The Nature of Spells

Arcane spells are wiggly things.

In the old days, before the Planefall, no one talked of spells. People studied magic, of course, but they practiced with rituals. Rituals took hours or days to do things that seem like child’s play to the spiritbound sorcerers and wizards of today. Today’s spiritbound practitioners cast spells in seconds.

The problem is, arcane spells change. Every time you cast them.

So you know, you spend an hour trying to figure out how to cast fireball, burn up some goblin horse raiders with it, and then you have to figure it out all over again. There’s no simple formula to memorize. No easy set of steps, one-two-three, to reproduce what you just did. It’s different every time.

You don’t memorize a spell. You figure it out. Over time, as you get better with more advanced spells, you get faster at puzzling out the old ones.

A spellbook is a collection of your notes about what you’ve learned about your spells. Ideas, tactics, theories, diagrams. You study it when you get stuck trying to get that fireball back into your head. During the process, you make more notes. Your spellbook is probably full of calculations where you “show your work.” And it’s in a shorthand that you invented, or your teacher did (but you’ve extended).

There aren’t schools of magic. It’s just all too new. There are teachers but they only have one or two students. Maybe you want a student for the extra income, or to do your laundry.

I’m only talking about arcane magic right now. Casters of the divine magic (and its cousin, nature magic) don’t have to deal with any of this crap. Why? They’re not casting the spell. I’ll talk about divine magic in another post. Gods, though (shiver).

Because of the chaotic nature of arcane spellcasting, metamagic is common. Extend the duration… Maximize the damage… Extend the range… You know: metamagic. All this just means that arcane spellcasters can tweak their spells while casting them, but then they’re varying from the plan. They studied exactly how they’d cast this thing, and now they’re changing it up, so now it’s a lot harder to cast this thing. (The caster has to make an Arcana skill check.) If they’re prescient enough, they could prepare the spell with metamagic applied already, sure.

Spell slots aren’t really a thing, you know. They’re a nice abstraction for what the casters do, but it’s really about the ability to remember all those rules and keep everything in your head. Over time, you get really good at casting that magic missile spell you’ve been practicing since you were doing your magister’s laundry, and you just have more mental capacity (and skill) to remember how to do harder spells like fireball.

Not that there’s a formula for fireball out there in the wild. It’s not like that. You don’t really learn spells by finding some dead wizard’s spellbook and casting read magic on it and grokking her spells just like that. Remember, that spellbook you found is really someone’s crazy college notes with seven colors of highlighter all over it and scribbles in the margin that mean squat to you. Maybe you can decode it over time, but there’s no read spellbook bullshit spell that can help you.

If you watch another caster perform a spell, you’re only seeing how they figured out how to do it. It’s probably useless to you because your brain almost certainly interacts with magical energy in an utterly different way. When you watch Bob Magicly cast that thing he calls Bob’s Magicly Meteors, it’ll probably give you some great ideas. “Maybe I can make burning rocks fall from the sky on those goblin horse warriors that have been chasing me!” But ideas are just the start, and now you have to research how the hell to make meteors fall from the sky on people’s heads, and you’ll probably come up with something with different properties. And you’ll probably name it with the word “Meteorites” in it, because you know what Bob doesn’t, which is that’s what you call meteors that enter the atmosphere. But, sure, having his notes might speed things up, so maybe talk to Mr. Magicly about it.

Every spell you learn is a research project. You’re constantly inventing new spells. I’m sure you have all kinds of ideas, with boring working titles like Sleep, Mage Armor, and Grease. By the time you get Sleep working, and you’ve figured out how to cast it without putting your friends to sleep, maybe you name it Selective Slumber, because you’re the only person in the world who can cast that.

Perhaps, because he really gets the starch right in your robes, you offer to teach Selective Slumber to your student Tantalino. It takes him forever because he’s probably better cut out for a career in the laundry than a job requiring juggling dozens of simultaneous thoughts and gestures, but you’re not gonna tell him that because you like well-pressed loincloths. Still, he eventually figures it out enough to cast something resembling your spell, but it only targets one person and, like, they are really hard to wake up for weeks. And you have no idea how he does it. Maybe he’s not destined for the washery after all.

If you have all the time in the world, you can be pretty sure that your spell will perform as expected. Rush things, or switch up the spell on the fly with metamagic, or try to cast something beyond your ken, and you’re headed into dangerous territory. If all goes well, boom, fireball or whatever. The spell does what you want. If not, though–well, usually, the universe seems to react by creating monsters. It’s like the spell just manifests into some kind of awful creature that wants to kill you.

Spells are wiggly things.