Sunday, March 1, 2009

Verb + Noun magic systems

I've been intrigued with Verb + Noun magic systems. The Elements of Magic (D20 supplement), Ars Magica, and Legendary Lives systems are all good examples of this. In these systems, you take a verb ("Summon," "know," "create," etc) and a verb ("Fire," "Water," "Illusion," etc) and add them together to get a unique effect. I like this idea because it creates a potentially large number of effects with two relatively small lists. This avoids the need for a lengthy spell list and allows creation of themed casters quite easily. I think you could create a nice little layered system as thus:

Verbs ("Power Words) +
Nouns/Disciplines +
Power Sources

As I also like historical flavor, say you run with the seven Artes Magicae as your disciplines:
  • Earth
  • Fire
  • Air
  • Water
  • Black Magic (necromancy); let's call it the magic related to Demons and Death
  • Scapulimancy -- Traditionally divination from animal bones, and a peasant's art (in contrast with Necromancy); let's call it "Motion/Passion/Soul" or "Animal" magic
  • Chriomancy -- Traditionally palm reading; because it was closely related to psychology, healing, divination, etc, it could broadly be seen as "Spirit" or "Human" magic
You could also trim it down to the big 4 + Aether ("sprit"). Or you could use the Chinese classical elements, which have the advantage of destructive and creative cycles (as opposed to the dualism of the western elements).

Power Sources are pretty easy too. There are no end of medieval power sources for magic:
  • Fey
  • Divine
  • Demons
  • Grimoires
  • Alchemy
The biggest trick is coming up with the Verbs. In this case, let's call them Power Words. I'd like to use the stages of alchemy or something like that, but there isn't a nicely set of 3-9 words already out there. I was tempted to go with the alchemical idea of Sulfur (combustion), Mercury (duality), and Salt (stability) but I think its too vague.

Just because I find them interesting, though, here's the alchemical agents:

Paracelsus believed in the Greek concept of the four elements, but he also introduced the idea that, on another level, the cosmos was fashioned from three spiritual substances: the tria prima of Mercury, Sulfur and Salt. These substances were not the simple substances we recognize today, but were rather broad principles that gave every object both its inner essence and outward form. Mercury represented the trans formative agent (fusibility and volatility); Sulfur represented the binding agent between substance and transformation (flammability); and Salt represented the solidifying/substantiating agent (fixity and incombustibility). For example, When a piece of wood is burnt, the products reflect its constitution: Smoke reflects Mercury, flame reflects Sulfur, and Ash reflects Salt.[citation needed]

The tria prima also defined the human identity. Sulfur embodied the soul, (the emotions and desires); Salt represented the body; Mercury epitomized the spirit (imagination, moral judgment, and the higher mental faculties). By understanding the chemical nature of the tria prima, a physician could discover the means of curing disease.

So that leaves us with more "traditional" gaming schools of magic.
  • Summon (as in to call or conjure a creature)
  • Divine (as in to know or understand or foresee)
  • Destroy (traditional direct damage)
  • Create (making something new or a ward against an opposing force)
  • Move (some way of enhancing movement, as to solve problems with)
  • Beguile (as in illusions and other mental enchantments)
  • Curse (from latin, "to pin down," or to deliver them to the underworld)
  • Healing, Ritual, and Astrology (Pliny's three categories)
Here's the Ars Magica Verbs:
  • Creo is the technique that lets the Magus create from nothingness, or make something a more "perfect" examplar of its kind; this includes healing as healed bodies are "more perfect" than wounded bodies.
  • Intellego lets the Magus perceive or understand.
  • Muto lets the Magus change the basic characteristics of something, giving something capabilities not naturally associated with its kind.
  • Perdo lets the Magus destroy, deteriorate, make something age and other similar effects - essentially, making something a worse example of its kind.
  • Rego lets the Magus control or manipulate something without affecting its basic characteristics.
Just for good measure, the Great Chain of Being realms:
  • Existence (Rocks)
  • Life (Plants)
  • Appetites/Passions/Motion/Soul (Animals)
  • Spirit (Man)
The Mage Verbs
  • 1 dot (Initiate) know, manipulate, sense
  • 2 dot (Apprentice) control, conceal, protect
  • 3 dot (Disciple) Alter, Injure, Fortify
  • 4 dot (Adept) Transform, Significantly Injure (because lethal sometimes isn't significant enough)
  • 5 dot (Master) Create, Destroy
And here's the Fudge 4x5 system:

The D20 Elements of Magic
• Abjure [Alignment], [Creature], or [Element].
This spell list can be reversed to Hex [Alignment],
[Creature], or [Element]. Stoneskin or protection from
• Charm [Creature]. Sleep or charm person.
• Compel [Creature]. Dominate or suggestion.
• Create [Element]. Acid fog or wall of force.
• Evoke [Alignment] or [Element]. Harm or fireball.
• Heal [Alignment] or [Element]. Mending or cure light
• Illusion [Element]. Invisibility or ghost sound.
• Infuse [Alignment] or [Element]. This spell list can
be reversed to Drain [Alignment] or [Element].
Haste, bull’s strength, or hallow.
• Move [Element]. Fly or teleport.
• Summon [Creature]. Planar ally or summon swarm.
• Transform [Creature] or [Element]. Polymorph or
stone to flesh.

The Cardinal Elements: Air, Death, Earth, Fire, Life,
and Water. These are the primary elements on the
equator and the axis of the sphere of elements.
• The Paraelements: Lava, Lightning, Mist, and Ooze.
These elements each are derived by combining two
cardinal elements from the equator.
• The Negative Elements: Acid, Metal, Shadow, and
Void. These elements are the combination of Death
and one of the equatorial elements.
• The Positive Elements: Crystal, Ice, Light, and
Sound. These elements are the combination of Life
and one of the equatorial elements.
• The Unifying Elements: Force, Nature, Space, and
Time. Nature is within the sphere of elements and is
a balanced mixture of all the elements. Space, force,
and time are all outside the sphere and represent the
normally intangible concepts of space, forces, and


I just thought about using Verb/Noun systems in general for resolution. For example, take a physical combat:

Strike Orc with Sword.
We have a verb (strike), a direct object (orc), and the means (the sword). Certain feats expand your grammatical options. For example, if you have power attack, you can add the modifying words "really hard." So you'd get, Strike Orc With Sword Really Hard. In 3E you could take feats to open up more verb options too; say, with Improved Trip (Trip Orc with Polearm...).


After a bit of quick thought, I think its necessary to give all mages pretty equal access to all the Verbs. If you just have a mage who knows Divination, you're probably screwed in a firefight. Likewise if your caster just knows how to make stuff blow up, not that helpful for problem solving.

Note that, say, AD&D fighters all have access to both verbs (pretty much "Strike" and "Parry"). What you can limit are the Nouns (for a fighter, the weapons they have proficiency with). So it is more important to define the bounds of each noun/discipine than it is to define what you can do with it.

For example, in 3E, you could not drop the school of Divination (ensures all mages can divine -- also, probably because it was perceived as being a weak school!). However, you could drop others in favor of becoming a specialist. This led to some hyperspecialized wizards ("Problem solving? Psshaw, I just blow stuff up!"). Granting some degree of proficiency in all of the verbs (schools) of magic gets around these issues.

No comments: