 pages of absolute information. The book has an 11 page chapter on the fundamental rules of the system, 7 pages on the enchantment system, the main course of the book in the form of 176 pages of spells broken down by college, 11 pages of customization rules, and a 13 page combination of the alchemy system and recipes for said system.
Page one of the table of contents.
Fundamentally, the biggest problem I have with this book is the impenetrable organization. The colleges, think of it as the elements or different topics of magic, are all in alphabetical order, but, within a chapter, the spells are in a completely indiscernible order. I think the idea was to sort from most fundamental/easy to the most advanced/difficult, but it isn't very helpful, and sometimes I need to resort to the spell table at the back of the book to find a referenced spell inside the same chapter.
A lot of the art consists of photoshopped CGI models which has the problem that it is easy to do, but difficult to do well in a way that isn't off puttingly uncanny. The few hand drawn illustrations are fine, but when put beside the rest they stand out because they are the only ones that don't feel unnatural.
Page two of the table of
Overall, despite these flaws, this book is critical to anyone who uses the default magic system in GURPS in any capacity but the most limited, with it's tremendous expansion of the spell list, it opens up the opportunities for mages to have unique and powerful spell lists chosen from a tome of several well tested, designed, and balanced spells.

Principles of Magic

This chapter goes over the fundamental of the magic system, and is like a slightly more detailed version of what you get in the Basic Set. Someone who has read the Basic Set version can probably quickly scan over this chapter for the most part instead of studying it, but there are a few interesting treasures here that are easy to miss that way. For everyone else, the rules are organized well and are straightforward enough in a sensible manner that it is easy to find the information you need inside the chapter.
The one especially new section in the book, starting on p. 14 speaks to designing new spells. Though it is well written and nothing is objectively wrong, subjectively, the content is not hard enough to leave me comfortable with the idea of physically applying the rules. As an aside, this is, among other reasons, why I prefer other magic systems that have a more explicit mechanism for creating or improvising unique spells.

Magic Items

This chapter goes over the fundamentals of two important subsystems: enchanting and power-stones. It starts with the rules laid out for enchanting, a process that gives an otherwise mundane object a (nearly) permanent magical ability. These rules are pretty simple, and give a breakpoint that creates the possibility of items that are easy to make, and thus tremendously cheaper, and those that require a really concerted effort to produce, and thus are much more expensive. Overall, I have no qualms with the rules here and find them completely sensible and well-organized.
The second big thing this chapter speaks to is powerstones, a mechanic for having auxiliary mana on hand for really big spells or expensive enchantments. There is a slightly convoluted equation for coming up with the prices, but we are helpfully provided with a table to make it easier.
The chapter also includes some interesting world building considerations about economics, supply and demand, and how much it might cost to enchant items and why the numbers the book arrives at makes sense. 

The Spells

I am not going to write a section for each chapter, it will be a redundant mess because for all intents and purposes, these main chapters are just a huge data dump.
I've already mentioned before that the organization of the spells is mind boggling, so I won't say it again (I guess I already did,) so let's see what I can say that is novel. Each chapter begins with an entertaining anecdote, but unfortunately (in my opinion) the anecdotes don't have as much continuity as other books. That said, it makes sense, because unlike other books, these chapters aren't a pleasure read of thoughtful considerations and ideas to implement in a GURPS campaign; they are lists of spells. The layouts of the spells are sensible, but sometimes I wish the mechanics of the spell would be more distinct from the flavor of the spell so that when quickly looking things up it would be easier to tell what they do, however, the descriptions are still written well. I also find the amount of referencing a little annoying, but as this book was among those that were printed, it makes sense to take a space saving measure. On the other hand, prerequisites are very hard to find, and I could certainly appreciate them including page references.
The first odd-man-out exception is the Enchantment Spells chapter which slightly breaks a few rules due to the fact that enchanting is handled a bit differently than the rest of the magic system. Still, even though it is a bit different, it is easy enough to follow if one reads Magic Items carefully.
The second one is the Divination section under Knowledge Spells. There is an atypically large amount of advice and guidance for each form of divination listed in the chapter, and a conversation on how divination can disrupt a campaign, which makes sense because knowledge is power, and divination leads to an incredible amount of knowledge.


This is the 27th chapter in the book, aren't you glad I didn't copy the previous block of text 24 times? This chapter is a bit of a hidden gem in this book and is like Thaumatology: Lite. It looks at different ways you can spice up the basic magic system, and some of them are pretty ground shaking, especially the section on Improvisational Magic. It's a really interesting read and if you like this chapter, you probably should take a look at Thaumatology, if you liked Thaumatology but found parts a bit too complex, you might want to check out this chapter.


The final subsystem of the vanilla magic system, and probably my favorite of them. Alchemy is similar to, but different from enchantment in that it is a bit more accessible, and most (!) products are one-time consumables; potions or similar. The system is very different than the rest, but the rules are probably laid out in an even more straightforward manner than the rest as well. Although there are decent rules for "inventing" new recipes, the one big issue I have, like with the basic magic system, is that there is actually even less guidance for spinning up entirely new recipes. They could have at least included some kind of conversion mechanic for taking a spell and turning it into a recipe I'd think, but we don't. Maybe I should try to come up with something like that myself?

Other Thoughts and Conclusions

There are a lot of annoyances throughout the book, but if you like the vanilla magic system, they are very easy to overlook. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. For everything worth complaining about in this book, there are ten things worth praising. The Spell Table at the back of the book goes a long way to making the organization issue tolerable as well. Also, a nice free supplement, you can get a prerequisite chart from the official store. The chart is very no frills, but hey, it's free, and it's useful. I just like flowcharts though.
Also, GURPS Character Sheet has a cross-reference to PDF feature now that is absolutely amazing for dealing with this book. Since it can take you right to the page and spell and highlight it for you, it makes looking things up almost fast enough for in-game referencing.

1 comment:

  1. Magic's a good book for just random spells and whatnot, but the way it is lain out just makes my mind numb. Even when I'm using magic, I'll be honest in that I rarely reference the thing!


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