Magic users, in any system, change reality by force of will. Philosophically then, I have a problem with any RPG magic system where failure = no effect. That is not a problem I have with Magic in Forbidden Lands. Magic user’s spells always succeed, the only question is, at what cost?
There are two potential costs. The predictable one is Willpower Points (WP) – you must spend at least one Willpower Point to cast a spell, and you can spend more to make it more powerful. You earn WP by pushing rolls and scoring 1 on your base dice. Which means that every WP comes at a cost of temporary damage to your attributes. A night’s rest will restore your attribute damage (as long as you are not hungry, thirsty or cold) but you can keep up to ten WP until you spend them, even between sessions.
Some people following the development of the game have expressed concern about this, feeling that magic users must effectively injure themselves before casting spells, and suggesting there are few examples of this in the literature. But while it may not be “realistic”, or indeed conform to fantasy literature tropes, it works for me narratively – the magic generally comes out after a bit of hardship, and pretty much always involves a bit of sacrifice. Also this may be an issue during the very first session, when a player may want to cast a spell before earning any WP, but I believe players will only very rarely finish a session with no WP to carry forward to the next.
The second potential cost is a lot less predictable. For every WP a caster spends they must roll a base dice. So if, for example, they choose to spend two WP, to heal a couple of points of damage of another party-members strength, they will roll two d6. They will not fail, but if they get one or more sixes, the power level of the spell goes up for every six they get: no sixes, the power level equals the 2 WP they spent and the party member recovers two strength points; one six, and the party member recovers three strength points. Hooray! But if they get any ones, a mishap occurs. There is an eight in nine chance that spell still works as intended, the party member still recovers two (or three) strength points, but something else happens. The caster must roll d66 to find out what.
It might (one in twelve chance) simply be that someone is impressed by the spell and the caster’s reputation increases by one step. There is also a one in thirty six chance that your character opens a rift to another dimension, and a demon pulls them over through. As they say “Time to make another character”. Between those two extreme the unintended consequences range from simply feeling hungry or thirsty to the spell doing the opposite of your intention, so for example, your healing spell inflicts further damage.
Such risks might make you nervous to use magic, but there are ways of minimizing the risk. Spells are ranked just like your magic talent, and for every rank your talent is, above the rank of the spell, you need roll one less die. So a rank two magic user can make a rank one spell work without rolling the die at all, as long as they spend the WP and don’t want to increase the power of the spell. (The same rank two magic user can also cast a rank three spell but will trigger an automatic mishap.) Using the spell’s listed ingredient can also increase the power level of the spell without you having to spend a WP, and thus without having to roll the extra die that comes with each WP spent. So with experience and ingredients you can be more precise in your spell casting – you are less likely to overcharge the spell, and also less likely to have a magical mishap.
If you write the spell down in your grimoire, you can effectively make it one rank lower. So a rank one magic user can cast a rank one spell they have written down as though it was rank zero, and reduce the risk just as like a higher ranking spellcaster. Before you write it down though, you have to have successfully cast it without the grimoire.
A starting character gets one talent in the school of their choice (three for Druids and four for Sorcerers). I think its expected that you will spend XP going up in rank for that school rather than learning more schools at rank one, but I don’t think I have read anything to prevent you broadening rather than deepening your ability. There are also some spell effects that every school shares, such as sense or dispel magic. The idea is that you simply describe casting these spells in your schools vernacular. Dispel Magic is, by the way, one of just two Power Words in the list. These are spells that can be cast as a fast action, and so might be used as a reactive action. Another spell that is common to all schools is the Transfer spell, a rank three spell that allows you to charge up on WP from a willing donor, or drain WP from an unwilling opponent.
Readers who were concerned by the apparently deadly nature of combat, may be reassured to know that there is a Resurrection spell available to Druids of the Healing school. Its a rank three spell with a different power cost depending on how old the body is. If its older than a week, its too decayed. If you want zombies, that’s one a rank two spell available to Death Sorcerers.
There is an interesting note in the spell Deer’s Dash (for shape-shifting Druids). This spell increases your movement rate. It says “Roll for overcharge/misstep right before you actually move.” Does this imply that if you overcharge you must overshoot your target? Shapeshifting druids can also of course shift shape, taking on an Animal Form as a rank three spell. I like that shifting back to human form requires that you cast the spell again.
There are no ingredients for the Path of Signs, the Sorcerers Symbolism spell list, but its a nice feature that a you can draw a sign in the air it counts as casting the spell without ingredients, but actually drawing, or carving the symbol is equivalent to using an ingredient. Its in this realm that the other Power Word is, though its not a spoken word, but a wiggle of the fingers, In a nod to Star Wars, its called the Mind Trick.