Re-skinning: Danger of Casting Strange Spells

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about re-skinning spells in order to flavor them for your characters and games. Today I want to continue on that subject. This time though, I am not going to give some more examples of doing this. There is an unlimited way to re-skin spells and we could come up with new ones for article after article. The real question is, should we? For the first time we are talking about something that intersects with the player’s side of the game. We are also talking about something in which there may be a reason that specific spell doesn’t exist.

Let’s start with what you should absolutely do / allow. Of all the things, the general look of spells should be given a lot of leeway. There is no mechanical effect and, thus, no reason to disallow these effects. If a player wants blue flame or green electricity, let them. There are lots of ways to do this (think back to the barkskin example). A lot of fun and role-playing can be had by allowing this to happen. A good thing to remember is: if there are no needed mechanic changes than there is probably no need to veto it.

Now what problems could we incur from changes in the mechanics of spells? Well, on the DM’s side it becomes rather irrelevant. Because you are flavoring a specific group or a specific character, the encounters with these unique forms of spell will be short lived. Even if they are not, they become an obstacle the party can plan for and around. On the DM’s side of the screen making all spells deal fire damage for crazy fire cultists or an efreeti sorcerer would make perfect sense to the players.

But what happens on the player’s side? Well you probably want to decide if there needs to be more changes than just energy type, for example. Should a cone become a line if fire becomes electricity. The specific example I am thinking here is burning hands. Generally speaking, electricity tends to shoot in a arc, or a line in mechanical terms, and not exist in a cone. Of course, the easiest thing to do would to be to do as little as possible. Just change damage type. The end. This provides no real balance issues.

However you should probably ask if this is something purposefully left out of the rules. Why is there a level one fire spell with a cone and an acid spell that is a splashing arrow? Why doesn’t each inherently allow any energy type to be chosen when taking the spell? Partially tradition and partially effect. A splash of acid and a cone of fire make sense. Lightning coming from the sky makes sense. The way the elements act are important to the game and the D&D mythology. And if you look carefully this shows in the way spells and energy powers tend to work.

Now, if you want to be a specialist you can, but make that an important difference. Why does the character want it to be different? How is it different? What is the purpose both for the character and the function of the spell? Work with the player and find out the answers to the questions. Be consistent with the reasoning. If they want burning hands to become a lightning spell because they are a sorcerer with djinn blood, then make sure other spells are tweaked too. Use wind, force damage, lightning, thunder, or something similar instead of the basic type. An acid arrow spell may deal lightning initial damage and thunder splash damage instead of acid for both. This keeps it in line with both the goal of the player and the design and function of the spell.

Now, this isn’t a problem in all games. Savage Worlds, as we mentioned, has such things inherent to making spells. Energy type is chosen when you make the spell. But in a game with a long history of very specific spells, be careful. Focus on look and, when mechanics become important, maintain a focus and have reason. The potential for re-skinning spells for role-playing purposes is very high. Don’t lose that in a desire to, say, to nothing but fire damage. Make it important, make it your own, and make it interesting.