Ah, magic missile, described in the following ways:
- Page 224 of my 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook - “A missile of magical energy darts forth from your fingertips and unerringly strike its target. The missile deals 1d4+1 points of damage.
- On the Pathfinder SRD – “A missile of magical energy darts forth from your fingertip and strikes its target, dealing 1d4+1 points of force damage.”
- And on page 158 of my 4th Edition Player’s Handbook as “You launch a silvery bolt of force at an enemy”.
Not bad, but let’s do a bit of substituting to keep this from becoming boring. How? By separating the description from the effect and changing the energy/elemental basis of the spell. For example:
- “The goblin sorcerer throws three greenish blobs that careen around the pillar and strike you in the chest with a faint sizzling and an acrid smell.” This variant causes acid instead of force damage.
- “A pair of ghostly wolfheads rise from the orc’s hands. With a howl they fly across the room, jaws extended for your throats.” This variant differs only in description; it still causes force damage. Yes, it states in the 3.0/3.5 versions that specific body parts cannot be targeted. However, that refers to causing a specific damage effect (e.g. stun, blindness, get the target to drop an item, trip, etc.) and the “going for the throat” is merely a descriptive effect; magic missiles have to impact somewhere.
- “The hag points her finger at you and four ebon bolts crackling with energy shoot from her fingertips, one at each of you.” Here it’s electrical damage with an unusual color. To make this one even more unusual, have the bolts fire from the night hag’s eyes rather than her finger. After all, she’s not actually casting a spell but using a spell-like ability. Okay, fine, I know spell-like abilities are supposed to work “. . . just like spells (though they are not spells and so have no verbal, somatic, material, focus, or XP components.” – p. 7 3rd Edition PHB. But does working just like spells refer to all aspects or simply the mechanics? Obviously I favor the latter.
- “Two icicles” cause cold damage instead of force damage
- “Streaks of flame” for fire damage instead of force damage
- “tendrils of smoke”, “spinning shuriken”, “waves of sound”, “trail of sparks”
Obviously the only limit to what you can do is your imagination and, as always, the agreement of your players. In my personal experience I have found that players who balk at this sort of free-form description/interpretation of magic usually become more amenable when the rationale behind it is explained, especially the part about how the mechanics remain the same. Besides, the heroes are allowed to put their own spin on these traditional spells. Finally, this can be extended to any number of other common and popular spells such as burning hands, lightning bolt, fireball, blade barrier, etc. Doing this will retian a bit of the wonder in magic and also keep the heroes guessing.