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Designing Spells

Source Starfinder Enhanced pg. 114
All across the galaxy, new spells are invented, discovered, or bestowed at a far greater rate than can be recorded in any single tome. If you want to create your own mechanical expressions of magic for use in the Starfinder roleplaying game, simply combine your best science-fantasy ideas with the advice presented here, and you’ll be slinging custom spells in no time!

Step 1: Conceive

Source Starfinder Enhanced pg. 114
The first step in making a great spell is to figure out what, at its core, you want it to do. You can approach this by way of filling a particular mechanical niche, satisfying a purely narrative angle, or using a mixture of both. In terms of a spell’s basic mechanics, you can select from the following generalized list of uses: a spell can deal damage; apply a condition, penalty, bonus, or effect to one or more opponents or allies; provide combat or out-of-combat utility, or affect the battlefield. Of course, you can mix and match such effects (though see the Flexibility is Strength) or create something even more innovative.

Flexibility is Strength

Source Starfinder Enhanced pg. 114
When creating spells, keep in mind that the more options a spell provides, the more powerful it generally is, in that it allows a spellcaster to use one known spell to cover a large number of potential situations. This isn’t inherently bad, and spells that cover multiple situations can be very satisfying and mechanically sound; just keep in mind that you should adjust the relative strength of multiple effects so that it’s not a strictly better option than a more-focused spell. This also applies to spells whose effects scale, variable-level spells, and spells that have multiple simultaneous effects.

Step 2: Compare

Source Starfinder Enhanced pg. 114
The best thing you can do when creating a spell meant to balance well with Starfinder’s existing magic ecosystem is to first take a look what’s already there. Look for spells of a similar level with similar effects, areas, targets, and so on, and use those to anchor your spell’s mechanical assumptions.
Some existing spells are particularly strong examples of a spell of their level, while others serve as a marker for the level at which certain abilities become available to players. A few of these are listed in the Benchmark Spells table below for your convenience.

Benchmark Spells

Source Starfinder Enhanced pg. 114
0Telepathic messageBasic telepathy is a relatively low-power effect.
1CommandThis is an early compulsion effect that is notably limited in its effects.
1–6FlightNote that the lower-level versions of flight grant limited benefits; true flight doesn’t kick in until the 3rd-level version.
1Lesser confusionThis introduces confusion but limits it to 1 round; at 4th level, confusion significantly increases this to 1 round per level.
1Lesser remove conditionNote the conditions removed by this spell, as well as its higher-level counterparts, remove condition (2nd level) and greater remove condition (5th level)
1Magic missile, mind thrust, overheatThese are basic damage spells with varying parameters; note that mind thrust is a variable-level spell.
1–6Mystic cureThis is a good benchmark for healing Hit Points.
2Daze monsterThis imposes a powerful condition and is limited to creatures of a certain CR or lower.
2Invisibility, see invisibilityThis is when both basic invisibility and the ability to see invisible creatures enter the game.
3Dispel magicThis spell can provide a powerful antimagic effect.
3Explosive blastThis is a quintessential area-of-effect damage spell.
3Haste, slowThese spells affect action economy, a very powerful lever that should be pulled with caution.
3Remove afflictionThis is when the ability to magically neutralize curses, disease, and poisons enters the game.
4Dimension doorTeleportation enters the game; see teleport (5th level), interplanetary teleport (6th level), and plane shift (6th level) for comparable, but more powerful, abilities.
4ReincarnateThis is a way to get around death (though with major consequences). See raise dead (5th level) for the more powerful, more straightforward way to “undo” a character’s death.
5Dominate personThe potential to fully control another character is a very powerful effect.
Miracle, wishThese and similar spells are unlocked only through max-level class features and have extremely powerful effects; if your spell does anything comparable it’s likely too strong for the game at all but the highest level.

Step 3: Construct

Source Starfinder Enhanced pg. 114
Before you build a spell, it’s helpful to quickly review the basics of magic and spellcasting in Starfinder. Then, as you construct a spell, step through each item in a spell description (school, range, duration, and so on) and make sure you understand how each statistic works; explanations for these can be found on pages 332–335 of the Core Rulebook. Additional considerations for statistics are as follows.
School: A spell’s school has some limited interactions with certain abilities and items but otherwise isn’t extremely impactful. Deciding on the spell’s school is about choosing what best fits the theme and effect of the spell.
Descriptors: These can have much more of an impact on a spell’s interaction with the game system; see the full list of descriptors on page 269 of the Core Rulebook and choose accordingly. Note that mind-affecting affects will generally be ineffective against constructs, which are a common feature of many Starfinder campaigns, while the force descriptor can help a spell become a powerful tool against incorporeal creatures.
Casting Time: Generally, spells require a standard action. You can increase the power of a spell slightly by making it take longer to cast (which adds the risk of being interrupted by damage) and should generally avoid all but the most minor or situational effects for spells that can be cast more quickly (including as a reaction).
Range and Area: There are several standard ranges and areas; use those that best match your spell in theme and power level. In most cases, even shorter ranges will cover the typical Starfinder battlefield, while the size and shape of a spell’s area are much more impactful on the spell’s power level.
Targets: Generally, spells that target more creatures are more powerful, though you can certainly balance a spell such that its effects are stronger if cast on only one creature versus multiple. You can also potentially limit the types of targets of a spell (beyond the limitations inherent in certain descriptors) to justify a corresponding increase in power level.
Duration: This is another place where it can be particularly important to compare your spell to similar spells, especially in the case of imposing a condition on an enemy or granting a benefit to an ally; the appropriate duration for such effects can vary widely, from a single round to several hours or more.
Saving Throw: Most spells that can harm or hinder an opponent should allow a saving throw for reduced effects (such as half damage, a reduced duration, and so forth). Spells that require the caster to hit with an attack roll generally don’t need a saving throw.
Damage: Spells do approximately 7 damage (or roughly 2d6) per spell level as a baseline, though this can and should be heavily modified based on various considerations. If the spell requires an attack roll or allows a save for half damage (or negation), it should do anywhere from 60% to 90% more damage. If it affects multiple targets (or likely will, in the case of a spell with an area), deals its damage repeatedly, adds burning or a similar condition, or has other utility effects (such as imposing conditions), the spell should do anywhere from 20% to 50% less damage for each of those factors that exists. As ever, finding the closest comparable spell you can (in terms of things like targets, duration, and the like) will go a long way toward establishing balanced final numbers.