Spell lists suck. Here are some magic words.

Michelangelo-Renaissance-Art-Paintings-16-575x416Spell lists feel wrong to me. Magic is a rare and eldritch thing, feared and hated by decent folk. To quote James Raggi, “Magic is art, not science. Each work of magic […] is something that must be done from scratch each time. Merely replicating what has already been done will never work.” Given that, it seems strange that magic in most games is restricted to a static list of 20 spells per level.

I get that spell lists are a useful abstraction. I get that even this very simple system of magic can make a character feel complex and clunky when compared to non-spellcaster classes. There are a lot of ways to mitigate this problem. Opening up the spell list to supplements and expanding the range of possible spells can introduce some truly weird elements into your game world. There are some awesome spell lists out there. (Theorums and Tharmaturgy, Wonder and Wickedness, etc.) But that can begin to feel overwhelming if you open it up too much. Every time a spell is cast, you gotta remember which book its from and look it up. I know you’ve all seen that haggard look in the referee’s eyes when you cast a spell and they have no idea what it does.

A really dedicated referee could just homebrew all of their campaign world’s spells. But that’s a metric fuckton of work, and in the end you’re still limiting yourself to lists. What I’d really like to see is for players to make up their own spells.

Spellcrafting rules exist in pretty much every system I’ve ever played, but I’ve never actually seen anybody use them. I’m sure somebody out there does it, but they’re certainly in the minority. And it’s not because players are lazy or uncreative. The systems we’re using are not properly incentivizing players to craft their own spells, and that’s a bummer. I’d like to fix that.

My brother and I have been tinkering with an idea based around combining different magical words. At the start of play, the caster gets some random spells as per usual, which they can memorize and cast in proper Vancian fashion. But if they want to acquire any further spells, they’ll need to collect an arsenal of words, and combine them in different patterns to create new spells.

The words are simply the titles of the spells. So, a caster who begins play with “Unseen Servant” and “Fairy Fire” in their spellbook, has four magical words at their disposal: Fire, Fairy, Servant, and Unseen. The caster can then mix and match these options in various ways. They might craft “Fairy Servant,” or “Unseen Fire,” or “Fire Servant,” or “Servant (of) Fire.”

Finding additional words would serve as an interesting form of treasure for casters, and it would be fun to give them particularly odd sounding words and see how the players tinker with them. What will your players do with the word “Teapot” for example?

After the caster combines the words, they present the spell title to the referee, along with the level of the spell they’re trying to create. Only one spell can be crafted per session, and it can only be crafted at the end of the session. The crafting process fills the time between sessions, and when the next session begins the referee should present the caster with a spell.

Writing a single spell between sessions shouldn’t be too much trouble for the referee. The only real issue I see with the system is that you will certainly end up with wildly unbalanced spell lists. My solution is to play with people who won’t throw a hissy fit when you say you want to nerf one of their spells, but obviously that’s not a good standard for rules design. Still, I’m willing to let balance be a little out of whack in exchange for more creative spells.

And, I would argue, this system actually results in less complicated magic users. Part of the reason that spell list based magic systems are so daunting is that the player feels the need to be familiar with all of the spells in order to make an intelligent decision about which spells to pursue. Using this system, there are no spells to be familiar with. Only simple, singular words; and only a handful of those.

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13 thoughts on “Spell lists suck. Here are some magic words.”

  1. I agree that spellcrafting or magic research is covered in a lot of games but never with much vigor. This is a cool idea that could help amend that, though I think to make it work the way you describe you would have to codify what the different words do maybe? And that seems like a whole other can of (magic) worms. Anyway, I like the idea of just recombining words in spells in existing games, I’ve been messing with some different combinations since initially reading this earlier tonight and I like some of the results.

    1. The book of what magic words do is the dictionary, and like all rulebooks it’s superseded by the referee’s imagination. If you try too hard to codify a system for handling player created spells, then you’re either going to give yourself an aneurysm, or wind up with a 600 page monstrosity that only the most self-loathing rules lawyer will ever try to use.

      My thinking with this system is that limitations breed a more active creativity in most people. If you tell a player: “Make up a spell,” you’re just gonna give them choice paralysis. What kind of thing should their spell do? How should it do it? Even more daunting, they know you won’t let them make a “win the game” spell, so just how powerful are they allowed to make a spell? Obviously there are limits, the player just doesn’t know what they are. Should they test the limits? If they make a weak spell, are they gimping themselves by not being more assertive?

      So, asking the player to make a spell is too broad. But, if instead we say “Combine the words “Bull,” “Snow,” “Teapot,” “Rage,” and “Flashing” to make spell names,” then the player knows exactly what their limits are. This frees them to be as creative as they possibly can.

      The process of turning “Raging Snow” from a collection of words into an actual spell should really be governed by the relationship between the referee and the player, I think. Perhaps the referee will disappear into their cave for a week, and reemerge with a fully fleshed out “Raging Snow” that is entirely their own vision. Maybe they’ll take some input from the player, or maybe they’ll allow the player to direct what sort of spell Raging Snow turns out to be. Who has input into the process doesn’t seem to really matter to me.

      Sorry, that devolved into a bit of a ramble. TL;DR: I think the system works best without too much codification. But if someone codified it, I’d be curious to see what they came up with.

      1. No, you’re right. If you codify it and, for example, say that the word “alabaster” always has so-and-so effect, you kind of ruins the magic, so to speak, of this idea.

        This is the kernel right here:
        “So, asking the player to make a spell is too broad. But, if instead we say “Combine the words “Bull,” “Snow,” “Teapot,” “Rage,” and “Flashing” to make spell names,” then the player knows exactly what their limits are. This frees them to be as creative as they possibly can.”

        What you are asking the players to do is play with language on a fundamental and intuitive level that everyone is capable of, kind of like how you don’t have to know how to draw to play Pictionary.

        I’ve elaborated on this idea over on my blog:
        Built By Gods Long Forgotten

        1. I super don’t know what to make of this. I should probably not even let it through the spam filter, but I’m going to take the risk and assume this is just some beautiful Internet oddity come to roost in my comments.

  2. I like this idea. One way I would make it work (with Vancian magic) is that each word used is a spell level, aka, W = SL, or maybe W-1 = SL, so you could have simple words be cantrips.

    For balance, you’d have to set limits, like 1st level spells can go up to 30 ft, and do up to 1d6 dmg, and debuff -1 to a skill. 2nd level spells could go farther, do more damage, and debuff -1 to an attribute, or something like that. I dunno, it’s a very fuzzy idea. I just like the idea of having to spout something like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” to get a 5th level spell.

    1. It’s funny you mention that, because that’s actually something my brother and I talked about. I ultimately rejected the idea because after about level 4, it becomes unwieldy and ridiculous.

      I think it’s more interesting if the player can make a level 1 Fire Cube, with proportionally less power than its higher level variants.

      The system could also work well with Wonder & Wickedness style magic. Where all spells are 1st level spells.

  3. Hello, I would like to post a translation of this brilliant idea in my language to my blog. I would post there a link to your website of course, and I´m asking you for a permission. Thank you very much.

    1. Julius,

      So long as there is a link back, that sounds great to me! Glad you think this idea is worthy of translation.

  4. Fairy Teapot : Summons a floating teapot full of hot herbal tea, perfect for relaxing with. Lasts 1 turn for every caster level.

    I’ve been dickering around with my own rules for Searchers Of The Unknown, the one-page D&D system, and this might well be a good implementation of spellcasting for it; much more efficient than a bulky spell list complete with descriptions.

  5. Thinking more about this: what form do the words take, as in how they’re found? My thought was that they should be glyphs, which must be researched or found in risky ruins. Casting the spell would require the mage to intone the names of the glyphs being used, and trace their forms in the air. So if “wizard” is “MHE” and “missile” is “PWA” he’d cast Magic Missile with “MHE PWA”.

    A couple problems still remain – the process of codifying spells, which, if they’re written down, still leads to long spell lists, and the fact that this all would eliminate mages being able to find NPC spellbooks to copy spells out of.

    1. 1. I just use the words themselves, without any modification. In-universe the words are complex symbols, but to the play I just say “You found the word ‘Missile,'” and they say stuff like “I’m casting Magic Missile.” I’m a simple man.

      2. The long spell lists are a lot less of a problem in my experience. Firstly, the lists really never get as long as the official spell lists, because the rate at which new spells can be created is dramatically reduced. Second, the act of writing out the spell’s description yourself really helps you codify it into your memory.

      3. True, you can’t find NPC spell books full of spells. But you CAN find NPC spell books full of words. My players get pretty excited when they get to loot a wizard’s lair and find 10+ words at a time, instead of just the one they might find inscribed in the deep chambers of a tomb.

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