Spells As Items, Doing Away With Slots, Levels, And Once-Per-Day's

Been thinking about spells,

I’ve usually disliked spells as their handled in games, preferring items instead, but you know what I actually do quite like spells, i just disliked how their handled, levels and spell slots and cast once per day always felt weird and artificial to me.

Which is why I’ve been poking about at a Spells as Items (not literal items but like metaphysically as something your carrying about with you and can be used for creative problem solving). And I think its actually not to hard to do, so long as you build spells more like how you might build magic items, with implied or naturally flowing limits

Ex:
Darkness : A chant that blots out all light as long as its continued and as far as your voice is heard


Which is a pretty well done spell I would think, as it has natural limits that make sense to the context of the spell, but also flexibility for players to try and work out clever things, and a little bit of undefined room for fun stuff to happen (like if you chanted it over a PA system what would happen?).

Thoughts on this? Other spells adapted in a similar manner to the one above?

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I have a big list of spell conversions from 5e many of which (but not all) are done in this style and others that I am still working on feedback is always appreciated:

Invisibility: You become invisible when your eyes are tightly closed

Disguise: You appearance exactly mimics a person of your choice until you tell a lie

Portal: an interdimensional portal is briefly created between 2 areas that you can see

Blade Ward: You repel all sharpened metal objects causing them to go flying if they come close

Dancing Lights: Four torch lights dance around you as long as they hear upbeat dance music

Friends: One intelligent creature becomes your friend you may not harm or lie to each other

Mage Hand: One arm is replaced by the invisible 30’ arm of an old, weak, decrepit mage

Spare the Dying: When death comes for an ally you may take their place and barter with death

True Strike: Your attack can not miss, neither can theirs

Vicious Mockery: If your insult is funny the target takes damage, you may not reuse material

Animal Friendship: An animal becomes your friend, it is now magically your responsibility

Burning Hands: Your hands burst into raging flames, you do not gain fire resistance

Cause Fear: Every creature that can see or hear you becomes magically afraid

Command: You may only speak in one word commands that others must obey

Compelled Duel: You and a creature fight until one of you is dead, no one may intervene

False Life: You turn yourself into a zombie, starting at full HP, until the next day dawns

Hunters Mark: Mark one creature so that you may always track it down until it is dead

Identify: You learn the name(s) of one creature or object that you touch

Searing Smite: A metal object you hold becomes red hot as if pulled from the forge

Speak with Animals: Speak only the language of animals for one day

Unseen Servant: an invisible servant obeys polite safe requests for a fair and livable wage

Animal Messenger: An animal will hear, carry, and convey your message it as best it can

Arcane Lock: Lock a door or container but keep in mind arcane keys are prone to getting lost

Cloud of Daggers: Create a cloud of knives that will fill up the room like a fog or other gass

Darkvision: For one day see in the darkness as light and in light as darkness

Detect Thoughts: Hear thoughts as voices, be careful in crowds as this can be overwhelming

Enlarge/Reduce: What you touch doubles or halves in size flip a coin to find out which one!

Find Steed: Magically learn the location of the nearest horse, mule, donkey, or similar

Heat Metal: all metal objects in your sight become red hot and cool slowly

Hold Person: When you grab someone they will become paralyzed as long as you don’t let go

Magic Mouth: implant a message on a mouth you can see with a trigger of your choice

Mirror Image: Create an illusion of yourself that acts as your reflection in a mirror would

Pass Without Trace: Leave no footprints, fingerprints, or disturbances of any kind for one day

Protection from Poison: Today poison is to you as food or water and food or water as poison

See Invisibility: See invisible creatures but lose the ability to see visible ones

Silence: Create a bubble of silence around you that no noise can be made inside or enter

Spider Climb: Arms and legs transform into spider legs as you grow 4 more from your side

Zone of Truth: Create a bubble around yourself where no lies are spoken and none enter

Animate Dead: Turn dead creatures into mindless but hungry zombies

Blink: When your eyes are open you are transported to the ethereal plane

Counterspell: When a creature casts a spell you know you may interrupt and cancel it

Create Food and Water: Transform your energy and nourishment back into food and water

Dispel Magic: Dispel the magical properties of all nearby objects including your books and foci

Fly: Arms grow feathers and transform into giant bird wings (wings don’t have hands)

Gaseous Form: Clothes fall to the floor as you transform into a vapor or mist

Hunger: The target creature gains a ravenous, mindless hunger that must be quenched!

Hut: Rocks, sticks, and fronds assemble themselves into a the best shelter they can be

Magic Circle: Draw a circle of salt so that demons and undead can not enter

Spirit Guardian: Swear a sacred oath to your ancestor so that they will fight alongside you

Stinking Cloud: Expel gas from an orifice that is magically nauseating

Summon Lesser Demons: Create a small portal to hell that only little demons can use

Tongues: Summon tongues to your mouth that speak simultaneously in every language

Water Breathing: Reconfigure your anatomy so that you have gills instead of lungs

Arcane Eye: Remove one or more of your eyes giving it the ability to hover and move

Blight: Magically drain the water and chlorophyll from all nearby plants

Divination: Ask a question, get some signs omens and visions to interpret

Giant Insect: Transform a normal sized insect into a giant insect

Ice Storm: Summon a magically intense hail and sleet storm centered on yourself

Faithful Hound: Enchant a dog so that it can see invisible creatures and through illusions

Summon Greater Demons: Open a big ‘ol portal to hell

Contagion: Summon a virus to your body and spread it to others nearby

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These are very good! A few could use tweaking I think, like Friends could use something in it such that your’re not just flinging it left and right (as could a few others, or rewriting them so that using them all the time is more natural). Also mage hand is amazing.

Part of my goal is to build in natural limits and flexibility to the spells, such that spell levels and ‘casting once a day’ are not required. In the same sort of way the best magic items are made such that you can use them as many times as you want, but they’re not always immediate solutions to a problem. Y’know. Or generate their own problems.

I totally agree, right now this is a rough draft, if you have suggestions on how to make any of the spells better I would love to hear them!

I think our goals are basically the same, I was trying to make spells with diegetic limits as opposed to mechanical limits. Stuff that is useful but isn’t something you could realistically cast all the time. Had the idea after watching Onwards with my daughter, that disguise spell scene would be so fun to roleplay!

I like these ideas.

As for spells as items, have you heard of the fan-created Rules to the Game of Dungeon from (gasp) February of 1974? Minneapolis fantasy fans who had only heard of D&D created their own rules. The magic rules in this game conceived of each spell as a “ball” that would be prepared and thrown. There were “spear balls” that delivered three spear attacks and “sunlight balls” that destroyed vampires, for example.

In this zine drawing by subsequently famous Boston DM Glenn Blacow, you see the wizard with balls orbiting his head, evidently the “memorized” or prepared spells (allocated “spell slots” in today’s terms) waiting to be used. This is from May 1975.

image

This picture beautifully captures the “feel” of many of the earliest D&D players’ games. The were often quite comical and tongue-in-cheek rather than serious epic tales.

Players came up with interesting ways to imagine spells from the first years, and they are far more material as objects than I ever imagined them to be in my own game fiction.

In my home rules, casting a spell entails a roll of dice to gamble a resource rather than using spell points or slots or components or once-per-days. I can tell you more about that if you want, but a version of the concept is at the bottom of this blog post here.

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Thats very cute, I like that. Love the art style, Mechanics wise not really what Im going for, but I definitely like it. Part of my desire is to make spells more… solid-state to scrounge up a word.

What’s especially cute is that the Rules to the Game of Dungeon with “spell balls” was made up by a fourteen-year-old kid who liked comic books and played a dungeon game with a guy who was one of Arneson’s players, but had apparently never seen D&D books, which had been published a month before. So this is about as “raw” a take on these things by a young person in the moment that D&D came out as we could get.

Personally I like your idea about spells that work so long as the caster keeps a certain condition going.

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You should steal these (you can use them word for word because of the license).

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These are also very good, though not quite exactly right. Gonna write up and change some spells around to give more examples of what I mean.

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I’ve been working along this line as well. I spent a long time playing wizards and shit in D&D and kind of secretly growing dissatisfied with the whole arbitrary “you can cast this twice per day, for some reason” and “this spell lasts 1d10+2 minutes exactly, get out your timer” stuff. It honestly just feels weird and unnecessary, and is a real pain to track for GMs.

There is also this dichotomy between providing so little detail that their limits become an argument each time, or so much detail that figuring out what they do is a different argument.

In Eldritch Gambit I got rid of spell levels entirely, as well as durations - they are either instant or maintained. The durations were actually harder to deal with losing than the levels and slots, you start seeing why they were in there when you do. BUT - I like how it’s going.

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I can’t really speak to removing spell slots and levels. I like Wonder & Wickedness a lot, but I have mixed feelings about Vancian casting - it’s weird but at the same time offers necessary clear and simple mechanical limits on the players ability to literally bend space, time, and matter.

I do think that making time less rigid in procedural dungeon/Classic style games is very useful, and tying spell duration (along with light, exhaustion and other exploration related mechanics) to something random (I use Hazard/Overloaded Encounter/Exploration Dice) is worthwhile and makes play run more smoothly.

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These are great spells in that they are simple, short, and not burdened by mechanical cruft BUT they still rely on the Cairn spellcasting system for balance. I think the goal that @Cosmic-Orrery @Planarian and myself are shooting for are spells that do not need a unified system to maintain balance. (Let me know if this is wrong)

Instead the challenge is to balance the spells through diegetic limitations such as conditions that must be maintained, role playing challenges, or potential consequences contained within the spell text itself.

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Yes, I understand! But some do not mention mechanics and might be a quick steal. I would LOVE a system-neutral spell list that is CC-BY-SA and does not require the OGL. I’m only suggesting that you take advantage of what I’ve done there, to hopefully expedite your aims here.

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Gotcha! I totally misunderstood, that is a great suggestion. Right now my goals are “make a thing for my buddies on Thursday” but you are right that this could be much more than just that.

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Yeah, as much as I dislike spell slots and levels they are certainly very practicable mechanically for making the game flow well and fitting magic into the rest of the gameplay assumptions!

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I’m more of a fan of what you two are thinking of rather than someone who is doing it I suppose. The lore / poetic constraints to spells is fascinating. I almost do the opposite in my games, for example if a wizard casts a spell on you and says it will wear off when the cock crows next morning, that really just means he can’t be arsed to maintain it any longer than that. Probably his morning constitutional and doesn’t want the distraction. I guess that is diegetic or poetic in a way, but it kinda sidesteps things. In Eldritch Gambit spell details like that are pretty lies.

One thing I think you may have to watch out for is that many of the spells I am looking at do not seem to have any means to resist them. If a player casts them, they are win buttons. If cast on a player, they rob agency without contest. I understand the urge for minimalism and flavor, but I feel like there needs to be some way to show how hard these are to resist - even if that is diegetic as well.

Went ahead and turned some of my best spells from this thread into a thing during my lunch break on Friday.

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When designing spells I use similar constraints: no spell points, no time-tracking, no numbers, no jargon. So most spells have limitations like the following:

  • You can do the spell BUT there’s a chance of backfire or side effect (sort of a Dungeon Crawl Classics approach; e.g., you can point at something to set it on fire but if you roll badly your clothes or equipment catch on fire)
  • You can do the spell BUT only if a certain condition is met (e.g., you are touching the ground, you are holding something fragile, your stomach is empty)
  • You can do the spell BUT it always has a mild drawback (you can cough up a handful of ash but you are unable to talk afterward until you drink something refreshing)

I also like randomizing the spell effect as well as the backfire/condition/drawback similar to paperelemental’s “janky tarot power tables”, which I discovered after I came up with my spell list but has a lot of conceptual overlap. Here are some actual spells that got rolled up randomly during play yesterday:

  • You can turn into an animate puddle of glue BUT it takes concentration to transform back
  • You can conjure a wall of tin BUT it only lasts as long as you are electrically grounded
  • You can instantly conjure a shoddy replica of an object BUT you might conjure a whole mess of them.
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Yess, this is precisely what my thoughts on the matter are, I might steal those first three bullet points.

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