How to Build Spells, or A Practical Grimoire: Magic in DFRPG, Part Five

Alright. This post, we’re going to take a look at how to put together some actual spells from the ground up.

The requests for spells came from you folks out there, but I’m not going to work out all of them, only a few examples to show the thought processes involved. If you’re looking for a long, detailed list of possible spells, you’re not going to get it here; in my opinion, having a list like that undercuts one of the great things about playing a spellcaster in the game, which is the ability to use your powers creatively and come up with spells on the fly. This post is focused on the sorts of things you need to take into account when creating a spell, and only secondarily is it intended to offer a little inspiration to the magically inclined out there*.

I’m going to be using Harry’s stats from Our World as the basis for the math in this post. You can find his write-up on p136, if you want to follow along at home.

Let’s get started.

Get Away From Me!

In a couple of places in the book, Harry blasts a foe with an evocation that catapults them away from him, giving him time to run away or deal with something else.

Now, as with any evocation, there are lots of different ways to apply the various elements to produce the effect; air and spirit are the most obvious, but a mystic wave of water or a blast of expanding air from a sudden heat source or the gravity of the target shifting 90 degrees would also all work. For our purposes, let’s go with spirit, in the guise of pure force slamming into the target and sending it flying.

Once we’ve chosen the effect, we have to pick what mechanics we’re going to use to model it. For this effect, it’s a little tough, because there are no rules for using evocation for movement – Harry points out that movement via evocation would be a wild, uncontrolled, unsafe thing. Because we’re applying this to an enemy, though, we don’t mind those problems so much.

The obvious option is to model it as a maneuver, applying the Aspect Knocked Sprawling or something like that*. If the point of the spell is to move the target one or more zones away from you while applying the Aspect, I’d say that it would take extra power to do that. And there we have the mechanic.

Next, we need to determine power requirements. Assuming a standard mortal as a target, that’s going to take 3 shifts of power to apply the maneuver. However, if we also want to move the target one or more zones away, that’ll take a little more power – I’d say 1 per zone, plus another 1 for every level of barrier between zones that the target needs to move through. So, Harry, with a Superb (+5) Conviction, can call up 5 shifts of power for only a 1-stress hit. That’s enough to toss a normal target 2 zones away if there’s nothing in the way. If there’s a barrier:1 fence in the way, the target’s only going 1 zone away. And a barrier:2 wall means the target’s not going anywhere. Let’s keep it at 5 shifts for our calculations.

So, 5 shifts is easy to call up, with only a 1-stress price tag. But it’s still more power than Harry can readily control with his Good (+3) Discipline and his focus item (his staff). He’ll need to roll at least a +1 on the dice to keep from having to worry about backlash and fallout, which he should be able to do 38.3% of the time. Assuming success, the target should probably get a chance to oppose with either an Athletics roll (to dodge) or Might roll (to tough it out and not be moved).

Final version of the spell looks like this:

Knockback

Type: Spirit (force) evocation, offensive maneuver

Power: Varies; typical is 5 shifts – 3 for effect plus 2 for distance

Control: Roll Discipline plus appropriate specializations and focus items.

Duration: One action

Opposed by: Target’s Athletics or Might

Effect: If the spell hits, the target has Knocked Sprawling temporary Aspect applied, and is thrown one zone away from the caster for every extra extra shift of power. Barriers between zones reduce the distance by their barrier value: i.e., the shifts of power must overcome the barrier value to move the target through the barrier.

Notes: GMs may wish to apply some damage to a target passing through – or failing to pass through – a solid barrier.

Feather Fall

A quick, simple spell to keep you from getting hurt when you fall. This is a little more challenging than the above spell, partially because of the way falling works in DFRPG. See, when you fall, you take a hit equal to 5 stress for every 10 full feet you fall, and most protections just don’t work against it. You need either supernatural toughness or a shielding spell specifically constructed to absorb falling damage. Given the speed at which things fall, even evocation may not be fast enough to save you*.

Let’s look at two different ways to save yourself from falling damage: through evocation and through thaumaturgy.

Evocation

For this, we’re going to want to set up a block, obviously, focused on absorbing falling impact. The obvious element for this one is air, though earth comes a close second, by lessening gravity and softening the surface. But let’s go with spirit, because Harry’s better at it – forming a cushion of force for him to land on.

For every shift of power we channel into the spell, it’s going to offset one shift of stress from the fall. This means that the amount of power we want is going to vary depending on how far we’re falling. For simplicity’s sake, let’s go with 5 shifts, so that we take no damage from a 10-foot fall, and only 5 shifts from a 20-foot fall; enough to be useful, but still practical to deal with in an evocation situation.

So, simple. Pull in five shifts of power, and roll to control. 5 shifts is easy for Harry to call up with his Superb (+5) Conviction, requiring only a 1-stress hit on his Mental track*. With his Good (+3) Discipline and his shield bracelet focus item, he’s effectively got a Great (+4) Discipline, so he needs to roll a +1 or better to soak up the 5 stress, which is again a 38.3% chance for him. Because he probably really needs this to work, let’s hope he’s got a Fate Point to spend.

Final version of the spell:

Featherbed

Type: Spirit (force) evocation, defensive block

Power: Varies; typical is 5 shifts – enough to offset 10 feet of falling distance

Control: Roll Discipline plus appropriate specializations and focus items.

Duration: One action

Effect: This spell reduces the number of shifts of damage taken from falling by the number of shifts of power in the spell.

Thaumaturgy

Thaumaturgy is far too slow to be of use when you get tossed off the side of a building, but if you know you’re going to be facing down a feathered serpent on top of the Chrysler Building, you might want to consider a little preparation for the (hopefully) unlikely event that you’re going to plummet to your doom. Now, the rules don’t explicitly talk about this sort of contingent spell, but the way wards work and can trigger magic shows the basic process.

What we’re really doing here is designing a low-powered ward that is activated by falling a certain distance and, when activated, unleashes a stored evocation to cushion our fall. So, for base complexity, we’re talking about a single shift for the basic ward that we need to trigger the evocation – wards release stored spells when they fail, so we want this one to fail pretty quickly. Add 2 more shifts for the conditional trigger, and then as much power as you want in the final protection – let’s say 10 shifts, giving us a free 20-foot fall. Total complexity of 13.

Now, Harry’s got a Lore of Good (+3), so he needs to make up 10 shifts in order to be able to cast this spell. So, how about he researches the basics in his library (Lore: Basic Ritual Research), gets Bob to check his calculations (Rapport: Bob’s Input), tracks down where to find a peregrine falcon nest (Investigation: Bird’s Nest), sneaks past building security to get to the roof where the falcons are nesting (Stealth: Through the Perimeter), and climbs out on the ledge of the building where the birds nest to snag some feathers (Athletics: Flight Feathers). That gives him an extra 10 shifts, so he can now cast the spell*.

Finally, Harry needs to pull in 13 shifts of power to make this work. Given his Good (+3) Discipline and lack of bonuses to thaumaturgic control of this type (his specialty is Divination), he’s probably safest going 1 shift at a time, which means it’s going to take 13 rounds for him to actually cast the spell. But this is the sort of thing where you usually don’t have a lot of time pressure, so that’s okay. Harry needs to roll a -2 or better on each of the rolls to successfully cast the spell. That means he’s got a 6.2% chance of blowing any of rolls, which is as safe as he can possibly make it.

Once cast, the ward is going to last until the next sunrise, unless it’s triggered. When triggered, it lets go with a 10-shift block against falling damage.

Final version of the spell:

Mystic Parachute

Type: Thaumaturgy, wards

Complexity: Varies, 13 is typical – 1 for the ward, 2 for the trigger condition, 10 for the defensive block

Duration: Usually, until sunrise

Effect: Once cast, this ward is triggered whenever the recipient of the spell falls 10 feet or more. When triggered, the ward creates a 10-shift defensive block against the falling impact.

Variations: This model can be used to create all sorts of triggered spell effects.

Psychometry

The primary tool for practitioners to get magical information is The Sight, but it’s got a few risks. First, you’ve got to worry about the stress from whatever you see, and second, you’ve got to figure out the meaning of the stuff you see. It’s a powerful, flexible tool, but it doesn’t always fit the situation, especially if you’re not dealing with magical stuff. For psychometry of mundane objects or people, The Sight is not the best choice.

Let’s look at a specific application of psychometry – Harry needs to find out who left a footprint in his backyard. Obviously, this is going to be a thaumaturgic ritual*, and Harry’s got a pretty good symbolic link, which is the footprint itself. He needs to decide how he’s going to use his magic to get the information he wants: he could trace a link from the footprint to the shoe, or call up the spirits of the grass for a description, or any one of a number of things. Harry’s a bit of a traditionalist, though, so he opts for looking into the past to see an image of the person who made the footprint.

If Harry were using mundane means, he’d find the person who made the footprint using Investigation: taking a picture and maybe a cast of the print, comparing it to shoe types to find the brand and noting anything odd about the tread or wear pattern, finding out where the shoe is sold, sifting through customer lists, etc. Doable, but difficult. Let’s set the difficulty at Superb.

The difficulty of the skill check is what sets the complexity of the ritual, so we’ve got a ritual of complexity 5 right here. Harry’s Lore is Good (+3), so he needs to make up two shifts in order to cast this spell. He spends a little time examining the rest of his yard looking for other footprints, to give himself a larger sample size for the ritual (Alertness: Multiple Prints), and then he’s ready to cast the spell.

He needs to call 5 shifts of power, and he’s got a Control of Good (+3). He’s also got a specialty in Control (Divination +1), so he’s effectively got a discipline of Great (+4) for this ritual. If he goes 1 shift at a time, he’s going to take 5 rounds to cast the ritual, and need to roll -3 or higher on each roll; that means he has a 1.2% chance of failing any given roll. Should be easy for him.

Final version of the spell:

Psycometric Retrocognition

Type: Thaumaturgy, divination

Complexity: Varies, 5 is typical

Duration: One scene

Effect: This spell allows the caster to see an image of a person linked to an item. The person must be important to the item in some way: the current owner, the creator, the last person to touch it, the person who broke it, etc.

Up, Up, and Away!

In the Dresdenverse, spellcasters usually don’t try flying spells, and there’s a paragraph at the bottom of p282 of Your Story that explains why*. It’s a matter of control – just because you have the ability to fly doesn’t mean you have the expertise to safely move through the air. And given the penalty for falling from any sort of height, there’s a real danger inherent to slipping the surly bonds of earth.

That said, building a flying spell is pretty simple, if the GM is going to allow it. Personally, I would let someone get away with it if he or she built the character to show that he or she had spent time mastering the intricacies of aerial movement. Here, I’m thinking a minimum of a stunt to reflect the ability to use Athletics for flying, and preferably both the stunt and an Aspect to show the time and effort expended in gaining this off-beat skill trapping.

The guideline for gaining new powers by using magic are laid out in the sidebar of p283 of Your Story: what you need to do is transform yourself into a form with the new powers. You need shifts of complexity equal the amount necessary to kill a target, plus you need to spend Fate Points to gain the temporary powers.

So, let’s say Harry wants to be able to fly, binding the winds to hold him aloft and move him around, and his benevolent GM has okayed the attempt. In my mind, though it’s not listed anywhere in the rules that I can find, transforming a willing target should be easier than an unwilling one, so for purposes of this spell, Harry has to meet a complexity equal to all his possible consequences plus 1, but doesn’t need to overcome his Stress Track (because he just decides to take all consequences rather than Stress), and his defense rating is locked at Mediocre (+0) (because he’s not trying to resist the spell or defend against it in any way). This sets the base complexity for the spell at 21: 2 for his minor consequence, 4 for his moderate consequence, 6 for his severe consequence, 8 for his extreme consequence, and 1 to take him out. The taken out effect becomes gaining the ability to fly.

Duration becomes very important for a spell like this. I’d start the default duration at a single scene* (15 minutes or so), so if Harry wants to be able to fly for longer than that, he needs to boost the complexity as well. Let’s say he needs to be able to fly for a day. That increases the complexity by 5, stepping him up the duration ladder from 15 minutes to a day. Total complexity comes out at 26.

In addition to this complexity, Harry has to pay Fate Points for the power, in essence temporarily lowering his Refresh to buy the power for the duration of the spell. While there is no Flight power, there is Wings, which is a -1 power. That’s close enough for our purposes, so Harry needs to pay a Fate Point for the power. If he needed to fly super-fast, he’d have to pay the Fate Point for Wings, plus another 2, 4, or 6 for the desired level of speed power. But let’s keep it just to flying.

Now, Harry’s got a Lore of Good (+3). That means he needs to make up a whopping 23-shift deficit to be able to cast this spell, and he needs to have at least a single Fate Point left at the end to pay for the Wings*. For convenience, let’s say he goes through the same routine he did for the Magic Parachute spell above, giving him +10. After that, he buys some special incense for the ritual (Resources: Ritual Incense), gets Listens-To-Wind to bless his falcon feathers (Contacts: Shaman’s Blessing), does a little research into the wind patterns over the city to find the optimal place to get the attention of wind spirits (Scholarship: Air-Flow Map), fasts for a day to purify himself (Endurance: Ritual Purification), spends an hour conducting a centering meditation (Discipline: Focused Mind), and then drives out to where he’s going to cast the spell and scares off the muggers in the park so he can work uninterrupted (Intimidation: Quiet Workspace). That bumps him up to a total of +24, so he’s set to cast the spell.

Dealing with so much magic, there’s a real potential that, if things go badly, Harry’s going to be in a world of hurt, so he’s going to go slowly with the actual casting, drawing one shift of power at a time. With his Good (+3) Discipline, that means that he needs to roll -2 or better on each of his 26(!) rolls to get the power he needs and take to the air. He’s only got a 6.2% chance of blowing any single roll, but with the large number of rolls, he’s got about a 16.8% chance of succeeding on all 26 rolls without needing to spend a Fate Point or take some backlash*. Not an easy spell.

Final version of the spell:

Rite of Icarus

Type: Thaumaturgy, transformation

Complexity: 26; can vary depending on duration

Duration: One day

Effect: When the caster completes this ritual, he or she must pay one Fate Point. The caster then gains the ability to fly, as per the Wings supernatural power, for one day. Unless the caster has some training in moving aerially (reflected by an Aspect and/or stunt), the caster’s Athletics is considered Terrible (-2) for purposes of moving by way of flight.

Variations: This model can be used to gain any reasonable power, subject to GM approval. Fate Point cost is equal to the refresh cost of the power acquired.

 

There you have five examples of building spells. The mechanics get to be second nature pretty quickly once you get your head around a couple of basic concepts, so don’t let it overwhelm you. Come up with a couple of prebuilt spells that your character knows and you can see coming in handy during play, and work out all the math before hand to help speed things up during play, and you’ll soon start to see the way things fit together. Once that happens, building spells on the fly gets much easier and faster.

Next up in the Magic in DFRPG series is Math and Miscellany, where I’m going to talk about how to work out bonuses from focus items and specialties, as well as some of the corner-cases of the magic rules: things like The Sight, Soulgazes, Potions, and so on.

 
 
 

*What I’m really saying is, “Come up with your own spells. It’s more fun for you, and you’ll like them better.” Back

*As an alternative, use it as an attack, and ask the GM to make any consequence inflicted reflect the idea that the spell knocked the target back. Back

*At least, not without the expenditure of Fate Points and a kindly GM… Back

*And let’s be honest: If we’re falling off something tall enough to hurt us, we’re in the kind of situation where we need to be monitoring our stress tracks carefully. Back

*Plus, the player has come up with an interesting little story about how the spell is cast. The story of the spell, remember. Back

*Though I’d be willing to rethink that if someone came up with a convincing – and cool – enough justification for using evocation. Back

*In my mind, this is false. I think a lot of spellcasters try flying spells; they just give up on them real quick when they see the problems involved. Back

*Though I’d vary this based on circumstances, the intent of the character, and the needs of the story. Back

*Or accept a compel to be named at a later time by the GM – a compel that he can’t refuse, no matter how many Fate Points he’s got. Back

* By contrast, having a Discipline of Great (+4) would mean that he’d have a 72.2% chance of making the rolls. Huge difference! Back

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16 Responses to How to Build Spells, or A Practical Grimoire: Magic in DFRPG, Part Five

  1. Tush Hog says:

    Hey Rick, great job on the spells! These examples are really helping me get a handle on putting together spells myself. I appreciate you walking through the process because instead of having a few spells to toss into my repertoire, I can use these to help make whatever spell I need – the whole teach a guy to fish thing :)

    Man, I love the flexibility of this magic system!

  2. Rel Fexive says:

    Great work :)

  3. JesterOC says:

    I had tweeted to Rob Donoghue about Apsects created by Maneuvers and if they could be Invoked for effect. He said absolutely. Given that, I was thinking that you should be able to create a spell like this.

    Anti-Gravity
    Type: Earth evocation, maneuver

    Power: Varies; typical is 5 shifts – 3 for the maneuver two extra for 2 extra exchanges

    Control: Roll Discipline plus appropriate specializations and focus items.

    Duration: One or more exchanges

    Effect: This spell adds the Aspect “Neutral Buoyancy” which can be tagged for effect to make the target weightless. So a player should be able to say I am weightless (or near weightless) and I just float to the bottom of the building. You could also use this to justify easier climbing up of buildings.

    For those who might think this should not work this way (and to be honest I have my doubts too) ,you will notice that this is very similar to the “Harry Blinds the Loup-Garou” spell in the books. (Except that this is cast on a willing subject.) The blinding spell just adds the Aspect Blinded on the target. Normally this would only allow you to get a +2 or a reroll to in order for the spell to work like the book, the aspect must be invoked for effect, which means that the player can just narrate how they want the spell to work.

  4. Rick Neal says:

    That would also work very well, and would be less chancy and more effective than the ones I worked out, thanks to the way it’s structured.

    This is one of the reasons I love this magic system: there’s always another way to do something, and the creativity of the spellcaster (and player) really comes into play. If you can come up with a clever way to do something, the system will support you, so coming up with clever stuff gets rewarded.

    Thanks for posting the spell, JesterOC!

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  6. Archmage_cowl says:

    hey rick amazing spells. I love them. I have a question for you though. If harry is trying to take himself out with a spell can’t he just have enough shifts in the spell to hit above his stress track (so 5 in this case) and then conceed without taking any consequences and the concession is that the spell works like it is supposed to? A largely unrelated thing, that you may already know in Your Story pg 283 in the margins it notes that in shape shifting they can also add more complexity to the spell, increasing it by 2 shifts for every point of refresh gained to not have to spend fate points to have those temporary effects (noted specifically by the “and tags” part.)

  7. Rick Neal says:

    First off, thanks for all the kind words. I’m glad people are finding them useful.

    @Archmage_cowl: With regards to taking yourself out with a spell, I guess you could do it that way, but I wouldn’t. Three reasons: first, it would make self-transformation magic far more common than we’ve seen in the source material – things like shapechanging and whatnot are quite rare in the novels, and that suggests high complexity for those spells. Second, it opens the door to reducing the complexity even farther, to 1: you can concede without ever taking a consequence or point of stress. Yeah, that’s a real munchkin gambit on the part of the player, but it can happen, especially when the player is desperate. Third, you’re not actually taking yourself out with the spell – that’s just the model for determining complexity. You have to overcome your innate resistance (morphic resonance, as it were) to be able to make the change, and that’s difficult. So, that’s why I wouldn’t do it the way you suggest.

    Having said that, if you want to increase the flexibility and usefulness of this kind of magic in your campaign, that’s a good way to do it.

    Now, about p283 in Your Story: I think you’re looking at an older version of the .pdf. I seem to recall the possibility of increasing complexity to make up for Refresh spending in an earlier version of the book, but it’s not in my current version of the .pdf, nor is it in the print version. I’d guess it was removed from the book between the version you’re looking at and the released version. That said, I can see that working if, again, you want to increase the prevalence of that kind of magic.

  8. korwin says:

    [quote]Three reasons: first, it would make self-transformation magic far more common than we’ve seen in the source material – things like shapechanging and whatnot are quite rare in the novels[/quote]

    Huh?
    We have an Wolf who changes shape into an Human.
    And an whole gang (Billy & Co) who changes into wolfes.
    Those are fairly low powered, too (unlike the other examples: Lea, Listen to Winds, Shagnasty)

    Shure in the RPG those cases are mechanically different powers.
    But in the source material, shapechanging doesnt seem ‘that’ hard…

  9. Rick Neal says:

    @korwin: I should have been more explicit. Wizardly shapechanging is practically unknown in the source material – the only Wizard we see doing any shapechanging is Listens to Wind. In fact, in Fool Moon, there’s a discussion about why more Wizards don’t use shapechanging – basically, it boils down to the fact that using the new forms takes a great deal of practice.

  10. Mitchell says:

    Sadly they have stated in the updates that wards are almost always tied to a threshold and are stationary.
    They do leave a loophole for veils to have trigger events though. BUT if a Veil is cast as a
    thaumaturgic ritual it is also stationary… So hard to get the duration…..but I liked the concept anyway!!
    All this was really helpful to me in understanding what was going on!!

    So thank you very much!!

  11. Rick Neal says:

    @Mitchell: The mystic parachute spell is less a true ward than a way to model a contingent spell using the mechanics illustrated under a ward. The ward itself doesn’t provide any blocking value – that’s all done by the evocation that’s triggered, landmine-style, when the conditions are met.

  12. Mitchell says:

    That could work. Especially if you consider that they only put it at a complexity of 2 to put in a specific condition.
    But in that case I’d just get rid of the ‘ward’ component altogether.
    Maybe root it into transformation and say you were changing something about yourself…or put it in a zero strength veil.
    Anyway! Been very educational!!

  13. Frank says:

    Suppose I want to make a booby trap for a forbidden spellbook–the final page with the incantation is torn in two, and the missing half is on the floor. Human nature being what it is, the villain picks it up, fits it in and BLAMMO! Booby-trap spell goes off!

    First off, would they get a Lore roll (assuming they weren’t looking for a trap-spell) when they touch the torn page, and
    Second, is what I’m doing a “Land mine” or actually a different exercise in Thaumaturgy a la Sigrun Gard’s Lightning Serpent, with a focus on the page as the trigger?

  14. Rick Neal says:

    First off, a caveat for you if you’re a player: it’s all gonna work just the way your GM says it works.

    Secondly, a caveat for you if you’re a GM: it’s all gonna work just the way you say it works.

    Third, the way I would do it, which is not the only way, or even necessarily the best way (as noted by the comments above, and several threads elsewhere on the Internet):

    As far as detecting the trap goes, I’d give the target a Lore roll if he/she was being careful or paranoid in general, whether or not he/she specifically checked the paper. If there’s no mention of being careful, there’s no roll. If we’re talking about an NPC, I’d base the decision on how careful the character generally is and how much I want to keep that character in the story.

    Now, as for building it, I see it definitely as a land mine, with selective conditions. I did some quick looking through the books, and didn’t find a reference to how Sigrun Gard’s lightning serpent trap was a different exercise in Thaumaturgy, so I don’t know what to say about that. As far as I can tell, she built a land mine, except she used Thaumaturgy provided by her Sponsored Magic (Runes) to do it. So, the jazz may have looked different, but the underlying mechanical game construct is a land mine.

    Two things I’d warn a player about in my game who wanted to cast this spell. First, it’s going to wear off pretty quickly if someone starts moving the book around. If it’s just sitting on a shelf or table, that’s one thing, but if it’s something being carried on your person, it’s not going to last. This is because wards and land mines need to be tied to pretty stationary things, in general.

    Second, if this spell kills someone, you’ve broken The First Law, and no amount of weaselly justification is going to get you out of that.

    Hope that helps.

  15. Frank says:

    No problem, I was thinking more along the lines of of a temporary aspect or consequence to place upon the malfactor, given the 1) the First Law and 2) the difficulty in killing anyone outright with one spell anyway. Thanks for the help!

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