Rethinking Spontaneous Magic

As discussed here, I said I wanted to make Spontaneous Magic more accessible.

Whether this is a really cool House Rule modifying Spontaneous Magic or a potential building block for 6th edition or a crazy idea that needs to be ripped to shreds and it's proposer ridiculed, I'll leave it to the community.

Spontaneous magic in Ars Magica 5th Edition is something of a bait and switch. The idea behind it is that Hermetic Magic is flexible and can do great things. In practice Spontaneous Magic isn't flexible, and it can only do great things with a lot of luck, or a lot of skill, because of dividing by 2 or 5. Ars Magica needs a system that really gives flexibility back to the players and makes Spontaneous Magic accessible to almost all magi. It needs to cost something, and it needs to be relatively reliable, but it needs to be limited, too. I hope I've struck the right balance.

Spontaneous Magic is governed by a new ability Hermetic Improvisation. With this ability magi can cast significant, if wild magics, of almost any magnitude if they know enough. The Hermetic Improvisation ability is never used in the conventional sense, but in a manner similar to how Parma Magica is used. The score of Hermetic Improvisation represents the highest magnitude (Edit:level/5) of spontaneous spell that a magus can cast. May need to consider whether Puissant and Affinity should be available this ability, but I'll leave that to the discussion.
New Ability
Hermetic Improvisation
Hermetic Magic is powerful and flexible. Your skill in this ability represents the magnitude of magic you can command if you push your limits and your knowledge. The score of Hermetic Improvisation is the highest magnitude spontaneous effect you can achieve, limited by the level of one’s Form score for a given effect. Requisites apply as well, so if two or more Forms are involved, it is the lesser of those Forms and Hermetic Improvisation. Specializations: Any Form
Spontaneous Magic
The maximum effect a magus can spontaneously cast is the lesser of Hermetic Improvisation and the Form of the effect. Techniques do not add to the total for Spontaneous magic as they do for Ritual and Formulaic magic. Spontaneous involves producing effects that the magus doesn’t really know, and to apply Techniques to the effects suggests some level of knowledge. It is only during a period of study that a magus begins to link the underlying effects of a Form to any applicable Technique.
Spontaneous spells are always cast, but never have any penetration. The cost for casting Spontaneous Magic is two points of fatigue, as it requires great effort on the part of the magus to control the magic. Spontaneous magic, like Certamen never creates wounds so if a magus had 4 levels of Fatigue and worked a spontaneous spell he would fall unconscious and be at 6 levels of fatigue, which would resolve as the chart on page 179 indicates. In cases where the effect causes the caster to fall unconscious, the effect does resolve.
Vis can be used in three ways with respect to Spontaneous Magic. Vis can be used for adding Penetration and vis can be used to increase the magnitude of the effect, or a combination of the two. [strike]As always, the amount of vis used is limited by one’s Art score.[/strike]The amount of vis that can be used is, again the lesser of the Form score or Hermetic Improvisation. Each pawn of vis used to enhance penetration increases the penetration by 5. Each pawn of vis used to increase the magnitude increases the magnitude by one. Vis can also be used in place of a fatigue level on a one for one basis. When using vis, one must roll botch dice equal to the situation/environment modifier + number of pawns of vis. Note, this is botch dice. It's presumed that you have rolled a 0 effectively and you are checking to see if you actually botch. Using vis in conjunction with spontaneous casting is dangerous, that's why magi learn formulaic spells.
There are some consequences to this fundamental change to Spontaneous Magic, namely two flaws: Weak Spontaneous Magic and Difficult Spontaneous Magic, with Rigid Magic having an honorable mention.
With respect to Rigid Magic, I don’t consider it much of an issue, they couldn’t use vis to boost their spontaneous spells before, so not using it now seems consistent.
Weak Spontaneous Magic says that magi may not exert themselves to cast Spontaneous Magic this suggests that they must use vis to work any spontaneous spells, since they can’t fatigue themselves. I think that’s a reasonable proposition. Although, in vis poor sagas it’s a really big deal. IMHO, the setting doesn’t suggest vis poor sagas, though.
Difficult Spontaneous Magic requires that the caster always exert himself, the only change here is that he can only substitute 1 pawn of vis in place of fatigue, not two pawns.
There may be other unintended consequences of this change. I know that there’s a virtue that allows one to use similar spells, and the Diedne virtue does have an effect with Spontaneous Magic, as well. We can discuss those situations and others that I’ve overlooked.
I don’t really have any realm interactions worked out, although the botch dice modifiers might be sufficient for that in cases where vis needs to be used. Perhaps auras modify Hermetic Improvisation directly…

Anyway, I hung spontaneous magic on an ability because that table progresses much slower. I made it tied to a Form, so that you have to have a little bit of knowledge about the Form to get the effect you want. I have made it possible to create high level effects rather easily, if you add vis, use virtues to increase the rate one improves Hermetic Improvisation, perhaps all spontaneous spells need a weird die botch check of some sort? The idea was to keep it relatively simple in play, there's still a fair amount of complexity that's needed in just figuring out the magnitude of the underlying effect, but everything else is really simple.

Honestly, what I'd do is allow sponted spells that fatigue to be "Technique + Form + Aura + Stamina + Stress Die", but with more botch dice.
Formulaic is therefore "Technique + Form + Aura + Stamina + Simple Die." or "+ Stress Die (No Botch)" if mastered. Make Mastery advance as an art not as an ability to help this.
Non Fatiguing Sponts are /2 and no dice.
You'd need to redo Diedne Magic for this too.

I'm not sure I fully understand what you're going for, but the fact that the Technique doesn't matter means that effectively you're dividing Te+Fo by 2, so you have little change from current spontaneous magic, except there's another Ability to suck up XP for the magus. It does have the advantage that if you're very good at a Form you're casting more powerful sponts than you would under the current system (assuming your Technique isn't comparable to the Form), but it seriously shortchanges those that specialize in Techniques.

All that needs to be done to make spontaneous magic more accessible is to remove the Fatigue from casting. You're still dividing by 2, and you still have a stress roll, which means bad things can happen - so it's always risky. You remove the very tedious 'spont and rest 2 minutes' situation, and really, it's not imbalanced, it just removes resource accounting. Formulaic spells are valuable because you can cast them on simple dice and you can get decent penetration with them. Spontaneous magic can only achieve medium effects (barring a very lucky roll) with poor penetration or tiny effects with medium penetration. Divide by 5 is useful in that it involves no roll and therefore never botches.

It would have almost zero effect on combat, aside from maybe magi actually trying fast-cast defenses, which IMO is actually a good thing, as it allows for proper wizard duels without total reliance on Parma Magica.

A few things aren't entirely clear from the above (at least to me).

  1. Can you ever avoid rolling botch dice? It seems this is not the idea, even though you only talk of botch dice when using vis.
  2. Do Hermetic Improvisation and the relevant Form provide a cap on the Level or on the Magnitude of the effect? It seems to me you are going for the latter, i.e.:
    Maximum Level = 5 x (Minimum of Improvisation and Form(s)).

If that's the case, it drastically changes the game. It makes Spontaneous Magic very powerful, and very risky (because one can't avoid those blasted botch dice). Just consider all that can be achieved by a starting magus with Improvisation, Corpus, Animal, Imaginem, Mentem, Terram all at 7 (easily achieved e.g. by taking any two of Skilled Parens, Gild Trained, and Puissant Improvisation) and all other Arts at 0. All Hermetic effects up to Level 35 in those five Forms suddenly come within reach.

You do place three limits in place.
The first is lack of penetration. But, at least in my games, penetration is something that you can often get around with some ingenuity. If you really need it, a starting character spending 5 pawns can get a penetration of 35 on the aforementioned level 35 effects (or get level 50 effects with penetration 20), which really really makes him much scarier than a current starting character.
The second is fatigue. This is less of an issue than it might appear. With such powerful magic at one's disposal, a single strike can be resolutive, and one can create day-long spells at the beginning of the day, rest, and then act with those spells active. Perhaps more importantly, a magus will be casting few spontaneous spells, because each carries a risk of botching.
The third is the inability to eliminate botch dice. This is a really big limit, that in my view makes Spontaneous magic less accessible in your system (even though it makes big effects more accessible through Spontaneous magic, which is subtly different). One of the things I like in my games is magi constantly doing all sort of little tricks with non-fatiguing spontaneous magic. These are mostly level 3-5 effects, with the occasional level 10 effect after they have matured. These both add a lot of colour, and are a lot of fun to "engineer" on the fly. Your system completely eliminates this component of Spontaneous magic which I really like.

So. I'm not saying it's a bad system. It certainly allows starting magi to do a lot more, if they are willing to risk their necks (I like how it makes spontaneous magic an exercise in restraint: it's very tempting to have all that power and so many different things to do, for just that 1% chance of a botch on each attempt...). So it does meet your stated objectives.

I still don't like it better than the current system though. It eliminates effortless, repeated use of little spontaneous tricks, which I love. I think it also risks making all the PC magi very similar, since it's very "rewarding" to spread roughly half of your xp over 5-6 Forms and the other half over Improvisation, relying almost exclusively on spontaneous magic -- at least in the short term (for the first 500xp or so, i.e. 10-20 years out of gauntlet). Finally, it makes losing spontaneous magic due to Flaws totally crippling in comparison to other magi; whereas I think the occasional "non-spontaneous" character can be a lot of fun.

From a careful reading I get this:

The limit of his system is (Magnitude of effect = Improvisation Ability), with each individual Form being limited to its Form score.

So with an Form spread of Ignem11, Mentem 16, Terram 18 and Improvisation Ability at 3, the maximum Ignem effect is level 11 (because Ignem=11), the maximum Terram and Mentem is 15 (3rd magnitude because Improvisation = 3).

The key point to take here is to make sure you Improvisation is always equal to the magnitude of your highest art. Given most magi cap out shortly above 30 (for practical reasons), you'd only even need Improvisation 6 and choose your specialization in your highest art.

It might be better to tie this into Magic Theory instead of a different new Ability, and change the limit to (Magic Theory x3), though Magic Theory 10+ is something magi routinely achieve so that's not much of a limit.

I don't like how Technique is ignored and don't agree with the logic as to why it's ignored in this system. A Technique is integral the system of Hermetic Magic, after all.

I was trying to come up with a better way of phrasing it, but effects are automatic when in a magic aura or no aura. I mentioned later on the realm interaction possibilities. Botch dice are easily avoided by not using vis, in answer to your later comment in this post. Vis is only used to avoid fatigue, boost penetration or go for higher magnitude effects that the circumstances would normally allow.

Indeed, I was going for the magnitude of the effect. There was only one place where I used level in the context of spells/effects and that was to say that it was relatively easy to generate high level effects. So someone with Hermetic Improvisation score of 3 and all Forms at 3 or greater could work 3rd magnitude effects with no risk in an area without any aura or a magic aura under normal circumstances, just cost of 2 fatigue.
Yeah, it's really powerful, it opens up a lot of possibilities, and while you correctly point out that someone could then cast day long spells and rest before going on, it's my experience that this happens quite a bit already, albeit the resting becomes less necessary in my scenario.
My system makes the level 3-5 effects easier, as to cast them only requires 5 xp in Hermetic Improvisation, and 1 xp in each of the Forms. Granted, it costs two fatigue, and this never goes away without using vis and converting cost to risk of bad things happening, but if you want it to go away, invent the formulaic spell for it.

You pretty much identified why I didn't go with Magic Theory. Yeah, I think Techniques are important, too. Systems that include the technique into equation require additional arithmetic later on to rebalance. And as you now understand, removing the technique from this equation doesn't divide by two or anything of the sort. My yardstick is completely different.

Uh, wow. Yes, I agree it's really really powerful. I guess it could be a lot of fun, particularly for an experienced player, because you end up being able to do lots and lots and lots of stuff right out of apprenticeship.

My only reservation is that spontaneous magic - and in fact, generalist spontaneous magic - becomes so easy, versatile and powerful that it "eclipses" most other ways to build a character, meaning that Hermetic PCs would probably tend to become "magically" very uniform (usually not a good thing) at least for the first 10-20 years of their careers (when their Improvisation and 6+ Forms all reach a score of 8-10).

Generally speaking, PC magi have a tendency to broaden out in the years after gauntlet. Certainly if 30 years post gauntlet is the time where magi start thinking about apprentices, getting all of the Arts scores to 5 becomes a real priority. And while it doesn't take a long time to get an Art score to 5, it does open up a lot of the useful spells in that 3rd and 4th magnitude range, which is where I see the sweet spot in spontaneous magic being in this system. I doubt that my character would ever need to spontaneously cast a 6th magnitude, group version of Pilum of Fire, but with enough dedication and/or willingness to accept some risk, it is possible. But having the non Animal specialist being able to cast Doublet of Impenetrable silk on himself is an example of a useful spell. He might cast it on himself in the morning, spend 15 minutes recovering his fatigue and go on about his day. I'm giving the specialists a chance to specialize, but making some of the common and useful spells possible and accessible without the cost of a season spent learning that one specific spell. Of course, players are always free to learn that one specific spell, someone who knows Doublet of Impenetrable Silk likely doesn't get fatigued while casting it, and can easily cast it on the entire party. The one who doesn't know the formulaic spell must do it spontaneously and uses a lot of time in the process.

I really see a score of 3 in HI being enough for a lot of magi.

I added a couple of edits to the OP with respect to how Vis is used, and to better express the risks of using Vis under this system of Spontaneous Magic. Powerful, yes. Dangerous and risky, double yes. It better explains why a specialist will pursue their Arts rather than leaving things spontaneous...

That's the thing, though. If most magi only need a 3, then why have the Ability at all? Even the mighty specialists won't raise this above 7 (yeah, you can push an art above 35, but by that point you usually have enough to do the things you want with the Art), and as you said, it doesn't actually do anything in and of itself. I don't see the need for 2 limits where the one (limit of Art Score) is going to be the important one in most cases (a score of Improvisation 4 will be overkill for 80% of most magi's arts). Just limit it by Art Score and remove the XP sink Ability.

not a fan of this idea. It is an unneeded complication for something that is not really an issue at all.


Points in which we probably agree, at least in part:

  • Spontaneous Magic is a big selling point, but a bit of a letdown, unless your arts are high
  • Spont/2, unless contrived somewhat, is the one which is almost always used, with magi resting 2 minutes between each buff. Thus, the fatigue loss is often meaningless.

I can see spontaneous magic as trying to cast a formulaic spell, but without the safety nets of a structured spell.

With respect to that, we could have 2 types of spontaneous magic

  1. Relaxed Spontaneous Magic:
    You take the time to safely cast your spell, with enough safety margins to be safe.
    This can't be done if you would normally use a stress die.
    Should this be necessary, Init is 0+Qk, penetration is 0.
    Max level is (Sta + Te + Fo)/2, no die. This is a little easy if you have your total, just multiply spell levels by 2.
    If casting ceremoniously, you may add AL + Ph + Simple die.
    You can't use vis.
    Weak Spontaneous Magic... I don't know what to make of it. Everything else works the same.

  2. Stressful Spontaneous Magic
    This occurs whenever you try to hurry (Fast-Cast sponting), remove the safety nets to use your full power, decide to boost your spells with vis, or can't just concentrate safely on them (like, with an arrow flying at you).
    You aim for a specific effect.
    Init is as normal. If fast-casting, treat as if having the fat-cast mastery (-10 to totals)
    You cast using Sta + Te + Fo + Stress die, just like a formulaic.
    If you fall 10 points short of the effect, spend one fatigue, as usual for a formulaic.
    Now, the catch: You incurr 1 additionnal botch dice per magnitude of the effect. This is NOT safe.
    I've considered adding you 1 warping point anyway, as powerful, ungrounded magic courses through your body. Not sure about it.

2b) Maybe we could keep the old (Divide by 5) as such trivial effects that you could cast them safely and quickly, in fact having the advantages of both types, without any danger.

Yes, certainly. It's such a let down that I've stopped using Spontaneous Magic as a topic to get players excited about the system. It just doesn't pay off when players figure out that they can rarely spontaneous cast things, except those things that are in Arts that they know well, and likely already have spells to do. So Spontaneous Magic becomes something for the advanced player, or the player who lucked into character design.
Fatigue loss is somewhat meaningless, true. I'm not sure doubling it for this system is enough of a cost, but I proposed it as a starting point for discussion.

You're just moving it from dividing by 5 or dividing by 2 into dividing by 2 or not dividing. I didn't want to make spontaneous casting risky, even under stress, unless magi choose to use vis. Losing two fatigue in a stressful situation is going to be attractive to a lot of players, so I can see them spending 2 pawns of vis to avoid it, and incurring an immediate check for botch. Some might risk it because it's their nature, and some would only do it to avoid passing out.

I'm glad you added so much constructive criticism to the discussion. But it isn't complicated at all, it's far less complicated than the current system for Spontaneous Magic. Compare two numbers, pick the lesser of them, multiply that 5, and that's the level of spell you can cast in a specific Form, cast it take two fatigue, with player choice to use vis in novel new ways.

That's fair, the creation of an XP sink. But it's not much of one. Perhaps we could get rid of the Ability, and just use the Techniques as the limiting agent. Lesser of Technique or Form determines the spell, but then you have to match spells to the proper TeFo combination, and requires knowing different numbers for the different combinations. It adds a bit more complexity back in. One of the reasons I've ignored the Technique is that I find players who specialize in the Techniques are already well on their way to becoming generalists.

I am neither a fan of the idea.

In my games (many, many games, with many different players), the issues was never division by 2 or 5, fatigue or not. The issue was having to design a spell on the fly, selecting the appropriate guidelines and min/maxing range/area/duration - with a few exceptions none of my players made the effort to get acquainted with the spells' guidelines.

Specially in troupe play, where there is only one or two mages, when the mage is stopping the game to do math and stuff, the other would sometimes phase out as he is pondering various ways to achieve the effect he wants.

We solved that by leeting me, as ST, eyeballing the level and having the final say. It was fine with everybody as it was a simple, efficient way to keep the action rolling.
Since spell guidelines are inherent of the current system, there is no way to avoid it.

If I had a proposal, it would be something supporting fluid play.

I would keep the idea of Hermetic Improvisation as a skill. It will represent the number of unfinished or rough spells that the mage have pondered about it per form.

Those rough spells follow the rule of spontaneous casting, expect that they have to be planned and tought through. It takes a day to design a rough spell. During the design phase, the magus choose to have to exert himself or not and follow the rule of spontaneous casting.
Once done, it can be cast any time.
It keeps some flexibility from the mage (but not as much as the current rules), but more importantly, it does not slow down anymore the pace of the story.
If the PCs are stuck, they can still decide to wait a day for the mage to figure out a spell to help them.

One reason to bring higher level spells into reach with spontaneous magic is that the need to match guideline and R/D/T requirements goes down a lot, because a great many of these desired spells are 10-15th level. It's much easier to pick a spell that already exists in a book, than to reconstruct a spell from scratch. If players know that they can cast 3rd magnitude (15th level spells or less) then they can skim through the spells rather than the guidelines. It's also pretty easy, once you know the progression of the R/D/T parameters to observe that reducing duration from D:Sun +2 to D:Diameter +1 will knock off a magnitude, and bring a 20th level spell into reach, it's also slightly easier to advise that, than it is to demonstrate how to construct a spell from scratch.

Some aspects of the suggested Spont method may be simpler than the current rules. And I think I see where the design is going regarding Fatigue, because it also annoys me to no then when players "spont this, wait 2 minutes, spont that, wait another 2 minutes..." Sort of, because this is only doable at times where there is no rush, so it's hardly worse than trying out solutions with physical skills.
But spending 2 Fatigue to Spont makes Fast-Cast Defense next to useless! If I'm already in a fight why would I blow 2 precious Fatigue levels? Sure, Fast cast as RAW most likely costs a single Fatigue level anyway, but this I might to once maybe twice. But not blow two at once! Even though you shouldn't lose Fatigue to Formulaic spells in a fight - because this really means you have no Penetration - there may be other spells used which just need to be cast and may already tax you. So Invocation of Weariness becomes a powerful spell if your opponent has already spent Fatigue.
Also, the system suggested shafts Technique specialists and I find that problematic.

IMHO Spontaneous magic is just fine. Sure it is more complex than not doing it. It's not so quick-and-dirty as to sell the game as flashy. Using guideline lists and calculators isn't very 'sexy
' what what the deuce is in a rpg? It takes time, more time than not doing it, but hardly grinds the game to a halt. Other decisions might take a minute or two to work out. And as long as there are 1-2 people able to do simple math in a jiffy, has a feel for spells and effects, and has experience doing it it's doable. At least is has for us, and a lot of the newcomers to the game has picked it up nicely as well.

It is not IMHO a problem that Spont magic is weak. The whole point Hermetic magic that Formulaic is the right and powerful way to do it, which furthers study and invention. But Spont is a side benefit to allow for at least some flexibility. Non-Fatigueing magic can only perform the most weak effects, but sometimes that is enough. Spending Fatigue adds more power for a cost (although unless in a rush easily recovered from) and added risk along the chance of exploding dice. So unless you are a dedicated built magus using Diedne Magic or Life Linked Spont Magic only powerful magi with high Art scores cast powerful spells this way. And I don't find it an argument against Spont magic that these magi with high Arts are likely to possess the spells needed as well. Formulaic spells are often awfully specific, which is one of the reasons Spont is nice.
IMHO the whole point is to avoid having players mutter "but I have no useful spells". Then look at your Arts and see if you could improvise something. It's not a sure thing because often you have too low scores in useful Arts but at least there was another chance.

Fast Cast defense is ugh for spontaneous magic, anyway. For reliable fast cast defending you need to have mastered formulaic spells to be able to counter the common offensive spells. I mean you might be able to pull off some fast cast defense, but you probably can't. Fast cast defend against a PoF requires a 10th level ReIg, PeVi or CrAq effects. 10th level effects that are fast cast require Art scores of 30, before dividing (30 -10 [fast casting penalty])/2=10. True, you can add in half the die roll, and confidence. Adding in half of an average die roll of 6 means the Te+Fo+Stamina need only be 27. Assume a stamina of 2, and that's a TeFo 25. Art scores in the teens aren't something that happens easily or quickly, and for a TeFo of 25 and that's a total of 169 experience points.

Under my system, you can fast cast defend, there is no penalty. To counter a PoF, you check for fast cast timing, and it's done. It requires an ability score of 2, and a Form score of 2, total XP cost of 18 xp, indeed 45 xp will cover you against all Forms at 20th level effects. It costs two fatigue, or two pawns of vis, or a combination of the two. If you use vis, you are checking for botch.

Fast cast defense is throwing up a spell in the hopes that the next thing you actually planned to do makes a difference enough to not do it anymore. I honestly (despite what Marko will say about this) don't see fast casting being a winning gambit in a magical combat.

Invocation of Weariness and Winter's Icy Touch are indeed dangerous spells. However, if you cast these, you need to be able to penetrate. If you can penetrate, you probably have tricks of multiple casting up your sleeve, too, so it's something of a moot point to say that these are anymore dangerous than they already are.

You can not fast cast formulaic defensive spells (ArM pg 83). Fast cast for defense is under Spontaneous spells.

You can, there is a mastery ability that specifically allows this. Note, I said mastered formulaic spells. And if you don't accept that, then my entire character premise in your game is blown...

you are correct. I did not catch the Mastered Formulatic