If you’re going to create a magic system, and it’s based on a finite group of elements at least derived from the classical elements, it’s a safe bet they’re going to end up in a circle.
For the setting I’m hammering into shape around this game (because I’m a strong proponent of setting and mechanics being interpenetrated, if not built into one another), there’s a Magic Pentacle that has five elements in it. There’s a “standard” pentacle that everyone can default to, with the four Western elements plus “ether” to serve as a meta-element allowing for what I’m very technically calling “pure magic stuff”. As has been alluded to earlier, though, this will be a customizable framework, with characters able to build what are known as iconoclastic schools of magic — substituting one or more bespoke elements for slots in the pentacle.
Nobody has more than five, so the trick to conceptualizing your praxis, as it’s called in-setting, is distilling everything your magic can do down to five concepts that interact. They don’t have to cover everything; if you’re a necromancer, you can pick elements that deal only with death and entropy, consciously limiting yourself from performing a wide array of magical feats, but defining your specialty the way you want. (I’m playing with the idea of balancing the limitation of not being able to call upon the entire panoply of sorcery with an offensive bonus, based on the idea that it helps to know the elements that are being used against you to properly defend yourself from a spell, and so fringe schools are viable competitors with the standardized model; that said, Ether remains the catch-all magical school, so mainstream magicians aren’t easy pickings for some opportunistic rival with a quirky praxis.)
This combines with the keyword system in interesting ways: I can actually picture a series of concentric circular trait frameworks radiating out from the magic circle in the center. The next layer perhaps contains attributes – I only have three right now, but that creates an interesting possiblity. Namely, perhaps that ring is like a dial, and you can spin your attributes to line up with attributes (probably not at whim, since that would serve no purpose). One of the ways magic is often used in a game situation is to enhance one’s innate abilities, but there should be some cost in doing so, since you’re basically getting free quantifiable effect out of the synergy that casting a spell by itself wouldn’t give you.
To illustrate: my magician casts a Fire spell; I have no invested dice [see previous blog post], so I roll all four dF and add my Fire trait rating. If I’m enhancing my social attribute, though, by using Fire magic to appear more vibrant and energetic, then I would perhaps spend an action to line up my attribute wheel so Social is aligned with Fire, roll the dice for the spell, and get the total of both added to the roll. It seems to make sense, but it utterly crushes the difficulty scale as previously envisioned, and it makes personal-effect spells capable of a significantly higher amount of effect than throwing up a purely magical construct, which is weird and counter-intuitive. But I’m also pondering ways that that might make sense in the game fiction, and it does seem to lend itself to a tone of larger-than-life individual heroism than fits what I want to do. We’ll put a pin in that for later.
The other wheel that we have to deal with are the descriptive keywords; you pick a certain number of traits that define who and what you are in the world. Some of them are personality traits, like Passionate, Stoic, or Empathic, which deliver mechanical benefits to actions in line with their nature; others plug you into the game world, such as rank in an organization or having a special lineage. Put together, they convey a simple concept for the character that should ideally be intelligible to everyone in-game as well as around the table. When your character is described as an “Arrogant Aegyptos Thaumaturge” or “Impulsive Flame-Born Myrmidon,” those phrases will have defined meanings based on their components. Part of the advancement mechanism involves earning new descriptors, of course, so the Thaumaturge might be faced with the decision of whether to join the Council of Sages or become an Archon, or the Myrmidon might work toward the level of Aristos, becoming Renegade due to a twist of fate. Again, it’s possible one might be able to align these with the underlying layers of traits, bringing several different facets of the character to bear on a given task for great effect. An invested trait would not be eligible to align, I think, because it seems broken to allow both the standing benefit of an invested die to combine with a potentially huge die roll; then again, perhaps the opposite could be true, and the limitation is that you can only align traits that have dice invested, which requires several actions and in-game setup. Something to ponder.