What makes a good spell?

Magic is such an intrinsic part of much of the fantasy genre that I decided to pull together a few thoughts on what it is that makes a spell a spell. Though most of what I’ve been writing is aimed at Mazes & Perils these days, I usually play 5e or 4e D&D with my main gaming group so I’ll look at a few 5e-flavored spells today.

I tend to break it down into three main parts…

readingmagicpotionFirst, you have to have a catchy name. Sure, “Fireball” and “Magic Missile” are straightforward and destructive, but there’s something about “Otto’s Irresistible Dance” that makes me want to know more about Otto and what kind of dance this spell makes its intended target actually do… (The victim is compelled to perform a comic dance in place – “shuffling, tapping its feet, and capering for the duration.”)

Second, you have to have a cool effect. Again, shooting missiles of magical energy is awesome (re: “Magic Missile”) but “Prismatic Spray” takes things to a whole new level. Eight rays of light flashing from the wizard’s hand, each with a different color and different power? This spell has the potential to do pretty much every type of damage, plus some extra effects thrown in for good measure…

Third, you have to sell it to your target audience by giving them some wiggle room. This is actually less about how the spell is written and more about how it can be interpreted. For instance, “Misty Step” is pretty slick for a lower-level spell. As written, your character is “briefly surrounded by a silvery mist” and allows you to teleport up to 30 feet away to an unoccupied space within line of sight. But even better, if you have a bonus action available you could use it to cast this spell to teleport next to an enemy and do some serious damage with another spell like “Shocking Grasp,” which would really get your target’s attention in a hurry…

Where am I going with all of this?

Recently I discovered a cache of the spells from the old Moebius Adventures RPG system I developed with my friend Sean back in the 1990s. There are literally hundreds of spells scattered across 12 different types of wizardry. I’m hoping to bring many of these into the light of day by way of playable classes in Mazes & Perils. I think they’d add some very different approaches to magic than what we have now with the Magic-User, Cleric, Shaman, and Enchanter classes. More options would be good, right?

zebras-drink-foal-watering-hole-animal-africaBut I was surprised at some of the spells I’d forgotten about… like the two from my friend Gertok in the book of “Greater Wizardry” spells, which would be fantastic to add to the Shaman class. Gertok was a legendary nomad in the world of Age of Phaedrus (yet another Moebius Adventures game that never saw the light of day except to be published in a 3 ring binder many, many moons ago).

  • Gertok’s Watering Hole – This spell was created by the ancient nomad Gertok. When cast, it creates a watering hole up to 1/4 acre in size. The watering hole will slowly dry up and disappear by the end of the spell. The wizard spills one pint of water on the ground while reciting the mystic words. Casting Time: 10 minutes. Duration: 1 hour per level. Range/Area of Effect: Line of Sight/ 1/4 acre
  • Gertok’s Shelter – Used by the ancient nomad Gertok, Gertok’s Shelter conjures a camp with a campfire, a four-man tent, and enough firewood to burn for one night. The wizard holds a personal item from a nomad while reciting the mystic words. Casting Time: 10 minutes. Duration: Until the next sunrise. Range/Area of Effect: Line of Sight/20 foot radius

I think both of these meet the criteria I set up for good spells. They have a cool name, effect, and wiggle room for interpretation. And they’d be perfect for a Shaman trying to do something with animals or helping out in the wild. Neither might do damage to an enemy (without some creative thinking), but both would be awesome utilitarian spells for the spell book.

What would happen if you cast “Gertok’s Watering Hole” inside a dungeon? It doesn’t explicitly say that you can’t do that. If you cast it in a room that just happened to have an open stairwell heading to the next dungeon level, it might be interesting to see what washed up as the water flowed downstairs. Would it leave the confines of the casting area and just float above the opening? These are all questions to be answered between the GM and the player. 🙂

Are there other qualities to consider? Sure. Game balance has to be a big part of this. But I think actual game play has to come in AFTER you have the sales pitch. And that’s a discussion for another day!

What do you think? Would you like to see more spells from the old Moebius Adventures arsenal get dusted off and made available in Mazes & Perils? Let me know in the comments!

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