Plot Spells

What are Plot Spells?

I'm a fairly new GM to SR5, and as soon as I pick up a new system I automatically scan the system for plot spells.

What the heck is a plot spell? Simple – they're spells which the GM has to take into account when thinking about the plot. A classic scenario situation is a whodunnit – there's a body on the floor and the PCs have to figure out who killed them. A classic spell which wrecked this type of situation in old school AD&D was "Speak With Dead". That cuts the scenario short, I can tell you!

In Shadowrun though, it's much worse. So here's the list of spells I consider to be 'plot spells':

  • Analyze Truth

  • Clairaudience/ Clairvoyance

  • Detect Enemies

  • Detect Individual

  • Detect Life

  • Detect Life Form

  • Detect Magic

  • Detect Object

  • Mind Probe

  • Invisibility

  • Improved Invisibility

  • Mask

  • Physical Mask

  • Hush

  • Silence

  • Stealth

  • Control Actions

  • Mob Control

  • Control Thoughts

  • Mob Mind

  • Influence

  • Levitate

  • Magic Fingers

Essentially, these are all spells which can short circuit the GM plot in some way. Typically this by use of information gathering, which the scenario may have intended to have been gathered the old-fashioned way: tailing, hacking and finding clues.

Plot spells are like instant karma, there's practically no cost, and you automatically gain the information. "But they still have to roll, and there is the limit of drain," I hear you say. Maybe, but it only takes 3 seconds to cast a spell, you can always "roll til you're gold”, and drain never seems to be too much of a threat except for high potency spells and for unlucky rolls.

So, am I whining about having my scenarios ruined by “overpowered” spells? Actually, no.

The Uber Spells

The spells which cause the most trouble are what I call the 'uber spells': Control Actions/ Mob Control, Control Thoughts/ Mob Mind, and Mind Probe. These are immensely powerful and seem to cause a lot of grief judging by the forums.

The usual responses in the forums to the 'uber spells' are:

  1. Ban it from the game

  2. Make it unlawful in the setting

  3. Throw it back at your runners

  4. Reduce its power

There are issues with all these responses, and none of them are the response I use in my game. Banning it or reducing its power doesn't get around the fact that it's still canon in SR5. I tend to house rule the bare minimum, so I can use published scenarios and source materials unmodified.

As for the law - I would think that this would be illegal in game, and I would imagine that the FBI, or corporate equivalent, would hunt down anyone found using it.

These, and other powerful spells, should be thrown at the runners, so long as it's in the same context. I would expect the same restrictions to apply to NPCs as to the runners.

It's interesting to note that even the published materials for Shadowrun mostly ignore the extent to which these powers alter the setting. I'm just reading my way through Stolen Souls and there's a 'posting' in there by a head case, in which they choose how much they are going to reveal about where they came from, and what their plans are. Strange, when any starting magician can cast Mind Probe in less than 3 seconds. With 3+ successes I can find out "anything that the target consciously knows."

We're Doomed I Tell You!

For me, a more sensible response to the 'uber spells' in particular is to sit for a minute and think what the powers that be would actually do if these spells did exist. Imagine if any magician could read the President's mind, or order someone to walk onto the freeway, or obtain nuclear launch codes from a General's mind. What if the Police didn't have to question subjects any more, they just read their mind? Would spying and infiltration become a thing of the past? Wouldn't corporations just probe the mind of every new employee for spies and traitors? Could I just stand near the CIA headquarters and read minds as they go for their lunch break?

Powers such as these pose powerful questions to the setting. But, it seems, the setting is unwilling to tackle any of these awkward questions. The writers of SR don't have to address these questions, but GMs do. Players are ruthless at exploiting such loopholes, and who can blame them? The forums are littered with GMs lamenting an uber spell used mid-scenario and derailing the whole evening.

So what can we (GMs) do to rebalance the world?

Rules Limitations

Before you get excited I'm not talking about changing the rules (Response 4 above), just looking at exactly what limitations already exist.

In brief, these are:

  1. Range for detection spells

  2. Perceiving magic

  3. Counterspelling

  4. Astral signature and tracking

Let's take these one at a time.


Although most spells are Line Of Sight (LOS), detection spells are limited to Force x Magic x 10m (p285), so about a block or so. Remote Sensing increases range to Force x (Sum of Magic of participants) x 100m (eg. Seattle!) But such an option is less 'on tap', requiring a caster with Ritual Spellcasting, who knows this spell.

So, if the President is in public, eg. Making a speach, and I can see him, I can still cast Mind Probe and read his mind (or the director of the CIA, etc).

Perceiving Magic

This is actually a much bigger deal than most people seem to realize. The formula is:

Perception + Intuition [Mental] (Skill or 6 – Force)

(p280). So a Force 5 Mind Probe in public requires only one success. So this is going to be like a car backfiring – everyone is going to notice. Magic is not subtle – it is raw and noticeable.

So if you are going to start Mind Probing the President's mind, all his security staff (and mages) are going to notice.

Just a note here - I'm only part way through reading Street Grimoire, so if there is a way to 'covertly' cast spells outlined there, then this may change things a little!

Interestingly, no mention is made of range in the text (or direction for that matter), which would seem sensible, otherwise I could sense every magic spell being cast worldwide constantly. Also, no mention is made as to whether it is from the magician, or the target where the magic is sensed from (considering line of sight could be a mile).

So, considering that magic is licensed, anyone casting magic in public, without a little subterfuge, would quickly attract the attention of the authorities.

I would even suggest that the police and federal agencies would have specialized response units to counter illegal magic use.


Specifically Spell Defense (p294). Reference isn't made to detection of the magic first, which muddies the waters somewhat. We would have to assume it means a perception has been achieved first.

But Spell Defense would mean that anyone with bodyguards, would automatically have counterspelling mages accompanying them everywhere.

This alone would prevent VIPs having their thoughts rifled through. But this simple precaution does seem to be absent from all the material I have read. I would assume that in a world such as this, there would be entire industries around this one service – magical bodyguarding. Anyone who walks in public without one would simply have to accept that sooner or later their minds will be plundered – they will have no secrets. Any location or people associated with espionage would be bristling with counterspelling mages. Although wards are helpful to protect locations, employees would have to go home eventually, and with LOS I can Probe Minds from a helicopter or tall building miles away through binoculars.

This would change any number of plots. It is clear why so many of the published scenarios are more physical affairs, rather than cerebral. Mind Probing mages would make a mockery of any secretive plotting. The only defense here is simple – counterspelling.

Astral Signature and Tracking

Possibly the most robust defence against spellcasters. Assensing can be used to trace the magician who is the cause of any active magic or active signature, p. 312. Signatures, especially are of interest here, as they last for hours. However, they can be 'scrubbed' with just a few complex actions.

However, if a magician tried to read the President's mind by cast Mind Probe through binoculars, for example, the spell would be automatically sensed and probably counterspelled. It would probably be astrally traced to the source as well, however, this could take quite some time (1 hour interval on an extended roll). However, this would certainly prove to be a deterrant. Here we have the first solid defence against rogue magicians. However, it would need a bodyguarding magician to be present, as per 'Counterspelling', above.

We could probably take it for granted that miscreants would scrub their signatures at the scene of any crime, to prevent being traced.

Public Affront and The Law

As is mentioned briefly in SR5, it is a serious faux pas to use magic on someone without their permission. It is likely that this extends into the legal system as well, whereby casting a spell on someone would be a criminal offense, although few guidelines exist for this, other than … #todo – this is mentioned in street grimoire.

Would the police become redundant in the face of Analyze Truth and Mind Probe? I wouldn't think so. I can imagine that casting such spells on someone to search out criminal history would require a warrant, showing just cause, similar to a search warrant. I can imagine the ACLU being up in arms about this, after all, if someone's in your mind they could read any part of your thoughts. Perhaps those being scanned would have the right to have their own magician present to act as a counterweight.

We already know that magicians have to be licensed, and may have their homes searched, and in some regimes even may be required to provide a DNA sample for tracing purposes.

We can probably assume that a shadow runner would not bother with such niceties, not even a false licence (Who wants the authorities periodically searching their home?)

So they are effectively rogue magicians. As I've previously mentioned, alongside the various registration departments to monitor magicians, there would be enforcement, at the local and Federal levels. These teams would react to potentially magical crimes, and hunt down the miscreants. The sentences would likely be quite severe, I would imagine. It might make a nice scenario to see such a team in action, preferably on an NPC magician, just to reinforce the point.

The Final Word

So, have we resolved the issue of plot spells, or just muddied the waters? Well, firstly, we've looked at how even the most powerful spells are actually limited in two main ways:

    1. Directly

    2. Legally

Spells are directly limited, in their execution, by range, their easy detection and possibly by counterspelling and the astral tracing of signatures. So if the runners are going to blatantly try to read the mind of an executive who's having lunch, then it will be detected immediately, probably by everyone in the restaurant.

Also, it's a near certainty that a runner magician isn't licenced. If they are, then feel free to have a random check on their home!

If they're unlicenced, then their use of magic should be moderated. If they want to Mind Probe an executive for secrets, they're going to have to kidnap him first, and conduct the spellcasting at a discreet location. Fireballs should be fine out in the barrens, where the authorities don't care, but not Downtown, where there are dozens of witnesses and cameras.

It needs to be discussed up front with the players, just what is likely to happen if they start throwing unlicenced magic around in public. The law will come down on this sort of misuse like an anvil.

Using this approach, you don't need to change the rules, or ban the uber spells from the game. If you use a little common sense, and talk it over with the players, everyone will understand what the accepted parameters are within the setting.

And if they decide to step over those boundaries? Don't say we never warned them.

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