Spellcrafting in Flumph of the Wild

I recently wrapped up my third online D&D 5e campaign, Flumph of the Wild. The campaign ran for 70 sessions over the course of about one-and-a-half years. It was loosely based on material in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which was the first major expansion to D&D 5e’s Monster Manual. The entire campaign took place in a vast monster-infested wilderness that existed to the far north of human and demihuman civilization. In this world, the standard D&D races had long since banded together and pushed out the various orcs, goblinoids and other nasties and then built a huge wall between them.

Wait, isn’t the big wall supposed to be in the north?

My players were under some pretty harsh restrictions for this campaign. First, I limited them to only “monstrous” player character races, like those found in Volo’s. No elves or dwarves allowed. And second, any class with a spellcasting feature was off-limits. Magic in this setting had been sewn up tight by some kind of cataclysm in the long-long-ago, and is not something mortal creatures were able to weild any longer. From a mechanical standpoint this meant no healing magic, and gave the whole campaign a very brutal feel. The party makeup ending up being:

• Adrex, a dragonborn fighter,
• Windy, an aarakocra monk,
• Red, a yuan-ti pureblood rogue,
• Birdie, a kobold rogue, and
• Raazu, a hobgoblin paladin*.

*(I did end up allowing a paladin with the understanding that the character would not have access to any spellcasting. Instead, paladins have the ability to use their spell charges on special attacks that do extra damage. I find this is how most paladins use their spell charges anyway, so it all worked out.)

It was never my intention to run a no-magic campaign, though. In fact, during character creation I let each player pick out one of the common magic items from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. These are low-impact items that tend to be more thematic than actually useful, although clever players can certainly find uses for them. The dragonborn took a wand that shoots harmless sparks and fireworks, for example, and a the hobgoblin took a pair of dice that always rolled 6s.

Then, in the second or third session, I revealed how spellcasting would actually work.

Early on, the heroes came across a killing field where several kobolds had been hanged from a tree. A bizarre rune had been burned into the earth nearby, the shape of which seemed significant enough that my players saved it for posterity. While chasing down leads as to what had killed the kobolds and why, they joined up with some lizardfolk to explore a ancient ruin nearby, where they all fell into a hidden magical chamber and became marked by the world.

The story is, the world in this setting is alive, and has its own kind of magic. (If you’re familiar with the Lifestream in Final Fantasy VII, that’s pretty close.) A second great cataclysm was coming, and the various warring sources of magic were vying for control. Various mortals were being marked with ancient runes that granted low-level casting ability, and the magic of the world, called quintessence, reached out and touched the PCs. Thus did each of them gain a cantrip based around the magic item they had selected. The hobgoblin’s magic dice, for example, granted the true strike cantrip, which enabled her to alter luck in her favor in order to better land attacks. To represent just how low mortal magic had fallen in this world, these cantrips were not usable at-will. Instead, players had to spend blips to use them.

(Oh yeah, here’s an old blog post about blips: Blips: D&D 5e Rules Variant (XP for Roleplaying))

Now that the players had some access to spells, I revealed how spellcasting would actually work. Anyone could craft any spell they wanted at any time, provided they accurately drew the spell’s rune and then passed an INT Arcana 20 check. This was a steep ask, considering that they’d only seen a couple of runes and had no other leads.

Magic tattoos!

Three other snags: anyone could in theory use any spell, but the spellcasting stat for all spells was Intelligence. This is typically a dump stat for 5e players who aren’t wizards, and there were of course no wizards in this campaign. I knew going in most of the characters wouldn’t have much aptitude for spellcasting in this system, but I was fine with that, because I don’t believe in dump stats. Also, to cast spells, you had to spend blips. One blip per level of spell you wanted to cast. Blips were also useful in this campaign for re-rolling checks or turning into XP, so the choice to cast a spell was never made lightly. A player could also only have a maximum of six blips, effectively cutting off spells of 7th level or higher. And finally, because these were purely martial characters and the world had not seen mortal spellcasters for a thousand years, there was a limit to how many spells you could learn: half your level plus your INT modifier, minimum of one. Since the starting cantrips counted against this total, most players had to level up a few times before they could even attempt to learn any more magic.

Nonetheless, they set out trying to decode the runes and figure things out. They started with the rune they’d transcribed from the site of the hanged kobolds, which turned out to be the hunger of Hadar spell:

The rune for hunger of Hadar.

Spellcrafting could be done as a downtime action. You first had to tell me what spell you were aiming for. You then had to draw out what you figured the rune looked like. Then you had to pass an INT Arcana 20 check. This could be done as a downtime action during a long rest, and there was no penalty for failure. In fact, it was possible to fail in ways that were enlightening. If you fail the check but draw the right rune, you can make future checks to learn this spell at advantage. If you pass the check but draw the wrong rune, your check is grandfathered in and you can tweak your rune’s design on subsequent rests.

For this system to work, I needed a way to generate spell runes on the fly. The way I did this was to find four ways to categorize spells in general, draw a handful of different symbols for each category, then build a general runic shape with those pieces. I saved everything as a Photoshop file so making a new rune (or checking to see if a player had gotten one right) was as easy as turning certain layers on or off.

Spell level. Higher level = more marks.

In D&D 5e, spells are already categorized by their general power level. The higher power the spell, the higher its spell level. Spells are arranged from cantrips (“Level 0”) up to Level 9. In my system, this is represented in the shape in the center of a spell’s rune, one mark per level of the spell. (Cantrips counted as Level 1 in my system, since they did require a resource to cast.) My players figured this out pretty quickly, and looking up a spell’s level is already trivial. I did require, however, that the marks appear in their proper order; it wasn’t enough to just draw four marks in the center if you wanted a Level 4 spell, they had to be the proper marks in the proper configuration. I don’t think a player ever got this part wrong while spellcrafting.

Reading order: necromancy, illusion, transmutation, evocation, enchantment, divination, conjuration, abjuration.

The other easy part was the spell’s school. This is another immutable property every spell has, it must fall into one of eight schools of magic. As the players discovered more runes in the world and noted what the effects were of each of them, they were able to piece together which symbol went with which school. And this is also something very easy to look up, once you know what spell you want to try and craft. I did want to have a pool of symbols that couldn’t be looked up, though, but could still be reasonably deciphered.

Reading order: aether, fire, earth, water, air.

The base of each spell represented its element. This isn’t something that’s spelled out in the rulebook, it’s something that had to be intuited (even on my part). Obviously not every spell is a literal manifestation of one of the classical elements; not everything is as clean-cut as fireball. So I had a few guidelines to follow for each spell. In general, if a spell dealt damage and wasn’t obviously another element, it was fire. Spells that created something solid, even if only temporarily, were earth. Spells that changed or moved things were air. And spells that didn’t do anything physical at all, but only dealt with the force of magic itself (such as detect magic or identify) landed in the catch-call aether element.

This also meant some individual spells were split up into multiple different runes. At one point they correctly sussed the rune for elemental weapon, which usually allows the caster to choose from one of several damage types. Because they had drawn a version of the rune with the aether element, though, what they actually did was make a version of the spell that could only be utilized for force damage.

My players never twigged to what these symbols represented, beyond a general “flavor” or “theme” of each spell, which was correct enough I suppose. There were a few times when a player had gotten most of a rune correct, but the element wrong, and so spent future downtime actions cycling through the various rune bases looking for one that worked. Which is exactly how I imagine a group of adventurers with no formal magic training but a basic grasp on what runes meant would actually do in the field. Hey, we know these five symbols, we know there has to be a base, let’s just try them all until it’s right.

But there was an important storyline reason I needed to keep track of where each spell was coming from, in terms of what was generating the magic.

Reading order: quintessence, divinity, blood, shadow, fey.

Where magic comes from was a pretty important theme throughout the campaign, and my players figured out very early that the “hat” part of each rune must hint at this source. Their biggest clue was the five cantrips they were given all had the same rune, despite being wildly different spells. An important note here is that the source of a spell doesn’t have an effect on what the spell can be or do, it just has to match the source of magic you already have. For the PCs in my campaign this was quintessence, so each spell they wanted to learn had to have the starburst-looking symbol on top. The five sources were:

• Quintessence, magic from the world itself. Notably this doesn’t mean nature magic or druidic magic; rather, it’s a natural magical field generated by the world as a function of its own existence. (I believe Forgotten Realms calls this concept “the Weave”.)
• Divinity, magic from the greater Powers. Powers had little influence in this campaign world, and most religions favored “living gods” like dragons, krakens, fey spirits, and suchlike. Divine magic was as a result very, very rare.
• Blood, magic generated by a creature’s own physical being. This is the source of a lot of magic in the campaign because it encompassed most of the magic used and granted by the living gods. Basically, if you’re flipping through the Monster Manual and a creature has the Innate Spellcasting trait, they’re using blood magic.
• Fey and Shadow, magic that seeps in from the Feywild and Shadowfell, respectively. These are other planes of existence that sit very close to the Prime Material, cosmologically speaking. They’re also physical places the players can travel to, under certain conditions.

After putting all this together, I had a system where I could whip up a spell rune for any spell I needed in less than a minute, and also had a campaign-wide puzzle for the players to work on. I also introduced a new spell called extract rune that would allow the players to take a spell’s run from a consumable potion or scroll they had, at the expense of the potion or scroll.

And that’s the Flumph of the Wild spellcrafting system in a nutshell. Thank you for reading about how I drew weird lines and then demanded my players figure out what they meant!

2 comments to Spellcrafting in Flumph of the Wild

  • Kjartan Skarphéðinsson

    Oh wow. I haven´t had a chance to start on Flumph of the Wild yet (still finishing Flumphscape), but this was super interesting and clever.

    I´m glad you are blagging some more now. I always enjoy reading your deep analysis on whatever comes to your mind.

  • Drathnoxis

    Cool! That seems like a really fun way to handle spell crafting.

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