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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

Creating Interesting Spells

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

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.

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