Articles of Myth and Power: Spell Casting Through Magic Items

Magic in RPGs is pervasive, common as the longsword and at the core of just about every setting and campaign world. For fantasy based RPGs anyhow.

I enjoy magic, the classes that use it and the reminder that an RPG is set in a world that is familiar and yet fundamentally different. And while it might be silly of me to say one system or another does magic ‘wrong’, there are certainly incarnations of it I dislike. Because of such I have been kicking around my own idea of how I might implement magic in a system if I was gifted such a chance to work RPG design.

I like Pathfinder, but like its progenitor it uses Vancian Casting. In my article on alignment I stated I have an understanding with alignments, I ignore them and they don’t clutter up my games. Unfortunately magic rules are not one of those things I can ignore as they’re fundamental to game play and power balancing.

For those not familiar with ‘Vancian Casting’ I’ll make a bare bones rundown. This system of casting is loosely developed from Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ story series. For wizards learning spells and casting spells is actually a memory exercise. They must studies spells: incantations, words of power, how to wave your hands the right way. This was translated to RPGs by wizards and other spell casters needing to study 1+ hours (dependent on the system and spells) every day to prepare a roster of spells to use that day. Once a wizard uses the spell, POOF! it’s gone from their memory and cannot be memorized again for use within X time limit (typically a day).

It’s a tedious system and incurs what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Peanut Butter Conundrum’ by The Angry DM. You have 3 spell slots, 3 spells you can cast per day, but your spell tome holds 7 spells. You must pick 3 of the 7 to prepare for the entire day. As you might imagine there is a lot of worry and ambivalence about which spells to prepare. Occasionally you will be heading into the Fire King’s Lair, so you know to prep the ice magic and not fireballs, but that is the exception rather than the rule. How do you know what to prepare before entering a random cave, a day of road travel? This dilemma explodes exponentially for classes like Pathfinder’s cleric. Because divine casters don’t have a spell book with 7 spells, they have access to EVERY spell of the levels they know. A first level Pathfinder cleric has over 30 Level 1 and Level 0 spells from which to choose a few. You screw up, none of your spells are useful for the day and with the amount of spells you can’t prepare, you will fail and most of the time you will. So in short Vancian Casting, I think it’s a bad system that people just won’t let go because it’s familiar and often people will choose something familiar but mediocre over something unknown and strange. Managing expectations perhaps.

Other systems use a Mana ‘bank’ or reservoir for spell points. A mage has X number of spell points to use to cast spells and individual spells have a Mana cost. Some systems using this bank still limit a mage’s spell list, he knows only some spells. Some are unlocked with level up, some require to character to learn the spells through play. For ease of use it works well, but it is not without its own difficulties. Mana is still a resource only used by casters giving it a certain disconnect from the rest of the system.

TrueNecropic-1When thinking about how I might do magic I thought about how I might be able to better ingrain magic casting with the rest of a game. Almost all fantasy RPGs share magic items as a trope. So I thought what if magic items and spell casting were related? Hell, just make the magic items the spells. Doing this magic wraps together the spell’s focus/material components/spell book. Replace the wizard staff/wand and tome with a small collection of spell foci. Maybe it’s an artisan wooden card reminiscent of a Tarot card, another may be a chunky ring scrawled with runes. The spell bits could be anything someone has spent labor crafting and imbuing with a spell. In application they would work like an imbued wand of fireballs or a spell scroll, very much point and shoot. So then, in thoughts of balance there needs to be some sort of limitation, some resource to create a balance. Well, everyone in most RPGs has HP, hit points. What if you need to spend HP to activate the spell? Better yet, to reinforce magic is dangerous make it a variable cost. There’s a big difference in combat between using a spell that costs 5 HP and 2d4 HP.

Thematically I like the result, casters have to ‘feel’ how much of their life energy to impart to a spell and the idea that you might make a mistake and knock yourself unconscious or even kill yourself by doing it wrong. Certainly would give people a healthy dose of caution or out right fear when it comes to magic. In an ideal system, to keep from under powering a spell, the cost would translate directly to the effect whether that increases the difficulty of an opposed save or a bump to straight damage.

A while back I was reading on some message board about magic items and artifacts and how often times weird creatures and monsters are found near them. One person had the novel theory that magic items and artifacts had a sort of draw to them, their power compelled creatures to them in the sort of way I guess the Ring of Power from LoTR screws with people’s heads. It made me think about how magic items gain their power. Well, if spells are items they hold some inherent power. How to they get the power because you can’t have them imbued with other spell magic items. So naturally I thought ritual sacrifice. You must transfer energy from a living thing into the item, essence transference. This naturally lends itself to making artifacts with personalities and consciousness. A transference of spirit and energy so complete and pure it actually traps the consciousness like a common lich’s phylactery. Because the spell magic is the product of life essence it also allows a campaign to have temporary magic items, a set number of charges before the focus’s energy is exhausted.

Think of magic spells in this way as an internal combustion engine. The item is the engine and is responsible for the ‘doing’ of the spell. The essence transferred into the item is the fuel. The caster providing his small bit of HP or life energy is functioning as the spark plug, setting off the reaction to pump the engine pistons which burn the fuel and drive the spell.

I think it’s a simple, relatively eloquent way to approach magic. Divine magic can still be items blessed by the gods and dark magic can be the result of human sacrifice and dark rites.  Thoughts? Know any alternative magic systems that strayed from the norm in a good or bad way?


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