The Language of Magic in GURPS

The art of building magical formulae in the Ermetic Tradition

by Giovanni Pezzulo and Paolo Coletti

1. The Language of Magic

We propose a system for writing magical formulae that can be applied to GURPS's standard spells as well as to improvised or new ones. This system has two main purposes. From the player side it can add flavor to their role-playing: they can cast spells pronouncing their formula. From the setting side it can add new goals to magic related campaigns: wizards can discuss about ermetic knowledge in their councils, trade it, or start long quests to recover forgotten lore. More, formulae and spells are not standardized: different traditions and schools can develop different or personalized versions, each one with its own peculiarities, aspect and side effects.

2. Symbols

The Language of Magic, or Ermetic Language, has an infinite number of Symbols. Those Symbols form a complex alphabet, like the Chinese or Egyptian one; for simplicity they are written in English characters, but you can imagine stranger signs.

In the Ermetic Tradition, magic is produced formulating the spell in the Ermetic Language. So, formulating "Fire a light!" in the Language of Magic causes a light to fire. However, the sense that a Symbol assume in a formula is not exactly static; instead, its role depends from the closeness to the other Symbols, from their potentials and colors. Symbols are like winds that move a banner - the meaning - in a given direction. This is why Symbols are also called: "wind-senses". Ermetic mages assign a meaning to each single wind-sense; but it only superficially capture their behavior: it is simply a suggestion on how to use them in the experiments.

Simply pronouncing the Symbols produces nothing; instead, a mage has to fulfill some requirements in order to create a formula that has a really magical effect.

3. Five steps to build a "formula".

Writing a formula is a difficult process; it involves thaumathurgic and experimental knowledge about the behavior of each Symbol, and it is constrained by some rules. The whole process requires five steps.

  1. "Choose" the most relevant Symbols for the magical effect to be produced.

  2. "Apply" the "Five Laws of Magic" and the "Two Rules of Symbols".

  3. "Stabilize" the formula analyzing potentials and colors.

  4. "Harmonize" the formula applying rhetorical constraints.

  5. "Try" the effect casting the spell.

Remember that the same magical effect can be produced with different formulae; each formula has different peculiarities, limitations and uses. This is why there are many different spells with similar effects, written by different mages with their unique signatures.

4. Explanation of the 5 steps.

4.1. Choose the right wind-senses.

In order to cast a spell, you have to formulate it using the relevant wind-senses for the effect, as explained in the Improvised Magic system (from GURPS Magic); the minimal components are a verb and a substantive ("fire a light!"). Now you have more wind-senses and you can formulate the spell more and more precisely. In general, if a formula is more accurate it costs more but it is more effective. For example, try: "change a dark place into a naturally enlightened one".

There are four types of Symbols: Normal, Special, Neutral and Composed.

Symbol type Use
Normal the default Symbols, having a specific meaning
Special mana Symbols, used to provide energy to the spell
Neutral meaningless, used to provide color and potential
Composed created attaching two or more other Symbols

In each formula there will be at least one Special Symbol, that activates the spell and provides energy. Stronger spells requires more Special Symbols. The color of the Special Symbol gives the "main color" of the formula, and influences its effects. So, decide the color of your formula according to your desires. If there are many Special Symbols, the main color results from their interaction; normally the most important is the first, with influences from the others. You can add Neutral but colored wind-senses too, in order to color the formula in a specific way and to produce side effects.

Remember that the same magical effect can be achieved in many different ways, according to knowledge, experience and desires.

4.2. Apply the "Five Laws of Magic" and the "Two Rules of Symbols".

Symbols aggregate following special constraints: the "Five Magical Laws" and the "Two Rules of Symbols". So every formula has to fit their requirements.

The "Five Laws of Magic" are:

  1. "The Law of Sympathy and Antipathy". This law is used when a wind-sense can help or strengthen another one, or if it has to negate or stop the effect of another one. With the Law of Sympathy the wind-senses have to be written one before the other, without other wind-senses in the middle; with the Law of Antipathy they need to be separated by another one or more wind-senses. For example, "bergeh" (hot) and "ail"(spark) can be linked with the Law of Sympathy, while "ail"(spark) and "kroe"(dark ray) can be linked with the Law of Antipathy, with another wind-sense between.

  2. "The Law of Contagion". This law is used when you want to meld wind-senses together, because their effect has to be associated or one has to influence the other. You have to write one wind-sense inside the other one, creating a Composed Symbol. You can meld in this way only wind-senses of the same color. For example "ail"(spark) and "beiss"(natural light), two green Symbols, can be linked with the "Law of Contagion", forming "baileiss".

  3. "The Law of Causation and Necessity". This law is used to link a verb and a substantive. Put them in this order: first the verb, then the substantive, creating a Composed Symbol. Verbs are never alone in a formula; they are always linked to other wind-senses. It is not necessary that the two symbols are of the same color. For example, "kodai"(create) and "beoh"(animal) can be linked with the "Law of Causation and Necessity", forming "kodaibeoh".

  4. "The Law of Stability and Compensation"; wind-senses have a magical potential that has to be stabilized in order to prevent dangers. So, equalize the formula according to the potential scheme (according to the given numbers, the final potential must be zero). For simplicity stabilization is often indicated as a separate step (the third step).

  5. "The Law of Chance"; you can add Neutral wind-senses to your formula whenever you want; you can put them alone or in the middle of Composed Symbol. But every time you change something in this way you may have subtle and unpredictable secondary effects in your spell. However, it is possible to give general indications for those changes: using positive potential Neutral Symbols can generate side effects in the spell, while using negative potential ones can weaken the spell. The effects depend also from the colors involved, as explained in the Color section.

The "Two Rules of Symbols" are:

  1. "The Basic Rule of Symbols". This rule applies to every pair of subsequent Symbols in a formula. Follow always an even potential Symbol with an odd potential Symbol or a zero potential Symbol; follow always an odd potential Symbol with an even potential Symbol or a zero potential Symbol.

  2. "The Rule of Composed Symbols". You can create a Composed Symbol attaching every two Symbols. Follow always an even potential Symbol with an odd potential Symbol or a zero potential Symbol; follow always an odd potential Symbol with an even potential Symbol or a zero potential Symbol. This is a recursive process: you can have one or more Composed Symbols inside one other. The Composed Symbol potential cannot be more than +5 or less than -5. Remember to make them readable, or the caster might have problems with pronunciation.

4.3. Stabilize the formula.

According to the Law of Stability and Compensation, each formula has to be stabilized. Each Symbol has a potential number, that ranges from -5 to +5. The sum of potentials of the entire formula has to be exactly zero, or your spell will go crazy. If you cannot reach this number, you have to add new wind-senses (for example Neutral ones) in order to stabilize the formula. For example, "itren (protect, +2) oogghinn (Special, -4) goimer (man, +4)" is not balanced, while "itren (protect,+2) oogghinn (Special,-4) goimer (man,+4) antelm (Neutral, -2)" is balanced.

4.4. Harmonize the formula (optional)

Each element has its own rhetorical constraints, allowing a given number of verses, accents or rhymes. Normally if the power of a spell is bigger, the formula is longer and more difficult to pronounce. If you cannot follow these rules, your spell will not work at all.

The general suggestion is to personalize the way to pronounce the formula and use it every time. Some -optional- metric rules are given here.

First, you have to divide your verse into syllables. After it you group syllables into "foots", sets of 2 or 3 syllables, not necessarily corresponding to a word. Only one accent can exist in a foot; foots are named by its position. The number of foots in a verse gives its metric. In the following tables a basic metric is presented. Syllables are separated by a single line "-", while foots with a triple line "---". Accent (`) position is also specified.

Foots with 2 syllables.

Foot name Scheme Example
iambic a-à re-shìn
trochaic à-a rè-shin
spondaic à-à rè-shìn

Foots with 3 syllabes.

Foot name Scheme Example
dactylic à-a-a ssè-ve-ness
anapestic a-a-à sse-ve-nèss

Number of foots Name Example
1 monometer ssè-ve-ness
2 dimeter ssè-ve-ness---sè-ve-nes
3 trimeter ssè-ve-ness---sè-ve-nes---re-shìn
4 tetrameter ssè-ve-ness---sè-ve-nes---re-shìn---jad-dèn
5 pentameter ssè-ve-ness---sè-ve-nes---re-shìn---jad-dèn---ulf-èif
6 hexameter ssè-ve-ness---sè-ve-nes---re-shìn---jad-dèn---ulf-èif---a-kìh

Each magic school uses its harmony, a typical rhetoric style; here are given some suggestions.

School Harmony Example
light trimeters or tetrameters; anapestics or iambics ulf-èif---erg-bai-lèiss---ant-èlm
protection trimeters or tetrameters; trochaics or dactylics i'-tren---oo'g-ghinn---go'-i-mer---a'nt-elm
animal hexameter; spondaics or dactylics (left as easy exercise to the apprentices)

In addiction to those rules, your magic teacher (or the GM) may have its personal style to sing or pronounce a spell, giving additional rhetorical rules or new constraints for number of syllables, number of verses, rhymes and so on.

4.5. Try the formula

At the end, the only way to discover if a formula works well written is to try it. So, you have to cast the spell you have formulated; if you have followed every rule, it probably will produce a magical effect. But writing a formula is not simply mixing Symbols or following rules: each wind-sense has its own behavior: some meets well, other not, others causes the spell to backfire. Each formula can have its side effects, drawbacks or unique signatures, depending of the mix of Symbols, potentials and colors (remember the Fifth Law!). Thaumathurgic knowledge involves fine-tuning all those problems.

Normally well written formulae become famous and are taught in magic academies; they become the spells that every Ermetic mage knows. But remember that there can be many different versions that distinguish in few things.

5. An example: the formula of "Magical Light"

In "Magical Light" only the School of Light is involved. Knowing that School, I decide that the following Symbols are involved:

Symbols Potential Color
ail (spark) +4 green
beiss (natural light) -4 green
eif (dark spot) +5 red
ulf (change) -5 red
erg (Special Symbol) +2 green

I decide to formulate my spell as "change darkness into natural light"; so the first thing to do is using the "Law of Causation and Necessity" to link the verb "ulf" (change) to the substantive "eif" (dark). So I have "ulfeif" (a Composed Symbol).

I want a really natural light; so I decide to link "ail" (spark) with "beiss" (natural light), a positive blue Symbol and a negative blue one; so I apply the "Law of Contagion" and I obtain "baileiss" (a Composed Symbol that respects the "Rule of Composed Symbols").

Now I want to strengthen the difference between darkness and light, so I decide to link the two Composed Symbols "ulfeif" and "baileiss" with the "Law of Antipathy". According to this law I need another wind-sense that separates the two. I choose to use the Special Symbol "erg"; it is mandatory to use a Special Symbol, and "erg" fits with all the requirements. It is a green Special Symbol, and it gives something like a "spiritual" effect to my magical light. So I have "ulfeif erg baileiss".

I have to equalize the formula. The entire formula has a potential of +2. I have two different choices: restart formulating it or adding Neutral Symbols. I choose the second option; so I add "antelm", a green negative Neutral Symbol. So my spell will be very related to green power. Now my formula is: "ulfeif erg baileiss antelm".

In this way I have respected the "Basic Rule of Symbols" (my symbols are: zero, positive, zero, negative) and the formula is well equalized (its total potential is zero).

I have write it in the "harmonic" scheme for light spell (a trimeter with anapestic and iambic), and I have: ulfèif erg bailèiss antèlm.

Now I have to do experiments (cast the spell) to see if it gives the right results. The real effect is determined by the rightness of wind-senses used, colors and rhetorical constraints.

Remember that during the process I have add "antelm" (a green Neutral symbol); so, according to the law of chance, I must expect some side effects related to this color.

6. Colors

To each pair of potentials corresponds a "color". Colors are used to investigate the "aura" of the spell (and the type of secondary effects). The main color of the formula is given from the first Special Symbol used; other Symbols can give different tones of color. Even letting the accent fall in a vowel or in another can make a difference in the color. Grey Special Symbols are reserved only for very strong spells. The color of the spell influences its effects in a subtle way, especially if the spell fails. The following table gives a general idea of the nature of these effects. Every mage can build his formulae as he wants; but be careful with black elements in the formulae!

Potential Color Effect Elements
+5, -5 red emotional effect fire, passion
+4, -4 blue intellectual effect air, mind
+3, -3 white good effect goodness
+3, -3 black evil effect evilness
+2, -2 green spiritual effect water, soul
+1, -1 yellow material effect earth, body
0 grey balanced effect mana

7. GURPS Game terms

As normally in GURPS, only mages can cast a spell; everybody can write or read a formula, but producing the magical effect requires an innate talent called Magery (except in high mana zones) and the precise will of the mage to cast a spell (so no unwilling mage casts casually a spell from a formula while reading a book; but if he wants a mage can cast a spell from a formula he doesn't fully understand). It is always the will of the mage, not the Symbols in the formula, that casts or delays or breaks a spell.

"Thaumathurgy" skill represents knowledge of Ermetic Magic in general, while "Magic School" skills represent knowledge of the single arcane areas (GURPS Magic explains how to calculate the value of this figured skill). "Language (Ermetic Language)" (MVH) skill represents knowledge about Laws, Rules and the other constraints of this language.

In game terms, you know a Special or Neutral wind-sense for each 2 levels in the skill "Thaumathurgy" and a Normal wind-sense (related to a given School) for each 2 levels in that Magic School skill, at the usual level. In alternative, you can use many Thaumathurgy (school) skills instead of School Magic figured skills.

Players can use this system to write formulae for standard GURPS spell (from GURPS Magic and GURPS Grimoire), according to their casting cost and time. Or they can try to build new spells, but they are under GM's approval.

Symbols and the Ermetic Language skill can be used in researching a new spell; a GM can require to write a formula for it and to realize some checks to see if it works. The mechanics are explained in GURPS Magic.

Symbols can be used for Improvised Spells, adding to verbs and substantives written in GURPS Magic. Optionally, if a GM wants to allow players to create a formula on the fly, he can simplify these rules, applying only some constraints; for example he can enforce only color requirements and not potential ones.

Arcane knowledge is difficult: even if the formula is well written, something can go wrong: maybe some Symbols don't meet well, or some combinations or colors produce annoying effects. The GM must require the usual number of checks to see if the formula produces a real spell and if the spell produces the desired result, following the standard GURPS Magic mechanics, and decide if its effects are colored.

If a mage tries to use a Symbol he doesn't know, his spell surely will backfire, because he cannot control every singularity that the given Symbol causes when it meets the other Symbols in the formula.

8. Writing the formula for a specific spell

If a player wants to write the formula of a specific spell, both contained in GURPS Magic or a new one, casting time and energy of the spells follow standard GURPS rules; so he has to represent them in his formula, or it cannot work.

Energy is represented by the Special Symbols, like "erg" or "akih"; each Special Symbol means 1 point of casting energy. More powerful formulae need more Special Symbols: they cause the spell to be stronger and to last longer. Casting time is calculated by the length of the formula; each verse represents 1 second of casting time.

So if a player wants to formulate a spell that requires 3 points of energy and 3 seconds, he must use 3 Special Symbols and 3 verses.

For each gray Special Symbol (like "aghal") used, a level of Magery and 2 points of casting energy are required; those Symbols are very rare and are reserved only to the strongest spells.

Another way to obtain stronger spells is repeating the formula more times; ulfèif erg bailèiss antèlm - ulfèif erg bailèiss antèlm creates a stronger effect that costs 2 points of energy and requires 2 seconds of casting time. Most variable-cost spells (different magnitude in light, or missile spells) in GURPS can be obtained in this way.

Remember that there are many ways to write the formula of a spell; the formula you are writing can produce some side effects, or a special aura, or colored results, desired or undesired. The main color of the formula is the color of the (first) Special Symbol, influenced by the color of the other Symbols. Normally very balanced formulae (as those taught in many magical academies or written in GURPS Magic) have few or no side effects. Wise magicians try frequently to use gray Composed Symbols in order to minimize troubles during their experiments.

9. Another example

In the "magical light" example we have obtained ulfèif erg bailèiss antèlm, that costs 1 (1 Special Symbol is used, "erg") and requires 1 second of casting time (it has 1 verse).

If a magician wants to obtain a stronger and longer effect, he can try: ssèveness sèvenes reshìnjaddèn - ulfèif erg bailèiss antèlm. The white Special Symbols "sseveness sevenes" in general produce no side effects, and so they are broadly used; evil wizards often prefer to use the black "xxevenexx xevenex", that have a very similar pronunciation but radically different meaning (GM can rule that a critical failure in a "sseveness" formula results in a "xxevenexx" black effect). The two blue Neutral symbols ("reshin" and "jadden") are linked to create a gray Composed Symbol; the new verse also fits the rhetorical scheme. This new formula costs 3 points of energy (3 Special Symbols are used) and requires 2 seconds of casting time (it has 2 verses). It produces a stronger and longer magical light, more or less with the same side effects of the precedent one. Some mages prefer to personalize their spells, using their own Special and Composed Symbols, that become an unique signature of the spell, a wizard mark. Or they can use True Names.

10. True Names and ingredients

A True Name is the Symbol in the Ermetic Language for something or somebody. Mages sometimes include True names into formulae whose effect has to be restricted to a given object, place or even person. It is not safe for nobody to reveal his True Name, because it can be included into dangerous formulae! In a similar way other True Names (for races, demons, ingredients or special places) can be included into the formula in order to make it more effective against a specific opponent or in a particular situation. Knowledge about True names requires special studies and can be represented as a further specialization of the thaumathurgy skill.

Even "ingredients" can be used in a formula using their True name. The "Law of Causation" can be used to introduce them in order to reduce the cost of a spell. The arcane explication is that some of the energy is drained form the ingredient itself. For example, "erhimm" (ruby) is a red negative wind-sense; it is well demonstrated that it can be used as an ingredient for fire-related magic with this law. Some (rich) mages link it with "zaas" (fire, a red positive wind-sense), obtaining "zerhimmaas"; if this Symbol is used in a formula, the casting cost of some fire spells is reduced, if a ruby is sacrificed in the process.

11. Ermetic knowledge

It is important to understand that real magic has no characters, no potential and no colors in its essence; wind-senses are only the specific formalism used from ermetic mages to represent this phenomenon. Mages are like physicians that build a theoretical language populated by gravity forces, atoms and other essences in order to comprehend Nature and to force her to obey to their will.

You can see magical knowledge as a scientific method, like physics or chemistry. School Magic knowledge represents theoretical knowledge in a specific field, like particle physics, gravity or quantum mechanics are in physics. Spells are like experiments: they are important in themselves but they are much more important because they allow mages to discover the secrets that rules the elements (and so new wind-senses, combinations and sequences). In those terms, magic in the campaign is more knowledge-centered rather than spell-centered. Mages in their studies try to discover and experiment the most efficient (and well colored) wind-senses and Composed Symbols. That kind of ermetic knowledge is the focus of many conclaves, too.

12. Magic teaching

Many formulae taught in magic academies are written in an obscure way: the really useful wind-senses are dissimulated into a more complex text formed of verses with Neutral wind-senses, eventually linked to the other Symbols to form Composed Symbols. However, even these small adds can have some limited side effects, even if they are not so much important to give real problems. It will need a long study from the apprentices to recover and isolate the single wind-senses from the entire formula.

Normally mages dissimulates their formulae into poetic representations in order to keep them hidden from undesired attentions from the profanes; "ulfeif erg baileiss antelm" can be hidden into:

The sUn Lights over FriEnds and enemIes,
over FiErce waRriors, over Gentle dames;
over BAnners, over vessILs, castlEs and rIverS,
over thiS bAttle, wheN The plain shivErs;
it shines and shines, showing no piety,
over the fooLish doom of Megalos army...

This explains why mage tomes are written in an obscure way. This poetic form cannot be directly used to cast the spell; however a wise mage can discover the presence of the hidden formula (note the references to light!). Maybe Epic Magic (from GURPS Fantasy II: the Mad Lands) provides power in this way.

13. Tables of wind-senses

Here are listed some of the most known wind-senses; remember that wise mages keep secret their arcane knowledge, acquired trough long years of study.

Special wind-senses Potential Color
aghal 0 gray
gheo 0 gray
akih +1 yellow
ghela -1 yellow
erg +2 green
kroom -2 green
sseveness -3 white
sevenes +3 white
xxevenexx -3 black
xevenex +3 black
salekeon +4 blue
oogghinn -4 blue
ashee +5 red
showiinn -5 red

Verbal actions Potential Color
sedirt (communicate) -2 green
kaelg (communicate) +2 green
dimder (cure) -3 white
aodos (cure) +4 white
imohil (know) -4 blue
aaln (know) +4 blue
zonk (destroy) -4 blue
jeaddher (destroy) +4 blue
quwwik (repair) -1 yellow
ocotzi (repair) +1 yellow
agdher (move) -1 yellow
rekdian (move) +1 yellow
tral (protect) -2 green
itren (protect) +2 green
ighme (advise) -2 green
keon (advise) +2 green
ihlal (create) -5 red
kodai (create) +5 red
kreghon (control) -5 red
ugael (control) +5 red
ulf (transform) -5 red
reimen (transform) +5 red
zeshann (time) -5 red
aarell (time) +5 red

Common substantives Potential Color
zefir (air) +2 green
eolten (air) +2 green
beoh (animal) -4 blue
auhreken (animal) +4 blue
googg (aliment) +1 yellow
kann (aliment) -1 yellow
kofkeh (mind) +5 red
jeist (mind) -5 red
quobbe (earth) -4 blue
eusef (earth) +4 blue
fliis (water) -3 white
erbeit (water) +3 white
kwoxye (necromancy) +3 black
gexyln (necromancy) -3 black
eools (plant) +1 yellow
estel (plant) -1 yellow
feda (illusion) +2 green
zodor (illusion) -2 green
aent (meta) +5 red
oghamm (meta) -5 red
zaas (fire) +5 red
shambaal (fire) -5 red
goimer (man) +4 blue
kiuss (man) -4 blue
gohymerk (undead) -3 black
ahnkik (undead) -3 black
beiss (light) -4 blue
eftui (light) +4 blue
flio (sound) -1 yellow
koem (sound) +1 yellow

Light-related Potential Color
ail (spark) +4 blue
beiss (natural light) -4 blue
eif (dark spot) +5 red
zaghert (realistic shadow) -2 green
shendael (flash) -4 blue
etris (candle light) +1 yellow
kroe (dark ray) +3 black
bergeh (hot) -4 blue

Air-related Potential Color
shival (tempest) -5 red
fioshis (strong wind) -5 red
zefir (breeze) +2 green
baal (static air) +1 yellow

Animal-related Potential Color
beoh (wild beast) -4 blue
kohen (small animal) -1 yellow
kyez (evil instinct) -3 black
truoo (mammal) +2 green

Neutral Potential Color
logka 0 grey
ahruman 0 grey
abrax +1 yellow
ilkeban -1 yellow
antelm -2 green
aghi +2 green
ielsiss -3 white
ikaahm +3 white
xyles -3 black
xestem +3 black
jadden +4 blue
reshin -4 blue
xemm -5 red
ohist -5 red

14. Vowels and consonant potential

Potentials for Symbols are calculated according to a scheme for their characters. This is not part of thaumathurgic knowledge, nor it is possible to change the effect of a Symbol substituting one or more characters in them. This table is given only as a game utility for standardizing potential calculus in English language; it has no equivalence into the Ermetic Language, where no isolated characters exist, only Symbols.

Not every random sequence of characters is a Symbol; it has to be approved by the GM and it must fulfill some basic requirements. The range of Symbol potential is {-5, +5}. No +6 or -6 potential Symbol exist. Zero is the potential of magic; its color is gray or silver. The "potential scheme" for vowels:

Vowel Potential Color
a +5 red
e +4 blue
i j +3 white
y +3 black
o +2 green
u +1 yellow
The "potential scheme" for consonants:

Consonant Potential Color
b h -5 red
c l -4 blue
d m s -3 white
x -3 black
f n t z k -2 green
g p v r w q -1 yellow

GMs are free to invent as many Symbols as they need; the only suggestion from this table is using "i", "j" and "s" in white Symbols, and "y" and "x" in black Symbols. For example, "sevenes" is a white Special Symbol while "xevenex" is a black Special Symbol; they sound very similar, but they give the spell the opposite color. Be careful!

Potential Counter

This counter calculates the potential of one or more Symbols.

Insert the Symbol(s):
Value: Color: