Deeper Roleplay Through Spells

In many games, including D&D 5e, there is a common pool of spells. Each class can access a subset of this pool. Many spells are available to several classes.

There is one unintended side effect of this. Casting spells feels pretty stale. One party could have a druid, ranger and wizard who all can cast Absorb Elements. They came into their magic in different ways. The wizard studied and practiced until perfect. The druid draws their power from nature. The ranger… I dunno, how do rangers get magic? Anyway, they do the same thing despite working differently.

Is this a problem? Not really. But fixing it forces to add extra richness to our character. And it forces us to confront how magic works.

Magic works by… well, magic!

In the above example, the wizard studies magic as if it were physics. And then practices it as if it were a mechanical skill. This suggests that magic is precise, repeatable and bound by iron rules. It’s a branch of the physical sciences. Thermodynamics makes cars move and evocatiology makes lightning spew from your fingers.

If we follow this model, spells would be similar. One Shocking Grasp will resemble another. They both follow the same principles to solve the same problem. Just like there is only so much variation between car engines.

And yet… there are variations between car engines. Even if we ignore different quality levels. Some engines are more powerful. Some are more efficient. Some are particularly robust. And there are physical differences even when the specs are same. Each was designed by engineers, but different engineers. Each is made in a factory, but factories with different equipment. Engine models are unique, even when they do the same things.

That’s the wizard – the physicist of the magic world. On the other end of the psectrum is a sorcerer. A sorcerer’s magic isn’t something they study, it’s something they do. It’s a natural expression of something within them. It’s a lot like having a nice singing voice. While it can be enhanced through training, it’s something inherent to them.

Sorcery-as-singing is a nice analogy. There are good singers and bad singers, just as there are weak and powerful sorcerers. Even so, each singer’s voice is unique. They sing the same words at the same notes but each voice is distinct. Personality and physiology shine through your voice. Shouldn’t sorcery be as individual?

Is magic based in strict physical laws, or is it an artistic expression? Or both? Or neither? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Even when dealing with immutable rules, individual styles shine through. But if magic is an individual expression, that person’s style should dominate the spell.

The point is, there’s a wealth of material for distinguishing your character at your fingertips. It would be a shame to waste it.

Personalised Spellcasting

Let’s look at an example. Taking a classic spell, Magic Missile, we have:

Magic Missile

You create three glowing darts of magical force. Each dart hits a creature of your choice that you can see within range. A dart deals 1d4 + 1 force damage to its target. The darts all strike simultaneously, and you can direct them to hit one creature or several.

We won’t mess with what the spell does. All we are doing is tweaking how it looks and feels to suit our character. There is a lot of content to play with. In particular, the phrase ‘glowing darts of magical force’. We can replace that with whatever we want, so long as we don’t change the mechanics of the spell. Resist the urge to write ‘You create three sexually-frustrated elephants made of platinum’.

What would you say if I asked you to describe your character in a paragraph? How about a tweet? What about a single word? Their personality and history influence how they act, speak and see the world. If it overflows into their magic too, what would that look like? Maybe something like, instead of glowing darts:

  • dripping, crimson knives.
  • fractured orbs that reflect the light.
  • curved blades of darkness.
  • toasted ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
  • piles of screaming eyeballs.

I mean, why not? You decide every other aspect of your character’s appearance. Why not their spells, too?

Who names spells?

How do spells get the names they do? Maybe your setting has anime rules, so the vocal component of each spell involves yelling the name while you cast it. For everyone else, spell names are handy labels for complex concepts, nothing more.

So, who names them? Probably the same people who name inventions or scientific discoveries. Magic researchers could name them after themselves or their patrons. We see a bit of that with spells like Melf’s Acid Arrow and Nystul’s Magic Aura. They could give them functional names like Hold Person. They could use words from ancient languages, like Prestidigitation. They could make stuff up.

The point is that the names are arbitrary. What modern spellcasters call Acid Splash could have been called Burning Shower or Bubble of Minimal pH in ages past. And would druids and wizards use the same jargon to describe their craft? I doubt it, so why would your caster use the same names as everyone else? This is even more glaring with a sorcerer, who’s probably not schooled in magical history.

[There is one good reason why spells have one name and that’s to prevent confusion. Clear this with your DM before they have to ask about your strange new spell. One approach is to call it by its real name when out of character: “Sir Arthur casts Magic Missile. ‘Taste my Spectral Bolts, fiend!’”]

Revisiting Magic Missile

Let’s go all the way with personalising Magic Missile.

Shadow Hawks

You create three smoky, winged daggers. Each dagger hits a creature of your choice that you can see within range. A dagger deals 1d4 + 1 force damage to its target. The daggers all strike simultaneously, and you can direct them to hit one creature or several.

Straight away, this has a different feel to the traditional spell. This variant could have been practiced by nocturnal hunters or a criminal gang.

Custom Spell Effects

Tweaking a spell’s cosmetic features is best done with the DM’s blessing. They’ll probably be okay with it, unless they lack experience or worry you are cheating the system. Or if they’re strict by-the-book folk.

Changing what a spell does, though, that definitely needs your DM’s approval. Changing what the spell does is risky. You could unbalance your character pretty quickly. Still, if you know what you’re doing and your DM has no objections, it’s an excellent way to put a personal spin on a common spell.

I’d recommend that you start off small. And that you balance every change. Make every improvement come at a cost. If your DM is nervous, make the cost higher than the benefit. That shows that your motivation is personalisation, not cheating.

If you want to develop your own spells or classes, tweaking existing ones is a good place to start.

Shadow Hawks

You create three smoky, winged daggers. Each dagger hits a creature of your choice that you can see within range. A dagger deals 1d4 + 1 force damage to its target. The daggers all strike simultaneously, and you can direct them to hit one creature or several.

The caster can choose to add their Intelligence modifier in cold damage to one of the targets. If the caster chooses to do this, they grant advantage to the next attack against them.

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