Project Paradigm: Making Magic

First, one big note: Mage: The Ascension 20th anniversary edition is Kickstarting now. If you’re a big a fan as I am, or if you’re new and curious why it’s so great, get thee to it.

In a game where everyone uses magic, magic becomes the cornerstone of design. This is one of the big areas that makes Mage different from Sorcerer from a Harry Potter RPG.

For Project Paradigm, because the magic (yes, I’m leaving out the k for now, purists) is so limitless, figuring out how it’s going to be used at the tabletop and how to hit all the notes it needs to informs much of the rest of the design. And, just thinking about the fun bits of RPG creation, magic systems are pretty high up there for me.

The Prime Factors

There’s lots of potential directions to go with this. You start with some core ideas of what a version of magic in Mage needs to have. For me those are:

  • There are different areas of expertise within magic, so different PCs will have varied abilities
  • The magic is combination-based: A produces a different effect than A+B or A+C (with some fuzzy areas of overlap)
  • Magic sometimes produces paradox, which can come in many forms
  • More dramatic effects are more difficult to pull off
  • Coincidental magic is different than a vulgar/blatant effect (and may further be affected by witnesses)

Now, the simplest way I can think of doing this in Fate would be as follows:

  1. Everyone has different spheres of magic, rated like skills, so you might have Forces +3 Prime +2 Correspondence +1 or something along those lines
  2. When you try and do something, you describe what you’re trying to do, roll the highest of the spheres involved
  3. The GM sets the difficulty based on how difficult the effect is, and also things like coincidental/vulgar
  4. If you succeed, you do the effect. If you succeed with style, an even better effect. If you tie, you can succeed with minor paradox. If you fail, you can succeed with major paradox or just fail
  5. In a mage’s duel where you’re weaving effects against each other, you’re rolling against both the difficulty set AND trying to one-up the other guy, and/or are using the contest rules

That’s as straightforward as I can think of, and probably works fine. However, I much prefer a model where paradox and succeeding/failing aren’t necessarily tied together. The decisions are also pretty flat.

Choose Your Paradox

However, a recent post by Ryan immediately made a connection for me. His post on Resources put forward an idea initially inspired by the good/fast/cheap (choose 2) split also has its roots in how just about everything in Apocalypse World works. When you boil it down, the important part is that it forces you to make hard decisions (or at least, decisions that are heavily informed by what’s going on in the game), which is one of my favorite elements of any good game.

On Twitter, I responded to Ryan’s post that it seemed like a good fit for what we were doing, and he agreed.

Steps 1+2 from the above are the same. Step 3 changes a bit: I think the difficulty can be more tied directly to what spheres are needed to have the effect, based on the descriptions similar to what the original Mage had for every sphere. Ignore coincidental/vulgar for now: it entirely is based on the effect you want. Then:

  • Succeed with style: You craft the effect perfectly
  • Succeed: Choose two- You craft the effect without backlash, You craft the effect without paradox buildup, You craft the effect without witnesses
  • Tie/Fail by 3: Choose one from the list above
  • Fail by 3 or more: The whole thing just doesn’t work, or heck, take all three if you really want it that bad

To unpack that:

  • Backlash: An immediate unintended effect. Maybe something else explodes, or you become overwhelmed. There’s a good chance that means stress of some kind.
  • Paradox Buildup: You hold in the paradox, but it’s going to take its toll. Like a consequence that hangs around that penalizes you until it is released somehow.
  • Witnesses: The effect was both obvious and somebody noticed, even if they’re not in the same room as you. Chances are, it was a sleeper, and that can cause some issues.

This model flips it the casting on its head a bit: you don’t know for sure if there are actually witnesses or not or until the effect goes off. This much more models a situation where coincidental is a result, not necessarily a goal, which is a world where sleepers regularly explain away magical effects as something mundane.

It might be totally different, but plays to enough of the goals and themes that I think I would enjoy it. Is it the only way to tackle it? No, and in fact, might be totally wrong. Playtesting would be the best way to determine it, as well as the details that are fuzzy right now (like how exactly backlash and paradox work). On the other hand, it appeals to me much more than my first idea, which makes it much more likely to hit the table.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Hmm.

    Your witness bit really intrigues me. My initial gut was “But wait, the other two are mechanical things. That one is weird.”

    If you rename “Backlash” to “Control,” as in “I have complete control of my spell” or “I don’t have complete control of my spell,” I think I like that better. It’s truly different from any language around Paradox.

    It also shows that Paradox is separate from witnesses, so the degree or risk of vulgarity seems to be a post-roll determination. Is that intended?

    (For those onlooking and curious about our process:

    • Oh man, that comment is ugly. I didn’t realize it auto-spaces between paragraphs.

    • It is a bit strange it’s non-mechanical, but it might be core enough to the idea of how magic works here that it might work.
      It’s definitely intentional that witnesses/coincidence happens post-roll. You just describe throwing a fireball, and then based on your roll and your post-roll choices you figure out what form it ended up taking. Whether that takes too many mental gymnastics to figure out is the part I’m REALLY unsure about without playtesting.

      • If you look at the fictional dynamic at the time, it might become the throw-away thing. Sometimes you see that in awkward AW hacks, where there’s a choice not taken because it’s obviously unable to be false or true. If we’re in the middle of nowhere, then witnesses are highly unlikely and it would break the story to say “yeah, there’s a witness.” Likewise, if you shoot a fireball in a crowded restaurant, it would break the story to say “yup, no witnesses” and otherwise too obvious a choice to have any tension or interest.

        Also, it’s the one of the three choices that is more GM-oriented. _I_ control. _I_ avoid paradox. _Other people_ see it. Jonathan Walton had a good post years about about how mixing that leads to problems in AW hacks.

      • Those examples are part of why it interests me, honestly: the fireball in the crowded restaurant ends up being a gas main break, or the middle of nowhere actually had cameras.

        There is a way to tie it mechanically too. Witnessed magic might increase the difficulty of ALL magic within the same scene. Exact rules in making the three different situations feel distinct both mechanically (as well as fictionally) will be part of the challenge.

      • I think if you change the “are there witnesses?” to “is it vulgar?”, that fits my palette better and says more about the effect than dictating the world.

      • Cool, I like those changes. Adjusted would be pick from: You keep control, you avoid paradox, the effect is not vulgar.


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