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
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.
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.
The vast majority of spells in Harry Potter seem to involve
Aiming a wand
Enunciating words precisely
Waving the wand in a precise way
Exerting enough energy or power
Knowledge of the spell – either through learning or observation
This works great for a video game, all the precision can be timing of button presses and aiming with the mouse or the analogue sticks.
Mechanically these elements can be translated to a roleplaying game too. Investment of power can be handled by magic dice. You can also game-ify timing at the table.
And these mechanics would represent the fiction well.
But that fiction is still boring. The spells are basically fancy bullets.
Once you know what to do you just fire and forget.
There is no roleplaying-juice.
Except for Harry Potter’s three best spells.
The Patronus Charm conjures a glowing animal spirit which lifts your mood with its presence. It’s used to defeat Dementors, spectre-like floating rags which suck all feeling of love, hope and happiness from their target.
To create an effective patronus, you need to hit all the conditions in the bullet point list at the top of the post. But you also need to bring a powerful, deeply-happy memory to mind and focus on it during the casting.
This is a great matching of theme and mechanism, since Dementors are a clear allegory for depression.
The caster has to do something (think happy thoughts) which the spell is going to amplify.
It’s also a great spell for a roleplaying game – asking the players what memory they’re thinking of, discussing what memories they could use, debating why a certain character is failing at casting the spell. There is a lot of roleplay-juice here.
I know its not a spell but it’s brilliant.
The Polyjuice potion allows the drinker to assume to form of another, for about an hour. A D&D analogue would be Disguise Self.
To make the potion you need a bit of the target – a strand of their hair, nail clipping, eyelash etc.
This is once again a great matching of theme and mechanism.
The caster has to get something (the body part) which the spell uses to know what you should look like.
It works well in a roleplaying game because the players will have to somehow obtain the body part. Woe betide them if they accidently get a cat hair instead of a head hair. In the books, the ingredients are also restricted (requiring stealth shenanigans to steal from the potions master) and it takes months to brew (requiring an isolated hangout to brew it in). Tasty, tasty roleplay-juice.
The spell which returns Voldemort to corporeal form in chapter 32 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Okay its another potion. The fact that my 2 of my 3 best spells in Harry Potter are potions is quite telling.
The Dark Lord must perform a ritual to return himself from a withered husk to his full corporeal body. There are three crucial ingredients to be poured into the bubbling cauldron.
Bone of the father, unknowingly given
Flesh of the servant, willingly sacrificed
Blood of the enemy, forcibly taken
This is a dark ritual. You need enemies, a servant who is taking care of your husk-form, access to the grave of your father and willingness to defile it. In the fiction, Voldemort also believes the ritual will be strongest with his biggest enemy, Harry. The wording of the ritual feels Shakespearean, and therein archaic and secretive.
In 5e, resurrection’s unique requirement is a high value diamond. Not very interesting, and one of the reasons why house-ruled resurrection rules are often touted.
I wouldn’t expect players to use this dark spell in a roleplaying game, unless they are meant to be baddies. However the general format of ‘get these three hard-to-obtain things so you can do the epic magic’ works well.
Bonus best spell: Riddikulus
A boggart will take the shape of something you fear. Visualising the thing you fear in a comedic situation (the giant spider is now floundering around wearing four pairs of roller skates) whilst casting the spell Riddikulus enables you to defeat the boggart.
Making the player visualise and describe how the embodiment of their fear becomes a source of mockery is more great roleplay-juice.
This is a bonus to the list because it retreads the ground that the patronus charm covered. Visualising humour to beat fear and visualising happiness to beat depression are just variations on a theme. Good variations, but variations still.
Applying the DAQ criteria
I wrote about the DAQ criteria previously here. You can use it to look at rpg character features by asking:
Is it Distinctive?
Is it Appreciable?
Is it Qualitative?
Since Harry Potter does not have a class system, we should be considering whether the spells are meaningfully distinct from any other available magic.
Expecto Patronum: Is distinct as its the only spell that can beat dementors and lift your mood. It is appreciable (as its the only good way to counter a dementor, when you use it you definitely appreciate your knowledge.) It’s also qualitative – a spirit is summoned and you now feel happier (or at least, not-worse than you were to begin with). 3/3
Polyjuice Potion: No other spell allows you to take another’s form so it is distinctive. It’s quite appreciable, since there are teleportation spells which are less effort, it’s mostly useful for cons in areas of restricted access. It is qualitative, your form is changing. 3/3
Dark Resurrection Ritual: Definitely distinct as there is no other reasonably achievable way of bypassing death. Very appreciable – if you can avoid death you will always appreciate it. Very qualitative – going from dead->alive is a quality change not a quantity change. 3/3
The other spells in Harry Potter
The combative ones
There are a large number of combative spells in Harry Potter are basically guns/tasers with different skins.
Stupefy – stuns target
Confundus – confuses target
Expelliarmus – disarms target
Petrificus Totalus – freezes target’s body
Any number of joke hex/curse/jinx spells that are included for their whimsical value, for instance, the bat-bogey hex or the slug-vomiting charm
Whilst I appreciate that whilst these spells are qualitatively different, most of the time it wouldn’t matter which one you used as they would all do the job – eliminate the target from the fight (at least for a moment).
All of these spells are qualitative and appreciable, but they are not very distinct from each other. So they probably all rate about 2/3 on the DAQ criteria.
Their main problem, for rpgs, goes back to the bullet list from the start of this post.
Once you know what to do just fire and forget
There’s no roleplay-juice here.
No added value.
The joke ones might get some humour and develop the feel of the setting, its true. Establishing the whimsy of the wizarding world (or reminding us of it) is just as useful in a game as in a novel. But they don’t give us much to speak to the character with.
The utility ones
There are many spells which exist as utility – these spells either need to exist for the setting to work or are obvious spells to write into a fiction
Aguamenti – water making charm
Incendio – fire making charm
Wingardium Leviosa – levitation charm
Apparition – teleportation
Obliviate – false memory/memory wipe spell
Accio – summoning spell
Reparo – repairing charm
Whilst the Harry Potter books do explore the consequences of these spells at times, they are all entirely uninspiring renditions of their concept. They’re very obvious in their execution.
Your game might need spells like this, but I’m sure you can make them more interesting.
The overly specific ones
Mostly these exist to contribute the feeling of whimsy, or to flesh out the laughably undeveloped transfiguration branch of magic.
Waddiwasi – summons chewing gum to fly at the target
Vera Verto – turn an animal into a goblet?
Orchideous – a bunch of flowers bursts from the wand
They are too specific to see enough use in a roleplaying game, where players are more inclined to optimise than book characters.
Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game
In Harry Potter, these three spells are unforgivable if used on another person, earning you life imprisonment in the wizarding prison.
Imperio – mind control
Crucio – torture spell
Avada Kedavra – killing spell
But other magic can seriously mess with somebody’s mind – the mind-wiping spell Obliviate and the truth potion Veritaserum.
But other magic can torture – there are loads of nasty curses and jinxes designed specifically to belittle, disfigure or abuse.
But other magic can kill – powerful destructive spells such as Bombarda and Confringo.
This category of spell makes no sense to me. There’s also no added value to them.
Divination in Harry Potter is absolutely awesome.
It’s the best branch of magic in Harry Potter.
Theme = mechanics throughout.
You want information? Discern it from patterns in random, chaotic systems.
*Chef’s Kiss gesture and noise*
SECOND CURVEBALL ALERT
Divination is so good entirely because it is a copy and paste of real-life divination techniques.
What’s the lesson in all this?
Any Harry Potter inspired rpg would do well to add more flavourful roleplay-juice conditions and restrictions to their spells.
Any roleplaying game would do well to add more flavourful roleplay-juice conditions and restrictions.
Stop making your spells fire-and-forget fancy bullets.
Reminder to steal everything
I’ve talked before about why you should mess about with canon, modifying it to suit your game and reskinning it between genres. You should do this with the world of Harry potter too. Within the boundaries defined by law, of course.
Death of the Author?
I want to make it abundantly clear.
I reject Harry Potter’s author’s transphobic views.
I could write an essay on the problematic elements of Harry Potter. There are many. I won’t though, it has all been said before and this is not that sort of blog.
I would hate for anybody to think that the praise of some of the magic design in this post equates to praise of views which are oppressive towards them. It does not.
I’ve already given some useable statements/rules-of-thumb but here’s something that is useable in a concrete way. I re-mastered my Hippogriff generator from a previous Joesky Tax.
An unnecessary copypasta I made some time ago which I hope effectively demonstrates my feelings about everything Potter related that has been released since about 2011
Merlin’s Beard! What in the name of Dumbledore did you just say about me, you little mudblood? I’ll have you know I graduated top of my magical cookery class at Hogwarts, and I’ve been involved in numerous charity bake-offs, and I have made over 6 million confirmed pumpkin pasties. I am trained in Bertie Botts every flavour beans and I’m the top chef in the entire Department of Magical Transportation. You are nothing to me but just another student. I will pie-grenade you with precision the likes of which has never been seen before on this Earth, mark my Pottering words. You think you can get away with escaping from this magical train? Think again, mudblood. As we speak I am contacting the best aurors across the UK and you’ve still got the trace right now so you better prepare for the storm, muggle-lover. The storm that wipes out the pathetic little thing you call your life. You’re so expelled, kid. I can apperate anywhere, anytime, and I can pasty you in over seven hundred ways, and that’s just with my bare hands. Not only am I extensively trained in pasty combat, but I can turn my hands into spikes and you won’t believe what I can do with my Chocolate Frogs, which and I will use it to their full extent to make sure you stay on this train, you little goblin. If only you could have known what unholy retribution your little escape was about to bring down upon you, maybe you would have stayed on the damn train. But you couldn’t, you didn’t, and now you’re paying the price, you goddamn idiot. I will spike you with my particularly spikey spikes. This train doesn’t like people getting of it, kiddo.
In part 1 I discussed some things I do and don’t like about character progression in games.
In part 2 I wrote a criteria to examine character progression with: Is it appreciable, qualitative and distinctive?
Character progression often comes out of the blue.
You suddenly know countercharm because you are a 6th level bard.
We generally just handwave this away as the character having gained experience, but the experience generally doesn’t match the new progression.
Below are three ways of improving on this.
Critical Role’s system
In lower-level episodes of Critical Role, when the players level up and are in a city, they often spend part of the next session playing out downtime vignettes showing how they obtained their new features and abilities.
For instance, the wizard and the arcane trickster might play out a scene where the wizard teaches the trickster how to cast their new spell.
Or the Monk goes to a monastery in the city, spars with her superiors and can now do a punch which stuns opponents.
I like how the progression is represented in world, it’s preferable to suddenly getting new features, because the events in the fiction are matching the changes in the mechanics.
But its a bit cart before horse.
The mechanical changes have primacy, and the fiction is played out to explain them.
The Montage System
One of the first games I ever played in was an excellent homebrew mess set in Ravnica. When we leveled up we told the GM what sort of new feature we wanted the character to get. There would then be some collaborative discussion to make sure the feature was not too over/under-powered. Then we played out as a montage a series of short narrations representing how we had gained that feature.
The GM gave us prompts and we would improv off of them.
For instance, if I wanted my character to get a new poison attack we might spend a couple of minutes describing:
Chasing a lizard around the laboratory with a giant net
Swirling a purple chemical in a flask as I pour some green goo into it
Using a pipette to drop the poison onto a slab of meat, which sizzles and deteriorates at its touch
and at the end I have a new ability.
You can also put a short 2 minute song on in the background to act as a timer, it will make things more frantic.
This is better than the critical role system because it is quicker, more fun, and the progression is player directed. I don’t get a new feature because “the rules say that when I get to 6th level I now know countercharm”. Rather I get a new feature because that is what the GM and I both agree fits the character at this point in time.
I think we can still do better though.
The progression here is not flagged in advance. It doesn’t necessarily flow logically from the recent actions of the character.
The Flag System
Put a piece of paper in the middle of the table with all the player character names on it. Write Development Goals at the top.
Each player writes by their character’s name the next bit of development they want for their character. Like this:
Dillon, Sorcerer Supreme: Magic which will allow me to infiltrate the halls of the Archmage Candlestick
Jango the fighter: A magic axe
Thrasos the Biomancer: A way to hear better that will synergise with the screeching ability I already have to allow echolocation
Jessop: An audience with the Mayor
Sally: Access to the restricted section of the town library
By writing down development goals you are flagging for the other players, and for the GM, content that you want to appear in the game.
As a GM, this is useful because it makes prep easier – just look at the Development Goals and see if there is a way to work them in.
It also makes improv easier for the GM – have the development goals on your GM screen and use it for inspiration.
It also gives the party five self-made quests/goals.
When you complete the goal, you get the progression.
You can be very precise or a little vague. The more vague, the quicker you might complete the goal but the less precise the result. You get a magic axe, but you don’t get that particular one with that particular ability.
The fiction has primacy, and the rules and mechanics follow them. The horse is before the cart.
This system could be used on top of a comprehensive rule system like 5e. That wouldn’t stop the features you get from character advancement in the rules just appearing. However, it would still be useful for other progression. You could use it in tandem with the montage system.
This could also be used wholesale as a character progression system in a rules light game.
I’ve used the word development here instead of the word progression. There was a post by Dreaming Dragonslayer about development, wherein the terms development vs advancement were discussed. I think development fits the flag system better than the progression I was using before. Progression gives me an image of a continuous march towards an overriding goal. This is more haphazard than that. I’ve been thinking about this flag system for a while but reading that post gave me the push to write it up.
Sometimes character progression sucks in games and sometimes it’s my jam. I enjoy both The Witcher 3 and Shadow of War but I like SoW’s progression way more. They make for a decent case study as the core gameplay is pretty combat focused, it’s third person and they’re AAA fantasy games. All of this is related to tabletop roleplaying I swear.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
In TW3 as you advance through the game you get skills points which can be spent in 4 different trees. For the most part, spending these points gets you statistical improvements.
Fast attack damage increased by 5%
Increases crossbow critical hit chance by 5%
Time is slowed a further 15% while aiming bombs
This facilitates ‘builds’ and specializing in certain areas of the game’s combat system, especially earlier in the game where skill points are limited. It can be quite fun to find combos that work well, especially in the alchemy tree which intersects with the potion gameplay.
But moment-to-moment it’s boring. I fight much the same as I would have before spending my skill points, except I am now aware that my fast attacks do more damage. I don’t really see that damage though. A marginal increase in the rate at which the enemy’s health bar decreases is all and its not really noticeable.
Intellectually, I know that my skill points are having an effect, but that effect is never obvious and material to me in the moment. Sometimes I want to play spreadsheet simulator, I like Paradox Interactive titles as much as the next nerd, but not when I’m meant to be Geralt of Rivia.
Individual statistical improvements which are not appreciable in the moment are boring
Middle-earth: Shadow of War
In SoW as you advance through the game you (again) get skill points which can be spent in 6 different trees. Or maybe one tree with 6 parts. For the most part, spending these points gets you tangible, concrete improvements.
When you shoot a bonfire, spiders erupt from it
When you shoot an enemy with an arrow from stealth, you can teleport them to your location
You can ride a dragon if it is low on health
When I look at these skills in the skill tree, I want to unlock them. And I want to use them.
When I use these skills I feel cool. I like remembering I have just the right ability to deal with the current situation. And there is all the intellectual stuff going on too as you can change your current skill build to counter a particular orcs weaknesses or strengths.
Individual concrete improvements which are appreciable in the moment are great
In fact, all the worst bits of that game are when you can’t use your cool abilities because you have to fight a ringwraith who nothing works against.1
Total War Warhammer II
So this is a fantasy tactics/strategy game (with more of a focus on tactics) where you can get heroes and generals for your army who have, yeppers, you guessed it, skill trees.
It has one foot in the Witcher’s paddling pool and another foot in the SoW paddling pool. I’m not sure that analogy makes sense but I think you get me. Henri Le Massif, who is essentially a french knight trotting around the warhammer fantasy universe has such upgrades as:
Melee Attack +5 (for context it starts at 83)
Hit Points +3%
One of these is not like the others. The Hippogriff is cool. It does have a concrete impact, moment-to-moment, because Henri can fly over enemies. It also has statistical effects that you might notice over a duration.
That time my Paladin had a keen blade
Once upon a time I had a Paladin in a D&D game who got hold of a keen weapon which increased his crit range to 19-20. This was a game where crits doubled the amount of damage dice you rolled. He also was an Oath of Vengeance subclass with Vow of Enmity, which gives you advantage against a single target. So I was throwing out 4 attack rolls a round (with my extra attack features) and if one of those 4 rolls was a 19 or 20 (which it was every 2 or 3 rounds) I would burst my highest level spell on a smite, with the smite damage dice doubled.
It was a nice build, particularly against a single powerful enemy. Intellectually, it was appealing. It also didn’t feel too game-breaking since the keen blade had cost about 20,000gold. And it was nice to be the person who looked for the toughest enemy in a fight and charged headlong at them.
But it felt great moment-to-moment. It felt great when I got a hit due to my advantage. It felt great when I got a crit from a role of 19.
And it felt amazing when I scooped up 8d8 and 4d6 and cast them across the table for my damage, hit for 50 or so damage and flexed ‘and now I’ll roll for my second attack’.
5% increased crit chance is boring. But critting on a 19-20 is exciting even though they are statistically the same.
So when designing games I should remember to make the character options interesting in a concrete way that is fun for the players at the table. Bonus points if its fun when they’re overanalyzing the probabilities too.
Hippogriff generator: Front part bird, back part ungulate (hoofed mammal). Roll 1d10 for each
Also the ringwraith is Helm Hammerhand and don’t get me started on how immersion breaking it is to have timetravelling ringwraiths and then start doubting your knowledge of tolkein’s continuity and to hop on the wikis only to find out that yes, Helm Hammerhand was born thousands of years after the defeat of Sauron so how can be a ringwraith and this fight is monotonous and boring but its a story fight so I have to do it even though its literally the worst part of the game aside from that stupid balrog fight and all the other ringwraith fights I mean you design an entire game about three things: parkour; the nemesis system; batman arkham style gameplay; and emergent narratives, only to neuter all three of those for many of your set-piece story fights?