Paths Not Taken: Initial Thoughts on Spell Casting

Living Document: Spell Casting

Hoo boy this is going to have a lot of options to consider.

Let’s get started.

When it comes to fantasy RPGs, it seems almost mandatory to have some kind of spell casting. Even games that discourage PC casters almost always still have NPC casters, as either insane hazards or outright villains.

  • Dungeons & Dragons, except 4e, ‘vancian’ spell casting system (modeled after the Dying Earth books by Jack Vance) where casters prepare spells in spell slots (defined numbers of spells of each level) and launch them as needed (expending the spell slots), then need to prepare them again.
    • 5e has ‘spontaneous casters’ who don’t need to prepare their spells ahead of time but are very limited in the number of spells they can choose from.
  • Dungeons & Dragons 3.x follows the general model, with some more options available
    • A psionics system, with psionic powers that have ‘levels’ to gate when they can be learned but that are fueled by psionic power points.
    • A few other alternate magic systems such as incarnum and spirit binding. They also introduced rituals, standalone spell-like options that can be used by anyone with the knowledge (though casters are better at them than non-casters, all else being equal).
    • Some third-party supplements with alternate casting rules, such as the Elements of Magic system from EN Publishing.
    • Character options such as certain classes and races exist that grant spell-like abilities that lean on spell definitions for their abilities but do not use spell slots and the characters are not ‘spell casters’.
  • Dungeons & Dragons 4e has spells, but they are basically just what certain classes call their class powers. There are also rituals that take the place of many spells from the previous edition (often utility-type spells), and anyone with the right training (Ritual Caster feat) can use rituals. Some classes grant the feat, but anyone with Arcana trained can take Ritual Caster. Certain other character options can allow a character to use specific rituals without the feat.
    • Other game objects act much like spells or rituals (4e is great for consistency this way) but are officially ‘not spells’.
    • 13th Age follows this model.
  • Pathfinder first edition follows the same spell casting model as Dungeons & Dragons 3.x.
    • Pathfinder Occult Adventures brings rituals from 3.x to Pathfinder, and adds occult (psychic) spells. The primary difference between psychic casting and other casting is that verbal and somatic components are replaced by thought and emotion components, respectively.
    • Pathfinder Ultimate Magic adds Words of Power, an alternate system where spells are constructed of words of power (effect words, target words, meta words). This system still uses spell slots, but I like to see the dynamic spell construction.
    • Third-party supplements offer some alternate ‘casting’ systems.
      • Dreamscarred Press updated several of the alternate systems (psionics, tome of battle, incarnum) from 3.x for Pathfinder.
      • Drop Dead Studios published the Spheres of Power system. They have a similar Spheres of Might system for martial characters.
      • Radiant House published an updated binding system from 3.x for Pathfinder.
  • Pathfinder second edition follows the same model as Pathfinder first edition, but consolidates the spell lists into a much smaller set, and can have options with different spell lists (most sorcerers are arcane casters, but certain bloodlines might be divine or occult).

Other game systems have some entirely different mechanics.

  • Hero System has a very versatile power construction system that can model pretty much anything I can think of. A campaign can have a static list of spells like D&D has, but each spell could as easily be unique.
  • AGE System has several approaches to spell casting. All include skill checks (which can result in spell stunts) and spell cost magic points when cast.
    • Fantasy Age grants spell knowledge via talents (each degree in a magic talent grants knowledge of one or two spells).
    • Dragon Age grants spell knowledge as a class feature (mages start with knowledge of three spells and gain a new spell every other level) or via talents.
  • GURPS is somewhat similar to Hero System in principle, but mechanical details differ (i.e. you can design your own spells, but the rules for doing so are different).
  • Basic Action Super Heroes (BASH), like Hero, has power construction rules that can be used for powers defined as ‘spells’. It’s not as precise and I’m not sure it’s as flexible or powerful, but I like how much simpler it is.
  • Ars Magica has a spell construction system based around technique (action being performed) and form (target affected), such as ‘creo aquam’ (create water) or ‘muto terram’ (alter earth). An individual spell may have multiple techniques and forms, and may have other modifiers to expand range, duration, and so on.

There are of course others, but I’m not trying to do a full survey here.

I’m leaning toward adapting the Elements of Magic system, with several additions and changes.

  • Expand power modifiers. I’d like to have more options available for powers, but even more for developing magical traditions.
    • Add the psychic components from Pathfinder Occult Adventures, plus several others from Spheres of Power and other third-party sources.
    • Incorporate modifiers (advantages, limitations, and adders) from Hero System and BASH.

I chose Elements of Magic as my base because I don’t think spell slots will be a practical mechanic, and I feel that I’ll be able to get more mileage from a power construction system than from static spells. After all, spell construction can be applied to define static spells, so I can build my inventory as I go.

Elements of Magic provides a power framework that feels quite similar to Ars Magica in how the powers are constructed. It is closer to Hero System power construction than the Pathfinder words of power rules, is more succinct than Hero System power rules, and is open gaming content (which BASH is not).

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