April 7, 2011

Spellbinding: Low-Fantasy Magic System

I’m thinking of a variant of the D&D magic system for application in a low-fantasy milieu.  The system takes a twist on the hoary old spell memorization mechanic and replaces it with Spellbinding, a mechanic that challenges magic-user players to be more resourceful and interact more with the game milieu and environment.

Spells are not rote formulas that give set effects, as in the default rules.  Instead, each spell is actually a spirit that is bound to do one thing in the caster’s service, and then is gone – perhaps destroyed, or withdrawn into the spirit realms too deep to contact ever again.  Whatever the final outcome for the spirit, it is no longer available to the caster for the same task.

Spirits are bound to the caster’s service via the ritual of Spellbinding.  During spellbinding, the caster quests into the spirit world, perhaps while in a trance state, seeking out spirits that he can cajole or dominate; when he finds one, and succeeds in binding it, it becomes bound to a specified Focus.  The Focus is then used in casting the spell when needed.

Spell foci can be permanent, in the form of rings, staffs, amulets, etc. etc., or consumable, in the form of potions, powders, candles, scrolls that are burnt or torn when the spell is cast, etc. etc.  There could be a bonus to spellbinding for using consumable foci – it’ll make the player characters spend more!

Magic-users are aided in binding particular spirit types by having Affinities to them. These Affinities are qualities and materials that create associations with certain spirit types.  Part of the roleplaying of Spellbinding is to seek out and use potential Affinities.  Among the potential sources of Affinities and examples of possible uses are:

Spellbinding in a particular location gives you easier access to the spirits that would be associated with that location.

For example, spellbinding in a graveyard or old battlefield will give you easier access to the spirits of the dead, for spells such as raising undead servants, causing weakness or decay, and so on.

Possession of a particular material will make spellbinding easier on spirits associated with that material.  The said material usually becomes the focus of the spell, or is consumed in the ritual.

For example, you find some eagle feathers. You put them away, and later when you have the time you do a spellbinding to gain the spell, Summon Eagles. 

The beauty here is that summoning spells become much more flavorful, as you can only summon what you’ve previously bound.  Wanna be able to summon a roc? Find some roc feathers or bones or eggshells!  A shark? Get some shark teeth! An alluring, naked nymph? I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Another consequence is that other magic user’s treasure troves become so much more valuable without necessarily getting into the realm of cheesiness.  Exotic materials, with or without spells bound into them, become attractive in themselves whatever the monetary value because of their potential utility.

It’s easier to access certain kinds of spirits by doing spellbinding during times that they are most active. 

For example, it’ll be easier to spellbind storm spirits during  a raging storm.  Spellbinding the spirits of war is easier while observing a desperate battle.

Of course things can be much simpler if your aims are more modest; for example, binding a minor fire spirit may be possible simply with the aid of a lit lamp.

The goal of most sorcerous research is to gain more lore on specified spirit types.  For example, you could research Lore: Fire Spirits or Lore: Nature Spirits.  More exotic spirit types may require ‘research trips’ to exotic, dangerous locations.

Inborn Affinity
Characters of supernatural origin, or with some kind of supernatural taint, can more easily spellbind spirits associated with their otherworldly nature.

Thus a character descended from an air elemental will more easily bind wind spirits, a character descended from demons can more easily bind demonic spirits, and so on.

Spellbinding Mechanics
Spellbinding is a skill challenge, the difficulty being commensurate to the power level of the spirit being bound.  Affinities give bonuses to the roll, and multiple Affinity bonuses can stack.  Difficulties will be such that skill alone will rarely suffice; the player must actively find ways to get bonuses.

There are no limits to how many spells a character can have bound; however each spell must have a physical Focus.  Fear the NPC bedight with bling!

The gameplay effect of this should be to make magic users more powerful and flexible even at lower levels, but balance this power by making magic user players want to actively quest for their spells instead of just getting them every rest period or as goodies when they level up.

You can use this system with D&D simply by converting spell levels to spirit levels.  Higher-level spells mean having to bind a more powerful spirit.  Some spells that are more effective than their stated level could be bumped up.

Supporting Powers
While this system may give greater variety in the spells possessed by magic users, it can also cause shortages of spells during times of crisis.  To alleviate that lack, I’ll suggest the addition of innate Powers.  Magic users may have the following Powers in addition to their spells:

  • Read Magic – as per the D&D spell
  • Sense Magic – sense spellcasting/spellbinding activity and the presence of magic users
  • Mesmerize – a very sword and sorcery style power that lets the sorcerer paralyze or even dominate another character or creature
  • Familiar – a small magical creature accompanies the character and acts as his servant and aide
  • Guardian – a large and/or powerful creature accompanies the character and acts as his guardian
  • Baleful Presence – the character’s mere presence causes fear
  • Baleful Touch – the character can make touch attacks at will that have some harmful effect; paralyzing pain, inflicting burns, causing terror, etc. etc.
It’s up to the GM how to ration out these powers, depending on the D&D edition being used and desired flavor of play.


  1. This is spellbinding too. A clever reworking of the one-use idea, with all those extra benefits in interactions. Think of the side-quests! What a contribution this is.

  2. I think this is fantastic. Last time I ran D&D3e, I rationalized spell "memorization" as the actual pre-casting of spells and I like this system even better (for certain settings). It also strikes a chord with me because the Stormbringer RPG and Gurps Voodoo systems have recently been on my mind.

  3. Thanks! I think this post came out because I've never gotten a proper sword and sorcery feel out of D&D. Magic was just too commonplace and easy.

    I like the idea of the versatile spellcaster, a character whose power comes not from being able to deal more damage but from his or her sheer unpredictable resourcefulness.

    While I had Elric in mind, I can trace my most direct influence to Allan Cole and Chris Bunch's Antero series.


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