Magical Mondays: Story Specific Spells   2 comments

I had a thought about doing a post on Brigadoon, Atlantis, The Batcave and other “missing locations” that could be integrated into a roleplaying game, but then I remembered that Magical Mondays has stuck around so long because of a few particular topics i keep forgetting to cover.  And today’s topic is one of those oft-neglected themes: Story Specific Spells.  Come with me to the borders of Vancian casting ability, and observe the phenomenon I’m discussing.

Let’s say that you’re playing a tabletop fantasy role playing game, and you run across an ancient gateway in the middle of a forest.  It’s mostly formed of a rune-covered door and set into the archway between two trees.  Based on the curvature of the ground, you’d assume that the archway would have a path that sloped down and away from the entrance into some underground location.  The players try to open it, but none of the conventional means work.  That’s when the magic using character or the lore-knowing character (assuming they’re not just the same person, that is) notices the runes aren’t as unintelligible as previously thought.  With some work and cooperation, the door says “Beyond lies Haron’s Hall, ever waiting for Haron himself.”  The rest of the runes don’t correspond to a language, but instead represent the foundation of a spell, a sort of magical keyhole that was waiting for the right sort of magic.  What do you do?

Brute force doesn’t seem to work.  Digging through the hill to get around the door doesn’t seem to work.  Casting spells of destruction don’t seem to work; the magic woven into the door represents an ironclad contract with the universe itself that the door won’t open without the right sort of key.

In most games I’ve played, this sort of thing would be the end of the road.  We’d basically have to wait around for a GM’s plot point to usher us through the door, and waiting for a GM to do that kind of thing is one of the most tedious things I’ve ever experienced.  However, what if there was a way through?

You’ve got a magician, after all.  And while this old magic is impressive, is it really up to modern standards?  Why can’t the magician just use “magic”?

And now we come to the point of the blog post where readers will find themselves along a lengthy scale.  On one end, you’ll have players saying “Wait, I thought that wasn’t an option.  It is?  Okay, do that then.”  Meanwhile, on the opposite end, you’ll have players saying “But magic can’t open the door.  We already covered that.”  Where you land on the scale will likely depend on what sorts of games you’ve played.  Players of games like D&D and Pathfinder, games that use Vancian magic, will be in a strange situation; if a spell they already have doesn’t cover it, then the magic users simply can’t do it (with one exception, but I’ll get to that.)  Meanwhile, if you play games like Cosmic Patrol or the Storyteller System or even Xd20, magic doesn’t exist in a series of pre-established widgets of energy.  (If you’re unfamiliar with Xd20, I highly suggest tracking down a copy of XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy and Curtis Hickman.  The Xd20 system is one of the most story-focused systems ever developed, and the rest of the book is a great look at what it takes to be a good GM.  But I digress.)

See, in Xd20 magic is devised through a single stat.  Basically, if you encountered the scenario above in Xd20 the magician could say “I’d like to try channeling arcane energy into the door, to see if I can ‘pick the lock’ so to speak.”  Then the magician would roll and the GM would declare success or failure based on the result.  In Cosmic Patrol (not really a fantasy game, but the system works just the same in fantasy stories), you might have a few options; if your gear included a Magic Wand, you could roll a Brains check, opposed by the Lead Narrator, or if you had a relevant Special Die (“Ancient Architecture” or “Arcane Protections” or even just “Spell Examinations”) you could make a check with your special die.  Basically, in systems like those where the effects of magic are up to the imagination, you’ve got more options.  I think Vancian magic should have options as well, however.  Why can’t those magic users generate story specific spells?  So let’s say the players encounter this in Pathfinder or D&D.  How do they handle it?

First, I’d tie this to the “Spellcraft” skill, a skill that you know I feel is underused (if you’ve been reading here a while, at least.)  Spellcraft can be used to examine unusual magical effects, and this ancient relic certainly qualifies.  If properly examined (the DC would be up to the GM, but I’d put it at no less than 20 or 25 depending on the level), the GM will be free to reveal some of the arcane secrets at work.  The GM could say “You think you could open this,” before rolling a d4.  “It’ll take you 2 hours to figure out how to make it work just right.  Performing this feat will be the same as a third level spell.  Do you want to do this?”

At this point, the player needs to decide.  Two hours isn’t long, but a third level spell is a significant investment.  Worse, if the player is a prepared caster (such as a wizard) all the third level spells of the day are spoken for.  A sorcerer might be able to cast the spell to open the door at the end of two hours, but a wizard would have to prepare after an eight hour rest.

Effectively, you’ve had the magician use Spellcraft to design a spell on the fly.  It’s important to note that this spell, unlike other Vancian spells, is scene specific enough that it won’t come up again.  The good news is that it’ll only need to be used the once, and since it’s effectively a tiny little mini-spell (even if it requires the power or talent or whatever of a third level spell) it won’t take up space as a “known spell.”  Instead, it’s just a feat of arcane acumen that the magician pulled off one time.

Doing this will add some basic utility to the characters outside of combat, and will do things to limit the “five minute work day” of casters.  It will also give you more NPC options to explain how things were pulled off: what spell was used to animate these clay monsters?  Hard to say, but it was probably a complex ritual that they spent days calculating.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  As always, see you next time!


2 responses to “Magical Mondays: Story Specific Spells

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  1. Pingback: Magical Mondays: Spell Utility, Plot, And You! Part 1… | Crater Labs, Inc.

  2. Pingback: Truly Non-Vancian Magic | The Greenbeard Codex

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