Game Mechanics How to balance a complex magic system



On my long list of "Stuff I'd like to do someday, but don't have to do immediately" is make an RPG. I've always had an appreciation for magic systems and would like to craft one for the game.

My goal with this magic system is to have it as flexible as possible, and limited only by the users' mana. Mana is the magic energy powering this system, with all units having it and regenerating it slowly over time. All units have a maximum mana threshold, so they can't just wait forever and then one-shot everything.

Such a system, however, raises some important issues. Issues like "Why would anyone pick a warrior/rouge/ranger if a mage can do basically anything?" How do you balance a class that can do literally anything if it has the energy available? I'm worried that this would lead to the class being completely binary; enormously powerful, or convoluted and unwieldy.

Am I approaching this wrong? Would it be a bad idea to have a class overloaded in such a way? Would I be better off splitting the mage class into subclasses so that players have to choose between abilities, so they can't be the jack of all trades? Let me know your thoughts below. Constructive criticism is what I desire.


You need to find a way to justify limiting magic through the in-game universal rules.

In my game, Paper Soul Theater, the main character is a magic user, but to impose limits (and for many other reasons) I had her magic be tied to religious entities. Rather than have Aponi do whatever she wants, her power is moderated by the god(s) that give the power to her. My advice for you is to come up with logical reasons for why the mages can't just do whatever the heck they want. Where does magic come from? How does magic work? Is magic something that is difficult to learn and use?


šŸ§ *penguin noises*
GMC Elder
There's a reason most RPGs have several schools of magics instead of having a single wizard class that does EVERYTHING, and it's exactly this problem - if a class can do everything, there's no reason to have anyone of the other classes. Final Fantasy is infamous for having the Red Mage class (handles both healing and destructive magic, AND can handle swords and armor as well) being overpowered in many of the earlier games in the series, although it has been alleviated later as new schools of magic were introduced that they wouldn't handle.

There are multiple ways you could approach the problems from. For instance, if the main problem is being mages being able to do EVERYTHING and none of the other classes sounding viable in comparison, you should consider making magic ubiquitous, so that all classes can learn all magic - mages just are a lot better at 'mage' magic than any other class, but other classes might be able to put other magic to better use - for instance, magic that buffs offensive power might be perfect for warriors or berserkers, while mages wouldn't use normal attacks even if they were buffed because their strength is too low. Apart from just having greater offensive power, mages could also have higher power thresholds (MP caps), regenerate magic power faster, or such.... whatever is the best way to make them good at magic in your opinion. Or maybe mages can memorize more spells at a time, making them more versatile, while non-mage classes needs to stick to only using a few spells at a time.

Snail Man

Personally, I would add a skill-tree sort of system. The mages would all have access to the BASIC spell types from the outset. For example, everyone would be able to cast basic heal, fireball, shield, etcetera. But if you used a certain branch a lot (say, healing), then you would be able to unlock more refined and specific branches of it (for example, curing poison). It would allow every mage to do a little bit of everything, but also add the strategy of unlocking greater-ability spells down the line.

I'm skeptical that a PURELY mana based system could work, just because it's too same-y between characters. It makes every wizard character have essentially the same abilities, and robs the game of a lot of strategy related to that class.


There have been many different approaches to this problem throughout gaming history, so let me list some I can think of off the top of my head:
1. Magic might have a penalty when being cast with heavy armor, forcing mages to wear ineffective armor and leave themselves vulnerable if they want to be effective mages. The armor could range from bonuses in cloth, to heavy penalties in metal (a la nethack)
2. Mana could have to be conserved and watched closely, with mana taking too long to regenerate to be used frequently, forcing the mages to rely on their more physically allies against smaller foes or risk running out of juice quickly. (The balance of this could even be that mana regenerates very quickly but the mana pool is very small, or any variation of slow/fast regeneration.)
3. Magic might also be tiring to use, draining stamina to make the mages less mobile.
4. Casting spells might take concentrated effort and time, being easily interrupted by a sword or arrow.
These were just a few I could think up quickly, each has its own pros and cons, and a balance is more readily achieved if one mixes them. There is no 'right' answer, however.
Last edited by a moderator:


I once made a game like that, where all mages were just one giant class, no separation whatsoever, and you could learn spells trough casting them, over and over again, until you perfected them (level 10)

The game was self balancing trough, your spells may be great but it was action based so skill was extremely important, spells were not as easy to cast as 'press 1 and fire', you had 3 assignable slots to fast-cast pressing a shortcut key and the rest were casteable either by typing the name in the shoutbox with a ! At the end or double clicking on the long list of spells you learned and then aiming.

You had all kinds of spells, heal, damage, life drain, curses, stuns, protection, deflection, warps, invisibility (my favourite and slight op), etc. The problem was that there was a more important factor than any spell being cast to balance it all, clothes, shields, staffs with special bonuaes on them were the items to find and quickly became the most valuable thing to have. Might have been overpowered in certain ways but it shows how the mechanics can balance out quickly with something different.


You could probably just make mages glass canons. Meaning that while they are the most powerful offensively on the battlefield, it is extremely easy for any unit to take them down.


If you look at the balancing in a game like Dota, they apparently did something like this for each character:

- figure out a bunch of situations common in gameplay
- figure out which situations each character class is going to excel in
- figure out if each character class is going to rely on skill-shots, reflexes, in-depth mechanical knowledge, or other skill tests
- figure out how many different mechanics each character type will require you to know

They seemed to intentionally build characters to fall into a couple key archetypes, some of them being:

- characters who don't involve a lot of mechanics and do basically the right thing by default. For newbies who just want to understand the basic game rules.
- characters which are very high-risk and high-reward in ordinary play. For people who like to gamble.
- characters which can be very reliable if you master their skill tests. For people who like to win.
- characters which are mechanically hard-to-assess. For people who like to be strategists.

Each of these comes with features that will appeal a lot to some people and turn off other people. (Features that appeal to absolutely everyone are not super interesting, it seems.) So maybe instead of thinking about the flavor of how magic works, you should think about who mages appeal to vs fighters vs thieves vs other characters in your game.

For instance, it sounds like you really like high complexity, so maybe you should try to make mages appeal to people who also really like high complexity. In that case you probably want to do things that target complexity fans and exclude people who just want to be powerful. You could do this by making it complicated to assess the effects of spells, or make spells weak unless you specifically pick them synergetically, or make them incredibly situational.

Example design, possibly not exactly what you need. Maybe while you're putting together your game you come up with an elaborate bunch of enemy resistances, and then make players super weak unless they pick a build that specifically plays against the enemies in the situations they're putting themselves in. So if they want to get the +4/+4 ring of megapower, they have to build Shadowy spells to get past all the Light monsters guarding it -- but they need to figure out Shadowy spells+passive modifiers that work with the Fiery spells they're using against the Frost mountain they're currently in. This sort of thing can easily be made fractally complex, enough to turn on people who love that kind of thing and turn off people who don't care for that kind of thing.

The M

Some of these ideas have probably been said already but I'll add them just for completeness sake.
  • Add equivalent abilities to other classes, let them all excel at different areas.
  • Limit what spells can be used, they may require certain items (scrolls, books, staves) to learn or cast. These could be balanced to keep magic from growing out of hand.
  • Make mages costly. While you can do everything other classes can do, it'll cost enough mana to keep you from doing anything else (using an armor spell costs so much that you can only attack with mana bolts and using magma cannon will leave you open for counter attacks while you regenerate mana)
  • Make all classes variations of the Mage class. Skip the knights and archers and make an rpg about wizards, balancing done! (It worked for Magica :))
I've found that mages tend to create two main issues:
  • If mages are extremely powerful they tend to become all-or-nothing glass cannons. In this case you either one-shot the enemies (boring) or you run out of mana and can't do anything (useless). If you look at magic in Skyrim they've chosen the latter: the ultimate spells don't really kill high-level enemies because it'd be too overpowered. I think the best way to deal with magic is to treat them as slow but powerful archers.
  • Like archers, mages are usually ranged fighters. If you have melee classes as well, you'll have to be aware that they work differently and have to be balanced separately.


What if you just dropped all of the classes other than mages? Focus the entire game around the magic system and vary up the battles by having enemy mages/monsters who are specialized in certain areas and force you to change strategies to counter them. You could even make the lack of other classes a story point.

EDIT: The M also mentioned this.