In which we discuss common spells and the nine problematic spells – Avada Kedavra, Expecto Patronum, the Fidelius Charm, the Fiendfyre Curse, the Imperius Curse, Portus, Taboo, Draconifors, and the Hour-Reversal Charm.
Next up, we have the magic of Harry Potter – and here again we have a bit of information from the author to clear things up. While it’s blatantly obvious that most of the magic in Harry Potter is purely mechanical – you might as well be pushing buttons on your remote control to activate pre-defined programs – the three “Unforgivable Curses” and the Horcruxes have muddled discussions with moral dimensions for years.
So what makes the three “unforgivable curses” so special? According to the author…
The Avada Kedavra, Imperius, and Cruciatus Curses were made illegal by the Ministry of Magic in 1717 and classified as Unforgivables at that time via legislation, “with the strictest penalties attached to their use.” (Tales of Beedle the Bard – Page 142 – Collector Edition)
OK, that’s sensible enough. Even if the Cruciatus Curse calls for active malevolence on the part of the caster to work properly, these are just spells. Their “unforgivable” status is the result of a legal definition, not of any particular moral force.
The creation of Horcruxes demands the murder of a victim and intentionally damaging your own soul. Presuming that the soul is regarded as something inherently precious and never to be violated and that murder is generally regarded as wrong, there doesn’t need to be any actual inherent evil in the magic itself. People generally agree that using a knife to save someone who’s entangled in something underwater is good, while using that same knife to skin a screaming child alive is bad, without arguing that the actual knife has to be inherently good or evil The same seems likely to go for magical energy.
So what are the actual rules for (human) magic in the Potterverse?
- Per the author, it calls for a wand or some magically-similar focus. You can do poorly-controlled, weak, and semi-random tricks without a wand, but you need a wand to do really good magic.
- There really isn’t any limit on how much you can use. New schoolkids can practice charms for hours without a problem. There isn’t any “running out of magic” in the Potterverse, although the sheer physical strain of a long battle or repeating a spell over and over again may get to you.
- There aren’t any otherworldly powers involved. There are no demons, elementals, angels, or gods to summon. There are ghosts and poltergeists and various magical animals – but all of them seem to be a part of this world, even if souls go on beyond it. Similarly, we never see anything being summoned except for normal animals.
- Most potterverse spells are fairly low-powered, at least in terms of d20 games or the Hero System or similar role-playing games. They’re reasonably versatile – but no one is summoning armies, creating new kinds of life, teleporting to other planets (or even all that far normally), or similar stunts.
What we actually see in the books, games, and author notes, are spells that provide…
- Biomanipulations. This group of spells can repair or regrow bones, change moods, heal small injuries, wake up unconscious people, possibly make someone expel their entrails (there is a possibility that this is a medical spell that treats poisons and/or intestinal blockages rather than an attack; the information on it is ambiguous), grow hair or fur, cause terrible pain, make someone’s body explosive, remove minor, magically-induced, ailments, and inflict various injuries with no apparent source.
- Conjurations. These spells produce things from nothing. As weapons they can produce sprays or bolts of water, fire, ice, wind, and so on, entangle people in ropes or nets, create slashing blades or barriers of force, and generate modest explosions. Less directly, it can produce normal animals (swarms of bugs, dozens of birds, and large snakes), create splints and bandages, planks, bunches of flowers, pumpkins, really good glue, light and darkness, smokescreens, blindfolds, room-sized weather effects, and drink refills. Interestingly, both amplifying and dispelling magic fall into this group of spells. So do spells that make (worthless) copies of items. In general, all conjurations are very temporary; conjuring money or food is basically ineffectual – and money is quite illegal to boot.
- Divinations. These spells obtain information – detecting intruders or nearby humans, revealing the last spells a wand was used to cast, revealing an items exotic or magical properties, detecting magical disguises, locating true north, and identifying creatures. Annoyingly enough (if quite conveniently for mystery stories), any divination beyond the simplest and most immediate seems to become increasingly unreliable. Thus probing minds rarely works very well at all while things like prophecies, auguries, astrology, and clairvoyance are erratic to the point of near-uselessness.
- Enhancements. These spells boost the natural properties of things – providing enhanced senses, making objects tougher or near-unbreakable, adding strength or endurance, enhancing the user’s grip, making doors capable of stopping all eavesdropping, creating “magical” swords, making a promise unbreakable, and even letting a container (or room) hold far more than it should. As a rule, enhancements applied to living creatures are strictly temporary, while those applied to objects can last for weeks, months, or even many years.
- Illusions. While these spells don’t require a lot of power, most of them appear to be highly complex – perhaps because making something “look right” requires immense amounts of fine detail and it’s almost impossible to envision something that well in the time it takes to recite a few words. On the other hand, Potterverse Illusions seem to affect inanimate objects just fine; evidently they manipulate actual light and sound. Thus you don’t see multiple-image spells (despite how useful they’d be when the death-curses are flying), you see vague translucent images, amplifying and muffling sound, fireworks, people writing “flaming letters” in the air, changing the color of objects, and inducing vague daydreams. On the upper end of illusions you get reasonably effective invisibility and (for the clever) keeping burglar alarms from going off.
- Inflictions. These spells disrupt the operation of the victims body and mind, causing all sorts of problems – uncontrollable babbling, rapidly growing teeth, pain, boils, hair falling out, knees working backwards, paraplegia, muteness, full paralysis, confusion, loss of memory, rashes, stings, stunning, nausea, dancing, laughing, being unable to speak of specific topics, deafness, inducing hostility, uncontrollable sneezing, and incredible ticklishness. In general, these are quite temporary although – due to the constantly-rewritten nature of memory – disruptions there can indefinitely bury or even replace memories.
- Telekinesis. While these spells lose effectiveness as the targets get bigger, more “alive”, or more magical, they are still quite general and useful. You see them moving objects around and even bringing them from or carrying them to specified places, pushing people and objects violently away or pulling them to the caster, making people drop things, pulling down moveable stairs and barriers, holding a bubble of air to breathe, slowing things down, packing luggage, flying (usually using a focus), ripping out chunks of things, putting up tents, tripping people, opening pits, and dangling people in the air (or countering that).
- Teleportation. These spells work best with small objects and relatively short distances – but the limits seem to be easily boosted with boosting items, prepared locations, and other aides. These spells are often used to clean things, remove trash, summon items, escape problems, switch two objects locations, serve food, and – with one or more boosting effects – for intermediate range travel. Oddly enough, House Elves seem to be a lot better at this than magic-users.
- Transformations. There are a lot of these spells, but they seem to tend to be both highly specific and quite temporary save when they’re repairing things or making simple physical changes. Many or most of them are simple convenience effects. Thus we see spells being used to repair objects, turn them back to normal after they’re transformed, open doors sealed by normal locks, make fires burn cold, “weld” things together, warm and dry things, animate statues or suits of armor (although this may involve prior enchantments), change something’s color, lock doors (and seal them against magical opening), turn into specific animals, get rid of footprints (and presumably other traces), make objects (or their insides) larger or smaller, cause an unfortunate individuals nasal mucus to harass them, break holds and bindings, put out fires, force Boggarts into silly forms, turn staircases into ramps or slides, turn water into rum, grow plants quickly, turn small items into rabbits, and link objects together so that they can be used to communicate.
- Wards. These spells are basically defensive barriers, possibly with alarms attached. They can sound alarms when someone enters an area, help keep an area safe (the exact effect is never defined), keep kids out of areas with a magical barrier, prevent teleportation (and presumably other types of magic) in an area, provide rather limited protection from magic for a person or small area, reflect minor spells, make minor magical attacks on those who attempt to pass them (as usual, these are very effective against nameless background characters, but rarely do much to named characters), subtly steer muggles away from magical places, and prevent cheating on exams (fair enough in a school, if of limited usefulness otherwise).
For the most part… these spells have (in d20 terms) effects of up to level two, occasionally level three. In difficult fields the effects are mostly level one, sometimes up to level two. The Potterverse, like many other fantastic realms, has ubiquitous magic – but not magic that warps the world to the point of unrecognizability.
That leaves just nine spells on the “problematic” list.
Avada Kedavra: This magical attack cannot be blocked by any magic save for self-sacrifice or hosting a secondary life force, although interposing a physical barrier, or dodging, or hitting it with another spell before it hits to throw off the targeting, or magically-assisted dodging (using some spell that moves you out of the way of incoming attacks or to precognitively alert you or some such) all apparently work. In addition, having a Horcrux, or a phoenix’s self-resurrection ability, will let you recover. Also, of course, we’re told…
Avada Kedavra’s a curse that needs a powerful bit of magic behind it – you could all get your wands out and point them at me and say the words, and I doubt I’d get so much as a nosebleed.
-Barty Crouch Junior (when disguised as Alastor Moody).
Although what, exactly, that MEANS is open for debate. There are several mentions of some magic-users being “more powerful” than others – but it’s never really clear whether that means that they know more spells, use them more quickly, are more clever about using them, are better able to break through resistance, have more innate magical knacks, have better fine control, boost the potency of their spells somehow, can have more spells going at once, or some combination of those and other possible ways of measuring “power”. For all I know they’re talking about reputation or political influence or something and that somehow affects their magic. How would that work you ask? How should I know? It’s MAGIC.
Of course this particular quote also directly contradicts the “no one has ever survived it” bit, since otherwise how could anyone know that it took “a powerful bit of magic” to make it work? The only way to know that is for people to cast it and have it NOT work.
Personally I suspect that – given that physical barriers work – really thick armor or scales or a thick layer of mud or really dense hair might also work, as – presumably – will being a vampire, ghost, or other only quasi-living creature, or being highly resistant to magic like dragons or dementors (after all… if the spell worked against such creatures, would they be so feared? There are penalties for using the unforgivable curses against people, monsters aren’t really mentioned – and if they were, there are exceptions for Auror’s using them against Death Eaters, so why not for against monsters?)
Still, barring all of THAT… it if connects it causes instant death! That’s pretty powerful!
Or is it? The Potterverse runs on realistic injuries – and there don’t seem to be any healing spells that work quickly enough to deal with damaged aortas, bullets through the brain, arrows or crossbow bolts through the heart, decapitation, massive hydrostatic shock, having your chest blown out by a sniper rifle, sufficiently large explosions, cut throats, or being incinerated, brained, cut in half, or smashed by a couple of tons of falling rock. All of those, and lots of other injuries, are pretty much instant death – or a few moments of unconsciousness followed by death.
So… can’t be blocked by magic and kills as effectively as an accurate .shot from a light handgun. Honestly… if you had a choice between “Fireball” and this, it would be a tough choice. There are things to be said on both sides. Potterverse magic-users don’t seem to have a lot of passive defenses – so if you can squeeze a trigger or blast the area (so they can’t just dodge) faster than they can cast something they’re in deep trouble anyway. Besides, couldn’t you put spells on your ammo to keep it from being blocked by magical defenses? Why not?
Expecto Patronum: This conjures an animal made of light that can drive back creatures of darkness and carry messages for you. That’s a weird dual function, but in D20 terms… When you cast it you can choose between Circle of Protection From Evil (with a short duration and a very conspicuous manifestation) and something akin to Whispering Wind. (Or, if the world had Archons or we rule that you’re manifesting a rough equivalent, this could be a specific Summon Lantern Archon spell, at about L2, trading more duration for some strict limitations on the actions it can take). Overall… this simply goes under Conjurations.
Fidelius Charm: This spell hides a particular piece of information within the recipients soul. No one else can obtain that information unless the secret-keeper gives it to them. If he or she does not share the information, it vanishes forever when they die. If the secret-keeper does share the information before dying, upon his or her death everyone it was passed to becomes a new secret keeper. This has been canonically used to hide the Potters residence from Voldemort and to hide one house in a set of row-houses in London.
Wait, what? The bit with hiding a house on a public street shows that information can be hidden this way, even from other magic-users, and even if the information was widely known, publicly visible, and not in the control of the caster at the time of casting.
Hey, Joey! Can you keep a secret? I’m going to hide the location of Lord Voldemort’s butt so that he can’t find it to wipe properly any longer!
So why didn’t Dumbledore hide the information on how to make a Horcrux long before Tom Riddle could ever get a hold of it if it was so nasty? Why not put Hogwarts out of business by hiding where it is so no one who’s outside can find it again? Why not hide Voldemort’s wand from him? Why not hide the Sorcerer’s Stone this way? Why not eliminate the Avada Kedavra spell by hiding IT? If you’re jealous of Harry Potter why not make sure that no one will ever recognize him again? Why not wreck the world by hiding the existence of FIRE? (What mysterious undetectable force is destroying our cities and forests? If only we could figure out what it is! And how were these engines and power systems supposed to work anyway? And how did people used to cook? All these things are lost secrets of the last week guys!).
This kind of thing WOULD explain villain incompetence, but it really goes too far. Voldemort isn’t LITERALLY unable to find his ass with both hands… I think.
Forget this one (unless you just decree that it was used to hide all the other really problematic spells and then itself). It has “Ill-thought out Author Plot Device” all over it. Stick with ordinary antidivination and concealment effects or, at most, allow such effects to be made semipermanent through the use of this spell. Allowing characters to simply wipe out inconvenient information will wipe out the game once the players get to thinking about it.
Spellweaver recommends that casting this spell requires that the information must be known only to the ones doing the casting. The spell then prevents said information from being acquired by magic, but not through mundane means. This won’t work like it does in the book, but nothing that makes any sense will.
Fiendfyre Curse: OK, this conjures up a nearly-inextinguishable mass of flame that can destroy mighty magical artifacts, burn almost anything, shape itself into creatures, and actively goes looking for targets to at least some extent. Judging from the ability to destroy magical artifacts, fire protection spells won’t do much good either. Perhaps you can get it off someone with one of the telekinetic effects?
OK, it’s hyped-up napalm – an ongoing fire spell – with a “spread itself” animation on it. It trades in a lot of control and pretty much all the safety precautions (thus giving it a major risk of killing or injuring the caster) in exchange for extra power – thus becoming a one-shot mass-kill effect that stupid teenagers can use. Hopefully even most of THEM will not be stupid enough to actually do so. Overall… this really isn’t all that useful to anyone. Suicidal moves may be potent, but it’s a bad idea to use them outside of really dire necessity.
Imperius Curse: This places the victim in a dreamlike state wherein he or she will obey the caster’s orders. The victim can still cast spells and function normally in almost all other ways – including putting the Imperius Curse on other people. It can be resisted by the strong-willed with practice with the extent of control and the specific duration being vaguely dependent on the will and “power” (whatever that means) of the caster. While it needs to be regularly renewed for long-term use, it leaves no detectable traces and you need only point your wand (or similar focus) and whisper the incantation under your breath…
Well HELLO to the magic-users date-rape spell of choice! Lets see now… “whenever you see another magic-user cast the Imperius Curse on them as sneakily as possible, If there’s more than one target available, choose at random. Then pass on these instructions”. That gives us global chaos in the magical world in less than thirty-five words – and may mean mass death in a couple of weeks depending on how many get stuck in loops doing nothing else but casting the curse at each other.
Honestly, putting any effect that can set up a self-perpetuating pyramid scheme with a few careless words into a setting is a bad idea – and even if someone was watching, and can prove that you used this spell… you can just claim that someone else used it on you. Worse, if “he or she said so!” is enough proof of it’s use… why aren’t people simply accusing their enemies of using it whether they did or not? And if it’s not… most cases can never be proven. Every available method of actually determining the truth has it’s counter-effect. With this spell… you can look at someone down the street and make them steal, embezzle, commit sabotage, play suicide bomber, or assassinate anyone you please. Essentially tracelessly, and with no real chance of being caught at it. After all, the magical government can’t manage to keep tabs on far, FAR, more flagrant lawbreakers.
So, to turn this into something that works for a game… if you want it to last for more than a few minutes, you must give the victim a talisman, which is magically linked to you. You can only bind a limited number of such talismans to you at any one time, and any talismans your victim’s bind count against your own total. Keep working on someone for a few days and you can brainwash them into your service quite effectively – but otherwise this is limited to suggestions, mild hypnosis effects, and the equivalent of d20’s “charm person”. That’s still quite troublesome, and lets a villain control a set of hapless minions, but it won’t wreck the world.
Portus: This turns an item into a teleportation talisman, allowing travel between a set of specified locations. It apparently goes off as soon as you try to move the item in question – thus acting as a sort of “secret door” between separated locations. At a guess, the caster has to work the spell at both ends of the prospective trip. How many times such an item can be used remains unknown, as do the upper limits of the distance traveled, the limits on weight or number of persons to be transported, and so on…
Personally, I would count this as an enchantment-boosted teleportation with a very limited number of uses and similar limitations – including what seems to be a fairly short range under normal circumstances.
Taboo: This lets you enchant a word or name so that you will instantly be aware of when and where it is spoken. Even better, when it’s spoken it will destroy any protective enchantments around the speaker – such as concealment effects or wards.
So… this spell can overcome thousands of other spells, including some that are supposed to be impenetrable, all at once, and with no ongoing attention from it’s caster. I’d guess that the user can cancel it – if only in case he or she gets interrupted or something and accidently says “What?” instead of an appropriate name or wants to get some sleep someday – but otherwise there seems to be no counterspell. Couldn’t you put it on “The” for an hour or so and take down almost every protective enchantment in the world?
On the law enforcement side… why not put it on the words for the three Unforgivable Curses? And perhaps on a few of the other spells, like the Dark Mark? Wouldn’t that be really, REALLY helpful? Why yes, yes it would!
OK, you’d be notified about people discussing them as well – but not only is that a subject of interest anyway, the Ministry of Magic demonstrated that they could detect the unshielded use of a charm to float a cake – and making the right words a Taboo will eliminate any protective spells, thus automatically making any use of the actual spells unshielded and detectable.
For that matter… put it on a few phrases like “Lord Voldemort” and “Malfoy” too. After all, wouldn’t it be kind of interesting to see if the names of several major suspected Death Eaters kept turning up together in places where they weren’t supposed to be? Sure, it might just be them being talked about… but it might be a meeting and with all the privacy spells down you can find out which it is easily enough. What if those names keep turning up in close association with the words for Unforgivable Curses? Or you find that someone is regularly using the Imperius Curse in a particular household or other location?
Wait… wouldn’t this leave quite a lot of Death Eaters without their excuses, reveal some notable impersonations, and otherwise wreck some major plot points? Why yes, yes it would!
That is the trouble with introducing major elements at the last moment.
Besides… to work as described this thing has to have a global area of effect, be capable of distinguishing between very similar sounding words (in every existing language) while still sorting out all the odd ways the people can pronounce things, is extremely difficult to detect while still being capable of overpowering an unlimited number of other spells, and can apparently still be defeated by handing out stupid nicknames… Shouldn’t there be a tradition of that if this spell exists anyway?
“So… how are we going to defeat Moldyfart?”
Given that this little monstrosity is far, FAR, more powerful than any other piece of magic mentioned in the entire saga – and there’s no practical way to weaken it while retaining what it’s supposed to do – I would drop this one entirely.
Between the videogames and other secondary sources, there are two more spells on this list – Draconifors (which turns the caster into a dragon) and the “Hour-Reversal Charm” which is used to make Time-Turners.
Unfortunately, I haven’t got enough information on Draconifors to really be sure – but I suspect that it’s like most of the other video-games “transformations” I’ve seen in that it basically lets you trade one strategy (casting spells and using a weapon) in favor of another (being really tough and using a natural weapons and fire breath) – both roughly equivalent (or you’d almost always want to use the transformation) but each better suited to particular challenges. This probably isn’t all that powerful – and is even less attractive in an RPG, which can be counted on to offer a much wider range of options than a video game anyway.
The “Hour Reversal Charm” is behind Time-Turners. It can let you travel up to five hours into the past – although what happens if you try to send someone who belongs in the time you are visiting five more hours back remains unknown. According to the author, trying to go further always results in weird disasters, such as numerous people vanishing because they were never born and, after that traveler into deep time returned… “the Tuesday following her reappearance lasted two and a half full days, whereas Thursday shot by in the space of four hours. The Ministry of Magic had a great deal of trouble in covering this up”.
I would think they would, since – if a single witch could damage the flow of time across the entire solar system (think about what would happen if earth’s time was out of sync with that of the sun or moon) – there’s no reason to think that it didn’t affect the entire universe.
Yet all the actual activity ever shown observes the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle. Evidently time travelers have a choice; they can travel up to five hours and be held to a self-consistent history (I.E. Their actions cannot actually change anything) or they can travel further and automatically eliminate themselves in some form of time-disaster.
In terms of what this actually accomplishes… this spell gives you three options.
- You may (accidentally or on purpose) commit a spectacular temporal suicide by going too far, by announcing that you are attempting to actually change the past, or because the spell is unstable and went wrong. If so, all you can do is hope that the game master will decide that the world is somehow improved by your horrible death.
- You may propose an explanation involving yourself time traveling for something weird that happened in the last five hours of game time. The game master may then tell you what actually happened when you attempted this. No, you do not get to play it out – that would not work with the self-consistency principle – but the game master might decide that you acquire something (information or an item that had vanished mysteriously) if your explanation is sufficiently clever. Of course, you might also die. That may not be LIKELY, but it is certainly possible.
- You may announce that you are going back to obtain something from the past five hours – information that was available but that you missed or something that might have vanished mysteriously – and ask the game master to narrate the result. No, you do not get to play it out and yes, once again, you might die.
What we wind up with is a spell that certainly implies vast power – but which doesn’t actually fulfill that promise. Instead, just as in the books… about all you can do with relative safety is squeeze a few extra hours of work or study into your day. It can still produce some excessively-potent results, but it doesn’t actually do the caster much good. I would still rule it out on the grounds that it requires too much power – but it probably won’t hurt your game much if you don’t; it’s just too dangerous to use for what you can actually accomplish with hit.