Casting without spell lists

EDIT: Simplified the consequences of rolling a 1 further so the only reference a caster should need is the magical mishap table.

As alluded to in my post trialling the Channeller class for a previous version of Off-White Cube, my preference is that those barmy fools who think dabbling in the arcane arts is an excellent idea should do so at their own risk.

My favourite quote on the matter comes from Terry Pratchett in Going Postal:

“Not doing any magic at all was the chief task of wizards—not “not doing magic” because they couldn’t do magic, but not doing magic when they could do and didn’t. Any ignorant fool can fail to turn someone else into a frog. You have to be clever to refrain from doing it when you knew how easy it was. There were places in the world commemorating those times when wizards hadn’t been quite as clever as that, and on many of them the grass would never grow again.”

Just like combat shouldn’t be a risk-free walk in the park, nor should magic be a ‘skip obstacle’ which clearly is the optimal thing to do in a given scenario.

Unfortunately, too dangerous a magic system can mean that nobody wants to use it at all, which would be a shame. The Channeller didn’t see a huge amount of use in the Barrowmaze before eventually being dropped from the more recent draft of Off-White Cube. A 5-in-6 chance at best of avoiding a negative effect when casting the most basic spell, and a substantially higher likelihood of consequences coming from trying more powerful spells, meant it wasn’t worth the risk.

Our current setup uses casting points – de facto mana points – rather than slots to encourage flexibility with spells, but the most fun has always been had when trying to use a spell for something not specified in its description. Spell lists tend to limit creativity, and are a pain for a GM to reference when controlling NPC casters.

So here’s another attempt at a d6-friendly word-based magic system to either sit alongside or replace a Vancian spell system. Not quite as chaotically dangerous as would befit the Pratchett universe, but one which should hopefully cause players to think carefully before unleashing their character’s magical potential.

Casting magic

A caster can learn magic words (usually verbs and nouns) which they can combine whenever they want to cast a spell.

There is no limit to the number of magic words they can know, and they can be mixed and matched freely, but to use a word in a spell they must be carrying enough magic reagents for it. These are usually mundane ingredients which can be easily bought or, with a bit more effort, scavenged. Enough reagents for a magic word take up an inventory slot (or around 10% of a character’s carrying capacity).

Casters have a pool of magic dice to ‘power’ their spells (d6s). For any class fully dedicated to magic, the number of dice in their pool is usually equal to their level.

Casters can start off with two magic words – roll once on each of the following tables:

Magic Verb


Magic Noun


To cast a spell the player must combine a magical verb and noun (for which the character is carrying the appropriate ingredients) and explain the intended effect to the GM. Player and GM should agree a suitable tier for the spell.

(If a target of the spell would rather not be affected, they may attempt to save to avoid or reduce the effect – if a minion is hit with a powerful tier 5 spell, then a save probably shouldn’t entirely negate it.)

Use the table below as a rough guide, but the GM has the final say:

Total Levels (HD)
11Close1 hour
2Up to 4Near1 day
3Up to 9Far1 week
4Up to 16In sight1 month
5Up to 25A visited
1 year

Upon determining the spell tier, the caster can choose how many of their magic dice to commit to trying to successfully produce the spell.

Roll the dice:

  • if any of them roll higher than the magic tier, the character succeeds in the casting the spell. Any die that rolls higher than the magic tier is used up by the caster’s efforts and can’t be used again until after a full night’s rest.
  • if you roll a 1, then a complication has occurred. For each d6 that rolls a 1, the caster must choose to either:
    • sacrifice the reagents for one of the words used
    • have an inventory slot (or around 10% of their carrying capacity) filled with exhaustion until they can recover with a full night’s rest
    • roll on the magical mishap table below:

Magical Mishap

1d6 NPCs from your past turn to stoneYour skin becomes reflectiveYou grow to 8ft tallYour tongue grows forked & lisps heavilyThe nearest animal becomes sentientYour appearance switches to that of an acquaintance
2You get 4d6 years youngerYour incisors grow incessantlyYou shrink to 4ft tallA nearby book character comes to lifeOne of your possessions becomes sentientSpider silk strands stick to all you touch
3You age 4d6 yearsYour toes turn into fingersYou can only speak in a whisperYou can only see in shades of purpleYou have the body mass of a sealionYour dreams show somebody else’s life
4Save every morning or you into a cat for the dayYou change genderTusks emerge from your jawYour hands are scalding to the touchYou attract cats. A lotAll alcohol within 5 miles becomes vinegar
5Your sweat corrodes metalYou lose all hair and it doesn’t grow backYour flesh turns to woodAll plant life within 1 mile withers and diesYou are blinded but have echolocation
You know of a long-forgotten castle and the secret to getting in
6A morally-opposite copy of you appearsYour hair grows 1ft a dayYou can only eat, but can live off, grassA fearsome creature is hunting you downYour nose seals up. You need no breathPermanently add +1 magic dice to your pool
Forgive the difficulty in reading this – I am not a fan of WordPress’ tables feature. Alas, HTML doesn’t usually work any better.

Note that the spell may still be successfully cast even with a full array of disastrous consequences, so long as at least one die rolls above the magic tier.

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