Re-Skinning: Spellcaster’s Flair

Good evening everyone! Tonight I have the re-skinning article I mentioned yesterday: spells. For this I want to talk about the variety of ways you can change spells in your game (whatever it is) in order to make the game or a character feel different from others. Why you might do it and the ways it can be useful (or abused) is something I will go over in a future article two week from now. Before I give any examples though, I want talk about a game that has this inherent to the system and how much it teaches us.

Savage Worlds. A universal system to cover any situation you will ever need for whatever game you decide to play. The first question I had, and other wizards like me I am sure, is what about magic? How do you universalize magic? Savage Worlds does it quite elegantly and includes everything from psionics to science to super powers. They do this by having a variety of basic powers or spells that include only the mechanics that result from their use. Everything else is “trappings”. You can, effectively, describe any power in any way but the mechanics do not change. There are a few exceptions, mostly for damage types, which can add a few additional effects. This does however cause other changes such as less damage or increased point cost. As I said, simple but elegant.

From Savage Worlds you can learn a lot about tweaking spells. In fact, it reveals a lot about the concept of re-skinning in general. For this I, once again, urge you to consider adding the core book to your shelves no matter what you play. But for now, let’s take a look at a couple examples of how we can skin a power. Here are three spells from the Savage Worlds Explorers Handbook:


I pick these because they are perfect examples. Bolt is a basic attack spell. Entangle does exactly what you think. Finally, puppet allows you to take some control over another. Here are the example trappings given for these spells:

fire, ice, light, darkness, insects
glue bomb, vines, handcuffs, spider webs
glowing eyes, trance-like state, swinging pocket watch, voodoo dolls

As you can see there are a lot of very different ways in which to describe what a spell looks like or what you do when you cast it. There are a lot of ways to do a thing, why not make it look different for different people? Or perhaps, why not have it look different when in a different region or plane of existence. The Curse of Strahd is a great example of this. On page 24 you can find cosmetic modifications like using a skeletal hand for Bigby’s hand and undead familiars for find familiar. These are simple but telling changes to the world around the players.

So how do we change our spells? What are the variety of ways spells can be adjusted? Well, if you haven’t gathered by now, the baseline is to go for some kind of theme. Whether it is a plane they are cast in (Curse of Strahd) or to fit a mad scientist in Savage Worlds (glue bomb, pocket watch), a theme gives you direction and ideas. For my examples I will use 5th Edition, mostly because it is my most run game and because spells are pretty specific. More reasons will reveal themselves in the next article where we talk about ramifications. In order to do this I am going to take a few examples of spells we can manipulate and the different ways we can manipulate them.

cloud of daggers
grasping vine
flame blade
burning hands

Cloud of daggers is a very simple spell which creates its namesake. The area it exists in is take up by magically conjured daggers. As a result it does slashing damage. But why does it have to be daggers? A dwarf would, perhaps, conjure a cloud of hammers and maybe an elf would create arrows. As a result we need only change the damage to bludgeoning and piercing respectively. We need not stop there though. We can also change the form to sand, piranha, spiders, or anything relatively small that could damage. All you need to do is pick something that fits the character, or where the character comes from, and utilize the appropriate damage.

Grasping vines is a, mostly, druid spell which uses a vine to grab onto a creature. Here is where things are interesting though, the text says that the vine is conjured. This means (technically…as read), that there doesn’t need to be any vines around. Now, I would say using local plant life to describe this spell is one of the best ways to “re-skin” it. Whatever is nearby grows and stretches for the spells effect. Another way to change this would be to pick a plant that the caster prefers or one from their home that always gets conjured for the spell. Finally you can continue with the conjuring but have the plant relative to the region or plane. For example, the plane of water would have Sargasso forests and perhaps this sea weed would be what gets conjured out of nowhere for the spell there.

Barkskin is a spell another one that is both specific and very vague. First off, you skin takes on a quality like bark. But what kind of bark? I think a simple way to make this unique for a character would be to pick a specific bark type, especially a recognizable one. Birch, for example, would certainly be both different and memorable. How else can you change this spell? Well it may be called barkskin but the point is to give you a small amount of natural armor. But there are many ways to do this, such as scales. For a caster obsessed with reptiles or dragons, scales would make a fantastic alternative. Or perhaps you could go with a more elemental them and have crystals grow from your flesh and give the skin a stoney quality.

Flame blade and burning hands are two spells I choose because of their damage component. The first creates a scimitar made of fire and the second spews forth fire from your hands. There are many damage dealing spells, and in many games these are identified with damage types and keywords. Perhaps you wish to create a blade of ice or shoot lightning like Palpatine. Realistically, this is very easy. All you need to do is change the damage type. Of course there are other factors that may come into play, such as the splash from acid arrow or items that catch fire in a fireball. To tweak these requires a slight but more finesse, but not too much and ignoring things like things catching fire makes little difference.

But these spells are the type of thing that brings me to the next article. In the next article, we are going to talk about damage spells and why truly differentiates spells in games like Savage Worlds to spells in D&D. How come there are so many different spells in D&D and so few in Savage Worlds? Is there really? Perhaps there is a reason Melf created an acid arrow and not a lightning arrow. Is it possible there is no ice ball spell for a reason? I will talk a bit about this and whether it matters or not. It might not, or it may. That will depend on you and how ramifications can effect your campaign and world. And how much you let them of course,