Magical Mondays: Spell Utility, Plot, And You! Part 1…   3 comments

Yen Sid

In a previous Magical Mondays article I wrote about something called Story Specific Spells.  Basically, I was talking about the ability to use the ability to use spells, rather than the ability to use spells, and how you could use the ability to use the ability to use spells to do things other than spells.  This might make more sense if you read the previous article, but I can’t make that kind of promise.  In D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder terms, it basically comes down to using spell slots to create magical effects that you don’t have a spell for.  (Fair warning: this article’s going to mostly involve Vancian magic of the sort that can be found in Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and other OGL style games.)  Anyway, a friend of mine suggested that I do a bit more to describe the sorts of things I have in mind for Story Specific Spells, and possibly add some rules.  A bit of crunch to go with the fluff, to make a delicious S’more of gaming.  I’m hungry while I write this, by the way.

Here’s the issue with Vancian spells: the best thing about any given Vancian spell is also the worst thing about any Vancian spell, because it’s the ONLY thing about that particular spell.  The spell is playable as written, and only subject to change through GM fiat or unabashed player cheating (or, if we’re being honest, simple accidents on the part of players.)  I’m hard on Vancian magic on this blog, but I want to start off by saying that Vancian magic isn’t *bad*.  It just is what it is.  And for the most part, it’s good.  It sets up a framework that we can all use, and the first time a player opens up their Player’s Handbook to see just what they can learn at level 1, the options seem too numerous to count.  Vancian magic, through it’s sheer volume of spell entries, creates the illusion of a world filled with magic that’s more important than actually having entire books filled with nothing but arcane lore, eldritch secrets, alchemical mysteries, and (of course) spells.  If you’re still a new player, or a new GM, don’t be too hasty when abandoning Vancian magic (and I’d advise you to not abandon it entirely, unless you’ve got a good idea about what you’ll be doing.  GMs who get rid of too much Vancian stuff in favor of their own mysterious magic can sometimes get too railroady in their approaches.)  Anyway, to start off with what constitutes a decent story specific spell, I’d like to pull from one of those rare times where an MMO did a better job at pulling off this concept than your standard tabletop games.  Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Professor Flummox (and friends)!

Professor Flummox was a character of mine in the game City of Heroes.  He was a gaslight fantasy-themed character (which is like Steampunk, but with more of a focus on the magic and intrigue of a world than the technology of it), and a renegade from the world known in-game as Praetorian Earth (what started out as your basic “Flipped Morality” world, though with some unusual twists and turns in it.)  He was a Mastermind, meaning that a lot of his powers focused on calling/improving minions to do his work for him, and he had a weather machine.  Oh, and the origin of all his powers was Magic.  City of Heroes had a lot of powers that might suggest one origin more than another (The “beam weapon” powerset seemed more or less rooted in Technology), but they allowed… encouraged, even… players to justify their characters and origins through in-game story.  I roleplayed it as a sort of madness… his elementally infused golems were, as he believed, true miracles of technology, and his weather magic was the result of his hard work with the “weather machine” allegedly.

Usually a character’s origin wouldn’t come up in the game, but it had some unexpected repercussions.  The Origin Of Power missions (largely an information-gathering quest to educate you as a player) would have different dialogue from a contact with an understanding of your origin, for instance.  However, a truly odd one came up early in Flummox’s career while he was still running about Praetoria.  In a mission called “Stop the Bomb Plot” you get the chance to stop a bomb from detonating.  Characters with the Natural, Mutant or Science origins would have to fumble their way through some decision trees, but the game offered some alternate choices for Technology and Magic characters.  Magic characters were able to cast a spell that allowed them to speak to lightning elementals, giving you the chance to talk to the tiny spark of electricity living inside the bomb.  You ask the spark to leave, it does, and the bomb is no longer in danger of stopping.

I’ll be honest: if I’m playing a magic character in Pathfinder or D&D I’m probably not going to take a spell called “Speak with Lightning Elementals” unless it’s a character with a certain theme.  That wasn’t an issue here, though; the game assumed I had some sort of familiarity with magic that would allow me to communicate to this particular bomb.  Did it make sense?

Honestly? I was playing a mad magician who thought he was a scientist, and one of his “inventions” was a weather machine.  It seemed odd to me at first, but it was one of the most easily justifiable bits of story that ever came my character’s way.  I might’ve lucked out, though.  But even if I hadn’t, that was still a memorable moment, one that I remember more clearly than much of the rest of that story line.  Now, the end result of the mission was the same, but that’s exactly why this kind of thing matters: it’s worth assuming that your players will, if presented with a dungeon or challenge of some sort, eventually solve it anyway.  So why not spice it up a bit?  Let’s cover some basics.


  1. Make Spell Levels On The Level: That’s a horrible name for a title, but it’s already really late.  I’ll talk more about this rule next week, but for now know that what I mean is that your task should be generally as powerful as a spell in some way.  I recommend keeping the power of these abilities, even with their limitations, at or below third level, at least at first.  How do you know if a spell is third level?  Generally, level 3 spells in games like D&D or Pathfinder are the spells that you think about as the “standards” in fantasy literature.  The wizard’s fireball, the ability to fly, throwing lightning bolts around, putting a large group of mundane creatures to sleep, cancelling other magical effects, summoning little huts for people to spend time in, that kind of thing.  Much more powerful than that sort of thing and it’s no longer third level.  It’s still possible to have situational spells at levels higher than third, of course, but it starts to bend realism.  The other reason is that you want your characters to feel like they’re investing something for the spell, but not necessarily that they’re surrendering everything.  A 0th, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level spell might be very significant (depending on the level).  Remember, a caster has to be able to cast the spell after they’ve made the Spellcraft check, so while a Sorcerer could just give up a 3rd level spell slot and cast it immediately, after a Wizard figures out how the spell works they’ll probably have to wait eight hours to prepare a spell again later (unless they had the foresight to leave a blank spot in their spell lists.)
  2. Start With Situational Spells: This alliterative suggestion is good for warming up to this kind of practice, and also for those GMs who fear game imbalances.  Situational Spells are what I talked about in the previous article on this topic, and they remain the gist of what this concept is used for, but the potential exists for these things to become generic.  It’s worth noting that if what you’re developing is useful enough for a caster to expend time or resources to commit to their spell list then its probably not a situational spell and is, in fact, just an actual spell.  Treat it as such.  The difference can be bluntly summed up as a spell that “Finds all the electrum in this room today” and a spell that “Detects electrum.”  The first is basically usable once, and the second is usable whenever a player wants to find some electrum.  Now, it’s admittedly a rare enough situation that it won’t be a very strong spell… probably no more than a cantrip, really… but it’s still a definite Spell.  Now, what if we go with the middle ground?  A spell that “Finds all the electrum in this room?”  Useful on another day, but limited to a location?  That really depends on the campaign world you’ve set up and how important electrum is.  I’d call it a spell in my game settings, but feel free to make it work however you want.
  3. Avoid Numeric Bonuses: The last thing you want is a numeric bonus that can stack with something else.  If the spell is truly situational (see above) then it’s probably not going to be a problem in the long run even if it is, but the problem here is more than mechanical.  Basically, you’ve crafted a really interesting story hook here… and said “Awesome!  Make the check as normal, but now that you’ve cast the spell you can perform it with a +11 bonus!”  Another problem would be tying the result to a die roll.  “Great, perform your roll but with a 1d12+6 bonus.”  It’s tempting, it really is, numeric bonuses are so handy so often, but don’t give in.  You’re better than that.  Believe in yourself.  Instead, come up with the effect.  It can be as simple as “The door opens”, or as complicated as “Your soul is now marked as a Liar.  Divinations will doubt you, few will trust you, and your standing in the eyes of many will be reduced.  Fortunately, this wipes your slate clean, and the horrible familial curse that you were fated to no longer applies.”
  4. Don’t Break The Economy: This is a hard one.  Somewhere between what magic can do in spell form and what you’re letting your players do with “general magicness” is a tricky place where magic becomes so commonplace that it no longer makes sense for your world to look the way it does.  Don’t make situational magic so easy to get that a player can just start spellcrafting their way through any mundane task.  In general, if the task at hand is somehow mundane, try to make the task of working out the specific magic significantly lengthier than the task could be performed by two or three people with the proper relevant mundane skills and the right equipment.  Magic is a force multiplier by virtue of its rarity, and there’s all sorts of reasons for it to simply not work sometimes.  A magician may need the stars to be in alignment, or to be at the right leylines, or have access to the right sorts of gear.

I think that if you’re brave and a little crazy, you’ve probably got enough to start already.  But!  I know that’s not the way our minds work as gamers, especially not in the numbers-heavy d20 systems like Pathfinder and D&D.  Next week I’m going to present some quick and dirty rules you can follow to make your own Situational Spells for your game sessions, complete with DCs, rules for the players to follow, and a few examples.

So, with the rare occurrence of you knowing what the next week will bring, I’ll see you next week for another Magical Monday!


3 responses to “Magical Mondays: Spell Utility, Plot, And You! Part 1…

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  1. Reblogged this on Tome and Tomb and commented:
    Very nice assessment and idea(s).

    • Thanks! I wish I’d had time to put everything into this first week’s post. Glad it was relatively clear even as it was.

  2. Pingback: Magical Mondays: Spell Utility, Plot, and You! Part 2… | Crater Labs, Inc.

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