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


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


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

Rune Magic for Older RPGs


Using this example rune above, here is a walkthrough of using this rune magic system. I start with the core mechanic first, and then provide  optional rules to increase character success, enhance player choice, create meanginful spell preparation, and simulate the ebb and flow of magical energy.

Rune Basics

Runes are found magic objects with a magical inscription that provides spells to a wizard. Those that can unlock the secrets of the rune can use it to cast spells specific to the rune.

When a character finds a rune, they make a check or cast Read Magic to unlock the first spell. Checks could be roll under, but not equal to the Intelligence stat or a Learn Spell check from the Intelligence table. In Swords & Wizardry, this would be a Chance to Learn New Spell roll. If the character unlocks the first spell, the referee will provide the details of the first spell including name, spell level, and effect. The referee will also provide the true name of the rune.

The name of the rune provides a theme of the spells the rune contains. In the example above, the true name is Akeeli which I've translated in English as oxidation. The referee decides that this implies that the rune has spells that center around fire or rust. The first spell is Light, but this version has to be cast on an object to provide light.

Casting a Spell

To cast a spell, name the spell and roll 2d6. Check the result against the column with the spell level of the named spell. If the result is empty, the spell is successful. If it is filled, it fails. The wizard doesn't lose a spell level upon a failed rolled.

That's it?

Yes, that's the basic system. I have a spreadsheet in LibreOffice that allows me to make all kinds of runes from any word I want. I generate a rune, add a number of spells to that rune and make a printout. The referee's version has the entire list of spells possible for the rune, the player gets a blank one with the rune, the name of the first spell, and a description of that spell on the back.

Optional Rule 0 - Spell Selection

At first glance, it may appear that the chances of successfully casting a spell are too low. The most difficult spell to cast with this rune would be a 2nd level spell. The chance of success is 75%.

Still, if other spellcasters prepare spells that just work, there has to be some sort of tradeoff to be a rune wizard. One option is to select spells that a Magic-User would not be able to access, like Cleric or Druid spells. You could add a Cure Light Wounds spell that feels like burning at the site of an injury, but heals 1d6+1 hit points. A typical Magic-User wouldn't have this spell. Maybe the party might be able to use the Cleric for something other than a hospital.

Another option is to make a spell one spell level lower. A Fireball spell at lower levels would be prized by any wizard. Detect Magic as a second level spell would make sense for a rune wizard as they attune to the very language of magic itself. Any third level spell could also fit the theme if the wizard has to use a material component like a candle flame or the tongue of a rust monster. You may even add Clairvoyance but require that the wizard stare at a rusted shield or campfire. These are all 3rd level spells in S&W that might be worth the risk of failure in order to gain access to these spells sooner.

Notice that there is no rule that a rune must have nine spells, one for each level. Runes can be made to have any number of spells. Runes do not require spells for any given spell level.

Optional Rule 1 - Mnemonics

Another option is to have magic items that allow automatically successful rolls. A Mnemonic could be specific to a spell or to a roll. For example, the character may discover or create a Mnemoic that allows automatic success for casting the Light spell. The fiction could be that a tiny diamond on the sleeve of the wizards robe helps them to focus clearly on casting the light spell.

Another form of Mnemonic would be specific to a roll. In ancient languages, numbers tended to be letters (as in Hebrew and Greek), so it would make sense for a rune wizard to attune to a specific letter. In game terms, this means that a Mneomic would make all rolls of a specific result automatically successful. For our example rune, the wizard develops a Mnemonic that makes all rolls of 6 successful. These mnemonics would work for all spells and would not be rune specific.

A third form of Mnemonic would be specific to a spell level. This could be as simple as ruling that once rune wizards reach 8th level that 1st level spells are automatically successful. It could also be a magic item like a wand or staff that allow any given spells at a certain level to be successful.

Optional Rule 2 - Attunement and Frustration

In the example rune, you may have noticed that the rune itself exists between the results of 2 and 6. That was on purpose as I use this option when running the system.

This option classifes runes into three categories, Low, High, and Major. High Runes have an insciprtion at the top of the chart (values 1 to 6). Low Runes have an inscription at the bottom of the chart (8 to 13). Major Runes have an inscription on both parts.

At the beginning of the day, a wizard can choose to atune to one or more runes. This will allow the wizard to roll 3d6 and take the best two to successfuly cast a spell. Using our example rune, this increases the chance of casting a 2nd level spell increases from 75% to 87.5%. A wizard cannot atune to the same rune two days in a row.

The cost for this is that for every rune attuned, there is one that must be frustrated. Using a frustrated rune will require to wizard to roll 3d6 and take the lowest 2. If the wizard foolishly chose to frustrate our example rune, a 2nd level spell would only be successfuly 61.1% of the time.

However, if the wizard chooses to frustrate a low rune, one where the black marks appear in the results 8 to 13, it would actually provide a bonus to use that low rune. As the wizard collects more runes, they will be able to provide bonuses on many, if not all of their runes. The same rule applies to frustration: a wizard cannot frustrate the same rune two days in a row.

Major runes provide a slight improvement whether they are attuned or frustrated. I orginally created these to have rare and/or very powerful spells. A wish would be on a major rune because I don't want wish to be cast successfully very often.

Optional Rule 3 - Tides of Magic

This optional rule explains why there is a 1 and 13 result on the chart. To simulate the ebb and flow of magic power in an area, have the player roll 2d6. If the result is 9 to 13, add 1 to all spell casting rolls. If the result is 2 to 5, subtract 1 to all spell casting rolls. To make magic more wibbly-wobbly, you can say that even results add 1 to the spell casting rolls while odd rolls subtract 1 from those rolls.

Putting It All Together

I plan to use all the options for more experienced players, but only the basic rules + mnemonics for newer players. I like this system because despite the potential for several moving parts, it all comes down to a 2d6 roll + adjustments. I also like this system because the way translated English names appear on the runes, a player could potentially decipher new runes or devise runes of their own.

I recommend that you use Ozymandias' Spell Compendium or similar resources to build runes. Ozymandias' list doesn't include Cleric spells, but you may decide that keep runes arcane. Other resources can provide other types of spells. You can also use domain lists to quickly make runes.

Lastly, I want to thank the Dotsies font for inspiring the way I created the runes. I don't use the font in rune creation, but I wouldn't have had the idea for this system without it.

Found a Useful Font

I would normally post this in my RPG Ideas and Projects collection on Google Plus. Since the announcement of its impending demise, I ported over all the posts from that collection to my site here. I have edited all the 2018 posts to that collection for proper titles, categories, and tagging.

I have to get used to posting here instead of there, so my apologies for the long introduction. I have to stop saying that my next post will be about x and y now that I will post random tidbits here more frequently.

Dotsies is an interesting font based on the premise that handwriting makes letters much larger than they need to be. The result is something you might imagine an AI would invent. What makes it interesting for me is that everything can be typed with one hand.

When I think about the Rune Magic system in my Samoora campaign, this fits with the image of a person manipulating an object on their arm with their free hand. Even better, words typed in this font look like pixelated runes. This makes the keyword nature of the magic system tie into the rune concept. Woot!

Even better, you can design your own version of Dotsies. So, I have designed my own version and I will change the font to match with FontForge.

So I have a font that I can read, but the players cannot. I can glance down at the character's collected runes and know what spells they should be able to generate.

As John Smith used to say, I love it when a plan comes together.