Atlas Rules Resources Adventures Stories FAQ Search Links
The Colour of Magic from Dragon Magazine #200by Dan Joyce
Specialized spells for D&D game spellcasters
Life for a low-level NPC spellcaster in the D&D game can be nasty, brutish, and short - as Unwin the Seer is about to find out. His career as a villain is looking good. He's charmed six ogres in as many days and has made quite a splash in caravan-robbing circles.
Now he sits playing cards with his ogre buddies, happy in the knowledge that the main door to his hall is bolted shut. His happiness lasts about two minutes.
CRASH! The door swings inward, the lock broken. Three humans enter; the two in front are armed and armoured, and the one behind them wears robes and a pointy hat. Adventurers!
The ogres grab their clubs. Unwin leaps to his feet, scattering cards everywhere, and begins to chant and gesture with obvious arcane intent. A shimmering arrow appears in the air and darts toward the adventurers. Oxbrain the Hero is hit square in the chest. He does not seem to care.
"Surrender or die!" shouts Unwin. "There's more where that came from."
"Rubbish," sneers Oxbrain, lifting his spear. "You've shot your bolt. Eat this, low-level scum!" He turns and whispers to Xeno the Enchanter, "Magic missile? I thought this guy was tough!"
Oxbrain hurls his spear. Unwin catches it in the chest and dies instantly. His ogres soon follow. The game is over.
D&D game magic doesn't always have the mystique it deserves. It is simple and it works, but there are only a certain number of spells, and experienced players can recognise them instantly. When they have seen one magic missile, they have seen them all. When they know that one Enchanter could do, they know what all Enchanters could do. Magic-users cease to be men of mystery and become instead merely grades of heavy artillery in pointy hats.
It is even worse at lower levels, where there are fewer options. The average 1st-level magic-user is a sleep spell on legs. Players just will not respect such characters unless you can recreate a sense of mystery and a world in which every magic-user can do something different.
This looks like a plea to create separate spell lists for every magic-user. It is not - quite. The existing D&D spells from the D&D Cyclopaedia cover most magical effects already. "New" spells are often just minor variations of old ones. Bardolph's electromagnetic barrier sounds novel, but if it measures 20' x 60', prevents the passage of creatures with fewer than four hit dice, and does 1-6 points of damage to all others, then it's not very different from wall of fire or wall of ice. At least, it's not very different in terms of game mechanics. In terms of game atmosphere (how the players perceive it), it could be very different indeed!
This is the key to creating hundreds of new spells to suit any kind of spell-caster: make cosmetic changes to existing spells. Describe spells differently. Magic missile need not be a shimmering arrow. It could be a telekinetic fist, a jet of flame, or a steel pin stuck into a voodoo doll. The game mechanics remain the same. All that changes is how these effects are brought about. Hence, a magic missile variant will still do 2-7 points of damage, with a range of 150' and a duration of one round. A shield spell still grants a saving throw. As for the rest, use your imagination. Maybe Maximus the Black casts a magic missile by momentarily enchanting his dagger, then making a pass at a distant enemy with it. A cut, doing 2-7 points of damage, opens up on Maximus' enemy, mirroring the swipe Maximus made with his dagger.
When you redefine how spells work, you may need to make some additional, minor changes for the sake of consistency. Maximus the Black, for instance, will always need a dagger or some other sharp implement with which to cast his version of magic missile. Such changes require careful thought from the DM and ought not to affect the overall power of the spell too greatly.
The benefit of this method is that there is no danger of upsetting the game balance. All the spell effects have been extensively play tested already. Redefining the causes just adds colour, individuality, and panache.
Spells can also be styled so that they are in keeping with the overall conception of the character. As an example, take Illfrith the Ice Queen, a 5th-level magic-user NPC who lives in the DM's "Northern Wastes" campaign. Ordinarily, she would not be able to use any "ice magic" until she reached 7th level (wall of ice). Yet she can cast fireball at 5th level. By describing her spells differently, however, she becomes a real Mistress of Ice Magic.
Here are Illfrith's spells, with descriptive notes. Unless stated otherwise, all the effects remain the same as the original spell (damage, range, duration, saving throws, etc.).
Magic missile. Illfrith conjures an icicle out of thin air, then hurls it.
Shield. Her skin becomes the bluish-white colour of a glacier. Intense heat, as from a fire-based spell or large, open bonfire or furnace within 10', negates this spell.
Knock. Illfrith freezes any lock or bar on the affected portal, causing it to become brittle and shatter with the first use of force.
Web. Instead of sticky strands, a layer of ice forms over the area affected, immobilising all within. The ice can be physically broken or melted with fire (standard 1-6 points of damage in the latter case to any characters touched by the flamed).
Fireball. Illfrith creates a zone of intense cold (Fimbul-winter) in an area corresponding to a fireball's standard area of effect. The duration is one round.
If you work backward from the effects to the cause, you will find that standard D&D spells can be transformed almost infinitely. So long as the power of a spell is not increased, anything goes. You can even change the name if it suits you. The D&D game is about imagination. Use it, and bring back mystical magic. (See the assorted NPCs at the end of this article for further ideas.)
That all-important panache
Let's continue the action from the introductory scenario. After the ogres are dispatched, a lone adventurer heads back for town. At the Gutted Goblin Tavern, the singed survivor swears at his flint and tinder. Xeno the Enchanter has had a hard day down in the dungeon. Thanks to him, half-a-dozen ogres, a magic-user, two close friends, and a room full of expensive furnishings are now only piles of hot ash. But producing 33,529 cubic feet of white-hot flame takes a lot out of a man, and he is gasping for a good smoke to relax. Unfortunately, he cannot raise a spark to light his pipe.
Magic is powerful stuff, and casting even a first-level spell presumably requires a lot of physical or mental effort. No one ought to be able to cast fireballs indefinitely.
The problem arises at the lower end of the magical scale. There are no spells less powerful than those of first level - no cantrips, no minor prestidigitations. A Warlock may be able to fly and turn invisible, but he still has to cook his own breakfast. Xeno the Enchanter can conjure a fireball by waving his arms about, but he cannot light his pipe by snapping his fingers.
Magic-users need a bit more panache than this. In one sense they are only human - even a Necromancer has to use the garderobe - but they are also a breed apart. A magic-user who lowers himself to plebeian levels does a lot of harm to his image, and this illusion of power is one of his greatest assets. To maintain this image, the magic-user ought to be able to do ordinary things in an extraordinary way. Xeno should be able to light his pipe like that - SNAP! He could probably poach his eggs without a campfire, too.
Don't go overboard. A good rule of thumb is to allow magic-users to do magically only what they can already do by normal means. The idea is to enhance the atmosphere of the game, not the power of the magic-user. No effect as powerful as even a first-level spell should be allowed.
To prevent players doing "just anything" with these subsidiary powers, and also for the sake of consistency, all magical effects should reflect the spells that the magic-user already knows. Xeno, incinerator extraordinaire, can dispense with flint and tinder to light his pipe. Corvus the Conjurer (who knows levitate, floating disc, and his own version of magic missile: telekinetic fist) can shuffle cards with psychokinesis. Maximus the Black, who knows death spell, can kill small harmless animals like mice merely by stroking them (he's not bothered by flies or mosquitoes, either, as they die upon touching his flesh).
It is worth repeating that these effects are only for atmosphere. They should not be useful in combat. Tantalus the Beguiler (who knows charm person) can probably haggle a good price on a new horse, but if he is jumped in a dark alley and cannot bluff his assailant, he must resort to his dagger. Supernatural panache is a useful thing to have, but it is not a suit of armour.
The following sections depict a number of idiosyncratic NPCs and their special spell lists. Only the magical aspects of the spell lists. Only the magical aspects of the NPCs are covered here. DMs should feel free to flesh out the NPCs' personalities, history, and motivations. Alternative spell names are given in parentheses, although the effects are the same as the original spell unless otherwise noted.
Grimfang is a 3rd-level goblin magic-user, the shaman of a small tribe that uses spiders of varying sizes as guards, mounts, and totem animals. All her spells have an arachnid theme.
Shield (Chitin). Grimfang's skin turns into touch, articulated chitin for the duration of the spell, giving her a spider-like appearance.
Sleep (Spiderbite). Range: Nil. Duration: Special. Grimfang can inject sleep-inducing poison by biting. This requires a roll to hit in combat. She can put 2d8 hit dice worth of creatures to sleep for 4-16 turns (determine the duration secretly when the spell is cast). Any creature bitten that has over 4 + 1 hit dice, or more hit dice than Grimfang has hit dice worth of poison remaining, is unaffected (the magic-user still loses the relevant hit dice worth of poison, however). Any unused poison disappears when the magic-user falls asleep or loses consciousness. Grimfang's bite does no physical damage. The victim of this spell is affected as per the standard version of this spell: sleep for 4-16 turns, no saving throw.
Web. Standard spell.
Blackthorn is a 5th-level elf whose spells are tied to earth, plants, and his natural archery ability. He rarely leaves the forest in which he is so effective.
Magic missile (Arrow-strike). This spell enchants an ordinary arrow, which must then be fired from a bow within one round. The arrow hits automatically. Range and damage are those of the spell, not the normal arrow.
Ventriloquism (Whispering leaves). Blackthorn's spell is a reversed version of the original. It must be cast on a plant or tree. If Blackthorn remains within 60' of the enchanted plant, he can hear any sound made near it as if he were there.
Invisibility (Camouflage). Blackthorn's skin and clothing take on the exact hue of the background scenery. In dense vegetation, this works as a normal invisibility spell. In areas lacking such cover, Blackthorn can insure invisibility only if he remains still. Sudden movements will give his presence away.
Web (Ensnare). The effect is caused by trees, bushes, roots, creepers, and even grass twining around the victim. The spell must be cast in an area where such greenery exists.
Lightning bolt (Heartseeker). This spell affects only one target. This spell is cast on an arrow, which must be fired from a bow within one turn. The arrow unfailingly strikes any target within range (180'). Damage is 1d6 points of damage per level, with a save for half damage. The enchanted arrow always strikes a vital spot.
A 7th level magic-user, Imran belongs to the Order of Secret Flame, a group of magicians who specialise in fire magicks.
Darkness (Smokescreen). This is a reversed version of the first-level spell, light. Smokescreen must be cast in the vicinity of fire, and it cannot be cast on a creature. It causes impenetrable smoke to stream forth from the flame, and this persists until the spell ends.
Sleep (Smother). Range: 20'. The spell must be cast in the vicinity of fire. It causes translucent green smoke to issue from the flames. All who inhale the smoke (except the caster) suffer the usual effects of a sleep spell. Note the reduced range.
Magic missile (Firefinger). A jet of flame shoots from Imran's fingertips, with standard effects. Highly flammable objects will ignite if struck directly.
Continual light (Eternal flame). Range: Nil. When cast on any inanimate object, this spell creates a small fire that gives off as much heat as a torch, but which has the brilliance of a continual light spell. The eternal flame will not consume the object it is cast on, but it will ignite anything else that touches it, just like a normal flame. The eternal flame spell can be quenched only by immersion in water or by magical means. Any fire that the spell's flame starts can be put out normally, however. This spell cannot be cast on a creature.
Mirror image (Smoke shadows). This spell surrounds Imran with a 5' radius of semi-opaque smoke, in which 2-5 shadowy images appear. These are indistinguishable from Imran and move as he moves. Imran can see through the smoke normally.
Clairvoyance (Firegazing). To cast this spell, Imran must stare into a flame of some kind.
Fireball. Standard spell.
Wall of fire. Standard spell.