Creating Interesting Spells

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I love systems that generate interesting spells, but I really like spells that are very different. After a couple thoughts, I'll share my very rough draft system. The first part is similar to ACKS, but using addition instead of multiplication. The second part is where I try to make something different. The goal is not to re-create the standard OSR spell book, the goal is to encourage players and referees to create unique (or at least uniquely named) spells.

On an OSR blog years ago, I read about a spell that uses campfires to teleport as an emergency exit. You didn't know where you would appear; you may walk out of a campfire of your sworn enemy. I want to make spells like that, but feel the need for some kind of random table or generator to make something that feels different.

Yet, there is a part of me that takes comfort in something more methodical and/or procedural. I want to know that summoning a blue dragon is a higher level spell than summoning two orcs. Transforming into titan should be the stuff of arch-mages, not 8th level wizards.

Still, where's the fun in finding out how to summon flumph or two? I want to summon black tentacled trees that hurl themselves at a foe only to explode into a million splinters that surround the victim and trap them inside the trunk when it reforms. Where are the spells that hurl screaming skulls or cause a black ziggurat to erupt from the ground to have a huge skeletal figure on a six-legged horse emerge to uttering a centuries old curse?

For the math/procedural side of me, I worked out a way to create some straightforward create an object spells. I also worked out a simple summon creature set of spells. I have notes somewhere for damage spells, protection spells, and transformation spells. For the next few posts, though, I plan on providing an OSR Boring Spell as a template to do some crazy things with.

To make the spells interesting, I want to apply a series of tags inspired by my study of classifiers. As I looked at various languages, the classifiers covered a weird range of objects. There is a classifier for objects shaped like coins. Another one for things that come in small rectangular boxes. In Thai, I found over 100 classifiers and those were the most common ones. Using these classifiers as weird descriptors, I began to think of more evocative spells. By evocative, I mean they feel like magic and not like plug and play spells from D&D.

Here is an example slightly modified from something I posted on G+:

I start with a spell that does 6d6 damage to an area at a range of 240 feet. Under my system, this is a 4th level spell. If I can add four tags to the spell, I can get it down to 3rd level.

Colors and energy types can be used to describe the spell, but can't be a part of the four to lower the spell level. Example tags that can be part of the four include:

Stedu: objects with heads or shaped like heads.
Xanto: having to do with elephants
Orne: things in pairs
Xance: having to do with the number five or hands
Ciska: Sentences or inscriptions.
Julne: having to do with nets
Siclu: having to do with whistles our whistling

Some other tags just to add flavor:

Fargi: pertaining to fire
Blaxun: pertaining to the color green

With these tags, you could create a spell that launches ten flaming green whistling heads at a spot determined by the spellcater doing 6d6 fire damage to all within the impact area.

The tags used are: stedu (heads), xance (five), orne (pairs), siclu (whistling). These lower the initial spell to third level.

For flavor, fargi (fire) and blaxun (green) were added.

Still with me? Well here's where I open up for feedback. Below is a link to all the tags/magic words I have so far. The plan is to take a boring spell and apply at least four of these tags to create interesting spells. The Google doc is editable, so feel free to add. Just make sure to write your name so I can give you credit.

editable magic words google doc

More as this develops. Man it feels good to post again. 🙂

Spellbuilding Part 1 – Simple Conversion

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The first part of the spell building system covers situations like finding a really cool spell that seems difficult to quantify or that you do not want to breakdown and rebuild. It is a fairly simple system to use spells from any OSR system, or retroclone OGL content. Before starting on that, here are the basic mechanics of the spell building system.

The system adds point values based on effect, range, duration, and any possible areas affected by the spell. The total is the spell's difficulty rating. Success in casting a spell is determined by rolling 1d20 + Intelligence score + Magic-Users's level to equal or exceed the magic-user's Saving Throw + difficulty rating. At the referee's discretion, a difficulty rating can be converted to a spell level for use in Vancian spellcasting. Like Cleric spells, converting a difficulty rating to a spell level is reversible.

This may seem like a mouthful, but to help with ease of calculation, I put Intelligence score + Caster Level on the character sheet. You'd think this wouldn't be a big deal, but it seems to make calculation easier. Since the Saving Throw already appears, it is just a matter of looking up the difficulty rating in the spell book.

In this post, I'll be taking OGL spells from various places and converting them to a difficulty rating.

Simple Conversion to a Difficulty Rating

Use the table below to convert spells to a difficulty rating:

S&W Spell Level Rating
Cantrips† 7
1 11
2 15
3 19
4 23
5 27
6 31
7 34
8 37
9 40

†Cantrips cannot do any damage. Using cantrips assumes the use of Tim Brannan's Cantrips for Basic Level Games system.

The difficulty rating in the table above is the midpoint for a spell level. Feel free to adjust the difficulty rating up or down by up to 2 points. In other words, a second level spell can have a difficulty rating from 13 to 17.

In looking for spells to serve as good examples, I looked for OGL spells from the LInks to Wisdom section on spells.

First, let's take a look at the Dreadcube (click the link for a full description). It is listed as a 7th level spell, so the new difficulty rating for this spell would be 34. It has multiple effects, so normally, I'd adjust the rating up, however, these effects can also potentially harm the caster, so I'll leave it where it is. OGL Link for Dreadcube

For those that wonder about the odds, let's take a magic-user with an INT 13 (the minimum score required to cast a 7th level spell). We'll say that the magic-user is at 14th level. The M-U will roll 1d20 + 13 (Intellegence score) + 14 (Caster Level) to be greater than or equal to 5 (Saving Throw at 14th level) + 34 for a total of 39. The magic-user will have a 45% chance of successfully casting the Dreadcube.

That seems a bit low, but 13 is the minimum Intelligence to cast a 7th level spell. Most Magic-Users for my players have an INT of 15 or 16 at least. Just for the sake of comparison, a 14th level Magic-User with an Intelligence of 15 attempting to cast this spell has a 55% chance of success.

Here's another favorite of mine from the Space Age Sorcery pdf, Pretervolve. (click on the link to download the free version). It is listed as Level 5, so the difficulty rating is 27. Seeing as there is a permanent effect after the spell wears off, I'd add a point to make the final difficulty rating a 28.

Again for the odds, we'll say that a 9th level Magic-User with an INT of 13 will cast Pretervolve. The M-U will roll 1d20 + 13 (Intellegence score) + 9 (Caster Level) to be greater than or equal to 7 (Saving Throw at 9th level) + 28 for a total of 35. The magic-user will have a 40% chance of successfully casting the spell.

Again, many characters will have a higher INT score. A 9th level Magic-User with a 15 Intelligence score has a 50% chance of success.

Section 15 of the OGL for the Pretervolve spell is:
Space-Age Sorcery, Copyright 2013, Hereticwerks; Authors James Garrison, Eric Fabiaschi, Porky

Here's another favorite, the Auric Devourer (read the post for the full description). It is listed as 1st level, so I convert the difficulty to 11. Since the description states that it is easy to cast, I'll bump it down to 10.

I'll come back to this spell another time when going through the building system itself, because it mentions other factors that will be covered later. It has a listed casting time and an area of effect.

Really quickly, a 1st level Magic-User with a 13 Intelligence will have a 50% chance of success to cast this spell.

Lastly, let's mention the Cantrips. They are not necessary at all, but I mention them here because they add something fun. Using the table, Blackflame starts at a difficulty rating of 7, and I'd leave it at that. Looking at other cantrips in the list, I would probably make Flavor a rating of 5. The key to using cantrips is that they cannot do any damage. Regardless of difficulty rating, any spell that does damage must be at least a 1st level spell.

A 1st level Magic-User with a 15 Intelligence (to represent most player characters), will have an 85% chance to cast Flavor and a 75% chance to cast Blackflame.

Using Difficulty Ratings with Class

Okay, I can turn a spell level into a difficulty rating. Now what? How does this work?

At this point, you could use the Spell Point system I mentioned to track the ability to cast spells. The cost of casting the spell is the spell level. Casting a spell deducts from a character's Mana and when Mana is zero, no more spell for you.

For your conveience, here is the table for Mana per level.

Level Mana
1 1
2 2
3 4
4 7
5 11
6 16
7 21
8 27
9 35
10 44
11 54
12 65
13 77
14 90
15 104
16 129
17 145
18 162
19 180
20 200
21 222

If the referee prefers, the traditional spell slot system can also be used.

Another alternative is to say that a Magic-User can attempt to cast a spell in his spellbook until it fails. If the Magic-User has Sleep in the spellbook, he can cast it until the dice betray him. For low level magic-users, this means that they can likely cast more spells per day, but it removes the need for bookkeeping.

Next time, we'll look at building spells based on effect, range, duration, and other factors.

The Next Big Project

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I don't know how far I will get on this, but I'm posting about it as a prod to get into the habit of writing instead of thinking.

For that reason alone, there will be no kickstarter. In fact, it will be free.

Seriously, though, the big project is a big book of magic for Swords & Wizardry. The book will include alternate options for magic, classes, spells, rules for spell research as well as magic item creation. Much of the alternate options for magic are already written, so that is not the difficult part. The rules for magic item creation are really straight-forward, but I haven't tested them, ergo, they may not be as straight-forward as I believe they are. The big challenge is finishing the spell building system.

Backing up a bit, here are some things to know about the material in the book:

Brace Yourself: There Will be Houserules

I have changes that range from modifying the odds for learning spells for characters that spend money to allowing scroll creation at 1st level. One example of a house rule is that everyone can use slings. The main reason is to provide a magic-user an alternative to throwing knives. One of the implications of that small house rule is that since many magic-users may use a sling, magic stones for slings become a type of magic item that appears from time to time. Since everyone uses a sling, these stones are quite useful.

Priests of Different Mythoi

This was bound to happen for me. In my head, the priests of Mitra have to be different from the priests of Asura. What would a priest for the God of Magic look like? How does a God of the Harvest send an "adventuring Cleric" into the world?

In 2e, Cleric spells were grouped into spheres which later became domains. Since the document will be OGL, I feel like I need to use the word domains even if I think "Spheres" in my head. Maybe I'm just getting old.

These domains are part of what makes one priest different from another. Another distinction involves alternatives to turn undead. Some variations are as simple as Turn Demons or Turn Orcs. Other variations are based on spell effects like Remove Fear or Protection from Evil 10' Radius. My favorite one at the moment involves the ability to provide healing that does not change the target's hit points. This includes spells like Cure Insanity or Ability Score drain, but not any of the Cure Wounds spells.

New Mechanics

I generally do not like to introduce new mechanics. I prefer to reuse ones that already exist. One favorite is a take on the Turn Undead table - variations of that appear in an alchemist type of class and in the psionicist class.

Yet, with the emphasis system aimed at creating more unusual spells, new mechanics open themselves up to all kinds of options. One of these options is a new type of magic item that allows you to permanently or temporary alter your magic-user's choice of emphases. My favorite is a spell that allows the caster to "borrow" an emphasis from its target.

I also have my own take on a spell point system. There is no subtraction involved. The saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention and I needed a system that was faster for my kids.

Wizards' Forms of Magic

The most powerful form of magic for wizards is Eldritch Magic. This is magic as presented in the S&W Complete rules. This means so-called unbalanced spells and spellbooks, spells as semi-living things in the wizard's brain, and all other kinds of Vancian goodness.

The second most-powerful form is Academic Magic. This is what "standardizing" magic looks like. Practitioners can create new spells with a greater degree of certainty, but lose the ability to re-create all the spells used by Eldritch Wizards. For example, an Academic Wizard can create a spell that sends a magic bolt at a target for 1d6 damage. The Academic Wizard, however, will not be able to match the range (240') of the Eldritch Wizard nor the ability to generate multiple bolts per level. For an Academic Wizard to generate a Magic Missile like spell, complete with a level-based effect on the number of missiles created, he or she would generate it as a second or third level spell instead of a first level spell.

The third most-powerful form is Everyday or Common Magic. This includes minor cantrips and illusions. These spells also include simple things like Mending objects, adding a foot to a length of rope, adding a spice to a dish and more. Don't let spells with minor effects fool you, shortening a length a rope can have deadly consequences.

Did You Have to Do Psionics?

Yes I do.

Eldritch and Academic Magics are available only to those that have the gift. Either a person can cast these types of spells or they cannot. For a person that wants to learn magic, but doesn't have the gift, the options are to either become a Cleric or make a deal with a supernatural power (i.e. become a Witch). Psionicists, called Disciples of The Path have found a different way. Clerics denounce disciples as atheists and heretics. Wizards consider them unsophisticated and crude. Witches consider them a hated enemy. Those that choose the Path, however, know that their powers equip them to deal with extraplanar forces malevolent and benign.

Other Things

There will be more spells and a handful of new creatures. As mentioned earlier, there is a spell building system. In addition to various player options, I hope to include many NPCs, including some that do not conform to any set of rules. (Bwa ha ha). There should be a whole slew of new magic items as well as artifacts. My hope is to provide something that may add a bit of spice to everyone's game.

Wish me luck, I'll need it. 🙂