Spell Harder in Whitebox20: higher level spells and overcasting

Whitebox20 has many magic systems. The “Traditional System” is based on having:

  • a skill roll for the Tradition or School (Vivimancy or Healing or Illusion) to cast the spell correctly
  • and a Channel Power skill roll that is used to make anything magic happen at all.

I like this, playtesters liked it, the first roll makes it dangerous, the second roll makes it positively nail-biting. Usually the spell selection comes straight off Wonder & Wickedness, plus some extra spells that players want.

First thing to notice: any character can cast spells, if they know any. And until you botch you can cast as much as you want.

Second: if you fail the first roll, it’s a botch, and you might want to run away. If you fail the second roll, nothing happens, but you can retry. And if you have mana to spend and you have a Caster perk/class/career, you can just spend mana and the spell is cast correctly instead. Fate/mana is used by all characters for all kind of things in W20, and Casters use it to get an edge with magic.

The only problem is that there are no easier or harder spells, for the time being, and that the high variance of the d20 makes simple negative check modifiers not doing what I want them to do. Because what I really want high level spells to do is:

  • be better than simpler spells
  • be riskier than simpler spells
  • still be able to be cast by young, reckless and desperate wizards

Especially the last. So here’s the rule:

Difficult Spells

A character casting a spell of a higher level must spend an extra round casting the spell for each level of difference. During each of the extra rounds they must make an additional Tradition skill check. An equal number of Channel Power successful rolls are required: start rolling when the Tradition rolls are complete, and keep on rolling until a Channel Power roll is failed, and resume rolling the following round until the required amount of successes is achieved. The spell effects are

So, if a level 2 Caster wants to cast a level 4 Elementalism spell, they need to spend 3 rounds casting and roll 3 times on Elementalism, then roll 3 successes on Channel Power, taking as much time as they want.

Casters can spend one mana to fix a single Tradition roll plus a Channel Power roll per mana spent. If a Tradition roll is failed and not mitigated, the spell fails completely and all the failed Tradition rolls botches are independently resolved.

If the character stops or is forcibly interrupted, all the rolled Tradition tests are considered failures for botch purposes.

Since W20 characters grow over 3 or 6 levels (or not at all), if you’re using D&D spells use directly the spell level, not the minimum caster level: Fireball is level 3, so a level 3 character will not need to roll multiple Tradition checks.

Overcasting could be another option, but would require rigorous playtesting to avoid being too expoited: to cast a spell at a higher caster level (but the spell leve is not higher than the character level), specify a number of extra levels: the spell requires that many extra Channel Power successes in order to go off.


Grimorio da Tasca: preview of a new magic system and Lost Pages catalogue

Uk Games Expo required a Lost Pages Catalogue. Inside there’s some product blurb, a teaser spell from Wonder & Wickedness and, as a preview for Magia Nova, a whole new magic system and extra spells. This is what it looks like (dice, keyboard and 8-sided dreidel for scale).


Grimorio da Tasca is a pocketmod. Which means that it’s a simple looseleaf folded and cut into a booklet, with can be unfolded to reveal a hidden, big inside centerfoldy spread.

Here’s the download: Grimorio da Tasca



The Great Bureaucracy is busy writing a whole lot of thaumagrams writs, busy somewhere in the infinite tangle that is the Manifold Nexus. It does mostly bespoke jobs by hand for the Quaesitors and the Harassers, but a whole lot of work is done with blocks bearing the mirror image of a thaumagram in relief. The block is inked with inks made with a base of aged blessed wizard blood, sinner bile and spider venom, then silk is applied on the block and rubbed energetically, impressing the design on the fabric. These writs are then left to dry until ready to be rolled, stamped and numbered, cased (usually in long hollow bones or tubes of iron or jade) and eventually shuffled along the multiverse crawlspace toward their destination.


Back in the day I read Orion by Masamune Shirow. It has some special juju babble that is fantastic, and it left me very impressed. Seska’s sheer badassery and curves also left a teenager Paolo very impressed.

Anyway, a whole lot of magic in Orion is based about written form. So calligraphy and power words and sigils and whatnot. Here Seska is trying to… I’m not sure. That comic is incredibly obscure. I think she drew a massive ward to keep out Susanoo the god of Storms and at the same time… monitor the water element or somesuch.

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Also, Susanoo kicks so much ass in this comic. Probably because he’s a god.


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The name says that the DODECATHAUMAGRAMS are twelve:

  1. VIOLENT DARKNESS VORTEX, which obfuscates the sight and the judgement but not the drive, leading the victim to inflict violence and dark sorcery on friends and foes alike. For one turn the victim decides whether to attack or cast an offensive spell, but the target is at random. Save negates.
  2. BLEAK GLOOM OCTAGON, leaving the victim listless, incapable of acting for 1 turn. Save every round.
  3. PURE CLEANSE CIRCLE, the victim is cleansed of all curses and negative spell effects for a day. No save.
  4. UTTER DISPEL CROSS, the victim is completely purged from magic effects, and won’t be able to work magic or use magic items for the next 1d6 rounds either. Save to avoid.
  5. RUBY FIRE BARBS, the victim catches fire and takes 1d6 damage every round for 1 turn. No save, but Stop, Drop & Roll grants a save to terminate the effect
  6. WHITE SANCTUARY CIRCLE, a person stepping inside its bounds has an additional 50% save against any attack or negative spell, effect or ability. The Circle stop working if the subject leaves or commits an aggressive act, or after a day.
  7. PURPLE DEMON TRIDENT, summons a 3 HD fire demon that every round deals 1d6 fire damage to everyone within 10′, save to halve. The demon is hellbent on arson, murder and jaywalking and totally not under the control of the caster. It burns off in 1 turn.
  8. GOLD CHARM HEART, makes the victim totally fall in love with the writ-giver for 1 turn. Save negates.
  9. GREEN LIFE SQUARE, heals 2d6 HP. Save negates, as this deals damage to undeads.
  10. SILVER BANISH ASTERISK, banishing the victim for a day to their plane of origin. Works only on those that are not on their plane of origin. Save negates.

The eleventh and twelfth DODECATHAUMAGRAM have not been leaked yet.

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There are a few ways of using the DODECATHAUMAGRAMS in your game. Mageblade will have another method, and it will be really important for one of the classes.


Writs are special scrolls that are used as melee weapons. Often the printed writs appear in the black market, or become available from bureaucrats in need of a quick penny, usually for at least 500-1000 coins each. They must be unrolled with two hands and then used to hit the opponent. This makes the awkward to use if you are busy with sword and shield already, unless you want to drop your weapon and shield, maybe?

Writs are single-use items. In melee, wield the writ and hit unarmored AC, save applies when specified above. In Into the Odd, they are weapons dealing 1d4-1 which, if they were to deal damage, instead do zero damage and affect the target if the save. As an alternative, they can be thrown up to 10′ away. Once the victim is hit, regardless of whether the victim saves, the scrip is ruined and usually dissipates entirely in thin blue smoke.

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The origins of the DODECATHAUMAGRAMS are uncertain. What’s surprising is that some cults worship icons of Saints or complex drawings that are, thaumaturgically speaking, isometrical to the DODECATHAUMAGRAMS. This might hint at a deeper trilaeral symmetry between the Left-Right Hand Path Correspondence, the Manifold Fractal and the Nature of Godhood. Or it might be entirely dumb chance. Or utter poppycock. Further research is warranted. The Great Bureaucracy is not bothered at all by this.

Clerics can be of one of these cults. They lose the Turn Undead capacity, but each cult has an icon they worship and use as holy symbol: pick one of the following invocations. The cleric can use the icon once a day, plus convert not-yet-cast spell slots of any level to power the icon. The icon is not applied, but simply shown to a victim or pointed toward a target within 10′ as an invocation is made, no touch attack needed.



What’s more concerning for the bureaucracy is that some of its secrets have leaked and some savants learnt how to simply trace the DODECATHAUMAGRAMS by hand, in a few seconds. Quaesitors are always on the lookout for this kind of infraction and, when found, Harassers are dispatched urgently to curb it and give an example to everybody.

Do you even Wonder & Wickedness? The DODECATHAUMAGRAMS can be used as W&W spells. To cast them, use the usual W&W rules, but to cast them the sorcerer simply traces the glyph mid air and then concludes it by touching the victim or the target. A touch melee attack might be needed. If the attack fails the sorcerer can of course try to touch the victim again in the next rounds.

Sneak Peek: Magia Nova: Il Novissimo Metodo Didattico delle Arti Magiche

Oh, the joys of writing something purely for D&D. I’ve been working on a word/runic magic system for a while and while I was at it I though I could just spin off one of its subsystems. I also took the occasion to make a book with all the S&W Whitebox spells, but organized by level and not in alphabetical order.
Yeah, I know, de gustibus non disputandum but there is clearly a WRONG and a RIGHT way, and the alphabetical sort is a pain in the ass when you’re trying to allocate slots and need to check spell details across the level. Which is much a much more common scenario compared to, say, check spell details across the spells starting with the letter S. If you need to find a spell by name, an analytical index will do.
Hence Magia Nova! The principle of this new didactic method is a blah blah taxonomic approach blah blah system of mysticism blah blah correspondences blah blah great pedagogy blah blah left hand, right hand blah blah. Ok, enough babble. The whole point is that the Magic User will learn Arts and Elements instead of single spells.

Four are the Arts:

  • Creo for Creation
  • Disfo for Undoing
  • Sento for Perception
  • Cambio for Change and Control
Four are the Elements:
  • Foco for Fire and therefore Magic
  • Aria for Air and therefore Spirit and Perception
  • Aqua for Water and therefore Life
  • Terra for Earth and therefore Matter

The casters start by knowing an Art and an Element and will progressively get better at casting spells and gain more Arts and Elements. In due time they will fully master a specific type of magic, and summon elemental spirits.

This is the spell list as it is now:

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Stars and question marks are safely ignored (they are notes for me). Some of those gaps might be filled, and things rejigged, but that’s the gist of it.

You will find a resemblance to Ars Magica by Tweed and Rein-Hagen. The resemblance is indeed there, but.

First, I love Ars Magica. Gangs & Bullshit owe a lot to it. Also Chthonic Codex. But Magia Nova is a different beast. Merely identifying spell groups with 2 words (or two runes, which is exactly the same) is the extent of the copying. They picked Latin, I picked oldy Italian.

I could have picked English. I didn’t for two reasons: the first is that picking premodern Italian makes it peculiar even for Italians, the second is that it’s better to have domain-specific terms for game elements. If your GM says you’re stunned by someone’s display of wealth, they probably do not mean that your character can only move slowly this round. They just used a turn of phrase which happens to use a word that means something different from a metagame perspective: you’re outside of the game and you use words to describe it that do not mean the same to people in the game. For game terms choose words you would otherwise not use to avoid confusion (no, not the spell).

Second: this whole thing started though with a different approach: create a taxonomy, and see how to allocate existing D&D spells to its subdivisions in an interesting way, rather than coming up with a system and creating new spells fitting in it (which is I guess how the Ars Magica spellbook was developed).

There will be a new, alternate Magic User, the spellcasting rules, the spells sorted by level (with some new spells), a handful of new monsters and, possibly, a few magic items. I have no idea when this will be ready, but given most of the spells come straight from the book it won’t take long.

New Font: PG Trampier Runes

David Trampier wrote this comic called Wormy on Dragon Magazine. In one of the issues a wizard opens a portal tracing some runes in the air with a golden stylus.


I made a font with those runes: PG Tramp Runes. You might want to use them with a runic magic system.

If you want to use it for anything commercial, don’t. I’m working on a better, saner version.

Here’s the mapping.

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Download link: PG Trampier Runes

Mageblade: development notes

So, I had a few days off and I started to flesh out a bit more Mageblade. Mageblade is meant to be some sort of D&D retroclone, except it’s not really cloning anything.

To put it a bit in perspective: I stripped down S&W Whitebox to the point where there’s not even the experience points tables, saving throws or classes left there. At the moment it’s there just to act as framing.

Then I started building. I decided that characters get numerically better at doing their thing using one single scale: the Focus Bonus. For Fighters, it applies to hit rolls. For Casters, more effective spells. For Mageblades, hit rolls with their athame (a bound blade) and saving throws. Here’s the advancement table, which is shared by all classes.

Advancement Table

Level XP Needed Hit Dice Focus Bonus
1 0 1d 3
2 1,000 2d 3
3 2,000 3d 4
4 4,000 4d 4
5 8,000 5d 4
6 16,000 6d 5
7 30,000 7d 5
8 64,000 8d 5
9 125,000 9d 6
10 250,000 10d 6
11 400,000 11d 6
12 600,000 12d 7

So a level 3 fighter has +4 to the hit roll, and Casters always have +0. While this might seem a bit odd, consider that magic do not gives bonus to hit or to AC, so plate mail and shield is pretty much the non-plus ultra. Said that, there will be magic barriers, giving AC equivalent to armour. This follows my “eschew numeric modifiers” philosophy: I’m trying to do everything without numeric modifiers, except where I use the Focus Bonus.

You might have noticed that there are only 12 levels, but players get to roll 12 hit dice. To avoid tears, HPs are rerolled at every level, and the new amount is kept only if better than the previous. If not, the new HP total increases by 1.

Characters get also skill points, a handful spread from level 1 to level 12. Each class can spend them in specific things: Fighters can get Stances and combine them to make combos (yeah, combos, you read well), Casters and Mageblades learn disciplines and magic schools. Learning requires teachers, and more exotic skills require cooperation if reclusive or exclusive or simply crochety masters.

Mageblades also learn new blademagic, which is some kind of battlemagic channeled through their athame during melee. An example of blademagic is Bane: there are many Banes to be learnt, one per creature type. When a Bane is active, the athame becomes deadly to that creature type and deals extra damage equal to the Focus, so for example if a Mageblade of level 5 activates Undead Bane their athame will deal +4 damage to undead. Other blademagic lets the mageblade attack many enemies, animates the athame, or just deal extra damage.

Hit Points and the merit of abstractions

Someone months ago was trolling me online about how “the OSR does not innovate” and was lamenting that hit points are dumb.

Yeah, hit points are dumb. They are an abstraction and abstractions, as a rule, leak.

The alternative is to assess wounding as things: wounds become first-order concepts and somehow an excess of wounds kills you.

Maybe they kill you because you can take only a limited number of wounds before being incapacitated. And maybe there are various types of wounds, but they have more complex rules on how you can reach the maximum; for example you can take only 4 wounds, but any wound that is more than half of your constitution counts as two wounds. But this approach is simply replacing hit points with different, chunkier hit points, with maybe more interesting interaction. Still hit points.

The other option is to replace hit points with affects (status effects). So, for example, this is an example I just came up with:

  • any wound that is less than 1/4 Con simply gives -2 to hit and AC and +2 to any damage received for 3 rounds. So you can just do full defence for a bit and recover. It’s still a pain to be on the receiving side.
  • any wound that is more than than and less than 2/3 Con gives -2 to hit and +2 to any damage received for 1 week. That’s some interesting damage.
  • any wound that is more than than gives -2 to hit and AC and +2 to any damage received for 1 month, plus save or die.

Or any damage taken causes a roll on the Internal Organs Are Supposed To Be Internal Table table. Or whatever.

This kind of handling has a problem. No, not the Death Spiral. Death Spirals can be fun. The problem is that not only it gives you penalties, but these penalties stack and they increase the cognitive load for the player. Is the purpose to make combat more interesting or to force harder math on players? Granted, it’s slightly harder math, but both it makes for a harder game through modifiers and harder because of the cognitive load. Increasing cognitive load as a mechanical negative consequences in RPGs is not something I’m keen on. I’m only keen on incresing cognitive load if the choices it creates are interesting.

And it’s not just a newbie thing. Image a combat of the PCs against a mage, its fighter pal and 5 ogre flunkies. The NPCs will have a number of stacking affects, and there are 7 of them, and some of those affects will expire, at different times and blargh. You could make it simpler by making all affects lasting at least until the end of the turn or making some bigger and some smaller but then again accounting.

Another option is to use saving throws to avoid dying. But this means that a small wound might kill you, but if it can’t kill you you are immune to small damage unless you use affects and then you are using affects anyway. Mutant & Masterminds IIRC does a smart thing where each wound needs a save, and the first slightly failed save gives you a no-stacking affect that makes subsequent saves harder. But that IIRC wears off.

So I’m happy with hit points for monsters. Stack the damage. No consequences until they run out. Easy to handle. I’m fine with keeping the combat abstract. For players, as always, talk to your players and see if they want to try something, and see what works.