Spells: Inventing and Assembling


I’m regular as summer breeze, but so it goes. Can’t believe it’s more than a month since I decided to post about the SEACAT magic system from Uranium Butterflies. Well, here’s part two.

I like games with variable spell systems, where a single spell can be cast in multiple ways. DCC is a great example. However, I wanted something a little simpler, which is where the spell power x magic cost = spell price equation came from.

The other thing I like is magic systems with weird spells that are not all designed to achieve one simple thing (e.g. kill a monster or beat a dungeon or fly a magic carpet). With that in mind, I set about inventing a lot of spells that might not be perfectly useful, but can certainly be an inspiration to players.

I also love the open style of magic of something like Whitehack, but I really wanted more purchase for my game, more for players to hold onto and use as examples for inventing their own spells.

Finally, I was a little tired of magic missiles and fireballs and hodl personages.

That’s why I built the SEACAT magic system from the ground up with the assumption that some players will love inventing their own spells, and this should be a fun mini-game all its own—from inventing an individual spell to assembling an album of their favourite spells, giving it a theme and name, and so on.

That was a long intro. Off we go!

—LR


Inventing a New Spell

“He gains his powers from afar, and built a gateway to the stars.”
—Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s Star One, The Eye of Ra, Space Metal (2002)

When inventing new spells, players should consider:

  • Is it an idea that creates fun solutions and novel situations?
  • Is it something that isn’t a universal ‘I win’ button?
  • Can it be described in three sentences?
  • Does it have a memorable name?

If the answers are yes, then it might be a good spell. Worth trying, anyhow.

To develop ideas, players can use a book or movie or song title for the initial creative jolt, then mix it with another piece to reinterpret what kind of spell the titles could produce.

For example, take an album title like Nonadaptation and a song title like Enter Sandman. The second title suggests the elements of silicon and sand. Inorganic things. Perhaps something like the spell below.

Enter Sand Cloud

The wizard rocks back and forth for several seconds. They then decohere into a silicate sand cloud held together by strange forces.

P3 • The wizard ignores severe heat and cold and survive without oxygen while in cloud form. They still get thirsty, tired, and hungry as usual. (that’s a spell power 3 effect, remember. It means most characters (magic cost 2) will spend 6 life to cast it, full-on wizards (magic cost 1) will spend 3 life, and full-on-no-magic types (magic cost 3) will spend 9 life.)

This is a cute spell because it lets the hero bypass the normal common-sense rules of being an organic creature. Instead, they function as a floating cloud of sand. On the other hand, there is a significant drawback: the hero has to focus, spending an action each round to keep the spell active. The spell is also quite expensive, costing most heroes 6 life. Enough to think twice about overusing it.

Setting Spell Power For New Spells

Spell power determines at what level a hero can safely cast a spell and how much vitality (life and stats) it costs to cast. Most heroes will never exceed level 9, and their combined life and stats won’t exceed 70 points. This makes it easy to adjust how accessible a spell is, considering the standard magic cost of 2.

Power 0 (P0) • This spell requires no sacrifice. It’s equivalent to an ordinary action, like running or firing a pistol. A spell with a power of 0 can be used at will by any hero. Players should keep such spells specialised.

Power 1 (P1) • A 3rd level hero could use this spell about 13 times before running out of life and stats. It can be a little bit more valuable than mundane equipment or actions.

Power 3 (P3) • A 3rd level hero could use this spell just 4 times before running out of life and stats. This is not an ability they will use often. It can be significantly more potent than mundane actions and allow interesting local changes to reality’s fundamental rules.

Power 7 (P7) • A 3rd level hero could reliably use this spell once, and even a 9th level hero might only pull it off five times. A spell this powerful could automatically disable enemies or make visible and (semi-)permanent changes to reality.

Power 11 • A 3rd level hero could cast this spell once at great cost and risk. It would be dangerous even for a 9th level caster. Such a spell might be the stuff of fairytales: decades of slumber, exploding mountains, small iron stars falling from the sky, drastic reality changes.

Power 21 • A spell likely to corrupt any mortal. The power to rewrite histories and transforms aeons.

Power 42 • A spell the mightiest half-god magus might cast once, giving their lives in the process.

Adjusting Spells

With descriptions that aim for natural language and poetry over technical precision, groups will invariably end up with spells that are mechanically too powerful or useful, reducing the creativity of roleplay and the utility of other characters. When that happens, the players should discuss what to do together. There are many options short of banning the spell:

  • Make the spell dangerous. Each casting risks hurting the caster.
  • Increase the spell’s power rating. Each casting is more expensive, so it is harder to cast.
  • Adjust the spell’s efficacy: reduce its damage, range, or number of targets. Each casting is weaker.
  • Add an additional cost or drawback to the spell. Perhaps it takes longer to cast, cannot be cast except in a special kind of flowy robe, uses a special item to function, etc.

The in-game narrative rationale for this kind of change is simple. Spells are a half-understood mish-mash of fantascience requiring rare components, half-understood rituals, and goldilocks conditions to activate. Just like in the story of Jekyll & Hyde, the wizard discovers that something has changed, and the experimental spell is no longer as effective. Or, perhaps, its destructive properties only became apparent after a period of careless use. Just recall how radioactivity was prescribed as a cure-all in the early 20th century.


Magic Albums

“First it was Chaos, and next broad-bosomed Earth.”
—Hesiod, Theogony (116: The Cosmogony), translated by J. Banks

Mad science wizards, arcane abbots, and dabbling dilettantes alike are fond of devising tabular diagrams of spells and inventing grand unified theories. Do these collections approximate a more profound truth, or is it all correlation masquerading as causation?

It hardly matters. It’s best to think of spells as songs and the various collections, canons, and catalogues as albums compiled by celebrity wizards. Some pretend to tell a coherent story, others are ripoffs in disguise, yet others compilations of greatest hits.

A hero can learn spells from different albums or stick to just one. The only thing an album really provides is a semblance of thematic consistency for a wizard. Wizards are encouraged to remake and remix their own canons. And, of course, the greatest heroes write and compile their own spell albums to become true rockstar wizards in their turn.

Note! A spell album contains spell recordings and reproduction instructions. To manifest a spell, the wizard requires suitable equipment (aka. the spell burden). Much like a phonograph record in a decorative limited edition case, the album is of little use without a suitable high fidelity gramophone [or other equipment].

Album Styles

Over the aeons, many popular album formats have developed. Players can mix and match styles from the following three tables or invent their own.

Hardware Format

  1. Oldtech computer.
  2. Synthskin cyber fiche.
  3. Vials of memory fluid.
  4. Baked clay tablets.
  5. Tattooed skin.
  6. Bundled bone scales.
  7. Parchment codex.
  8. Brazen clockwork.
  9. Mass-market paperback.
  10. Plastic paper scroll.
  11. Preserved head.
  12. Crystal-laced slab.
  13. Compact phonograph.
  14. Artificial mycelial mass.
  15. Knotted net record.
  16. Vomeronasal stimulator.
  17. Pearlescent implant.
  18. Tactile interface cylinder.
  19. Mirrored glasses.
  20. Memory daimon.

Impressive Design

  1. Howls when accessing underworld cloud.
  2. Fiddly to read on the move.
  3. Reading causes a euphoric high.
  4. Heavy and nigh-indestructable.
  5. Phosphorescent & highly visible.
  6. Iridescent, beautiful, and probably a dragon’s living extra-dimensional appendage.
  7. Bound in silver chains and cautionary tales.
  8. Played with gears and levers.
  9. Tatty, yellow, with thin sheets.
  10. Ornate ritual reproduction.
  11. Professorial spell slave in a jar.
  12. Ostentatious jadeite matrix.
  13. Encased in highly collectible protective cover.
  14. Produces hallucinogenic fruiting bodies.
  15. Doubles as a scarf or flag.
  16. Bottled with aerosol spray nozzle.
  17. Suggests trepanation for best interface effects.
  18. Vantablack surface inscrutable from a distance.
  19. Projects augmented reality spell codes in a holo bubble.
  20. Bronze statuette with double wings, dog’s head, scorpion’s tail, taloned feet, and a snake for privates.

Typical Customer Feedback

  1. Demon-haunted.
  2. Requires micro-lens reader.
  3. Needs refueling.
  4. Infested with memories.
  5. Requires reading assistant.
  6. Looks like valuable cash.
  7. Corrupted arcane sigils.
  8. Sings when used.
  9. Disappears and reappears unpredictably.
  10. Keeps coming loose.
  11. Strong opinions on poetic politics.
  12. Corroded by fae memories.
  13. Skips records if jostled.
  14. Prone to overgrowth.
  15. Coded in bureaucratic triplicate.
  16. Alien tastes.
  17. Autocorrected keyword blocker.
  18. Obscure gesture interface.
  19. Freemium microtransaction model.
  20. Requires host neural network.

Albums in Uranium Butterflies

I’m writing the Uranium Butterflies book (essentially, the players handbook for the wider world of the UVG) with 20 spell albums of 5 spells each. A lot of spells have ended up on the cutting room floor, and I’ll bundle them up into a B-side eventually. Initially, I had albums of variable length. Some with 3 spells, some with 8, 10, or 11. However, besides getting messy, they also started eating up my whole book (and it’s already 320 pages long, ack). At one point I ended up with 12 necromancy spells and 13 biomancy spells and, too much! So, now it’s 20 albums of 5 spells each, for 100 spells total.

Some of the spells are relatively basic, others are weird, many are potentially world-breaking. This is a feature: I think it’s cool for players to see what their characters could end up doing if they went crazy with power-lust and tried to break the world.

After all, that’s the interesting choice: if a character has the power to do terrible things, but chooses not to, then they are acting in a good way because they want to do good, not because they have to. Ok, I’m veering very close to making fun of the alignment system in a certain game, I’ll dial back. Here are the spell albums.

—LR

20 Albums

Each afficionado of oldtech magic albums has their favourite. However, few would disagree that the most influential top list of recent decades is that curated by Crawling Throne magazine. Each album is listed with its most famous spell, its commonly associated veda, and a note on genre or style.

  1. The Eternal Arkhiatros • Parasoma Transference.
    Veda of the Abmortalities.
  2. Creation’s Tears • Reality Decryption. Veda of the All-Chemist.
  3. Total Hominisation • Skinchanger. Veda of the Awakened Sphere.
  4. The Blood Muse • Usha’s Wild Mutation. Veda of the Biomechané.
  5. Witness Songs • Words May Ever Hurt. Veda of the Cosmic Logos.
  6. Empty Words • Hole in Time. Veda of the Existential Void.
  7. The Basilisk Eye • Ubique Serpens. Veda of the Flying Serpent.
  8. Android Crucible • Lemma Hack. Veda of the Golemmafexes.
  9. At the Rainbow Wall • Coherent Illumination. Veda of the Harder Light.
  10. The Anvil Blade • UNKNOWN. Veda of the Iron Symphony.
  11. The Necrolexicon • Necrophony. Veda of the Law Necromantic.
  12. Brave New Phoenix • Battery. Veda of the Master Force.
  13. Electric Prometheus • Signal Charge. Veda of the Mother Electric.
  14. Silent Giants • UNKNOWN. Veda of the Old Technologies.
  15. Insensible Furies • UNKNOWN. Veda of the Phantasmata.
  16. Tree of Life • UNKNOWN. Veda of the Plantsingers.
  17. Erebus Gates • UNKNOWN. Veda of the Portal Architects.
  18. The Correct & True Apocalypse • Electromagnificent Detector.
    Veda of the Rightmakers.
  19. Our Omnipresent Epicentre • Beseech Earth and Sky.
    Veda of the Seven Summons.
  20. Fractured Dreams of Being • UNKNOWN. Veda of the Soul Breaker.

These albums and some of their most famous spells are described in detail on the following pages. Even Dalgba Dhol, the undying editor of Crawling Throne, agrees confirms that folk traditions have created many more spells than even such a compendium could hope to cover.


And Another Spell Album

Congratulations! You read all this way! Here’s one more bonus album for you – the Veda of the Cosmic Logos ‘ own Witness Songs, as first performed by the Anti-Yaldabaothi Fréra Jacinda at the Fall of the Periwinkle Dynasty.

Open in new tab for full size. It’s legible, trust me.

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—Luka

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