Friday, 21 June 2013

Monitors: making magic 8

So, designing some spells. Finally.

I'm not yet sure whether I want to go for off-the-peg or bespoke spells. At this stage, though, it's not all that important, since I'm just trying to invent some. So it doesn't really matter whether I end up with A Spell, or one spell from a set Lore, or one possible manifestation of a Lore.

According to me, I want magic to feel exotic, mysterious, significant, and maybe a little subversive.

Obligatory tangent

That Which We Call Summon Monster III

Okay, yes, I'm putting off design briefly yet again. A good starting point for feel is naming conventions: what you call something makes a difference to how it's perceived. "Golden Wind of the Lost Emperor" is good. "Proclamation of Gehazzural" is good. "Sigil of Burning Souls" is good. "Fireball" is not so hot. "Summon Monster III" is definitely out.

Portentous names help a lot in making spells sound dramtic. For now I'm going to assume a basic Noun Preposition Noun scheme, with optional adjectives. "Descent into Endless Winter" works, for example, as does "Anthem to Eternity".


Some spell types, like planar travel, curse removal or teleportation, are not really suitable for a system with limited spells. I would rather have these as plot-specific rituals or artefacts.

Actual spell design

So. What sort of spells do we want? Well, let's begin by cribbing freely from other games - I'm not going to actually import anything lock, stock and barrel, but the kinds of spells they offer will be helpful inspiration. Some spells will be the kinds of thing I want to include. Others will very much not be, and thinking about why should help me decide what it is I'm looking for.

Cribbing from Dungeons and Dragons

So I've gone through the spell lists for D&D SRD and picked out some example spells that made me think "yes", "no" and "hmm" to consider.

Verdict Spell Effect Comments
Yes Light Object shines like a torch. There are other ways to produce light, but it's a basic kind of spell
Yes Hold Portal Holds door shut. Some form of seal seems good
Yes Explosive Runes Deals 6d6 damage when read. Distinctly supernatural and full of character
Yes Sepia Snake Sigil Creates text symbol that immobilizes reader. Distinctly supernatural and full of character
Yes Sleet Storm Hampers vision and movement. Mechanics could be replicated, but it's a good magical effect
Yes Black Tentacles Tentacles grapple all within 20 ft. spread. Nice weird effect
Yes Crushing Despair Subjects take -2 on attack rolls, damage rolls, saves, and checks. Emotions are a good magical thing to effect
Yes Hallucinatory Terrain Makes one type of terrain appear like another (field into forest, or the like). Some kind of illusion effect seems good
Yes Entangle Plants entangle everyone in 40-ft.-radius. Mechanics could be replicated, but it's a good magical effect
Yes Call Lightning Calls down lightning bolts (3d6 per bolt) from sky. Cool, obviously magical
Yes Quench Extinguishes nonmagical fires or one magic item. Cool, obviously magical
Yes Commune with Nature Learn about terrain for 1 mile/level. Very hard to replicate, a nice soft power
Yes Wall of Thorns Thorns damage anyone who tries to pass. Nice weird effect
Yes Meld into Stone You and your gear merge with stone. A nice strange non-attack ability that can't be replicated
Yes Control Weather Changes weather in local area. Impossible to replicate, atmospheric, generally cool
Yes Symbol of Sleep Triggered rune puts nearby creatures into catatonic slumber. Mind-affecting sigils are generally a good bet
Yes Control Water Raises or lowers bodies of water. Impossible to replicate, cool, potential for interesting use
Yes Insect Plague Locust swarms attack creatures. Just cool
Yes Summon Monster I Calls extraplanar creature to fight for you. Can't be replicated; summons need careful thought but some kind of summons seems appropriate
Yes Darkness 20-ft. radius of supernatural shadow. Impossible to replicate, not an attack, cool, useful
Maybe Blade Barrier Wall of blades deals 1d6/level damage. Can't really be replicated; perhaps too direct?
Maybe Glyph of Warding, Greater As glyph of warding, but up to 10d8 damage or 6th-level spell. Dramatic, though it can be replicated by mines etc.
Maybe Spike Stones Creatures in area take 1d8 damage, may be slowed. A good way to adapt the environment, can't be replicated, still works as an attack
Maybe Chill Metal Cold metal damages those who touch it. Hard to replicate, interesting rather than powerful
Maybe Warp Wood Bends wood (shaft, handle, door, plank). Hard to replicate, interesting rather than powerful
Maybe Bestow Curse -6 to an ability score; -4 on attack rolls, saves, and checks; or 50% chance of losing each action.
Maybe Stone Shape Sculpts stone into any shape. A good way to adapt the environment, can't be replicated
Maybe Break Enchantment Frees subjects from enchantments, alterations, curses, and petrification.
Maybe Mage’s Faithful Hound Phantom dog can guard, attack. Erm?
Maybe Searing Light Ray deals 1d8/two levels damage, more against undead. Something that harms supernatural creatures is good, but this seems too weaponlike
Maybe Wall of Stone Creates a stone wall that can be shaped. Transmuting the environment seems interesting, though I'm not sure about conjuring up things
Maybe Passwall Creates passage through wood or stone wall. Transport spells are iffy, but this seems okay
Maybe Chain Lightning 1d6/level damage; 1 secondary bolt/level each deals half damage. Sorcerers are going to need some kind of actual attack
Maybe Binding Utilizes an array of techniques to imprison a creature. Could be replicated, but a good classic kind of spell
Maybe Antipathy Object or location affected by spell repels certain creatures. Nice and supernatural; too powerful?
Maybe Silent Image Creates minor illusion of your design. Flexible, cool, fun,but could be replicated
Maybe Obscuring Mist Fog surrounds you. Duplicates technology, like smoke bombs, but a version of this could be atmospheric and cool
Maybe Hypnotism Fascinates 2d4 HD of creatures.
Maybe Cause Fear One creature of 5 HD or less flees for 1d4 rounds. Emotions again
Maybe Enlarge Person Humanoid creature doubles in size. Impossible to replicate; definitely fun, but is it the right tone?
Maybe Expeditious Retreat Your speed increases by 30 ft. Good bit of Bravestarr… too mechanical?
Maybe Feather Fall Objects or creatures fall slowly. A bit niche.
Maybe Resist Energy Ignores first 10 (or more) points of damage/attack from specified energy type. Overlaps with things like armour, but potentially good.
Maybe Glitterdust Blinds creatures, outlines invisible creatures. Can be replicated, though it's interesting.
Maybe Web Fills 20-ft.-radius spread with sticky spiderwebs. Hard to replicate, but possible; too D&D?
Maybe Flaming Sphere Creates rolling ball of fire, 2d6 damage, lasts 1 round/level. Probably want this; it's a froody form of attack, not a substitute for a weapon, and just plain fun.
Maybe Gust of Wind Blows away or knocks down smaller creatures. Can't really replicate it; a non-violent attack with other uses.
Maybe Invisibility Subject is invisible for 1 min./level or until it attacks. Too powerful? I'm a bit hesitant about this kind of thing.
Maybe Mirror Image Creates decoy duplicates of you. Nice and supernatural, though it's a D&D classic
Maybe Alter Self Assume form of a similar creature. Could be replicated with tech, so is it worth it?
Maybe Ghoul Touch Paralyzes one subject, which exudes stench that makes those nearby sickened. Could be replicated, but can be made properly weird
Maybe Dispel Magic Cancels magical spells and effects. A form of antimagic magic seems useful, but I don't think a spell is the answer
Maybe Clairaudience/Clairvoyance Hear or see at a distance for 1 min./level. Notoriously abused in D&D, but quite a good weird effect
Maybe Wind Wall Deflects arrows, smaller creatures, and gases. That's just cool
Maybe Feeblemind Subject’s Int and Cha drop to 1. A variant that's basically an attack might be okay, but I don't want save-or-suck effects
Maybe Halt Undead Immobilizes undead for 1 round/level. Some variant could be okay, but this is too specific for my system
Maybe Charm Monster Makes monster believe it is your ally. Can't be replicated, but I'm wary of mind-control stuff
Maybe Water Breathing Subjects can breathe underwater. Easy to replicate, but still cool and useful; perhaps combine with some other underwater effects?
Maybe Stoneskin Ignore 10 points of damage per attack. Narratively interesting, but duplicates armour
No Mage Hand 5-pound telekinesis. (trivialises magic) Trivialises magic, overly controlled
No Endure Elements Exist comfortably in hot or cold environments. I'm wary of anything that interferes with body temperature mechanisms
No Mage Armor Gives subject +4 armor bonus. Too mechanical
No Darkvision See 60 ft. in total darkness. Tech easily replicates this
No Blindness/Deafness Makes subject blinded or deafened. Tech easily replicates this
No False Life Gain 1d10 temporary hp +1/level (max +10). Too mechanical
No Spectral Hand Creates disembodied glowing hand to deliver touch attacks. Too gamey
No Rope Trick As many as eight creatures hide in extradimensional space. Doesn't feel melodramatic enough; it's more fairy-tale or picaresque
No Magic Weapon, Greater +1/four levels (max +5) Entirely mechanical
No Secret Chest Hides expensive chest on Ethereal Plane; you retrieve it at will. This is for an utility-magic setting, not a weird-magic setting
No Overland Flight You fly at a speed of 40 ft. and can hustle over long distances. Travel powers are a bit game-breaking, and we have tech for that stuff

Cribbing from Call of Cthulhu

A very high proportion of Call of Cthulhu spells fall into non-useful categories: they enchant items (crafting), summon deities (OP) or are fundamentally vile (inappropriate tone). Of the remainder, quite a lot are summon/bind varieties, and a significant chunk are extremely specific in both use and context. To a large extent these issues come down to COC's strong magic-is-wrong flavour, as well as the tendency to have specific spells for specific scenarios. However, I've found a few representative spells to consider.

Verdict Spell Effect Comments
Yes Red Sign of Shudde M’ell Causes pain and death to those who see it Creepy as anything, supernatural, can't be replicated
Yes Command Animal Allows limited control of an animal Can't be replicated, interesting and fun
Yes Candle Communication Allows conversation through two candle flames Semi-replicates tech, but in an interesting way
Yes Unmask Demon Reveals possessing spirits and the true nature of disguised creatures Definitely fun, a classic magical feel
Yes Summon X Summons various monsters Probably a better example of summons than the D&D ones TBH, with good limits and costs
Yes Voorish Sign Makes the invisible visible Interesting, not overpowered and an alternative to tech
Yes Parting Sands Moves aside sand to clear areas or allow passage Definitely fun, a classic magical feel, even though you can kind of replicate it
Maybe Wave of Oblivion Summons a tidal wave Definitely supernatural, though overpowered
Maybe Mindblast Fills an enemy's mind with pain and horror Needs some work, and seems a bit evil for PCs, but could be good in principle
No Baneful Dust Creates dust that damages supernatural creatures. That's just crafting
No Enchant X Creates magical weapons and artefacts That's just crafting

Cribbing from Deathwatch

Deathwatch spells are, fundamentally, combat spells. As such there's only a handful of examples I need give: while there are quite a lot of spells, most fall into a small number of categories, and quite a lot are just chapter-skinned versions of the same thing.

Verdict Spell Effect Comments
Yes The Avenger Sends a flaming psychic projection to blast enemies Needs tweaking, but has a nice narrative feel
Maybe Truth Seeker Makes the caster more aware of surroundings and details Feels a bit mechanical TBH
No Most other powers Gives the caster a bonus to some stat Purely mechanical
No Gate Creates a gateway between two places Transport spells are just problematic to handle

Pattern recognition

Okay, what am I picking up here?

Good prospects

There's a definite "change" theme going on here. Quite a lot of the spells deal with transmuting or reshaping the environment in ways that aren't possible through any likely form of science. Water control, shaping terrain, clearing away the sand of aeons and so on.

Nature control is another theme that's going on, with several weather spells and some for manipulating plants, terrain or wildlife.

Wards, seals and repellents crop up several times, and these are good solid mystical things.

I've picked a few spells that conjure up effects or creatures. I think interesting things could be done with a selection of these, if chosen carefully. And it's really not something you can easily duplicate with tech.

Emotional and mind-affecting spells seem possible, and my concerns there aren't really thematic as much as mechanical, so let's assume some of those are going to be appropriate.

Ones to avoid

A lot of the spells I've disliked, and those I've reservations about, are quite mechanical in their effects. They tend to grant bonuses rather than having primarily narrative effects. Since there will be other ways to achieve bonuses, I don't really want spells whose main purpose is mechanical.

Similarly, there are a few spells (all in D&D) that are apparently built around the game mechanics, providing solutions to issues that arise from the game rather than to in-world problems: ways to deliver touch attacks at range, for example.

Another set of problems is utility spells. While these are quite fun, I'm not really looking for a feel where magic is used to get around mundane problems like storing equipment, navigating or providing mundane shelter. Even things like light spells seem over-simple and only replicate what can be done easily otherwise.

There's certain fun, quirky spells that don't quite fit the tone I'm going for.

Finally, I've taken against travel powers for a couple of reasons. A tech-heavy game pretty much has transport covered in everyday terms, so we don't need to worry about getting around in general. Powers that allow even short-range teleportation and flight massively distort the expectations of a game, by removing barriers. It's obviously possible to deal with that, but I don't particularly want to remove the game that far from normality and from adventure-story conventions. Serious transportation magic - that is, as character spells rather than restrictive rituals or fixed portals - completely changes and often breaks games. It allows scry-and-die tactics, massively reduces the possibility of interesting journeys, breaks most scenarios designed around isolation, causes problems with imprisonment and infiltration missions, and so on and so forth. At this point heavy-handed countermeasures tend to be needed and the whole thing turns into a mess.

Tentative spellmaking

Okay, enough excuses. I'm going to make a spell or two. Obviously this will be pretty rough to due lack of solid game mechanics.

I currently see three broad categories of spell. Instantaneous spells will take effect and then end. Concentration spells will continue as long as the wizard can devote some attention to them: they may end when the wizard falls unconscious, or when something else distracts the wizard, such as casting another spell or engaging in combat. Persistent spells will simply continue until their ending conditions are met.

Wizards are unaffected by their own spells except where it suits them. I haven't yet decided how likely allies are to be affected; this is a bit of a tone issue.

Onslaught of Wrathful Winds

A howling wind erupts behind the wizard, rushing in whatever direction they desire. Nearby creatures must battle against the wind or be slowed, dragged along or hurled off their feet. Small objects are blown around, and dust or other debris may choke and blind those affected. This spell may stir or quench fires, drive away gases, ward against flames or sprays of liquid, and so on. It can counter the effects of existing winds.

This spell can be maintained by concentration. It does not work in confined spaces, nor in a vacuum.

Unchaining of the Wild

Vegetation erupts into furious growth, ensnaring creatures and enveloping structures in an area. Creatures may be trapped by the tangling plants, and objects or mechanisms immobilised. Under appropriate circumstances, the plants may hold together damaged buildings, cushion falls, slow down speeding objects, reduce visibility and so on.

This spell has a range. It does not create plants from nothing, and its effect will vary with the quantity and nature of local vegetation.

Invocation of Primal Nightmares

Utter dread erupts in the mind of nearby creatures, their worst ancestral fears overwhelming them. Those unable to choke down their fear may freeze, flee, scream or otherwise react appropriately.

Mindless entities are unaffected by this spell.

Emerald Sigil of Splendour

The wizard draws a glorious symbol in lines of burning green, drawing the eyes of onlookers and transfixing their minds. Creatures able to see the symbol must test each turn or stand transfixed in admiration.

This spell can be maintained by concentration. Mindless entities are unaffected by this spell.

At this point, I realise that I'm going to have to revisit stats and skills as there's nothing obvious to test against.

Covenant with Night

Pure darkness roils through the air, blotting out sight and warmth alike. No light from infra-red to ultraviolet can penetrate it, and creatures within are blinded. Navigation by sound and touch is possible. Other electromagnetic wavelengths, including radio, gamma and X-rays, can penetrate it. The darkness does not cause cooling, but blocks most sources of heat.

This spell has a range and persists.

Call the Ashen Beast

Dust and smoke coalesce into a grey, predatory form. The beast is an elemental that defends the wizard, obeying simple commands. When the spell ends, the beast disperses into lifeless dust.

This spell persists.

From here on, I can't really make much progress without firming up mechanics. I think the main things to do are:

  • Reviewing the skills/stats system in consideration of more recent posts
  • Deciding on an injury system
  • Thinking about tech
  • Designing some basic spells and tech in light of mechanics
  • Picking some numbers, however arbitrary, to use with said mechanics


  1. If I recall correctly, Monitors originally arose out of a discussion of "soft attacks" in RPGs.

    Are you intending spells to follow a consistent soft attack system - I notice that a few of these are "save or screwed" effects (like the emerald sigil of wossname).

    A common balancing problem with magic, I think, is that spells tend to do automatically things which more mundane methods have to roll for, or are game mechanically prevented from achieving (a Death Spell can insta-kill somebody when an arrow can't, for example).

    1. Well, these are fairly rough versions to try and establish what I want, so there's certainly a lot of details left to work out.

      I haven't actually gone back to consider it, but I think I'd like to implement a non-binary soft attack system if I can find a way to do it - having failed last time. However, no hostile spell effects are going to be automatic - there will always be a roll (I didn't say that, admittedly).

      Looking back at the spells, both Emerald Sigil and Primal Nightmares look rather Save or Screwed at face value, and I'd rather avoid that.

      Sigil has some leeway for a couple of reasons: it's test-per-turn rather than a one-off effect, and the wizard has to burn their turn to maintain the sigil. Depending on implementation, I might adjust this to test-to-escape rather than save-against, so chances of escape are cumulative and the spell loses effectiveness with time. Alternatively, targets might be distracted rather than completely transfixed.

      I was imagining Nightmares as running on a scale depending on the 'damage roll', so only a very good casting would paralyse the person. Level scaling may also come into play, so a powerful wizard can overwhelm a group of weak mooks with the spell but not an enemy of similar power.

      You're quite right though that auto-kills and stun-locks and so on are a bit of a problem. I'm basically fine with them for my minion-equivalents that would go down in one hit anyway, but for serious opponents it needs consideration.

      Of course, to some extent this is a problem of trying to do weird magic - it's going to be easier to balance magic that basically duplicates things you can do anyway or has purely mathematical effects.