The three best spells in Harry Potter: an overly comprehensive thought-train

Mood music

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.

Expecto Patronum

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.

You don’t choose the form of your patronus, but if you could, I would choose one of the Megatherum. Big sloths = best sloths.

Polyjuice Potion

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.

All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.

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

Château de Pierrefonds

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

Soren Johnson

The Unforgivable Curses

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

CURVEBALL ALERT

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.

Tea leaves

Tarot cards

Palm reading

*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.

More generally:

Any roleplaying game would do well to add more flavourful roleplay-juice conditions and restrictions.

The pseudo-contrapositive:

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.

Joesky Tax

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.

Character progression in games I

Riding a Dragon is cool?!?

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)
  • Mount: Hippogriff
  • 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.

Joesky Tax

Hippogriff generator: Front part bird, back part ungulate (hoofed mammal). Roll 1d10 for each

1d10 roll

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10

Ungulate

Horse
Camel
Hippopotamus
Zebra
Moose
Mouse Deer
Wild Boar
Sheep
Giraffe
Dolphin2

Bird

Eagle
Seagull
Ostrich
Flamingo
Vulture
Hummingbird
Shoebill
Peacock
Owl
Penguin

  1. 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?
  2. Apparently dolphins are ungulates, who knew?