Just The Rules: Widening Caster Traditions

A couple days ago I starting applying Ultimate Spheres of Power to build variant casting traditions. It was a start, but I’m going to dig into a couple of my favorite design resources to see if I can get some more options.

Mutants & Masterminds

I’m going to tackle Mutants & Masterminds first. It’ll be smaller and quicker than my first choice.

The power system is pretty straightforward. Each power has a cost per rank. Flaws (generic and specific to each power) make the power harder to use or less effective, and reduce the cost per rank. Extras (generic and specific to the power) make the power easier to use or more effective, and increase the cost per rank. Some flaws and extras have a flat cost.

I’m going to limit myself to generic flaws and extras. If the modifier is specific to a power I’m going to expect it to be too specific to be applied to a tradition.


Flaws obviously are a source for drawbacks.

  • Activation makes a power need a move action or standard action before it is useful. I already have Extended Casting, no need for this.
  • Check Required means a skill check is needed to activate the power, in addition to any checks needed to use the power. Several USoP drawbacks have checks for similar reasons, I don’t see this adding anything.
  • Concentration has potential. USoP has powers that need concentration to activate, this flaw requires concentration to sustain the powers. I might consider this… I’m not sure yet how it would interact with effort mechanics, but having all spells require concentration to sustain might be workable. I think I would want to limit it to traditions that have lasting effects, rather than instantaneous. I’m not sure about permanent.
    • This does make me think of a ‘more effort required’ drawback, though. Whatever the normal effort rule would be for the spell, ‘more effort required’ would increase the effort cost to cast.
  • Diminished Range reduces power ranges significantly: short goes from 25 feet per power rank to 10 feet per power rank, medium goes from 50 to 25, and long goes from 100 to 50. Two ranks of diminished range reduces these to 5/10/25 respectively, and third to 2/5/10. This would need to be applied to traditions that are mostly ranged. Note: remove this one, use Reduced Range below.
  • Distracting is an interesting one. Normally in the base game, casting provokes an attack of opportunity. If casting makes the caster flatfooted, that would indeed be a drawback. I’ll definitely consider this one, I don’t think it’s in USoP and it looks like something that could apply to all spells.
  • Fades reduces a power one rank every time it is used (or for each round it is sustained). If applied to a tradition I can imagine modeling this as a reduction in caster level each time a power is used, until it is recovered. It has potential, and I think might make a double-value drawback.
  • Feedback looked like it would be too power-specific, but being dispelled could count as ‘damaging the effect’ and I remember scenes from the Elenium and Tamuli (two related series by David Eddings) where having a spell broken could hurt the caster. Okay! This one is in, possibly as a double-value drawback depending on how often spells are broken and how much damage is done.
  • Grab-Based doesn’t seem to fit.
  • Inaccurate doesn’t seem to either.
  • Increased Action should be, but we’ve already got that in Extended Casting.
  • Limited, on the other hand, certainly can be. It’s basically a freeform “some condition must be met” drawback.
  • Noticeable is readily handled by Magical Signs.
  • Permanent is power-specific and I don’t think I can see a way to apply it here.
  • Quirk is another freeform flaw, a nuisance that is attached to the spell but not a major effect. I’m not sure I’d include this for points, or just make it part of the tradition.
  • Reduced Range is… apparently redundant, it sounds a lot like diminished range, and in fact is how I would likely implement diminished range.
  • Removable lets an enemy disarm or remove the power. This is functionally quite close to Focus Casting or Center of Power.
  • Resistible is again power-specific.
  • Sense-Dependent is mostly power-specific. I can see it working in cases such as a bardic tradition, though: it’s not just enough that the caster can verbalize the spell, but that the target can hear it.
  • Side Effect could be workable, if most of the effects of a tradition have some means of failure to apply (attack misses target, target makes a saving throw, skill check needed for the effect fails, and so on). I’d be willing to make it a double-value drawback if the side effect always happens regardless of success or failure.
  • Tiring applies fatigue when using powers. This fits, and appears to not already be present. Okay, single drawback for fatigued on casting, double for exhausted.
    • This can probably work with just about any condition track. I can even imagine a magical tradition that frightens the caster.
  • Uncontrolled is probably better modeled by Wild Magic.
  • Unreliable is a straight check that the caster cannot influence (no skills, abilities, etc. apply). I’d be willing to consider this one.

It looks like Limited above might actually give us some calibration. Limitation should reduce the utility of the power by half, for -1/rank. In Hero System this would be a -1 limitation.


Most of the extras look like they are power-specific and could not be applied consistently to a tradition. However, some jump out as potentially viable.

  • Affects Others allows personal powers to be applied to others. I can see this being useful, but not all the time.
  • Contagious might be useful, if it allows an effect to spread from one target to another.
  • Dimensional looks like it could be good.
  • Extended Range absolutely can be… but I expect Increased Range is the one I want.
  • Increased Duration almost certainly.
  • Increased Range increases the range categories: short range becomes medium range, etc.
  • Innate looks interesting. “Effect cannot be nullified”… spells cast from this tradition cannot be dispelled? There should be some kind of obvious way to shut them off still.
  • Insidious makes the effects of this tradition harder to detect. I see value here.
  • Subtle makes casting less noticeable.

There were many more extras, but they looked like they were going to be hit and miss in their application. This is less of a problem than with drawbacks. A drawback that isn’t a limitation shouldn’t count. A boon that can’t be applied sometimes is a drag (extra range! But the target is only 15 feet away!) but when it applies it tends to be more useful.

Looking these over, I suspect I might be better off looking at metamagic feats, though. A free metamagic feat on a traditions spells might be boon-worthy.

Hero System

As might be expected if you know me, Hero System is really my go-to for questions like this. I find the engineering behind it easy to apply and remarkably adaptable to my purposes. I don’t like actually playing Hero System, but I have many shelf-feet of Hero books because of its use to me.

So! Where Mutants & Masterminds simplified things a little, Hero System goes into great detail, and abstracts things somewhat more strictly… which is what I prefer for this exercise.

I thought it would take me longer to work through, but being much more familiar with Hero System I can basically fly through the lists. Nice.


Limitations make a power less useful, exactly what we’re looking for in a drawback.

  • Always On nope.
  • Charges … already done with effort rules, I think.
  • Concentration in Hero reduces DCV (Defensive Combat Value) and PER (Perception) checks. Half or full, while activating or for the power’s duration. I’m simple, so flatfooted (one drawback) or flatfooted for duration (two drawbacks, if most of a tradition’s effects have duration).
  • Endurance Limitations increase the casting cost. I think this would be ‘increased effort to cast’ (not amount of effort, but how long it is committed).
  • Extra Time is basically Extended Casting, but there’s more options to look into.
  • Focus could integrate Focus Casting and Material Casting; I’ll look into it.
  • Gestures are Somatic Casting, but in Hero it doesn’t have much to do with armor. Armor-based limitations would be Limited Power. As with concentration, Gestures apply just while casting or for the duration.
  • Inaccurate, power-specific.
  • Incantations are Verbal Casting, and again just while casting or for the duration.
  • Limited Power is the catch-all for undefined limitations. Better guidelines here than in Mutants & Masterminds, though.
  • Linked joins two powers, and thus is power-specific. Nope.
  • Lockout has potential: regardless of other resources, only one power at a time can be used. I can see applying this one if other limitations that would have the same effect aren’t present. For instance, Gestures as a double-value limitation might be required throughout the duration and occupies the caster’s hands, Lockout doesn’t occupy the hands but does prevent other spells.
  • No Conscious Control is not something I would choose to inflict.
  • Only in Alternate Identity doesn’t apply.
  • Perceivable is power-specific, unless a tradition is relatively hard to notice in use — perhaps really flashy divination!
  • Range Limitations no range or less than normal… only if most effects are ranged.
  • Reduced Penetration is probably not relevant… unless it affects attack rolls and reduced saving throw target numbers. I can see that.
  • Requires a Roll will definitely get some attention. There are some drawbacks in USoP that require checks, this is a more formal framework… something like how Focus handles multiple drawbacks already.
  • Requires Multiple Users is an interesting one. I can see it applying: all (or most) spells in the tradition require multiple casters working together, or at least assistants. Whether the tradition can be used at all without assistants, or the number of assistants is based on power level, I don’t yet know.
  • Restrainable might be an option, though it interacts with Somatic Casting.
  • Side Effects are absolutely an option, and includes Backlash.
  • Unified Power links multiple powers so they are both effected by negative adjustment powers. I’m not sure this could be done at the tradition level.
  • Variable Limitations allows the caster to choose exactly what limitations apply at the time of casting. I don’t think so.


As with Extras, above, this is where I expect to find material for boons. Again I’ll just highlight the ones I think might apply or that I want to comment on.

  • Area of Effect is power-specific, so I’ll go with the ‘increases area of effect’ options… though I can see an argument for changing the shape of the area of effect. I suspect a change of the same value (changing a fireball to a line of fire) should be flavor rather than a boon or drawback.
  • Armor Piercing is power-specific, but like Reduced Penetration I could see giving bonuses on attack rolls or saving throw target numbers.
  • Autofire is power-specific, but I can imagine using it to model increased effect on higher check rolls.
  • Delayed Effect feels a lot like Prepared Caster, or even more like Charged Spells… which we already have.
  • Difficult to Dispel has a place, and can readily apply to an entire tradition. I’d probably also make it difficult to counterspell.
  • Duration Advantages is a catch-all for several advantages, and I can see them at the tradition level.
  • Megascale is a dangerous but intriguing option. It kicks range and/or area of effect by orders of magnitude. This might be better kept to specific spells or powers, and yet… I’ll look into this one some more.
  • Personal Immunity, to either ‘own spells’ or ‘tradition magic’, can certainly fit.
  • Range Advantages are another catch-all that could fit.
  • Reduced Endurance maps almost directly only reducing effort cost.
  • Sticky is conceptually the same as M&M’s Contagious.
  • Transdimensional could certainly be a tradition boon.

Closing Comments

These obviously are not ready to be drawbacks or boons. However, I see some options in these games that I have not seen explored in Ultimate Spheres of Power and that could help me expand my options in developing traditions, churches, and other modes of exercising power.

One comment

  1. Steve Gunnell

    Yeah, Hero System is great … I mostly just say Champions because I only have the original rule set. I have also used the less capable GURPS Supers rules when I needed to create a GURPS compatible set of D&D derived wands for my conversion of a D&D scenario. In the modern EPT rule sets there are relatively few spells but they have many variations which maps easily onto a generic enhancements and limitations meta rule set.

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