Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Spell Casters

Just taking a quick break from other stuff to get back to the progress reports (briefly interrupted):

Making spell casters in D&D ain’t easy.

Oh, I suppose they’re fairly easy depending on the Edition…if one wants to regurgitate the “same old, same old” in page after page of writing. Personally, though, I think that sounds like a load of horse puckey (as my friend Jocelyn would have said, back in the day).

I mean, let’s talk about this for a moment (briefly – I hope!) just while we’re on the subject. In Dungeons & Dragons at its base, there are TWO (2) types of spell-caster:

- Magic-Users
- Clerics

We can agree on that, right? In OD&D and B/X (itself based on the original three Little Brown Books), there are only two types of magic.

[yes, elves are a spell-caster class, but they simply participate in one of the two listed magical types…and then only to a limited (5th level) extent]

Two TYPES of magic (“type” is an important distinction): Arcane and Divine, to use latter day terminology. Aracane (magic-user) magic gets memorized from a book and implanted in the mind of the spell-caster…a living entity that clings tenaciously to the mind until summoned forth by word and gesture. Divine (clerical) magic is similar, but different: the holy zealot prays to a deity for his or her spells and the deity implants (impregnates?) them in the cleric’s mind. Some might run their campaigns that the deity (being omniscient and all) chooses which spells to implant as “important”…but I understand that most campaigns don’t operate this way, allowing the cleric free will of choice.

Heck, when I was a kid we ran our campaign that clerics could choose their spells as need arose (i.e. they prayed in the morning, but didn’t choose spells at the crack of dawn, only “in play”). To us, this seemed like a more logical way for prayer and miracles to work (remember I was raised Catholic as were most of my friends, including the dude who regularly played the cleric). I mean, when you’re in trouble in real life, you call on God then and there to intercede on your behalf. You don’t memorize “snake charm” at 6am thinking you might run into a python later that day!

Well, anyway…that’s how we used to play…my most recent B/X games (run by my or by others) have all made the cleric choose their spells pre-adventure (i.e. in the morning, before breakfast). Which has worked fine (despite tending to reduce clerics to a “Medic!” role)…but does it make the cleric too similar to magic-users?

And is that what you want?

Like I said, writing up new spell-casters is fairly easy if all you’re doing is repeating the paradigms already written into the game. If your illusionist studies spell books and scrolls the same way as a magic-user, or your druid prays to the “Lords of Nature” (or whatever) just like a cleric than, yeah, writing up spell casting classes is easy. It consists of:

a) decide on theme
b) decide how many levels of spells
c) write up spells appropriate to theme and stick ‘em in appropriate levels

That ain’t hard at all…especially if you’re cannibalizing a lot of existing spells to fill the gap (must every spell caster have a “light spell?” Apparently…). And if you’re using an existing template (all spells go to Level 9 or (for AD&D) all spells go to Level 7 except magic-users), it’s really not too tough. When writing my B/X Companion the only tricky thing for me was LIMITING the spells in the categories to the appropriate numbers (Labyrinth Lord goes the way of AD&D with random quantities of spells in each level…I prefer the B/X path where clerics have 8 spells per level and magi 12; this allows for random determination of spells known with simple dice rolls). When you set such arbitrary limits for yourself (as I did…really it IS just an arbitrary limit) it forces you to be brutal in your editing of what appears and what doesn’t…as opposed to just throwing in every cool-sounding 4th level spell you can think of.

[and after all, don’t you think you should leave some room for spell research? Isn’t that one of the big abilities of magic-users? ‘Course it’s rarely used when you have over-flowing spell books as is…and when you’re only memorizing lightning bolts and magic missiles. But I digress]

Anyway, even limiting myself as I did, writing up additional spells for magic-users and clerics wasn’t hard…heck, many of the spells in the B/X Companion were based in part on the spells in AD&D. But even when they weren’t, I stuck to the standard B/X guidelines.

- Spells require voice and gesture
- Spells are cast in one round
- Spells are suitable by level

And the way arcane and divine spells work has already been defined.

I could certainly do other spell-casters using similar templates. MY Mountebank class doesn’t use spells, but the original one that inspired it DOES…and they work just like arcane spells (illusionist spells to be specific, but yep, that includes the spell book and memorization process).


Who said there are ONLY two types of magic?

The LBBs (and B/X) have two types of magic…arcane and divine…which match with two specific classes: the magic-user and the cleric. To my mind, it is only reasonable that any spell-casting class created/written for the game should have its own type of magic.

Magic-Users have arcane magic (memorized from books, cast and forgotten, limited by what’s actually available in the spell book).
Clerics have divine magic (granted by deities, limited in number but the entire range is open to the cleric; depending on edition/house-rule may include the use of “improvised” spells).

Every other class should have their own specific form of magic.
Where it comes from, how the living spells get put into the character’s mind, etc. Frankly, I believe it does a disservice to magic if all spell caster classes fall into the “pray” or “study” categories.

Which goes back to my original statement: making spell casters for D&D ain’t easy.

At least, they’re not all that easy when you’re trying to create a whole, new brand of magic for each new spell-caster class. That takes a little more effort than just coming up with a “theme” for your spell-caster.

Here I can give some props to the D20 folks for their poorly-named Sorcerer class. The sorcerer was probably the first truly new spell caster in ANY edition of D&D since the game was first published…despite having the exact same spell list as wizards (there are quite a few missteps in D20, from my point of view so I’ll stop listing them here). A character class that “knows” a limited number of spells instinctively (they’re in his blood) and can cast them as needed IS different from both the magic-user and cleric archetypes of magic use. For all its other flaws (and there are more than a couple) the sorcerer class was indeed new.

Personally, I think it fitting that ANY newly introduced spell-caster should have its own form of magic. Why the hell do folks think the illusionist was relegated first to being a “specialist class of wizard” and then disappeared completely? The only reason the druid hangs around is because of its other class abilities (shape-shifting, edged-weapon use)…otherwise it’s just a cleric of a different deity.

The OTHER new book I’m working on (NOT Land of Ash) includes several new character classes. Some of these (like the Witch Hunter) have limited spell use. Some (the Duelist, the Bounty Hunter) have NO spell abilities. And some (three, actually) are full-fledged spell caster classes.

Each of these three spell casters has their own type of magic, different from both clerics and magic-users. Each acquires their spells in different ways…sometimes radically different. Some actually CAST their spells differently from the original classes. None of them are simply “arcane” or “divine” in nature.

This is what I’ve been working on the last couple days. The progress has been good…two classes have been completed except for the writing (the notes write themselves…just a matter of organizing it). One class still needs its spell list put together (I’m going to try to get to this at lunch today, actually). When done, people playing BXC will have a total of five spell casting classes from which to choose (six if you count the half-mage Elf class):

Mystics – 6 levels, 6 spells each (36 spells total)
Summoners – 8 levels, 5 spells each (40 spells total)
Clerics – 7 levels, 8 spells each (56 spells total)
Witches – 8 levels, 10 spells each (80 spells total)*
Magic-Users – 9 levels, 12 spells each (108 spells total)

*Of course, it WOULD be the new class with the biggest spell list that I still have to complete. However, this is mainly due to wanting to “do justice” to the Witch class. The way I see it, the class could easily be built from a magic-user OR cleric template, depending on your inspiration (The Wizard of Oz or The Mists of Avalon). I’m actually trying to do a mashing of the two.

All right, hope that whets your whistle folks!
: )


  1. Have you ever tried to make up an alternate Elf spell list with an alternate type of magic?

    I am fond of re-naming Elf magic as Fairy Glamour and making the list a lot of nature, illusion, and charm spells.

  2. I've always considered the ill-starred-but-really-quite-good Dragonlance: Fifth Age game a member of the D&D family, as there's a fair bit of AD&D2 under the bonnet, and a lot of the assumptions of the game are the same, just expressed differently.

    Anyway, it had a freeform magic system with similarities to that of White Wolf's Mage, and which I'd count as "the first truly new spell caster in ANY edition of D&D ". Of course, that's only because I count DL5A as a variant of D&D; you may not. ;)

  3. I like the thrust of your thinking here very much. Tinkering (and better yet some real honest to goodness playtesting) with both my own versions of the Mountebank and White Wizards (who cast divine magic in an arcane format) classes have gotten me thinking too on the need for truly distinct spell casting distinctions.

    It's a hell of a task though and a somewhat radical one from the standard older editions D&D paradigm. But I think James Raggi's WFRPG has kind of shown the way for the next wave of old school RPGs to start charting some new territory.

  4. @ The Myth: I have not, but fairy/glamor magic is a good is druidic magic (woodland dudes) is clerical/healing magic (a la Elrond and Middle Earth).

    There are several possible takes on Elves, probably best left to specific campaign worlds. A campaign world based on Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover would probably have the elf-like Chieri species all be psionic-telepaths, for example!

    @ Kelvin: if it doesn't have Vancian magic in some form, I don't consider it an edition of D&D. But that's just me.
    ; )

    @ ckutalik: I haven't picked up WFRPG yet, but I wouldn't mind seeing Raggi's takes on the traditional faves.

  5. One thing I've been toying with myself is how to create distinct magic traditions, mainly by altering what each tradition needs to prepare and cast spells. I did kind of mess with elven magic, letting them use the four well-known spell lists but changing the requirements and procedures. I also have some ideas for revamping human illusionists to make them actually interesting: all their spells are illusion-based, making their durations open-ended but subject to disbelief. My illusionists have no read magic and can't create a traditional scroll; instead, illusionist scrolls hypnotize the reader into believing the intended effect. An Illusionist Light or Darkness scroll would work about the same as an MU's Light scroll, but something that causes sleep or fear would affect the reader.

  6. You can pick up his magic rules free on PDF on his site. Definitely worth a gander. Many of the spells are the same, but re-written to fit more with the weird and horror themes of his game.

    BTW I have begun tinkering with rolling back the Mountebank's illusionist spells in favor of spell-like special class abilities. Some of the playtesters in my campaign seem to favor that approach more.

  7. @ Talysman: I am all in favor of "jazzing up" the illusionist class. When I was first considering it for inclusion in my new book, I was thinking a lot about the recent film "Inception," specifically regarding the "architects" who create dream worlds. Something that mixes dreams with physical control of reality (through art/architecture) sounds like a nice starting point for any kit-bash of the illusionist class, and I would strongly suggest folks figure out house rules that work for them.

    The ONLY reason I'm not throwing down my own "B/X version," is that Goblinoid did it first...and why duplicate the great work of Proctor (or Gygax) when I can spend my energy on other new, cool stuff?

    @ ckutalik: I SOOOOO want to use the mountebank in a D&D campaign. I figure with a group of of 4-5 players I can entice at least one to help make the game more interesting by rolling up a scurrilous scoundrel. I envy your playtesters!
    : )