Magic Words Don’t Need No Spell Levels

Ritual MagicSpell levels. What are those about?

I maintained spell levels in the Magic Words system because I wanted to make the system as compatible as possible with existing spell lists. If you craft a 3rd level spell with the words “Fire” and “Ball,” I want that spell to function exactly as you thought it would. The point of Magic Words was never to get rid of the classic old spells. The classic old spells are great. I just wanted to encourage more magical creativity.

Almost immediately I recognized that spell levels were going to be the most complicated part of putting the system into practice. What really is the difference between a 3rd level spell and a 4th level spell? If I were to create a new spell of middling power, and asked you to assign a level to it, would you know right away what level it should have? I would have to think about it, compare it to spells on the core spell lists, and ultimately hazard a guess as to what level it ought to be. I wouldn’t even be very confident in my guess.

And I’ve already got years of experience with the D&D magic system to contextualize what the various spell levels mean. I have no idea how a newcomer would even begin trying to assign levels to newly created spells. It’s a system that basically requires the user to already be an expert before they even attempt to use it. That’s not inherently a bad thing, not everything needs to be accessible to newcomers. But if a game system isn’t going to be accessible, then I need a good justification for it. I need to be getting some cool benefit in exchange for the assumption of expert-level knowledge.

Delineating spells by level is hardly a cool benefit.

So Magic Words doesn’t use spell levels anymore. All spells exist on an equal footing, and could be learned by even a 1st level Magic User. Some spells might be better or worse than other spells, but that’s just magic. Not every spell is created equal, but that doesn’t mean the good spells require any greater ability to cast.

Removing spell levels does introduce some new problems for the Magic Words system which we gotta tackle.

  • If every spell is available at first level, then how do we prevent a high level Magic User from having a repertoire of weak, useless spells?
  • How would this system handle really powerful spells that are totally inappropriate for a first level character to have access to?
  • If we’re not using spell levels anymore, that means we’re not using the “Spells per level” chart which tells us how many spells a magic user can cast per day. So how many spells can a magic user cast per day?

Lets tackle each of those individually. There’s a TL;DR at the end.

How do we prevent a high level MU from having a repertoire of useless spells?

Taking our cues from the LotFP Playtest booklet, we just need to include more variables in spells that are dependent on caster level. So instead of a spell dealing 1d6 damage, perhaps it deals 1d6 damage per 2 caster levels. Tons of elements in a spell can be made variable: the time it takes to cast the spell, the duration of the spell, the range of the spell, the number of targets the spell effects.

Variable elements don’t need to be limited to numbers. Take, for example, a spell which causes people to become confused and choose the targets of their attacks at random. This spell could have a note that if the caster is above level 5, then the victim of the spell has double the normal chance of attacking their allies. As another example, the traditional spell “Invisibility” might automatically become “Greater Invisibility” if the caster is beyond a certain level.

Alternatively, some spells could function based on a difference in hit dice between the caster and the target. Consider a spell which causes the target to make a save, or die of a heart attack. If the spell only works on targets “With 3 or more fewer hit dice than the caster,” then the spell grows in power as the character levels. Simply by virtue of the fact that they will encounter more targets who fall within the spell’s description.

How do we handle spells too powerful for a first level character to have access to?

In my current campaign, my players hope to get a space ship one day. When they do, they want to place a time-dilation effect over the dead earth, and fast-forward its geological development to the point where it again becomes habitable. If I wanted to include this spell in my campaign, I don’t see a good way to make it variable. I suppose I could create really slow, really small time dilation bubbles that grow in both size and rate of acceleration. But that feels like unnecessarily shoehorning a cool idea into a limited system just for the sake of consistency.

Any number of spells might feel “too big” to allow easy access: summoning Godzilla, making a Wish, creating human life in your vats. These spells can be restricted by making them rituals, and rituals have all sorts of nutty requirements. So while the spell itself can be learned by a first level MU, actually casting it requires resources beyond the meager means of any first level character.

For example, lets take my world-scale time dilation bubble. The MU in my current campaign could, if they had the appropriate words, research that spell right now. But, if they want to cast it, they’ll need 3 months of continuous casting time, 300 virgin sacrifices, and 100,000 gold pieces worth of ceremonial accoutrements. Not to mention that some good guy somewhere might take umbrage to all that virgin sacrificing, and try to stop them.

Magic in my games tends toward inherently evil, or at least amoral. Magic Users proceed at their own risk, the referee cannot be held responsible for the loss of your soul.

How many spells can a Magic User cast per day?

I was stumped on this question for awhile. My first instinct was to check Wonder & Wickedness. Brendan’s spells are levelless, and designed to be compatible with the standard game. That’s the same thing I’m trying to do here! I figured he probably came up with a good way to resolve this.

According to W&W, Magic Users can cast a number of spells per day equal to their level. If they want, they can try to cast more than that, but they risk spell failure (more colorfully referred to as catastrophes in Brendan’s words). This struck me as all wrong. That’s way too few spells per level! It smacks of what I was talking about the other day when I introduced spell failure into the Magic Words system. It makes casting feel too punishing.

At this point I figured I’d hit a dead end. Time to innovate! I came up with some functional possibilities, but none of them were elegant. I was just getting frustrated when it struck me that I should reference the rules-as-written spells-per-level table to get a baseline idea of how many overall spells an MU of each level can cast. All I would have to do is convert all of the MU’s spell slots to first level, add them up, and see how their overall number of spell slots increased at each level.

At levels 1, 2, 3, and 4, a Magic User has…a number of spell slots equal to their level.

Apparently Brendan had the same idea I did.

After level 4, the rate of spell acquisition increases at a weirdly explosive rate. At levels 5 and 6 the MU has one more spell slot than they do levels. Every level after that, the gap widens by 1. At level 7 you have 2 slots more than your level, at level 8 you have 3 slots more than your level, at level 9 you have 4 more than your level, and at level 10 you have 5 more than your level.

This seems backwards to me. The game at low levels is a much more tightly designed experience. A big concern about higher level play is that the texture of the game gets lost beneath all of the player’s growing power and wealth. Many referees struggle to keep up with it, so why would the growth of spellcasting ability accelerate at higher levels?

Apparently Brendan’s solution is not so austere as it first seemed to me. Particularly when you take into account the option to cast beyond the strict limits of your ability at the risk of spell failure. So casters could prepare a number of spells per day equal to their level, and cast them without risk of failure. If they wish they can cast unprepared spells (or recast expended spells), but doing so risks spell failure.

I realize this is nothing more than a lengthy way of saying “I’m just gonna copy Wonder & Wickedness.” I considered saving you the time of reading this, and myself the time of writing it, by saying so up front. However, given my reaction to the W&W rule, I think the thought process that led me to adopting it is valuable. I doubt I’m the only person who saw “1 spell slot per level” and thought it was too restrictive to be fun.

TL;DR: What I’m changing about Magic Words.

  • Spells no longer have any spell levels associated with them. Every spell can be learned by a 1st level Magic User.
  • The majority of spells should have elements that are variable depending on the caster’s level, so that they become more powerful as the caster levels up.
  • Some particularly powerful spells can have ritual requirements that place them beyond the ability of most low level casters to actually perform.
  • Magic Users may prepare a number of spells per day equal to their level. These spells may be cast freely, without any risk of spell failure.
  • Casters may cast spells not currently prepared, or re-cast a prepared spell that has already been expended. Doing so risks spell failure.

Magic Words: Spell Failure

A SorceressHere are two things that are super awesome:

Neither of those things has ever shown up in one of my games. Here’s why:

  • Most systems that include spell failure, in my experience, make it a common risk of any casting whatsoever. It makes playing a Magic User dangerous to the point that it’s entirely unappealing.
  • DCC’s individualized Tables of Spell Results mean that every spell’s description is in excess of a page in length. Not only does this make writing new spells a creatively exhausting chore, but it means that you need a huge stack of reference material at the table. I don’t like the idea of needing to search for page numbers every time a spell is cast during play. That’s part of the reason Magic Words appealed to me in the first place.

So how can we take these two super cool things, throw in a dash of the new spellcasting rules from the LotFP Playtest booklet, and create a good spell failures system for Magic Words?

Magic Words: Optional Spell Failure Rules

Magic Users may cast spells entirely as normal so long as they are unrestricted and free from distractions. This means the Magic User must:

  • Take no damage during the same round that they’re casting.
  • Have no Bleed, Internal Bleed, or Pain. (Using Courtney’s “A Table for Avoiding Death.”)
  • Have full use of their arms, legs, and voice.
  • Are willing to cast in an entirely obvious fashion (excepting spells which specifically state that they can be cast subtly).
  • Are no more than Lightly encumbered.
  • Are not suffering from malnutrition, sleep deprivation, or other forms of exhaustion.

Within those limitations, there is no chance for a Magic User’s spells to fail. If the caster wishes to, they can risk spell failure by attempting to cast outside of those limitations. Such as when:

  • They have taken damage during the same round they were attempting to cast a spell.
  • They have Bleed, Internal Bleed, or Pain.
  • Their arms, legs, or voice are restricted and unavailable for use.
  • They wish to cast a non-stealth spell stealthily.
  • They are more than lightly encumbered.
  • They are suffering from malnutrition, sleep deprivation, or another form of exhaustion.

In any of those circumstances, there is a 3-in-6 chance that any spell the Magic User casts will fail.

When a spell fails, it’s not just a fizzling of impotent magic. The player must roll to determine unintended magical effect occurs. These possible effects are unique to each spell, and are created by the referee at the same time the spell is originally drafted. Obviously, this adds to the amount of work the referee is responsible for, which is the primary reason I’d treat this rule as optional. However, my own experience running a weekly campaign using Magic Words has shown that the work involved in creating new spells is so slight as to be negligible. I don’t anticipate this addition to substantially tax the creative abilities of any referee.

A 1d4 table of failures for each spell should be sufficient. More might be entertaining, but I think they would be superfluous. In LotFP, spell slots are not so numerous that a magician can fire off a spell during every round of combat. Spell failure won’t be common enough that you’ll get bored with 4 different failure options. But neither is it so few that players can easily plan for how spell failure will play out if it happens.

Note that there is no obligation for the referee to make the spell failures logically connected to the spell they are associated with. They can be, but it’s by no means necessary. After all, the logic of magic is indecipherable. A failed fireball causing time to jump backwards 10 seconds may seem random, but that’s only because you’ve got a tiny limited human brain. If you really understood magic, you’d get it.

Putting my money where my mouth is, here are spell failures for the first set of Magic Word based spells I drafted way back in the day.

Stars of Indirection

The first person who is touched by the caster after this spell is cast becomes cursed. Any attempt to use the stars as a means of navigation will return a false result. The navigator will believe they have read the stars correctly. But any attempt to travel based on that navigation will lead in a random direction. This curse lasts one month, and a save versus Magic negates the effect.

  1. The stars still misdirect the target; but instead of leading to a random direction they lead to a great treasure. If the magic user owns any such treasure, that is what they are led to. Otherwise the treasure is random.
  2. The target sees the night sky as completely black and devoid of any stars. As this is something others can easily confirm as false, they will probably realize they’ve been cursed very quickly.
  3. The light of the stars burns the skin of the caster for the next month, dealing 1d4 damage for each hour spent under their light. Remove Curse will remedy this effect.
  4. Cartoon stars begin to orbit the target’s head, spinning and twinkling.

Star Fighter

If cast during combat, a target within 100′ will be perceived as impressive by everyone who sees them. Even a bungling commoner with a sword they don’t understand how to use will be perceived as a peerless warrior. Weaker foes will become intimidated and may flee or falter before the Star Fighter. More ambitious opponents, meanwhile, will be drawn to the Star Fighter as a means of winning glory for themselves. This effect ends after the Star Fighter spends an adventuring turn out of combat. If the target wishes, they may make a save versus Magic to resist the spell’s effect.

  1. The target gains +2 to their attacks, but are not perceived any differently by others.
  2. The target must save versus magic, or begins acting in a buffoonish manner, as though they’re intentionally trying to do a frankly offensive impression of a mentally challenged warrior.
  3. The target is engulfed in blue flames which do not burn them. In darkness they take a -2 penalty to their armor class.
  4. The target becomes insubstantial for the next hour, and is completely unable to interact with (or be affected by) the material world.

Star Seat

A throne made of the night sky is summoned for 1 hour. Anyone but the caster attempting to sit in the throne will cause it to dissipate into a cold mist. When the caster sits on the throne, they perceive themselves to be miles above their own body, looking down at the world from the heavens. From this height, it’s impossible to discern any details. However, it can be used to make an effective map of the area within a 10 mile radius of the caster. The caster will also be able to see any sufficiently large phenomena, such as a town being on fire, or an army on the march. While sitting in the Star Seat, the caster will be completely unaware of anything happening to their body, including hit point damage.

  1. The caster sees a false image of what is below them. Nothing they see is remotely accurate.
  2. The caster sees an accurate image of the landscape as it was 24 hours ago.
  3. The caster becomes trapped in the Star Seat, and cannot leave it until the spell runs its course after 1 hour. Any attempt to remove them by force causes 1d10 damage.
  4. The star seat works in reverse, sending the perceptions of whomever sits in it deep underground. For as long as they sit, they see nothing but darkness, dirt, and stone. (Unless there’s something to see down there).


A single human or human-like target must make a save versus Paralyzation or immediately sit down and remain seated for 1 turn per caster level. If there is a chair within arm’s reach, they may sit in that, but otherwise they must simply sit on the floor. Swimming, flying, or climbing targets don’t simply fall to whatever surface is beneath them, but may move themselves along the most expedient course to a seat that is not lethal to them. So long as the target’s butt remains in constant contact with a horizontal surface, they are otherwise free to move and act.

  1. Any chairs within the vicinity of the caster catch on fire, even if they are made of a material that is not typically flammable.
  2. The caster sinks up to their knees in the ground.
  3. The caster turns into a chair for the duration of the time the spell would be in effect.
  4. Time stops for the caster for 1d6 rounds. The world around them moves forward normally.

Seat of Indirection

This spell is cast on a chair or other sitting place, and lasts for 1 hour per caster level. Anyone sitting in that seat is more easily fooled than normal. They are not charmed, they are merely a little more gullible than they would normally be. If using the social system presented in “On The Non Player Character” by Courtney Campbell, treat this as a +2 to social action rolls. +3 if the social action is Gamble.

  1. The chair is actually a Seat of Skepticism, and whomever sits in it is unusually obstinate. Use the opposite modifiers you would have used if the spell was working properly.
  2. The chair is actually a Seat of Discomfort. Anyone who sits in it will constantly shift around, offer awkward answers, and excuse themselves to return home at the earliest opportunity.
  3. The chair is actually a Seat of Wit. Anyone sitting in it will be unable to do anything but offer “clever” responses to anything that is said.
  4. The chair is actually a Seat of Bad Faith. Everything someone says while sitting in this chair is a lie.

Indirect Fighting

A willing target within 30′ is able to attack indirectly for 2 rounds per caster level. They may use any weapons or techniques they possess to attack someone within 30′ of themselves, without actually touching them. On a successful attack roll, the target takes damage normally. The target doesn’t receive any AC bonus from dexterity.

  1. For 2 rounds per caster level, the target may only attempt to harm someone by indirect means. They may attempt to convince the person to consume something that has been poisoned, or they can attempt to fell a tree that will happen to fall on a person; but they cannot force poison down someone’s throat, or directly use a weapon against someone.
  2. The caster’s head turns around backwards and will remain stuck that way until they make a save versus magic. They may attempt one save per day, after today.
  3. Any missiles loosed between now and the same time next round will stop mid air, spin around, and launch themselves at the target of the spell instead.
  4. The target suffers a -2 per caster level to their attack roll on their next attack.



Cointoss, a 200 Word RPG

CointossSo there’s this contest. In the contest you’re supposed to write a whole RPG in 200 words or less. This struck my fancy because I thought “That wouldn’t take too much effort to attempt!” That attitude is probably why I didn’t win the contest, but whatever.

Cointoss RPG

You are you. You’re in a restaurant waiting for food to arrive. You stand up.

Cointoss can be played anywhere, for any length of time, without any preparation. At the start of a game, you are who you are, where you are, when you are. Then, the imaginary you deviates, and goes off to have some adventure you could never attempt in real life.

You can do anything you could normally do without question. The referee describes the world around you, and determines which actions have a chance of failure. Such actions require a coin toss: heads is success, tails is failure. Some actions may require two successes to work, others may only require a single success out of two tosses. Thus any action may have a 75%, 50%, or 25% chance of success.

Anything is within the purview of these flips. You can check to see if you’ve spontaneously developed superpowers, or if you can get yourself elected president. It doesn’t matter, because no game of Cointoss will ever last long. Eventually the food comes, and the game ends. So get moving.

This is actually an idea I’ve had in the back of my head for awhile now. There was a brief time where I carried a set of dice in my pocket because I liked the idea that I might find some empty moment to fill with D&D. There’s a group of folks sitting around waiting for something, or just being bored together, and I could pull out my dice and say “Ya guys wanna run a quick dungeon?”

But dice are a pain to carry around. They made my pants lumpy, and I was always worried about losing one. And those brief D&D-able moments were never as common as I thought they might be. I gave up on carrying dice around, but the idea stuck with me that I’d like the option of proposing some kind of role playing game in the spur of the moment. It would just require no prep, and no tools that wouldn’t be readily available wherever I go.

I came up with a flip of the coin, the universally available randomizer, very early, but never pursued the idea further than that. This contest was a nice excuse to get it done.

LotFP Class: The Exiled Prince

Edwin of Northumbria
Edwin of Northumbria; an Exiled Prince.

From the day you were born you began preparing for greatness. You were groomed to excel in war, politics, and statecraft. Every hunting trip was meant to hone you into a better warrior. Every day spent with your father was an object lesson in how to be a ruler. You’ve known all your life that someday you would be a king.

Then some fucked up shit happened. Maybe your father was ousted in a coup. Maybe one of your siblings outmaneuvered you at court. Maybe you simply lacked the political capitol to consolidate your own rule after your father’s passing. Whatever the reason, you became an exile. The land you were destined from birth to be the unquestioned master of is now the one place in the world you can never go.

Understandably, you don’t have much of an idea of what to do with your life. You never even considered doing anything other than being a great king. The loss of that future has put you in a bit of an existential crisis. But you’re clever, capable, and broke, so adventuring seems like a good idea.

Exiled Princes begin play with 3d4 * 500 starting money. Obviously “broke” is a relative concept. They have a 1d8 hit die, and save as a Fighter. They advance according to the Cleric’s experience table.

In any major city that an Exiled Prince visits, there is a 1 in 6 chance that a supporter of their dynasty lives there. At the very least, this supporter will be happy to wine and dine the prince. This supporter’s resources may not be great, and they may even be an exile themselves, but they will do what they can within the limits of their own ability, and their own private agendas. Roll 2d4 on the table below to determine what help they might offer freely:

2. They can offer no help beyond shelter and good food while you are in their company.
3. They can indicate a nearby city where a passionate supporter of your dynasty has recently arrived. If you visit, they will no doubt be happy to see you.
4. They are well connected with the local government of this city, and can provide the Exiled Prince with valuable contacts there.
5. They’ve got a beneficial potion somewhere in an old chest, and they’ll send a servant to go fetch it for you. The potion is nothing particularly special, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
6. They have a very fine piece of equipment to give you as a gift. (1. A warhorse 2. A suit of plate armor 3. A well made sword. 4. A piece of art or jewelry)
7. 1d8 * 500 money. This money does not grant any experience.
8. A fighter 1d3 levels lower than the Exiled Prince (minimum 1) is currently in their employ, which they do not presently have any use of. They will place him in your service. This hireling automatically accepts their new employment, and their loyalty is 1 greater than what the roll to determine loyalty would indicate.

Thanks to their extensive martial training, Exiled Princess excel in the use of arms. Any weapon wielded by an Exiled Prince uses a damage die that is one better than normal. A weapon that would normally deal 1d4 damage instead deals 1d6; a 1d6 weapon deals 1d8; a 1d8 weapon deals 1d10; and a 1d10 weapon deals 1d12. This method allows the Exiled Prince to display a greater martial prowess than other classes, while maintaining the Fighter’s unique place as the only class that receives any to-hit bonuses as they advance in level.

When recruiting followers and hirelings, Exiled Princes roll 4d6 to determine whether employment will be accepted, and what their new recruit’s loyalty will be. This still uses the chart on page 51 of the Rules & Magic book. Any rolls over 18 are simply reduced to 18. Whether this greater degree of loyalty is due to the recruit’s awe in directly serving someone of royal blood, or if it’s the fruit of an entire life cultivating the qualities of leadership, the result is the same. An Exiled Prince’s followers are loyal, and many will happily die in service to their lord. Which, in turn, means that having a hireling die in the Exiled Prince’s service does not result in any penalties to future hiring attempts.

Political training gives the Exiled Prince a distinct advantage in maneuvering through social situations. For each level, an Exiled Prince may reroll one reaction die per session. So a 4th level Exiled Prince may reroll 1 die from 4 different reaction rolls, or both die from two reaction rolls, or any combination in between.

While most high level characters might establish a stronghold, an Exiled Prince is entitled to establish a Government in Exile. The Exiled Prince may choose a nation other than their homeland to host this body, and will be provided with accommodations suitable to his station.  The referee should bear in mind that the Government in Exile is essentially a bargaining chip/backup plan for the host government

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