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The Details

Now that the core rules have been presented, this section dives into the details of game play. These details are intended to help the game work smoothly by clarifying areas of ambiguity. They are also here to help those participants who do best when the different aspects of game play are made explicit.

Those people who do better with fewer rules are encouraged skip straight to “Ch 3: Making Games Accessible to All Participants” and “Part 2: Player Characters.” Feel free to come back to this section later as specific topics come up.

This is a digital artwork of a yellow and green budgerigar sitting on a branch with a tiger head that is the same color as its yellow feathers.

This is a digital artwork of a yellow and green budgerigar sitting on a branch with a tiger head that is the same color as its yellow feathers.



What Is an Action?

This question is about determining how detailed game play is. For example, if two characters are talking, is the whole conversation one action for which a player character makes a single dice roll, or are there multiple smaller actions within the conversation? Determining how big an action is also determines what sorts of things players roll for. This has a big impact on how the plot moves forward. The larger actions are, the faster the plot moves and the less detail it has. The smaller actions are, the slower and more detailed things become.

Magic Goes Awry was designed for an intermediate level of detail where one action includes several smaller parts, but is still little enough that multiple actions happen in one scene. This definition is intentionally left flexible to keep game play exciting. This allows longer, repetitive actions, like climbing a rope or swimming across a river, to be shortened into one action. At the same time, short, dramatic actions, like casting a spell or dodging an attack, can be given more focus by making them into one action.



Impossible Actions

Magic Goes Awry is a flexible system that makes room for player creativity. However, in order for any game system to function well, certain things need to be impossible. Exactly what is possible and impossible comes down to the setting. For example, in some settings it would be impossible for a mortal to win a wrestling match with a god, whereas in other settings it would be possible. Regardless of what is considered impossible in the setting, sooner or later someone will attempt to do something impossible. Here are two common scenarios and some ideas for handling them.

Clearly Impossible Actions: Any time a player is about to attempt something that their character would know is impossible, the game master can simply inform the player of that fact and ask them how they want to continue. For example, “Based on your knowledge of the world, you know that what you are attempting here is impossible. Do you still want to go ahead and try it or do you want to make a change to your action?”

If the player does want to attempt that impossible thing, then one option is to just role-play out the character’s failure. Alternatively the player can roll to find out how badly the attempt goes. In this case a full success would be no harm being done and an outstanding success would be and unexpected benefit.

Actions They Don’t Know Are Impossible: It is common for characters to encounter situations they don’t fully understand. When they lack information they may inadvertently attempt something impossible. In these situations, it usually isn’t appropriate for the game master to inform them that they are attempting something impossible. Instead, I recommend that they roll for their action as normal, and any successes they get give them an alternate beneficial outcome, such as learning more about the situation they are in. For example, a character who rolls a full success when using diplomacy to ask an illusion for help, a task that is actually impossible, could instead learn that the illusion is just repeating random phrases and is not responding like a living entity.

In dealing with this situation, please remember that Magic Goes Awry is all about creativity and it is important to find ways of welcoming the creativity of the players and incorporating it into the story. The trick is finding a way to do this that takes what the player is doing and builds on it, while also maintain the integrity of the world and story.



Being Prepared

Characters are prepared when someone does something that isn’t required to accomplish a task, but that makes a successful outcome to that task more likely. For example, tying a rock onto the end of a rope is a preparation that makes it easier to throw that rope over the branch of a tree. Characters can do preparations for themselves or others.

Here is a list of the ways that characters can be prepared.

  • Simple Actions: Sometimes characters can make preparations that are easy and low risk. These preparations happen automatically without needing to roll for it. For example, a character could make a crude walking stick out of a tree branch to prepare themselves to walk over slippery rocks.
  • Risky or Difficult Actions: Some preparations come with a significant risk or difficulty. When this is the case, it is time to do a roll to find out how this preparation goes. If the result is a partial success, then the preparation will help, but there is a cost or side effect.
  • Items and Abilities: Certain items and abilities make characters prepared. Most of these have specific requirements and a limited number of uses per day. Within these requirements, players are free to use these items and abilities whenever they want.
  • Circumstantial Benefits: Some circumstances can make a character prepared to do something. Most often this will involve acting on information that has been uncovered through the plot or through the use of knowledge skills. However any special circumstances that significantly increase a character’s chance of success will make them prepared.

Note that any item that is a requirement for doing an action does not count as preparation for that action. For example, tinkering tools are required to pick locks, so using them does not give the character any special benefit when they are picking a lock.



Skill and Ability Flexibility

Magic Goes Awry is designed to be flexible, with there being multiple skills and abilities that can be used to accomplish each goal. For example, Fire Magic, Shapeshifting Magic, and Alchemy are three abilities that can all be used create a light source. This can be done by using Fire Magic to create a flame, Shapeshifting Magic to transform a character’s hand so that it is bioluminescent, or Alchemy to mix up a potion that glows. As this example illustrates, the skill or ability that is used to accomplish a goal shapes the properties of its outcome.

Because of this flexibility, there aren’t any specific skills or abilities that a group of characters need to have in order to be successful in their adventures. The goal is for players to have the freedom to create fun, quirky characters without the need to fit them into specific roles like the group’s healer, damage dealer, or skill money.

To assist player creativity, the descriptions of skills and abilities each contain a list of things that they can be used for. These lists are intended to be examples of how the skill or ability can be used, not the entirety of what they can do. Any use of a skill or ability that is in the same spirit as its description is welcome.



Injury System

Representing character injuries with a game mechanic can make them feel real and create meaningful consequences for failing dangerous actions. This also creates a greater sense of risk, which can be important for the enjoyment of some participants.

In this injury system, characters become injured when it makes sense in the story for them to become injured. Usually injury only happens as a consequence of failure, specifically a failure that happens when a character is doing something dangerous or when they are defending themselves from direct harm. Occasionally, with player consent, partial successes can involve a character being injured in the process of achieving something important.

The first time a character becomes injured it is a Moderate Injury. If they are injured again before they have a chance to heal, they now have a Serious Injury. A third injury means that they are Critically Injured, and a fourth makes them Unconscious.

Each stage of injury has a mechanical consequence.

  • Moderate Injury: The character takes a one die penalty to a set of skills. Which set of skills is affected depends on the nature of the injury. The six options are Knowledge Skills, Social Skills, Perception Skills, Combat Skills, Strength Skills, and Dexterity Skills.
  • Serious Injury: The character takes a one die penalty to all body skills, abilities, and defenses or all mind skills, abilities, and defenses.
  • Critical Injury: The character takes a one die penalty to all of their rolls.
  • Unconscious: The character is unconscious and unable to take actions until they receive medical treatment.

The Survival skill can be used to apply first aid to injured characters. When successful, first aid stabilizes injuries and reduces the penalties caused by those injuries. A full success reduces a character’s injury penalty by one stage. A partial success also reduces the character’s penalty, but it comes with a side effect, such as becoming sleepy, getting nauseated, or having hiccups. For example, a partial success at using first aid on a character with a Serious Injury means that their die penalty is reduced to that of a Moderate Injury, but in this case it comes with the side effect of their bandaged wound being distractingly itchy.

When it comes to healing an injury, non-magical healing is slow, reliable, and takes the usual amount of time. Getting medical treatment does shorten healing times and ensures that the healing process goes smoothly. In contrast, magical healing is rapid, but frequently comes with unpredictable side effects. In addition, if magical healing goes awry it has the potential to make the injury worse or spread it to other people. Even so, most communities have a healer who can do both mundane and magical healing. The cost of this healing and how it is accessed varies from community to community.



Character Death

Because there is no single system for character death that will meet each group’s needs, Magic Goes Awry doesn’t have a system for character death. Instead, it is suggested that each gaming group have a conversation about character death and what each person wants to experience. Some people enjoy a feeling of risk, while others enjoy knowing that none of the main characters will die unexpectedly. There is no right or wrong way to feel.

As you start this conversation, here are some options for your group to consider. Some of these are mutually exclusive, but others can be used together.

  • Little or no death in the game.
  • Enemies will sometimes die, but not the player characters or their allies.
  • Anyone but a player character can die at a dramatically appropriate moment in the game.
  • Players have control over their character’s life and death. They may choose to kill their character at a dramatically appropriate moment if they desire, but the game master won’t kill anyone’s characters.
  • Individual players can make secret agreements with the game master for their character to die at a pivotal dramatic moment (usually at the end of a story arc).
  • Based on the plot, the game master is free to kill any characters if it is a logical outcome of the circumstances, such as a character dying if they fall off a cliff.
  • To create a feeling of risk, instead of going unconscious with four injuries, characters die.




In Magic Goes Awry the use of magic is designed to be flexible and creative, but this openness can bring up questions and areas of ambiguity. This section provides additional structure and details that are designed to keep things balanced and help the story move forward.


Magical Connections

Mages, Bards, Clerics, and Druids all have a kind magical connection. During character creation the player chooses the exact form that their character’s magical connection takes. For example, this could be concentration, words, a symbol, or a specific type of performance. Each form of magical connection comes with specific requirements that need to be fulfilled in order for the character to be able to cast magic. Most of the time characters will be able to fulfill these requirements, however any time that a character isn’t able to, then they are unable to cast magic.

The purpose of these requirements is to create real-feeling weaknesses for magic that mimic the kind of limitations that naturally happen for abilities that are based on everyday activities. These requirements also create opportunities for the game master to design special challenges, like jail break scenarios, where the use character abilities is limited.


Magic Abilities

In order to cast magic, each character needs both a magical connection and training in at least one type of magic. Training in specific types of magic is acquired when the player selects abilities for their character. Any ability that has the word “Magic” in its name is a type of magic. If the player doesn’t choose to give their character training in a specific type of magic, then the character cannot cast magic, even if they have a magical connection.



The main thing characters will use magic for is casting spells. Spells are temporary magical effects that take one action to cast. Depending on the game’s narrative, casting a spell may take a few seconds or a few minutes, whatever makes sense in the context of the story.

Spells create small or moderately powerful magical effects. All of the magical effects listed in the description of each magic ability can be used as spells if applied to a small area or a small number of people. In contrast, any magical effect that is so big that failure would involve some kind of permanent harm is too powerful to be cast as a spell. Instead it needs to be cast as a ritual, which means that there is significantly more time and effort involved in casting the magic. The distinction between what is a spell and what is a ritual is left open for the game master and players to decide based on what makes sense for the story of their game.



Any powerful or permanent magical effects must be cast as rituals. Rituals take at least an hour to cast. They also require significant preparation and effort. The purpose of this is to make powerful magic more challenging, so that it is only used sparingly. Doing this also enhances the feeling of risk and accomplishment involved in casting magic. There are two main ways to incorporate rituals into game play: they can become a significant part of the plot or they can be handled in the background.

Incorporating a ritual into the plot means that the player characters spend time doing preparations for the ritual, such as researching, collecting rare components, finding the right location, recruiting participants, crafting implements, waiting until a specific day, and getting the ritual space ready. In addition, carrying out the ritual is a plot event with all of the player characters participating.

A good way to involve all of the characters in a ritual is to break the ritual up into stages, creating one stage for each player character. For example, a ritual where three player characters are working together to banish a malicious spirit could be broken up into three stages: catching the spirit, restraining it, and sending it to a location where it can’t do more harm. Each player character is responsible for carrying out one stage of the ritual using an applicable skill or ability. These don’t have to be magical skills or abilities, because the ritual itself supplies the magic, so the players are free to get creative. For example, catching the malicious spirit could be done by using Illusion Magic to trick it, using the Survival skill to make a trap for it, or using the Intimidation skill to goad it into coming to you.

The player responsible for each stage of the ritual rolls their dice to find out what happens. In multistage rituals failed rolls are serious, but they don’t end the ritual. Instead failures cause a negative effect, such as making the next stage of the ritual more difficult, causing a long-term consequence, doing harm to someone, destroying a valued item, or requiring the player characters to take drastic action to save the ritual. For example, failing to capture the malicious spirit could mean that the player characters need to sacrifice a magic item in order to strengthen the ritual’s magic enough to catch the spirit. Meanwhile, failing to restrain the spirit could mean that it is able to lash out and cause harm. Finally, failing to send the spirit to the intended destination could mean that it ends up going to a less ideal location which will have long-term consequences.

For those who want a multistage ritual that is even bigger, this system can be easily expanded. For example, more stages could be added to the ritual. Alternatively, the group of player characters could participate together in each stage of the ritual. It this situation, each character would roll their contribution individually and the total number of successes would be added up to determine how well each stage goes.

In contrast, rituals that are handled in the background are not focused on, and the various steps of preparation, such as gathering rare components, aren’t gone into. For these sorts of rituals, the main thing that needs to happen is that a meaningful cost needs to be established for the magic. For example, this cost could be money, magic items, a favor from a powerful person, or time they have to wait before they can do the ritual. Typically doing this sort of ritual would involve at least one dice roll, but there will be fewer dice rolls and less detail given than there would for a ritual that is more central to the plot.


Dice Rolls

Unless the character has an ability that says otherwise, all magic is rolled using the character’s mind number. Individual abilities will state whether or not the character is considered trained, but characters are almost always trained in their chosen types of magic. Note that casting magic with an ability is separate from using the Arcana skill. The Arcana skill represents the character’s knowledge about magic and their ability to understand magical phenomena; it does not grant anyone the capacity to use magic.


Magic Flexibility

Like all abilities, magic is intended to be flexible. The examples listed in the description of each type of magic are intended to spark creativity and communicate what that type of magic is all about. They do not define the entirety of the ability. Players are encouraged to use these examples as a starting point for their own creativity. In doing this, one thing to keep in mind is that characters can use each type of magic on themselves, their allies, their opponents, or any nearby people, creatures, objects, or locations.


Spell Scale

One of the core principles of Magic Goes Awry is that the bigger or more risky a character’s action is, the bigger the consequences for failure will be. A key reason for this principle is that it prevents magic from becoming so powerful that it overwhelms the plot or the other character abilities. This is also why large magical effects are cast as rituals rather than spells.

One way to think about this is that it takes more magical energy to create a spell that affects more than one person or that covers a wider area. This means that any failures that cause the magic to go awry will have more magical power in them and, as a result, will have bigger consequences.

In general, most magic is localized to a specific person or one small area. However, what is considered a small area varies a bit based on the context. For example, the area covered by a small cloud of fog made by Weather Magic would be considered a large area for most other types of magic. In addition, it is worth noting that certain types of magic, such as Communication Magic, are designed to create connections between people in different locations. In the end, it all comes down to is doing what makes sense for each type of magic so that it is useful, but isn’t so powerful that it dominates the game.


Spell Duration

Certain spells, like lightning bolts and healing magic, happen quickly and then are over. They may leave lasting harm or benefit, but the magic has ended. Other types of spells, like shapeshifting and summoning creatures, create ongoing magical effects. These effects only last as long as the spell does, and when the spells ends, the effect also ends.

The standard length of time for an ongoing spell is one scene. Partial successes may shorten this duration and outstanding successes may increase it. In addition, the length of an effect also depends on what serves the story. It can be helpful for smaller effects that are constantly needed, such as magical translation, to last longer so that game play isn’t interrupted by the characters repeatedly casting the same spell each time it wears off. At the same time, it helps to have more potent magical effects end sooner, so that they don’t overshadow the skills and abilities of other characters.

When a character is casting a spell that would normally last for one scene, they can put more magical power into the spell to give it a longer duration, but doing this makes the spell more powerful. This means that the consequences of a failure or partial success become larger. Spells that are lengthened in this way can last up to one day. Any effect that is intended to last longer should be cast as a ritual.


Permanent Magic

Magic can be made permanent by using rituals, but doing this is risky because the consequences of failures and partial successes also become permanent. This is why permanent magic is usually cast on objects, rather than people or locations.


Ending Spells

A character that gets at least one success when casting a spell can choose to end that spell at any time. Ending an ongoing spell takes the same amount of time as casting the spell did, but no roll is needed. All ongoing magical effects from the spell end at the same time.

Characters can also attempt to use their magic to stop an ongoing magical effect created by another person’s spell. Doing this is the same as casting any other spell. The player comes up with a plausible way to use their magic to accomplish their goal, such as putting out a magical fire with magical rain, and then rolls to find out how it goes.


Magic Gone Awry

When a roll to cast magic results in a failure (zero successes), the magic goes awry. Awry magic can have a wide variety of effects ranging from a distorted version of what was originally intended to a random effect using a completely different type of magic. For example, imagine a scenario where a group of player characters are on a dirt road with a group of zombies just starting to come out of the bushes in front of them. One player character attempts to use Water Magic to create a controlled blast of water that knocks the zombies back into the bushes. If that magic goes awry, it could cause an uncontrolled explosion of water that throws everyone in all directions, including throwing some zombies into the middle of the path or throwing the player characters off the path into the bushes. Alternatively, the awry magic could have a random effect like creating a slippery sheet of ice that covers the ground, causing a section of the path to suddenly be swallowed by shadow, or making grasping vines sprout out of the zombies’ backs.

Magic going awry is a particularly fun part of this game, but it can also put a lot of pressure on game masters to quickly come up with wild and unexpected magical effects. To make this easier I have created the “Making Things Go Awry” tool, which lists out possible outcomes for failed rolls. I’m currently working on a greatly expanded version of this tool that will have specific ideas for every skill and type of magic, as well as a table of random magical effects. In addition, magic can also go awry for nonplayer characters, so there is a “Variable Die Mechanic for Nonplayer Characters” to help game masters with this.


Awry Magic Can’t Be Undone

When magic goes awry, it can cause consequences that are difficult to deal with. It is normal for players to want to use their character’s magic to undo magic that has gone awry, but doing this prevents the story from moving forward because it creates a dynamic where the characters regularly stop to repeatedly cast spells until they get a result that they want.

To keep the plot moving forward, magic that has gone awry can’t be directly undone. Magic can still be used to creatively address the new challenges that have resulted from awry magic, but it isn’t possible to directly negate awry magic. For example, if a character’s failed attempt to use Water Magic has caused and area to become flooded, the character can’t just make the flood go away, but they can attempt to address this new challenge by using their Water Magic to give themselves exceptional swimming abilities.


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