Stories of Jack Vance have magicians with a few potent adventurer spells and long-term magical projects and ambitions. The world is dying and every spell is a treasure of the past. The adventures are quick, dangerous and fantastic.
There are two obvious roleplaying inspirations to get from here.
The first is the fantastic adventure angle; something also Dunsany does, though often with less magical main characters, and something that can also be seen in some fairy tales. From the roleplaying side this is what old D&D and relatives are aiming at. Tunnels and trolls, too.
The second is the magician’s dollhousing project, Mazirian’s garden or Turjan’s vats, something exemplified by Ars magica, as far as roleplaying games go.
How to combine these two?
Basic structure of play
Characters can be mages or something else. Each player can have at most one mage character. They are the driving force of the game. The world is fantastic and dangerous, so there should be a reason to adventuring. Typically it is the magus who provides this, but other motivations are certainly possible.
In addition to adventuring the other modes of play are magical workings, which are long term arcane projects that delegate the wizard to downtime and thus have the player play some other character in their stable, and as a special case and requirement for further workings, establishing a safe seclusium for the sorcerer to work in.
Adventuring uses some kind of typical structure and procedures for dungeoneering, hex crawling, urban stuff, etc.
Magical workings take months to years. They require the warlock to have suitable skills, equipment and materials (all fine sources for adventures and trade). Interruptions are not good for such workings so the mage wants to secure that none come.
The seclusium can be that of a single magus, as is traditional, but why not show the tradition is wrong and have several magi share one? All with their own privacy, interests, ever-expanding needs for space and so on; what could go wrong? Among the first adventures I expect to be securing a seclusium; by construction, by social maneuvring, by dungeoncrawling, by magic; who knows?
The anatomy of a character
The core is that of Tunnels and trolls. Characters have a bunch of attributes (probably different ones than T&T has; physique, instinct, will, charisma, lore, luck) rolled with 3d6, triples add and roll over (if you roll a triple, roll 3d6 again and add until you no longer roll triples). So roll those. Decide if the character is a wizard or not. If not, that is okay; maybe you roll someone fit for wizardry for the next adventure while the current wizards are in downtime.
For a wizard, roll a number of random spells. The number is equal to your level plus one more for every five points of lore. Randomize the formulas from all the lists of spells you can find wherever or ask the referee to do this. Note that you can prepare a number of spells based on your attributes, one per ten points in each relevant attribute (lore, will) plus level, and each spell only once. The precise effects of the spell are to be figured out either before play or in play, as some mechanical conversion and decisions are necessary. In any case, releasing a prepared spell is always successful, though some magic may offer possibilities to resist. Preparing new spells takes on the order of a day per spell. A spell needs to be recorded somewhere for you to study and prepare it; a book, stone tablets, tattoos, whispered to you by your snake familiar, in the stars, …
For any character, decide their background. I encourage a word or two, like courtier, magician’s apprentice, baroness, alchemist. If you want, you can write down some skills they have and what equipment and property they have, but these are voluntary at this step. Also decide how old the character is.
Skills are heavily inspired by Eero Tuovinen’s Coup de main in Greyhawk ruleset. Skills live on a percent scale, with 100 % meaning a mastered skill that gives access to further, more specialized, skills. The skill system is organic; there are no points spend or slots to fill, but rather we figure out the skills and their values based on the character’s background and how much life they have seen.
The skill rules is that sometimes simply having or not having a skill suffices to determine whether a task succeeds and if there doubt, we roll an attribute check with 2d6, doubles add and roll, plus attribute, against a difficulty level. If a skill would be relevant and the character has only partially mastered it (skill value between 1 % and 99 % inclusive), we roll d100 to check if the character manages to benefit of the skill in this particular situation.
- Trivial skills: walking, speaking your native language, eating. Note that a very young child or a wolf transformed into a man would not have these skills, just like a human turned into a swan would have difficulty flying, eating and drinking. Typically we expect every character to have mastered trivial skills.
- Intuitive skills: climbing, punching, handling domesticated animals, cooking. These skills are typically absorbed, to various degrees, during the past of most characters, though a sheltered child emperor might miss many of them. A character usually has mastered the intuitive skills relevant for them and has partial mastery of the others. Rare would be one who is completely missing any, but certainly such happens.
- Expert skills: martial arts, picking locks, sciences, reading, foreign languages, magical skills. People don’t know these unless someone explicitly teaches them or under very particular conditions. An experiences character could start with some mastered and most characters would start with some expert skills at some levels.
- Even more expert skills: there is a ladder to expert skills; no learning library use before you have reading mastered, no boatbuilding before carpentry, and so on.
The typical starting values for skills are below, and specialists (see a bit down) should also add their level.
- Trivial skills: 100 % unless the character is very young.
- Intuitive skills without much exposure: 20 plus age plus attribute.
- Intuitive skills with exposure: 50 plus age plus attribute.
- Intuitive skills important to the character: 70 plus age plus attribute
- Expert skills with exposure and a tiny bit or practice or instruction: attribute
- Expert skills with incidental practice: half age plus attribute
- Expert skills with dedicated practice: age plus attribute and double the sum.
- Expert skills the character has dedicated their life to: age plus attribute and triple the sum.
Characters also select a single feat or dramatic archetype. Being a mage is one such; they do not get another. The three traditional archetypes are
- Mage: casts spells, as above. (Others can learn spellcasting, but they don’t benefit from their level.)
- Fighter: fights effectively, as described below in the fighter rules.
- Specialist: learns skills more effectively, as described in the character advancement rules.
Some other archetypes might be available; just suggest one. Maybe some monsters are archetypes?
An archetype tells what kind of extraordinary potential a character has. It need not reflect their current skills, although that is the most common and straightforward way to go.
One more voluntary thing. You can roll d20. If you roll higher than your highest attribute, feel free to choose a particularly special background. Maybe start with some rare skill (third level martial art or other very specialized stuff), a mutation, or some special ability. But if you roll less than your lowest attribute, choose a particularly miserable or wretched background. You are a slave from abroad with no equipment and language skills! Brain damage has made you forget all but trivial skills and the single expert skill of your choice; everything else is gone. There is a prize of 1000 gold pieces on your head. Etc.
The basic combat mechanic is from Tunnels and trolls: roll a number of d6, add any adds you might have. Enemy does the same. The losing side takes the difference in totals as damage. Any sixes rolled allow for stunting, or by default spite damage that hurts the enemy irrespective of who wins or loses.
The number of dice you roll is determined by the martial art you are using. Martial arts are skills. If you do not master the art, you need to roll, and on failure you default to the trivial skill of ineffective flailing.
- Ineffective flailing is a trivial skill that gives zero dice in combat; it is a zeroth level martial art. However, you do get to roll a single die, and in case of six, you get the usual benefits of stunting or spite damage. One recommended stunt: improve (or start learning) the first level martial art you really should be using right now; get an instant +1 % to such a skill and roll d100 to see if you manage to activate it right now.
- First level martial arts are the likes of swinging a weapon, throwing, punching, kicking, aiming a crossbow, tackling and wrestling. They are intuitive skills and any martial character has likely mastered most of them. They give a single die in combat.
- Second level martial arts deserve to be called such: archery, legionnaire training and mounted combat. They are expert skills. They give two dice in combat when they apply. A martial character has likely mastered at least one.
- Higher level martial arts are fancy and specialized combat techniques.
Fighters can always use their level as a martial art, even if they do not have a proper art of that level. So a fourth level fighter can roll four dice in combat, even if they have no martial arts. However, if they do use a martial and the dice it gives, they get to add their level as combat adds.
In addition to the dice, character have combat adds. Every martially relevant attribute (physique, instinct, luck) affects them; values below 9 apply a penalty equal to attribute value minus nine, while values above twelve apply a bonus equal to attribute value minus twelve. These are all added together and added to the total result of your combat dice.
Adds can also be modified by unequal conditions and equipment. This is an advanced rule. A minor modifier is plus or minus two, a major one is plus or minus five, an overwhelming one is plus or minus ten. A minor modifier would be a slightly shorter weapon or worse armour, or having to draw a blade while the other is already coming on to you. A major one would be a weapon ineffective against the enemy armour or otherwise clearly inferior conditions or equipment; a circumstance that could turn an underdog into a winner. An overwhelming modifier requires heroic effort to surpass; fighting unarmed and naked against an enemy in good armour and with a good weapon, or being stuck up to your waist in quicksand.
If using D&D enemies, assume they have combat dice equal to their hit dice or level, unless their martial arts skill level suggests otherwise.
Hit points equal your level in d6. Rerolled when you take a breather, but add a cumulative penalty die each time. The penalties go away when you have time to relax properly; typically between adventures. Hit points are your shield against taking damage. If they are not enough to absorb all the damage, the rest is taken to the attributes. This is a permanent loss and you might also be dying and in shock etc.
Damage is typically divided evenly among those who are clearly risking it, but stunting via spite damage allows assigning it in a more deadly manner.
Adventuring gives dramatic and quick changes. Experience is earned by adventuring based on pre-agreed goals and roughly scoped rewards for them. 2000 experience gives second level and this is doubled for every level thereafter. A poor character might get an experience point per gold piece. A wizard might get 1000 experience per major spell. Getting to know a dangerous location could be 100 experience (per dungeon level or equivalent). Experience is divided among the characters who participated in the successful adventure.
Attributes can increase by adventuring. After an adventurous session, choose one attribute. Roll 3d6 TARO and if you exceed your current attribute, increase it by one. If you do not, try another attribute until you do. Alternatively, you could try increasing a skill that played a major role in the adventure: roll d100, and if you exceed the skill rating, that is the new skill rating, and if you roll below, the skill increases by 1 anyway. Specialists get to add their level to both these tests.
All skills that were used (whether rolled or not) during a session increase by 1 %. A specialist gets their level in additional points to spread among these.
More dramatic change happens during downtime. Attributes and skills might change, but this depends on how the character spends their downtime.
The attributes the character is actively using might increase and concerned practice increases the odds further. The attributes the character is completely neglecting might decrease. The attributes that are in use, but not challenged, will remain as is. Determine these by 3d6 with TARO; if something might increase, a roll over it means it does increase (and matching it leads to increase if it was concerned practice); and likewise those under the threat of decrease do decrease if the roll is below the attribute value.
Young characters that are still growing up treat everything as one step higher activity. Old characters treat everything as one step lower activity.
As another issue, luck is very hard to change like this, while physique quite fast (maybe a month is enough for a roll). Lore takes a long time (maybe a year).
Practice also increases skills. The increases are as follows: If the character has been exposed to the skill, improve it by 1 %. If the character has been actively using the skill for an extended time, and has had varied learning possibilities corresponding to their current skill level, improve it by relevant attribute. Alternatively, consider the following table in case it gives better results. Add specialist level to the table values, but not the other increases.
- Very basics: attribute
- Some practice: ten plus attribute
- Significant practice: forty plus attribute
- Lots of varied practice: seventy plus attribute
- You should have learned it by now: ninety plus attribute
- Every year thereafter: +1 %
Learning a new spell takes about a month if you have a teacher and several months without one but with a written copy of the spell. Researching a new version of a spell, growing a magical garden, building an underwater palace and other such projects take years.
A fantastic place. There are some safe regions, typically, though maybe secretly, the seclusiums or works of magicians, but venturing outside these is risky. There are not many mages and every spell is a unique one. Most mages hold their secrets tight, but might be willing to trade. Blackmailing and imprisoning them is, of course, a popular past-time among more cunning and ruthless mages.
There are fantastic creatures and places all over. Less of D&D race war with goblin tribes in them hills, more a tribe of purple toad-like creatures with orange feet that live here, a horrible were-platypus that they worship, but that might offer you its moist wisdom in exchange for sacrifices and further promises of such.
Starting characters make a lore check, lore plus 2d6 DARO, and on twenty or more they know a secret, plus one secret per additional five points. These secrets are adventure hooks: sources of spells, magical lore, potential seclusiums, who is really ruling over Barnazan, where to find the fountain of immortality, etc. The player can decide what the secret is and the referee should have a suitable adventure prepared reasonably quickly.
I suppose most mages should trivialize the issues of economy fairly quickly, but in the beginning, before they have a functional seclusium and useful spells, this is likely an issue. Better have trustworthy and useful companions while you develop your core sanctum and way of life. Or maybe ally, work together and trade spells with another warlock.