Legend of Zelda Adventure System: Notes on Magic

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Concept Art for The Triforce and the Golden Land
‘A Link to the Past’ Concept Art

One of my favorite things to tinker with in an RPG is the magic system. Ultimately, the goal of any tabletop game mechanic should be effectiveness and simplicity. But unlike combat mechanics, there are innumerable ways for a magic systems to achieve those goals. Combat is real, and a lot of people who play RPGs have even studied it. You can’t pull wild made-up ideas about fighting out of thin air, because everybody will recognize that those ideas don’t model reality. You have some leeway, but on a fundamental level, a combat system needs to be grounded. But magic doesn’t exist.

Magic can come from anywhere, be accessed via any method, and have any side effects the designer wants. Ultimately it still needs to be effective and simple, but the paths a game can take to reach that goal are nearly limitless. Magic can be born of nature spirits which must be asked for their spells, or it can come from pacts with demons who demand sacrifice in exchange for power. Magic can be an elemental force which speaks to a chosen few, or it can be ‘glitches’ in the universe which the intellectual elite have learned to exploit.

In the Zelda series, the source of the world’s magic is never explained. Ocarina of Time touched on the subject with the history of the three goddesses. But the LOZAS project is focused on the games which came before that, so I’m not taking it into consideration here. An argument could be made that the Triforce itself is the source of magic, but it seems more likely to me that the world is inherently possessed of mystical energies. I’m not sure if I’ll choose to add more flavor to that myself, or if I’ll leave the specifics for individual game masters to tinker with. But since the ‘fluff’ has already been taken care of–albeit ambiguously–I’ve focused my attention on creating solid mechanics for the game’s magic. Mechanics which hopefully capture the feeling of Zelda spellcasting, without resorting to a point tracking system. That would be too much bookkeeping, I think.

Before diving into the magic system in full, however, I need to explain a little bit about how the ability scores and ability checks currently function. There are three abilities: Body, Agility, and Wisdom. When generating a character, each player rolls 2d10 three times, and arranges the resulting numbers between their three stats as they choose. I like using two dice rather than three, because it makes both high and low scores more common, which seems appropriate for the dramatic style of a Zelda game. Once the scores are arranged, each player gets 2 points which they can place in any of the abilities they like. So the maximum a player can have in an ability score is 22, and if they have a 22, then it’s the only maxed they can have, since there are no opportunities to increase ability scores after character creation.

Ability checks are handled OD&D style. The player rolls 1d24 and if the result is less than or equal to the relevant ability score, then they succeed. If their roll is greater than their ability score, they fail. In the event that the player doesn’t want to use a d24, they can always use 1d12, and flip a coin to see if they add 12 to the result. I could write more about why I’ve chosen to set the game up this way, but it’s not particularly relevant to explaining how the magic system works.

There are two types of magic players can access in the Legend of Zelda Adventure System. The first comes from magic items, which anyone can use. The rod of fire, or the cloak of invisibility for example. These items draw upon the magical energies within the wielder to power their spells, but the knowledge of how those spells are cast has been crafted into the item itself. The item is casting the spell, and merely leeching off of the untrained mystical powers of the wielder. After an item has been used, a non-sage must roll a wisdom check. If they fail, then their magical energies are drained and they must restore them either by consuming a potion of magic, or by resting for 8 hours. If they succeed on the check, then they still have enough energy to continue casting without rest. For as long as a character continues to succeed on wisdom checks, they continue to find reserves of magical power within themselves.

Sages, the game’s primary casters, have a little more access to magic than other classes do. At first level they learn 2 spells from the sage spell list, and they learn one spell each level after that. At the maximum level of 10, that’s a total of 11 spells. Sages are able to cast a number of spells per day equal to twice their level. So a first level sage will know 2 different spells, and can cast 2 spells on a given day. While a 10th level sage will know 11 different spells, and be able to cast 20 spells per day. After a sage casts their final spell for the day, they make a wisdom check just as other classes would after using a magic item. If they fail the check, they are drained and cannot cast any more that day. If they succeed on the check, then their last spell slot for the day is not spent, and they may use it again later. They may continue casting spells in this manner for as long as they succeed on wisdom checks.

Sages can also make use of magic items, as other classes do. Like other classes, the sage makes a wisdom check after they use the item. If they succeed, then their spellcasting ability is unaffected. If they fail, then using the magic item expends one of their spell slots for the day. When a sage uses a potion of magic, it restores half of their total spellcasting ability for the day.

In addition to their greatly expanded spellcasting ability, sages are able to use “spell crafting.” Using spell crafting, the sage’s player describes to the GM a minor modification they would like to make to one of their spells. For example, the spell, “Conjure Plank,” creates a 10ft long, 3ft wide plank which appears in front of the sage. An example of a minor modification would be to make the plank 12ft long, or to cause it to appear in a specific place about 30-60ft away from the sage. After the sage has described the modification they’d like to make to the GM, the GM uses their own judgement to determine whether or not the alteration is minor enough to work. If it is, then the sage should make a spell crafting check.

To do this, the sage rolls a wisdom check. For particularly easy or difficult spellcrafts, the GM is encouraged to announce bonuses or penalties to the sage’s roll. If the roll is a success, then the spell works as intended, and one spell slot is lost. If the sage has no more spell slots for the day, then after a successful spell crafting attempt they are considered fully drained and unable to cast again. If the check fails, then the spell fizzles. It may function incorrectly, or simply nothing happens. Regardless, the sage still loses their spell slot as if the spell had succeed. It should be noted that spell crafting is not permanent, but only affects one specific casting of the spell.

Sometime in the next few days I’ll share a spell list for the Sage, to give you an idea of what kind of magic players will be able to access in the game.

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2 thoughts on “Legend of Zelda Adventure System: Notes on Magic”

  1. I previously used a “did I run out of magic” check similar to this but I eventually scrapped the idea. Too many powerful mages running out of magic after casting the equivalent of a single /magic missile/. I still haven’t completely solved this problem (I agree that tracking magic points is too much like hard work).

    One thing I considered was a tactile cardboard “magic meter”, where you could slide the back part so that the meter decreased by a tick when you used magic. Something similar could work for “hearts” of damage.

    1. I like the idea of a cardboard magic meter.

      You might note that only non-sages need to make a “save to retain magic” roll every time they use magic.

      Sages can use magic a number of times per day equal to twice their level. Once they’ve expended all of those ‘spell slots,’ they start making the “save to retain magic” checks.

      So a level 8 Sage could cast 16 spells a day, after which they would need to save after each spell.

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