Dramatic Spell Research and Radius Potions

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Here we have a couple of questions from Derek regarding The Practical Enchanter.

You have a lot of good stuff for spell design but one thing is missing- failure. I was thinking about failure for psionic power design (ie screwing up one’s own mind) and it hit me that it could be applied to magic (screwing up the unnatural order) as well. Have any ideas on this?

That really comes in two different aspects – designing spells and powers that carry an inherent risk of failure and dangerous failures in the design process. After all, simply failing to produce a usable formula or producing one that doesn’t work properly is already covered in the design process – and if you want to create a spellcaster with risky or unstable magic, you want Eclipse: The Codex Persona rather than The Practical Enchanter.

Spells and powers that carry an inherent risk of failure are easy. For that, you can simply build the Arcanum Minimus effect from The Practical Enchanter into the spell formula. This works just like building in any other metamagical effect but – of course – reduces the level of the resulting spell instead of adding to it. Since you don’t need to know a metamagical feat to design a spell formula with the equivalent effect built in, there’s no problem there.

  • The simplest form of failure is using the “Powers of Chaos” modifier. When such a spell fails it can produce wild magical effects at the game masters option.
  • The “Life Energy” modifier can represent mental damage by simply taking the option for attribute damage and applying it to mental attributes.
  • Finally, for really advanced mental damage, you can use the “Powers of Darkness” option, although you’d probably want to tweak the possible effects a bit.

This means that inherently-flawed powers and spells normally won’t be more than a level or two below the unflawed versions. That’s intentional, simply because letting characters get a hold of spells that are too far beyond their normal abilities – even if they are badly flawed – tends to be overly disruptive.

Now, as far as research failures go, the idea is indeed very classic. On the magical side “Occult experimenter carried off by demons!”, “Explosion in laboratory!”, and even “Accidentally created a monster!” are all standard themes. On the psionic side, fiction about psychics is full of crazed mentalists who probed too deeply into their own minds or tried to use some bizarre power with a heavy pricetag.

There are a couple of problems with that sort of thing in the game though.

The biggest is that our researchers usually aren’t dabblers, or experimenters on the fringes of their fields, or even the equivalent of classical alchemists tinkering with things they don’t really understand*. Most d20 characters doing spell or power research are well-trained professionals in their fields, with plenty of experience, long traditions, and reference works to draw on. Amateurs building bombs in their basements blow themselves up fairly often. Professionals, however, turn out explosive shells, special-purpose bombs, and other munitions by the millions, and accidents are very rare.

*For the “amateurs dabbling in effects far beyond their level of competence” notion in The Practical Enchanter  we have Transmutation Circles or various forms of ritual and ceremonial magic – including “Artifact Creation”, which can reasonably be used to create one-shot unique magical effects (or which can just as easily go drastically wrong). After all, a one-shot magical effect can be looked at as a minor, unstable, artifact made up of it’s ritual components can’t it?

Secondarily, spell and power research is usually a solitary activity. If the party wizard or psion is spending two weeks doing spell research, the rest of the party will generally be doing something else – practicing, being fitted for new armor, attending the local temple, or whatever.

Thus, when something goes wrong, it usually falls into one of two categories.

Most commonly, there are annoyances – burning your eyebrows off, various sorts of damage, minor curses, and so on – that the game master can announce at whim because the party cleric will fix them right up before anything more important happens. Those have no real game effect, and so can be thrown in at whim, with no real system needed.

Less often, there are disasters – being dragged off to hell, life-threatening (or very expensive) fires, going insane for lengthy periods (as opposed to waking up with a hangover and a new tattoo), and so on.

Now the player is going to want his or her researching character to fight disasters. If they’re too much for his or her character to deal with, we’re in “bad roll, you died” territory – which isn’t much fun and seems a bit harsh to be charging the character research costs and time for.

If it’s easy to deal with, we’re back in “annoyances” territory.

If it’s something the character can deal with, but only with serious effort, we have the makings of an exciting scene or mini-adventure – but it’s a personal side-quest which will leave the rest of the players sitting around grinding their teeth. That’s not so good.

To make disasters work, you want the character to know in advance that “this might be trouble!” so that he or she can have his or her friends standing by to help. What’s more, you’ll want it to be a research step that can’t be broken down far enough for safety. Otherwise the researcher could just try out components that are individually too weak to cause serious problems.

Ergo, we’re looking at a research component that is large, complex, unpredictable, and which cannot be broken down and still work.

That sounds almost like you’re dealing with a living thing doesn’t it?

Thus the high-end “Assistance” options on the research table. If you want to take risks in your research, just drop one of those modifiers in – say, you get some friends in to back you up and use a ritual to call up a dangerous (and perhaps more-or-less abstract) entity to consult – and deal with that entity. That way, if things go seriously wrong, all the players can be involved in dealing with it. You don’t want to take such risks? Your research will be safer, but considerably harder and more expensive.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily represent inner confusion and the possible abstract perils of a miscast, partially-designed, supernatural effect as well as it might in all cases – but it is dramatic, playable, and potentially involves everyone at the table in a reasonably plausible fashion – which may be the best that can be done in that situation.

What would should the modifier be for a potion in the form of smoke that affects everyone who inhales it (say a 25′ diameter cloud with a single round duration)?

Sadly, this one isn’t really a job for enchantment as such. The problem here is twofold:

First up, it’s simply that spell storing effects – whether they’re wands, potions, or whatever – don’t change the spell effects. You put in a fireball, you get a fireball. Put in a fireball with some weird modifier, you get a fireball with the same weird modifier back. It’s not really the job of spell storing to modify spell effects.

Secondarily, as a flat cost, such a modifier would have some fairly unbalanced effects. If you applied it to Cure Light Wounds would the injuries return after one round? How much more would “True Strike” on a company of bowmen for one round be worth than “Longstrider”?

True Strike would be invaluable; +20 isn’t a guarantee of hitting, but it’s not far from it either. A single such potion that would let thirty guardsmen with crossbows take down some pretty major menaces.

Longstrider, one the other hand, would be a lot less useful.

In this case you’ll probably want to either modify the spell formula (probably the best option), apply suitable metamagic to the spell before it’s stored, or find a way to modify the stored spell while it’s being released – such as with the “Add Metamagic” effect*.

Optionally, you could build an intelligent device which could cast it’s own “add metamagic” effect when a stored spell went off. That would be a mere 12000 GP for a small unlimited-use “add metamagic” spell which added one level of a chosen metamagic to a spell of up to level three when it went off and another 1000 GP for a rank-0 spirit to activate the thing. Personally, I’d pick “Elemental Manipulation”. That way that Fireball wand could throw any kind of elemental blast you wanted – among many other options.

Alternatively, you could use the “Alchemic Mist” spell from the Alchemy spell list. That works for some things, but – sadly – won’t work on magic potions. It does work nicely on poisons and drugs and such though.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.


11 Responses

  1. I meant the cloud has a single round duration rather than the effect. So someone can’t have a cloud of cure critical wounds and use it for 10 rounds in a row. [And you need to edit the article so that my question is in a yellow box. Didn’t see it at first.]

    The fun thing about disasters is that they can provide hooks as well as making spell design something more than “roll dice, read chart”. And there is always the one in a million rolls “spectacular failure, but amazing discovery” to duplicate the discover of penicillin and similar lucky discoveries of science.

    Thanks for the ideas!

    • First up, thanks for the typo alert; the quote-code is now fixed.

      I was thinking that you meant that it turned the spell into a one-round effect spread over the area, affecting anyone in it for that one round. To make area-effect potions out of single-target spells, you’ll want to use Eclipse, since it involves designing a specialized ability. Just take:

      Metamagical Theorem/Area (6 CP) and three levels of Streamline (18 CP). Fortunately that’s all Specialized and Corrupted for reduced cost – it only works when making one-shot stored spells, the Streamline part is limited to the Area Theorem, and it always has the same effect – boosting the area of the affected spell to a 25′ diameter.

      That costs 8 CP and lets you make “cloud” potions – a potentially quite potent ability, if rather limited. Since the “cloud” part presumably didn’t effectively block vision and such anyway, it’s just a special effect – and those are free.

      (And you’re quite welcome for ideas; they’re fun to toss around. I’m glad you’re finding the books interesting.)

  2. Well, you basically have to have a basic spell (or metamagic) which adds in the area. The storing does not naturally alter the effect.

    With Eclipse and the proper upgrade* you could potentially just add it to your stored spell, having to research a new spell. At the end of the day, it’s going to be the same cost and you’re not really gaining anything out of it.

    *Buy the Metmagic feat to add area, then Specialize only for your stored spells.

  3. Finding the books interesting!?!

    I don’t understand why there isn’t droves of people here asking questions. They are easily some of the best d20 books period.

    But then I write Mutant Future material for Skirmisher Publishing and getting feedback is difficult at best even when I request it.

    • Sadly, I suspect there are a couple of reasons for that.

      A large one is simply that – at this point – Editorial0 does find time for the occasional article or bit of proofreading and such, but for the most part he’s moved on to other jobs. Thus Distant Horizons Games is pretty much just me – and I’m no good at all at promoting stuff. I tend to write more material instead.

      I’ve also been told that there’s a fairly steep learning curve to the books – and they do represent some fairly radical departures from the usual d20 systems. It may be more than most players and game masters are willing to work with. Given that it does let you pretty much discard all those volumes of prestige classes and such it does usually simplify things in the end – but you do have to get by that initial hump.

      Secondarily, there really isn’t any budget for conventions and other venues – and the attempts we made at getting things into hobby shops turned out to be so expensive that we would have had to drastically increase prices to avoid losing money on every book.

      I tried sending out a few physical (and lots of PDF) review copies early on, but that never produced any responses at all. (It would still be nice to get a few though).

      Ergo, it’s word-of-mouth.

      I hope you’ll have better luck with feedback though.

  4. Well, you’re not the only one who’s said that. In fact, we actually get killer reviews. When we can get gamers who really take a look at it, they seemingly end up loving the system to death. I’ve thought about going down the DragonCon with a piles of books.

    • Well, if you ever do want to try it, there are still a few extra copies laying about. Given the lack of response from the initial set of reviewers, sending out more seemed like a waste of time.

  5. Not for review. For sale.

    • Oh yes. It’s just that there are some extra copies, not that there’d be much point in hunting for reviewers at a convention.

  6. I can understand Eclipse having a steep learning curve and Paths of Power being alien to the typical mindset, but TPE? Any player and GM would like tinkering with magic should have it on his or her HD or shelf.

    Eh, people are weird :)

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