Are you sick of the D&D grimoire? Are you disillusioned with freeform magic degenerating into a free-for-all? Do your wizard characters shout out "I'm casting a sleep spell" instead of "abracadabra"? And why do people say abracadabra anyway? I hope to suggest a few alternative methods of spellcasting which you could incorporate into your game and which might make the whole thing more exciting, challenging or...realistic?Magic Words
Abracadabra is thought to be the corruption of an older word, possibly the name Abrasax which belonged to an ancient Gnostic leader. Maybe you could create magic words based on the names of famous historical wizards in your own campaign worlds, e.g. Palanthalamalatus, or Elgolilorilod. The traditional magical words were often written as a triangle (a search through the University Library turned up the following example!)
The obvious way to use this in an RP system is to give magic-users magic words for each spell, the more difficult the spell the longer the word. He will then spend a turn trying to say aloud the reductive triangle of the word (as above) before he can cast it.Why I like this idea:
1. This really would give the PC an idea of why wizards can't do anything while they're spellcasting (they need to concentrate!). Obviously first-level spells would maybe have words like "ARROW" and can be completed quickly. A cataclysmic campaign-ending Earthquake spell to level a city may take a whole ten minutes to recite!
2. It gives the whole proceedings a sense of real magic: somehow incantations lend an aura of mystery to anything, and the repetition of these words in the background while the other PCs are engaged in combat could prove to be a real tension-builder.
3. It leaves open the possibilities of what might happen if the wizard is interrupted, breaking the spell, or even (horror of horrors) misses out a line! For weak spells he might just get a headache for a few hours. The interruption of a more powerful incantation might cost him intelligence points (or system equivalent!).
4. It puts limitations on a freeform magic system: limitations of time and of scope. Spells cannot be used willy-nilly, or else the wizard is going to wear his tongue out!Magic Squares
A magic square is a mathematical curiosity: a square of numbers the rows, columns and diagonals of which each add up to a particular number (the so-called magic sum). In fact the numbers in the square have to be consecutive whole numbers (so for a three-by-three square you'd use the numbers 1, 2, 3, ... 9).
What's so special about that? It is a seemingly arbitrary construction, and they have no (known) mathematical application. But since ancient times they have been employed in magical rituals and mystic traditions, from Chinese Feng Shui to Qabalistic summoning rites.
Let me explain how they are used in "real-life" before going on to see how they might be used in an RP setting. One fascinating thing is that the magic squares used by the qabala can be represented diagrammatically to give a symbol associated with that magic square. For instance in the three-by-three square shown below I have drawn lines through the numbers 1,2,3; the numbers 4,5,6 and the numbers 7,8,9, to obtain the symmetrical collection of lines which represents the square. Since in the mystic tradition this square is associated with the planet Saturn (don't ask how!) this symbol is taken as "the sign of Saturn".
The 3 x 3 Lo-Shu Square used in Feng Shui and also qabala to construct the sign of Saturn
The summoning of a spirit using a magic square involves converting the spirit's Hebrew name into numbers (the Hebrew equivalent of A=1, B=2, ...). Then tracing those numbers out in order on the square will produce a pattern which becomes a symbol for the spirit being summoned.
For more details about this strange and fascinating system see Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim's "De Occulta Philosophia", available to read online here: http://www.esotericarchives.com/agrippa/agripp2b.htm#chap22
How can the flavour of this system be incorporated into your game?
1. Use a 3 by 3 magic square for simpler spells and increasingly larger ones for more complex or powerful effects. The square must be memorised by the caster or stored in s/his spellbook. Each spell has a name (decided by GM and player when the spell is learnt) and is associated with one of the elemental spheres (fire, water, etc.), planets or other deities (whatever is most appropriate to your campaign world). The name of the spell is then converted into numbers which are traced out on the square while the relevant deity is invoked by a standard incantation.
2. Or simply derive a symbol for each spell in the same way the qabalists derive the symbols for the summoned spirits. Then this symbol could either be traced out in mud, sand or even the air with a wand to cast the spell.
Possible modifications include using magical cubes or other arrangements of numbers instead of squares.Why I like this idea:
1. There is something intrinsically beautiful about magic squares and I like the idea that magical sigils can in some way be derived from mathematical principles (albeit imbued with duboius mysticism). Maybe a magical alphabet could be derived in this way as well?
2. It leaves the possibility for further spell-research. When a magic-user progesses in level or experience s/he wants better spells. To get them s/he has to spend time in s/his study, constructing magic squares (that'll reduce the number of PCs who want to do high magic anyway!). There are methods for constructing magic squares, some of which can be found here: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/MagicSquare.html
I'm sure there are many more mystical ideas out there, just ready for use in roleplaying games. Make use of them!