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.
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