Whenever I come across (or come up with) a magic system I think would be fun to use in an RPG someday, I make a note of it in a document (which I just realized I should probably be referring to as my “grimoire,” “spell book,” or something comparably dorky). Here are a few I’ve been eyeing for future sessions or campaigns.
Heretical spell books: In addition to the adventure that gives the book its name, Broodmother Sky Fortress includes a bunch of interesting D&D house rules. My favorite is a list of 50 unique spell books, each with a few spells, representing the only way for characters to learn spells at all. Each grimoire has a weird little “blasphemy” in its pages that readers will grow utterly convinced of, no matter the contradictions, like, “The corpses that left their graves during the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:52) still wander the world as the original undead,” or, “The Apocalypse and Second Coming have been delayed by a magical ritual performed annually since 666 AD.” Some of these may just sound weird, but plenty could well be seeds for sandbox adventures waiting to happen. I could see these being the running backdrop of an entire campaign: Magic-using antagonists’ agendas could each be based on the blasphemies in their own spell books, and their common goal is to amass the collection of every grimoire in existence, revealing the universal truth—and unlocking unthinkable power—hidden between their seeming “contradictions.” PCs could ignore all that and go fight goblins or whatever, of course, but man, what a setup.
Syllables: Songbirds, a hack of Into the Odd, lets you cast based on the number of syllables used to describe the effect. Each syllable used represents one die rolled for damage, or one die rolled to try to resist with a save. I’d love to run this sometime as one of a few forms of spell casting in a setting—maybe wizard spells always work the same way if you follow the formula right, but sorcerer or warlock spells allow for more interpretation, but with more room for your words to be twisted into unfortunate results. I could also see this being the underpinning of a system that’s interpretive across multiple specializations—a necromancer’s spell book might have three syllables related to corpses (e.g., “rise and fight!”), two syllables related to ghosts (e.g., “lift me!”), and one syllable related to fear (e.g., “flee!”).
Spells are spirits: In World of Dungeons and Goblin’s Laws of Gaming, each “spell” is actually a unique being. The specifics of how they work differ—WoDu is more interpretive, allowing spirits to do a range of different things related to their nature, while GLOG uses more traditional D&D-style spell list. What I find interesting about both, though, is that it offers a way of limiting spell use without just making every spell effectively a “magic item.” You can’t summon the exact same spirit at the exact same time as another character, after all! GLOG goes so far as to detail lab tools used to transcribe spells from the skulls of dead wizards back onto the page, to be bound in a new reader’s head some other time.
Partial ritual instructions as treasure: Michael Prescott of Trilemma recently asked on G+ whether anybody knew of a system of delivering magic spells as treasure, a piece at a time. In the process, I suspect he invented just such a system, and I’d really like to try it:
I’m thinking of a magic system where the spells contain elements that are role-played—for example, you get silver knife, and wrap it in gold wire. Then you point it at someone and say a magic word, and it cuts then at a distance. This is ‘magic missile’…. The instructions could be doled out as treasure … which prompts additional quests. For example, there could be an account, engraving, or statue of a historical wizard using this magic spell. Perhaps his ‘silver knife’ is described as being instrumental, but … the statue shows the blade as being wrapped in wire or string, but the marble statue doesn’t give away the wire’s material…. An essential part of making this useful for play would be the player’s expectations that they can complete the puzzle pieces using quests they plan themselves. If they’re just getting ‘half a spell’, that’s not great. But if they recognize the sculpted wizard, then they could go to a sage and either get the missing information directly from research (so-and-so was said to wield a gold and silver knife), or potentially identify a place that would know, or might have the knife itself.”
Again, I love that this is a system where each spell is a unique thing—something not just anybody is going to have on them—without just saying every “spell” is effectively a unique magic item. It helps justify that high Intelligence or Wisdom stat for spell casters—and in games without such stats, it can really be rewarding when the player feels clever—upon figuring out how this stuff works.
Arcane vs. divine traditions: I’ve often thought about how to make wizard spells and cleric spells feel different—like they work differently, rather than just being different sections of a shared spell list. One way I’ve considered is to say that arcane spells must be kept secret by their nature—they draw upon limited veins of energy, so instructions to perform them are secreted away on fragile paper by jealous scholars. Divine spells, however, are passed through oral tradition and hymns—and the more voices added to the chorus, the more powerful they become. Whether or not a deity is listening is largely an academic question, but clerics still try to convert the masses with promises of eternal life and a bountiful harvest because one caster’s faith is not powerful enough on its own. In game mechanic terms, you could adjust the effectiveness of different kind of spells based on where or when they’re cast, with arcane spells functioning better along a ley line or when the stars are right, and cleric spells depending on the population of nearby communities of the faithful. Or you could get even fiddlier about it, like actually tracking limited reservoirs of arcane power, or tracking bonuses and penalties based on player characters’ proselytism efforts in game. Or you could just use it for flavor and run spell casting like any other fantasy game. I think that might be fun too.
Miracles of the Wise: The very clever D&D rule set Whitehack eschews traditional classes in favor of class archetypes—The Strong, The Deft, and The Wise. The third of these casts “miracles,” spells with broadly interpretable effects that cost hit points to cast. I bristled at this cost upon first reading it, but it grew on me the more I thought about it. It makes hit points a valuable resource on any character’s sheet, whether they’re using it to fend of combatants from their allies, or to break the laws of reality in potentially extremely impactful ways. And while I’ve seen other flexible casting systems I find rather impressive, such as the Freebooters on the Frontier method that lets you define effects for every casting, I know that having to go walk through what’s effectively a point-buy system every time someone wants to use magic will bore a not insignificant number of players at the table (even if not the one casting the spell). Keeping cost calculation rough, putting it in the GM’s hands, and limiting it to a resource that’s kind of scary to lose (and especially hard for The Wise to regain, given that they heal more slowly than other classes) feels like it would make magic feel wondrous.
Small spells that scale: All of that said above, I also really want to get some use out of detailed, interesting, and flavorful lists of pre-written spells like Wonder & Wickedness by Necropraxis. I especially appreciate that every spell is written as a “level 1” spell, so they all work in games that don’t see you gaining levels often or at all, but they’re also written to grow more powerful as you gain levels. And rather than throwing dozens of what are effectively the same combat spell at you over and over again, simply swapping out fire for cold or a d6 for a d8, it offers simple rules for using up any prepared spell to lash out with a magical attack or block an incoming attack.
I would modify the Wise class to replace parts with W&W’s spells & systems. I would remove the HP to cast mechanic, instead allowing Level in spells daily casting before triggering saves vs spell catastrophe, as per W&W. Slots would be # of spells known. Wise would heal as per the other classes.
Brian Ashford adds in the comments:
I’m running Whitehack and Wonder & Wickedness right now, but I haven’t replaced the Whitehack magic. I’m using W&W to give interesting spell scrolls for the players to find in treasure. They can use the scrolls to learn new miracles as they level up or they can use the scrolls once for a powerful but risky effect.
I really like the sound of this. Spending HP to cast will make risk-averse players feel anxious, and demanding improvised effects for every casting will induce anxiety in players who aren’t as confident in their improv skills. I appreciate that Brian’s approach allows both systems to exist in one game. I have worried that Wonder & Wickedness spells get immensely powerful at higher levels, though, so HP casting might be a way to rein that in, unless you want to start experimenting with other limitations.
If you’ve got a favorite magic system, or one you have yet to use but are dying to try, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!