Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Barrage of Magic Missles

Just say No!

Thoughts on Spells, specifically Magic Missile, and a table of re-skinned Magic Missiles

In the most recently posted play report the players ran into their first real use of arcane magic by enemies.  They arguably did some things wrong, Lemon could have prevented the elven gangsters from casting magic missile or sleep by counter-spelling under my rules, but didn’t.  Maybe blazing away with his pistol was the better choice,  but he very narrowly survived a double magic missile from the gang leader (E F5/MU3).

Still that’s not the point, the question I think one faces when using the limited spell menu “Vancian” style of magic in classic fantasy RPGs is making it exciting.  There were only four  spells used in the last play report: sleep, color spray, hypnotic pattern, and magic missile. Vancian magic can easily become like magic in video games, a dull tactical exercise in husbanding resources and optimizing their use.  More specifically enemy casters become tactical challenges (can we knock out that magician before he casts fireball?) rather than powerful mystical menaces.  Likewise low level magic-users just seem like hapless technicians.
One advantage that tabletop/live RPGs have over video games is that the world is dynamic and organic.  It is generated out of play and not scripted.  Magic can likewise be unscripted in its effects, even as the mechanics are clearly defined.  In my campaign world every magic-user basically knows sleep and magic missile – even in other campaign these spells are the favorite go to magic for beginning magic-users (maybe burning hands for the daring or tough mage).  Magic Missile is a highly mechanically elegant spell: simple, well-scaled, and useful – it’s also exceedingly bland because of that.   Still that dynamic world, magic missile needn’t simply be a bolt of searing arcane light, it needn’t be a bolt at all really.  As such, below is a table of alternate magic missiles from the mundane to the absurd that are intended to give character and mystery to the simple spell and an escape from the idea that all magic practitioners learned from the same book.

Below is a D30 table of alternatives - pick, roll or extrapolate.

Note: Magic Missiles don’t need to fly out of the caster’s hands, they can radiate from the eyes, mouth, chest, wands, odd object or elsewhere as is most appropriate.

Note II: Some of these only work if HP are viewed as representing something beyond pure physical damage.

What is unavoidably doing 2-5 points of magical damage/per level after 2nd
Beam of white light that slides inexorably towards the target and burns like magnesium when it intersects.
Purple ball of energy, molded and twisted by the caster that seeks out target and explodes on contact.
Gout of flame, sometimes in the shape of something: charging bull, arrow, bird, magic sigil.
Crackling arc of electricity that leaps from caster to target by dancing from metal object to metal object.
A shrapnel blast of jagged black obsidian or rock crystal.
Salt water that fills the target's lungs, debilitating and choking them.
A glob of black jelly, usually spat from the mouth, that corrodes on touch.
A brief flash that makes the target’s bones visible through their flesh and leaves them internally seared.
Several pinpricks of light hover in front of and then flash through the target leaving tiny tunneling holes
Coruscating rainbows of light that leave a bloody slash whenever they touch the target
Silver rain of acidic drops materializes above the target.
A winged form of chilling negative energy appears and flaps through the target.
Boils rise on target’s body, they’re often full of writhing maggots or worms.
Lance of solid ice stabs from caster to target and then shatters.
A swarm of insects flies at the target biting and stinging.
An invisible hand grabs the heart of the target and squeezes.
Target is magically compelled to strike self with weapon or fists.
Phantom vermin, possibly skeletal, burst from the ground and tear at the flesh and soul of the target.
Caster's shadow detaches and slides across the floor at target to attack target’s shadow, causing actual wounds.
Opalescent beetles hatch within target and dig out through the flesh and then flutter off.
Fragments of target’s soul tear out of target as sparkling motes and fly to caster.
A floating book opens before the target, revealing some sort of mind scrambling existential horror, target presumably perishes from fear.
One or more small bits of metal, nails perhaps, levitate, hang motionless and then hurtle at the target at supersonic speeds. Sometimes the metal heats to red hot before launch
Gravity momentarily reversed for target, damage results from "falling" into ceiling or being dropped once the natural world reasserts itself.
Ray of sunlight that desiccates target.
Gate to an alternate dimension, inimical to normal life opens long enough to blast target with inter-dimensional strangeness.
Target freezes and begins to rapidly age, living an entire (terribly mundane) lifetime in a second.  Time snaps back to normal, but target is psychically crushed by weight of age and eventual death.  If target dies their corpse is that of a withered ancient.
Pillar of fog rises to surround the target, mysterious unseen screeching entities within claw at target while fog persists.
Snake of oddly colored smoke darts into targets mouth and nose and corrodes sinuses and brain.
A spectral head (1- demon, 2- the caster, 3- the target, 4- an animal) appears before the target’s face and gnaws with real teeth.


  1. This kicks ass. Would you have the M-U roll the first time he/she cast magic missle and that's what the spell does every time after that? or do you have them roll every time? Just curious.

  2. I would have the player describe their spell 1st time they cast - i.e. Drusilla's sleep is a pink sandy mist and Lemon's is a shock wave like burst from his hands that distorts things momentarily. Drusilla's brings pleasant dreams, Lemon's just knocks goblins flat. Agency makes people build their character to my mind. Like "I'm a necromancer! my MM makes various bits of my enemies turn undead and rotten! My sleep spell is a shadow that puts people in a stupor where they hallucinate that they're at their own funeral!" Dude's still a 1st level mage with two spells - but he seems so much more badass.

    As to the table - it's mostly ideas I found fun. I'd roll on it for like a random encounter mage and then she'd have character.

  3. I once had an idea of a mage that had ravens flocking about him, and the birds were the expressions of his spells; so magic missile became a raven diving at an enemy. haven't used it yet, but it's on my list of wizards to use. I do like the table, and I might be able to use it for my games :) Thanks.

    1. Nice, a little flavor goes a long way with magic.