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Saying the Magic Words

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Today I want to explore the details of what is needed for a spell with only a verbal component to be cast. I imagined Silent Gasp, a young kenku rogue, who spent their life around mages. We’ve previously learned that there are 40-odd spells that fit the verbal-only requirement category, and Silent Gasp surely heard all of them! So, being a kenku, capable of perfectly copying sounds, can they just cast them? If not, what can we do to make it both possible, and fun? Let’s dive in and see!

Beautiful art by themefinland.

To study this, I had to go back to the basic rules and read about spellcasting. I knew that, per the standard lore, spells are twists in the weave of magic, but I didn’t fully understand what a spellcaster needed to do to have access to the weave. I presumed that sorcerers have a natural sensitivity to the weave, which makes them instinctive spellcasters — it’s like walking for them, but they don’t fully comprehend what they’re doing. On the other side, wizards are seen as researchers of the weave, but is this a field anyone can get into? Can all people cast spells, or is there a special something that allows people to cast spells? I imagine that spell slots are an abstraction of that special something. Here’s some Player’s Handbook info on that (emphasis mine):

Before a spellcaster can use a spell, he or she must have the spell firmly fixed in mind, or must have access to the spell in a magic item. This process varies for different classes, as detailed in their descriptions. […] Though the casting of a typical spell requires merely the utterance of a few strange words, fleeting gestures, and sometimes a pinch or clump of exotic materials, these surface components barely hint at the expertise attained after years of apprenticeship and countless hours of study. — D&D 5e, Player’s Handbook

This seems to imply that anyone with enough practice can cast spells in the universe of the game. The practice of casting spells creates the patterns in one’s brain that translate to spell slots mechanically. This agrees with the meta-knowledge that anyone could can multiclass into a wizard at some point in life. It also means that by copying the state of mind of a wizard, and perfectly copying the verbal component, Silent Gasp could cast any spell they heard. Now, how do we do that? Enter trinket construction!

Magicore amulet on D&D Beyond

The Magicore amulet hurts. It also allows Silent Gasp to form the thought patterns needed to replicate the spells that they can already verbalize perfectly! Silent Gasp just has to be aware of the level of the spell being cast in their vicinity, which I’ll just leave to roleplay.

Copying a spell slot is something I’ve never seen before, but then again, isn’t that the beauty of this game? I think I’ll be using the Magicore amulet in my campaign soon, where it’s a part of a lost civilization’s advanced technology, recognized as Heretech by the current dogma. Let me tell you a bit more about that world, as I think it’s an interesting concept.

In this campaign, an old shadowy power has latched onto the weave and is draining it. The weave, of course, is immeasurable and can offer sustenance to this creature forever, and it’s growing steadily because of it. Its influence is most felt in the fact that magic has become dangerously chaotic. Unable to stop this menace, and realizing that the weave has been corrupted and is leaking chaos into the world any time anyone follows the mental gymnastics of spellcasting, the mage’s consortium created special trinkets, dubbed Hilan’s grapevine, that hold a special potion that removes the shadow’s influence when used. Using Hilan’s grapevine comes in the form of either pills or injections, and these are widely known simply as spell slots.

The world has since moved on and mostly forgot that the shadow is there, instead just using the grapevine as if it always was a thing. The party is none the wiser about this backstory, so in their head, this is simply how the world is, and the surprise they’re going to get when they discover the backstory of magic is going to be real — an effect you should always strive for as a GM. Because spell slots are now physical things in this world, however, I had to find out what happened before they were a thing. How do I use spell slots in a pure, untainted world? I turned my attention to the Player’s Handbook again:

Manipulating the fabric of magic and channeling its energy into even a simple spell is physically and mentally taxing, and higher-level spells are even more so.

This translates clearly enough into a mechanic that makes magic dangerous enough that many people wouldn’t want to dabble in it, but interesting enough that many schools of people still would: Exhaustion. Here’s a quick recap of Exhaustion, directly from the Basic Rules.

Some special abilities and environmental hazards, such as starvation and the long-term effects of freezing or scorching temperatures, can lead to a special condition called exhaustion. Exhaustion is measured in six levels. An effect can give a creature one or more levels of exhaustion, as specified in the effect’s description.

1Disadvantage on ability checks
2Speed halved
3Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws
4Hit point maximum halved
5Speed reduced to 0

If an already exhausted creature suffers another effect that causes exhaustion, its current level of exhaustion increases by the amount specified in the effect’s description.

A creature suffers the effect of its current level of exhaustion as well as all lower levels. For example, a creature suffering level 2 exhaustion has its speed halved and has disadvantage on ability checks.

An effect that removes exhaustion reduces its level as specified in the effect’s description, with all exhaustion effects ending if a creature’s exhaustion level is reduced below 1. 
Finishing a long rest reduces a creature’s exhaustion level by 1, provided that the creature has also ingested some food and drink. Also, being raised from the dead reduces a creature’s exhaustion level by 1.

I like to make magic matter, and that means that every casting has to have a cost. That cost is usually calculated via the spell components the spell requires, but dire situations might require more.

If a player doesn’t have a particular spell slot, try letting them cast their spell anyway, but tell them that the strain of doing so is equivalent to that spell’s level-worth of exhaustion points reduced by the spell slot they’re willing to use. For example, using a 5th level spell slot when a 2nd level is available would result in receiving 3 levels of exhaustion.

Make sure they understand what they’d be doing. Give the players the tools to do dangerous but powerful things, and you’ll certainly make space for some memorable moments to occur. As a GM, this is always the most you can hope for.

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