Sunday, July 9, 2017

Magic Fluff & Starting Magician Spells

As far as rules and mechanics go, I think Vancian style casting really adds a lot to a game. It's perfect for resource management dungeon crawling, despite me mucking about with it. But how about the fluff? The in-universe explanation for how it works and how the people in the setting that cast spells actually use it?

The obvious option is just to not explain it. Because world-building is very masturbatory, I somewhat agree with this. With that being said, I'm not satisfied with a “it just works” kind of explanation. I need something to describe how magic works, as flimsy a justification as it will be.

I've seen a lot of Vancian style magic described using the following fluff; that spells are 'creatures' from another plane or reality that magic users stuff into their brains and fire them out of, only to return to the spellbook and be used again the next day. I want to preface this by saying I don't think this fluff is necessarily bad, but I really dislike it. It's extremely interesting on its own, you'd think “hey maybe that's some really weird gonzo class the dungeon master wrote up?” but nope, that's the default and generic magic system. On top of this, it boils down magic users to a Ranger with some very specific and short lived animal companions. It robs the Wizard of his own personal growth.

But then how do we explain the ruleset and give it fluff that is more agreeable?

Thoughts are Power
At it's core, wishing for something, imagining something, or willing something to happen are real forces. When you have a mythic fantasy game like I do, a creature with an intense willpower can focus on a boulder and will it to move, and it just might.

Of course, simply willing or wishing for things is not enough. Humans don't have wills that powerful innately. This is where the Craft comes in.

The Craft is essentially the totality of working magic. Everyone does this, yes everyone, including the serfs and commoners. They just do minor, subtle stuff. Magic like pacing around the land they live on once per year to ward away predators, superstitions in our world but magic and REAL in fantasy. These magics tend to be weak, vague, subtle, or incomplete due to simplicity- even Wizards can't exert the craft to do anything and everything.

Magic Wands are another good example.

Spellcraft however is a little more complex. Only the experts do it, and it requires several steps; Induction, training, as well as personal drive and talent. “Anyone” can do magic, but some people certainly have a knack for it.

Layered Meaning
Wizard spellbooks are chunky and fat. Spell Aides have few symbols but still can give the same result. Why? Because of layers of meaning. Even a normal Magician's spellbook is like this. Part of the training to become a magician involves the creation, perversion, and learning of personal and common symbols to represent meaning, thought, and wishing layered on top of each other.

Imagine a class of young Wizards, for several weeks during their training, just sitting in a blank room and forced to imagine a lightning bolt crackling through the sky and striking something they wish. Later on they are told to imagine themselves becoming that lightning bolt, morphing it, spending literally weeks imagining their bodies changing into lightning and appearing somewhere else, wishing for this power to be in their grasp. Some of the kids, prodigies, may imagine themselves as a lightning beast for ease of anthropomorphism. Others may imagine their lightning bolt as unnatural colors or with erratic direction. This mental static is why every magic user has spells that are just a little different from each other.

Now at the end of this training they are told to draw a shape that represents that lightning bolt transformation and transportation, and then that glyph is cut down to only a few very tight and focused brush strokes. This is the Wizard's glyph for teleportation, or instant motion from place to place. This is not a spell. We aren't even close. Glyphs are the shorthand for this state, not magic and not even spells.

The Wizard's spellbook is full of stuff like this. Hundreds of glyphs in tight contained rings, each representing one stage of what you need to think, feel, dream, and desire above all else to make this spell possible. It should go without saying that Magicians have deep internal lives.

Since that was a whole lot of fucking words, here's my starting spell list for Agnostic spells.

-Magic & Spells-
These spells represent the most common powers that are boasted by apprentice magicians. Spellpower is represented by this symbol: ⚡

Every spell is a little unique to the Wizard who casts them. This is called your Seal, try to pick a theme for your Magician and their spell seals.

First, roll 1d12 to determine the random spell gained from your training and then pick a different spell to complete your beginner's repertoire.
(1) Conveyance of Supply & Spoils
(2) Seeking Projectile of the Magus
(3) Inclement Manifestation
(4) Glower of Potent Foulness
(5) Blocked Passage of Obfuscation
(6) Sorcery of Extreme Weakness
(7) Protection from Hexes & Dangers
(8) Pathway of Prophecy
(9) Enchantment of Good Humor
(10) Urgent & Surefire Messages
(11) Flotsam of the Open Air
(12) Magical Manipulation of the Material

(1) Conveyance of Supply & Spoils
When cast, this spell creates a magical force that helps carry things. The force can carry equal in load to 4 + ⚡ . It lasts for as long as the Wizard wishes; this spell slot is unable to be used during.
The Conveyance creates as much noise as a regular person walking and will disappear if it takes any damage. It can be given simple instructions such as to hold still or follow someone, but it has no intelligence of its own and cannot discern more complex commands.

Seal- The Conveyance can appear as many things from a strange creature covered in saddle-bags, a floating disk, an animated chest, the items float in transparent clusters of bubbles and so on.

(2) Seeking Projectile of the Magus
When cast, this spell creates an unnerving attack and deals 1d4+ damage to its target. No save. Damage may be split to multiple enemies, but only before result is rolled.

Seal- This spell can appear as a number of projectiles or as a single attack. Typical effects include balls of flame, light, shards of glass or flower petals, tiny animated birds or dragons, a wave of ice, ripples in the floor, ghostly whip, etc.

(3) Inclement Manifestation
This spell creates an irritating manifestation that slows down and inhibits creatures. Can only move OR attack, reload OR shoot. The Wizard can make a number of targets immune to this effect in the area equal to ⚡. Lasts for 3 combat rounds.

Seal- This spell can appear as a tangle of roots or skeletal hands reaching upwards, appears as queer indoor blizzard or rainstorm, walls of color, everyone sinks into the floor a bit.

(4) Glower of Potent Foulness
Magic user forces a morale check against foes if they look at him when cast, maximum HD of target is 1 + ⚡. Save ignores.

You can also cast this spell out of combat, which makes a single person, place, or thing look more foreboding, dangerous, or twisted. Automatically get the lowest result on reaction checks, but very intimidating. Lasts 1 + ⚡ turns.

Seal- Morphs magicians face into a scary gargoyle, creates a feeling of black dread, ghost shrieks, unholy light seeps from magic user's open cloak.

(5) Blocked Passage of Obfuscation
The passage, doorway, or room becomes blocked and unable to be passed for 1d4 + turns. Those chasing will not have a save to avoid this unless they are close enough to enter when it is shut.

Seal- Door flattens as though painted on the wall. Wall of darkness blocks the hallway. Demonic face blocks stairwell and taunts anyone who attempts to climb. Rusty iron chains sprout from wall.

(6) Sorcery of Extreme Weakness
Single target is filled with a sense of weakness and lowers their HD by 1 temporarily. Target gets a saving throw with +⚡ to difficulty. If this drops target HD to zero, target falls becomes immobile and useless. Strength returns 1 HD per hour.

Seal- Butterflies float down to target's eyes, target snores and falls asleep. Black shadows sap their strength. Target becomes younger, armor turns pink and items become infantile toy versions.

(7) Protection from Hexes & Dangers
Creates a shield that lets the target succeed their next saving throw. Duration is for 2 + ⚡ turns. Cannot memorize again until expended; the spell is hung in suspense until it is used up or dispelled.

Seal- Mock Knighting Ceremony grants protection. Tiny necklace bestowed on target. Angels appear on shoulders to lend aid. Glowing sphere or second skin surrounds them. Voodoo doll takes the damage the target would have, etc.

(8) Pathway of Prophecy
Creates an easy-to-follow pathway that points to nearby destination. This destination from a simple scanning of the level, cannot reveal secret areas or blocked off places. Examples would be back to entrance, back to camp, stairwell, etc. Goes on for a number of rooms equal to 4 + ⚡ .

Seal- Chalk arrows appear on the walls and floors, glowing lights animate along way, bright colored yarn lies on floor, distant music or smell, etc.

(9) Enchantment of Good Humor
Automatically makes the next encountered creature have the best possible reaction roll. The creature may be angry at how it was treated when the spell ends. Cast when encountering a creature or group; Target(s) affected for 1d4 + ⚡ turns.

Seal- Calming flute music plays in the background, party appears angelic or more attractive. Bewitch a puppet show into motion.

(10) Urgent & Surefire Messages
Sends a message to one target across any distance, but the target must have known the caster from before or the caster has an arcane connection to them. Message length can be 3 + ⚡ words.

Seal- Origami bird flies in with message written on it. Whispering imp conveys message. Words appear on wall or in mirrors.

(11) Flotsam of the Open Air
Spell allows up to 2 + human sized targets to be saved from fall damage OR can be cast on a single target to grant basic levitation at walking speed for 1 + ⚡ minutes.

Seal- Tiny dragons carry people around, people sprout tiny wings that flap furiously, vines sprout from ground to give handholds, great vortex appears above to suck people upwards, etc.

(12) Magical Manipulation of the Material
Target object or group of small objects is manipulated to move as though by a pair of hands. Can be used on levers, doors, switches and other things meant to be activated by simple hands to move them, but cannot unlock locks or interface with things that require special tools. This lasts for as long as the Magician continues to focus on it.

This spell can also be cast on a single object, which is instead animated for an intended purpose for 1 + ⚡ turns. Shovels dig straight down, lanterns float besides you, etc.

Seal- Magic User conjures gloves that float around and mimic his hands. Fairy dust is sprinkled over things and enchants them to motion. Weighted bag appears on pressure plate. Room tilts to the side to allow coins to slide down slope, etc.


  1. For inclement manifestation, you mention that wizards can make spellpower targets immune to the effects. This implies an area of effect, is there one?

    Can you cast pathway of prophecy outside?

    1. Yes, the spell is supposed to be an area of effect spell that stops people from moving and fighting easily. It's this games version of entangling roots more or less, the name is meant to imply bad weather and some of the spell seal examples include bad weather. However getting into the nitty gritty of spaces or feet in radius is kind of the opposite of what I normally do, I'd prefer a more soft ruling and I tend to do battle in 'the theater of the mind'.

      Yes, I originally intended Pathway of Prophecy to be used both inside and outside, but the obvious issue is the amount of 'path' it makes. I think the method of making the path stretch a number of rules is pretty bad though, especially because it makes it useless or confusing if used outside. I would probably rebalance it to turns.

      Appreciate the feedback.