Spell 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.