Thursday, September 10, 2015

Putting the User back in Magic-User

A post on Papers & Pencil’s entitled “Spell Lists Suck. Here are some Magic Words” got me thinking about different ways to handle magic. I’ve always been intrigued by eliminating/reducing spell lists (less to look up/remember or record).

The central conceit is that instead of learning spells from a list, Magic-Users learn “words” that are used to create new spells. I believe the old GURPS Magic had a Rune-Based system for noun/verb pairs for on-the-fly casting, and it always looked relatively tricky to judge without a ton of negotiation.

I do enjoy the idea of using the Magic-User’s initial spell outlay to determine the initial words known. The post postulates that new Spell Creation could be handled on a one-per-session basis, I’m inclined to agree, as adjudicating this kind of system on the fly may introduce inconsistent rulings. But spell creation by word combination “on-the-fly” is still somewhat interesting to me. I like the idea of making magic somewhat unpredictable and mysterious.

So, to have a starting point, I went through my trusty Rules Cyclopedia and assembled a d100 list of keywords from the Magic-User Spell Lists (levels one through nine). These are for a more “Traditional” magic, and after some careless and creative consolidation/culling, I managed to get the list down to 100 words. Some spells proved a little problematic (“Ventriloquism” was clumsily re-categorized as “Unseen Voice” for instance).

For a lark, I also created a second list using the unusual and interesting spells from the excellently strange Space Age Sorcery supplement. These entries work well to make Magic “Weirder” with the inclusion of all sorts of unusual words that really get the brain working when combined with each other or words from the Traditional List.

Now, I wouldn’t use these words exclusively (I love the idea of more mundane, “campsite magic” cantrip words, like “Teapot” mentioned in the post), but they are a good start for making some spells.

Here are the tables:

How would I use them? Well, I’d go ahead and follow the general advice outlined in the inspiring post and grant an initial outlay of two, standard, Vancian spells from the 1st Level Spell List for initial tinkering and combination. Maybe an extra word per point of Intelligence bonus to keep things interesting and encourage system-use from the start. Articles like “of” and “the” and targets like an implied “(self)” should probably be free.

Remixing these spells without formalizing a “new” spell should probably engender a check of some sort. Here are some ideas for this “on-the-fly” check:
  • Saving Throw versus Spells (good, because it takes into account Character Level)
  • Turning Check versus “perceived spell level as HD” for Spell (better because it takes into account the power of the effect and character level. Allows for a few “levels” of overcasting.)
  • Ability Score Check (non-improving, and generally too tightly-bound)
  • General Skill: Magical Engineering (consider giving this to Magic-User’s free, as inspired by the Magic-User “fixes” provided in the very excellent Building The Perfect Class document, a must-read for Rules Cyclopedia DMs that does a lot of crunching on the abilities and experience progression for the classes)
Consult your favorite Magical Mishap table for failures, or better yet: Use the Optional Rule below and do a word-swap.

Optional Rule:

Magic is a fickle and strange thing. Each time the user sleeps (after or before preparing spells), one of the words in their mind may mutate or change.
  • You could let the caster pick a word. But if this is done before or after Spell preparation this could have an impact on spell selection/casting which might eliminate some of the mystery here. I’d lean toward making the reveal after spells are prepared if this option is used. It will still probably influence play, and could rob some agency, but an argument could be made for the Magic-User intuitively knowing that something’s not right with the magical forces trapped in their mind.
  • You could randomly determine the word to be replaced and keep it secret (write it down). If you go this route, I’d recommend making the rule occur less consistently (instead of every night, it has a chance of occurring randomly, have the caster make a check).
  •  Pick a word that is not “in-use” with a prepared spell. This is the one that changed, and therefore is mainly only useful for “remixing” or “on-the-fly” casting.
Roll on one of the tables and replace the chosen word with a new one. For the first two options above, any formalized spells cast using the lost word now have the new word instead. Hilarity ensues. Formalized Spells in the caster’s spellbook aren’t affected. I’d be inclined to reveal the new word to the player when the “mutated” spell is cast so they can scurry to scribe some of the “niftier” words received in this way into their spellbook as part of a formalized spell, or remix them for the rest of the adventure.

In WHITEHACKWise Class characters receive two words per Miracle. This makes the magic system a little more formalized, but still pretty flexible. I’d eliminate any checks associated with “remixing” or “on-the-fly” casting, because of the HP Cost associated with Miracles can already serve as a limiter.

For determining the Spell Level of formalized spells, the ACKs Player’s Companion has a nice and crunchy system for Spell Creation that I recommend perusing. I particularly like how it calls out powerhouse spells like Sleep and Fireball as the result of magical innovation and breakthroughs to set them apart in power level from other spells of their level (and even higher level spells). I think it would be important to communicate up front with players that “just because it worked this way on-the-fly” doesn’t necessarily mean that the energies/effect will function the same way when they are focused into a rigid “spell.” On-the-fly casting comes with “risk” and the trade-off for reliability may dampen the power a bit.
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