Just The Rules: Examining Existing Drawbacks

As usual, cheating a little on ‘X’… but I’m being more or less alliterative so it’s all good!

I am not a purist, nor am I proud.

Yesterday I went through Mutants & Masterminds and Hero System core books to look for new drawbacks for use with Ultimate Spheres of Power.

Today, I’m going to examine existing drawbacks and see how they might be modeled in Hero System. I’ve found Hero System to be very useful in analyzing game content. It is surprising, perhaps, how often I find game elements in D&D games that should be roughly comparable in power work out to be approximately the same point values.

Existing Drawbacks

There are 25 general drawbacks in Ultimate Spheres of Power, and a handful of others in the Spheres of Power wiki. There are also many sphere-specific drawbacks.

For now I’m going to focus on the general drawbacks from the book. The sphere-specific drawbacks are exactly that, and I think not much use in defining a general mode of casting spells.

Addictive Casting

Every time a caster spends one or more spell points, the caster must make a Fortitude save or gain an addiction. If this happens and the caster already has an addition, the addiction intensifies. An addicted caster can make Fortitude saves to reduce the addiction each day the caster spends no spell points. The penalties from the addiction are suppressed for 1 minute after spending a spell point. This counts as 2 drawbacks.

I think I would treat this as Side Effects. Normally Side Effects are applied to powers that have a chance of failure (Requires a Roll), which this one doesn’t. This would normally double the value, but I’m going to say that the saving throw means that while the power doesn’t have a chance of failure, the side effect does.

A minor side effect would be the greater of one-quarter the Active Points in the power or 15 Active Points, for a -1/4 limitation; one-half or 30 Active Points for -1/2; full value or 60 Active Points for -1.

As for the effect, I considered a Drain at first. It recovers much too quickly (5 Character Points per round, basically), and delaying recovery to daily is stupidly expensive. Drain is often better used to affect powers, not ability scores.

Overall this feels like a reasonable Major Transform. Transform can have ‘major combat effects’, on the order of about 20 Character Points of effect. If I consider ‘partial transformation’ for the first two stages it should work out okay, since I reckon the major addiction inflicts about 25 CP worth of effect.

Major Transformation costs 10 CP per d6 of effect, or 10 CP per 3 points of fixed effect, and normally you need to double the target’s BODY (or EGO, for a mental transformation). I’m going to call this 80 CP — a little more than is needed for normal people, but casters are going to be a bit better… and get a save that uses the score anyway.

This is close enough to the full cost/60 Active Points of side effect that I’ll call it good. Since Addictive Casting is a double drawback, this suggests that a drawback should generally be about -1/2 Limitation in Hero System.

Let’s see if how well this fits the other drawbacks.

Area Bound

Caster must be within a number of miles equal to their magical skill bonus (MSB) to cast spells readily. If outside that area, a concentration check is needed.

This one’s a bit odd. On the one hand is a limitation that should be very harsh if the character needs to travel: outside a very small area their spells don’t work: a good time to use Limited Power. On the other hand, outside that area the character need only make a skill check that is hard at first (20 + half caster level) but gets easier over time: Requires a Roll.

Sounds like a job for Variable Limitations. The variable limitation has a value, but the actual limitations can be chosen at time of application, and must be worth double the Variable Limitation value.

Assuming we want a -1/2 limitation, this means that the Limited Power and Requires a Roll should be -1. Or slightly lower, since the caster is restricted to one of these two Limitations.

Limited Power has an example ‘Power only works in twilight’ at -1. The character has control over where they try to cast, so Area Bound Limited Power shouldn’t be worth quite that much. The alternative is an immobile Focus (-1 for being immobile) that can’t be taken away (reduce by 1/4). I’m okay with this.

Requires a Roll starts at -1/2. The skill check DC increases at a normal rate (+1 per spell level, functionally — spell level in USoP is 1/2 caster level). Increasing the check DC on a d20 by 5 is about the same as applying a -2 penalty in Hero System (3d6-based rolls) so I’m willing to call this close enough.

Area Bound is basically a Variable Limitation of “must be within $level miles of home” and “must make a DC 20+spell level concentration check”… altogether I’m comfortable calling this a -1/2 Limitation.

Center of Power

Dead easy: Restrainable. Normally -1/2 for powers restrainable by Grab and Entangle, -1/4 if restrainable by other means. I’d say this is probably closer to the -1/4 level but I’m going to increase it because of the other consequences (dazed, spell point loss) of being hit, and because it is not necessary for an opponent to deliberate do so (critical hits apply).

My initial thought was Obvious Inaccessible Focus: no check needed to realize the Center of Power is the source of the spells, and it can be targeted in combat. The penalty for a called shot is greater than described in Hero System, but a critical automatically hits it, hitting it dazes the caster and costs the caster spell points. It can’t actually be taken away even out of combat, but it might be possible for physical restraint to render it unusable.

This sounds like a wash to me. Restrainable and OIF are both -1/2. So far, so good.

Consciousness Linked

The closest Hero System has to this Limitation is ‘Nonpersistent’, a -1/4 Limitation that applies when the caster is knocked out or stunned.

Consciousness Linked is a little more limiting, applying when the caster “falls asleep or unconscious, dazed, stunned, confused, reduced to animal intelligence, or otherwise unable to take coherent mental actions”.

It might be a little less restrictive than -1/2 suggests, but not hugely so.

Coy Caster

Concentration check, DC 15 + spell level? This is totally Requires a Roll, -1/2.

Diagram Magic

I’m going to treat this as Extra Time at -1.5 Limitation (1 Minute), plus Requires a Roll at -1 (doubling the penalty for the Active Points is -1/2 more). At least, as the base values.

The Extra Time is a a placeholder of sorts since the actual time depends on the area of effect and is under the control of the caster. The caster also can reuse the diagram, which halves the value of the Extra Time Limitation.

Similarly, the Spellcraft check is not as bad as it seems. DC 15 base is roughly what I expect as the baseline, and while the DC is increased by the maximum caster level of the spells to be cast using the diagram, the caster level goes up at the same rate… and the caster can Take 10 on the check even under stress, and only has to do it once per diagram, not once per spell cast. Between the two I reckon the skill check is basically a technicality and thus worth only -1/4.

Diagram Magic is worth 2 drawbacks, and the Limitations total close enough to -1.

Draining Casting

I could make this a Side Effect causing damage always, but the small value (1 point of damage, 5 CP) puts it below the threshold. I suppose ‘always happens (doubling the value) and “cannot be healed by magic” might let it apply.

On the other hand, a d6 Drain (10 CP) with a +2.25 Advantage to delay recovery for a day makes it 22 Active Points. Still a little light.

As damage, it’s a little light. As a Drain, it might be a little heavy. I don’t feel great about this one, but it seemed a relatively gentle drawback when I read it.

Side Note: I probably would have made this drawback ‘1 nonlethal damage per spell point’. It’s not going to threaten a caster’s life on its own (they don’t have that many spell points) but it will leave them more vulnerable to damage in combat.

Emotional Casting

This feels like a Limited Power again, because there are no direct matches. I’m not sure this is worth a -1/2 Limitation, unless emotional effects are much more common than I’ve seen in play.

If this were instead Dispassionate Casting, where any emotion-based effects (including Intimidate) or morale bonuses (bardic performance) could interfere with casting, I’d probably consider it worth a -1/2 Limitation.

Extended Casting

Extra Time, obviously. The timings don’t quite line up, but it looks to me like going from standard action to full-round is somewhere between -1/2 and -3/4 (between Full Phase and Extra Phase — each phase being an action, more or less), and going to 1 Turn (Post-Segment 12, -1.25) is close enough for my purposes to 1-round time.

Extended Casting is worth 2 drawbacks, and looks to me like it’s slightly more than -1 in Hero System terms.

Taking this drawback twice means all casting takes at least 1 minute (-1.5 Limitation). This looks like it would be worth 3 drawbacks rather than the 4 in USoP, but since a minute is 10 rounds in D&D and a minute is only 5 Turns in Hero, I’ll call it good.

Fey-Infused Magic

This one is downright funky. It looks like Physical Manifestation (-1/4) is a good match for part of it, and I’m willing to abuse Reduced Penetration (-1/4) to reflect the metal-armor bonuses to saving throws.

Huh. Funky, but not difficult.

Focus Casting

Like Area Bound, in that it is a constrained Variable Limitation: Obvious Accessible Focus (OAF, -1) and Requires a Roll (-1). More or less. The Focus is reduced in value a bit because of ease of replacement, and the concentration check is not worth as much as it might be for the same reasons as Area Bound.


This drawback is Obvious Inaccessible Focus, of course. Disarming the caster will interrupt a spell being cast or maintained (which sounds like Accessible), but the caster can use any metal weapon (focus of opportunity, which basically makes it Inaccessible because you have to strip the caster of all such weapons).

Magical Signs

Perceivable, which normally ranges from -1/4 to -1/2 (for ‘invisible power to obvious’). Given how this drawback applies to all magic and jacks everything to ‘hard to ignore’, I’m willing to consider it a bigger drawback than Hero System would normally make it.

Material Casting

I’m going to call this an Inobvious Accessible Focus. Each spell has a different material needed, and the materials are expendable but so easy to replace it’s basically a light tax.

Another -1/2 drawback.

In USoP Material Casting can worth 2 drawbacks if the materials are very expensive and/or much harder to get. Expendable foci are worth -1/2 more if they are ‘very difficult to obtain’. Still in line!

Mental Focus

This looks like it could be a -1/2 Variable Limitation that includes ‘Requires a Roll’, and ‘Extra Time’ (full round, -1.25, halved because it’s only needed to regain mental focus when lost). It should actually be a little light, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt because breaking focus disrupts all spells until it is recovered.

Narcoleptic Casting

Side Effect (save counts as ‘can fail’), and count as 2 drawbacks I should look for a -1 Limitation. An extreme side effect (60 Active Points) is -1.

3d6 Mental Paralysis (Entangle that targets the brain) would be 66 Active Cost. The target (the caster) is rendered more helpless than this power suggests, but it’s for a single round.

I’m willing to call this good.

Painful Magic

Sickened is harsher than I remembered, a -2 penalty to basically everything for a round is not gentle.

I’m willing to call this a major side effect, Change Environment (which targets a single creature by default but normally is bought up, and has the effects I want). I might even want to look at applying Change Environment to model Addictive Casting, even… which also is not an ‘environment’ change, but has the effect I want.

Prepared Caster

No exact match, but I’m willing to bend things a bit and look at Variable Power Pool (VPP) Limitations.

Normally a VPP is basically “whatever powers I want to have [that i can afford]”, and they can change pretty freely. “VPP can only be changed between scenes (takes hours)” is a -1/4 Limitation, and “Slightly Limited Class of Powers (e.g. only magic, only attacks)” is -1/4. I’m willing to treat doing this once per day as fitting the first limitation, and willing to consider it a wash that the caster is limited to those spheres and talents known but is not required to nail down all the details.

Rigorous Concentration

Concentration works differently in Hero System than it does in D&D. Instead of making concentration checks harder, it reduces the caster’s Defensive COmbat Value (DCV).

So, Requires a Roll or Extra Time, and being a choice makes it a constrained Variable Limitation. Call it -1/2 again, similar reasoning to other examples, and consider the +10 increase to the DC a balance to only being needed sometimes.

I think this drawback might not be worth as much as others. When it comes up it’s pretty bad, but it often doesn’t apply at all.

Skilled Casting

Requires a Roll, obviously. The base is -1/2, increased by -1/2 for the higher ‘Active Point modifier’ (DC increases by caster level, not spell level), reduced by -1/4 because the skill uses a “KS, PS, or SS” (knowledge, professional, or science skill), and I’m going to knock off another -1/4 because the spell still has effect at a lower caster level for every 2 points the check misses by, rather than fail altogether.

Somatic Casting

This is close to Gestures, but not quite because it includes the possibility of arcane spell failure if the caster wears armor.

I’m going to have to be flexible on this one, and a little imaginative. Base Gestures fitting the description is a -1/4 Limitation. It is attached to a conditional Requires a Roll (if the caster does not wear medium or heavy armor, there is no roll required). The roll is an unmodified roll and usually more likely to succeed than to fail (except with the heaviest armor)… this is probably a -1/4 Limitation.

Taken twice, the character risks arcane spell failure when wearing any armor or using a shield. This is does not, I think, add another -1/2 worth of Limitation. I would probably increase the chance of failure (harder unmodified roll) or increase Gestures to requiring two hands free.

Terrain Casting

The closest I see is a constrained Variable Limitation (Increased END, to represent the additional spell point needed, or Extra Time, or a very small Side Effect that always happens but only affects the environment near the caster).

I would consider this probably a -1/4 Limitation… not quite as much of a drawback as the rest.

Verbal Casting

This almost exactly matches Incantations at the -1/4 level.

Lighter than the others, but it suits the tropes well and is a painfully obvious limitation that can be used to shut a caster down.

Wild Magic

My first thought was to use No Conscious Control, but NCC really does mean it’s uncontrolled. Even when the character can control activation, the character cannot control what it does (within the power’s ability).

This is actually a lot closer to a potential side effect: low chance of happening (a 14- check is almost exactly 90% not-happens), but it would have to be paired with a big effect.. which most rod of wonder effects aren’t.

I would be willing to call this a -1/2 Limitation if you got the Side Effect instead of the spell being cast. I’m not sure it makes a good drawback on its own.


This would actually be treated as Distinctive Features (character complication) rather than a power Limitation. I think it’s still a reasonable tradition drawback, though… maybe I need to review complications for other drawbacks.

Hmm. Accidental Change (probably not, but maybe), Dependence (maybe), Dependent NPC (probably not), Distinctive Features, Enraged/Berserk (maybe), Hunted (OH YES), Negative Reputation, Physical Complication (maybe?), Psychological Complication (probably), Rival (probably not), Social Complication (good chance), Susceptibility, Unluck, Vulnerability.

Many of them will be campaign or setting-specific, but I can easily, easily see them making appropriate drawbacks.

Closing Comments

I really should have started this earlier, it took hours.

Worth it!

With only a few exceptions, it looks like almost all the drawbacks that fit Her System Power Limitations are worth -1/2 Limitation (and the ones that are ‘2-drawback’ drawbacks are worth about -1 Limitation). Even with the shenanigans I had to do to come close to modeling the drawbacks in Hero, I think there were only about 3-4 that I thought were not quite as close as I wanted.

This is remarkable, and nearly astonishing to me.

It also gives me a lot of confidence that I can adapt other Limitations to make new drawbacks.

With Witchmarked being better suited as a Complication than a Limitation, I suddenly have another source of drawbacks. These ones won’t affect the mechanics of casting so much, but in the right setting I’d be willing to apply them.


  1. Steve Gunnell

    Having a place of power might well be an entrance requirement for some classes of high tier powers. As for “only while transformed”, I always have been a fan of the phrase from Zelazny’s _Lord of Light_ about godlings “taking on their aspect and wielding their attribute”. In fact _Lord of Light_ has a lot in common with what you are designing. Any system where you major power is *your* major power not just a cookie cutter rote power is on the right track from my PoV.

    • Indeed, I’ve always pictured the champion path as having requirements. I want to keep the lower paths unconstrained, especially if it means I can get some funky combinations (wizard + necromancer is obvious, but I want cavalier + necromancer to be viable too).

      I’m very close to inverting the idea… I believe I mentioned it in an earlier post, where champion isn’t necessarily as specific a thing as I thought, instead taking the lower path abilities to the next step.

      You stop gaining basic path levels at level 11, and get your first champion path level at level 14. I can imagine each basic path leading to (probably a choice of) abilities at champion level 1, the expert path giving specific abilities at level 17, and the master path giving specific abilities at level 20. The champion might not be quite unique, but it could be close enough.

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