Narrative Spell Casting Costs and Taboos



I’ve been playing in the Alfmarches game on Discord, and on that server is a character creation channel in which players just make PCs for fun. It was on that channel that someone said something that stuck with me: essentially, the mage version of any character concept is the most powerful version of that character. Now, this is not strictly true, and certainly does not speak to what people want to play, but it does recognize that spellcasting in ICRPG feels a little bit like running around with a magical gun that never really runs out of ammo, but does occasionally malfunction. For my tastes, that doesn’t feel very magical, though for the style of play which ICRPG seems inclined toward - a fast paced, action movie type romp - this type of magic is fun to play at the table. That said, the “magical gun” doesn’t feel very magical to me. So, I started meditating on Discord, and now here, on the subject of narrative costs (as opposed to mechanical costs), and narrative taboos for spells. For this discussion, costs are requirements that need to be met to cast or obtain the spell, and taboos are circumstances in which a spell would not work, or would be harder to cast. For me personally, I prefer thinking of taboos as things that make casting HARD, or provoke a magical backlash, rather than something that makes casting the spell outright impossible.

I also want to note that though I am doing this on a per spell basis, you could write up costs and taboos that are thematic to the kind of spellcaster you are playing; a demonologist’s spells have different requirements and rules than a druid’s, or a member of the Order of the Secret Flame.

Most of this discussion is going to take place in the responses, rather than up here at the top. I’m going to start off with the first spell, ARCANE BOMB up here, and go from there. I hope you all will check this out, and share your thoughts and opinions.

So, without further ado!

ARCANE BOMB costs: The practicality of this spell is limited by not being able to control the fuse, but it still turns a single person into a walking demolitions depot, so why hasn’t Alfheim been paved over with convenient roads carved through the mountains with magical bombs? Perhaps because casting requires the toe or finger of a spellcaster, or something else no caster wants to part with? Could also be just something weirdly specific, like a paper lantern from the birthday party of a first-born noble’s daughter. But that makes it almost unplayable. Might be reasonable if caster is assumed to have every spell. Then the challenge isn’t finding the spell, or even carrying it, but meeting the requirements. Still, body parts are my favorite material components for attack spells. A year of life could also work - all the life’s energy of an entire year released at once makes a good explanation for the source of the boom.

ARCANE BOMB taboos: These could be very caster specific, such as a druid-ish type wizard couldn’t cast it in a place where it would damage a tree, or a sea witch can only set the bomb in sea water. Thinking more specifically about the spell, maybe ARCANE BOMB can only be cast during a storm, or a meteor shower. The thunderclap of the storm acts as the fuse, which is why it can’t be set, but if you can shield it from the sound, or produce your own loud noise, you can change the fuse time. That feels thematic, and gameable.

Hope you enjoyed! ARCANE MISSILE discussion will show up in the responses below later! Stay tuned!


ARCANE MISSILE costs can be teeth or nails of magical or magic casting beings, or live hummingbirds or bees/wasps. If you’re going for pure flavor, the mage could just recite the insults they’ve received/minor slights they catalogued.

ARCANE MISSILE taboos for it could be not being able to cast it upon someone unarmed or unaware, someone who is keeping watch, or someone who knows your name.
If the cast is hummingbirds or bees, you could say anyone wearing flowers is shielded from the spell. If using the insult idea, then anyone who has treated the mage favorably, or done them a favor would be immune.


ARN’S HEX costs : obviously to curse someone, you can’t just point at them and say “CURSE!” Usual curse stuff means it takes something of the target’s in your possession, which for ICRPG purposes makes it almost unplayable. But for something which would likely kill almost all people, something like an eyeball, or taking on a permanent infliction - painful arthritis, severe gout, a hunchback. Ooo, I’ve got it. It’s a magic word so powerful it consumes the tongue. You need a spellcaster’s tongue to cast it; could be your own.

ARN’S HEX taboos : a curse is such a personal thing, it feels like you’d have to have real hatred in your heart to lay it on someone, so being unable to cast it on strangers would feel reasonable. It could also be, since the description is a word, that the target must be able to hear you curse them. Since it’s sort of a pox, you could choose that it doesn’t work on anyone whose survived a pox - milk maids would be well defended against it. Or, since it is so hateful a spell, you could say anyone in love is immune.

Now, on DIscord it was suggested that the rent was a little high for one cast of a spell, which may be true, depending on the tone of the game and magic that you’re going for. I’d be curious what sort of things the Shield Wall would come up with. Maybe to cast it you just need a wand made out of a femur of someone who died from the spell, which of course begs the question, where did the first wand come from?


AAZUL’S CONJURTION costs : obvious costs would be space and time to draw a magical summoning circle, but if we’re keeping spells adventure ready, what would be the sort of things imps would want… stolen money, love letters written by people having affairs that ended in murder, infants’ coffin-wood, orphan’s tears. Or maybe more metaphysical things - the caster’s childhood memories, the names of their parents and grandparents (they’ll be looking for them), the memory of the caster’s first kiss, or their sense of taste. Cost could even be things that area real, but can’t be sold - the roundness of the caster’s pupils; after selling, they have slit pupils like vipers and cats.

There is a player that has flavored his version of this spell to be summoned flying hands. In that case, assuming they are evil hands, whatever evil thing they wanted would also have to be tactile - a tanned human skin, slippery fresh blood from an innocent, a voodoo doll of a living person, a murder weapon - not too old.

AAZUL’S CONJURTION taboos : obviously can’t be cast on sacred ground, and I imagine any good deeds requested of the demons would be rejected, unless the payment were sufficiently incriminating. I feel like bargaining and trickery should be the themes here, but I’m not certain how to streamline it intuitively. Probably not a new negotiation with every cast, but a single contract set for a certain number of summons, but of limited length (the contract) to allow for shenanigans on both sides.


I love the flavor of these. It seems like each spell is very unique and I think it’s cool to have weird costs and limitations on magic.

My question is, have you played with any of this stuff in game? Do you have any sense of how this sort of thing might work in a session?


I haven’t gotten to play with any of this, yet. These ideas are like a week old, tops. And I’ve talked with some folks about whether costs work better as a requirement, or if they would work as a way of by-passing the roll-to-cast. I think the first thing you need as a GM is to get a sense of how interested the caster PCs would be in this kind of thing, and just have a conversation with them, and be willing to change it in the middle of things.


BLADE AURA costs : this spell is about hurting those close to us, revenge and/or spite, keeping people at distance. So maybe it costs a close relationship, or keeping a secret from someone who trusts the caster. Or could be the opposite - shouting out an embarrassing secret.

BLADE AURA taboos : can’t be cast while pressing the attack? There is something about confidence that feels counter to the spirit of this spell. 1. Maybe it can’t be cast during a negotiation, or at a trial; maybe it can only be cast in a land at war. That could be cool. This one is certainly more about the costs.


I was wondering about by-passing the roll. That’s a pretty sweet idea.


CONTROL MACHINES costs : Conceptually, for a fantasy game, I find this spell to be a real head-scratcher. Like what constitutes a machine? A clock? A pully? A wedge? Does the spell give the machine energy, or just control when and if they operate? I struggle.
Anyway, the spell is about machines, which are predictable in ways people are not, and control, so what sort of costs evoke these themes? Maybe, machines could always malfunction around the caster when not using the spell.
Ooo, or it requires the caster to act like a machine in particular ways: the caster can only turn a knob with their left hand, and only counterclockwise; they can only tie a knot one way - they can’t even reverse it. It could even be that the way that the caster interacts with people is quite mechanical, and if the routine is interrupted, they have to start over. Just a couple repeated phrases could really sell this.
For something more in-the-moment, maybe they need a mini version of the machine they are controlling, which they must manipulate - otherwise, they must be the machine being manipulated, which means to some extent copying the movements of the machine being controlled.
Another player had suggested the spell cost emotions, but playing that I feel like would be a drag for the player, kinda tamping down their own emotional responses, but maybe I’m just not imagining how to do it in a good way.
I’d love to hear other ideas on this.

CONTROL MACHINES taboos : I feel like what makes sense is that when a machine is beloved, when it has already been personified by the owner or user, then the machine will be loathed to betray that person. Beyond that, I don’t have a lot of ideas about circumstances in which the spell wouldn’t work.


COUNTER SPELL costs : so counter spell is about predicting your opponent and outmaneuvering them, so an emblem of your opponent’s failure would be good. Or maybe it’s just about breaking their concentration, like with an earworm or a loud distracting noise, so maybe the cost is just being really noisy, like wearing a one-man-band set up, or being covered in mirrors and bells. Trash talk, ear worms, jokes - maybe the cost of being so distracting is that you attract attention - you can’t be sneaky.

COUNTER SPELL taboos : I feel like an interaction between masters and students would be important here. Also lairs. So maybe you can never counter a wizard in their own tower, but it is EASY for a student to counter spell their master, and vice versa. Oh, but maybe you could counter a wizard in their own tower if you’ve had time to mess with it a bit - rearrange the books, swap the chairs around, turn the mirror upside-down (even if a normal person wouldn’t notice).


Interesting. I haven’t played a mage before, and I’ve only run one session of ICRPG, so I don’t have a lot of experience with magic in ICRPG. I do think that spell burn can be a bit weak since it’s not terribly hard to get 8 clean shots out before having a 1 turn spell burn.

Some of these ideas seem like they would be fun to discuss between players/DMs, but also might hamstring the spells pretty aggressively. I like the “Luke Skywalker” path that magic users can take, substituting gear for magic items, so I’m a bit hesitant to weaken spell TOO much.


It’s all just food for thought at this point. I would get more experience running the spells as is. You can also just say that if a player pays the cost, they don’t have to roll to cast, or they can cast it on EASY. These are just ideas to get the spells to feel more magical. I think a lot of ICRPG players won’t use this at all, but a few might get inspired, and so that’s worth it.


CREATE DEVICE costs: this spell is about inspiration and creativity. The most intuitive cost would be based on the source of the materials. I think of it like Buddy from the movie Elf making a rocking horse out of the entertainment stand, without access to a band say, and apparently without making any noise - so as long as the mage has materials to build with, they can build almost anything. Without materials, you could do a body horror things, have them sacrifice HP, and make the device out of bone and sinew pulled from their own body. I think it will be important to discuss the source of the material needed by the mage. Maybe they pull things out of a dimensional portal in their hat, or maybe they make it out of mind crystals they squeeze from the third eye in their forehead.
The other kind of cost would be knowledge. It could be to make the device, the mage needs schematics, a picture of the device, or needs to have studied it in the past. Maybe they don’t need to have detailed instructions, but they need to have touched or used the device before making it.

CREATE DEVICE taboos: so the spell deals with creation, preparation, knowledge, and improvisation. A place with strict rules that diminish creativity might impede creative magic. Also, any place that diminishes generation, energy, and/or life may be a problem for such a creative spell, depending on the fiction at the basis of how the spell works. Like, if the mage is a goblin known for eating all kinds of strange things, and when he casts the spell, he reaches down his own throat, and pulls out the device as something he’s eaten. The taboo would be that if he’s not able to eat anything for his MAGIC effort bonus in days, he can’t cast, or at least it’s HARD. By contrast, if the mage pulls things out of her magical hat, then any place shielded from teleportation would also prevent devices from being transported into the area.


CRYSTAL SANCTUARY cost: If BLADE AURA was a bout pushing people away, this spell is about a sense of control and security - but not necessarily the caster’s. If the caster is beseeching a higher power for sanctuary, then the identity of that entity is going to determine what they require of those they protect. A piece of intel, maybe, or a token of blood to appease a mighty patron, maybe a secret password used to let in members of a conspiracy. If the caster is channeling their own sense of security and confidence, then the spell may consume a child’s security blanket, or an athlete’s lucky charm. Even the mage’s own accolades, ribbons, letters of congratulation or success could all serve to be sacrificed, transforming metaphysical resistance to harm into concrete resistance to harm.

CRYSTAL SANCTUARY taboos: First and foremost, I would say that a sanctuary cannot be made within another sanctuary. After that, certainly places of worship for explicitly murderous deities, or any location specific to the caster which makes them feel particularly vulnerable, such as the location of a childhood or otherwise recent or formative trauma. Maybe with that last example, casting would be HARD, but once successfully done, it would become EASY.


CURSE OF ORD cost: this spell is a little different, because it already requires you to word the spell’s effect, so to some extent, cost is already built in. Beyond that, costs similar to those of ARN’s HEX would be appropriate, or something connected to the caster’s specific wording for the spell.

CURSE OF ORD taboos: this spell is similar to ARN’S HEX, but it is also deeply rooted in the contract of the curse - it is at its core a spell of law. With that in mind, we can conclude that places of chaos would be anathema to the contractual nature of the curse. Depending on the source of the magical power, it may also be required that the target of the curse either be able to understand the exact wording of the curse (in other cases, it may be in a language specific to the patron, and may be incomprehensible to the target). Does this mean you can’t curse a dog? Maybe.


DEATH NOVA costs: this is a spell about overloading, losing control, and leaving destruction in your wake; it is assault through self-destruction. Being such, it makes sense to me that the cost would be self-destructive behavior. Substance abuse is an old favorite, but sacrificing body parts would also be thematically consistent (given the power of the spell, I would put this cost at things that don’t grow back - an eye, and ear, all of your teeth, etc), and since we’re talking about spellcasters, sacrificing memories would work, too (however, this might be a bit of a dodge for some players, seeing it as essentially free). Of course, a dark kind of caster would sacrifice others, not themselves - but that might not be acceptable with all groups; it’s very dark (even for a spell about killing people). That said, the rule book says sacrifice any amount of HP - it doesn’t say whose HP.

DEATH NOVA taboos: depending on how you want to run it, what sort of energies compose the death nova, and how they are activated (could be anything from Raiders of the Lost Ark style vengeful spirits to the Scanners style psychic head-butt) you could require either that the nova must include innocent bystanders, or must not include innocent bystanders. Since it’s about overload, I’d say it’s anathema to being relaxed, so certain situations, and the influence of certain substances would prevent its use.

There’s probably more. Share your own thoughts!


DESTROY THE DEAD costs: so if DEATH NOVA is about self-destruction, this spell is about martyrdom - personal sacrifice to destroy absolute abominable evil. The mechanical costs are clear: HP, but this is about narrative costs, so whatever it is, it has to be things that the caster values. Since undead are metaphorically a representation of the continuing consequences of our past, and unprocessed grief, then I think honest and healthy expressions of grief, as well as accepting the consequences of the past would both be thematic invocations for destroying undead. If the PC carries mementos of fallen loved one or comrades, that would make a good sacrifice for this spell.

DESTROY THE DEAD taboos: only the darkest, most defiled locales would be immune to the cleansing self-sacrifice of these magics - the vampire lord’s throne room, the lich’s secret demesne, a shard realm on the plane of uncreated night. That, and a caster in the midst of unprocessed grief, or mired in deep depression. Casting the spell successfully (HARD) could be used a narrative turning point in those feelings.


DETECT EVIL costs: detection spells are extremely useful, especially since the description explicitly states the spell works on a visual level. It may be that to detect the presence of evil, the caster needs something of the same kind - a shard of a cursed sword, the mummified finger of an evil wizard, the last coin of a starving family paid to the sheriff as a bribe. Another way to do it would be the spell requires a small cruelty to act as a baseline of evil detection. Finally, it could be that the ability to detect evil requires exceptional morality; a list of three behaviors in which the caster must either always perform, or never perform. These things should be hard; not like “the caster must always fight bade guys”, but more like, “the caster must never speak an untrue word”, or “the caster must give away half their wealth.”

DETECT EVIL taboos: so, the most logical taboo for me fits in the “you can’t see the forest from the trees” paradigm. Basically, if the caster is already surrounded by evil, then detecting a specific evil within it becomes difficult. Other taboos might be more based on how the GM or the caster defines “evil”. The definition of “evil” has been a difficult philosophical question for centuries, but I would advise against allowing the spell to serve as a proxy for identifying intent. The spell can detect the curse on the pile of gold, and on the death knight, but not the assassin. Now, it would detect a magical corruption which is making the king behave evilly, but not a “natural” evil. Would it detect the site of a massacre or death camp, even after those events are long past? That’ll be up to each table to decide.


DOMINATE MONSTER costs: this spell is about control and dominance, obvs. The cost of that is in the description partly - the monster knows what you did, and considers it a kind of assault, but I have to assume that allies of the caster must also see what has happened, and feel the great discomfort of being made an accomplice to such a violent act. That, however, is a little vague, so let’s try to get more concrete. You could say to be so dominant over one’s enemies, the caster must at all other times be demure, even obsequious. Or, perhaps they must have given up literal dominion over others - to gain the spell you must be a ruler who abdicates rulership. On another track, it could be that the magic prevents you from freeing a prisoner, or letting people you perceive as below you making decisions which you abide? Some interpretations of this spell could turn the caster into a real dick.

DOMINATE MONSTER taboos: A lot of the taboos come from how we choose to define the term “monster.” Here’s an unexpectedly tough question: is a bear a monster? Despite being a perfectly natural creature, in the context of many fantasy adventures a bear is indeed a monster, which moves the question of monstrosity out of the realm of innate qualities, and into the paradigm of context. However the idea is applied, the meaning is implicit - the spell cannot control people. How that interacts with an intelligent monster, such as a Mind Flayer or a Lich is going to be up to interpretation, as is also whether or not the caster has clear answers to these questions. Beyond that, certain locations - places of wild power would probably be off limits to such explicit control, or places blessed by the spirit of liberty - pirate ships, places of revolution and revolt, the ground blessed by last stands of those who refused to submit - all would be inured to the magic’s influence.


DOORWAY costs: freedom and memory are the themes for this spell. I think a great narrative cost would be that the caster of this spell can never go home. Another simple cost would be that the wizard must always take something from a place to be able to travel back to it - the spell requires souvenirs. It could also be that the spell compels the caster to be a permanent nomad; they can’t stay any one place for more than a few days. Conversely, it could require constant return to the source of magic, or the many places that they may want to travel - like any place they haven’t traveled to in the past month they can no longer get to.

DOORWAY taboos: Perhaps a doorway must be stationary, and so it cannot be cast upon or to a mode of conveyance in motion? Certainly, wards against entry, exit, or both could be established, though since the spell requires memory, maybe the wards are just spells of forgetfulness - while in these places, you can’t think of where you’ve been before, and after you’ve left, you can’t remember being there, even if you know intellectually that you have been. Also, special holy days may prevent the magic from working. Also, in a place between places - liminal dimensional space, or the woods between worlds could stop the magic since you can’t travel from or to a place that is not a place. It’s a fun idea to play with.