Spellcasting is easily the most complex part of The Dresden Files RPG. This should come as no surprise; the game is based on a series of books about Wizard, and the books are full of all the cool things Harry does with magic. To be true to the source material, the game needs to model that kind of play.
The complexity arises from the flexibility of the system. If you want to be able to do everything that Harry does in the books, you need a system that can be twisted and bent to accomplish anything. That means it needs a robust backbone, so it can bend without breaking, and components that can be adapted to any situation the players come up with. This means that designers are left with a limited range of choices in how to implement the system:
- Come up with sub-systems for each possible application of magic.
- Use a very high-level system, where the GM and the players make all the calls with minimal rules.
- Find a middle ground, where there’s enough mechanical support to let the GM and players share an understanding of the capabilities of the system, but few enough rules that they can be mastered.
Evil Hat went with the third option, using a mechanic that can be adapted to a wide variety of situations, and tons of examples to help show how to do that. I think it was a good choice, and it results in a good mechanic.
But it also results in a lot of reading for spellcasting types. And while the language they use is very precise, the distinctions between some of the terms can get lost in the fog.
Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk extensively about spellcasting in this game, with the goal of demystifying the concepts, process, and mechanics. I’m going to start talking about theory, both in-world and in-game, so that the terms are clearly defined. Then, I’m going to move on to evocation, and finally thaumaturgy. At the end of those three topics, I may post a few spells, showing how they were created and what decisions were made along the way, but only if there’s a demand for it.
So. Let’s get going with theory.
In-World Magic Theory
Magic in the Harry Dresden books is structured and codified – that’s how you get Wizards. Jim Butcher does a good job of laying out the ideas behind spellcasting, so that you can get a solid grip on what magic does and doesn’t do, and the mechanism behind it. I’m starting with looking at this in-world theory of magic, because it’s important to know what the system is trying to model before we start looking at the model.
Note that I’m using a number of terms in this section that will show up in the in-game section, but the definitions in the in-game section are far more precise than the usage in-world. So, in this section, when I’m talking about complexity, I’m talking about how complicated something is. In the next section, when I’m talking about complexity, I’m talking about a very specific game term.
All magic in the game is basically shaping energy to work your will. That means you need two things to work magic: energy, and your will. You use them in concert to create a change in the world that you want to see*.
The high-level process is the same for all types of spells, as follows:
- Form the spell construct.
- Summon the energy into the spell construct.
- Release the spell construct.
Wizards break down spellcasting into two categories – evocation and thaumaturgy – but really, casting both has the same high-level process. It’s just the details that differ, and that’s really the function of the complexity of the spell construct.
Forming the spell construct
A spell construct is a pattern that will produce a change in the world in accordance with the spellcaster’s will once it has been empowered. It is a pattern of thought and symbolism bolstered by the spellcaster’s will that serves as a receptacle and template for the energy that will be used. Simple spell constructs can be held in the Wizard’s mind, enhanced by simple tools such as words, gestures, wands, rings, etc. More complex ones are too difficult to be held internally, so they rely on more symbolic tools, like magic circles, candles, lengthy chants, ritual dances, external power sources, and the like.
The simple spell constructs that can be contained within the Wizard’s mind entirely are generally evocations: they are quick, use minimal tools, and accomplish a very simple thing, which is pushing raw energy around. More complex spell constructs are generally thaumaturgy: they require more time, rituals, and special components, but can accomplish more varied effects, and more powerful ones.
Building a spell construct is half of what spellcasting training is about. Whether it’s being able to hold a simple form in the mind to channel a blast of fire through, or knowing the elemental correspondences of different colours and gemstones, these are the tools the caster learned in training, and the pieces that he or she uses to build the spell construct. Some simple constructs, called rotes, are so well-practiced that the spellcaster can form them with hardly any thought at all, while more more complex constructs may require research and preparation to assemble properly.
The more complex the spell construct, the more energy is required to fully activate it, and the more far-reaching effects it can have.
Summoning the energy into the spell construct
Once the spellcaster has created the spell construct, it must be empowered with energy for it to have an effect. Energy has to come from somewhere, and calling in and controlling energy from various sources is what the other half of spellcasting training is about. If the caster is in a hurry, he or she can use his or her own energy, but this can exhaust the caster in short order. The energy of a single human body is generally all needed to keep the body functioning properly*, so using too much is not a good thing. This is why fast evocations tend to be so tiring for the spellcaster.
With more time, the spellcaster can draw in energy from other sources: the environments, special components, ley lines, energy from other living beings*, or even just trickle his or her own energy in at a speed that allows it to replenish itself without so rapidly depleting the caster. Complex, external spell constructs can contain the energy as it comes in over time, often within a magic circle, allowing the spellcaster to take longer to supply the requisite energy.
This is another place where the difference between evocation and thaumaturgy differ. The simple spell construct of an evocation doesn’t require a lot of energy to empower, but you can funnel as much energy as you care to risk through it and out into the world. Complex spell constructs, like thaumaturgy rituals, are so precise that they need a very specific amount of energy to enact, calculated by the spellcaster when he or she creates the construct.
Drawing and controlling energy can be tricky, and this is where Wizards can wind up blowing themselves (and their surroundings) right to hell*. If the spellcaster’s concentration falters, or if he or she has tried to use too much energy too quickly, he or she can lose control. The caster can then either let the energy escape into the world, usually with destructive (or at least inconvenient) consequences, or they can try and contain it, letting it tear through their body and mind. Neither one is a very welcoming prospect, so most spellcasters are careful about how much energy they try to handle at one time.
Releasing the spell construct
Once the construct is fully empowered, the spellcaster releases it out into the world and it does what it was designed to do. The construct is shattered by this release – not necessarily destructively, but mystically, meaning that a new spell construct needs to be created if the spellcaster intends to cast the same spell a second time.
Quick and dirty spell constructs, such as those used in combat evocations, are not very precise, and the target of such a spell usually has a chance to avoid the effects, even if it’s simply by diving for cover. However, a more carefully designed and thoroughly researched construct, like a thaumaturgic ritual, usually takes effect without giving the target any chance to avoid it, as long as the assumptions made by the caster at the time of casting are accurate. If he or she has misjudged some aspect of the situation, such as not having a strong enough symbolic link to the target, or not knowing that the caster has some level of magical protection, the spell will have a diminished effect, possibly failing entirely.
And that’s a basic run-down of how magic works in the Dresdenverse.
In-Game Magic Theory
The game system models this style of magic with two similar systems: one for thaumaturgy and one for evocation. The high-level basics of both systems are the same, so that’s what I’m going to deal with in this post. Subsequent posts will look at each style individually and in more detail.
First, though, let’s define the terms we’re using.
- Spell. A magical effect created by a spellcaster.
- Spellcaster. Someone who uses magical spells.
- Evocation. Quick combat magic involving only the spellcaster’s own energy and simple effects that are produced by pushing power around with a brute-force approach.
- Thaumaturgy. Ritual magic involving creating more elaborate, elegant, precise, or powerful effects. Takes a longer time to perform, and has a much broader range of possible effects.
- Power. The energy needed to make a spell work, measured in shifts.
- Complexity. An abstract measure of how difficult a thaumaturgical spell is to cast, measured in shifts.
- Control. The effort of the spellcaster to keep the power focused on the spell and doing what he or she wants. This is a roll using Discipline.
- Targeting. The Discipline roll the spellcaster makes to control the power serves as the targeting roll to hit the target. It sets the difficulty for the target to avoid the spell. This applies only to evocation.
- Conviction. A skill. Governs how much power the spellcaster can draw on a single turn.
- Lore. A skill. Governs how complex a spell the spellcaster can cast.
- Discipline. A skill. Rolled against a target of the shifts of power drawn in a single turn to see if the caster can focus it on the spell.
- Backlash. Damage taken as a result of a failed control roll, either as physical or mental stress and/or consequences. Does not reduce the power in the spell.
- Fallout. The effect of a failed control roll on the environment, based on how many shifts of power the spellcaster chooses not to take as backlash. This reduces the power of the spell.
Whether you’re using evocation or thaumaturgy, the high-level process is the same:
- Decide what you want to do.
- Determine the complexity/power requirements.
- Draw power.
- Control the power/target the spell.
Deciding what you want to do
On the surface, this step can look like the easiest part of the process, but it can quickly become the most daunting. In other games, you have lists of spells to choose from, each one doing something very specific. In DFRPG, magic can accomplish pretty much anything you can imagine, which can lead to a little bit of paralysis from too much choice.
There’s also more than one way to do pretty much anything you can imagine. Want to protect yourself while you sleep? Well, you can make a force field over your house, or rig a fire trap to go off if something evil crosses your threshold, or bind some spirits to keep watch for you. Want to hurt an enemy? You can blast him with fire, or buffet him with air, or cause the ground to swallow him, or even just give him a fatal disease. Not only do you need to decide what you want to do, you have to decide how you want to do it – what mechanism you’re going to use to accomplish your goal.
This is very much effects-based magic. Picking what you want to do and how you want to do it is fundamental to everything that comes afterward. Mechanically, you need to figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it first because that lets you figure out how complex the thaumaturgic ritual is and how much power you’re going to need to pull off your spell*.
With thaumaturgy, the field here is wide open. Basically, if you can imagine it, there’s a chance that you can pull it off. No guarantees, of course; some things you want to attempt will wind up being beyond the capabilities of your character, or beyond the resources of the situation. With evocations, you have a much more limited range of options: attack, block, maneuver, counterspell*.
Determining complexity/power requirements
Once you know what you’re doing, you’ve got to figure out how much power you’re going to need.
For evocations, this is pretty straightforward: decide how big a hammer you want to hit your target with, and that’s the number of shifts of power you need.
For thaumaturgy, you need to figure out complexity. Complexity is kind of a slippery concept in the game, and I’m going to talk at length about it when I get to the post on thaumaturgy. For now, let’s just say it’s a pretty arbitrary number based on how difficult the spell is to cast. There are guidelines of how to determine complexity, but in the end, you’re going to be eyeballing what you want to do and setting the complexity in negotiation with the GM.
The power you need to perform a thaumaturgic ritual is a number a shifts equal to the complexity.
Aside from power, complexity also determines how much preparation you need to do to set up a thaumaturgic ritual. Compare the complexity to your Lore skill. If your Lore is equal to or higher than the complexity, you know what you need to do and have everything you need to get started right away. If the complexity is higher than your Lore, then you need to prepare for the ritual, using maneuvers from your skills to add Aspects to the spell that you can tag for a Lore bonus*. Once you’ve made up the deficit, you’re good to go.
In terms of the in-world rationale for what you’re doing at this point, consider this the part of the spellcasting process where you are creating the spell construct, either by holding it in your mind (evocations) or by assembling the ritual components and preparations for the casting (thaumaturgy).
Once you’re ready to cast the spell, you need to power it.
Now you need to empower your spell construct. The amount of power you can safely draw on in a single turn is equal to your Conviction skill. You can draw more than that, but you take stress for doing it, so it can wear you out pretty quickly. If you need more, it’s safer to draw it in smaller amounts over a number of turns.
Unfortunately for the Wizard in the midst of a battle, you may not have time to draw power in slowly. For evocations, which are quick and dirty, you are drawing on your own power, and you need the whole amount of power you’ve decided to put into the spell right now to get the shield up before the ogre takes your head off. Working under pressure like that is tough; any evocations do a single point of stress, plus an extra point of stress for every shift of power you draw over and above your Conviction skill rating. You can, of course, offset this stress by taking consequences, as usual. Try and draw too much and you risk blinding headaches, nosebleeds, exhaustion, and your eyes exploding.
That sets a practical limit on evocation power levels, especially when you also need to control all that power, as outlined in the step below. Thaumaturgy doesn’t have that sort of limit on it. The main limitations on thaumaturgic power is time and creativity.
The elaborate spell construct of a thaumaturgic working and the reduced time pressure* allows the spellcaster to summon the power needed slowly, over a number of turns. Each turn, the spellcaster decides how much power to summon, rolls to control it as described below, and adds it to the total amount of power accumulated for the ritual.
Controlling the power/targeting
Every turn you summon power, whether it’s to store in a thaumaturgic ritual or unleash in an evocation, you need to roll to control the power summoned. This is a Discipline roll, with a difficulty equal to the number of shifts of power you’ve summoned this turn. If you succeed, everything is peachy-keen. Failure means you have some pain coming to you in the very near future.
Failing to control your power means that the power is uncontrolled. It’s going to do some damage to someone or something, and you get to decide whether that someone or something is you. You can decide to take some or all of the shifts of uncontrolled power as backlash, meaning that you clamp your sovereign will down on the chaotic, elemental energies of the universe and force them to do your will. As you may have guessed from the description, it’s gonna hurt, either in your brain or in your body. You take a stress hit equal to the number of shifts of uncontrolled power in either your Physical or Mental stress tracks, but you can’t split the stress. It’s all got to go to one stress track.
Good news is that you get to keep those shifts of power in your spell. Bad news is that you might die if you you’re dealing with too much power.
If you don’t want all that primal force echoing around inside you, messing the place up, you can let it out to run rampant through the area around you, messing the place up. This is called fallout. Basically, what you’re doing here is handing the shifts of uncontrolled power to the GM and saying, “Here. Use this to mess me up.”* This is how houses get burned down, and friends get blasted, and people wind up with donkey heads, and so forth.
Good news is that you don’t take any direct damage. Bad news is that the spell’s power is reduced by the number of shifts of uncontrolled power that you let free as fallout. Really bad news is that you might still die if you’re dealing with a lot of power, as the building collapses around you.
You get to decide how much uncontrolled power you’re taking as backlash and how much you let loose as fallout. This can be a very important decision to make, so consider the upside and downside of it carefully.
There’s an extra little wrinkle for thaumaturgy with control rolls. Because you’re adding power a little at a time to the spell construct, doing a delicate balancing act turn-by-turn, holding the power and the spell construct together with your will, failing a control roll can be worse than with evocation. If you fail your Discipline roll, all the shifts of power you’ve gathered over all the turns of casting this given ritual become uncontrolled, and you have to choose how much to take as backlash and how much to let go as fallout. If any is loosed as fallout, it destroys the fragile spell construct, and the spell fails. So, you may be tempted to take everything as backlash, but keep in mind that with thaumaturgy, you may wind up dealing with ten or more shifts of power. That’s gonna leave a mark no matter what.
This is why it’s a good idea, if there is no time pressure, to draw the power for a thaumaturgic ritual a single shift at a time. It takes much more game time, and more time rolling, but it can prevent exploding heads and burning forests.
There’s also an extra little wrinkle for evocation with control rolls. Just because you managed to successfully control the raging torrent of flame that you’ve focused into a lance with the force of your will, it doesn’t mean you hit your target. Your Discipline roll also determines the difficulty for the target to avoid your spell. This is the targeting roll. The target can take normal defensive actions to avoid the spell with a contested roll on an appropriate skill.
And that sums up the process of casting a spell, both in-world and in-game. Next time, I’m going to take a detailed look at evocation, talking about the little twists and turns of that system.
*Unless, of course, you botch the spell. Then you might create changes that you don’t want to see. Back
*i.e., the energy is needed to keep the caster alive. If you don’t have the muscle power for your heart to contract, things start getting pretty bleak on the survival front. Back
*Sacrifice of this nature is frowned upon, but needs must when the devil drives, right? Back
*Possibly literally right to hell. Back
*And it gives you a real opportunity to add some colour to your spellcaster. A Wizard who tosses around waves of fire at every problem that comes his way is a very different character from one that gets things done with carefully applied divinations. And part of the fun of playing a spellcaster is seeing how you can use different tools to accomplish your goals. Back
*Though there’s a fair bit of leeway in what constitutes a maneuver, and the special effects of a given spell are a great way to make play exciting. I’m going to be talking about that a fair bit in the evocation post. Back
*I’m going to be talking about this extensively in the thaumaturgy post, both because it’s an important topic, and because it gives players a great opportunity to add coolness and character to what is essentially an extended stint of dice-rolling. It is, in my opinion, one of the coolest things about this system. Back
*Not always the case, if the spellcaster needs to whip up a powerful veil in a hurry to hide from a rampaging monster, for example. Then the character may decide to draw more power than is, strictly speaking, safe. Back
*And your GM will grin evilly, and say, “Thank you.” He or she may or may not cackle maniacally. Back