Dungeon Fantasy Designer’s Notes 4: “It’s Magic!”

Steve Jackson Games
4 min readSep 21, 2016

By Sean Punch

Work-In-Progress cover for Spells

Fantasy needs magic spells, and the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game delivers! Spells — the magical grimoire — offers more than 400 of them.

Yet Spells opens not with spells but by explaining how magic works. At a basic level, this is identical for all magic-wielders. Spells are skills, and casters can acquire as many as their character points let them afford — no waiting to “level up,” no rolling to learn the spell. Spellcasting involves concentrating, spending energy (more about that later!), and making a skill roll. Someone who does these things can keep slinging magic for as long as desired; spells aren’t per battle, per day, forgotten when cast, or anything like that.

Still, there are important distinctions between caster types. Clerics mostly cast “buffs” and healing, druids wield magic that deals with nature (animals, plants, weather, etc.), wizards can do almost everything else, and bards use a subset of wizardly spells to affect minds, learn lore, and make noise. Clerics need sanctity, which flows from their god; druids call upon capital-N Nature, and have difficulty in polluted or unnatural places; and bards and wizards require the mysterious force of mana. There are other quirks, too, such as bards singing to work magic.

For longtime GURPS players, the rules for learning and using magic haven’t changed much. Distinctions between caster types — while game-mechanically significant — mostly swap some labels. Still, there have been changes.

Perhaps the biggest differences concern spellcasting energy. Casters can still expend personal stamina or life force (Fatigue Points or Hit Points), but also a third resource called “Energy Reserve”; gamers familiar with GURPS Dungeon Fantasy or GURPS Powers will recognize this. In the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game, however, members of magic-using professions can start with Energy Reserve — it isn’t an advanced power-up or rare super-ability.

Moreover, where wealthy GURPS casters carry backpacks full of self-replenishing energy stores called “Powerstones,” Dungeon Fantasy ones don’t. They have “power items” instead. As Adventurers explains, these reserves must be recharged in town once emptied — another resource in a genre big on resource management. But all casters start with one for free.

All this means casters can cast more spells before dipping into precious Hit Points or power items, because they have Fatigue Points and can acquire an Energy Reserve, and these regenerate concurrently. They can also cast bigger spells, as they can draw on all these assets at once. Talented casters can surpass normal limits on spell size (for those in the know, Magery and Effect is standard in Spells). Expect some epic magic!

The remaining differences between the GURPS and Dungeon Fantasy magic rules are subtler. Most are formalizations of things GURPS assumes the GM will decide for a particular setting. Others are welcome clarifications; e.g., a canonical definition of “jet spells.”

The changes to the spell list aren’t subtle at all. Entire categories of magic are absent: Enchantment spells (for creating magic items), because hack ’n’ slash heroes find magic items rather than make them, and Technological spells, as they don’t fit quasi-medieval fantasy. Others are significantly curtailed: Gate spells no longer permit game-breaking time travel or teleportation, and Illusion and Creation spells have become Illusion spells, because the ability to conjure complex objects and beings from thin air is pretty game-breaking, too. Gamers new to Dungeon Fantasy need only know that exploiting magic for get-rich-quick schemes and cheesy victories isn’t easy.

That’s a guiding principle in Spells. GURPS Magic describes over 800 spells, but just half made the cut. Those that aren’t here are typically too complex or too open to rules-lawyering for quick, argument-free gaming. The spells that are here have been carefully reworded to avoid abuse and confusion. Rendering resource management or nonmagical professions redundant — well, never say never, but that isn’t what magic does best.

Those cuts and changes mean wizardly prerequisites — spells bards and wizards need to learn more advanced spells — have been rethought. For old GURPS hands: Wizardly casters will never require spells reserved for clerics or druids, or that aren’t included in the game. For Dungeon Fantasy newcomers: Each profession has a self-contained, consistent set of spells.

Don’t believe for a minute that Spells spends all its time limiting casters! There’s plenty of magic for annihilating foes. There are tons of spells for defense, healing, and battling supernatural menaces. Magic-wielders can manipulate matter, energy, minds, and bodies, unearth secrets, and much more. Casters might not get “I win!” buttons, but they won’t suffer from the dreaded “I cast my spell, now I’m useless” syndrome.