Magic is a strange beast, at once purposefully rooted in the unknown, yet used in fiction as a knowable science or art not to be confused with simple “deus ex mechina”. A great deal of fantasy literature, cinema, and games make use of some form of magic. In truth, even science fiction dabbles in the mystical arts from time to time. The concept of some supernatural force that is used to manipulate the world is likely as old as the imagination of our species. In this blog I shall discuss one of the more uncommon forms of magic that appears in the Mythological Earth. Specifically, I am going to offer some additional detail into the concept of spontaneous magic and how one can use that system to create nearly any magical effect one can dream up. (Continued below)
The spontaneous magic system presented in Faerie Tales & Folklore is one of the more radical departures from the set of tropes loosely associated with D&D and the OSR. The original intent of this system, as stated on page 136 reads thusly:
“Spontaneous magic is usually reserved for the referee.” and “Rather then predefined spells, a caster constructs their spells on the fly.”
The hope was to create a relatively simple system of magic where the narrator or referee could easily create the sorts of magical effects that any given situation required. As play testing continued, it became clear that the system was enjoyed by the players as well, so I opened the idea up for everyone. But, what is spontaneous magic and how is the system used? What are its limitations and what exactly can be done with it?
Spontaneous magic is a system for creating something similar to spells as they are needed. Seeing that its original intent was to provide a method for narrators and referees to accomplish the types of magical effects they required to fill a variety of purposes, the system was required to be flexible and open. Like many of the subsystems in Faerie Tales & Folklore, spontaneous magic has some purposefully blurry boundaries. This was an effort to allow the players (referee included) the ability to define its capabilities in a manner that fit their game without presenting limitations that might seem arbitrary and unessential. Spontaneous magic uses a simple template based system to create a magical effect by spending available complexity on the various elements of the effect being created (such as magnitude, range, area of effect, and duration). The actual process reads as such:
1. The magic-user or creature states the desire to invoke a magical effect at the beginning of the round, as well as a rough idea of the effect they seek.
2. The magic-user’s player roles a d20, adding their level and any complexity roll bonus to which they are entitled. Divide the total by 5 to provide the available level of complexity the caster can use to invoke the chosen effect.
3. The magic-user or creature then expends the available complexity on various portions of the spell’s effect, including its magnitude.
4. During the normal spell casting phase, the desired spell effect occurs in full.
Generally, a spontaneous effect is not going to keep pace with the power of a predefined spell, consider it the price of flexibility. However, what can be accomplished through the use of spontaneous magic is much more broad then the capabilities of a predefined spell. For an example of this degradation in over all power, let’s try and rebuild the “slumber” spell via spontaneous magic. First let us look at the basics of the existing spell.
Slumber: Complexity 1, Range 12″, Area/Number Affected 1d6 – 3d6, Effect: to place targets in a magical sleep.
Now let’s see how close we can get by building the spell through spontaneous magic. We should see an increase in the complexity over the predefined spell.
Range: 9″ has a complexity cost of 1 and 18″ has a cost of 2. Making 9″ at a complexity cost of 1 the closest (and we have already equaled the complexity of the spell “slumber”.
Area: a small group would suffice on the low end at a complexity cost of 1.
Duration: Instantaneous at a complexity cost of 0.
Effect: Cause a target to fall asleep (enchantment) at a complexity cost of 1.
Total complexity equals 3.
As predicted, trying to recreate the spell “slumber” through spontaneous magic brings the complexity of the spell to 3! This shows how relatively inefficient spontaneous magic can be when compared to predefined spells. Our slumber spell was 3x as complex as the original! However this inefficiency has the advantage of a highly level of flexibility. It is important to note that a spontaneous magic complexity roll works differently then complexity rolls for predefined spells. The slumber spell needs a roll of 6-12 to be cast next turn, as delayed complexity result requires a number of rounds to cast equal to the spells complexity, or 13+ to be cast immediately. The spontaneous version would require a roll of 15+ to enact the effect in any form. With this example we can see both how the system works, along with its advantages and disadvantages. (Continued below)
Here are some other fun examples of what can be accomplished through the use of the spontaneous magic system (keeping in mind the final complexity cannot exceed 6):
Pranking Hex: The effect with this one is to cause some minor mishap to a target, such as a chair breaking when sat on or the target to trip. Effect: Cause a troublesome mishap, cost 1; Range of 9″, cost 1; Area of Effect: 1 target, cost 0; Duration: Instantaneous, cost 0; Final cost: 2. This one can just be fun for all the wrong reasons.
Restore Level: The effect is to restore a level that has been drained by a creature or other source. Effect: Restore a lost level, cost 4; Range of touch, cost 0; Area of Effect: 1 target, cost 0; Duration: Instantaneous, cost 0; Final cost: 4. One way to get those levels back.
Weaken the Veil: The effect is to increase the effective number of spirits in an area to make spell casting easier around common men. Effect and Magnitude: Increase the effect of high men, cost 2; Range of self, cost 0; Area of Effect (in this case to determine the new effective number of spirits in an area): 1 up to a full unit, cost is 0 to 2; Duration: 10 minutes to 1 hour, cost 1 or 2; Final cost: 3-6. This spontaneous effect is very handy for any practitioner of the magical arts.
As one can see, spontaneous magic may be used to create a wide range of magical effects with relative ease. These three spontaneous spells are but a tiny fraction of what can be accomplished with the system, a creative player is likely to come up with a great many more.
One of the issues that can be confusing to some players is that spontaneous magic is not limited by the effects listed on pages 141 to 145. The effects listed are intended to be a guideline for what one can accomplish through the use of spontaneous magic, and not a specific and exhaustive list of the exact effects available. I would encourage referees and players to be creative with their spontaneous magical effects, provided they do not step beyond the power levels suggested by the examples.
In many circumstances, a player character who utilizes spontaneous magic is limited to a relatively narrow group of effects, such as: weather based effects, fire based effects, or enchantments of the mind. This was done to provide players and referees the ability to exert some control over the use of the spontaneous magic system. However, most creatures do not possess this limitation in their stat blocks. The reason for this is to ensure that a referee can create the effects they need in a given situation without stepping outside the existing rules. Plus, knowing every trick a creature is capable of can lead to the players meta-gaming the solutions to dealing with a given creature.
One of the final uses of spontaneous magic within Faerie Tales & Folklore is to provide an easy method to create the types effects witnessed in wuxia novels and films. When used in this manner, the system is not actually creating effects that are magical but rather effects based on the vital energy of the user. All manner of effects from “dim mak” to the “five point palm exploding heart technique”, or even the “buddhist palm” can be easily manufactured. In fact, spontaneous spell creation can fill the need for all manner of such “advanced fighting techniques”, even those outside the eastern martial arts (though this is not explicitly stated in the core rules). Such uses of spontaneous magic are not affected by the dwindling magic of later eras. (Continued below)
Magic is a near constant companion of mythology and fantasy fiction. Establishing a set of systems which aided in creating the variety of magic found across the myriad of source material was of utmost importance in making Faerie Tales & Folklore feel mythic. The spontaneous magic system was instrumental in this effort as it offered the level of flexibility referees need to create a sense of magic that is unknown and surprising to the other players. If allowed, it also provides players the ability to truly customize the magic of their characters. This offers players the option to have their characters perform feats of magic closer to what they imagine then simply using a list of predefined spells.
In creating a number of systems which feature a high level of flexibility and less defined borders, I hoped to keep the system of Faerie Tales & Folklore as malleable and open as possible. It can be a difficult thing to try and quantify the endless universe that is the imagination, but in some ways, that is exactly what the rules of a roleplaying game seek to do. These rules are vital to keeping the collective imaginative effort understandable to all involved without placing too many limits upon that imagination. With this goal in mind, I hope I have been successful.
Enjoy game night friends and remember, be creative with that fancy magic stuff! It keeps them guessing!