Sleepless Nights: Magic House Rules (1 of 2)

So, Gurps has a lot of magic systems of varying degrees of independence from one another. For Sleepless Nights, though, I wanted to try something I never have in 20 years playing Gurps: the standard magic system. I’ve used Powers-based magic, the 3e Spirits system, 3e Psionics rebranded as magic, and a scratch-built homebrew system – but never the rules you find in the Magic chapter of the Basic Set. In Sleepless Nights, magic is not a central focus, but I wanted to include it anyway. And why not take this opportunity to use the standard system? After all, I bought the first printing of 4e Gurps Magic, with all its typos and head-scratching legacy code, and it’s been sitting on a shelf since. Time I got some use out of it.

Now, rules tinkerer that I am, I of course could not leave it well enough alone. It’s not particularly suitable for a historical secret magic campaign, so I knew I needed to spruce it up a little. I went back to Cabal, probably my favorite setting book ever, to have a look at how Ken Hite transformed the fireballs-and-healing potions system into something so evocative and close to what I wanted. Luckily, most of that work has already been transferred over to 4e in Thaumatology, so I used that book, both its Cabal-derived aspects and some of its other wonderful contents, to cobble together this particular spin on magic.

In this, the first of two posts, I’ll go through some minor adjustments to the fundamentals, and then dig into the role of Ritual Magic – there are no Paths in this game, but Ritual Magic is a huge part of how wizardry works.


1                  Introduction

Sleepless Nights utilizes the default Gurps Magic subsystem, with some additional house rules. Some of these house rules significantly affect how wizard characters are designed and how they function in play, but the underlying core is unaltered. Other types of magic with very different rules may or may not exist in the setting, but player characters are at least initially restricted to this system and this specific type of magic.

The magic in question is based on the understanding and manipulation of a force called mana, which is another aspect of the dark power that animates vampires. To cast a spell, a wizard expends his or her own energy, in the form of Fatigue Points (or Hit Points), and uses mana firstly to direct this energy to the spell’s target and then to bring about a supernatural effect. This requires both an inborn talent, Magery, and study of each specific spell separately. Mana is weak during the daytime and strong at night, so spellcasting is primarily a nocturnal activity.

To aid themselves in spellcasting, wizards use three other skills that are applicable to all spells: Ritual Magic, Symbol Drawing, and Thaumatology. With Ritual Magic, a wizard can draw energy from sacrifices and cast spells over great distances and increased power with the aid of the magical Laws of Sympathy. Symbol Drawing improves both Ritual Magic and spellcasting rolls by focusing the wizard’s rituals and energy in intricate visual representations of mana and the spell in qustion. Thaumatology enables tapping into great Decanic energies and adds great versatility to otherwise formulaic spells, but requires deep understanding of each individual spell so altered.

2                  Spellcasting

The full spell list of Gurps Magic is potentially available to player characters, but any given magical tradition will include knowledge of only a small fraction of these spells. In order to learn a spell, a wizard must first possess all its prerequisites, and then either receive instruction from a wizard who knows it, or study it from a grimoire. In all respects not specifically addressed here, the standard rules covered in Magic and the Basic Set apply.

2.1              Character Point Investment

Skill level in a spell affects energy cost, casting time, and the gestures and invocations required as per Magic, pp. 8-9. In addition, the number of character points in a spell determines how a spell can be cast (ceremonially or normally), and which skills can be used to assist it:

  • 1 point: A wizard with a single point in a spell can only cast it ceremonially; see Magic, p. 12. He or she may use Ritual Magic, a magic circle, and decanic bonuses and sigils to assist spellcasting, but cannot make use of spell-specific Symbol Drawing or spell enhancements.
  • 2 points: A second point permits the wizard to cast a spell normally, as opposed to ceremonially.
  • 4 points: A wizard who has invested 4 or more points in a spell has achieved sufficient mastery of it that it can be enhanced using Thaumatology or assisted by a specific application of Symbol Drawing.

2.2              Mana Level

Mana level (Magic, p. 6) varies from no mana to very high mana, but this variation is typically temporal rather than spatial. Instead of low-mana and high-mana zones, there are low-mana and high-mana times.

Magic is nocturnal by nature, and daytime from sunrise to sunset is considered low mana. Nighttime, conversely, is normal mana, except for midnight: for one hour, from 30 minutes before solar midnight to 30 minutes after, high-mana conditions apply and nonmages can cast spells.

In addition to the standard mana level effects, mages get an additional benefit in high or very high mana: their Magery level is temporarily doubled, and Magery 0 is treated as Magery 1. Effectively, mages get a bonus of +1 or their (permanent) Magery, whichever is higher, to all spells and Magery-related skills, and enjoy all the other benefits of higher Magery.

Local variations in mana are possible, but rare: in some places, mana level is always one grade lower than is typical, and in others, one grade higher.

2.3              Changes and clarifications to Individual Spells

The following amendments apply to specific spells; page references are for Magic. This list is to be expanded as needed.

  • Control Zombie, Turn Zombie, and Summon Zombie (pp. 152-153): These spells work on all corporeal undead. The subject can also use Will to resist, at -2 for those created with the Zombie spell.
  • Zombie (p. 151) and Mass Zombie (p. 153): Duration is one night; the zombie becomes inanimate again at daybreak. Maintenance cost is 2 for Zombie, half of casting cost for Mass Zombie.

3                  Spell-Supporting Skills

Ritual Magic, Symbol Drawing, and Thaumatology are skills that wizards use in conjunction with actual spells. All magical traditions teach either Ritual Magic or Thaumatology; most ritualistic traditions and some thaumatological ones also teach Symbol Drawing. An individual wizard can combine Ritual Magic and Thaumatology, if he or she has learned both, but this requires a 1-point Unusual Background.

3.1              Ritual Magic

Spellcasting includes a purely mental component, as well as rituals, words and gestures which serve to focus the mind in the correct manner. These are specific to each spell, but with the Ritual Magic skill, longer, more potent rituals can be extrapolated. There are two other uses for the skill: treating a distant target as close by or immediately present by applying the Laws of Sympathy, and drawing additional energy from blood sacrifice to power spells. Magery gives +1/level to Ritual Magic, just like it does to spells and Thaumatology.

Ritual Magic is not associated with Paths or Path skills, nor are such skills available.

3.1.1         Solitary Ceremonial Casting

To make use of Ritual Magic, a wizard must cast his or her spells using Ceremonial Magic (p. B238). However, a ritual magician can waive the requirement of assistants with a successful Ritual Magic roll. One roll is sufficient for any number of spells, as long as the wizard can keep concentrating on magic in between castings. If the wizard utilizes one of the options below, he or she can skip this initial roll.

3.1.2         Extended Rituals

Extending a spell’s rituals requires a Ritual Magic roll at a penalty. If the Ritual Magic roll fails, the spell fails automatically; if it succeeds, the magician gets a bonus of the same absolute value to the casting roll of the spell (-2 to Ritual Magic gives +2 to the casting roll, for example). The size of the penalty and bonus depends on the extra time spent:

  • -1 to Ritual Magic/+1 to casting for 1 minute extra
  • -2/+2 for 5 minutes
  • -3/+3 for 20 minutes
  • -4/+4 for 1 hour
  • -5/+5 for 3 hours
  • -6/+6 for 8 hours
  • -7/+7 for 16 hours
  • Extending rituals longer than 16 hours would require a special technique, Multi-Day Rituals. This is a Hard technique that defaults to Ritual Magic -10 and can be raised to Ritual Magic -8. The magician must spend 16 hours daily on casting and roll Multi-Day Rituals at the end of each day. He or she accumulates an extra +1 each day if successful, over the +7 for the first day. On any success, the caster can finish the day with the actual casting roll; on any failure, the whole effort is wasted.

3.1.3         Laws of Sympathy

Casting a spell (other than a long-distance Information spell) on an absent subject incurs two penalties:

  • -5 for not being able to see or touch the subject
  • -1 per yard of distance

If the magician uses any kind of sympathetic link to the subject (Thaumatology, p. 243), he or she replaces the distance penalty with the Long-Distance Modifier (p. B241); in addition, sympathy bonuses can counteract both the long-distance penalty and the -5 for casting without seeing or touching. Sympathy bonuses cannot exceed the sum of this -5 penalty (where it applies) and the long-distance penalty.

To make use of a sympathetic link, the magician must succeed on a Ritual Magic roll before the casting roll, and incorporate the link into the casting rituals. See Thaumatology, pp. 243-245 for sympathy bonuses.

Example: Casting a regular spell on a subject from 2000 yards away normally incurs a total penalty of -2005 (-5 for the inability to see or touch, and -1 per yard); with a photograph of the subject (+2) and his or her private pet name (+2), the magician can reduce this penalty to -4: -5 for no seeing or touching, -3 for a distance up to 3 miles, and +4 in sympathy bonuses.

3.1.4         Blood Sacrifice

Life force, embodied in blood, can be used to power spells. The magician can use his or her own blood, or that of a sacrificial victim (human or animal). Shedding the blood is part of the casting rituals (typically extended), and cannot be done beforehand.

3.1.4.1        Self-Sacrifice

This is different from Burning HP (p. 237): the magician must shed the blood physically. This requires a roll against First Aid+2, Physiology+2, or Surgery+4 to cause the desired amount of bleeding; on a failure, the wizard takes an extra amount of injury equal to the margin of failure.

3.1.4.2        Sacrificial Victims

Each HP of injury caused to an animal or human victim as a deliberate part of the casting rituals gives one energy point. If the magician kills the victim (whether gradually or with one blow), make HT rolls at each negative multiple of HP down to -5 × HP, as for any other source of injury. This determine how many energy points the victim provides before expiring: for example, if the victim succeeds on the roll at -1 × HP, but fails by 3 or more at -2 × HP, it gives up a total amount of energy equal to 3 × HP, assuming it was uninjured to begin with.

An unwilling sacrifice (whether conscious or not) gets to resist having its energy exploited with a Will roll. Add the victim’s Magic Resistance, Resistant (Nocturnal), and the higher of Magery or any supernatural power talent as a bonus to the roll. Animals and other nonsapient victims get a penalty: -4 or their Size Modifier, whichever is worse. If the victim’s roll succeeds, the magician’s Ritual Magic roll suffers a penalty equal to the victim’s margin of success.

3.1.5         The Ritual Magic Roll

Extended rituals, sympathy, and sacrifices all require a Ritual Magic roll before the casting roll. If the magician is using two or all three methods, just roll once and add up the penalties.


Ritual Magic has a great ring to it, but without Paths, it’s a skill in search of an application. Drawing power from blood, low mana in daytime, casting spells with long, involved rituals, bypassing distance with the Laws of Sympathy: these adjustments shift the focus from dungeon-delving to occult shenanigans.

The other adjustment, limiting the wizard by the number of points invested in a spell, is exactly what it looks like: a way to make players cough up more than one point per spell. Compared with Powers, spells are very cheap. My intention here is to narrow that difference down a little bit.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at a bunch of other skills that can be used to help spellcasting, primarily Symbol Drawing and Thaumatology, two other skills that deserve, like Ritual Magic, more love than they get in the Basic Set.

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2 thoughts on “Sleepless Nights: Magic House Rules (1 of 2)

  1. The character pt investment rules, requiring more than a single point in the spell before it can be cast non-ceremonially, etc., are such a great idea. I might use something like your idea in a megadungeon setting I’m working on.

    Liked by 1 person

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