I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Living Spells

Here is a bit adapted from Dark Fantasy Magic:

The idea of “spells as living entities” is worth considering. My main inspiration here are the works of Jack Vance. Terry Pratchett uses it very effectively for comic effect. Our goal, however, is somewhat different from these authors, as we are trying to make magic a bit darker and scarier.

This idea can explain various parts of a spell system. For example, spells mishaps are just strong spells that the wizard was unable to control for a moment. Spells occupy a place in the wizard’s mind. They can reproduce and be extinguished, like viruses or bacteria, and they can make the wizard sick in the brain. They can lie dormant in old grimoires and scrolls, or be trapped in talismans and wands. They can mutate with time, or generate funny interactions with one another. Magic items lose power after all spells store within are spent – leaving a single spell unused might prevent this in some cases, probably because some spells can reproduce by parthenogenesis.

These things would ordinarily inhabit another planet, parallel to our own, where they roam free, only to be randomly picked by random wizards to fuel their actions. The most powerful ones could even take a physical form if they wish. Every wizard should have some grasp of this concept, even if only in a subconscious manner.

What kind of beings are spells, exactly? Well, that is up to you. They might be spirits, demons, angels, elementals, or beings of pure energy. Their minds are probably extremely simple or completely alien. They might be servants or parts of powerful beings (the god of fire, etc.). One would assume they do not mind being used by wizards, perhaps because they follow a higher order, or do not grasp the concept enough to organize a rebellion. They probably do not enjoy staying for too long in our plane, since most magic is temporary.

The truth, however, could be darker than the characters know. 


Maybe these beings can feel, and consider every casting a small torture, and repeated summoning a form of slavery. The screaming faces that appear every time you hurl an energy spell at your enemies are more than illusions. Magic artifacts may require the binding of a sentient spirit in a piece of metal or wood. Like trapping fireflies to make a lantern… or imprisoning Beethoven in a music box for your own amusement. 

The demon that lives in your sword is always willing to help you in your fights in exchange for some blood… but for how long? Maybe all wizards know this and keep it secret, or maybe they refuse to see it. Maybe it is only a theory, a legend, a hunch… an uneasy feeling in the back of their heads.

And maybe one day the wizards might find that these things want revenge.


As I've said above, this is adapted from my book Dark Fantasy Magic. It contains shorts essays and many tables that deal with magic, wizards, spells, etc.

You can find it by clicking on the link above.

If you like this, you'll find more stuff like this on my Dark Fantasy line.

It is also a great way to support this blog.
Hope you enjoy it! Thanks!


  1. The best treatment I’ve seen of spells as living things is somewhat darker and comes from The Whispering Vault. All magic is TWV is alive, literally (you could say that life is magic and vice versa). This means that creating a piece of magic requires that you supply the life force for it, either from your own body (leading to weakness, mutation, derangement, loss of identity), from a sacrifice, from your environment (creating blighted areas of death and twisted life around a wizard’s domicile), or some combination thereof.

    A spell or magic item is imbued with the life force of the person or thing that gave it life. Spells are sentient and have desires and wills of their own; magical items may feel warm to the touch and may breathe or bleed. Even if a wizard powers a spell using a sacrificial victim, he always donates a pet of his own life force as well: spells and magic items are almost literally his children. Of course they may also be inhabited by the memories and drives of the person or being the wizard murdered to power the spell...

    The more powerful the magic, the more autonomous and willful it is. A minor charm may be simple-minded enough to follow orders, but any powerful work of magic is going to have definite ideas of its own about what it wants to accomplish, and those ideas usually relate to its feelings toward its “parent”.

    1. Interesting stuff! Will check The Whispering Vault if I get the chance!

  2. Thinking on this, perhaps it would be interesting to have this as a class system within a setting.

    I currently like the idea of creating a spell system with base 0th level cantrips that are instant casts, with spell casters drawing power over time to build a spell (Speed factor style). However, a "living spell" system would work well to have for those who can more readily build permanent effects, but follow more OD&D rules as I remember them:

    1) Spells take time to prepare based on spell level

    2) You prepare exact number of spells

    3) If you want multiples of a spell, you have to have multiple copies in a spellbook.

    These arts are the ones behind your belts of giant strength, your manuals of golem crafting etc., and require spending personal resources to obtain.

    Another boon of such a spell system is that you operate with the 1 action casting time. So if you are prepared with the correct spells, you can front load a lot of effects.

    Current thoughts: make a divide akin to the Dark Sun defiler/perservers with those who sacrifice others for power vs. those who only use their own resources. "Neutral" is when you don't practise sacrifice, but you will happily steal tomes.

    Gains from each path

    Dark path: ease of acquiring spells, can harvest power from slain foes (some spell point system) that may allow one to hold onto more power.

    Con: you suffer spell failure chance when making Con saves that cause backlash

    Neutral: you can collect spells from opponents easily, do not suffer spell failure

    Light path: You gain arcane defenses, as your spells aid and protect you. I am thinking free mage armour, and perhaps at higher levels protection from mind effecting spells.

    All the above would definitely need to be fine tuned, but I think it would be interesting to have different traditions within a setting in terms of what can be done with each.

    1. All cool ideas... Maybe the dark path would be defined by using UNWILLING spells/spirits to produce effects.

    2. As I see it, the use of unwilling sacrifice creates/binds unwilling spells and spirits. I'm pickturing spell books that function as scroll books. Neutral blood mages are those that do not create these spell books from sacrifices, but they still use them. Light path either bargain or destroy/liberate.

      So difference in Dark/Light is seen in Dark conjuring many minions immediately but risk backlash while Light summons a few to their aid with no risk of turning. A light summons takes time to be answered, but there is no Morale checks.

    3. I like this too - maybe this is the difference between clerics and wizards. Or maybe clerics just "use" benevolent spirits - those are always willing to help for a good cause.

    4. Personally, I would build this as a...caster neutral system.

      I like the idea that you have a "build a spell" system that works akin to spell lists (each class gets different starting points), where as this spell system is like a Tome Lock, but after any spell.

      Further musing: have "reversed spells" as Light Dark specific, with Neutral getting fewer/lower level ones, but they can get their hands on a limited number of Light/Dark spells. However, you cannot hold onto two spells that are antithesis of each other.