Issue: 16
System: Hordes of the Things
Publisher: Wargames Research Group

Plausible Magic
by Matthew Hartley

With the part exception of HOTT, fantasy battle rules sets come with a large section of spell lists, from which the players can choose a suitably deadly array of special effects. The problem with these proscriptive lists is that they are themselves limiting on the nature of the magic which can be used, generally vastly over-powerful given the numbers of troops involved, and, to my mind, lacking any of the flavour of either the period or the essential strangeness of magic. In fact most perscriptive magic systems produce the same bland results as HOTT, but by a longer process. Here I shall present an alternative indicative approach to battle field magic which should deal with some of these problems

Magic produces results within a world which are abnormal. The more abnormal the result the more magical it is supposed to be. At a minor level, magic merely produces results which could be interpreted as lucky or unlucky (someone tripping over or a bowstring breaking for example) , at a higher level , magic alters reality to a far grater degree (raising the dead, going invisible, for example). Given this we could create a scale of effects as magic produces results further removed from normality.

0 Normality ducks floating, Pontiffs kissing runways and wearing silly hats
1-5 Lucky / Unlucky Rain starting on an overcast day, bowstring breaking
6-8 Implausible Being hit by lighting wearing non-metallic armour
9-11 Very Implausible weapons braking, sudden storms on a clear day
12-14 Extremely Implausible Minor earthquake, collective vision of a saint or ancient hero
15-17 Fantastic Raining frogs, fish or blood, invisibility, UFOs, ghostly apparitions
18 Miraculous raising the dead, summoning demons

Ok, so how does this effect battles? Mages are rated in terms of power ability (or PA, rated in d6', a minor mage would have a PA of 1d6, a major mage could be rated as having a PA of 6 or 8 d6) and magic points ( MP, taken to be maximum PA score available, thus a mage with a PA of 1d6 would have 6MP, whereas a mage of 6d6 PA would have 36 MP). If he wishes to cast a spell a level of plausibility should be agreed upon (either between the players or by a referee). This level should relate to how far the effect would be regarded as abnormal from the point of view of a late twentieth century European (since most players have, I hope, a reasonable grasp on reality !). The mage should then choose the number of d6 he wishes to use , up to the maximum allowed by his PA level; if after rolling the dice the score equals or exceeds the level set, the spell has worked, otherwise it fails. Whatever the result, the score is subtracted from the mages magic points total. If insufficient magic points exist then the spell fails and the mage collapses unconscious (or turns into a frog, if you prefer).

Three examples:

  1. Langam the trickster has a PA of 1d6 and 6MP. He and his companions have just been ambushed by a group of goblins . He spys a large goblin loading his bow and decides to magically break the bow string . Given that this is a goblin bow of poor maintenance it is rated as a level 2 implausible task. Langam has to roll 1d6 and get a score of 4. The bowstring snaps and Langam is down to 2 MP.

  2. Calaf, the court mage, has a PA of 6d6 and 36 MP. In mid battle he sees a hoard of heavily armoured orcs storming a wooden bridge. He decides to collapse the bridge. This is rated as a level 8 task (it would be level 14 task if the bridge was made of stone). Calaf decides to play it safe and rolls 4d6 , scoring 15. The bridge collapses taking the orcs to a watery grave and costing Calaf 15MP.

  3. Dezar the Diabolical has a PA of 4d6 and 17 MP left ( he has already cast some spells). Seeing his forces failing he decides to flee through flight (he's playing a campaign game !). This is rated as a level 16 task. Dezar roles 4d6 and scores 20! He collapses unconscious as his forces disintegrate around him.

As you can see, the more implausible the desired effect the harder it is to cast. Only major mages can consistently produce the implausible.

This system is suitable for mass battles or skirmishes as the examples illustrate - of course the probability of one bowstring breaking is considerably higher than that of a whole units bowstrings breaking ! However a gust of wind could seriously effect one turns firing by a unit, but then mass bowstring damage would be rather more effective than disruption for one turn. Generally speaking the greater the degree of the effect, the higher the level of implausibility.

Magic items and sites which boost PA and / or MP or allow mid-battle regeneration of MP could easily be written into scenarios.

You may have noticed that this system works strongly against the raising of undead troops mid-battle. This is deliberate. Even in a fantasy world, undead should be a miraculous occurrence - after all, if your ancestors were in the habit of raising from the grave and attacking you at regular intervals, you'd have had them all cremated! To raise an undead army, the mage would have to be extremely powerful and controlling it, once raised, would take most of his energies. Thus in game terms, necromancers should have very high PA but much more limited MP scores.

There are limitations with this system. It is not suitable for competition games because of the degree of agreement and objectivity required between the players to determine the level of the spell desired. The system requires either friendly and reasonable players or a firm and far-minded referee. I wrote this initially as a psionics system for Wessex Games' Hellfire / Hell by Starlight system (and indeed it could be used for that) which is scenario driven rather that competition 'encounter battle' orientated. This system works best within the confines of a scenario, where players are objective and reasonable. For competition games, I'm afraid spell lists are still required as they create the certainty needed for games between unfamiliar players.

I hope you find this an interesting alternative magic system and try it out - you'll find it makes you think much more carefully about how you use magic in your games.

Ed Note: Hordes of the Things is a generic set of Fantasy wargames rules produced by the Wargames Research Group and was reviewed in Ragnarok 1. A second edition is now available and was reviewed in Ragnarok 43. HOTT has won the Best Fantasy Wargames Rules category in the SFSFW Awards five times out of seven! For further details regarding price and availability, send an SSAE to Wargames Research Group, The Keep, Le Marchant Barracks, London Road, Devizes, Wiltshire, SN10 2ER.