Designing magic: Make casting the magic more engaging

(This is part 2 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. Part 1 is available here.)

Once again I’ll be referencing Harry Potter a lot, as well as D&D 5e. Harry Potter remains the best cultural touchstone when discussing learning magic, whilst D&D 5e is the big ttrpg.

When I refer to casting magic, I mean the actual things that the character does to make the magic happen, not the results of the magic.

Magic can serve lots of purposes in a fiction. In Lovecraftian fiction it is dangerous and dark, something to be feared and avoided. In Harry Potter it is largely whimsical and a time-saving tool. In Mistborn (I recently read the first book and really enjoyed it) magic is a mechanical tool, mostly of oppression. You get the idea.

The the casting of the magic should reflect and support its themes within the fiction. Generally, it does.

Casting of Lovecraftian magic is esoteric. Casting is likely to involve strange words and dark rituals. Lovecraftian magic is very tightly themed.

Mistborn’s magic is mechanical – ingest the appropriate metal and then use it as mana for that branch of magic. Appropriate for a tool-like magic.

Harry Potter’s magic falls down here (with one big exception). Most magic involves pointing a wand and saying some pseudo-latin. This is somewhat whimsical but it’s core flaw is that it is boring. I’ve written at length before about the three best spells in Harry Potter and the best spell, Expecto Patronum, bucks this trend.

Expecto Patronum creates a glowing magical creature which brings warmth and happiness, and defeats the dark monsters which stand in for depression. To cast Expecto Patronum, the caster must bring to mind a powerful happy memory. This is great theming and moreover it is interesting, not just from a fictional position but from a ttrpg perspective.

Expecto Patronum is essentially acting like a storygame prompt. If a player were to cast the spell, they would need to explain their character’s happy memory to the rest of the players. The casting mechanism is engaging as it is directly supporting narrative development by the players.

This doesn’t directly support the whimsy of the setting, but the glowing animal companion bit does. And this spell is only relevant when depression-monsters are attacking – the darkness to which the whimsy is juxtaposed anyway.

It’s probably not worthwhile to make every spell this engaging in a game like D&D. I don’t want to have to improvise a new memory every time I cast magic missile, and I certainly don’t want my combats to be dragged out even longer than they already are.

In Critical Role, players describe how they character does their attack when the get a killing blow. Reserving engaging questions only for important moments (first time used, fight-ending moments, narratively crucial decision points) would be a good workaround.

It’s hard to provide a formula for making spell-casting more engaging, as it’s very dependent on themes and individual spells. But it is worth considering.

A title 'Welcome to Camp Merlin'. A wizard points a wand at a fox wearing human clothing. The Wizard says 'Hocus Pocus!' whilst the fox says 'Yikes! If only I had attended Camp Merlin!'

How I’ve made casting the magic in Welcome to Camp Merlin more engaging

I can broadly categorise my approach in three groups: positioning; character prompts; and telegraphing.


Shape Shift: Position your body so that your limbs are in the shape of the animal which you
wish to become. Hold that shape for six seconds.

It’s not a strict ‘unable to cast in combat’ restriction, but it means the players will have to create the time and space to make the shape. If the player can also pose to show the shape their character for added whimsy.

Character Prompts

Truth Food (food that makes the eater tell the truth): Whilst preparing food for consumption, speak aloud a truth that you have never told anybody.

This is a storygame-esque prompt, like the happy memory for expecto patronum. It also serves as a soft restriction depending on whether the character is around other people.


Sense Mind (locate nearby minds): Close your eyes, calm your body, and empty your mind of all thoughts.

Any other magic user can infer what magic you are doing by looking at you. In this instance, it also makes you vulnerable, so it’s a risky move in a game of cat-and-mouse.

Welcome to Camp Merlin is now available on DriveThruRPG and

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Designing magic: Make learning the magic more engaging

(This is part 1 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. Get part 2 here. I’ll link part 3 when it’s finished.)

Unfortunately, Harry Potter remains the best cultural touchstone when discussing learning magic. This is unfortunate for several reasons, but the one I’m focusing on today is that the way that they learn magic in Harry Potter is boring.

A lot of the time it comes down to rote practice.

Try doing the spell again.

Make sure you can swish and flick properly.

Pronounce the words properly.

A gif of Hermione saying It's leviOsa, not leviosAR
It’s a good meme, but boring to play out.

Sometimes the spells themselves are so interesting that they push the lessons to be very engaging. One of the more popular posts on this blog was about the 3 best spells in Harry Potter (and why they are the three best spells).

But if you’ve got a story (or in the case I am interested in, a roleplaying game) where magic needs to be learnt, the actual process of learning the magic should be engaging and interesting.

If your game is set in a magic school, then learning the magic should be engaging to play in and of itself.

Well it just so happens I have been writing a game about learning magic, set at summer school for kids from non-magical families who have suddenly found out they’ll be going to magic school at the end of the summer.

Title banner: Welcome to Camp merlin

I have an underlying theory of magic that I am using where spells are like magical spirits called into service of the magic user. It’s not brand new, I’ve seen it before in various games. What is new is how I connect that to learning the spell.

First the magic user must coax the spell into making an initial connection with the user. This allows the user to cast the spell once on that day. If the magic user wants to cast that spell again, they must wait until a new day and then coax it again.

However, if the magic user can link with the spell, then they will be able to cast the spell once per day without needing to coax it every single time.

The template works well as long as the acts of coaxing the spell and linking with the spell are engaging.

I’ll show you an example spell so we can discuss the linking and coaxing.

True Glue. 
Duration: 1 minute. 
Instructions: Touch the tips of your index fingers together and True Glue will drip from their meeting point until your fingers part. 
Effects: True Glue is a perfect adhesive, it is impossible to break its binding. True Glue does not dry out when applied to only one surface, and takes 1 second to bind when touching two surfaces.

I’ll talk another time another time about the actual magic and why I think this sort of diegetic spell is interesting, and also about the casting instructions. For now though I’ll focus on how to coax and link this spell.

To coax True Glue the character must player must choose an obviously false viewpoint (eg. the sky is green; water makes things dry; ice is hot etc.). Then they must refuse to abandon that viewpoint despite any and all evidence to the contrary. The other characters must actively refute and challenge the viewpoint with substantial arguments and evidence.

To link True Glue the character chooses two awkwardly sized, shaped or weighted items, They must then hold them, one in each hand, as though they were glued to their hands for the next six hours.

Both of these are tied to the nature of the spell. When coaxing the magic user must fix their point of view in place. When linking they must fix an object into their hand. This connects them to the spell, which is all about fixing two things together. The player is trying to entreat a magical being with their actions.

So what do I think is good about this design?

  • They’re thematically linked to the spell
  • The coaxing generates inter-character discussion by default
  • The linking causes clear problems that the players will have to solve – how will I eat? etc.
  • They are diegetic – you could use dice rolls to support this gameplay but it probably doesn’t need it
  • It shifts the core question of the game from whether or not the characters will succeed to how they will succeed. This is good for a game about kids learning magic which will be tonally lighter than most games.

I’m not claiming to have re-invented the wheel here. Followers of the Goblin Laws Of Gaming will have seen the Δ glog classes before, which focus their advancement on performing diegetic actions rather than accruing xp.

So I think this format makes learning magic more engaging than most tabletop roleplaying games I’ve seen, and certainly more engaging than most of the magic in the benchmark for magical learning, Harry Potter.

Poster style front cover of a game titled Welcome to Camp Merlin - A summer camp for non-magical children in need of magical education in preparation for schooling. The image shows a wizard who has cast a spell on a fox wearing boy's clothing. The wizard says 'Hocus Pocus!' whilst the fox says 'Yikes! If only I had attended Camp Merlin!'

How I’ve adapted this system for Welcome to Camp Merlin

Each morning at the camp, the kids get to choose which spell they want to learn. The camp counsellors show the children how to coax the spell as an activity. Then they have the afternoon to attempt to link the spell – doing so also allows them to stitch a badge onto their camp uniform.

There are also several magical creatures that the children are taught about, as well as an array of magical locations and encounters in the forest surrounding the camp.

Follow the development and release of Welcome to Camp Merlin by:

Welcome to Camp Merlin is now available on DriveThruRPG and

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Minimalist Modular Magic for 5e and DnD clones

Minimalist Modular Fire Magic

This is the blueprint for most fire magic. It’s what a 1st level fire spell would look like.

Each of the numerical elements – the radius of the sphere; the range; and the damage – can be increased.

Each increase in any of those three areas increases the spell level by one.

So a 1st level fire spell makes a sphere of radius 5ft, has a range of 120ft and does 4d6 fire damage.

A wizard can cast their 2nd level fire spell as any of the below:

  • A 5ft radius sphere, 120ft range and 8d6 damage
  • A 20ft radius sphere, 120ft range and 4d6 damage
  • A 5ft radius sphere, 240ft range and 8d6 damage

Under this system, wizards can modify their spell to suit the situation they are in.

If a wizard with access to 4th level spells wants to cast a fireball with a radius of 40ft, then it can either have a range of 120ft and deal 8d6 damage, or it can have a range of 240ft but deal just 4d6 damage.

The power of the fireball increases in line with the idea of ‘Quadratic Wizards‘.

A wizard casting fireball as a cantrip would use the 1st level blueprint, except they would halve two of the values. For example, 4d6 damage but only 60ft of range and 2.5ft radius for the sphere.

In fact, the numbers I’ve use keep the power levels approximately the same as Firebolt, Burning Hands, Fireball and Meteor Swarm in 5e.

Nuclear fireballs – an oft-ignored cautionary tale for overly-enthusiastic fire wizards.

Fire Magic status quo

Here’s a brief rundown of the fire magic spells in the player’s handbook. I’m only including spells where the main purpose is fire damage and which wizards can cast.

SpellLevelDamageRangeExplanation and details
Fire BoltCantrip1d10 fire120ft1 target
Burning Hands1st3d6 fire15ftCone area of effect
Scorching Ray2nd2d6 fire120ft3 attacks at up to 3 targets
Flaming Sphere2nd2d6 fire60ft5ft diameter sphere, move 30ft each turn, damage each round
Fireball3rd8d6 fire120ft20ft radius sphere
Wall of Fire4th5d8 fire120ft60ft long, 20ft high, 1ft thick
Flame Strike5th8d6 mixed60ft10ft radius, 40ft high cylinder, fire and radiant damage
Delayed Blast Fireball7th12d6 fire150ft20ft radius sphere, 1d6 more damage per round for 1min
Incendiary Cloud8th10d8 fire150ft20ft radius sphere, move 10ft per round, damage each round
Meteor Swarm9th40d6 mixed1 mile40ft radius sphere, fire and bludgeoning damage

Some thoughts:

  • As they advance, wizards can use their fire magic attack to:
    • Do increasing damage to each target
    • Hit more targets at once
    • Hit targets which are increasingly far away
  • Most of the spells are fire damage in an area of effect, but some have their own gimmicks
    • Flaming Sphere, Wall of Fire and Incendiary Cloud all persist on the battlefield
    • Delayed Blast Fireball has a ramp up in its damage until it is released
  • There is a mildly annoying lack of symmetry.
    • There’s no 6th level fire spell for Wizards. They have Sunbeam but it only does radiant damage.
    • Most spells use d6s but not all of them.
  • Each spell takes roughly 1/4 of a page, so in all they take about 2.5 pages.

There is some functionality to the spells above which the modular system does not have. However, they can be patched on.

  • At a cost of 2 spell-levels, a fireball can persist for a minute, and can be directed to move 30ft every round as a bonus action. Creatures inside the fireball make a save at the start of their turn etc.
  • At a cost of 2 spell-levels, a fireball can be delayed for a minute, with the damage increasing by 1d6 for every round of combat that it is held for.

In fact, any desired functionality could be patched on.

The minor annoyances have gone since every level has fireball magic and it all uses d6s.

The modular version is also a lot more concise – perhaps half a page rather than 2.5 pages.

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