Magical Languages for GURPS

This old (originally 3e-era) article sought to drop a bit of spice into the standard GURPS magic system. The addition of distinct languages for spellcasting lets you create as many unique magical traditions as you like, distinguishing Druids from witches from court wizards in strengths, weaknesses, and special effects. Side benefits including new paths of useful study for mages and prevention of “Johnny One-Spell” over-specialization. Go magically multilingual!

History

v1.0: 1997

v1.1: 2001

v2.0: 09/04/14

v2.1: 10/03/27: Fixed broken link to additional magical languages by Yuath.


 

The tongues of magic

What if, instead of one “language of magic” used by all mages, the tongues used to cast spells were as diverse as their mundane linguistic cousins?

Assume that such a magical language (“tongue” hereafter) works as any other language and thus as a skill in 3e, not as an advantage (per 4e’s new rules for languages). You might let the Thaumatology skill include one tongue for free (probably the “common” one).

General rules

  1. You can cast a known spell in any tongue that you know and which is compatible with that spell.
  2. Treat casting level as the lower of skill in the spell and in the tongue used.
  3. Ceremonial castings require contributing mages to know and use a tongue in common.
  4. A scroll or spell book can be written in any of several tongues; a mage needs to know that tongue to read the spell.

Customizing tongues

That’s only the beginning. From there, give each language its own unique abilities, benefits, quirks, drawbacks, and other special effects. Go crazy and be creative with changes. These might include:

  • Restrictions on Colleges or spells that can be used with the tongue
  • Increased/reduced effective skill with certain College spells
  • Increased/reduced energy cost or casting time with specific spells
  • Restrictions/enhancements on ceremonial magic, enchantment, or other specialized tasks
  • Restrictions/enhancements under specific conditions (at night; underground; vs evil beings; etc.)
  • Dependency on other skills

Now things start getting fun! In a campaign with multiple magical tongues, players will be running around trying to find a mage who can decipher the Ancient Thaumaticus on that scroll. Sweating to learn the only tongue that can cast a Resurrection. Or scratching their singed heads over what dialect a rival used to cast such big fireballs.

Balancing tongues

Use your own sense to keep an invented tongue “balanced”. Don’t make its use inferior to default spellcasting, nor so all-round awesome that no mage would want anything else.

In general, a tongue will let a caster specialize in certain magical tasks. A good rule for tweaking traits in this manner is to overbalance new merits with demerits. For example, if the tongue boosts casting ability with a small handful of spells, let it equally decrease casting ability with a large handful of spells. Or greatly decrease ability with a small handful of spells.

Broadly speaking, this overbalancing keeps a modified trait attractive to those who value its specializations, while making it unattractive to generalists. Overall, that makes for good game balance.

Sample tongues

Together with Colleges, each tongue’s special effects help create separate, distinct “Traditions” of wizards, akin to those from White Wolf’s Mage. In game terms, tongues give the GM a “place” to spell out the features that differentiate a Druid’s magic from a court wizard’s, or an arcane brand of Dwarven spellcasting from a necromancer’s sorcery. Some may prefer it to the standby of distinguishing magical flavors by placing limitations on Magery. 

Another nice effect is the prevention of mages over-specialized in a single spell. With tongues, a mage has to put at least as much effort into learning about magic itself as in focusing on fireballs. And with multiple tongues in play, mages will have the ability to study a lot about magic, building a repertoire of spell-casting techniques that increase the mage’s power in specific situations.

Here are a few ideas for tongues:

Common Symbologia

M/H. The “basic” tongue, in which (some say) all other tongues have roots. All spells cast using Common Symbologia work per default GURPS.

Most mages learn the Symbologia, making it the “lingua franca” for ceremonial castings and the like. Many other tongues can be understood or countered (if not necessarily used for casting) at a -4 default from Symbologia.

Imperial Thaumas

M/H. This tongue is a jealously-guarded secret of court wizards; the difficulty of finding an experienced mage makes court magics hard to undo. It’s rumored that the Thaumas reduce energy needed for ceremonial magics, but are near-useless for individual castings – perfect for a paranoid Emperor who knows that no two wizards are likely to agree on how to do in their ruler!

Druid’s Brogue

M/H. A sing-song tongue that adds +3 to Plant, Animal, and Elemental spells but cannot be used to cast spells of other colleges. The language is also used as a secret spoken langauge among druids, and is rarely taught to non-believers.

Vox Magi

 M/H. Spells are sung in this language; they never need hand or feet movement, but always require audible voice. Vox Magi level may not be higher than level in Singing skill. Any spell may be cast, but Sound, Mind Control and Making and Breaking spells can be cast at half energy if the caster sings for twice the normal casting time (minimum 2 seconds).

Ryutai-do

M/H. Mages skilled in the “way of the flowing body” focus their castings through the dramatic movements of a martial art. This “tongue” requires free movement, and at lower skill levels, loud shouts. Skill level cannot be greater than level in a chosen combat skill. (A Combat Art skill would work fine – or maybe even be superior! Dancing could work as well.)

Body Control and Mind Control spells can be cast at half speed or fatigue through this tongue. However, encumbrance subtracts from spell rolls, as does limited use of body (-2 for no use of legs or arms, no use if both are hampered. Minimal movement of hands, head etc. might allow casting at -6 or so.)

Ryutai-do cannot be witten: no scrolls or book learning! Ceremonial magic is also impossible.

Meta-DOS 2.X

M/VH. No one knows what the X stands for, but spells are cast through the mental “execution” of computer-like code with this tongue. Skill level may not be higher than level in Computer Programming skill. Treat spell levels as 5 higher for purposes of determining movement/voice components necessary (but not for determining casting speed or cost).

Meta-DOS can be used to cast Machine spells, Electricity spells, other Technology spells, Knowledge spells, and Gate spells at +3. In addition, Machine spells halve energy and casting time if they directly affect computers or electronic transmissions. On the down side, all other spells are cast at -5.

Decix

M/VH. These thaumas require keen mental visualization of certain mathematical concepts; Decix skill level may not be higher than Mathematics skill level. Spoken and written, Decix is totally incomprehensible to the unlearned, and is of no use in casting spells that directly affect living things, or spells of Enchantment or Meta-Magic. Most other spells can be cast normally.

But it is said that Decix makes certain astral travel and interplanar summoning spells frightfully powerful, and can even be used to invoke the power of unspeakable entities from beyond the farthest voids…

Tongue of the Damned One

M/H. The name says it all; for a classical feel, try Lingua Maleficium (suggested by Basil Varian) or Vulgus Damnati (suggested by Mario Roma).

The Tongue is an actual language – for communication with horrific foul beings. When used to cast spells, daylight invokes a -6 skill penalty, dusk or dawn a -3, and night no penalty (but a moonless night grants a +3!). Necromancy spells or spells of pain, terror, and harm receive an additional +3 and are cast at half fatigue.

The Tongue is versatile enough to cast any spell, but effects created through this obscene argot always turn corrupt, effectively negating “good” use. (The wandering warlock Thate once healed over the plague sores of a friar’s dying daughter – with tiny mouths that screamed blasphemies…)

The Tongue eats away at the mind of the user, too, with critical failures putting 1d points toward some mental disadvantage(s). Certain Unholy nights add extreme power to Necromantic spells, but critical failure occurs on a a 15, invokes 3d points in mental disadvantage(s), and creates a localized apocalypse. (Demons appear, zombies turn on the caster, whatever you can think of.)

To really make this language nasty, let it be M/E! The dark side is the easy path…

More languages

See additional magical languages by Yuath.

Other notes

Magical tongues and “regular” languages

Magical tongues generally aren’t good for actual communication, but per examples above, some could be. That adds a minor advantage to the tongue, which should be considered in overall “balance”.

Can regular languages be used as magical tongues – that is, can you write and cast spells in English or Elvish? That’s a GM decision, which you may have already established in your game. If you want to use “regular” languages for casting, just follow the general rules above – and decide for yourself whether Latin, Orkish, Chinese, and so on each offer additional special effects.

Use of “regular” languages for casting can also exist side-by-side with special magical tongues. The former should be more restrained in their special effects, and the latter more flashy. On balance, magical tongues should offer a wee more spellcasting power than do regular languages, as they have little or no use in more mundane communication roles.

Languages in GURPS 4e

To adapt these rules to GURPS 4e’s language system, use the standard language rules and costs from B23. Spell level is no longer limited by tongue level, but casting a spell with a given tongue is impossible at comprehension level None, takes a -3 at Broken, takes a -1 at Accented, and suffers no limitation at Native.

For tongues above that depend on another skill (like Decix above), limit spell level to the required skill’s level. For example, the level of spells cast using Decix would be limited to level in Mathematics (before any other penalties, including those for Broken or Accented Decix).

Systems for creating tongues

Just like spells themselves, the specifics of each tongue are purely invented and arbitrary, with no limits other than the earlier suggestions for maintaining “balance”. Here’s a task for the enterprising hacker: Build a system that weighs specific merits and demerits of a tongue to ensure a balanced result, in the same way COSH lays out tools for modifying or creating combat skills and Martial Arts for 4e provides a way to build balanced techniques. Any takers?

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