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From the Archive: Spell Casting by the Book

Note: This article was originally co-authored by Stu Venable and Bill Roper in 1998 . It appeared on the old, and previous web pages, such as the now defunct The article deals with alternate rules for the default GURPS 3rd Edition magic system, though it may have applicability in other systems.

Doing it By the Book

An Optional System for Casting Spells from Spell Books.

By Stu Venable and Bill Roper

The uselessness of magical tomes in GURPS has always been a sore point for players with a preference for mages. With 200 hours of study needed to gain one point in a new spell, learning magic while adventuring can present some serious logistical problems. Here we present optional rules for GMs who want to give mages more flexibility.

Game Effects

This material could drastically alter the balance of a campaign. GMs are cautioned to give extra consideration to which spell books are available to players. These rules will make magical volumes even more valuable than they currently are. It is possible that even the most lowly hedge wizard could stumble upon a book and cast some pretty devastating spells. Therefore, a mage will be more likely to keep his spell book under tight wraps.

Spell Books

Spell books can come in all shapes and sizes. Apprentice mages may have the few spells they have learned jotted down on some pieces of parchment in a leather folio. An archmage may have a library of huge volumes bound in leather, each containing several spells. Most books, however contain but two or three spells, with very powerful spells usually having an entire volume to themselves.

Most mages (out of either habit or paranoia) will keep one or more spell books with all the spells they know and any they are working on. Some mages may take these books wherever they go, but certain mages (e.g. necromancers, very powerful archmages) will probably keep their books in a safe, secret place with several magical and mundane safeguards.

Spell Casting Process

For a mage to cast an unknown spell directly from a book, he must (of course) be literate. He must also be in conditions that make reading relative easy. Good lighting, and a quiet atmosphere are helpful. The GM may assess penalties for excessive noise or bad lighting as he sees fit. For each spell prerequisite the mage doesn’t know, he receives a -1 penalty. If the mage knows all of the prerequisites for the spell he is reading, then he receives no prerequisite penalties.

Example: Thog the Mighty is attempting to cast the Fireball spell. His companions are engaged in combat in a well-lit hallway. Thog receives no penalty for poor lighting, but he does receive a penalty for the fight, -1. Thog is not a fire mage. In fact, he doesn’t even know Ignite Fire. The prerequisites for Fireball are Magery (which Thog has), Create Fire, and Shape Fire. He has neither of those spells, so that’s -2. Create Fire and Shape Fire both have the same prerequisite: Ignite Fire, so that’s an additional -1. Ignite Fire has no prerequisites, so Thog’s prerequisite penalty is -3.

When a mage is ready to cast a spell from a book, add the mage’s IQ to his Magery. From this subtract any prerequisite penalties, penalties for lighting and distractions, AND an additional -6 (the usual default for mental hard skills) for not knowing the spell. The total is the mage’s “default” for casting the spell from a book.

Spell Casting from a book takes four times as long as the spell’s listed casting time.

Example: Thog begins reading from his book, and Fireball takes 1 second to cast. Four seconds later, he is ready to toss his fireball. Thog has an IQ of 14 and Magery 3 for a total of 17. His penalties are: -6 (for not knowing the spell), -3 (for prerequisites), and -1 (for the fight going on). This equals -10, which gives Thog an effective “default” skill of 7.

There is also an additional risk to casting by the book: all spell roles missed by five or more result in a critical failure. Magic is a dangerous thing, and it’s doubly dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Example: Thog’s player rolls the dice and winces as they give him a “12.” Oops.

Additional Optional Rules

A skill bonus of +1 can be obtained by doubling the reading time for the spell. Making casting time eight times listed.

For the GM who wishes to encourage casting new spells from a book, he may assess a bonus of +1 for every spell the casting mage knows that is closely related (GMs discretion) to the unlearned spell. This can include (and will rarely consist of anything but) prerequisite spells.

Copyright 1998 by Stu Venable and Bill Roper

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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