“Magic” skill for GURPS

GURPS was long funny in that it offered skills for each and every specific application of magic (i.e., hundreds of spells), but no skill to cover a mage’s overall understanding of magic itself.

Such a skill – name it Magic for simplicity – fills that gap and lets you fine-tune magic in your campaign, in at least 10 fun ways. This old article was written for GURPS 3e; its Magic skill is at least partially covered now by the Thaumatology skill that later appeared in GURPS Grimoire and then Basic Set 4e. Still, the notes may hold a new idea or two for your 4e games.

Magic skill

Create a skill named Magic (M/VH, with bonuses from Magery and, in 3e, the same bonuses that spells enjoy from Eidetic memory). It’s learnable only by mages and defaults to IQ-7.

Now comes the fun part: Decide what Magic skill does. There are endless possibilities for use in enhancing or limiting magical abilities; below are some ideas. Pick and choose freely from among them to get magic in your game working the way you want. 

Cornerstone of spellcasting

No overall experience with the basics of magic? No spell-casting. Make Magic-12 a prerequisite to learn spells.

To control access to particularly powerful spells, set higher levels of Magic as a prerequisite.

Limit on spell levels

A replacement for or addition to the above: Use Magic to limit spell levels. No spell level may be higher than Magic level. This keeps mages from cheaply buying up one spell to abusive levels.

Sensing magic

Use Magic as a mage’s roll to sense magic. In GURPS, the most experienced, ancient mage has the same base roll (IQ or Perception, + Magery) to sense magic as does the greenest apprentice. Granted, ol’ Merlin’s IQ is probably higher, but shouldn’t experience count for something?

Use Magic instead, and the crusty old wizard’s years of experience now make a difference. Meanwhile, the newbie who hasn’t yet learned he’s a mage will have just enough default Magic skill to sense odd things once in a while, far more so once he actually receives instruction.

Researching magic

Use Magic as the “research roll” for creating new spells and the such. This makes a lot more sense (under most fantasy campaign concepts of magic) than 3e’s use of the same IQ+Magery base roll for both ancient mages and first-time casters.

Improvisational magic

Use Magic for any roll to test “understanding” of magic. With rolls against both Magic and the spell being cast (perhaps along with extra casting time), you could insert a bit of “improvisational” magic to tweak standard spells in minor ways.

Magical freebies

If you feel that the added requirement of Magic skill is too harsh on mages, let Magic include some freebie, such as skill in one spell (Aura is a good candidate). Or let Magic/10 add to all spell levels.

But improvable magical sense and “research” rolls are really benefit enough for the point cost of Magic.

Magery substitute

Allow Magic to boost effective level of Magery for purposes of spell requirements. For example, Magic-10 to 14 makes no difference, while Magic-15 to 19 lets a mage learn spells that require Magery one above her current level of Magery, Magic-20 to 24 treats her Magery as two levels higher, and so on. Meanwhile, Magic-5 to 9 would effectively reduce Magery by 1 for purposes of spell requirements. 

Alternately, for each level of Magery below that required to learn a spell, give the learner a -5 or so to Magic and spell skill with regard to that spell. The Magery 1 wizard could learn a Magery 2 spell, but at -5 skill. 

Whichever the rule, go ahead and learn those tougher spells they told you you couldn’t handle! With something as infinite as magic, shouldn’t grim determination be able to overcome birth limitations?

Non-mage magic

Let non-mages learn Magic and spells at a -5, for a world in which only a chosen few (the mages) are truly skilled with magic but anybody might learn a spell or two with great effort.

Magical language

Use Magic as a wizard’s skill with the language of magic, should it be necessary to know that. (Obvious use: can Zartoff read that scroll he’s found? Now we have something to roll against.)


Call this skill Thaumatology, and hey, it’s now in GURPS Grimoire and the Basic Set 4e! Read the descriptions there, and add any of the ideas above that you like.


v1.0: 1997

v1.1: 01/08/01

v1.2: 09/10/24. Minor updates, and moved article from old HTML file to current site format.


  • nikolas

    GURPS is funny in that there are skills for each and every specific application of magic (i.e., hundreds of spells), but no required skill to cover a mage’s overall understanding of magic itself.

    Isn’t it Thaumaturgy? Its also covered in the new Thaumaturgy Books.

    • tbone

      The sentence in the original ancient article was

      GURPS is funny in that there are skills for each and every specific application of magic (i.e., hundreds of spells), but no skill to cover a mage’s overall understanding of magic itself.

      which was true way back then (and when Thaumaturgy did come along, it was still buried in a supplement).

      For this update, I had to add one word:

      “…no required skill to cover a mage’s overall understanding…”

      The addition is easy to miss; sorry! Anyway, I believe it’s correct: While 4e does nicely include Thaumaturgy as an option, it’s not at all required for learning spells.

  • nikolas

    Hi Tbone,

    I do understand its not required but it seems to be there as the default of magic is to be Intuitive, vs creating Theoretical underlying system. THe way a person can learn mechanic (specific) but not need engineering.

    Like the difference between a sorcerer and the mage. The mage is more versatile but the trade off is in points emphasizing on the basic theoretical knowedge. On the other hand, the Sorcerer may have a retinue of spells but not completely understand (and thuse work these spells backwards) how they work, relying on tradition, routine and patterns instead of a process.

    Although the options you provide are great :D.

    • tbone

      Right, the default magic system lets a mage just jump right in and start with a real spell like Create Fire, with no other mystical knowledge needed. It’s not wrong, of course; it’s a perfectly valid way to model magic. I guess my stance is simply that a background skill for magic is so useful – and meshes so well with existing mechanics like the IQ-based roll to sense magic – that it makes for a great requirement!

  • PK

    Actually, it’s Thamatology skill, not “Thaumaturgy”. As well, the name of the book is GURPS Thamatology.

    And it’s not the place of the system to say, “You have to know a certain skill before you can learn any magic spells.” That’s the very definition of a campaign-specific decision, and should always be left up to the GM (or the author, in a setting book).

    Saying, “It’s silly that GURPS doesn’t require you to learn Thaumatology before learning spells, because that’s how I’d do it in my game,” is the same thing as saying, “It’s silly that GURPS doesn’t require you to know the Soldier skill before taking the Fit advantage, because that’s how I do it in my game.”

    • tbone

      Hi PK. Actually, I didn’t call anything “silly”. I called the lack of any overall skill for experience with magic “funny”, in the sense of a bit curious. Not up to the level of silly, and certainly not wrong!

      I also don’t specify the lack of a required prerequisite skill for spell-learning as the funny bit; that idea is offered as a “how I like to do things” option, just as you suggest. The funny bit would be, again, just the long-running absence of any skill for magical understanding, even after the rules specified good uses for such a skill. From the start, the game gave mages an IQ+Magery roll to sense magic, though with no allowance for the experience of an ancient mage with a hundred spells vs that of a teen wizard with Ignite Fire. GURPS Magic later offered magical research and invention rules, but again, with zero consideration of the ancient mage’s experience.

      The fun thing about magic, of course, is that any setup is perfectly valid! A particular gameworld could work like the above, pegging success in magical research to innate talent alone, with experience counting for nothing. But I think few GMs would prefer that as the system’s default assumption, especially when the game offers invention rules for other fields that are all about experience. If a game had rules for inventing new chemicals that called on IQ, but made no allowance for skill and expertise with chemistry, well, I’d cheerfully call that funny.

      That’s the game’s past, though; Thaumatology eventually appeared (GURPS Grimoire?), and is now there to handle the magical research problem (if not the matter of sensing magic; I don’t see it suggested as replacing the IQ+Magery roll for that). The skill is a good addition to the game. I should probably change the article’s opening words from “GURPS is funny…” to “GURPS was long funny…”.

      Re skill name: Thaumatology it is, on B225. And there’s a whole book by that name too (which I don’t have). Hmm, was it Thaumatology way back in Grimoire, too, or was it the Thaumaturgy that I had fixed in the brain? Either way, thanks for the correction! Will update the article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.