Rethinking Magic: Discord Post Mortem


#1

Hey all,

This post is a culmination of my thoughts after a lengthy discussion on magic that took place on the Discord. I wanted to provide my thoughts on magic, a few system skeletons, and several ideas for experimentation. Let’s get right into it.

Vancian Resolution vs. Roll to Cast

  • Vancian Resolution: Spells require no roll to cast, and automatically succeed. The “does it work” comes in the form of a Saving Throw by the targets.

    • The Logic: These spells are ancient. They are the result of years of study, experimentation, and perfection by the wizards and priests of the past. They are so formulaic, so perfect, that they never fail. Follow the instructions to the letter, and the spell works every time. The targets must resist the magic.
  • Roll to Cast: Spells are cast upon a successful roll vs. target. The “does it work” happens there, rather than in the form of a Saving Throw by the targets.

    • The Logic: These sorts of spells are far more recently created - perhaps even on the spot by the caster. They are raw, fundamental permutations of the laws of magic (whatever they may be in your setting). As such, the incantations, somatic expressions, and material component measurements have not been perfected. These spells can fail, quite spectacularly so in some cases, and therefore require a roll to cast.

Both of these approaches exist in modern play, depending on your system of choice. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition favors a Vancian Resolution system for most of it’s spells (interestingly, some precedent exists for newer or more chaotic magic in 5th edition - see: Wild Magic Sorcerer). ICRPG favors Roll to Cast for most of it’s spells.

While I have been a staunch Roll to Cast proponent in recent years, I have started to reconsider the Vancian Resolution system after the Discord discussion. The idea that certain spells, particularly the ones listed as examples in the Player’s Handbook, are so well studied and perfected that they always work just makes sense to me. The quadratic equation doesn’t change. Proportion evaluation doesn’t change. They work every time so long as you use them properly. I would equate these ancient spells to these ancient equations (using the term “ancient” loosely).

And, what’s more, their existence implies that the other form of spell casting must necessarily exist. Why would the casters of old have spent so much time, gold, components, and effort to craft spells that don’t fail, unless they were used to spells that did fail? That brings us to the Compound System.

The Compound System

This method employs both Vancian Resolution and Roll to Cast. All spellcasters have an array of spells that are of the perfect sort. They never fail, but targets may resist them. All spellcasters also have the ability to “free cast” and invent spells.

Free casting is simply when a caster attempts to form a magical effect on the spot. These are the most risky - like giving a speech with no preparation. They are Roll to Cast, and have a magical mishap on any failed roll. GMs may elect to have the target number higher than the ambient target.

Inventing spells is exactly what it sounds like - spend the time, resources, and effort to research and craft a new spell. Once one has been invented, they are Roll to Cast and have a magical mishap on a natural 1.

All spells, of any sort, still require the expenditure of a spell slot, spellburn, mana point, or other typical resource. If your system uses spell levels, like 5e, the DM will determine an appropriate spell level to expend. DMs should feel well within their rights to say NO to effects that are gamebreaking, out of theme, and so on.

For our divine casters (priests, paladins, druids, etc.), the setup is the same. Simply reflavor. The Vancian spells are approved by the church and passed down generation to generation. The free casting spells are desperate prayers. Inventing spells is a process by which the divine caster undergoes intense meditation, fasting, sacrifice, communion, pilgrimage, or whatever else is appropriate to the setting and deity.

Further Discussion

Miscasts & Magical Mishaps: When using a Roll to Cast spell, there is a chance of failure. It’s important to note that in these systems, the point of failure is typically the caster. As such, failure means that the caster inappropriately meddled with the fundamental forces of existence, and bad things can happen. Whether you invoke a miscast or magical mishap on a Natural 1 or any failure, these effects should be either (1) bad or (2) weird.

There’s nothing wrong with the caster incinerating themselves for miscasting fireball. There’s also nothing wrong with them shooting thousands of impenetrable bubbles from their hand that change the battlefield. It might even be appropriate, in some games at some times, to have a beneficial effect happen on a miscast. This will be largely up to the tone and themes of your game. I would suggest either having a table of effects to roll on, effects tied to schools of magic, or effects tied to types of spells (arcane vs divine vs …). Alternatively, the GM can always make it up on the spot.

Spells vs Rituals: Spells can be evoked by a single caster. Rituals require multiple casters. While a spell that cures an individual of The Cough can be accomplished by a single priest, ending a plague requires many such priests. Rituals often require hours, days, or longer to finish. They are often extremely taxing on the individuals participating. They often require rare and expensive material components. Rituals are not to be attempted lightly. Whether they are Vancian or Roll to Cast is up to the GM.

It is my suggestion that rituals, if they exist in your game, should only be used for big points in the story. If your players want to use a ritual at a point you don’t think is a “big point”, it is now a big point. Alternatively, NPC rituals can also signal big points in the setting. The druidic ritual at the first New Moon of the year may be one example.

Guaranteeing Success: Sometimes, a caster just needs a spell to work. They’re out of time, out of moves. This would be a fantastic opportunity for a dramatic Roll to Cast. However, it can be equally as exciting for a player to declare that they’re defying fate and taking things into their own hands by MAKING it happen. This is where guaranteed success comes in.

At the GM’s option, casters may (1) burn a spell from their memory for the day, (2) expend multiple spell slots, (3) spend HP, (4) spend Hit Dice or similar resource, or (5) take stat damage to force a spell to automatically succeed. Two particularly brutal costs include multiple points of Exhaustion/Fatigue, and permanent HP/stat loss - often reserved for the most spectacular and high level spells (looking at you, Wish). The exact cost is up to the GM.

Some old school GMs are probably considering unnatural aging and level drain. I support these choices. Use them carefully and do not betray your players’ trust.

Material Components: Many tables ignore material components because they are a lot to track. This is a valid way to play, and can offload a lot of book work that can slow play. However, using material components is an excellent way to limit casters in-game without using the above systems. You can cast fireball as many times as you want - but you better have a live fire beetle and thumb sized ruby. You can cast lightning shield as often as you want, if you’ve got enough lightning bugs and tears from a rhemmoraz.

Consider using material components as restrictions. You can use them for all spells, or just for powerful spells. Remember, if you use magical items like wands, staves, rings, etc. - you’re already doing this. Those spells locked within the wand cannot be cast without the wand.

Final Thoughts

Here we looked at several things. We looked at the classic Vancian Resolution system, Roll to Cast, mixing the two, miscasts and magical mishaps, spells vs rituals, guaranteeing success, and the use of material components. You should consider mixing and matching systems and ideas as you see fit.

What other ideas do you have for spellcasting in your games? Let me know below!

Special thanks to all the Discord participants, most of these ideas are yours!

AC


Alfheim Magic vs. Magic (SP/Power) System
#2

I really like the idea of buying success. I might even do it by just asking the player if they’re willing to pay “the price”, but they don’t get to know what that price is until after it’s cast - a huge gamble! Oh, but when the chips are down, so epic!


#3

That’s a great idea! All debts must be paid, and the devil given his due.


#4

Hey! this is a super nice analysis. I really dig your logic break-down of traditional magic systems and what they represent in the world of an rpg. I specially like the approach of using components or places of power as magic enhancers rather than just requirements that no one likes to track around haha.

Because it is relevant to the discussion at hand and because I think it is a nice place to put it, here’s my take on a magic system that I designed for my World-of-Dungeons-style ICRPG hack.

The idea is (quoting a dumb meme I like these days) reject spell-list, return to free-form xD
I think that, in the mechanical context of ICRPG, having a list of spells that introduce unique mechanics for each one goes against the freedom of the EFFORT system, and so I decided to emulate the way weapons are handled in CORE 2e (using descriptive, narrative tags) and just make a bunch of magic domains characters can channel to make magic, with their own scopes and limitations, and a mechanical process to cast them.

I’ll also add upon the idea of “roll vs no-roll”. In this system, you always pay the cost of a spell (in Mana or HP), but you only roll to cast if what you are doing needs such roll.

  • Would you make a player roll an attack to kill someone who’s sleeping defenseless?

If you answer this with “Nah”, then you’re on the right track to follow the working of this system, again, fiction first. haha

  • If you want to use Life magic to heal your comrades while resting beside a campfire, no CHECK needed, roll effort.

  • If you want to use Animal magic to talk to Hamshry the friendly Pet Hamster, no roll is needed, you just do it.

  • If you want to shove a giant stone into a dragon’s mouth using Earth magic, preventing him from breathing a fiery death upon your friends, you roll a CHECK to cast.

  • If you call Fire magic in a spectacular explosion to fight back a horde of goblins, roll an ATTEMPT and EFFORT if succesful!

And so on, so forth…

Here’s the rules and details:


Spells and Magic

A Spell is a magical formulae that allows its user to produce super-natural effects on other creatures and objects . To cast a Spell, you need to have an equipped Magical Focus bound to a magical Domain .

A Magic Focus is a special piece of LOOT that you use to channel the energy from one of the different Domains , it’s up to you to describe how it looks and/or its functionality (i.e: A set of Tarot Cards for Divination , an Obsidian Chunk for Fire or a Magical Flute for Air ).

To cast a Spell, chose a target and describe the desired effect , respecting your Domain’s rules and limitations . The GM may ask you to roll a CHECK or ATTEMPT if you’re doing something risky with your spell.

Each time you cast a Spell, you pay its COST in Mana . A starting character has a maximum of 10 Mana and can expand its reserve by consuming Mana Stars (which are similar to Life Hearts). If you don’t have enough current Mana, you can pay part of the COST (or all of it) with HP . As long as your current Mana is 0 , you make ALL of your CHECKS and ATTEMPTS as HARD.

The base COST for casting a Spell is 1 Mana , and it increases if these conditions are met:

You’re countering the effects of another Spell or Magical effect ( +1 ).

You’re including more than one Domain on your Spell ( +2 for each additional Domain).

You can’t see your target clearly ( +1 ) or you don’t know exactly where it is located ( +2 ).

You’re in an uncomfortable position or an inappropriate posture ( +1 ).

You’re already concentrating on another Spell ( +1 ).

You are casting on several targets or a small area ( +1 ).

You are casting on many targets or a big area ( +2 ).

Domains

  • image Divination: Allows access to hidden or future information, but the results can be hard to understand.

  • image Water: Allows you to move, purify or change the shape of inert liquids, but it requires enough of quantity of them present in your surroundings to use it.

  • image Air: Controls the weather and wind currents, but is only effective in open spaces.

  • image Animals: Makes wilderness beasts become your allies or let you adopt their form, but it requires you to let go of some of your humanity.

  • image Arcane: Controls magic symbols and energies, but it requires specific and often abstract knowledge of them.

  • image Song: Manipulates your target’s emotions, but it can be perceived as annoying or attract unwanted attention.

  • image Shape: Changes the physical properties and/or appearance of your target, but only temporarily.

  • image Fire: Makes your targets Burn, but the flames can quickly expand out of control.

  • image Illusion: Creates sounds, images and sensations, but they hold no substance and can be dismissed as fake when closely paying attention to them.

  • image Summoning: Calls creatures from other planes, but they can ask you something in exchange or flat-out refuse to obey you.

  • image Light: Amplifies and redirects bright and radiance surrounding you, but it only affects dark places and creatures.

  • image Death: Ignores the rules of the black gates of the death , but it requires costly sacrifices in exchange.

  • image Plants: Wildly stimulates plant growth and behaviour , but they usually claim the land as a result.

  • image Portals: Opens or closes passage ways to other places and planes , but anything that travels through can become lost in the way.

  • image Lightning: Creates electrical discharges of great power , but they can jump to undesired targets.

  • image Shadow: Hide and obscure your surroundings with darkness, but it can pay a toll on your sanity.

  • image Time: Manipulates the speed and direction of time-flow, but can create paradoxes.

  • image Earth: Move and shape the soil , minerals and rocks , but it requires great force to do so.

  • image Toxins: Manipulates poisons and disease agents , but it creates hazardous residues.

  • image Life: Heals the wounded and revitalizes the living , but has no effect on un-living creatures.


Cheers!


#5

Hey, thanks so much for the lengthy reply!

You make a great point about only rolling when you need a roll. A sleeping character has no “HP”, and no roll to hit is needed - totally agree. That’s always a fun experiment to see how people interpret HP and “rolls to hit”. :wink:

If I were using the Roll to Cast system I proposed, I would still ask for a roll to cast because the point of failure is the caster miscasting, not a subject resisting. I’d probably make it an Easy roll because of no pressure, but still. I might even say “spend an hour casting it from the book instead of memory to avoid the roll to cast”. Anyway, none of that is to counter your post, just yammering on.

I really like your idea of using a focus or conduit for spellcasting. And I really like your domains and easy modifiers. I think the system would be a bit too crunchy for me, but that’s probably only because I don’t already know the system. What I get, from boiling it down in my head, is “Spells cost 1 mana, plus a variable amount based on the situation as determined by the DM” which I love.

Your take on rejecting spell lists is neat, and I’ve always struggled with that as a GM. Even if I don’t necessarily give the players a list, I feel like I need one to guide my decisions. And, naturally, that tends to flavor my settings such that there are established spells like that. The only notable exception is my true-to-genre sword and sorcery game, where the PCs don’t access spells. Magic is entirely the purview of the villains and icons of malign decadence, and I don’t have to systematize their magic. Luckily.

Thanks again for the reply Nim, great stuff!

AC


#6

Oooo subject close to my heart…drats, just a really good analysis.

On the saving throw side of things…dressing it up with something like, a save does d4 effort damage to the caster and a critical save does all potential damage/change to the caster with an area effect component would give the caster the right degree of hesitation.

Call it feedback or some such.

Then add complications to offset…material, foci, specialization, ritual all offset possible mishaps.

This would allow magic to be plentiful in a world, yet not used often, perhaps only in emergencies…if even an illusion has a 5% chance of ruining your day or your life.

There would be few enchantments, but perhaps the study and eduction of magic would be prized and calculated….and on occasion a farmer explodes after helping his tomatoes grow a bit more plump.

Hmmm…interesting world concept.