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.



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2 thoughts on “Magic Words: Spell Failure”

  1. I’d argue with your claims against DCC, which don’t at all match my experience with it… neat ideas here though, and those are fun spells. Also the suggestion that effects of failure needn’t logically relate to the spell’s intended result. I like magic to be strange and unknowable that way.

    1. In total fairness, I’ve never played DCC. I’m open to trying it, and I’m open to being wrong.

      But as a referee, I doubt I will ever run it. It’s got a lot of great subsystems I’m only too happy to steal, but the overall whole is too rules heavy for my tastes.

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