Effective enchanting in GURPS

This post is about GURPS. It’s a tabletop roleplaying game, vaguely similar to D&D.


Enchanting in GURPS is a moderately debated topic.

The cost of entry for enchanting is Magery 2 and ten spells from different colleges. Then you need the Enchant spell at effective skill 15, plus skill 15 for whatever other spells you want to enchant on an item. That’s only 35 character points, and it’s normal to start with 100-150. So far, so good.

Enchanting costs energy points. There are two ways to enchant: quick and dirty, or slow and sure. With quick and dirty enchantment, you spend your own energy in the form of fatigue points to create an item quickly. With slow and sure enchantment, you use ambient magic instead.

Assuming your energy reserves are large enough and you buy level 20 on the Recover Energy spell, you can enchant 528 points of magic items per day using the Quick and Dirty method. This requires you to have at least 48 points of FP / Energy Reserve available.

You can enchant magic items to produce any effect you could create with a spell. There are a bare handful of spells you can enchant for 50 energy. Useful spells tend to start around 400 energy. To buy an Energy Reserve for enchanting, you must spend at least 1.5 character points per point of Energy Reserve — so if you want to enchant a vaguely useful spell with the Quick and Dirty method, you need to spend six hundred character points.

But wait! There’s Slow and Sure enchantment!

Slow and Sure enchanting doesn’t require any huge energy reserve. Instead, it requires time. Specifically, it requires one day per energy point of the item. Divide that by the number of people involved in the enchantment — oh, but reduce the effective skills for enchanting by one for every person you add. And you can’t interrupt the process without the enchantment regressing.

For instance, I’ve got a ton of downtime between campaign arcs. I decide to take my enchanter and make some sweet magic item. A Staff of Lightning, specifically. I must already know Lightning at skill level 15 or more to make this item. And at the end, I have a Staff. It cost me 800 days and $1200 to build.

How good is this?

When you know a spell at skill 15, you can cast it with one less energy point, but you need to say a few quiet words or make a small gesture to cast. If you are gagged and your fingers are bound, you can’t cast a spell at skill 15 — but you can use a magic item. So building the Staff of Lightning was a bit of a tradeoff, yes?

Not really. Your captors aren’t going to leave you a staff but bind your fingers and mouth. If you enchanted a Ring of Lightning, that would be more reasonable, though in a setting with magic items, you’ll probably be searched for jewelry. (Time to make a Necklace of Lightning instead and tie it around your thigh.) Spells, on the other hand, can’t be removed from you.

So that’s two disadvantages to the item — extra FP to cast, -5%; can be stolen, -30% — and one advantage — no signature, +20%. So it’s objectively worse than just casting the spell, according to the game’s builtin cost metrics.

I could alternatively have done self-study the whole time. During the enchantment process, I gained eight character points to be divided between Lightning and Enchant — probably evenly. Evening self-study earns me as many points again, but on any skills I want.

If I had gone for self-study alone, I could have gotten Lightning to skill 20. This would reduce my casting signature, just like building the magic item. 125% of the time to get +35% the advantage.

The Invisible Hand?

The only use for enchanting items is when you purchase them, not when you produce them, right?

You can trade the thirty points you spent on Very Wealthy and the twenty on Independent Income, and you save up for the better part of a year to buy that Staff of Lightning right out. But you could have spent those points to buy Magery 1 and Lightning at skill 15, with six other okay spells that you can try.

But points spent on Wealth get a superlinear payout. I could spend 75 points on Multimillionaire 1 and ten on Independent Income. This gets me enough starting cash to buy three magic items like a Ring of Lightning, and I can buy another every month. Good, yes? I do need to spend at least fifteen points on Magery, though — Lightning has an effect based on my level of Magery, and that’s not inherited from item creation.

So, I spent 100 points on a character who can cast three spells and gets an extra spell or two free per month. I could alternately have spent a hundred points on Magery 3 and a fair number of spells that I could use from the start of the campaign.

When should I enchant something for my party?

As far as I can tell, it makes sense to seek a magic item when you have a spell you must be able to cast, but you can’t spend the time it would require to learn that spell and can’t hire someone who knows it. (You have to be a mage to use most magic items, and you need to have access to the related college. So there’s no avoiding Magery.)

So presumably you are not a single-college mage, and the spell has a large number of prerequisites, and you’ve got a giant pile of cash.

But there’s another side to this: you need enough of a market for magic items that people have already produced the item you need. Since it’s pretty much the realm of multimillionaires to purchase magic items, that’s not really happening. As a GM, I strive to produce consistent worlds, so I could only allow a bare handful of magic items, crafted by tinkerers and people thinking more of their legacy than their own power.

Perhaps in advanced age, mages tend to take up either enchanting or teaching, so with a thousand mages in existence you tend to get another couple dozen magic items a year. But this still makes magic items rare and especially valuable.

In short, magic items are not a commodity, and you wouldn’t usually want to use one, so I’m not sure why they’re even in the game.

Making magic items better

The “can be stolen” limitation isn’t going away. We can reduce it by enchanting bracers, chokers, and rings instead of staves.

The extra FP cost is troublesome. Most of the interesting spells cost at least two FP. At skill 15, that’s a 50% reduction — you can cast the spell twice as often on your own. But we can address that by embedding powerstones.

An embedded powerstone gives you two extra points of use per day. (Double in a high mana environment.) So if you enchant up a ten-point powerstone — which requires knowing the Powerstone spell at level 15 — you can store twenty FP worth of item use. You need at least 20 FP to start with in order to cast Powerstone, though.

While this doesn’t fix the idea behind enchanting, you can add an Ally group of enchanters (6-10 individuals, appears fairly often, Duty to assist them with their enchanting, etc). Unfortunately, to take advantage of a group of enchanters, the leader of the enchantment needs to know the spell at skill 15 + the number of assistants. Everyone else needs the spell at skill 15 to contribute any appreciable amount of energy. So that won’t get you any magic items for spells you can’t cast, though it might get you a magic item in a few hours that gives you an effective +5 to skill on one spell (in exchange for costing more fatigue).

I need more power!

In a higher-tech environment, TL5 and above, you can use electricity to power spells with the Draw Power spell (Magic 180). You get ten energy points per kilowatt-hour of electricity. This makes quick and dirty enchanting much easier.

You do need at least 60 FP to maintain this spell for the full hour it takes to cast the most basic enchantment — or get a friend who knows Draw Power and Lend Energy, and they can restore energy to you while you enchant. (You could even enchant this into an item…)

Now you get ten energy points per hour of casting per kilowatt of generation. Get six portable generators off Amazon and you can draw all the power you need that way, for up to twelve hours of enchanting — more, if your friend refuels them for you.

If you’re looking at a magitech world, you can produce a windmill and power it by enchanting Wind (Magic 195). A moderately sized windmill could easily produce enough power for one person to enchant all day long with the Quick and Dirty method.

If you use this technique, you still need to add Power 2 to your magic items to make them useful to you. That will cost you ten hours.

With this technique, the Vigil spell (Magic 138), and a rotating team of people (or magic item) casting Lend Energy, you can produce a magic item worth over 3,000 energy points.

The fixed costs are the generator (which I’d put at $50,000 to $200,000, 5% maintenance per year), the Wind enchantment ($20,000 using default calculations, 5% maintenance per year), and the enchanting lab (wild guess $5,000 to $10,000; 20% maintenance per year). The labor costs are two Comfortable salaries for one hour per hundred points of enchantment, plus a surcharge over 12 hours. (A comfortable salary works out to $14/hour at TL5, $19/hour at TL6, etc.)

With this, a normal magic item at TL6 will cost $50 + $28 for every 100 energy points, with a margin for profit. (The rate increases around 1200 energy points.) A Staff of Lightning will probably retail for $350. Adding Power 2 to it will double the price.

That’s less than a broadsword. On the other hand, you can use this technique to produce broadswords with Shape Metal, which will reduce the cost of a sword. And there are all sorts of things you can do with magic: create food with it; create water, turn it into hydrogen fuel cells, and turn that hydrogen into Essential Fuel to power your spells; rings of Illusion Disguise and Warmth in lieu of clothing…

Can we save low-tech magic?

If you have a TL4-ish campaign, how do you make magic items worthwhile?

Add Power 1 by default

Right now, there are advantages to a few magic items even without Power 1. An Earring of Freedom or Ring of Blink helps when you’re trapped. But these tend to be marginal. You’re in a situation where you can’t use your innate magic freely enough, so you turn to a magic item instead.

But for most items, you’ll use them when you’re already free to use spells. If you enchanted the item, it’s worse than casting the spell. At least with Power 1, you get even with casting directly.

Base item power on Enchant

Right now, you need to know the spell at skill 15 in order to enchant it, and the power of the item is based on how well you know the equivalent spell. If we relaxed that and made it so that a high Enchant skill increases the quality of the item above your skill level with the spell, you have an incentive to enchant things.

For instance, I learned Lightning at skill 12, and I have Enchant at skill 25. I produce a Staff of Lightning that acts as if I’m casting with skill 19, perhaps (halfway between, round down).

Improve Slow and Sure speed

If Slow and Sure enchanting provides one energy point per hour rather than per day, you can afford magic items without being a multimillionaire. You can craft them in your downtime — your Staff of Lightning will only take you three months and change, being equivalent of two character points in self-study. But that’s still worse than just casting the spell, in most ways, and you spent probably 15 points on Enchant and five points on miscellaneous spells you wouldn’t otherwise get.

Split the party

If your party gets split often and there are a few essential mage spells, enchanting can ensure that nobody’s without those essential spells.

You might need to relax the ubiquitous “Only usable by mages” requirements, or give everyone Magery 0.

Cut energy costs

If you divide energy costs for magic items by a reasonable fraction, like 5x, you improve Quick and Dirty enchanting tremendously and make Slow and Sure enchanting feasible.

Add more energy sources

Paut is an expensive alchemical concoction that you can consume to get energy to spend on casting. There are alternate rules allowing rare materials to defray the energy costs of item creation.

You could rule that some fraction of the energy cost of an item can be paid with items, and you can price those items appropriately for your campaign. For instance, 80% of the item cost can come from mandrake and wolfsbane extracts and gold-inlaid obsidian, at a minimum of $1/point. That Staff of Lightning with Power 2 costs $1440 plus 360 days’ labor instead of 1800 days’ labor. You dropped the cost by 75% or more. That’s still only available for Wealthy people for now, but by TL6 they’ll be commonplace, even without turning electricity into enchantments.

Who needs humans?

Instead of enchanting one item, I enchant a golem to enchant items.

I might only be able to get one type of item from a golem. And they might only be able to do slow and sure enchanting. But imagine a giant warehouse with nothing but golems in it, each churning out magic items.

It might take a year to produce a decent golem, but they tend to last, don’t need rest, and don’t ask for wages. After ten years, I could have ten golems, each producing one item per year, for a total of 45 items produced. If you’re sticking with hand-crafting everything, you’ll only have ten items to show for it.

GURPS enchanting doesn’t afford feasible magic items until you mix in technology, but there are plenty of things you can do to make a plausible industry from it.

Leave a Reply