I previously argued that the three best spells in Harry Potter are:
- Expecto Patronum
- Polyjuice Potion
- The spell which returns Voldemort to corporeal form in chapter 32 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Here are the other three best spells in Harry Potter.
The Unbreakable Vow
It’s a magically-binding promise from one wizard/witch to another, witnessed by a third.
If you break the vow you die.
It’s not clear from the fiction exactly why baddies aren’t using this to control people and are instead using the Imperius curse (a sort of mind-control), which can be repelled with training. Perhaps there is a component where the Unbreakable Vow just won’t work if the person making the promise is under duress. Of course, there are many types of duress, so even that doesn’t really explain it.
In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an excellent fan-fiction in which Harry is raised by scientist parents, the Unbreakable Vow permanently siphons off a bit of magical potential, which is a good explanation for why they are not constantly used. (I think its the magical potential of the person to whom something is promised that is sapped.) In fact, HPMOR is a fan-fic that adds and improves on the original – everyone is more competent and magic is used to its fullest extent with minimal plot holes.
The Unbreakable Vow has some similarities with Gaes in D&D.
What makes the spell so good is the potential for high-stakes drama.
The Fidelius Charm
You make something, typically a location, unfindable. Not just hidden, but unfindable. It can only be found by the person you designate as the Secret Keeper.
The Secret Keeper can tell other people the secret, so that they can find it, but those people cannot pass the secret on again. Its a mechanism for limiting the passage of secret information, and was used in the Wizarding Wars to keep The Goodies safe.
The roleplay juice here is centered on who you tell the secret to.
People who trust nobody can’t use it.
People who trust somebody are now beholden to that person.
That person is the weak link in your chain. Did you choose the right person?
It also feels similar to magic relating to the True Names of things. If someone knows your True Name, they have power over you.
Like the Unbreakable Vow, the Fidelius Charm provides some good roleplay possibilities, mostly relating to drama.
I know it’s not an spell but the original list included a potion.
The Remembrall is a large marble-like ball with white smoke inside. If you’ve forgotten something, the smoke turns red.
As a kid I thought that the remembrall was a pointless gift. If I’ve forgotten something, at least tell me what it is!
As an adult I would love one. A magic item that means you never miss a deadline, you never forget to pay a bill – how many times have you rushed to barely complete something in time because you forgot about in entirely?
It’s a magic item of convenience – like a bag of holding.
In a ttrpg it would function as a mechanism to make sure that player knowledge stays aligned with character knowledge. As an excuse for the GM to aid the party without breaking the illusion of the game. It’s excellent not due to drama, but as a tool for the GM – in fact its a tool for the GM which the players probably think is a tool for them.
The DAQ Criteria
I’ve written before about the DAQ Criteria. We ask three questions of an ability (or item or spell etc.):
- Is it Distinctive?
- Is it Appreciable?
- Is it Qualitative?
|The Unbreakable Vow||There is nothing else in the Harry Potter world which can do this, however the Imperius Curse comes close||Yes, if a character acted based on an unbreakable vow it would be an appreciable, noticeable moment in a game (or in the fiction)||Fundamentally the spell applies a rather unique quality to the target.|
|The Fidelius Charm||It is unique, there is no other stated mechanism for the protection of dwellings like this||Yes, escaping to a secret location and knowing that you are safe (unless betrayed) is highly appreciable||Very qualitative|
|The Remembrall||It is distinct, nothing else does what it does||This is debatable. We see in the fiction that Neville’s Remembrall reminds him that he’s forgotten something, but he can’t remember what he has forgotten. But if the players can remember what it was that was forgotten, then it would be highly appreciable.||Yes|
All the best spells in Harry Potter are linked by their qualitative and distinct natures. They are also all appreciable, but I think this is a secondary design concern to the other two. The longer I have thought about the DAQ criteria, the more I’ve thought that it would be very hard to make something which is distinct, qualitative and yet not appreciable. Furthermore, I think that anything which falls into that category is still useful as a game element for setting tone.
Shilling for myself
I recently released Welcome to Camp Merlin, a short (6-12 session) game about a group of kids at a magical summer camp.
When I was designing the magic in Camp Merlin, aimed to make every spell fit the DAQ criteria. Here’s the spell list below:
- Shape Shifting – take the form of an animal
- True Slime – a perfectly lubricant, completely frictionless
- True Glue – a perfect adhesive
- Slowing – slows target
- Ranged Shove – pushes back target
- Power Walking – can walk up walls/on water
- Perfect Replica – makes a reflected copy of an item
- Truth Food – you must tell the truth while eating it
- Sense Mind – sense, but do not read, nearby minds
- Liquify – liquifies the target
- Misremember – edits a memory
- Mirth – forced laughter
These spells, combined with the qualitative tasks that must be completed to learn them, several unique monsters (with sub-tables to vary the encounters) and a dozen static encounters around Camp Merlin, compose 80% of the game. Very content-heavy, with some GM guidance and very light rules.
Until the end of the month Welcome to Camp Merlin is 50% off on DriveThruRPG if and only if you click on the link below.