Some Problems with Spell Building Systems

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I love the idea of spell building systems, but not always the system itself. I absolutely love EABA v1.1 and the Universal Table. Going through the book of spell examples, I found myself building all kinds of magic items and spells. The whole time, I kept thinking that it was cool to be able to quantify just baout anything I could think of.

Then I found that I was beginning to create spells/items/whatever that didn't work. The system usually broke down because the effect was too novel to quantify. I should say that EABA could quantify it, but I felt like that I was shoehorning something that really didn't fit.

When Epic Magic came out for Pathfinder, I discovered Epic Magic for D20. I read them both excited about spell seeds as a building block for new spells. But then the same problem came up. A spell I couldn't really quantify. To make matters worse for me, I found that spells with the same effect made the "trappings" or "special effects" meaningless.

For example, there is a spell on an OSR blog that describes a one-time teleportation effect from one campfire to another campfire some distance away. (My google-fu is weak, I couldn't find it to link to it and give the author credit for coming up with a great spell. Sorry!) I found that using EABA, Epic Magic, or even Open D6 gave me a spell that was no different than a spell that simply teleported the magic-user a random distance away. I liked the idea of the campfire, but found it disappointing that there was really no reason to have the "cool" version because it was more limited than the "generic" version that worked everywhere. Sure, I could houserule the system, but that seemed to be quite daunting, to say the least.

Similarly, even the straight damage spells made the boring versions more useful. Why create a fire missile spell that does 1d6 damage when you already have Magic Missile.  Creatures have immunity to fire, but very few, if any, have immunity to force or whatever substance comprises a Magic Missile. So, there's little reason to use anything but Magic Missile.

This lead my two year long quest to come up with a spell building system that I actually like. Unfortunately, I kept coming back to the same two issues over and over. I could live with effect that couldn't be quantified well, but that whole business that favors generic spells over flavorful or colorful spells seemed to change the whole business from fun to math. I love math, but not the kind that gets into min/maxxing and optimization.

So, I think I'm on to something now that I have come up with reasons for a magic-user to research and/or cast the more flavorful spells. Using the emphases system that I mention a lot around here, a magic-user would choose a more flavorful spell because it would be faster, cheaper, easier and/or more effective than the generic version of the spell. For a different kind of spell caster, the emphases system would also make the colorful versions of spells more likely to suceed than the generic version.

For example, if a magic-user has an emphasis of Fire that provides a bonus to research Fire-based spells, the Fire Missile version of Magic Missile is easier to come up with. For spell casters that use a skill roll to succesfully use spells, a spell caster with a Fire Bonus will find that the Fire Missile is more likely to work compared to Magic Missile.

More than that, if a magic-user has a series of seemingly odd emphases, it is to the spell caster's advantage to find a way to combine as many of these bonuses as possible. When a magic-user has emphases of cold, small round objects, blue, and four, he or she is more likely to cast a spell that begins with four small blue pearls of energy zooming to a target and exploding in a 30 x 30 x 10 cylinder for 1d6/level cold damage rather than a fireball spell. The effect is the same (except that one does cold damage and the other does fire damage), but with all those emphases incorporated into the spell, the magic-user either invented that spell for a song, made it up in record time, or finds it trivial to cast this spell compared to the traditional fireball spell.

Even better, I can put the 30 or so traditional tags associated with spells (like fire, ice, illusion, protection, summon, transform ,etc.) and combine them with 50 or so others I've come up with based on classifiers in other languages (like small round objects, rows, seeds, stalks, thread, charcoal, tubes, etc.) to make a random table. I roll up for or five random emphases and now there is an interesting spell for the players to find on an adventure.

I've posted a bit on my Google+ Page, but I plan to write up details here.

Four by Five Magic for Swords and Wizardry

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Daniel Howard asked for non-traditional magic systems in this post over on the Swords & Wizardry community. I posted a spell point system and others posted similar ideas. When he stated that he was looking for something that didn't require much tracking, I thought about Microlite20's Four by Five magic system that Robin Stacey wrote. The system was inspired by FUDGE, Ars Magica, Harry Potter and the Belgariad. It is OGL.

To adapt it to Swords & Wizardry let's state it like this:


For Magi, Magic is nothing more than the speaking of two (or more) Words of Power in a magical language said to predate the elves. Magi cannot be multi-classed or dual classed.

Magi begin play at 1st level knowing three Words of Power - either Two Actions and One Realm, or Two Realms and One Action. They learn one new Word of Power every three levels (3,6,9,etc).

The Four Actions

  • Enhance (augeo): Strengthen, Heal, Enlarge, Repair, Sharpen, or anything else that means to improve.
  • Diminish (infirmo): Weaken, Damage, Reduce, Break, Dull, Deteriorate, etc.
  • Communicate with (defero): Sense, Read, Seek, Inform, Determine, Understand, etc.
  • Control (tempero): Shape, Alter, Hold, Animate, Command, Form, Direct, Dictate, etc.

Control spells cannot be learned until you have learned all of the other Actions.

The Five Realms

  • Body (corpus): Living body of sentient beings, animals, plants.
  • Mind (mentis): That which normally inhabits and animates a body
  • Spirit (animus): The essence or soul. Spirit is difficult to learn, and you may not learn Spirit spells until you have learned at least three other Realms and three Actions
  • Energy (navitas): Fire, water, air, magic, [electricity, etc.] - and, if the DM allows, time.
  • Matter (materia): Solid material with no mind - stone, metal, wood, leather, paper, etc.]

At 10th level and every level thereafter, Magi can specialize in a specific type of Action or Realm  for an added +2 bonus per type. If the DM allows, a Magi can specialize in the same form more than once. Examples include a specialization in Healing (a specific type of augeo), specialization in Fire (a specific type of navitas), and a specialization in stone (a specific type of materia).

Spells are cast by combining a Word with an Action and successfully making a saving throw. A Magi adds their INT bonus to the roll. For INT from 13 to 15, the bonus is +1. An INT of 16 or 17 earns a +2 bonus. For an INT of 18, the bonus is +3.

The Saving Throw is modified based on the target and the number of spells cast. Here are the adjustments based on the target:

Self -2
Willing 0
Inanimate Organic +2
Unwilling +4
Inanimate Inorganic +6

Made with the Tableizer!

For each spell cast, an additional +1 is added to the Saving Throw.

Spells that affect inanimate objects are usually permanent; an enlarged pebble will stay large, a broken belt will stay mended. Magically created fires, etc, will die down naturally. Living creatures will eventually revert back to their normal form, though any healed damage stays healed.

Every three (or part) points of success is equal to an additional 1d6 or 1 Challenge Level effect. This can take the form of damage, healing or transformation. To turn one thing into another the total effect rolled must equal the difference between the two Challenge Levels. In other words, to change a Hobgoblin (CL 1) into a Bugbear (CL 3), the Saving Throw would need to succeed by 6 or more points.

Successfully casting the spell grants one Challenge Level effect, succeeding by 6 or more points provides an additional Challengel Level of success for a total of 2 challenge levels of success.


Maximus Verlinius, a 1st Level Magi knows the Words augeo, defero and navitas. He also has an Intelligence of 16. He suspects Todmore Fellhaven, his enemy, is in the next room, so he casts defero navitas to detect any energy sources in the area. The target is the Saving Throw of 15 + Inanimate Organic target (+2), or 17. He has an INT 16 making the bonus to his roll a +2. He rolls a 15, and after added the bonus for Intelligence, just reaches the target of 17. Maximus senses the burning torch held by his enemy.

Maximus bursts into the room, shouting augeo navitas!, pointing at the torch. The target number is Saving Throw (15) + Inanimate Organic target (+2) and the second spell cast that day (+1) or 18. He rolls a 19, getting a 21. Success! His rival takes 1d6 damage from the torch, staring in surprise at his opponent's sudden arrival.

Maximus' mentor is Creol Festerburn, a 10th level Magi of great power. He has an Intelligence of 18. He knows the all of the words of action, plus an extra bouns with navitas, specializing in fire-based magic.

Clutching a small coal in a brazier, Creol approaches the giant's lair. His apprentice stumbles over a tree branch, and the giant roars, appearing from the cave mouth. Creol utters a curse, then blows on the coal, whispering augeo navitas. He rolls a 13 for a total of 18 (A roll of 13, +3 for INT Bonus, and +2 for fire speciality). That's 10 above the target number, so the flame from the coal erupts into an 8 foot high sheet of flame (a 4d6 effect). Creol then shouts Tempero Navitas! and elemental eyes of coal appear in the flickering form. He rolled 10 for a total or 15 (10 plus INT bonus of 3 plus a fire speciality bonus of 2), easily beating the target number of 11 (Saving Throw of 8, plus a +2 adjustment for inanimate inorganic, and +1 for being the second spell cast).

The animated sheet of flame moves in to do battle with the giant. Since it was a 4d6 effect that animated the sheet of flame, I would use 4d6 to determine hit points.

Success Effect Height Weight Value
0 - 3 1d6 up to 1 ft. Less than 1lb Up to 1gp
4 - 6 2d6 1' to 2 ft. 1 – 8 lbs 1 to 25 gp
7 - 9 3d6 2' to 4 ft. 8 – 60 lbs 26 to 50 gp
10 - 12 4d6 4' to 8 ft. 60 – 500 lbs 51 to 100 gp
13 - 15 5d6 8' to 16 ft. 500 - 4000 lbs 101 to 500 gp
16 - 18 6d6 16' to 32 ft. 2 – 16 tons 501 to 2500 gp
19 - 21 7d6 32' to 64 ft. 16 – 125 tons 2501 gp to 10000 gp
22 - 24 8d6 64 ft. or more 125 tons + 10001 to 50000 gp

Made with the Tableizer!

Using the Emphases System with 4 by 5 Magic

With the Emphases System, a magi can cast any kind of spell, but those spells that falls within a magi's speciality will tend to be more successful. In other words, a 1st level Magi may have emphases in augero and corpus, but he or she can attempt any kind of spell.

Like the emphases mentioned in other posts, each action or realm that is an emphasis, or speciality, will add to the roll to determine success. In the first part of this post, only actions provided a bonus. Using the Emphases System, both actions and realms provide a bonus.

Unlike the emphases mentioned in other posts, the bonus is only +1 to start. At every level, the magi can increase an existing emphasis, gain a new one or specialize in two specific types of Action or Realm.

Let's take up our favorite magi once again.

Maximus Verlinius, a 2nd Level Magi knows the Words defero and navitas. He also has an Intelligence of 16. He suspects Todmore Fellhaven, his enemy, is in the next room, so he casts defero navitas to detect any energy sources in the area. The target is the Saving Throw of 15 + Inanimate Organic target (+2), or 17. He has an INT 16 making the bonus to his roll a +2. He also has an emphasis in defero, adding a +1 and another emphasis in navitas, adding another +1. He rolls a 13, and after adding the bonuses for the emphases and Intelligence, he just reaches the target of 17. Maximus senses the burning torch held by his enemy.

Maximus bursts into the room, shouting augeo navitas!, pointing at the torch. The target number is Saving Throw (15) + Inanimate Organic target (+2) and the second spell cast that day (+1) or 18. This time, he only get a +1 bonus for navitas, though he still gets a +2 for his Intelligence. He rolls a 16, resulting in a 19. Success! His rival takes 1d6 damage from the torch, staring in surprise at his opponent's sudden arrival.

Maximus' mentor is Creol Festerburn, a 10th level Magi of great power. He has an Intelligence of 18. He knows the all of the words of action, plus an extra bouns with navitas, specializing in fire-based magic and tempero, specializing in animating an object.

The emphases on his character sheet would be listed as:

  • Enhance (augeo) +1
  • Diminish (infirmo) +1
  • Communicate (defero) +1
  • Control (tempero) +1
    • Animate (vivifico) +2
  • Body (corpus) +1
  • Mind (mentis) +1
  • Spirit (animus) +1
  • Energy (navitas) +1
    • Fire (ignis) +2
  • Matter (materia) +1

For more fun, use Google Translate for something that it not Latin. My favorite so far is Indonesian.

This post is OGL, here is Section 15, which pertains specifically to this post.


Open Game License v 1.0 Copyright 2000, Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

System Reference Document, Copyright 2000-2003, Wizards of the Coast, Inc.; Authors Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Rich Baker, Andy Collins, David Noonan, Rich Redman, Bruce R. Cordell, John D. Rateliff, Thomas Reid, James Wyatt, based on original material by E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Swords & Wizardry Core Rules, Copyright 2008, Matthew J. Finch
Swords & Wizardry Complete Rules, Copyright 2010, Matthew J. Finch
Microlite20 Four by Five Magic, Copyright 2008, Robin Stacey
Four by Five Magic for Swords and Wizardry, Copyright 2014, John Payne

Some Houserules About Magic

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Here are some things that will appear in the Next Big Project. Specifically, this information covers altering the Intelligence attribute table and moving one thing to the character sheet. Once that information is on the character sheet, there are ways to use the Saving Throw mechanic to cover learning new spells, creating scrolls and more.

On the Intelligence table in S&W, there are columns for maximum spell level, chance to understand a new spell, and min/max spells understandable per spell level. At first, it may seem odd to move the maximum spell level from Intelligence Table and move it to the Magic-User advancement table, but we'll see more about that in the Spell Points system in a future post. In theory, the min/max spells understandable column, a magic-user with INT 15 has a cap on the number of 1st level spells that can be understood. His or her spellbook will never have more than 10 different 1st level spells. In game play, though, I never remember to check this table. So, I removed it entirely.

The big change is making the chance to understand a spell a saving throw.

What are the odds of understanding a new spell on the spot, while in a dungeon and spending very little time studying it? Roll 1d20 greater than or equal to your Saving Throw + Spell Level. For example, a 4th level magic-user attempting to learn a third level spell spontaneously has to beat 15. But wait, 4th level magic-user cannot cast a third level spell! Understanding, in my sense of the game, is different than casting. Once a spell is understood, it can be copied into the magic-user's spellbook and kept for study. Casting the spell requires a certain amount of skill and determination.

My analogy for this is being able to understand a blueprint for building a dog house. I can understand what is required, I know how big the pieces need to be and how all the pieces fit together. The thing keeping me back from building the doghouse is a lack of skill with the tools to cut, measure and align the pieces. I'll get there one day, but right now, I am limited as a carpenter.

Take the same situation and allow the player to spend money on materials and time on study and the bonuses add up. Spending 1000gp or 1 day's time will add +1 to the roll. Regardless of the money spent, the amount of time spent in study is a minimum of one day. This means our 4th level magic-user can spend any combination of money and time that add up to +14 to gain an automatic success. At lower levels, the magic-user will require more time than money, but at higher levels, the magic-user will be able to pay the money. It may not seem like it, but the money adds up at higher levels.

The effect of all of this is that a magic-user may have an extensive library, yet be able to cast a limited number of the spells. Even if the spells is successfully understood, the maximum spell level that can be cast (remember that I moved this to the Magic-User advancement table) limits what he or she can actually cast.

Now Add Emphasis

The emphases system that I mention quite a bit around here, adds more variety. Remember from my previous post, that the spells listed in S&W Complete are considered Eldritch Magic. Anyone with an Intelligence from 13 to 16 will automatically have an Eldritch Magic emphasis of +1. For an Intelligence score of 17, the magic-user has an Eldritch Magic emphases of +2. For a score of 18, an emphasis with a +3 bonus.

Taking our 4th level magic-user with an INT of 15 that is attempting to understand Darkvision (a third level spell), he or she gets a +1 emphasis bonus for attempting to understand an Eldritch Magic spell. The bonus also applies for time and/or money spent . In other words, if the magic-user decides to wait until out of the dungeon to understand a spell, the bonuses stack from the Eldritch Magic emphases, the money spent (if any), and the time spent.

Now let's say that our 4th level magic-user has an emphasis of +2 on Darkness based spells. The magic-user gains the +1 bonus from the Eldritch Magic emphasis and the +2 bonus from the Darkness emphasis. Just like before, the combined +3 bonus also applies to spending time and/or money to understand a spell. The same magic-user attempting to understand a Fireball spell, however, would only gain the +1 bonus from the Eldritch Magic emphasis. Fireball can be creatively described in a lot of way, but not as a darkness type of spell.

To make this even more interesting, let us say that a GM adopts the Max Spell Level numbers I place on the Magic-User Advancement table.

Level Max Spell Level
1 0
2 0
3 1
4 1
5 1
6 2
7 2
8 2
9 3
10 3
11 3
12 4
13 4
14 4
15 5
16 5
17 5
18 6
19 6
20 6

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Using an emphasis bonus to the Max Spell Level value of this table determines the highest level spell a Magic-User can cast. Going back to our 4th level Magic-User, he or she can actually cast the Darkness spell, but not the Fireball spell. The Max Spell level for a 4th level Magic-User is 1. With an INT of 15, the bonus allows him or her to cast 2nd level Eldritch Magic spells, but up to 4th level Eldritch spells that deal with Darkness. Unless the GM adds custom spells, there are no 4th level Darkness type Eldritch spells.

Next time, the spell point system.