Where Do Spells Come From?


Magic spells are a staple of FRPGs but I for one have often wondered where they come from. If the rules state that they come from spirits or the gods (such as RuneQuest(TM) spirit and divine magic) the players can do as their characters would and simply accept that that is the way the world works but what about RuneQuest sorcery and D&D spell books, for example?

In these cases one is taught the spells by an Adept or Mage or learns them from scrolls or books which were themselves written by other sorcerers who learned them from their masters or from scrolls. Since such spells clearly have a non-spiritual origin the implication is that someone must have invented them but no games system I am familiar with has any concept of research (other than looking something up in a really old scroll).

When I was running a RuneQuest campaign I did devise some rules for sorcerous research. As it happened, the characters were always too busy staying alive for these rules to be used much so they never got a proper playtest. They very system-specific but are reproduced here in case any RQ GMs are reading this, or any other GMs who may wish to adapt them to their own campaigns.

First I needed the skill of “Sorcerous Research” – an analog to modern scientific research. This is something different to the “research” skill that exists in RQ3 which, as noted above, consists of improving ones knowledge of a subject by reading up on it. An apprentice sorceror would gain this as X1 plus magic modifier. Since sorcerous research is a highly individual skill, it can only be taught up to 25%, further improvements are by experience only.

In my campaign, I made use of a set of spell fumble tables published in the magazine Fantasy Chronicles. A sorceror seeing the results of such a fumble might think it desirable to produce such effects on demand. S/he would need to succeed in a concentration roll (INTx3 or better) to correctly note what had happened. This roll should be made in secret by the GM.

When back home, s/he could then study these notes with the intention of reproducing the spell. After a period (I would suggest at least a week of game-time), the sorceror makes a roll against his “Sorcerous Research” skill. Again, this roll should be made for the player by the GM.

If the concentration roll is made and the sorcerous research roll is made then the sorcer has discovered a new spell to create the desired effects and has ability to cast the spell of (1d6 + Magic Modifier)%. A skill-check in sorcerous research is earned and resolved. Since this is a new spell our sorceror is the world-expert in it and therefore cannot be taught improvements by anybody else. The skill in this spell can only be improved by experience.

If the concentration roll is made but the sorcerous research fails, then s/he realises that more time is needed. If s/he has the funds to maintain herself s/he can continue her studies and another roll can be made after the appropriate game-time has elapsed.

If the concentration roll is made but the sorcerous research is fumbled, the sorceror thinks s/he has discovered a new spell but the error will only become apparent when something disastrous happens when she tries to use it,

If the concentration roll is failed but the sorcerous research is made s/he realises s/he does not have enough information to create the spell. If the sorcerous research roll is failed s/he will be unaware of the deficit in information and just think more time is needed.

If the concentration roll is fumbled but the sorcerous research succeeds, the sorceror will realise that s/he remembered incorrectly and trying to create the spell from the data s/he has will be dangerous. If the sorcerous research is failed, again s/he will be unaware of the data flaws and will think more time is needed.

Fumbled concentration followed by fumbled research will be seriously bad. There’s a reason why there aren’t many sorcerous researchers, and why sprit and divine magicians fear and distrust sorcerors.

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