by Jason Puckett and S. John Ross
A mage, by definition, is a character that has at least one die in a Cliche that allows her to produce supernatural effects of some kind. I'm using the term "mage" here for simplicity's sake; in any given campaign a character of this type may be called a wizard, a sorcerer, a superhero, a witch or a psi, among other things. Similarly, the cool flashy stuff that she can do may be called magic spells, psychic phenomena, or manifestations of the true power of the Great God Chuck. (In one campaign I ran, the "mages" were called "goths" and "spells" were "cool goth effects.") The name is window dressing; what we're concerned with here is that a character who invests dice in such a Cliche can do things that ordinary mortals can't.
Risus' relaxed framework makes it easy to create such characters without requiring detailed spell lists like most games. On the other hand, the first thing I noticed when GMing for such characters is that since there's no real-world analog, I desperately needed some way to define a) the boundaries of what they can and can't attempt to do, and b) how hard it is for them to do it, or (being the nice-guy GM that I am) they'd run roughshod over the obstacles I had oh-so-carefully laid in their paths. Here's what I came up with.
Characters and Cliches
What kind of magic the character can attempt is of course defined by her Cliches. The Risus rules themselves suggest that in a game not centered around sorcerers, the simple Cliche "Sorcerer" is workable. Personally I'd find this way too broadly defined for a PC Cliche in most of my games: in a magic-heavy game there's little besides number of dice to distinguish one Sorcerer's abilities from another, making magic too homogeneous for my taste, and in a game with few mages the Sorcerer PC will end up as a combination walking hospital, arsenal, transport system and god knows what else, leaving the "mere mortal" types feeling a little left out.
Mage Cliches should instead incorporate some sort of specialty, as Risus suggests for a wizard-centric campaign. The specialty defines the realm over which the mage can exert mystical power, but there are multiple approaches you can take in deciding what sort of specialties you want for your characters.
Players are encouraged to personalize mage Cliches by giving them cooler names like Deranged Pyromancer instead of Fire-Mage. Mage Cliches can and do overlap areas of expertise, just like any other Cliches -- Necromancers and Shamans can both summon various sorts of spirits, for example, and Wise Women and Mind-Mages will each have their own versions of love spells, just as both Vikings and Knights are good at hitting things with swords. Any mage Cliche can be bought as a Double-Pump Cliche during character creation.
Creating Mage Cliches: The Mechanics-Over-Drama Approach
One possibility is to divide magic into areas like "fire magic," "divination," and "necromancy" that specify one physical or esoteric element of reality that the mage's spells cover (some RPGs call these "colleges" of magic). This is probably the way to go for a more serious or traditional swords-and-sorcery game, although there's no reason it wouldn't work for a silly campaign as well. (GURPS players will note that nearly any college from GURPS Magic or Grimoire can be neatly turned into this kind of mage Cliche, and that most of the Cliches on this list are roughly the equivalent of the One College Magery advantage.) This approach gives you Cliches like the following:
Creating Mage Cliches: The Drama-Over-Mechanics Approach
For this sort of wizardly Cliche, don't think in terms of "colleges of magic" like Healing and Necromancy. Think about the mage in terms of what he's supposed to do in the story. This can mean either his dramatic function: does he just provide comic relief, is he a wise mentor or a moustache-twirling villain -- or his personal role: is he a defender of nature, a slayer of undead or a village hedge-wizard? Figure that out, then assume he can attempt any sort of spell that furthers this function.
For example, take the Cliche "Sinister Assassin-Mage," for an evil wizard who's infiltrated the palace to slay the young prince before he comes of age. I'd say this kind of wizard can cast any kind of spell reasonably related to being sneaky, bumping off no-name NPC guards, baffling security and so on, but I wouldn't let him throw fireballs or summon demons.
A few more drama-over-mechanics-type mage Cliches:
Universal Mage Abilities
In some game worlds, mages might be able to do one or more of the following no matter what their magical specialties:
The GM should have some idea of which universal abilities, if any, he wants to allow his mages. Too many such abilities could make mages overpowered; consider requiring players to buy mage Cliches as double-pumps in that case.
Another option is to allow a Meta-Mage Cliche that covers any direct manipulation of magic itself, and spells that affect other spells. A Meta-Mage can attempt to oppose just about any spell by blocking it, subverting it, taking control of it, or dispelling it; things like protective pentagrams and magical wards would also fall in this Cliche's area of expertise. If the Meta-Mage Cliche exists in a game world, most wizards will probably have at least one die in it.
Tools of the Trade
Don't forget these! The obvious ones include Mystic Staves, Amulets, Books of Forbidden Lore and Loyal Familiars, but some Cliches suggest more specialized tools like Crystal Balls for Diviners, Packets of Brimstone for Fire-Wizards and Meditation Crystals for Telepaths or Mind-Mages.
If you're using the optional Hooks and Tales rules, being a mage gives a character plenty of entertaining possibilities for Hooks. One obvious way to go is to give your mage a side effect of some kind when she uses magic. Examples: A Telepath who gives nosebleeds to those whose minds she reads; a Fire-Wizard who sets off random candle-flame-sized fires when she casts spells; an Illusionist who glows in the dark for ten minutes after creating illusions.
Another Hook is to limit the usefulness of the wizard's magic in some way, either by limiting when he can use it or by what he can use it on. Examples: A Mind-Mage whose magic doesn't work on Elves; a Healer who can only cure during daylight hours; a dwarvish Diviner who must be underground or in a cave to cast accurate auguries.
Or pick some other way to inconvenience your mage that's related to his form of magic or to being a mage in general. Examples: A Shaman followed by mischievous spirits; a Priest-Mage who has undertaken a sacred vow to hunt down the undead; an Earth-Mage who must watch his back at all times for agents of the hated Aeromancer cult.
Spell difficulty is based on two linked principles: Dramatic Necessity and Laws of Nature. Tiny violations of the Laws of Nature are easy; spells that help the plot along are easy. Spells that thumb their noses at the universe AND the scenario tend to turn the offending wizard into Ground Chuck. So it goes. The GM decides on a case-by-case basis how strongly to apply each principle.
In a magical combat situation, of course, none of these numbers are likely to apply -- standard Risus combat rules remain in force.
Target numbers may be adjusted up or down at the GM's option by factors including: bonuses for especially entertaining or inventive spells; penalties for repetitive or uninspired ones; and bonuses for extensive preparation, greatly increased casting time, assistants and so forth.
Success and Failure
If the spell roll either fails or succeeds by a reasonable margin, the GM simply tells the player "you've failed" or "you've succeeded," and describes the effects. If the roll succeeds by a significant amount, the GM may rule that the spell has some beneficial effect above and beyond its intent.
If the roll fails by a significant amount, the mage may suffer a backlash of some kind. Backlash effects can include: one or more dice of damage against the Cliche used to cast the spell, having the spell's intended effect backfire against the mage or his companions, loss of wizardly Tools of the Trade ("your staff cracks and splinters in your hand as you try to channel the arcane force"), or something else appropriately nasty. The more difficult the attempted spell and the worse the roll, the more severe and/or permanent the consequences are likely to be (see also the Unlimited Mana Calamity Table for many evil possibilities).
What constitutes a "significant amount" of success or failure in a given situation is always defined solely by the GM.
Creating Magic Items
Caution! Really Optional Unplaytested Material Ahead!
Magic items are a type of bonus-dice gear (see Risus, "Proper Tools" section) found in many fantasy campaign worlds. Enchantment of such items is generally time-consuming, exhausting and risky, and GMs may disallow it altogether if they want to keep magic item creation out of the hands of PCs. Other types of magic items besides bonus-dice gear may exist, of course, created by other means.
Any mage may attempt to create a magic item appropriate to his Cliches. A Cybermage can enchant a LeFay 3000 laptop that gives bonus dice to hacking and programming rolls, but wouldn't have any luck creating magical Combat Boots of Kicking Ass.
The difficulty of enchanting a given magic item is determined like any other spell. Enchantment is often Complex to Difficult magic or worse (at a minimum it certainly "hogs the scene" since it's an attempt to create permanent, portable bonus dice), though mages may pump their dice as normal if the pumping rules are in play. An enchantment spell may require rare, hazardous or special ingredients.
Creating magic items is personally costly to the mage. Creating an item costs one die of the Cliche used, permanently, per bonus die of the created item. In other words, a Cryptic Elvish Diviner(4) who wishes to create a one-die Deck of Farseeing Tarot Cards rolls against the difficulty determined by the GM. If successful, he expends one die and becomes a Cryptic Elvish Diviner(3). This loss in dice is permanent, though lost dice can be regained through character advancement as normal.
If an enchantment attempt fails, the character loses the appropriate number of dice temporarily (just until "healed" normally), any special ingredients are consumed in the attempt, and the mage cannot try to create a similar item again for a period of time specified by the GM.
Depending on the campaign world, mages may be able to team up to create magic items, dividing the expenditure among themselves.
Danger! Really Completely Experimental Unplaytested Material Ahead!
Modifications to the "personal-die-for-an-item-die" rule are possible if the GM and players want to get funky. Some suggestions:
Some classic and/or cool magic items just don't do things that can be defined in terms of dice. Often this is an item that automatically succeeds at a given task: a pen that writes messages only descendants of the true Dwarven King's bloodline can read, or a portal that teleports those who pass through it into the Sinister Court Wizard's tower (or someplace unpleasant, if the wizard doesn't want company).
Determining the power and dice cost of this kind of item is much more subjective, of course. The GM and player take hold of the magical principles of Dramatic Necessity and Laws of Nature and sit down to haggle. Use the spell difficulty chart as a rough guideline: An item that has little to no practical effect, won't throw the campaign world into chaos, or in general would make things more fun, will be in the low range. A magic shoe-polisher is probably a one-die item. Stormbringer or Sauron's Ring is more than likely off the scale for PCs to create, unless it's a very unusual campaign. Any magic item that will completely derail the campaign is of course impossible to enchant, though interesting things might happen if somebody tried.
The difficulty chart and much of the text under "Casting Spells" was adopted practically word-for-word from S. John Ross's excellent Elemental Magic article for GURPS; many thanks are due for his input. Aside from Risus itself, GURPS Magic, GURPS Grimoire and GURPS Wizards are excellent sources for spells and wizardly Cliches. All three books were instrumental in writing this article. GURPS Magic Items I is the compleat reference for the enchanter of magic items.