Cheating Reality: Representing and Using Magic

Using Magic

Renaissance's concept of magic is somewhat open-ended and powerful — although it also has the downside that some parts of it require GM mediation.

In general, characters in Renaissance will represent their magical abilities with either powers, classes, or magical items; these have the advantage of having concise, clear rules that the playres and the GM agree on beforehand.

It's also possible for mages, psions, and priests to draw on their skills and knowledge to create a wide variety of magical effects. Mechanically, this works something like crafting an item: magic-users spend time manipulating magic, must succeed on a check of some kind, and create a magical item or effect. This system is deliberately open-ended, however, which makes it somewhat challenging to work with, for both players and GMs; some examples and guidance are provided below.

Open-Ended Magic

The extreme open-endedness of the magic system is one constant sticking-point, with both players and GMs being frustrated at the lack of concrete guidance about what they can and cannot do.

The thinking is that it is essentially impossible to create a system that could capture everything that a player (or NPC) might reasonably be able to do with magic, while being concise enough for people to actually use. (One can think of any number of examples of systems in RPGs that are so exhaustive that no player is willing to actually read through them, with the end results that GMs simply run them off of an ad-hoc expectation about the kinds of things that are supposed to happen.) Therefore, it is best to simply design with the intent that GMs and players make ad-hoc decisions from the start.

The significant problem with this are the times that both GMs and players are surprised by things that players may reasonably try to do, or that GMs expect them to do.

Representing Magic the Easy Way: Items, Powers, and Classes

The easiest way to represent a character's magical abilities are with items, powers, classes, and other special abilities. These methods for representing magic have precise rules that the character and GM agree on before-hand. They have their own sections elsewhere, which include lists of examples.

Do Spells Require Magical Crafting

According to The Supernatural, Mages create powerful effects by manipulating magical energies in a process that looks somewhat like crafting — by gathering materials that react to magic, accumulating magical energy, and processing them. But, to design a magical power, you don't need to specify a "crafting process"; instead, you just activate the power. Shouldn't you need to perform "magical crafting" to use a spell?

Simply put, that's up to the player. A power is something that your character has practiced until its down to rote; presumably, you've found some way to reliably trigger your magical powers — your spells — quickly and reliably. How you did that is up to you.

Some players might choose to include a magical apparatus or process in their powers — like Fire, for example. Fire the mage has the Ashen Staff, a magical artifact that he needs to hold to use some of his powers; presumably, the staff includes some magical substances and mechanisms that he simply manipulates, somewhat like a musician playing an instrument.

Other players may just want to use their powers, without needing to manipulate some kind of magical tool — Lady Katarina, for example, may simply want to use her Blur power, without needing some special device. We can assume that working out some way to do this was part of the process of developing the spell; maybe she found a way to magically "craft" the spell quickly and reliably, or maybe she permanently bound some kind of magical energy to herself, so that she need only call it forth to activate the spell.

Of course, items, powers, and classes are used to represent remarkable abilities from other sources as well; a combat-specialist could represent a sword-maneuver they've mastered with a power, for example.

Creating Magical Effects

In much the same way that a skilled blacksmith can crate a wide variety of useful metal items, skilled mages, psions and alchemists are not limited to only the powers and classes they have directly purchased, but can, with research and time, produce a wide variety of useful magical effects. This process works somewhat like "crafting" an item; it usually requires a Task Action or Job, and an appropriate skill check (typically spellcraft for mages, control for psions, and Craft: Alchemy for alchemists). Unlike powers and classes, effects produced by "crafting" in this way are usually "one off" events — magic is gathered, an effect is produced, and then it's over. (If you want a persistent or reusable effect, you should purchase a class or power during character-creation or down-time.)


Mages can produce a wide variety of useful effects, called spells. They usually do this by acquiring texts describing the manipulation of magic, researching and planning, preparing reagents, and ultimately casting their spell.

Even for simple effects — like mimicking a minor spell (i.e. a power that the mage hasn't purchased)—this might take hours or days. For more profound effects, this process might be so long and involved — requiring so many steps or having so many special requirements — that it could even be an adventure unto itself!

Mechanically, this usually involves at least a spellcraft check to design the ritual, and another spellcraft check to perform it. Knowledge: Magic, Profession: Mage and Research might all also be useful.

For example:

  • With a few hours of study and preparation, a mage can mimic a minor spell (i.e. can reproduce a power that they didn't purchase).
  • With a few day's work, they might produce a fireball powerful enough to knock over a house, freeze over the surface of a lake, or erect a magical barrier over .
  • With a few days of work, a mage might raise a magical shield over a house, or blight a field.
  • With weeks or months of works, mages might render a tower nearly indestructible, unleash a plague on a city, or construct a permanent bridge of light.


Psions can create magical affects (called sleights) by using meditation, focus and discipline to manipulate their own innate magical energy. Sleights often alter the body or mind of the psion, sometimes in profound ways; sleights might allow a psion to heal rapidly, ignore the effects of poison, to heal their minds, or to sustain themselves without food. Psions rarely have need of external tools and reagents; instead, they develop sleights purely by mental discipline and practice.

For example:

  • With a few hours of preparation, a psion could suspend the progress of a disease, listen to the thoughts of someone nearby, render themselves immune to a hostile environment (as long as they can maintain their trance) or solve a complex logic puzzle.
  • With a few days of meditation and quiet contemplation, a psion could render themselves nearly immune to damage (as long as they can sustain the trance), cast their mind far from their bodies, or heal their wounded psyches (regaining some stress and trauma much like the rules for first aide).
  • With weeks or months of quiet contemplation and meditation, psions could make themselves younger, regrow limbs, modify their physical forms (growing a carapace, adding limbs), or probe the minds of distant enemies.


Priests deal with power spirits, making offerings and performing complex rituals to earn their favor, but also risking their wrath. Spirits are powerful, but many are also mysterious and mercurial: this makes the magic available to priests both incredibly power and incredibly dangerous.

Bargaining with spirits is the most powerful form of magic available, especially if a suitably powerful spirit is contacted; however, it is also the most difficult and dangerous. (See The Supernatural for more information.)

More than designing a spell or meditating, striking a bargain with a spirit is best handled “cinematically.” A well-struck bargain can change the course of an adventure, but it’s also an intense encounter with a very powerful and (possibly) very alien being; no two such encounters are alike.

Bargains with spirits are frequently local: different areas have different spirits, so any deal struck will depend on the spirits in an area that can be bargained with, and what boons they have to offer. (Remember that spirits have a hierarchy: the spirits whose basin is a local glade might be relatively easy to bargain with, but also not very powerful; a spirit whose basin is an entire mountain might be extraordinarily powerful, but also almost impossible to bargain with, or even to contact.)

Dealing with a spirit generally uses the following procedure:

  • Research Local Spirits
    • if you aren’t a priest in the area, you probably don’t know how the local spirits operate; even if you are, checking the library for any “gotchase” is wise.
    • Pay special attention to any binds that the spirits may have; messing up a bind with an uncooperative spirit might kill you!
    • Normally an 8 hour Task Action, requiring a Research check, with Knowledge: Theology, Profession: Priest or similar as a related skill.
  • Design the Ritual
    • Normally a 4 hour Task Action, requiring a Profession: Priest or similar check.
    • Knowledge: Theology is a related skill, and an Exceptional or Critical Success on your Research test may help.
  • Perform the Ritual
    • a one hour Task Action, requiring a Profession: Priest or similar check.
  • Bargain with the Spirit
    • Once summoned — assuming it was summoned correctly — you can now bargain with the spirit. This is done in-character, using your social skills.
    • Rituals don’t have error messages; it’s possible that things can go completely wrong in ways that might not be obvious.

Limiting Magic

While we have provided some guidelines and examples for what magic can do, we have not provided a detailed system for "building magical effects." The intent is that characters should be able to specify any magical effect (within reason) and then realize that result as a one-off effect, given an appropriate investment of time and success on an appropriately-modified check.

We recognize that this can be tricky for GMs; it can be difficult to design a campaign if one of your players might choose to attempt to design literally any magical effect at any time. In general, we think that you should take a generous view of what your players can achieve — although that doesn't mean you can't refuse a player. Certainly, no-one in the Commonwealth can explode a mountain, fling someone into the sun, or ascend to godhood; these things are simply beyond the capabilities of mortal magic in the Commonwealth (and the rest of the known world) in CY 830.

GMs also have subtler tools to limit the disruptive effects of magic. Remember that you decide how long it takes to produce a magical effect — and manipulating magic isn't easy, so those Task Action and Job durations probably shouldn't be short. While it might be possible to unleash a plague on a city — an event that might have an effect as dramatic as ending a seige — it might also take months to do; in that time, a conventional army could win a conventional victory.

Another hazard is Mage-Sight. (See Mage Sight in Sense, Movement and Special Abilities.) Some magic-users have developed the ability to see magic (i.e. have purchased it as a class or power), while some creatures naturally have the ability to see magic. In any case, powerful magical effects require huge amounts of magic, and thus they might be obvious to anyone (or anything) with Mage-Sight nearby. So, in the example of someone trying to end a seige with a plague, not only might such a spell take months to achieve, but the mage and their workshop might shine like a bonfire the entire time, making them an obvious target.

Finally, some of the ideas behind the design of classes and powers can serve as a guide for what can (and can't) be done with magic in general. Apparently, mages and psions in the Commonwealth have developed (or can develop) the ability to throw fireballs, animate corpses, and partly transcend their mortality; mages and psions can reasonably achieve effects like these with time and preparation, even if they don't have those powers. However, there isn't a remote viewing or mind control power, and for good reason.

To The Sun

The GM has prepared an intrigue campaign: there's a wealthy, powerful Certan who's pulling the Certan Movement closer to the Eastern Kingdoms. If he where "removed," the Certans might be induced to shift their focus from the Western Kings (who are Commonwealth Allies) to the Eastern Kings (who decidedly are not). The High Road has put up a bounty to do just that; to collect, the party will need to cross the border, steal into Certa and quietly, deniably "dispose of" the noble.

Fire is in the party, and his player asks the GM if he can simply develop a magical spell to teleport the troublesome noble straight into the sun from here.

While the GM has a number of options, the best one is to just say "no." While there are teleporting spells, all of them have the caster teleport to a destination, and optionally bring something with them; none of them allow you to teleport something to you, and certainly none of them allow you to teleport an object at Remote Location A to Remote Location B. So, it's reasonable to assume that no-one knows how to do that. (Equally, the distance from the campaign's starting-point in the Dragonshire to the target in Certa is much further than any teleporting magic besides the Kairnes has ever gone — never mind the distance to the sun.)

If she wants to be a little more subtle, she might simply tell him that, yes, he can do that, but it's going to take six months, and he'll need to make a spellcraft check at a -30 penalty; the rest of the party can probably just complete the quest before he's done, if he succeeds at all.

If Fire is determined to be a jerk, he can still get around this, though; he can rush the job, reducing the timeframe by 75% (about six weeks) for a -30 penalty, and then spend a luck point to remove all the penalties for the spellcraft check.

If the GM wants to provide a little extra discouragement, she might declare that a "numinous thread of magic" will arc from where Fire is to the Noble he's targeting, which will make it immediately obvious to Certan mages who is responsible for banishing their noble into the sky. Or, if she wants to go the other way, she might declare that there's no way for Fire to prove that he killed the noble, and so the party won't be able to claim the purse.

A third, slightly more interesting option is place some restrictions on Fire's spell. Sure, he can teleport the noble to his death, but not from here; the spell will need to be applied to the target directly. Essentially, Fire will have to create the spell and then bind it to himself, so that he carries the magical energy around in a suspended state; he'll then need to sneak up to his target and physically touch them to trigger it. This way, Fire still gets his spell, but the structure of the campaign remains intact. The GM can also make this trickier by declaring that the spell is visible in Mage-Sight while it's bound to Fire, which will make sneaking harder for him; she might also declare that he can't use his normal teleporting powers while carrying the spell — he'll risk destabilizing it and teleporting himself to his death if he does.