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Words of Power - An Alternative Spell System for Old Skull Engine

Artwork by Luis Filipe de Almeida
I am writing the second edition of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, my first published game (a sword and sorcery RPG with streamlined rules, modern system with old school spirit) and I wrote an alternative spell system to go with it inspired by many things, including Barbarians of Lemuria, Blades in the Dark and the great articles about Magic Words written by Nick L. S. Whelan on his great blog Papers & Pencils.

Words of Power

The default magic system of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is inspired by a series of authors both in literature and in gaming. It assumes practitioners of sorcery dabble with incredible powerful and unstable energies to cast their spells, which they must learn the exact formula to cast. They usually can't devise new spells of modify the spells they know, as true sorcery is not a creation of mortals and these can only mimic this sinister arc with sinister consequences.

This alternative system proposed here changes things a bit. Magic will still be powerful and dangerous to use, but mortals will have a little more leeway with how they use it and can create effects somewhat more freely. There will still be consequences to those who meddle too much with the chaotic currents of magic however.

The main difference is that characters will not learn specific spells with effects already determined, but Words of Power they can combine in any fashion they want to create an infinite number of effects. This will require some give and tale with the Referee but, hopefully, the rules and guidance here will ease the process and give the group a great tool to use their creativity with.

Words Known

Instead of beginning the game with half as much spells as the character’s Intellect score, they begin knowing the same amount of Words of Power. Those can essentially be any word, as long as they are appropriate to the setting of the game. One could even use Appendix T: Title Generator and roll on the table and choose a word on that line, for example. As with standard spells, characters can learn more Words of Power in their adventures and full tomes detailing the use of such words are sought as great treasures by the most ambitious practitioner of the arcane arts.

To facilitate, we also provide the following tables, taken from the great game and resource created by Ben Milton called Maze Rats. You can roll a d666 (rolling 3d6 and reading them like a d% basically) and noting each word. These tables are under the CC BY 4.0 License. The Referee can also allow players to create their own words and let them slightly flex the words to make more sense in their spells.

*** - I will not reproduce the tables here. Go here an acquire the magnificent game Maze Rats now!

Casting Spells

To cast a spell, The Sorcerer combine any number of words they want forming the name of the spell. The name should imply an effect such as Thunder Arrow, Shadow Mirror and Avenging Warrior. The player should state their desired outcome and the Referee will either accept it or negotiate it to something more appropriate for the setting and tone of the game.

The Difficulty of the Willpower test to cast the spell will vary depending on three main factors: Range, Duration and Potency. Each of these is usually scaled from 0 to 10 and their addition will determine the total Difficulty (see Reducing Difficulty below).

Range determines either the area of effect, number of targets or actual range of the effect. A low Range value makes the spell only affects something you touch, yourself or something in close range, for example. A high Range value can affect great areas, hundreds of people or something really distant. The table below shows some values and the equivalent in area and targets.

Range Value
Can only affect a small point or the character themself.
Can affect a target touched, an area of close range or a target within short range.
Can affect up to two targets in short range, an area of up to medium range, or a target up to long range.
Can affect up to three targets up to long range, an area of up to longe range, or a single target within distant range.
Can affect up to 1d6+1 targets up to long range, an area of up to distant range, or a single target within line of sight.
Can affect up to 1d6+Level targets up to long range, an area of roughly a small village, a single target within sight (even by magical means). 
Can affect up to 2d6+Level targets up to long range, an area of roughly a large village, a single target within the same continent.
Can affect up to 2d20+Level targets up to long range,an area roughly the size of a small town, a single target within the same world.
Can affect up to 1d100+Level targets up to long range,an area roughly the size of a large town, a single target within the same world, even if on another plane of existence.
Can affect up to 2d100+Level targets up to long range,an area roughly the size of a small city, a single target within the same dimension.
Can affect up to 5d100+Level targets up to long range,an area roughly the size of a large city, a single target no matter where they are.

Duration basically determines how long the effect lasts for. Damaging spells are usually of instant duration although their consequences might last much longer. A spell to force someone into a magical slumber might last for minutes, hours, days or even for eternity. A low value in duration makes the effect last just a few seconds or minutes, while a high value will make it last for days, months and years.

Duration Value
Instant effect (although it might have lasting consequences).
Lasts for 1d3 rounds.
Lasts for 1d6+Level rounds.
Lasts for 1d6+Level minutes.
Lasts for 1d6+Level turns.
Lasts for 1d6+Level hours.
Lasts for 1d6+Level days.
Lasts for 1d6+Level weeks.
Lasts for 1d6+Level months.
Lasts for 1d6+Level years.
Lasts for 1d6+Level decades.

Potency determines the strength of the spell effect and how effective it is. If trying to conjure an object, a low value would conjure something made of mud or clay, and a high value something of steel or even diamond. If the effect is harmful, each value inflicts 1d6 points of damage. In the case of a spell to cancel a target, a low value would help them creating a fog, or deepening the shadows around them, while a high value would make them completely invisible. This factor will require a little bit more of the Referee’s judgment, since some cases won’t be so clear cut and will need their adjudication. 

Potency Value
1d3 points of damage, or some minor narrative effect.
1d6 points of damage, or some small effect capable of imposing a Negative Die or giving a Positive Die in a very specific kind of action.
2d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of imposing a Negative Die or giving a Positive Die in a more general kind of action.
3d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of imposing a Negative Die or giving a Positive Die in all actions under a single Attribute.
4d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of imposing a Negative Die or giving a Positive Die in all actions under two Attributes.
5d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of imposing a Negative Die or giving a Positive Die in all actions.
6d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of guaranteeing automatic success or failure in a very specific kind of action.
7d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of guaranteeing automatic success or failure in a more general kind of action.
8d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of guaranteeing automatic success or failure in all actions under a single Attribute.
9d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of guaranteeing automatic success or failure in all actions under two Attributes.
10d6 points of damage, or an effect capable of guaranteeing automatic success or failure in all actions.

The Referee can use these tables as a reference for other types of effects or even to extrapolate more powerful effects than those possible using them.

Reducing Difficulty

You will notice that the Difficulty score of some effects will scalate very quickly and will become almost impossible to cast by the characters. That’s on purpose. This system allows much more flexibility and customization, making characters capable of casting spells more capable than under the standard system. However, casting more powerful effects will be much harder, and they will have to use a series of measures to make the casting of these spells possible. Below we enumerate a few of them and Referees can come up with more using them as reference.

Price in Blood
Instead of having to spend a number of Vitality points depending on the PL of the spell, in this system The Sorcerer will be able to spend Vitality points to reduce the Difficulty of the Willpower test to cast the spell. That way, after adding the values of Range, Duration and Potency, the character can decide to spend any number of Vitality points as they can to reduce the Difficulty in a one per one basis. Additionally, if using the option of Ritual Casting below, other willing collaborators can chip in with their own Vitality points but on a two per one basis (spending 2 points of Vitality to reduce the Difficulty by 1). 

Arcane Focus
Some sorcerers produce or secure especially prepared arcane objects to help them focus the Chaos currents while casting spells with specific Words of Power. Thus, characters can spend their Treasure in between adventures to forge these Arcane Focus. They must choose one Word of Power they know and spend 1d6 Treasure Points for each point of Difficulty they want it to reduce when casting spells with that specific Word of Power. When not using this Arcane Focus, the character won’t benefit from this advantage. Furthermore, only one Arcane Focus can be active for each Word of Power. When a new one is made by the character, the former one loses its benefits. The player should specify what consists the Arcane Focus, and it will count against the character’s encumbrance total.

Arcane Ingredients
Some Arcane Ingredients is prepared ahead of time, can facilitate the concentration of chaotic energies necessary to manifest spell effects. In game, this works as a one use only item capable of reducing the Difficulty of a spell in a number varying from 1 to 6. These items, however, should very rarely be available for purchase, and should be sought after on adventures. Most of these items, which are only hard to find should reduce the Difficulty by 1. Rarer items, which may be found only in a very secluded place could reduce the Difficulty by 1d3. Especially rare and unique items who are guarded by sinister creatures and are acquired at great peril can reduce the Difficulty by 1d6.

Ritual Casting
The rules assuming the character is casting the spell in a single action. This forces The Sorcerer to manipulate an enormous amount of chaotic energies in a small amount of time. Thus, if the caster is willing to perform a more lengthy ritual to conjure their sorceries, the Difficulty of the task may be lowered. The table below summarizes the reduction in Difficulty based on how long the ritual will take.

Ritual Duration
Difficulty Reduced By
Full turn
1 minute
1 turn
1 hour
1 day
1 week
1 month

The energies that empower spells come from sinister places, such as the Abyss and other shadowy realms. Those places have entities capable of channeling more energy to whomever offers them something in return, and what most of them desire is the blood and soul of living beings. Thus, when using the Ritual Casting option above, The Sorcerer may sacrifice living beings with souls to reduce the Difficulty of their spells. Each full HD of the victim reduces the Difficulty by one (so sacrificing a 3 HD prince would reduce the Difficulty by 3).

Backlashes and Corruption

As with the standard magic rules, characters casting spells are subject to Backlashes and Corruption following the same rules and guidelines described on Chapter 6: Sorcery. This includes losing the use of Words of Power for the day when they chose to as a consequence of a failed attempt to cast a spell.

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