I was immediately reminded of “Four-by-Five” Magic System for the Fudge RPG by Steffan O’Sullivan. In the four-by-five system you have four actions (enhance, diminish, communicate/sense, and control) and five realms (body, mind, spirit, energy, matter) and every spell is a combination of these two.
I was also reminded of Das Schwarze Ague Professional: Schwertmeister Set 1. There, you had 18 rune stones (18 words), each with a different value, and three places to put them: one for the medium that carries the magic (multiplier 1), one for the way of the magic (multiplier 4), and one for the target of the magic (multiplier 2). The example they gave was a spell that gave you a free critical attack using the runes Sight (2) as the medium (×2), Fight (5) as the way (×4), and Body (4) as the target (×1) for a total cost of 4+20+4 = 28 “astral” points (manna cost).
As you can see, here’s the first problem I find in these more free form magic rules: they result in free form results which you then need to interpret again and again. Or you can start writing them down, meaning that you will end up with a suggested list of spells of various power levels. You will simply give magic users more flexibility. Do they need more flexibility? I don’t think so. Also note that Link Skywalker started the discussion by comparing fighters and magic users, saying that “from this perspective Magic Users are the first example of unnecessary complexity creeping into the game’s rules.” I don’t know. I’d ask: how short can you make the rules? Short rules are a proxy for easy rules in my mind.
The second problem I had was when I tried a simpler variant of the above where I wanted to use some sort of rune-based or kanji-based magic. This time I had an actual player interested in using it and he picked the Air rune. And he flew around in some long jumps, gliding through the air. And that was it. I felt that he hadn’t taken advantage of the flexibilities given, couldn’t think of creative uses in a pinch, and I concluded that perhaps the system was too free form. Creativity needs some constraints.
Link Skywalker has a solution for all of this. He also provides a list of words (like the runes I mentioned above). He has some suggestions for things that might increase the difficulty. And most importantly:
After successfully casting a spell, Magic Users may record the spell for later use. Each recorded spell may be used once per day without a casting roll. These still count as successful spells for the purposes of determining the base target number. Magic Users may know a maximum of one recorded spell per level. At any time they may forget a recorded spell if they wish to replace it with a new one.
It might work. But then again, a referee might also simply sit down and start writing ten or twenty spells, and then players and referees simply add to the list. You know I like D&D-as-oral-history and this kind of writing and forgetting and remembering has potential. Perhaps that’s simply what Gary Gygax and his players did way back when.
It’s something we all should do for our campaigns. As for myself, I’m trying to do something similar by simply writing up two dozen magic users and elves for my campaign setting, including their spells, for all to use: Spellcasters. It’s based on what I can remember of the spells I like, and it’s new stuff that fits the Vancian magic system as used in classic D&D. I’m excited!