Saturday, May 22, 2010

Alternate Spell Names

Over at Terminal Space, Albert Rakowski has just begun a series of posts providing alternate names for D&D magic-user and cleric spells. Each spell has three different variants -- arcane, mystical, and demonic -- each of which lends a different flavor to it without changing its mechanical effect in any way. This is a great idea and one I've often thought of adopting myself. Anyone who's familiar with Empire of the Petal Throne's Tékumel will know that many of its spells are little more than renamed OD&D standbys, but their new names are so beautifully evocative that they seem so much more interesting.

D&D
's spell names are (mostly) very bland, almost clinical. I don't think that's a problem in and of itself. As a baseline for discussion amongst players, it's probably much simpler to talk about fireball rather than, say, the inexorable conflagration of Thoom or something similar. But, except in certain circumstances, I find it pretty boring to say, "I cast magic missile" or "I use cure light wounds" in play. It does very little to evoke a fantasy setting and in many cases reminds us that we're playing a game with rules.

So, what Albert is doing is, I think, a great example of what I wish we saw more of in individual campaigns: tailor the baseline spell list to the setting. I'll probably do it for the Dwimmermount campaign at some point, if not for the current campaign, then for a future one. It's something I'd intended to do all along but never got round to doing. Perhaps it's time to correct that.

29 comments:

  1. The way I set up spells is they have a cold clinical "template" name like "Cone" or "Bolt" or "Blast" or "Sleep". But thats the mechanical basis, each version of the spell has a different name and effect (which is also important).

    The players for example right now have access to "Bee Swarm" (Cone) and "Lullabye of the Black Donnolly"(sleep) which would be very different than "Dragonsbreath" (Cone) depending on what they are facing (or hell, pure theme).

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  2. This is exactly what 4e gamers do with powers.

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  3. Chevski, i'm sure i'll be even more enthusiastic about your suggestion once I finish reading the two Vance novels I recently acquired.

    I'm with you on the generic spell names, they seem rather bland and uninteresting for what should be mysterious and arcane. It doesn't help that the descriptions in players handbooks are mechanical explanations of the ranges, effects and dice-rolls involved.

    I'd prefer keeping that mechanical information about spells behind the screen.

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  4. This is exactly what 4e gamers do with powers.

    Is it? If so, good on them, but I suspect, like most gamers, most probably use the names as given in the rulebooks.

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  5. I'm with you on the generic spell names, they seem rather bland and uninteresting for what should be mysterious and arcane. It doesn't help that the descriptions in players handbooks are mechanical explanations of the ranges, effects and dice-rolls involved.

    To be fair, I think the bland names are fine for the rulebooks -- preferable even -- because they provide a baseline for discussion amongst players in different campaigns. I just feel that, in actual play, the names ought to be changed in most cases in order to make them seem, as you say, "mysterious and arcane."

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  6. Properly evocative names can be a difficult balancing act. You have to steer between the Scylla of immersion-ruining drivel like "Doomkill" (EPT) and "Slush Yuck" (T&T) and the Charybdis of semantically opaque narm like "Valrid's Third Resplendent Corruscation".

    I think the bland-but-functional spell names of D&D are mostly adequate to their intended purpose. With a couple of exceptions (Cacodaemon, Eyebite, etc.) they do exactly what they say on the tin.

    That said Albert seems to be navigating the shoals of nomenclature nicely.

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  7. "because they provide a baseline for discussion amongst players in different campaigns"

    I can only imagine how interesting that conversation would be, at a cocktail reception ... "so, Jim, what spells have you been casting in your campaign?"

    :D

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  8. I think the bland-but-functional spell names of D&D are mostly adequate to their intended purpose.

    I absolutely agree. That's why I'd never advocate eliminating those names from the PHB for more "exciting" ones à la 4e. More point was simply that it's very easy to inject more flavor into spellcasting simply by changing a few names here and there. It's a practice I've often toyed with but have never really implemented and I regret that.

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  9. I agree though, the name needn't be inscrutible to be interesting. I simply prefer "Leomund's Tiny Hut" to "Tiny Hut"; and "Otiluke's Freezing Sphere" to "Globe of Ice".

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  10. I agree though, the name needn't be inscrutible to be interesting. I simply prefer "Leomund's Tiny Hut" to "Tiny Hut"; and "Otiluke's Freezing Sphere" to "Globe of Ice".

    Again, I agree. In fact, I rather think, in a world where magic is conceived as it is in D&D -- that is, as specific arcane formulae rather than freeform conjurations -- more spells ought to have the names of their creators attached them.

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  11. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I'd like to run a pulp Swards & Sorcery game using my preferred sytem, FATE. I'm planning on running spells as stunts for people who want to play sorcerers and am planning on players working with me to come up with their own spells and spell names. It's fine with me if the goal is to make something that works like a D&D sleep spell, but I want more of an implied place in the setting like the Mordenkainen's Fist of Gentle Repose.

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  12. I wonder if, ultimately, it's a futile effort. Familiarity breeds contempt.

    I remember pouring with awe over the spells in my original D&D rulebooks. That's no longer the case, would "Agrathea's Scintillant Sphere of Conflagration" fill me with awe after using it for 20+ years, either?

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  13. That's no longer the case, would "Agrathea's Scintillant Sphere of Conflagration" fill me with awe after using it for 20+ years, either?

    Probably not, but, speaking for myself, my concern is more of an in-game one. I don't expect spells as game mechanics to fill me with awe, but I would like it if the spells seemed more plausible within the context of the game setting. My beef is purely one of immersion. I'm not sure RPGs are really capable of evoking wonder in anyone who's been playing them for decades, not matter what terminology they use.

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  14. The current term for this kind of thing is reskinning. I saw it used back in 3x I think .I believe it comes from computer games.

    I have to say that I quite enjoy it as a player and as a DM.

    The 1st time I ran into a reskinned spell as a player a lightning bolt as a black ray was in a 2e game and it was very memorable.

    I do it with monsters quite often as well, the Beholder becomes "Servant of the Eye" and it goes from a tactical encounter to a bit more of a wondrous more like when we started , at least till they figure out what I just did.

    The only things that I never play with this way are "common" items.

    Calling a sword a "saex" unless its a historical game preferably where the players have a grasp of the language and culture is confusing.

    Also "normal animals" never get this treatment either. It breaks immersion.

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  15. In a Shadowrun game I played in a few years ago, one of the players did this with all of his spells, giving them new names but not changing the spells any. It seemed like extra work to me, but he enjoyed it, and the GM was never confused by the jargon the player was spitting out (I think the GM had a cheat sheet), so no harm, no foul.

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  16. This is a very cool idea but the name of the spell really should fit the type of magic that's in effect. "Eye of the Demon" sounds like something much more sinister then a simple detect magic spell. But no question, Albert is onto something...

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  17. Speaking of Vance--and how could we not given the subject? Why not rule that a spell doesn't exist until researched by a pc or npc?

    Obviously a magic user starts out saying, "I want to conjour a fireball to char my enemies.". Or something equally dry and descriptive. Howver, what happens after the research is turjan's elemental conflaguration. Or "the excellent exploding fireball" or "the adequate buring hands of Hannibal"

    I think, keeping the spell name (fireball, burning hands) but adding some discriptive text to the name will keep people from being confused and then defaulting to the textbook name in frustration.

    "the Magnificent magic missile"


    Interestingly, I think the key to a good spell name is the use of the definite article at the begining of the name. Makes the spell singular and less generic sounding. Even, "the magic missile" does the trick for me.


    What I don't like is flowery names that people could forget what the hell the spell does. A balance of utility with flavor.

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  18. Calling detect magic, "demon sight" doesn't work for me because just as easily could be a spell for granting infravision or detect good or a host of other things. It says too much and too little all at once.

    Magic users are part mathemetician so names of spells should read like a book of poetry.

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  19. I don't think I would want to spend any more time on this than I would on dreaming up flowery soliliquies for bad guys, or going into big descriptions of how the orc swung his sword and did 3 points of damage to you. I really don't care about the actual names of spells used by persons in my game world, any more than I really concern myself with what the languages sound like.

    In my world most of these spells have bee around over 1000 years, not created 12 years ago by some Bigby or Tenser dude. They have been known by 1000 names by 100 cultures.

    A caveman called it "Big Badda Boom" or a modern wiz called it "Mighty Flameball of the Great Wakka Wakka," either way lets just call it fireball and get on with it (especially so I don;t have to carry an extra notebook full of alternate spell names).

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  20. "in many cases reminds us that we're playing a game with rules."

    Just out of curiosity, why would you want to forget that you're playing a game? D&D is a game. Playing games is fun.

    Besides, isn't that the plot from Mazes & Monsters? :)

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  21. The truth is that I wrote this table for personal use, but I thought that somebody may find it usable, especially when PCs found some spellbook.
    PS. One million pageviews, congratulations!

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  22. I think too much pathos in basic spell names makes them seem silly.
    X Y of Z is especially too cliche, e.g. Demonic Portal-Chains of Aghrapur for Hold Portal when there's nothing ingame to justify the name. You could possibly intimidate the farmers for a while but even in the dying earth stories people are scared of the effects, not the names.
    In 4e there's basic descriptive names for some powers and almost all rituals. Spinning sweep is easy to understand but tumble-fast-past-your-enemies-and-stab-them-in-the-back needs a more poetic name for a reason.
    I think burning hands and magic missile are quite evocative names but we're just used to them. I'm satisfied with them as they are now.

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  23. My problem with these attempts is that while they may satisfy us particularly hard-core gamers (DM world-builders), I'm skeptical that they'd filter down well to the more rank-and-file players. I think so many "just playing a game"'rs would want a shorthand they'd wind up abbreviating our preferred Vancianisms anyway.

    For example, I'm horribly aghast when I hear gamers referring to "pallies" and "skellies" (because "paladin" and "skeleton" are apparently too complicated to say), but they do so anyway.

    Skeptical that 4E does this commonly (although I'm sure it's suggested in the books; it was in 3E, too). Way, way, way down on "reskinning" theory.

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  24. My players ALL re-skin their spells, but they go the other way - they've made them sound as quick and dirty as possible.

    Protection from Evil 10' Radius became "Bubble". Dispel Evil became "Bubble 2". Turn Undead became "Ashing". Growth of Plants became "Weedwall". As in "I'll drop a bubble and then you ash them from here." Or "Throw up a weedwall and let's camp."

    When I asked them about it, they said the campaign felt like a fantasy Vietnam movie and so it seemed as natural to them as flak, charlie, ack-ack, and evac, and so on are to soldiers.

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  25. I find it much easier to use descriptive names for spells, usually including a verb. So Create Wall of Fire gives me more information than a more poetic name. It allows me to adjudicate each individual element (Create, Wall, Fire) to determine the effect without having to refer back to a specific spell description for the details (I've always tended to play magic fast and loose in my games).

    Although I am not adverse to players coming up with poetic names, incantations, rituals, and magical ingredients necessary to cast the spells. And in my game I've had players, whose characters were trained in different schools of magic, have competitions to see whose "fireball" was better. To the detriment of the scenary (it being heavily chewed by the players).

    [This reminds me very much of Ars Magica, where the spells may have Curse of the Ravenous Swarm, by it also specifies that it is a Level 50 Creo (Create) Animalia (Animal) spell, which gives you the information needed to use it in the game, whereas the correct title only hints at what it may be able to do. But again, in this game, especially for high level spells, they need to be researched or learned before they can be used, so you can get away with this.]

    That being said, I also have a soft spot for Nephilim, which described the spells and rituals rather poetically, and often misleadingly (The Summoning of Things That Nibble and Creep being a prime example). However this suits a game of occult conspiracy where the very knowledge of the spells themselves was a prized objective, rather than is the case in the magic rich world of D&D.*
    Call of Cthulhu is another game that benefits from this procedure of obscuring the essential nature of the spells.

    [* Although I do remember having had a few "lost" ancient spells discovered as great treasures. Like powerful magic swords (as opposed to munition quality "magic" swords), they were usually given exotic names. (And until the invention of wizardry, could not be easily classified or modified, since the theory didn't actually exist to handle them, so this made sense.)]

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  26. I like the idea of "reskinning" some spells to fit names specific to the campaign I'm running. It a quick and easy way to add flavor to a game. The trick is it has to be organically and not forced, otherwise it seems unnatural.

    For example, I don't do it with every spell in the book,just a few of the more common ones and a couple of less used ones. And I try to use names that fit within that campaign, not just random name changes.

    I have also at times made variant versions of the same spell, created by different magic users. There might be small changes (slightly different duration, range, etc) but I have made a few with bigger differences, such as doing additional to certain types of creatures.

    This grew from my idea that magic-users would "tinker" with existing spells, rather than always work to create brand new ones. This has provide some great plot hooks as the party would sometimes journey to specific places just in order to find a new spell or just following up on rumors of interesting sounding ones.

    I also like the idea of PCs coming up with slang names for spells. I had one campaign where our 'cockney' themed thief would also refer to the magic users spells in slang. Fireball was called a 'toasty', hold person was a 'stiller'. The magic-user was played as a straight-laced academic type, so the interplay between the two was really interesting at times. Once again, I think this has to grow organically from the campaign, otherwise it feels forced and unnatural.

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  27. Just out of curiosity, why would you want to forget that you're playing a game? D&D is a game. Playing games is fun.

    What I meant is that, for me, a key element of a good roleplaying game is that its mechanics don't needlessly wrench me out of the imaginary world in which I'm playing. I prefer that players be able to make their decisions based on what their characters experience in the world rather than by reference to game mechanics. So, spells that are too "game-y" in their names or effects bug the heck out of me.

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  28. My problem with these attempts is that while they may satisfy us particularly hard-core gamers (DM world-builders), I'm skeptical that they'd filter down well to the more rank-and-file players. I think so many "just playing a game"'rs would want a shorthand they'd wind up abbreviating our preferred Vancianisms anyway.

    Oh, I agree. I wouldn't want to see these kinds of poetic names used in the rulebook (generally), but I do like it when individual referees and/or players make changes like this. I think it makes a campaign more interesting and "real."

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