Formless Magic [Updated]


Hey guys,

I’m deep into replacing my ICRPG spell lists with some kind of formless magic to give my players more options and not binding their imagination to a pre-written spell description oneliner. I’ve pre-discussed the basic idea with my players and they seem to like it. So now I’m working on that idea to refine it a bit more.

Basic Idea:

  • POWER WORDS outline the type of spell (like spell types in ICRPG MAGIC)
  • PCs will obtain LOOT which gives them POWER WORDS (spells are already loot-bound in my games)
  • Players can use or combine POWER WORD(s) to describe desired effects.

I’ve written down some ideas about handling the chaos which will arise from that concept. Maybe you’ve got an idea or two on what to also consider.



This is really fun. I have always wanted to run a game with all magic user PC’s and give them something like this.

You could get inspiration for power words from Maze Rats (which has the best random spell generator IMO).

Another thought, maybe “codified” spells exist as well. These would be the spells as written in ICRPG (or whatever rpg spell list you use). So like, Arcane Bomb is a spell that has been perfected in a “laboratory setting”. The idea being that a bunch of wizards have written down and peer reviewed the formula over the years. Maybe they are less powerful, but more reliable (Nat 1’s are just a fizzle, no accidental side effects).

That could make finding Power words as loot a bit more interesting by making them more powerful.


This is nice, I’ve made some weird formless magic systems for some hacks in the past that I might post here later. But right now I’m using maze rat’s magic, which is as basic as “glue together two words and you get a spell”.


I like this idea a lot. I’ve been doing loot-bound magic. An intelligence spell scroll can be used as an equipped item or be stored in unequipped intelligence (foci). In other words, an intelligence spell can only be stored in things like staffs and books, and other items that are deemed capable of storing an intelligence spell.


Like it, not far off what my thoughts of formless Magic could be.

Combined the core book d20 results in formless Magic with schools of magic straight from MTG

The 5 colours of Magic the Gathering

White - Holy, Protection, Life
Red - Fire, Anger, Passion
Green - Nature, Strength, Earth
Blue - Cunning, Illusion, Water
Black - Selfish, Power, Death

In the same spirit you could swap the MTG schools out for the elements of avatar, or take the names of the school titles in the magic book, or make your own.

But I have to admit the more I think about it, mine is very broad, yours more on the point, kind of like your power word style better :+1:


Alright, here’s the magic system I designed for Index Card World (ICRPG+Dungeon World hack). Instead of any of your 3 starting weapons, you can choose to have a magical foci aligned with any of the 20 Magical Domains (yes, it is a rolling table xD), which are items that you use to cast spells. Spells are just a target and an effect, you do this in a freeform fashion.

  • “I want to burn the troll.”
  • “I’ll try to divine where the orcs are.”
  • “I want to try and heal Thorim’s wounds.”
  • “I want to cast some light in these dark halls.”

Instead of always rolling a check or spending HP, you now use Mana to cast spells (although you CAN spend HP instead if you run out of mana). Start with 1:star: (10) of Mana, and gain more using star crystals, pretty much like life hearts for HP.

How much mana you spend depends on the conditions described:

Now be mindful, the way this was designed means that the limitation on casting is through mana usage, not through making checks, you should ONLY roll a check to cast magic if what you’re doing is risky or can fail, like attacking an enemy with your magic.

That’s pretty much it haha. I included some descriptions and limitations/dangers for each magic domain so both the player and the GM can work on how magic works and what can go wrong using it :stuck_out_tongue:


EDIT: I translated it to english in a pinch so it probably reads horribly lol


I think you’re really on to something here, @glocke. I need to chew on this more and try it out, but my gut is saying this is the stuff I’ve always wanted from a mage. Instead of spells being so specific, let the player play with the power words, combine them, and come up with cool stuff of legend on the fly.

I’m totally stealing this :smiley:


@Nimlouth I love your list of Domains. I especially like that you included how that magic can go wrong. I think that blends quite well with the POWER WORDs. How would you handle telekinesis? Mind control?

I wonder what a list of, say, 100 POWER WORDs would look like, and all the wacky combinations that might arise from combining those WORDs.


Hey thx a lot!

Yep, Domains and Power Words are more or less the same, so even tho I would suggest illusion, song or even shadow for mind control and arcane or earth for telekinesis, you could easily create them on the fly.

Telekinesis: Move objects with your mind, but requires uninterrupted total concentration.
Mind Control: Manipulate other sentient creatures like puppets using theie desires and fears, but it can backfire leaving your mind exposed.

A list of a 100 sounds super cool lol


I have been revisiting and playing around with my own formless magic system based on power words. I created an original D88 table with 64 unique words in the following categories:

  • Elements
  • Actions
  • Evocations
  • Forms
  • Perceptions
  • Interactions
  • Universals
  • Miscellaneous

This gives me a decent starter matrix to cover a wide variety of magical tropes. Any spellcaster would start with a pair of 2D8 rolls to generate two words; as an optional addition, users of arcane or spirit magic could be better differentiated by being allowed a third power word chosen by the player from a distinct short list specific to that type of magic. A Priest might get to choose the power word “Holy” and then roll “Fire” and “Beast,” while a Mage might choose “Arrow” and roll “Force” and “Dimension.”

The acquisition of new power words then comes from any or all of the usual sources: loot, specific study and application of effort in RP, or milestone rewards.

Power words are then combined to form unique spell concepts. The interesting thing about formless magic is that a single two-word combination does not simply define a single spell concept; instead it suggests the boundaries for an entire spell toolkit for the player to explore.

The power words “Water” and “Protection” could be combined to form spell concepts like Water Breathing, Walk on Water, or even Imbibition Immunity (protection from drinking bad water) when combined by a clever and imaginative player. A given spell concept can then be given scope, magnitude, range, and limitations based on the Milestone tier of the caster and/or the POWER level at which it is cast (in the case of arcane casters, with casting costs in hit points or stun points as appropriate to the setting, with the base casting cost for any spell equal to the number of power words combined to implement it).

The Mage above could use “Force” and “Arrow” to cast the equivalent of Arcane Missile.

The aforementioned Priest could use “Holy” and “Fire” to cast a jet of magical flame (perhaps one that does bonus damage to undead creatures) or even conjure persistent fire in a given area that burns without fuel for a limited time.

Each new power word acquired expands the possible combinations in a caster’s toolkit by an exponential degree. Upon acquiring new words and creating new spell concepts, caster players can then make note of each combination in an actual spell book (I.e., a journal or notebook) with notes on range, duration, and GM rulings on its scope and effects.

This sort of system may prove too abstract for certain kinds of players or incredibly freeing for others, but regardless it is a fascinating alternative to acquiring pre-defined spells from a list.


I really love these ideas and have been doing something similar with monsters and NPC’s.Like some have mentioned, Maze Rats has a nice table to use but I stumbled upon Freebooter on the Frontier’s magic and it is fantastic. I like the idea of using tables for enemies as it makes them less predictable and requires less prep (I play solo a lot so those are major pluses).

I am thinking of giving the PCs a where they can do key word casting and then spend HP to do anything beyond the “basics”. “Basics” meaning anything resembling a 5e cantrip or ICRPG core spells. Adding a target, extra damage, another effect, or range means spending HP on a 1:1 basis. For example I have a storm monk whose magic is keyed into the power of storms so his key words are “Wind, Lightning, Thunder, Rain”. So he can fire off a lightning bolt that does MAGIC damage to on target at Close range for free, just roll and see if you hit. However, if he wants to shock a group of goblin, you gotta spend 1 HP, at Near range add 1 more HP, wand to up the damage to ULTIMATE, add another 1 HP. You still roll to hit first and don’t lose HP on a miss (unless it’s a natural 1).

Thanks for sharing, it really inspired me to work it out.

FORGOT TO ADD: Loot still matters as spells that are found work as free one shots, like scrolls, and PCs can now find gems, staves, rings, etc. that add or amplify key words. So my monk might find a Storm Callers Ring that gives him advantage or Easy on one roll a day, or maybe he finds a rune that adds the “Mist” keyword to his repertoire.


Hey @glocke , are you still using a formless system? If so, what have you learned or how have you perfected it?


I too have utilized mana for magic. I do use a different amount other than 10. I use an Intelligence x3= mana amount being that intelligence is the ability score I use for casting magic. Wisdom if it’s devout magic. I also use the rule where once mana is at 0, the caster can continue however they do so using HP’s so ultimately they can kill themselves by casting. One added rule I have is regarding doing damage. They always roll d10 for damage but can increase the amount of damage by spending mana points. Say they roll an 8 for damage and have 32 mana. They can, if they want… add all 32 points to the 8 for a 40 point blaster of a spell. This puts the weight on them to “budget” their mana and consider what is still ahead or save it all for the big bad end fight and really lay into that one. I also have spells cost 3 mana instead of 1 to cast. They roll a d20 each casting only to see if they roll a 1. No other result matters. If a 1 comes up, the mana is spent and the spell fizzles out. I don’t bother with wild magic and that stuff nor do I concern myself with schools. A magic user can learn any spell of any kind except those that require a god to provide the energy to cast and vice versa. A devout magic user cannot cast regular spells from spell books or scrolls… they channel their spells from their god.


Hey there! Just wanted to throw in my own formless magic system I’ve used with good success. Verbs Only Power Words.

The Lore:
All magic in the world stems from the use of Ancient Words of Power. All known Ancient Words are verbs, action words. Many scholars & sages believe the Ancient Language consisted only of verbs. Others contend that nouns & such must exist and are the keys to great magical power. Many wizards & adventurers have spent their lives in fruitless searching.

The Mechanics:
Players can learn up to two words per Intelligence with the words counting against their equipment limit. Ancient Words require objects to be acted upon.

Ancient Words I’ve used:
Bind, Flow, Soar, Grow, Turn, Whisper, Fold, Shout, Gather, Conceal, Twist, Illuminate, Scatter.

Ultra Rare Milestone Loot that only exists conceptually, not actually table tested yet: the prefixes ‘Un-’ and ‘Re-’.

Rule of the Candle:
As the light of a candle dims the further away you are, so to does magic dim over distance. (Magic gets harder as the desired effects get further away). As a leaf is easier to burn than a log, so to is magic easier on small objects (Magic is harder as the desired effect gets bigger or more complicated).

At the table, magic is really fun & creative. Players have their Words (even the fighter with low Int can pick up one or two) and can use items in their inventory or the environment. And the easy to remember rule of the Candle.

Quick Examples:
Bind is used to heal minor wounds.
Twist plus some sticks has been used to pick a lock.
Soar plus a leaf has been used to send a message.
Shout plus Wait plus a thrown rock has been used to lure a guard away from a door.
Grow plus some vines has been used to create a ladder.



Would you be willing to share said table.

I really love this concept, very much reminiscent of LeGuin’s Earthsea magic system.


I actually think THIS is pretty much as esrthsea-ish as you can get haha amazing rule uncle ben, and also super light!


This is my current version, @W3stoner ; feel free to revise and expand to add your own. It’s not perfect, and occasionally the combinations can get a little weird (albeit still workable), but so far it has worked pretty well.

13 AIR









Four random D8 rolls of 6, 2, 3, and 6

Power words are ENERGY (62) and DEVOLUTION (36)

Spells I would consider exploring with the casting player with this combination would include a diverse list of ICRPG analogues to D&D 5e’s Chaos Bolt, Enervation, Power Word: Pain, Power Word: Stun, Primal Savagery, Ray of Enfeeblement, Shatter, and probably others—all cast at a cost of around 2 HP (to use two power words) at my table. It’s formless magic, so I’m slightly more open to negotiation than I might be with a priori researched spell creation, while still following general guidelines for effects. HTH.


Hey thanks! The biggest advantage to this system for me has been my players interaction with the world. Their Power Words need objects to act on, so they ask lots of weirdly specific questions like:

  • What kind of forest are we in? Are their pine cones on the ground?
  • We’re in a market place, what sorts of things are for sale that blow easily in the wind?
  • What is this building made out of? (… It’s made of wood but if you destroy the innkeepers inn, there is a zero percent chance he’s gonna reward you for this quest!)

It really rewards thinking about & interacting with the game world/people!


not really, sorry :smiley:


This was a really inspired read for me. I’ve always wanted to have a magic system with elements described here and after discovering ICRPG I feel like I can actually tackle it. Here is my VERY ROUGH first draft of a system drawing inspiration from the content in this thread, Maze Rats, Freebooters on the Frontier, Ars Magica, Dungeons and Dragons, and years of thinking about magic. If you do decide to read through it I’d love to know what your thoughts are. Thanks!