Evocation, or How to Blow Stuff Up: Magic in DFRPG, Part Two

Last time, I talked at a high level about the nature and process of magic in DFRPG, both in the game world and in the game mechanics. This time, I’m going to take a closer, more detailed look at evocation – what it can do and how it works.

What is evocation?

This is the magic of the fire blast, of the force shield, of the earthquake and the tidal wave and the tornado – magic tied to the power of the elements.

Evocation is the brute force, quick-and-dirty application of magic. It happens fast – in a single round – so you don’t get to apply a lot of finesse, and you don’t get to draw on outside power sources. That makes it somewhat limited in what you can do with it, and also very draining to use. With evocation, you grab hold of a big* chunk of power and slam it into the shape you want, holding it there through pure force of will.

It can be very effective combat magic – indeed, it’s pretty much the only magic that can be cast in combat* – and a Wizard with decent Conviction and Discipline scores can do more damage than a howitzer. Or take the damage a howitzer dishes out.

But only for a little while. Then he or she needs to have a little lie-down.

What can you do with it?

In the novels, Harry points out time and again that the true measure and power of a Wizard is not his magical ability. It’s his knowledge, his resourcefulness, and his creativity. This is a theme that carries over into the game in a big way, and I was very pleased to see it.

On the surface, evocation looks pretty limited in what you can accomplish with it: you can use it to attack, block, perform a maneuver, or counterspell*. Each of these things, though, has some surprising depth to the variations available. It’s not four things that you can do; it’s four categories of things.

Attack

Attacking is taking the energy you can conjure and hitting someone with it. It is the second most limited use of evocation, and the most straightforward. Scoop up a brainful of fire, and rub it in somebody’s face. Your goal with an evocation attack, as with any attack, is to damage your opponent. As I mentioned in a previous post, however, while attacks are necessary in combat, you shouldn’t just keep blasting away at your opponent until he, she, or it goes down. Given the cost in Mental Stress to using evocations, this is doubly true for magical attacks like this.

But there are some interesting variations you can throw on your attack. You can spend shifts of power to turn it into an area attack, blasting everyone within a zone, or you can split your shifts of power and targeting roll between multiple opponents, to only damage enemies. This gives you some very flexible firepower, letting you zap everyone or only select folks.

The big deal with evocation attacks, however, is their damage potential. Putting together a Weapon:7 attack with your primary element is pretty easy to do, and that’s roughly twice the power of a shotgun blast to the face, in game terms. It outdoes a claymore mine. And if you tweak your build properly and have the Fate Points, one or two Weapon :11 attacks aren’t out of the question – you’ll just pay for them.

Keep in mind, also, that attacks don’t necessarily have to be physical. Spirit evocations, in particular, are well-suited to attacking the Mental Stress track of an opponent, but I’ll talk a little more about this when we get to the elements.

Block

Blocking is taking the energy you can conjure and sticking it in something’s way. You can block an incoming attack, or an individual creature’s actions, or seal off an area to prevent anyone going in, or do pretty much anything that involves you using power to actively interfere with what someone else is doing. The key to a block is that you’re trying to prevent something.

Blocks have a little more variety in implementation than attacks: you can do the same sort of thing where you try to cover an entire zone, or where you split the result among different targets, but you can also convert the block to armour, extend its duration beyond the instantaneous, and even use it to interfere with non-physical things, like perception.

So, Harry’s force shield is a block. Molly’s veil is a block. Harry’s armoured duster is a block. Wrapping someone in ghosts to prevent them from moving is a block. Putting up a mental defense to keep someone from messing with your brain is a block. Putting fire in the doorway to prevent someone from leaving is a block.

And, like attacks, the strength of the block is determined by how much power you channel into it. You’re probably going to be spending more shifts on extras for blocks than you do for attacks, but you can still throw up a pretty effective shield for a few rounds without instantly frying your brain.

Probably.

Maneuver

Performing a maneuver is taking the energy you can conjure and using it to change something around you in a relatively non-invasive way. This is really using evocation to jockey for advantage in combat, either by removing an impediment to you or by imposing an impediment on your opponent. That means adding an Aspect to or removing an Aspect from your target.

Maneuvers are where evocation really opens up, and your creativity can work wonders. The huge variety of things that can be maneuvers is limited only by the imagination and the creativity of the spell caster, and is another chance for the player to express his or her character.

Basic maneuvers are pretty cheap, power-wise. You need at least three shifts of power for the maneuver to work – more if the target has an opposing rating of Great (+4) or higher. If you’re not targeting another character, the amount of power you’ll need will be something of a judgement call on the part of the GM, but the guidelines are pretty lenient.

You can use your excess power for a number of nice little customizations: affecting an entire zone, affecting multiple targets, and making the Aspect sticky, for example. It can get pretty easy to rack up the shifts you need if you get greedy, though, so it’s not always a good idea to pour everything into a single maneuver.

On the other hand, every maneuver costs at least one point of Mental Stress, so if your Discipline can handle it, you might as well pull in a number of shifts equal to your Conviction and use the extra shifts to add some extras. It all costs the same, up to that point, so the only thing you need to worry about is making your control roll.

Just as I mentioned in the post on combat, maneuvers are where you can realize big gains for your efforts. With evocation, though, you are limited by that Mental Stress cost, so you need to be careful.

Counterspell

Counterspelling is taking the energy you conjure and using it to attack the structure of another spell. It’s really just a special case for the attack action, but is broken out on its own because it can only be targeted at a magical effect, and it can only make that effect go away.

It works just like an attack spell, except what you’re trying to do is call up enough shifts of power that you can overwhelm the shifts of power in the effect you’re attacking. This is an all-or-nothing kind of thing: either you wipe the spell out, or nothing happens. It works on all types of magic, but the time needed to perform it is (slightly) longer than most other evocations, so it’s not going to be very useful to dispel the fireball that the sorcerer has just launched at your head.

Well, you can try, I guess. The catch is that, unless you take a second to make an assessment on the spell you’re targeting, you’re just guessing how much power is needed. If you you don’t call up at least as many shifts of power as are in the targeted spell, you’ve just wasted your time and some of your energy. And if you call up too much, you’ve got the standard control issues. You can make an assessment roll as a free action using your Lore to tell how many shifts of power you’ll need, but that takes a split second, and by then your eyebrows are gone.

So, for the most part, you’re going to be using counterspells against ongoing effects, like blocks or maneuvers or thaumaturgical effects.

Counterspells only do one thing, but they do it very well.

How does it work?

So, that’s what you can do. How do you do it? Well, I covered the basics last time, but let’s go through things in a little more detail.

Spell Construct Phase

First you need to decide what you want to do and how to do it. Within the game world, this is essentially creating the spell construct in your mind. Within the game, you pick whether you want to attack, block, maneuver, or counterspell, and what element you’re using. You also get to decide on the jazz of the effect: what it looks like, what you do to make it happen, things like that.

The jazz is important – don’t neglect it. It may not necessarily have a game effect*, but you should play it up because it gives you a few seconds to spotlight your character and the way he or she does things. Use the opportunity to add cool to your character. Keep in mind all the variations that you want on the spell, and what sort of dramatic impact you want it to make as you describe what you’re trying to do. Sweeping a wave of flame over a mob of goblins looks and feels very different, and is different mechanically, than targeting a dragon with a focused beam of pure righteous anger.

Drawing Power Phase

Once you know what you want to do, you need to calculate the power you’re going to need. For evocations, this is generally pretty easy: maneuvers require three shifts minimum, plus whatever extra shifts you want to add to make it harder to resist, or make the Aspect last longer. Everything else, the power is split between the power of the effect (as weapon or block rating) and any extras you’re adding, like multiple targets or longer duration.

Mechanically, this is the most complex part of casting an evocation, as you try and balance the amount of power you can channel without hurting yourself (determined by Conviction) versus the amount of power you can easily control (determined by Discipline and a dice roll) versus how much stamina you have (determined by your Mental Stress track and consequences) versus how much power you need (determined by what you’re trying to accomplish).

Controlling Power and Targeting Phase

Once you commit to the amount of power you’re using and how it’s going to be split, you make a Discipline roll to control the power. You need the roll to meet or exceed the number of shifts of power that you’re using – failing means that some or all of the shifts of power are uncontrolled. The amount of uncontrolled power is the difference between the roll you needed* and the result of the roll. So, if you’re channeling a Great amount of power (4 shifts), and the result of your Discipline roll is Average (+1), you’ve got three shifts of uncontrolled power.

This is where things can really start to hurt*.

You get to decide what to do with the uncontrolled shifts of power. One option is to take backlash, where the energies rip through you, but you manage to focus them into the spell anyway, getting the result you want. You also take a hit to either your Mental or Physical stress track equal to the number of uncontrolled shifts of power – in this case, a three-point hit. While you get to choose which track you take the hit on, you can’t split the hit between tracks. You can, of course, take consequences as usual to offset the stress hit partially or entirely. The power still goes into the spell, however; you get the result you wanted, but it cost you a little more than you had planned on.

A second option is to let the power spill out of you as fallout, running loose in the area around you, messing with your stuff. You take no damage*, but the environment isn’t so lucky. What you’re doing here is handing the uncontrolled shifts of power to your GM, making puppy-dog eyes, and racking your brain to try and remember if you’ve done anything especially upsetting to him or her recently. The GM gets to decide how to apply the power, maybe by sticking nasty Aspects on the scene and your allies, or maybe just applying stress to unintended targets. But not to you. No, you had your chance to be all self-sacrificing, and you gave it up – now you get to watch others pay the price. The power of the spell is also reduced by the amount of uncontrolled power you let loose as fallout, so it’s going to work less well, if at all, on top of everything else. With three shifts of uncontrolled power, the GM has enough to put an Aspect on the scene or a character (need 3 shifts for a maneuver), or blast another character with a 3-stress hit*, or even targeting all characters in the zone with a 1-stress hit (1 shift of power for a Weapon:1 attack, 2 shifts to target the zone).

The third option is to split the amount of uncontrolled power between the two options, taking some as backlash and giving some away as fallout. This gives you most of the disadvantages of both choices, without all of the benefits, but sometimes it’s the way you have to go to keep the spell power from falling below a minimum threshold, or because you can only absorb so much damage before dropping, or any number of other reasons. You get to decide how to split the uncontrolled shifts of power, and this can be a pretty important decision.

It’s also another opportunity to show what kind of person your character is.

But enough about failure. What about success? Well, if your Discipline roll is successful, you control the power and you get the spell off, and it works the way you want it to. For attacks and maneuvers, this Discipline roll is also the targeting roll* – your result is the difficulty that the target has to beat with a defense roll to avoid the effects of the spell. If they can beat your targeting roll, they effectively get out of the way and the attack or maneuver fails. If they can’t beat it, you hit them with the spell, and they get stuck with the Aspect or take damage from the attack.

Damage

Calculating damage from a spell is the same as calculating the damage from any other weapon, with one little twist: the weapon rating is based on the shifts of power in the spell. So, if you use 4 shifts of power in the attack, you’re attacking with a Weapon:4. The formula for damage is:

targeting roll in shifts – defense roll in shifts + weapon rating

So, if your targeting roll is Great (+4), and the defense roll is Fair (+2), and you’re using a Weapon:3 (3 shifts of power in the evocation), you do a total of (4-2+3) 5 shifts of damage. That means a 5-stress hit to the target, which is enough to get anyone’s attention.

Simple*.

Rotes

Rotes deserve special mention. These are spells that your character has learned well enough that he or she can essentially cast them in his or her sleep. What this means in the game world is that the character has the spell so thoroughly practiced that he or she can fling it off with but a thought, and with almost no effort.

In game terms, you never have to make a Discipline roll to control the power of a rote. It’s assumed that you’ve rolled a 0 on the dice, so you automatically control a number of shifts of power equal to your Discipline. This is a valuable resource, so pick your rotes wisely – you only get a number of rotes equal to your Lore skill rating. I suggest trying to pick an attack rote, a block rote, and a couple of maneuver rotes. That gives you a nice arsenal of combat magic that you can rely on.

With rote attacks, you still need to make a Discipline roll to target the spell, so it’s not all gravy – a rote spell does not guarantee a hit.

Elements

So, I mentioned earlier that evocation is tied to the elements. Elements are really just the physical* manifestations of the power you’re tossing around with evocation – as the rules say, it’s hard to visualize using the ramifications of thermonuclear force to harm a target, but easy to visualize a blast of flame burning someone. Because magic exists first and primarily in the mind of the spellcaster, they tend to categorize the forces they’re playing with in easy-to-conceptualize forms, thus being able to pull off a quick attack or block without having to parse from an abstract equation to a concrete effect.

Most spellcasters use the standard Greek elements: air, earth, fire, water, and spirit. There is a note in the rules, though, talking about how some casters use concepts based on other traditions: Listens To Wind probably uses elemental associations based on the Native American medicine wheel concepts, and Ancient Mai probably uses one of the Chinese elemental groupings. There’s no reason your character can’t use a different set of elements and associations, too – subject, as always, to GM approval.

What you’re looking for in a set of elements is a combination of physical manifestation – fire is gouts of flame, air is blasts of wind, etc. – with a range of non-physical associations – fire is purification, air is motion, etc. The write-up of the various elements in Your Story covers the five Greek elements very nicely, showing what you can and can’t do with them. This is the kind of detail you want to establish if you’re using a different set of elements.

One thing to keep in mind with elements is that there are multiple ways to interpret and parse the same effect for different elements. Lightning, as a sidebar in the rulebook points out, can reasonably be created using air or earth, and in Storm Front, Harry associates it with fire, so you’ve got three of five elements covering it. If you want to freeze water, you can do it using water evocation, or fire evocation to draw all the heat from it, or earth or air to apply cold to it. If you want something to explode, fire can do that, but so can the erosive power of water working on the forces holding the object together, or air expanding inside it, or earth causing the polarities of the molecular bonds to repel each other, or spirit causing the anima of the components to fly apart.

Thinking of creative ways to use your elemental powers to perform a wide range of effects is a fun exercise in creativity and tactics. It also can tell people a lot about your character: someone who just uses fire to burn things is different from someone who uses fire to heal by sterilizing a wound. As I’ve pointed out before, Harry says often enough in the books that the real measure of a Wizard is his or her knowledge and resourcefulness, so look for ways to apply the tools you have to the problem at hand.

Using Evocation Effectively

Everything above makes evocation look pretty straightforward, and it is. But there are some important things to remember when using evocation, and some non-intuitive things you can do to maximize the effectiveness of your spells.

Watch Your Mental Stress

This is the battery that powers your evocations, and you take a minimum 1-stress hit every time you use an evocation. If you’ve got a Great (+4)
Conviction skill – not unreasonable in a spellcaster character – you can toss out a maximum four evocations in a single combat without having to worry about consequences. This number goes down if you pull in more power on any of your evocations than your Conviction rating. That’s a tough limiting factor, so you need to be aware of it.

Good news is that, if you have a little time after using an evocation to catch your breath, the stress goes away. Consequences will take longer, so that’s another factor that you have to budget carefully.

Bad news is that fallout can really drain your battery quickly if you take the hits to the Mental Stress track. It’s very worthwhile considering dumping fallout damage into the Physical Stress track to keep your Mental Stress track available for pumping out the magics. Of course, in the middle of combat, you may have other things eating up your Physical Stress boxes, so it’s a delicate balancing act.

Every time you look at using an evocation, you have to make sure you get the biggest bang you can out of it, because you only get to toss a few around before things start looking grim for the home team. So husband them, using them when they’ll do the most good.

Don’t Neglect the Non-Physical Correspondences of Your Elements

Fire is great for purifying, water is great for eroding, earth is great for strengthening, air is great for thinking, and spirit is great for emotions. Any of these can be used in non-physical form as an evocation – attack, block, maneuver, or counterspell. In particular, look for opportunities to attack physically tough opponents in their Mental Stress track – it’s likely less robust than their physical one. It’s also a good place to kick enemy spellcasters – they probably have better mental defenses, but any hit takes away some of the battery they can use to attack you back with evocation.

Attacking someone’s Mental Stress track is a good way to avoid an accidental First Law violation: you’re less likely to kill someone that way. But you need to be careful about the type of attack to avoid a Third or Fourth Law violation. This can have unpleasant consequences for your character, though it can also provide some interesting drama and roleplaying.

Prepare

If you’ve got some time before going into battle, gird your loins. Take a little time to employ some maneuvers to stick Aspects on yourself that you can use in the combat to come. This is a common stock scene in books and movies, and works great as a little montage over the soundtrack of your favourite ’80s power ballad. Some suggestions:

  • Assemble a pouch of little charms that can help your spellcasting. Resources skill to add the Aspect: Magic Charms.
  • Spend a little time ritually purifying yourself. Discipline skill to add the Aspect: Ritually Purified.
  • Paint warding runes and sigils on your hands and face. Lore skill to add the Aspect: Runes of Warding.
  • Scout the battlefield. Stealth skill to add the Aspect: I Know the Terrain.
  • Do some research on your opponent. Scholarship to add the Aspect: I Know Their Tricks.

These give you some nice free invocations to use when you need them in combat, making sure that when you use one of your precious and limited evocations, it’s more likely to be worth it.

In addition, it’s not a bad idea to use some thaumaturgic rituals to enhance your effectiveness. Veils, armour, enchanted weapons, a bandoleer of potions, and so forth, can go a long way to making sure you’re ready for anything.

Maneuver, Maneuver, Maneuver

Evocation maneuvers cost Mental Stress just like every other evocation, but mundane maneuvers cost you nothing but time. Come up with maneuvers in combat to help you land your evocations and maximize their impact. Some examples:

  • Snatch a lock of an opponent’s hair to provide a magical link to your target. Fists, Athletics, or Weapons skill to add the Aspect: Sympathetic Targeting Link.
  • Do a mystical medicine dance to attract the attention of the spirits and help you. Performance skill to add the Aspect: Favour of the Manitou.
  • Use mystic gestures to carefully weave the spell energy into the form you need. Athletics skill to add the Aspect: Arcane Arm-Waving.
  • Shout the names of powerful beings that you have uncovered in your studies to supercharge your spell. Lore skill to add the Aspect: Power of the Secret Names.
  • Sneak up behind your target. Stealth skill to add the Aspect: Blindsided.

Don’t Forget Your Fate Points

If you’ve had time to prepare and are taking time in battle to perform maneuvers, you probably have a number of Aspects you can tag for free on a given turn. Sometimes, though, you really need to push an attack over the top, and that’s where Fate Points come in. Failed evocations can really deplete the resources of your character, what with the cost to even attempt them and the potential fallout and backlash, and the limited number of evocations you can cast in a given combat. If nothing else is going to work, spending a Fate Point to avoid that sort of loss is a good choice. Or if you think that bolstering this evocation is going to really make the difference in the fight.

Pick Your Battles

Sometimes, the fight just isn’t worth unleashing your magic, either because the enemy can be fairly easily defeated by mundane means, or you know there’s a tougher battle coming up, or you’re fighting normal mortals and don’t want to risk killing them. It’s a good idea to have a mundane fighting skill or two to fall back on, and to know when it’s time to run away and avoid a battle that is just going to deplete your resources without really advancing the plot or your goals.

And if you can’t run away, but you don’t want to fight, and can’t afford to waste your magic, concede. I know, it goes against all the instincts of the experienced gamer to just say, “I give up. You win.” But if you’ve taken a consequence or two in the fight up to that point, you get Fate Points, and you also get to decide how you lose. Maybe, if you’ve been fighting your way through mooks to get to the big bad, conceding is the way to get captured and presented to the boss, giving you a chance to blast him or her without having exhausted yourself on the minions.

So, that’s a pretty detailed look at evocation. We’re pushing 5000 words with this post, so I’m gonna stop writing now. Next time, I’ll talk about thaumaturgy.

*Or not so big, depending on what you want to do and what your capabilities are. Back

*I’m going to do some talking about combat thaumaturgy in the next post in this series. Back

*There’s a section in the marginalia of the rules where Billy suggests using it to move, but Harry points out some pretty telling flaws in that plan. I could see allowing spellcasters to do it, but it’s pretty much a last-ditch, hail-Mary thing that’s gonna end badly. Back

*Though it could, if you roll well and your GM is benevolent. Or if you roll poorly and your GM is… less benevolent. Back

*That is, the number of shifts of power you called. Back

*Though, to be fair, not as much as if you failed a control roll with a thaumaturgic ritual. Back

*Well, not directly, anyway. But being stuck in a collapsing building can certainly present opportunities for more damage to come your way. Back

*If the GM is feeling benevolent, the target may get a defense roll. Or not. As one playtest character’s Aspect puts it, A Wizard’s Mistakes Are Big And Messy. Back

*Why is Discipline pressed into double-duty as both the control of the power and the targeting roll rather than something like Athletics or Weapons or Guns? I can think of three reasons:

  1. Mechanically, it eliminates another roll in the spellcasting process, thus speeding up play in one of the more complex pieces of system.
  2. Also mechanically, Wizards already need to have three fairly high skills: Conviction, Discipline, and Lore. Adding another skill as a targeting skill makes it significantly harder for Wizards to have a variety and range of skills, as they would need to optimize a fourth skill to make their character effective in their (supposedly) core competencies.
  3. Story-wise, it’s just cooler to have the Wizard guiding the blast of fire with the force of his or her will.

Back

*Things are slightly less simple with attacking multiple targets, but the essence remains the same. Back

*Or not so physical, in some cases. Back

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10 Responses to Evocation, or How to Blow Stuff Up: Magic in DFRPG, Part Two

  1. Rel Fexive says:

    Love the preparation and manoeuvre Aspects!

  2. Archmage_cowl says:

    Wow. That’s really all i can say. I love your post and this might just be the best one yet. Truly. I always recommend my players read your posts before we play and it really shows in how they play the game. Before they read your post about combat it was attack attack attack! now it’s maneuver, manuever, Attack! I just love it. So i suppose what i am trying to say with this is “thank you so much for these amazing infomative and in depth looks at how to play. I am a huge fan and eagerly await your next post! :)”

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  4. Ihadris says:

    I have to agree with the others, your posts on the Dresden files mechanics and your own campaign have been incredibly vaulable and I consistently refer my players here whenever you put up a new one. This post has been particularly helpful as I was quite confused on evocation manoeuvres. Also, I had no idea at all that evocation could attack on the mental stress track which is going to make balancing encounters a bit easier. Looking foreward to your thaumaturgy post!

  5. Rick Neal says:

    Thanks for all the kind words, folks. I write these little articles mainly as a way to sort out and codify my own understanding of the system, and secondarily as an aid for the players in my campaign, so that we have a shared understanding of the way things work. It’s gratifying to know that other people also find them useful.

    Ihadris, one thing I should make clear about attacking the Mental Stress track with evocations: there is nothing in the rules that explicitly states that this is possible. Or, if there is, I haven’t found it. That idea, along with the idea about preparing oneself for battle in a montage of maneuvers, is an extrapolation of the rules of the game, rather than a stated rule. Basically, while nothing says you can do it, the implication is there (especially in the write-up on Spirit evocations), the mechanics fully support it, and I think it adds a cool dimension to magic with a flavour that I like.

    What I’m saying is that, technically, it’s a house rule, and your mileage with it may vary depending on the feel of the campaign you’re running and the tastes of your players and GM. But it is a house rule that the current rule set fully and completely supports, even if it doesn’t state it or endorse it.

    And it creates really interesting ideas in my head about a Professor X-style psychic with Spirit Channeling…

  6. Pingback: What's He On About Now? » Thaumaturgy, or How to Break the Rules: Magic in DFRPG, Part Three

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  9. Alan says:

    This was awesome. I’m new to the system, but a long time fan of the Dresdenverse. This stream lined, and very well worded explanation has made several things clear. The books are laid out well, but they to seem to always go into “functional” detail as much as you have. Either way, this really helped me. So, thank you. You can consider me impressed!

  10. Rick Neal says:

    Glad you found it useful, Alan.

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