This article originally appeared in Pyramid #6

Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

Witchcraft in the Hero System
By Scott Paul Maykrantz

As a pregnant August moon filled the night with a cold glow, the 13 robed figures walked silently to the crest of the hill. Each carried the body of a dog. The wind tugged at their hoods to reveal brief glimpses of their faces. They had the look of anxious travellers, with serious mouths and an explorer's gleam in their eyes.

They formed a circle around a rough block of stone. The chiseled symbols on the rock were unrecognizable, yet clearly an alien alphabet. With a quick crack, the skull of the first dog was shattered with a rune-covered hammer. The blood, drained of all color by the pale moonlight, stained the stone and the grass around it. The faces of the robed figures rose to meet the lunar stare. Then they began to repeat the words, a black chorus sung to unseen, foul gods.

Unforecasted clouds, inky and chaotic, formed in the sky. A thin mist, ignoring the air moving around it, lifted slowly from the hill and created a hazy cloud. The incantation rose with the pitch of the accelerating wind to become a wail of howling voices.

The wind soon tore at the trees and earth. The hammer rose and fell, staining the stone altar, the robes, and the hilltop with sticky blood. The blood grew hot, boiling the grass and burning the altar. The robed figures stood, unscathed by the roaring storm and burning blood, repeating their vile litany in a pitch of hellish screams.

Then the sky suddenly cleared. The moon soon blinked through the parting clouds. The mist floated back to the ground and the wind died with a sigh. On the crest of the hill, amid the carcasses of hounds and a scorched block of stone, were thirteen empty robes.

Magic in horror roleplaying is not like magic in fantasy (or any other) genre. "Magic" can mean one of two things -- witchcraft (spells and spellcasting), or supernatural force. Of course, the two are closely related; spells are used to unleash supernatural force.

The term "witchcraft" is used in a broad sense. Spellcasters are not old women on brooms, nor are they all called "witches." Witchcraft is the spellcasting of the profane, an unholy vocation involving talismans, spell recipes, deals with demons, fetishes, and ritualistic sacrifice.

Witchcraft is powerful and dangerous. Mortals who practice it are regarded as foolish or fanatical. Supernatural power is hard to control and almost always evil. Instead of the utilitarian adventuring spells of fantasy, all spells are unique and rare in both casting and effects; a demon-summoning spell summons a unique demon by name, not an anonymous demon.


This spellcasting system was designed specifically for the horror genre. Feel free to adjust it to meet your own style. If this system seems too restraining, remember that characters and creatures can have magic Powers. If you want a character to be able to create an effect just like a spell, give the character the spell's Power with the Special Effect: Magic. This is an inherent magic power, not a spell, but the effect is the same.

After this basic system, you'll find advanced spellcasting rules; learn this system first, then add the special rules and details later.


There are no rule changes, but there are three rule additions.

(1) The Limitations for horror genre spells are more specific than regular Limitations, and reduce the Real Cost of the spell's Power accordingly. For example, the Focus "water from the source of the Nile" is a greater Limitation than the Focus "water," so it has a greater Limitation value.

(2) A second possible Bonus for the Requires a Skill Roll Limitation has been added: for a -1/4 Bonus, the skill penalty is -1 per 25 Active Cost points.

(3) The basic nature of witchcraft bends the rules a little bit -- by making a few skill rolls, the character can use a Power he does not possess! He does this by assembling multiple Independent Foci which, when combined correctly, become a magic item. If you're really against this idea, here's two alternatives. 1) The caster can use unspent experience points, or 2) the caster can have a "spell pool" to draw from -- he cannot cast a spell with a Real Cost higher than his pool total.


There are many spells in the world, but all are carefully hidden among cultists, secretive sorcerers, witch covens, and supernatural creatures. Some spells are simple in their effects: a spell that calms animals; a ghost-banishing ceremony. Other spells are cataclysmic: a spell that kills a large group of creatures, or a spell that casts permanent darkness in a valley.

A spellcaster learns the art of witchcraft through study, one spell at a time. He learns the spell's background, how it is cast, how to control it, and what its effects will be.

To cast a spell, the character first prepares it. This involves drawing arcane symbols, collecting strange materials, waiting for the proper conditions, and other tasks. The caster might spend a week carving symbols in a piece of bone, collecting the "tears of a child" in a crystal bowl, and waiting for a lunar eclipse.

When the preparation has been completed, the ritual begins. The ritual is a series of tasks that are performed to release supernatural power. The power does not come from the caster -- he merely serves as a key to unlock the door between the natural and the supernatural. The ritual may involve simple meditation and a few spoken words, but it can be as complex as a long ceremony involving many participants and special objects of power.

Once the ritual is over (or, for some spells, just as it begins), the effects of the spell take place. If a mistake is made in the preparation or ritual, the spell may have unexpected and disastrous results -- the caster could be killed, transformed, or worse.



Spells are simulated by a Power (only one Power per spell), and Modifiers. The Active Cost of a spell ranges from about 20 to 350+. Any spell with an Active Cost of 250 or more is considered "powerful." Powerful spells are hard to control and have devastating Side Effects.

All Powers have the Special Effect: Magic. This allows Powers which can operate against a special effect (Dispel, Suppress, and all of the Adjustment Powers) to apply to spells. This is not to say that all spells look alike -- the spell should have other special effects, as well.

Power Frameworks cannot be used; KS: Spell skills are bought individually.


Required Advantages
The 0 END Advantage is required (at the +1/2 cost). Ignore the Persistent option -- the benefits of Persistent are included in the Independent Limitation.

This Advantage reflects the fact that spellcasters in horror campaigns merely act as a bridge between the natural world and supernatural power; the power does not come from the caster. This powerful Advantage is balanced by the enormous risk and difficulty involved to practice witchcraft.

Other Advantages
The following Power Advantages cannot be used: Charges, Delayed Effect, Usable by Others, Variable Advantage, Variable Special Effects.

All other Advantages can be used. The following are particularly appropriate to the genre: Affects Desolid, Area Effect, Based on EGO, Difficult to Dispel, Indirect, NND, No Range Penalty, Sticky, and Transdimensional.

Each spell has a minimum total Limitation Bonus of -5. This total Bonus is made up of required Limita-tions and other, optional Limitations.

Required Limitations
All horror genre spells must have the following Limitations: Focus, Independent, Requires Skill Roll (twice), and Side Effects. The required Limitations will account for at least -3 1/4 of the minimum total Bonus of -5.

Foci take many forms. Some possible Foci: a common object, a mystic artifact, a holy (or unholy) talisman, an old book, a body part or bone, some type of liquid, a natural feature (hill, dead oak tree, etc.), an entire man-made structure (castle, building), a vehicle, drawn or carved symbols.

A Focus can also be a group of similar or identical objects: a handful of bones from the same type of animal, a circle of monoliths, an intricate pattern of drawn symbols. If the spell has a Focus such as "pile of bat bones," "sea-smoothed stones," or "symbols from the Society of Entropy's alphabet," don't make every bone, stone, or symbol a separate Focus.

A Focus is considered "Obvious" if it stands out as something that is rare or unusual. A candle or book is Inobvious, even if Arranged for a spell ritual. A cup of blood or a person tied down to an altar are Obvious.

All spells have approximately one Focus per 50 points of the Active Cost.

Detailed Descriptions: When naming the Focus, describe it with at least two words: the noun that describes the Focus, and an adjective that narrows the Focus down to a specific type. If the Focus comes in different amounts or sizes, add these adjectives as well. Some examples:

a human skull
a gallon of salt water
a silver crucifix
the tears of a clown
a liar's fingernail
a pinch of grave dirt
ten crow feathers
two tarnished silver cups

You can also choose an adjective that narrows the Focus down to a unique object -- "Hitler's skull" instead of "a human skull," or "a pinch of grandfather's grave dirt" instead of just "a pinch of grave dirt." If the Focus is unique, additional bonuses come from availability (see below).

Availability: Foci such as "the skeleton of a dinosaur" or "the Book of the Damned" are hard to acquire, but do not have to be Expendable. Availability Bonuses are identical to "recovery" ratings for Expendable Foci -- use the same values. Note, however, that a Focus does not have to be Expendable to be hard to locate or possess.

Arrangement: Add Bonuses if a Focus must be carefully Arranged in a particular position in relation to the other Foci. Unless the caster can move the whole Arrangement without damaging its delicate placement, this forces him to cast the spell from a single location. Foci of this kind include drawn or carved symbols, sacrifices placed on a altar, and objects arranged in patterns.

Arrangement adds a -1/4 Bonus. Arranged Foci are Immobile as well, adding an additional -1, for a total of -1 1/4. Ignore the additional -1 if the caster can move the entire Arrangement without displacing or damaging any of the Foci.

If a spell with arranged Foci has continuous Limitations, the spell immediately ends if the Arranged Foci are moved.

Obtainment: An additional Bonus is gained if the Focus must be Obtained in a special manner. For example, a "druid's ring" Focus might include this Obtainment task: "must be stolen from the druid by severing the finger on which it is worn."

The Obtainment constitutes a minor ritual in itself -- it is treated as part of the preparation, but skill rolls may be required to obtain the Focus correctly. The character would have to make an attack roll (or PS: Surgery roll) to sever the finger. Obtainment details add -1/4 to the total Focus Bonus.

Expendable Foci: An Expendable Focus is transformed, consumed, or destroyed in some way. This information is listed in the spell description. Many Expendable Foci are expended by "supernatural force" -- as the ritual ends, supernatural force horrifically consumes, transforms, or destroys the Focus.

Fetishes: A fetish is a totem, a symbol of something significant to the spell. The quintessential fetish is a voodoo doll. Fetishes are also part of Native American shamanistic rites. They are required for spells that manipulate the will of the spell's victim. A fetish is a Focus; sticking pins in it or setting it on fire is part of the ritual. Use the Obtainment Bonus if the fetish must be constructed by the caster. The fetish can also be Arranged, Expendable, and have Availability limitations.

Sacrifices: If an Expendable Focus is a living creature, it can be destroyed by sacrifice. Such a Focus is always Obvious and Accessible. The sacrifice is part of the spell's ritual. The creature(s) must die by the caster's hand. Common sacrifices include chickens, goats, and virgins.

If the Expendable Foci is a group of living creatures, the caster must sacrifice them all. The spell must have the Extra Time Limitation to give the caster enough time to perform the sacrifices. The first occurs at the start of the ritual; the last occurs at the very end.

Sacrifices are not for everyone; you'll find them in horror literature and films, but they are too intense for many gamers. One way to limit sacrifices is to draw the line at dangerous or otherworldly creatures like serpents or zombies. Or draw the line at animals -- livestock are fair game, but not humans.

Another way to "soften" the idea of ritual sacrifice is to accept a soul-transfer of any kind as a form of death. Thus, a "sacrifice" of a black cat could occur by merely placing its soul into a small gem -- technically, a dead body is being offered for the spell, so the sacrifice is legitimate.

The Expendable living creature Focus might be the caster himself! Although this sounds crazy, it is very appropriate to fanatical cultists who give their body and soul to cast a powerful spell. If the personal sacrifice is a soul transfer, the caster may be reborn into another body. In this case, of course, the sacrifice must come as the climax of the ritual.

Target as the Focus: If the target of the spell's Power is an object (not an area or location), the target can be one of the Foci. If the target is a character or creature, the target must be incapacitated or willing.

If the target is a character or creature that is going to be sacrificed, the spell's Power must be able to affect the dead target. The Power can't be Telepathy -- you can't read the mind of a slain character. But the Power could be Telekinesis, used to animate the target's corpse.

All spells are Independent because their power derives from the Foci, conditions, and ritual of the spell. The supernatural power is released by the spellcasting character, but does not come from the character.

Because all spells are Independent, Persistent and Constant spells will continue if the caster is unconscious or falls asleep. There is one exception: If the spell has continuous Limitations, the spell ends when the caster is unconscious or falls asleep.

Stealing Control of a Spell: An Independent Power is controlled by anyone who possesses the Power's Focus. So, if a character can "grab" or "steal" the Foci of the spell, he can take control of the Power away from the caster. This depends on the Foci involved, the Power, and continuous Limitations.

To "steal" or "grab" a Power away from the caster after the ritual has been successfully completed, the spell must meet these conditions: None of the Foci are Immobile, Arranged, or Expendable; all of the Foci are Accessible; the Power is not Instant; the spell has no continuous Limitations.

Requires Skill Roll
This article introduces an additional possible Bonus for this Limitation (which is not official, of course). For -1/4, the skill roll penalty is -1 per 25 points of the Active Cost.

This Limitation is taken twice because, to cast a spell, the caster must make two KS: Spell rolls. Thus, this Limitation adds a minimum of -1/2 to the total Limitation value of the spell. The skill itself is bought only once.

The cost for the skill is the same for both the -1/2 Bonus and the -1/4 Bonus: 3 points for a basic value of 9 + INT/5, plus 2 Character Points per +1. The skill is always "Characteristic-based."

Side Effects
Side Effects are the risk that accompanies the use of witchcraft -- a failed casting has terrible consequences. The Side Effect can be either the -1/2 or -1 variety; -1 is more appropriate for powerful (250+ Active Cost) spells.

The Side Effects of a spell are different after every casting -- the Power unleashed by the Side Effect is not determined until the moment at which the spell actually fails. Under "Side Effect" in the spell description, list only the Limitation Bonus. The players will never know what to expect . . . and the GM has a chance to be very creative, deciding on the spot which Power and Modifiers to use. Side Effects should always be frightening and/or grotesque.

Here are some ideas to consider when deciding what Power to use:

Backlash: The most common Side Effect is the "backlash" effect -- instead of affecting the target, the caster himself is affected by the spell's Power. In this case, the Side Effect Power is the same as the spell's Power.

Attack the Caster: The Side Effect Power could be different from the spell's Power, yet still attack the caster. This Side Effect is recommended if the player of the caster is abusing his power and damaging the game. Any Power with a Target of "Target's DCV" fits in this category.

Freak Effects: Freak effects are Side Effects that are totally unrelated to the basic nature of the spell. In this case, the Side Effect Power is any Power that is different from the spell's Power.

For example, a failed spirit-seeking spell could cause all glass in the general area to shatter (HTH Attack), or set up a hypnotic suggestion in every person within a one kilometer radius of the caster (Area Effect Mind Control).

Catastrophe: This is the standard Side Effect for the miscasting of a powerful spell (250+ Active Cost). If, for example, a caster miscasts a spell that summons a vast army of zombies, he can expect Side Effects in the form of earthquakes, mass transformations, and planar shifts.

Choose up to three Powers for the Side Effect (each Power uses one-third of the Active Cost in the Side Effect). The Powers will often have the Area Effect Advantage. Recommended Powers include: Change Environment, Extra-Dimensional Movement, Images, Darkness, Transform, Telekinesis and HTH Attack.

The local population is sure to be affected when a powerful spell is miscast. You can always keep the effects subtle, however, to avoid creating a local panic (this makes the GM's job very difficult). If, for example, the Side Effects cause supernatural creatures to be born in the sewers of the city, the PCs should be able to find and fight the creatures before the public finds out.

Other Limitations
These Limitations cannot be used: Activation, Charges, Increased END Cost, Linked, No Conscious Control, Variable Limitations. All others are required (see above) or optional. The following optional Limitations are recommended (they are particularly appropriate to the genre): Concentrate, Extra Time, Incantation, Limited Power.

A few special notes about some of the optional Limitations:

Continuous Limitations are often referred to in this chapter. The Continuous Limitations are: Concentration with a doubled Bonus, the -1/2 version of Gestures, and the -1/2 version of Incantation. See the descriptions of these three Limitations for details.

Extra Time always refers to the ritual of the spell, not the preparation.

Gestures should be described in the spell description. Does the caster merely hold his fingers in a specific pattern, or does he move them? Perhaps the gestures include the entire body (i.e. any rituals which involve dancing).

Incantation Limitations must specify the language spoken. This can be a "dead tongue" like Latin or the language of an ancient civilization, a common language, the tongue of a type of creature, or a cult's language.

Limited Power comes in two varieties: conditions/limitations that apply to the Power's effects and the ritual, or conditions that apply only to the ritual. Halve the listed Bonus for the second variety (for -1/4 Bonuses, the Bonus becomes -0). For example, the Power Limitation "only works in darkness" would be worth -1/2 if it applies to the Power's effects and the ritual, but "ritual only works in darkness," is worth -1/4.

Here are a few Limited Powers appropriate to the genre: only during the Witching Hour (starts at midnight; -1 1/2), only underground (-1/2), does not work in sunlight (-1/4), only outdoors (-1/4), only if the caster is nude (-1/2), only during a storm (-1/2), does not affect virgins (-1/4), only under a full moon (-1 1/2), only during a planetary conjunction (-2 to -4).

Mental Powers Based on CON is appropriate for spells in which the target is a Focus and drinks a potion or drug during the ritual -- the mental effects are resisted by the target's physical defenses against the potion or drug. (Incidentally, the potion/drug would be another Focus, an Expendable one).

Only in Hero ID is applicable for lycanthropes and shapeshifters of all kinds. The player must decide which form is the "Hero ID."


A spell that a character "knows" is listed on a character sheet as a Knowledge Skill. The skill represents the character's knowledge of the background, preparation, ritual, and effects of that spell. The detail of the character's knowledge is indicated by the level of the skill.

KS: Spell skills are Knowledge Skills, but their cost is not the same as Knowledge Skills -- they have the Requires a Skill Roll Limitation skill cost.

Example: Colin Wiccan (INT 15) has the following spells:

13 KS: Hypnotic Intimidation 17-
23 KS: Summon Inthaugeekanus, Deceiver Demon 22-
17 KS: See Hex 19-
17 KS: Curse of Obesity 19-

The skill can be used as a normal Knowledge Skill, allowing the character to answer questions about the spell without casting it. A character can use a KS: Spell skill only in this way -- this is the practice among occult scholars who know many spells, but are too fearful or too smart to risk casting them.

No character has to pay the Real Cost for a spell. This is because spells are not used regularly, like a normal Power. However, the Real Cost does come into play when the character tries to learn a new KS: Spell skill. In terms of Character Points, witchcraft is cheap. In roleplaying terms, it is expensive (because the character risks his life with every casting).

A high skill roll (18- to 25-) is needed to safely cast a powerful spell. Powerful spells have high skill roll penalties and devastating Side Effects. GMs can allow skill rolls for powerful spells to exceed campaign maximums.

Spell Descriptions
Spells are described in these categories: Background, Power, Modifiers, Active Cost, Total Limitation, KS: Spell Roll, Casting Time, and Real Cost.

The background of a spell answers these questions: What does the spell do? What is involved in the preparation and ritual? Who created it? Why and when was it created? The first two questions are answered in the spell description. The last two questions are devised by the GM to fit the campaign.

All horror spells should be mysterious. If none of the PCs "knows" a particular spell, keep the spell's description secret. If a PC "knows" a spell, withhold the description from the player except when necessary -- the player can glance over the description once in a while, but he can't write any information other than the spell name and skill roll on his character sheet.

Sample spells can be found at the end of this chapter. Use them as a reference when you learn this spellcasting system.


After the character prepares the Focus of the spell, the player decides exactly when his character will begin the ritual. When that time comes, the GM rolls twice against the character's KS: Spell skill. The result of those rolls determines the character's success or failure at casting the spell. The first roll is the "preparation roll"; the second roll is the "ritual roll."

Casting Time
If the spell has no Continuous Limitations, the ritual length is equal to the Casting Time. If there are Continuous Limitations, the Casting Time is unchanged, but the ritual lasts longer -- the ritual lasts until the caster stops his Gestures, Incantations, or Concentration.

The Preparation Roll
The preparation roll is an assessment of how well the character prepared the spell. Did he draw the symbols correctly? Has he started the ritual when the moon is full? Does he have the ancient book with him, placed on a small altar, covered with red cloth, and in an open field?

Once the player declares that his character has begun the ritual, the GM immediately rolls. The GM does not tell the player the result of the roll. Use the modifier of -1 per 25 points in the Active Cost.

The player can use the Time Chart. The GM must determine the minimum amount of time it would take the character to prepare. Some spells take at least a few minutes, while others take years. Use of the Time Chart is highly recommended, as it improves the chance of success and, as a result, prevents Side Effects.

Kali, a legendary sorceress, created an incredibly powerful spell over a hundred years ago. The spell causes all corpses across the world to rise and feast on the living. The preparation for this spell is complex, requiring one season. Kali formed the secret Apocalypse Cult after designing the spell; their sole purpose is to prepare and cast the spell. The Apocalypse Cult spent one century in preparation. This year, they will cast it, with a +5 to the preparation roll.
The GM can, of course, apply additional modifiers for other aspects of the preparation. If the caster prepared in a slipshod, hasty fashion, apply a penalty of -1 to -5. If the caster went to great lengths to find the highest-quality Foci and the perfect conditions, add a bonus of +1 to +5.

If the preparation roll fails, the ritual roll automatically fails. The GM makes the ritual roll anyway, just so the player won't know until the last minute that the preparation failed.

The Ritual Roll
The target of the spell, if not already determined by the limitations, is determined by the character performing the ritual. The spellcaster must choose the target as the ritual begins. Use the modifier of -1 per 25 points in the Active Cost again. The preparation roll is used as a Complimentary Skill.

The Time Chart for skills cannot be used for the ritual roll. This is because all spell rituals (even those with continuous Limitations) are meticulously timed -- a ritual that ends too late or too soon is one of the many possible reasons for a failed casting.

The Spell Effects
Successful Castings
If the roll was a success, the effects occur as they should for that spell. The effects occur at the end of the Casting Time. If the spell has a continuous Limitation, the spell effects occur in the Phase in which the ritual began.

The duration of the effects are determined by the type of Power used in the spell. See p. 52 of the HERO System Rulesbook. If the Power is Constant or Persistent and has any continuous Limitations, the spell effects last until the caster is interrupted or decides to end the spell.

Note, however, that even with successful preparation and ritual rolls, unexpected superficial results can occur. (See "Magic Residue," below.) These superficial effects are the result of the caster's incomplete knowledge of the spell (you can never know too much about a spell), and the quality of the Foci (nothing's perfect).

Unsuccessful Castings
If either roll fails, the spell is miscast. The caster has unleashed supernatural forces, but he is not controlling their intensity or effects. All Expendable Foci are used up. Side Effects will occur (see "Side Effects," below).

There are many reasons why this could have happened -- the GM can come up with an explanation, but he doesn't have to.

If the failure came from an inaccurate preparation, look through the list of Foci and select one; this Focus was incorrectly Obtained, Arranged, or doesn't fit the description in the spell. The caster may have simply missed a crucial detail -- maybe one of the Foci was a diamond and the caster accidently used a fake diamond.

The failure could have also come from the ritual -- the caster didn't say the Incantations clearly or in the right order, the Gestures were wrong, his Concentration broke, or he failed to kill his sacrifice in one blow.

Repeated Attempts
The spell can be repeated if the Expendable Foci are replaced, the Arranged Foci are repositioned, required conditions are right, etc. Both KS: Spell rolls are rolled again.

If no changes are needed (no Expendable Foci, required conditions are still present, etc.), the caster can perform the ritual again and make an immediate ritual roll, using any Complimentary Skill bonuses from the previous preparation roll. If the previous preparation roll failed, the second (and further) ritual rolls automatically fail again. If the player abuses this "second chance" ability, prevent further attempts with severe Side Effects.


When the character decides to learn a spell (acquire a new KS: Spell skill) or increase his mastery of a known spell (raise his KS: Spell skill roll), he must meet the following three requirements.

(1) He must have enough earned Character Points to buy/raise the skill.

(2) He must have a spell source -- a character, creature, item, or tome that knows or documents the spell's background, preparation, ritual, and effects.

(3) He must spend time studying the spell, then roll to understand it.

Character Points
The player must have enough available Character Points (normally, earned Character Points awarded after previous adventures) to buy the 3-point base skill roll of 9 + INT/5. Extra Points can be spent toward a higher skill roll.

Spell Sources
A spell source is a book, character, or creature that provides a description of the spell. If the source is a book, the character reads from it to learn the spell. If the source is a character or creature, that character/creature must know the spell and be willing (or forced) to teach it.

The source must have enough information to allow the caster to learn the basic background, preparation, ritual, and effects of the spell. The search and acquisition of a source should be incorporated into an adventure.

Mystic Sources
There is one special kind of source -- the mystic source. This is a ceremony or magic item. Both magically implant the knowledge of the spell (through the Telepathy Power) in the character's mind. The "implantation" is instant.

The character must study the information he has gained by thinking about it; in this case, the "study time" is time spent in silent contemplation.

Comprehensive Sources
If a source has extensive detail and background, offering more information than the basic amount needed to learn the spell at 9 + INT/5, it is a comprehensive source. A comprehensive source is required to learn the spell above the basic level.

Rate any comprehensive source from 1 (a little more than the minimum) to 10 (the most comprehensive source in existence). This rating indicates the maximum number of skill roll levels that the character can add to his base roll by studying that source. For example, if a character with a roll of 12- studies a comprehensive source that the GM has rated a 5, the character's highest skill roll possible from studying the source is 17-.

If the source is a character or creature, the character/creature's compre- hensive source rating should be equal to his/its skill roll levels above its base roll. Thus, a teacher with INT 18 and KS: Spell 15- would rate a 2.

A comprehensive source is required to raise the skill roll of a known KS: Spell skill. The comprehensive source rating must be higher than the amount the learning character's current skill roll is above base level.

Study and Knowledge
Studying the Spell Source
Spells are difficult to learn. They are described in archaic terms in cryptic languages. A teacher must patiently describe the myriad intricacies and subtleties of the spell to his student. After the learning character has absorbed the knowledge and memorized the details, he must carefully examine what he has learned so he can understand how the details combine to release supernatural power. This is no easy task.

Painstaking study and intuition are important. Most of the details are essential to basic understanding of the spell -- but the character never knows which details are essential and which are not. Some of the details are not taught; they are discovered by "reading between the lines" or interpreting the vague remarks of a teacher.

A caster must know the background of the spell so he can interpret its true nature -- its supernatural signature. If a spellcaster knows the original intent of the spell, when it was created, under what circumstances it was designed, and when the spell has been used in the past, he will have a greater chance of truly comprehending the spell.

Study Time
A source must be studied long enough to give the character a chance to understand the spell; powerful spells are more complex and, thus, have a longer minimum study time than others. Use the table below to find the minimum amount of study time. If the character spends extra time studying, use the Time Chart.

Time Chart
Real CostMinimum Study Time
up to 8 1 hour
9 to 26 5 hours
27 to 54 1 day
55+ 1 week

The minimum amount of time can be made up of a sequence of shorter periods. For example, the character can study a spell with a Real Cost of 24 for five hours, with a one hour break between each hour of study.

The Learning Roll
After studying, make a learning roll to determine if the character truly understands the spell. The roll is either an INT roll, or a Deduction roll -- if the character has Deduction, use whichever is higher. Penalize the roll if the character has any learning disabilities (-3 for Psych Lim: Has Trouble Concen- trating, -1 for a distracting DNPC, etc.). If the roll succeeds, the character can buy the new KS: Spell skill with available Character Points, or increase the skill roll of the spell if he already knows it.

If the roll fails, he can try again, spending the minimum (or more) time studying the source. However, all subsequent attempts with that source are at -1 for every 2 points by which the previous roll failed.

If the character has more than one source, each must be studied separately.

If the character is trying to raise his skill roll in a spell he already knows, he can learn from past failures. If he failed a casting roll in that spell recently (see "Unsuccessful Castings," below), he can make an INT roll to determine the cause of the failure. If this roll is successful, it can be used as a Complementary Skill on the learning roll.

Note: Because a powerful spell can have a higher Limitation Bonus than a moderately powerful spell, both spells may have similar Real Costs. This is accurate within the horror genre -- spellcasters choose which spells to learn by the availability of sources and the amount of courage they have, not by their ability to learn them.


A magic item is simply a set of Powers with the Focus Limitation. All magic item Powers have the Special Effect: Magic.

Magic items in horror campaigns are rare and significant. Many look like ordinary objects. Most are used or worshipped -- they are not found on a treasure pile in a monster's lair. Worshipped items are used in a cult's ceremonies or spell rituals, often without actually using the item's Power.

Many items are cursed or have damaging effects on the user. The classic curse is the "corruption" of a user over time -- as the item is used, the character becomes evil, and he closely guards the item. Other effects include: addiction to use, character dies if item is damaged or lost, slow physical transformation, sacrifices are needed for use.

Consumed items (such as potions), are Expendable Foci. Use the Mental Powers Based on CON Limitation for Mental Powers. The GM must determine exactly how many "doses" of a consumable item are created by the enchanting spell.


A magic item can have any number of Powers and Modifiers. All must have Focus Limitation and Requires Skill Roll. The skill for the latter Limitation is KS: Magic Item. The character must buy the skill for each item he uses.

Almost all magic items are Independent and have Side Effects. Unlike spells, the Side Effects for a magic item are not variable -- determine the exact effect when the item is designed. Many magic items have Invisible Power Effects. Curses and drawbacks are represented by Limited Power conditions and Disadvantage-causing Side Effects.

In a Superheroic Campaign, a character who regularly carries and uses an item must pay the Real Cost in Character Points.


If a character is going to create a magic item, the player must first design the item under the guidance of the GM. The item must fit the campaign limits and tone. Then the character must find a source of the enchanting spell and learn it. This spell does nothing but create the item -- it cannot be used as a "regular" spell as well. The GM designs this "enchantment spell."

The item's Active Cost cannot be higher than the Active Cost of the enchantment spell. The enchantment spell's Power is Change Environment. The Target of the spell is the item that is going to be enchanted with supernatural power. The item must be one of the spell's Foci.


Use INT rolls and Deduction to examine an item -- a successful roll tells the character that the item is magical. Subsequent rolls allow the character to understand the Powers, drawbacks, and other abilities of the item.

Once the character has made at least two of these rolls successfully, he can buy KS: Magic Item for the item at base level (if he has the Character Points to spend). This skill has the cost described in the Requires a Skill Roll Limitation. The character can add one level to this skill roll for every successful INT/Deduction roll he makes while examining it.

Examination can take place after the character has already used the item for a period of time. In fact, if the character uses the item extensively, any further examination rolls should have a bonus of +1 to +5, reflecting the passive examination through the trial and error of using the item.


If a magic item is Independent, anyone can use it. If not, only the creator of the item can use it.

To activate and control an item's Power(s), the user makes a roll against his KS skill for that magic item. If he fails the roll, any Side Effects occur.


Some very powerful spells require a magic item as a Focus (possibly Expendable). In order to cast the spell, the caster has to either get his hands on the magic item, or create it himself.

For example, to cast Summon Ghoulillebeth, Demon Lord, the shaman Deathwalker must break a Pearl of Wisdom. Deathwalker doesn't have the item and he doesn't know the Pearl of Wisdom enchantment spell. So, to summon the demon, he must find a source of the enchantment spell, learn the spell, construct the item, and then destroy the item.


Once you've learned the basic spellcasting system, you can add these optional details.


A group of spellcasters can collectively prepare and (possibly) cast the spell. Some spells by their nature require multiple casters.

Preparation with Multiple Characters
If multiple characters are involved in the preparation, all must have the KS: Spell skill. If any do not, the preparation roll automatically fails. Roll against the lowest skill roll in the group.

Rituals with Multiple Characters
If multiple characters are involved in the ritual, the GM must decide if the spell will benefit from multiple participants. Examine the ritual and decide how appropriate it is to a ceremonial casting.

If it is appropriate, a multi-character ritual is possible. If not, only one character can perform the ritual; if two or more characters participate, the ritual roll automatically fails. (The GM does not have to tell the players that the ritual cannot be performed by multiple characters -- let the players find out the hard way.)

When such a spell is cast in this way, the ritual must be carefully organized and performed; details like Incantations, Gestures and sacrifices must be synchronized or orchestrated.

If the ritual is performed by a group of characters, the GM can allow their faith, fanaticism, or sheer numbers to increase the general power of the spell. Increase the Active Points in the spell's Power by 2 for every character involved, or by 5 for fanatical characters. If the spell has continuous Limitations in which all participants are engaged, consider them all fanatical.

When multiple characters are involved in the ritual, the ritual roll is affected identically to the preparation roll (see above).

Thirty pagans are casting a spell to speak to their former leader, now "dead" (Desolid in another dimension). The spell is 10d6 of Telepathy with Affects Desolid, Transdimensional, and 0 END. Active Cost: 125.

The GM decides that this ritual can have multiple participants. All 30 of the pagans have the KS: Spell skill. Their lowest skill roll is 15-. They are not "fanatical." They need to read their leader's subconscious to discover a way to bring him back; the leader has EGO 15 and no Mental Defense, so they need a roll of 45 or more on ten dice -- an improbable feat.

The casting is successful. This adds (2 x 30, divided by 2 1/2) 24 points to the Telepathy Power, or 5 more dice. This gives them a much better chance of success.

Control of the Spell
If the spell is controlled in some way, one character is chosen as the controller before the ritual begins. If, after the casting, another character wants to control the spell, he can "steal" it -- see "Stealing Control of a Spell." The controller is used to determine if an interruption occurs. The controller can manipulate the spell's Power, or end the spell when he desires.

Two Casters
Any spell can be cast by a pair of characters who know it -- one can handle the preparation while the other performs the ritual. In this case, the spell is cast normally; the GM makes each spell roll respective to each character.


New spells are designed by the GM and are known by NPCs. PCs cannot create new spells, but if a player can create a spell that the GM approves, the GM may allow the player's character to find a source of that spell and learn it.

When you design a new spell, you have to consider many related factors. Keep the spell within the limits you have set up for your campaign. You must have the right number of Foci; a minimum Limitation Bonus of -5; and meet the DC, Active Cost, and Defense limits for your campaign.

The spell's background is the basis of the spell. The campaign-related information and general purpose of the spell create a framework in which you'll place the Foci, special conditions, and particulars of other Limitations. Make sure every element of the spell is frightening. Examine other spells in the campaign to get a feel for the tone of your campaign's witchcraft. Link elements of the background to existing campaign creatures, NPCs, groups, institutions, legends, or places.

Choose one Power for the spell. Add any Special Effects (in addition to the Special Effect: Magic). You may need to pair a Power with an Advantage to get the precise effect you want for the spell.

When designing the Foci, try to come up with original, scary ideas. Avoid hokey things like "pinch of bat wing powder" or "eye of newt." A good trick is to brainstorm about three times as many Focus ideas as you'll need, then pick the best of them for your spell. Make sure each Focus is specific enough. Remember, you need one Focus per 50 Active Points.

Describe the preparation and ritual in the background text before you come up with game mechanics to represent them. The preparation should be original and exciting; the spellcaster's player should feel fear as his character sets up the spell. Make sure the ritual has the right length, intensity, and details to fit the basic theme of the spell.

When choosing a Side Effect type (either -1/2 or -1), consider the Active Cost -- if the spell has an Active Cost of 250 or more, use the -1 type.

The final element of design is to test the spell. Use a fake NPC to prepare and cast it. Is the spell too dangerous? Is the KS: Spell skill roll penalty to high? Does the spell have the effect you wanted?

When the spell is perfect, introduce it into the campaign.

Article publication date: April 1, 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to