Magical Mondays: Spell Utility, Plot, and You! Part 2…   Leave a comment

For part one of this sub-series within Magical Mondays, click here.  I’d recommend reading it first, but… honestly, you can probably read either one first, I think.  Just know that this article, and the previous one, are both heavily d20/D&D 3.5/Pathfinder focused.  Now, on to the article!

Pushing Daisies Ned

On last week’s Magical Mondays, I waded through some story-focused ideas, flights of fancy that, while they might sound interesting at a glance, are actually comprised of the things that most GMs won’t touch.  How do you balance plot-based magic?  If you make a scene where love conquers all or the power of imagination is sufficient or all you need is teamwork, is that cheatingly overpowered or is it just a lame way to write yourself out of a corner?  Maybe, maybe.  That’s why, friends, I intend to bring the oft-ignored power of Rules to the table.  Not because I think you need them, but I DO think that you, like me, might need some encouragement to break out of the rules.  Consider these rules to be training wheels.  And you’re right to be worried: story-fueled magic is a powerful thing.  Consider the following:

I use the image of Ned from Pushing Daisies above because he’s a great example of the sorts of things you can do when you give a random spell to a person.  Ned, in game terms, would be a Commoner (possibly Expert) who has the unusual supernatural ability to bring dead things back to life.  If he touches them again, they die forever, and are beyond his ability to revive.  If he doesn’t touch them within one minute, then something of roughly comparable “life value” dies (the series is intentionally vague on just what is worth what else.)  Ned uses this ability to make some of the freshest pies you’ve ever tasted, but then he’s discovered by a private detective who wants Ned, the humble pie maker, to use this ability to bring the dead back to life so that they can ask the deceased who their murderer was and collect reward money for solving the crimes.  Why is this not already back on TV?  Why?  Guys, we brought back Futurama, we brought back Community, can’t we… can’t we just… guys, if we could…

Okay.  In time.  In time.  Different topic for a different article.  Where was I?  Right, gaming.

Does Ned’s ability significantly increase his challenge rating?  Perhaps.  I think it’s more accurate to say that a challenge’s challenge rating increases if Ned assists it, but even that’s a stretch most of the time.  Are three kobold warriors that much harder to beat if Ned is around to revive them? Maybe.  But what if Ned was tricked into touching the body of an Ancient Wyrm living beneath a city? And then prevented from touching the dragon again?  Suddenly the party not only has an ancient wyrm to contend with, but also a Pie Maker to save, and a ten round time limit before something within a wide area is chosen as equal payment for the returned life of the dragon.  Let’s not go into specifics, but some of the city’s population WILL be affected by that.  Suddenly the Challenge is much harder than just a dragon, because now there’s a time limit and the fate of any number of people in the balance.  Does that change the CR of the dragon? No.  You can’t tell me that it’s not harder, though.  (Though if you’re pointing out the fact that most D&D fights last well below ten rounds, you’re correct.  Still, a ticking time bomb for the players to deal with is an ominous threat, especially if the dragon’s above their normal pay grade.)

Suddenly, Ned’s potentially game-breaking ability has broken the game… for YOU.  Even better, it’s done it in a way that you’ve predicted, planned out, and done without penalizing the players (apart from the fact that you’ve just put a big dragon in front of them.)

This is the DM side of things, though.  Last week I said I’d handle some calculations that you can make for basic challenges for magically-inclined characters to encounter.  Let’s see how this works.  And if you don’t mind, I’m gonna reuse the Let’s Make Some Magic image from last week since it just fits.


There we go.

Now, the hard part is in the preparation, but since it’s behind the scenes it’s okay to fudge the numbers a bit.  You’re going to need to create a quick and dirty homebrew spell for your players to encounter.  Let’s say that your players are looking for a camp sight and they find a weird stone with arcane runes and holes carved into them.  Something that looks like it was ripped off from a game of Fable.  Something like this.

Fable Witchwood Stones

It’s a perfect campsite, but the stones are creepy.  Like… seriously creepy.  A detect magic spell reveals no magic, however.  A cleric, wizard, bard or other such character may make a knowledge check or spellcraft check, and recognize them as a certain item called a… Sounding Stone.  (I’m just the best with names, aren’t I?  Fortunately, this is the rough draft, and I can decide to call them Stones of Audiman or Pillars of Formimir later.)  The knowledge check reveals that these are largely ceremonial objects put up as pieces of decoration in ancient times, but that they were also occasionally used as the focus of spells of protection to frighten away adversaries.  The players are interested in taking advantage of this feature, and all the magical players roll Spellcraft checks to see what they can figure out.  The Cleric and Bard roll a 17 and a 22, both high enough for our purposes, and they determine that they can use the stones to create a sort of fusion effect: if a creature not of the party tries to enter their campsite, the stones will vibrate and make a dull, ghostly whistling noise by propelling wind through the holes.  It’s both creating an alarm that can awaken the other party members, and it’s creating a terrifying noise that can leave enemies shaken.

The Cleric believes this would be a good thing, but the Cleric is emo and prepares his spells at midnight every night (seriously, what’s up with that guy?  I’m fine with him always taking the late night shift, but seriously.)  All of his spell slots are currently filled, and he believes that he would need to prepare this magical effect as a second level spell.

The bard, however, doesn’t want this amazing protection to wait until the middle of the night.  Fortunately, the bard is a spontaneous caster, and doesn’t need to prepare spells.  Also, the bard’s knowledge of music, air currents and campfire ghost stories are synergistic; the bard believes that the spell can be prepared as a first level spell.

The bard then simply performs his magic, leaving the artistic impression of a ghostly alarm lingering in the air over their campfire, and loses the arcane ability to cast one more first level spell that day.  Having demonstrably earned his keep, the bard rakishly hops down by a rock and begins strumming his lute to relax, leaving the food preparation and other nightly chores to everyone else for the evening.

Minstrel of Gondor

Now, I cheated a bit with the above example: I used some pre-existing spells as the basis for what I was doing.  The stones, used in this fashion, were basically creating an Alarm effect, but one that not only woke up the party members in the event of danger but also created a Fear effect (similar to the Cause Fear spell, but able to affect creatures of any hit dice close enough to hear the tone made by the resonant stones.)  Due to the set piece involved, I’m treating these combined effects as if they were merely second level spells (in fact, my reason for using pre-existing spells instead of all new magical effects was to make the level comparisons clear.)  Arguably, the Fear effect should be much stronger… but it’s limited and, unlike Cause Fear, it merely makes its targets shakened instead of scared (when you’re just shaken, you aren’t compelled to run due to how scared you are.)  Due to the weakened effect, I’m prepared to treat it as first level, maybe second tops (especially since it might not last longer than one round on a 1d4.)

I put the spells together and decided that the combined effects were definitely in the neighborhood of either a powerful second level spell or a weaker third level spell.  I went with second level.  The DC of the Spellcraft check for figuring out how to use the stone in this way is a DC 15 + Effective Spell Level, so in this case it would have taken a roll of 17 or higher to get it.

Note that the bard was able to cast this as a first level spell.  That’s more due to the bardic affinity for that kind of music-based magic and was decided on a whim (though sometimes Bards do get spells earlier than expected in odd ways like that.)  I recommend finding synergies between a player character and things like this.  If you’re trying to find the cheapest wine and the caster is a vintner, give them a +2 to the check.  If the effect is a school of magic that corresponds to a specialty wizard ability? Another +2, or even higher if they have the Spell Focus feat.  (Maybe as high as +5 for specialist wizards with Greater Spell Focus.)

The basic formula of 15 + Spell Level isn’t perfect, but it’s good for most situations.  Definitely tinker with this kind of thing before unleashing your magic ideas into the world.  One more quick example scenario before we wrap up.

Merlin's Sugar Bowl

Your players discover a magical library, filled with labyrinthine tunnels and ancient books.  They came seeking a particular tome, but the library doesn’t seem to have much in the way of organization, and looking through every title for a book could take most of the day, time they don’t have to waste.

The party begins to notice tiny pewter statues, about half the size of gnomes and with metallic wings, most frozen in motion as they are lifting books into place on various shelves or carrying some books down the hall, as if they simply stopped moving one day.  Information on a sign found in a “history of the library” shelf (located after 1d4+1 hours of looking for the tome), a Knowledge (Arcana) check of 24, or a Bardic Knowledge check of 15 (using the D&D rules for Bardic Knowledge instead of the Pathfinder rules) reveals that these little statues are known as Lorelings, tiny creatures that acted as servants of the librarians and assisted in organizing and restocking.

Now, the Detect Magic spell would have revealed nothing magical about these statues, but whether or not players found the knowledge about them  they can, with a successful Spellcraft check, discover the fact that these creatures were not only magically made, but magically powered.  It might be possible to reactivate one with a spell of the appropriate level.

Now, what level of spell do we put here?  Typically, animating statues is the purview of people with the Craft Construct feat.  That doesn’t help us here, but it *does* point us in the direction of one of the more iconic forms of constructed servant creatures: the homunculus.  The classical creature of this sort is a kind of… grown or built, miniature person meant for performing tasks (though the standard D&D version is a bit more of an all-purpose monster servant made with more specific tasks in mind, unless you start including the alternate versions found here and there, such as in the Eberron campaign setting.)  The stats for creating a creature of this sort list a few non-feat requirements for making one: the ability to cast Mending, of casting Mirror Image, and of casting Arcane Eye, and the caster must be at least fourth level (curiously, Arcane Eye isn’t available to casters until level five, but let’s assume the “creator” might be getting help of some sort.)  So, we have a fourth level spell, a second level spell, and a zeroth level spell, an a minimum caster level of four to work with.

Let’s consider a few factors here: creating a servant creature is one of those “standard” fantasy wizard tropes, and I usually place those at around third level magic, even if it’s a more advanced one that might hedge it in the direction of fourth level magic.  I’d also consider the fact that this is not a true creation of a homunculus: this is just recharging the battery of a creature that shares some similarities with it, probably one that won’t be helping the party outside of this one mission.  I can afford to low-ball this, so I’ll call it a second level magical effect.

At this point, a sorcerer, wizard, or cleric could figure out how to make a utility spell with a spellcraft DC of 17 (15 + 2nd level).  A cleric would then be able to prepare one of his or her spells as this particular spell, usable in this particular location on this particular day when it next came time for the cleric to prepare spells.  A wizard would have to either rest eight hours, or use an empty spell slot if the wizard had the foresight to leave an empty slot.  The sorcerer, though, being a spontaneous arcane caster, could cast this as soon as he or she knew how, infusing the Loreling with internal arcane energy.

(Sidenote: I limited this to sorcerers, wizards and clerics for odd reasons.  Sorcerers and Wizards are arcane casters (and arguably have an understanding of the different varieties of magic at work in the world) and have a more academic understanding of the flow of magic than, say, a bard or warlock does, and a warlock’s powers may not come from a proper place for this sort of thing.  Clerics, meanwhile, have divine figures to help them out, and the classical story of the golem involved a holy leader performing a ritual that imitated the creation of humans, so it fits thematically.  Use your own best judgement for which other classes might work: this is so close to what an Artificer does automatically, for instance, that I’d not only allow it but I’d give the artificer a +2 boost on the spellcraft check, changing it to +5 when the artificer has the Craft Homunculus class feature.)

Anyway, once the spellcaster has not only identified their ability to perform this task, but also does it, the Loreling will activate, and will be more than happy to help the players locate whatever book they wish.  Were I to run it, I’d have the Loreling stop at some statue passed in the halls… any statue, really, it doesn’t matter what it’s a statue of… and then have the Loreling fall onto its knees to weep openly for a few moments before continuing on with helping the players.  I’m a little strange, though, so that approach may not work for you.

Anyway, I hope this examination of Spell Utility and Plot has been helpful for you.  I’ll see you next time on Magical Mondays!


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