A Look at the Words of Power System

Words of Power System

While looking through various srd sites, I read about a spell building system called Words of Power. It was included in the Ultimate Magic book released in 2011. I immediately thought that this is a straightforward system, but like everything Pathfinder, it felt really big.

How big? Using the rules as written, there are 136 effects that can be combined to generate 19.681 different spell effects. Although there are ways to boost the effect and change targets and durations, the basic effect is the same. A boosted Fire Blast does more damage than an unboosted one, but the effect is the same: a blast of fire damages one or more targets.

Despite the size, I started to play with it and came up with some weird spells. My favorite ones combined contradictory effects like damage and healing. For example:

Brink of Death

School conjuration (healing), evocation (fire); Level druid1, sorcerer/wizard 1

Casting

Casting Time 1 standard action
Components V, S, M (flint and a drop of oil)

EFFECT

Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target: Selected
Duration: Instantaneous

Description

This spell deals 1d4 points of fire damage to a selected target. A melee or ranged touch attack to hit is required and does not allow a saving throw. If the target of this spell is dying, it is automatically stabilized.

This is like a final blow by a druid or wizard that will basically burn the last handful of hit points of its target, but prevent it from dying. This is how the bad guy gets away while still leaving a mark. Want to be more mean, use acid instead. Ouch!

Online Reaction

I had some fun with a few spells, but I noticed it took a bit of doing to finish a spell. I searched for online reactions to it and found that almost everyone liked the idea, but believed that the system was broken. I saw requests for a grimoire of wordspells, but I never found one.

Reading through posts, I wondered why consensus is that it's broken. I chalked up my time to generate a spell was more due to a lack of familiarity. It turns out that there are many effect combinations that are not allowed. For example, I can provide the target of a spell with +1 resistance bonus to an energy type and give them an extra action the next round, but I can't give them the resistance and increase their movement rate. In another example, I can Cure Light Wounds and provide a +4 bonus to AC against incoporeal creatures, but I can't Cure and provide a +1 AC Bonus to incoporeal creatures. Yet, this feels like a minor quibble. The same idea is possible, just a few fine-tuned touches are not allowed.

So, I went into the math of the thing to look for answers.

The Math

A word on methodology: certain words could be level 0 or 1 depending on the class. I chose the lowest level available for the purposes of determining the spell level of each effect word and the combined effects.

As mentioned earlier, there are 19,681 possible spell effects with this system. That said, many of them feel very similar. This is due to the fact that there are many variations of the same concept. Acid Burn, Fire Jet, and Spark, just in different ways. 1d4 damage. There are more of these that expand to 1d6 per level and more. That 3 times to many words of power. One word of power for damage, choose a type later. Boost a damage word to increase the die rolled.

A deeper look showed a dearth of Level 0 to Level 2 spells that are possible with this system. There are more 9th level spells possible (799) than Levels 0 to 2 combined (131). Even if you combine levels 0 to 3, it's still only 895 spells. A bit over half of the spells (53.75%) are level 5 and 6. Almost 75% of the spells are levels 5 through 7 combined.

This tells me that a 9th level wizard/sorcerer is really beginning to take advantage of the system, but a 12th level wizard truly has a imperial buttload (126 gallons) of options. The combinations are great, but lower level characters have few options for really interesting effects.

Now What?

Attempts to fix the system haven't made it to fruition. Before talking about changes to the system, I want to mention a simpler system that I read on facebook. In essence, provide a number of tokens and require three in combination to generate a specific spell. The names of the runes weren't important. There are no effects assigned to the runes at all. A wizard in this system learns by experimentation and experience. As the characters advance, they will know (thanks to the DM) what the first rune should be for a specific spell. Later on, they can get the first two runes. Scrolls are just three runes, but the wizard won't know what it does until they do any experimentation.

If you start with 10 runes, that will generate 120 different spells. That is enough for many players.

Between those two examples (Words of Power and the Rune System) there is a happier medium. Consolidate similar effects in the Words of Power system to create fewer words. Remove descriptors and tags like Fire, Acid, Mind-affecting, etc for spell building until the very end when they are added as descriptors only. Add numbers and shapes as descriptors. Create unusual descriptors like coin-shaped, head (like a head of cattle or a skull, it's up to the player and the GM), or ebbing. Since the descriptors aren't part of the process until the end, the effect can be created quickly, but the manifestation of that effect can become really evocative and possibly add an unforseen benefit.

More on that in a separate post.

Curious, though. Have any of you used the Words of Power system? How did it work for you?

Last but not least, here is Section 15 information for Ultimate Magic.

Section 15: Copyright Notice
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Ultimate Magic. © 2011, Paizo Publishing, LLC; Authors: Jason Bulmahn, Tim Hitchcock, Colin McComb, Rob McCreary, Jason Nelson, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Sean K Reynolds, Owen K.C. Stephens, and Russ Taylor.

And section 15 for the Brink of Death spell

Section 15: Copyright Notice
Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook. © 2009, Paizo Publishing, LLC; Author: Jason Bulmahn, based on material by Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams.

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Ultimate Magic. © 2011, Paizo Publishing, LLC; Authors: Jason Bulmahn, Tim Hitchcock, Colin McComb, Rob McCreary, Jason Nelson, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Sean K Reynolds, Owen K.C. Stephens, and Russ Taylor.

Brink of Death, © 2019, John Payne

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