Any thoughts on how to do magical characters that don’t use a spell list (and don’t necessarily resort to some…

Any thoughts on how to do magical characters that don’t use a spell list (and don’t necessarily resort to some…

Any thoughts on how to do magical characters that don’t use a spell list (and don’t necessarily resort to some version of Ritual)? Or is spell list still considered the most mechanically preferable?

I have a concept – a sort of thief-wizard mash-up – that I think could go with a thematic approach (trickster, social, something along those lines) to using magic but I’m not sure whether a traditional wizard method would work best.

Two of the methods I’ve seen that seem to appeal are:

(1) using tags to create freeform effects (mostly seen with elementalist-type playbooks and obviously combative magical types)

(2) selecting effects from a list of predefined options (mostly seen in racial playbooks that have natural magic)

I’m wondering if anyone has done non-weapon tags before with (1) and how that worked out. I haven’t got an idea whether utility, control, and other stuff would be underpowered or overpowered in such a method. I don’t think I’ve seen a playbook use that kind of approach yet.

I’m also curious whether anyone with experience in (2) has decided that (2) is too strong or weak. I’ve seen alternate versions of the Elf that all have this approach and some look weaker to me than others in terms of what they can do, but then some might be too strong in the first place.

As an example, let’s say I want to create an invisibility effect. With (1), I would have to be able to assign some kind of tag that would include not being seen as part of it, but that would also open up other types of concealment, potentially, which might be okay. While with (2) I am basically just saying: one of the magic things you can do is go invisible.

I’m not sure I’m explaining well enough, so let me know.

22 thoughts on “Any thoughts on how to do magical characters that don’t use a spell list (and don’t necessarily resort to some…”

  1. Something like what you are talking about is the driders black magic move. It would be easy just to replace the weapon tags with other for non combat or non damage effects. Like add the Stealthy or Camouflage.

    Black Magic (INT or CHA)

    When you gain this move, circle whether it uses INT or CHA.

    When you weave a spell to inflict pain, choose two tags from the list and roll +INT/CHA.

    If you do not pick any Range tags, the Range defaults to Hand. On a hit, deal 1d8 damage. On a 7-9, also choose 1:

    • You draw unwanted attention or put someone in a spot.

    • The GM removes a non-range tag of their choice, and you deal -1 damage.

    • The casting saps your energy. You take -1 ongoing to Black Magic until you have a few minutes to clear your head.

    Range Tags

    Hand: A melee attack that requires you to get close enough to touch your target

    Reach: A melee attack that needs room, good for keeping enemies from getting close to you Near: A ranged attack, safe to use when enemies aren’t on top of you


    Debilitating (half damage): Hinder or slow down enemies, but deal half damage Elemental (fire): Set your target on fire

    Forceful: Knock the targets back several feet, possibly off their feet

    Piercing 1: Ignore 1 point of the target’s armor

    Two Targets (-1 damage): Target two enemies at the same time, but deal one less damage

  2. Yeah that looks like it’s in the ballpark of what I was thinking of for one method. I just haven’t seen that approach used with, for lack of a better way to say it, “non-combat” spells.

    I guess I’m curious whether people would normally default to using Ritual for non-combat applications or whether anyone has thought of using tags in this way.

  3. The Mage’s cast a spell has verbage that is more liberal to non combat applications. Is that what you are looking for? Somethign more liek this:

    Cast a Spell (INT)

    When you weave a spell to help solve a problem, describe it and roll +INT. Spells cast this way can never deal damage directly. On a 10+, the spell certainly helps, but choose two, or let the GM choose one. On a 7-9, the spell takes effect, but the GM chooses 2:

    Your spell’s effect is temporary or superficial.

    Your spell affects either much more or much less than you wanted it to.

    Your spell has unforeseen side effects, and might draw unwanted attention.

    The casting saps your energy. You take -1 ongoing to INT until you have a few minutes to clear your head.

    On a miss, something’s gone horribly wrong. Your spell may well have worked, but you will regret casting it.

  4. Eric Lochstampfor I’ve seen that too but the problem I’ve heard with people who have had Mages in their groups is the Mage takes up too much spotlight because its Cast a Spell is very expansive.

    Let me try to explain a bit more explicitly. Let’s say I want to use tags to create a invisibility spell on the fly. I’d probably have to make a “hidden” or “concealment” tag or something else. But maybe having access to that tag lets me hide objects too or with a creative player it otherwise obscures sight (maybe it makes darkness that blinds people, if some combo is used properly).

    I guess what I’m asking is whether someone else has done this before, and if so, whether it worked out for them or it didn’t and why; alternately, wondering whether this application is new and whether anyone has any thoughts on why or why not it might not be workable.

    I’m not trying to make a broadly applicable magic move that can do basically anything, but rather something that has some constraints based on the tags you can use with it.

    Like, if I am making this character who has sneaky/roguey kinds of magic, I want to be able to use tags that could help me create those effects.

    So maybe a “charmed” tag and a “hidden” tag and some short-term conjurations represented by something else, etc.

    I don’t really want to just say “Let’s use Ritual” and make whatever kind of magic effect because I don’t see the flavor of this playbook being about rituals.

    The other idea I’ve seen is, as mentioned above, to basically make a mini-spell list and stuff it into a move. Like, “You can go invisible; you can charm someone; you can distract or confuse people,” etc.

    Rory MacLeod I’ve seen a fair bit of them, yeah. I was asking whether this particular application has been done before because I hadn’t seen it.

    Like, maybe I am making this too hard or not communicating it well enough. This is the first playbook I am looking at writing but I have seen a lot of third party playbooks by now, some studied in depth more than others. My instinct is that people probably haven’t done it the way I’m thinking of because they have either handle it with Ritual or have done a spell list but haven’t gone for this with freeform.

    I thought the invisibility example would spell it out pretty well but it seems it didn’t work.

  5. I might go that route in the end just for least resistance. I could be over-complicating this.

    My problem with using a spell list is I’d probably have to write a whole bunch of spells for the class, since I think only some of what I think it should be able to do is represented in the spell lists I’ve seen.

  6. I’m having a hard time imagining a tag-based approach to (non-fighty) spell casting that doesn’t ultimately look like the Mage playbook. I’m not a fan, because it ultimately boils the character down to having a single move that resolves any problem. Like, everything becomes, effectively, “I defy danger WITH MAGIC.”

    The beauty of magic-as-individual-moves is that it lets you define how that type of conflict plays out with magic. A move that lets you use deceptive/hidey magic might work really well as a hold-and-spend move. But a move that lets you warp time and space would probably work better as a pick 1 or 2 type move.  Mike Wice’s abjurer and other specialist wizards do a nice job with this, as do a lot of the magician specialties in Class Warfare.

    The downside is that you end up needing a lot of moves to cover all the bases, and some of them end up super niche and thus not very appealing.  Also: they can be hard to write.

  7. I wrote a mage playbook based somewhat on the world of darkness mage, and somewhat on the ars magica system that wod mage was built on.

    first, you have to roll for hold and spend hold to be able to cast a spell.

    then you have a “verb-noun” style of casting where the idea is to declare what effect you’re going for, and then declare your target, all formatted as statements ‘in the fiction:

    “I am _____ing the _____


    I am harming the orc

    I am veiling myself

    I am compelling the wolf

    and so on.

    the balance comes in two flavors

    a. you must spend a limited resource to cast, running out of that resource means no more spells (for now)

    b. you can only cast spells using the ‘verbs’ you know. the starting move only has 4-5, and there are advanced moves that can give you a couple more each, but even at maximum you’ll only ever have 6-8 verbs out of a list of (if I remember correct) 15ish verbs.

    c. only one verb is actively about harming anything (there are upgrades to it, but they replace the verb with a new one ‘unraveling, unmaking’ at their respective levels)

    d. since I wanted to step away from INT = magic, and encourage other styles of character to be mages, I designed a mechanic where you separate from the world by ‘destroying’ your bonds with other people and becoming isolated.

    You only have 3 bonds, and you can burn a bond to gain +1 Arcane Bond (your connection to the currents of magic in the world)

    So it’s a balancing act between power and people (and a slight dip in XP if you burn every bond for that +3)

    this also allows for varying flavors of the same playbook.

    it’s rough, but I think my playbook is mostly play(test)able, hit me up if you want me to send it to you.

  8. Sounds like the Druid’s Shapeshift move might be somewhere in the neighborhood of what you are describing for a base move.  Instead of spending hold on moves particular to the Druid’s new form, the hold could shape the free-form spell being cast with tags as you described.  Tags that you hope to flavor the spell with might be complicated with amendments by the GM depending on the dice.

  9. Laddeus x thanks for the idea. I’ll give the Artificer a glance.

    Bruce Baugh I am not surprised you got what I was talking about here and were receptive. I’m not sure yet if I want to take the tag approach but I might try it out anyway since I’m sure there are other folks out there with an interest. I might even do a few different versions of this class concept to see which I prefer the most.

    Travis Geery I have plans for something else that, if it works out, would draw upon that mechanic for a different concept. I don’t know if I want to just hack the Druid endlessly. I think Tim Franzke has talked about shapeshifting being a one size fits all move for everything but I felt, playing one, that I never had an always-on solution to whatever my problems were. I did feel that the move dominated my play experience, though. Which someone might read as saying the same thing differently, but I don’t.

    Social Justice Commander Shepard I think I saw a version of your playbook somewhere at some point. I’d be interested to see what you’ve got, though.

  10. My Spontaneous Caster specialty/compendium class might be worth looking at?

    It’s on par with your first suggested method, I.e. it’s more taggish than effectish. On the other end, there’s my Godling, though that’s slightly less ready to go out of the box given all the divine associations:

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