Thursday, June 18, 2020

Vancian Freeform Magic

I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms.  It isn't.  You'll see.

I love the idea of free-form spell systems because they allow for endless creativity, and for me, creative problem-solving is the biggest source of fun in RPGs.  In practice though, people often come up with a few favorite spells they cast over and over.  This system was designed to prevent that by continually varying the tools in the free-form spellcaster's toolbox.

It's a noun-verb system like Ars Magicka, except the nouns and verbs are not skills you're permanently trained in.  They're lost when used, like Vancian spells, and when you get new ones you get them randomly, much like first-level magic-users in a lot of really old-school games.  There are ways to make that less random– you'll see.

Nouns and verbs are called lexestins– a portmanteau of "lex" meaning word, and sandestins, from the works of Jack Vance.

Artist: Todd Ulrich

Verbs (d20)

  1. Create
  2. Detect
  3. Enhance (strengthen or enlarge)
  4. Reduce (weaken or shrink)
  5. Destroy (or damage)
  6. Reshape (into something of the same type, ie reshape iron makes an iron object into a different iron object)
  7. Analyze (learn about something, understand it)
  8. Mend
  9. Summon
  10. Disguise
  11. Conceal
  12. Control (within the bound of whatever that object would normally do)
  13. Become 
  14. Move (that is, telekinetically)
  15. Halt (prevent from moving or acting)
  16. Combine (two or more objects into a single object; this is one where maybe you could use two nouns in a single spell)
  17. Abjure (as in protect against, so abjure sword wards against swords)
  18. Transform (into something else altogether, so transform iron could transform something made of iron into something not made of iron.  This is one where you could again maybe use two nouns in a spell)
  19. A verb relevant to the current location, see below for details.
  20. A verb relevant to your god if a divine caster, otherwise a verb relevant to the current location

Nouns (d100)

  1. Heat
  2. Light 
  3. Sound
  4. Emotions
  5. Memories
  6. Animals (alive only)
  7. Plants (alive only)
  8. Stone (includes concrete, brick)
  9. Wood (dead or alive, includes paper)
  10. Limbs (arms, legs)
  11. Metal
  12. Clothing
  13. Weapons
  14. Devices
  15. People
  16. Armor
  17. Dead (pepple/animals, not including undead, includes dead animal materials like leather)
  18. Undead
  19. Spirits
  20. Writing
  21. Water
  22. Kinetic energy
  23. Explosives
  24. Air
  25. Electromagnetism (including electricity and/or magnetism, separately)
  26. Robots/drones
  27. Electronics
  28. Building
  29. Vehicle
  30. Cloth (includes ballistic fibers like kevlar)
  31. Glass
  32. Plastic
  33. Drugs/medicine/poison
  34. Magic
  35. Time
  36. Space
  37. Senses or sensory organs
  38. Strength
  39. Dexterity
  40. Health
  41. Charisma
  42. Knowledge (both the attribute and general fields of knowledge, but not specific memories)
  43. Perception (the attribute)
  44. Willpower
  45. Skin
  46. Tools
  47. Food or beverage
  48. Thoughts
  49. Fatigue (includes both fatigue and hit points)
  50. Gravity
51-60 Generate 5 random nouns, referee picks one
61-70 Generate 3 random nouns, player picks one

71-90 A noun relevant to the current location, referee's choice.  So if the sorcerer is near the site of a recent forest fire they might get a fire sandestin, if they're in a carpenter's shop they might get wood or create, and so on.  

Items which have been used to accomplish great deeds can have the same effect, whether they're magical or not– a sword that has slain many foes may attract "destroy" lexestins, the toolkit of a highly accomplished eye surgeon may attract "senses" lexestins.  Sorcerers collect such items; they act something like spellbooks in other systems.  

Note that actual spellboooks have no place in this system, though grimoires are still used for rituals, which are a separate system. 

91-100– For divine casters, a noun of particular significance to your god.  For everyone else, one relevant to the location.  

Collecting Lexestins

A sorcerer or magic-user can have a maximum number of lexestins equal to Knowledge plus their Level.  A cultist, warlock or cleric can have a maximum number equal to their Knowledge plus half their level.  A half-caster class can have a number equal to their knowledge.  

By meditating for an hour after a night's rest, a sorcerer or magic-user may collect a number of lexestins equal to d6+their Knowledge modifier, plus one for every three full levels.  A cultist, warlock or cleric collects a number equal to d4+KNO mod, plus one for every five full levels. A half-caster collects a number equal to d3 + KNO mod, plus one for every six full levels.

The spellcaster can choose whether to roll for verbs or nouns.  In general, you'll want an even mix of each.

If you rest somewhere seeped in magic, like a wizard's tower, temple for a cult that has real magic, etc, you get one or two extra lexestins depending on how much magic there is nearby.

Casting Spells

Casting a spell takes a round, like in any other system.  Pick one verb and one noun to combine; you lose them and cast that spell, i.e. Create Fire.  You could maybe cast a spell with two nouns, like Transform Iron into Fire.  

All casters have a caster power that determines how strong their spells can be.  Caster power equals your level plus WIL mod for full casters, or half your level plus your full WIL mod for half casters.  Some powerful magic items can raise your caster power.

Area effect spells have a radius equal to 5 feet times caster power.

Damaging or healing spells do caster power D6's if they're single-target, or caster power/2 d4's if they affect an area or multiple targets.  If the spell takes advantage of something that already exists rather than creating the effect out of nothing– like throwing an existing fire at an enemy rather than conjuring fire out of thin air– raise the die size one step.

If you're using a system where HP doesn't scale very much, like GLOG or The Nightmares Underneath, then single-target damaging spells do 2d6+caster power, and area spells do 2d4+ half caster power.  

Buffing or disabling spells can affect multiple targets if it's a weak buff like Bless or if it only weakens targets like reducing their strength, disabling an arm, etc.  The equivalent of totally disabling spells like Hold Person, or awesome buffs like shapechange, can only affect one target.  Something like sleep that totally disables someone but can be easily cancelled, like how you can just shake people awake from sleep, can affect multiple targets.  

Spells with a duration last caster power minutes if the effect is really strong or hours if it's not as strong; go with whatever old-school spell it seems most similar to.   

If it's a touch spell, raise the damage a step, or raise the duration a unit of time– from minutes to hours or hours to days.  

Spell attack rolls and saves against spells will depend on whatever system you're grafting this onto.

This whole system requires a lot of on the spot rulings; use spells from more standard old-school systems as a guideline.  

Optional Dark and Dangerous Magic

All spells require a casting roll.  If you roll a critical, roll a d10 and a d8.  You take the d10 in damage to a random ability score; on a 7-8 on the d8 (or just an 8 with my seven-ability system) it goes to hit points.

So What Are Lexestins Anyway?

They're a sort of insubstantial, magical/spiritual/psychic symbiote.  The two types, which we think of as verbs and nouns, are the two "sexes."  It would be a mistake to call them male and female though; they don't have sperm and eggs and their reproduction is nothing like ours.  

There are known to be hundreds of noun lexestins, including many that have yet to be officially catalogued.  There may even be thousands.  It is widely suspected that there are other verb lexestins besides the eighteen that have been officially catalogued, but nobody knows for sure.  

When someone casts a spell, the verb and noun used are destroyed, and their magical essence magnified and released into the world.  This eventually coalesces into more lexestins, which is also why you can collect them more easily in places like wizard's lairs.

In other words, every time you cast a spell, two alien psychic symbiotes fuck each other to death inside your soul.  This is just one of many good reasons why people don't like sorcerers.  


  1. ooh, absolutely stealing this! probably as "psionics" instead of standard wizardry, but god I love the idea of magic-users collecting an array of spiritually-charged knickknacks in the place of a standard spellbook. would probably go with the old reliable "spend HP to cast spells" instead of a whole new "caster power" stat, but that's just me trying to streamline everything...

  2. Replies
    1. With the item description listing "destroy" as an example. Maybe one of those was meant to be destroy?

    2. Good catch. I just copy-pasted these from some notes I wrote a few months ago; I'll see if I can find what that was supposed to be.

    3. "Destroy" is already listed under verbs. The reason it's listed as an example under the nouns explanation is because both verbs and nouns have that same "something related to the area you're in" option, and I'm explaining them both in the same spot. Not the best way to organize it, admittedly.

  3. Welp, now I'm gonna have to run a game again just so I can use this :)

  4. I love the shit out of this. Gonna use it in my esoteric enterpises game.