Friday, June 12, 2020

Spell Books

One of the problems with having with more than a decade's worth of posts is that every time I sit down to write up my latest thoughts on a subject already broached, I have to read back through all the posts I've already written on the subject.

Well, I suppose I don't have to...I could just fly off the handle (my usual m.o.) and let the chips fall where they may. But the fact, there are still folks showing up to Ye Old Blog and reading my ancient posts, and my conscience tells me I should strive for some level of consistency, at least enough to say "my feelings on such-and-such have changed since 2011" or whatever.

[really! Last week, I had someone commenting on a post I wrote back in 2014, while still living in Paraguay. And this week, I had an email from a French blogger who wants to translate some 2012 entry I posted about abstracting armor rules]

So it was this morning that I was combing through the 50+ posts on magic-users I've made over the years, looking to see what I've written on the subject of spell books. Also, had to check the 60+ posts on "spells." I'll be honest...I got pretty bored with the exercise and, quite frankly, there wasn't much there that stood out anyway.

I'm considering cutting spell books from my D&D game.  Since my family will probably be rousing themselves from slumber soon, I'll try to be as succinct as...well, as I ever am (not that succinct, I realize) explaining my thought(s) here:

#1 My journey with magic-users has come a looooong way since I started this blog. Prior to blogging, I never gave much thought to magic-users at all: I didn't play them in other people's games, and the few who showed up in my own game weren't anything too spectacular (they were infrequently run and frequently died). Plus, it had been so long since I'd run an old school game, my memory was probably on the "hazy" side. Once I started blogging, I started running/playing games again, and this led to all sorts of hare-brained ponderings on the class.

#2 To sum up my thoughts on "what I've learned about magic-users over the years" (through actual play): The class is nicely balanced. The class should probably start with multiple spells (2-3) instead of one. Vancian system = good idea. Removing spell duplication (memorization of 2x fireball or 3x sleep, for example) improves versatility and encourages creativity and proactive thinking in players. Knife-fighting mages are somewhat distasteful (personally), but a "necessary evil" and well-modeled by the magic-user's poor combat skills.

#3 In older edition games (i.e. pre-1983, i.e. pre-any edition I enjoy playing), spell books are poorly defined/described, if at all (we'll leave aside the physical dimensions specified for AD&D in 1985's Unearthed Arcana tome). We know magic-users have spell books. We know that they study the books (in the morning) to regain their daily allotment of spells. We know it's one of the things that distinguish the magic-user from other classes (save, perhaps, the illusionist subclass). Most everything else about the spell book, however, is pretty much unknown and (thus) often ignored in actual play.

I mean, things like weight, bulk, and dimensions of such a tome should be incredibly important. I still haven't gotten around to penning my (planned for 10 months now) post on encumbrance, but I'll give you the TL;DR version: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF YOU DO NOT TRACK ENCUMBRANCE. Yes, that is a purposeful riff on Gygax's famous admonition regarding time (see page 37 of the original DMG). As I said, it deserves its own of these days.

I think back to my own youth, hauling around my own "spell books:" the four or five AD&D hardcovers I used to create the "magic" of my own campaign. A backpack with 20-30 pounds of books was just how I rolled in those days...on foot, on bicycle, or on the bus. I would carry my books everywhere...certainly to my friends' houses, but also to school and back...never knew when one might have the time to do some quick reading (or even gaming). The city bus to my high school in downtown Seattle was a long one (including a transfer/wait in the University District)...close to two hours round trip every day...and I would spend most of it reading. Even when I stopped playing D&D proper, I was still carrying a ton of RPG books (in addition to school texts).

There would have been little room in my backpack for rations and rope, had I been an adventurer, let alone treasure.

Per OD&D, a magic-user has one spell book for each level of spells obtained...thus a 12th level wizard would have six books total. The DMG lists the encumbrance of a "book, large, metal-bound" as 200 coins (20#). In both OD&D and AD&D, a backpack has a capacity limit of 300 coins, meaning only one such book could be hauled at a time...and this is born out later in the UA's description of the "standard" spell book ("traveling" spell books, also described in UA, are a different matter, each having 6# of encumbrance and a quarter of the spell capacity of the sturdier "standard").

But does a spell book need to be this bulky and magnificent a tome? How about a diary or journal or a handful of scribbled notes. The kids and I were watching the still entertaining 1968 film Blackbeard's Ghost the other day, in which an 18th century witch's spell book is discovered: a small packet of pages rolled up and concealed in the handle of a bed warmer. Each spell has a small description of what it does, along with the incantation needed to pronounce it...what more does a spell-caster need, really? A normal (i.e. "untrained") person isn't going to know the gobbledy-gook words a wizard needs to say to bring a spell to life, and the wizard herself will need to study (and silently practice) the words many times before she can recite them from memory...probably a task that should be done daily, given the odd twisting of the tongue required (these spells aren't written in Greek or Latin).

Anyway, it doesn't really matter because (as I said) in actual play, the spell book concept is generally glossed least until someone remembers the thing at a most inconvenient time. "Hey, wouldn't that subterranean river risk getting the pages of my spell book soaked?" or "Hey, does that dragon breath have a chance of destroying the contents of my backpack (including, like, ALL my magical knowledge)?" In a recent game, my son's magic-user was captured and thrown in a prison cell. While he was able to escape both the cell and the dungeon, he did so without his backpack of equipment...which we figured had been the place his spell book was stored. This ended up being a huge pain in the ass for the player (though it was eventually resolved).

Here's the thing: I realize the image of the wizard studying her ancient tomes is an iconic one. I realize the book-learning helps distinguish the character from other spell-casters, and that it is tied to intelligence (the ability score) in much the same way that prayerful meditation is tied to wisdom. But is it really worth the fuss? That is to say: if I said 'the spells you know are the spells you know' and allowed a wizard to cast each once daily without any spell book at all, would the character class suffer? Not even that: would actual play suffer? Would the game suffer, for me NOT making magic-users carry/own spell books and NOT making them study/memorize spells every morning (though still limiting them, mechanically, to the fire-and-forget Vancian style play we know and love)? Would it be weird to NOT distinguish magic-users from other spell casters by removing this anchor known as the spell book? Would it be bad?

All right...the kids are up (actually, they've been up for about 40 minutes...distracting me ever since), so I need to go cook some breakfast. More on this later.


  1. We pretty much ignored them because the books did. The only time they were important was as treasure, gaining spells from the foe you just killed.

    The more thought you put into them the more they become a burden. You fell in the lake your spell book is ruined. You got fire balled. Your spell book is ruined, ect. Some people like that play style but constantly gimping the wizard, especially at low levels, in my opinion is just mean.

  2. I'm trying to figure something out. Last week you said you dislike thieves a lot. This week you say you didn't play magic users in other players games (which I assume means you didn't play magic users at all). Don't you think your critiques would benefit from some counterpoints, or focus on positive aspects? Otherwise, I'm really just left wondering if you even like this game. Or maybe this is just a series, and next week we can expect a critique on clerics, to be followed by the grand finale... why OD&D/BX fighters suck! Maybe we're all in a dark place right now (I definitely get that). Not sure if I have a point, but I definitely would like to see more of your positive thoughts on this game we love.

    1. I have played magic-users on at least three occasions. One was a positive experience, one was not, one was “so-so”...however, the determining issue in all cases was edition played and playstyle.

      [ive had a couple additional experiences...with similar results...playing illusionists]

      Surprising though it might sound, I’m not really trying to come off as sounding negative. I’m trying to be critical in a way that leads to”resolution” of my issues. I hope for dissenting viewpoints (Alexis’s POV on thieves, for example, was just what I needed to pause and reconsider my position).

      Besides, I can’t just write continuous puff pieces on how much I love the game...I wouldn’t continue to write about the thing if I didn’t love it so very much!
      ; )

  3. Cool post. I'm a big fan of your posts about classes. "The Magic-Users' OTHER Tome" is one of my blog posts ever; I genuinely chuckle every time I reread it, and it changed the way I think about MUs forever. Knife fighting mages are hilarious and have really grown on me. I like to view it through the "D&D is always right" lens: maybe learning knife-fighting is just popular among MUs because of "traditional reasons", or maybe it helps them develop dexterity for the hand movements required to cast a spell lol. Think about how samurais also learned calligraphy or how german fratboys practiced fencing.

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts re: spellbooks. I personally like them mostly because of the vancian flavor. I like the idea of spells being these weird other-worldly living(ish) "programs" that you imprison in a book like a pokemon and then transfer to your brain to cast them. There's also the whole adventure hook about raiding a wizard's tower to steal their spellbook and learn new spells that sevenbastard already mentioned.

    If you don't want spellbooks to become a burden, there's a few ways to do it that come to mind: 1. just leave it home after you memorize the spell; don't carry it with you into the dungeon. 2. say the pages are made out of leather or the magic writing is itself enchanted so that it's somewhat water or fire resistant.

    1. I *think* that I can resolve the issue if I just buckle down and say: MUs don’t carry their spell books with them. However, that requires forgoing the idea of the “wandering wizard” meandering about a the campaign world (works great, however, for the traditional “mega-dungeon near town” campaign).

      I have some additional thoughts on these two styles of play, that I might write up to discuss/contrast...and perhaps resolve my “dilemma.”

  4. The BX clone ACKs has a simple system. Each arcane caster (e.g. mages and elven spellswords) has a repertoire of spells they can cast equal to the number they can cast daily for that level spell + their intelligence bonus.

    So a 2nd level mage with 13 INT (+1) would have 3 1st level spells available to cast. They could cast any of those three when ever they cast one of their two 1st level spells for the day.

    Spell books keep the extra spells they don't have in their repertoire for daily use. To change one out takes 1 week per spell level.

    I've found that this is pure awesome and leads to creative play. Every mage takes a few non combat spells and actually uses them (when is the last time you had a mage memorize read languages or ventriloquism). It takes care of spell diversity AND the `what do I memorize this morning' delay. The time cost to swap out spells allows player choice with a cost, always good for sandbox play. Finally, it increases distinctions between multiple images as each has different combos available (assuming good co-OP play).

    1. Isn’t that pretty similar to the MUs having no spell books, but being able to make use of magic (spell) scrolls?

    2. Yes, but adds some freedom from strict memorization. Plus it keeps the concepts of spell books, but makes them something to keep at home. The limits require some planning, but still provide flexibility.

      The scroll thing works too, as long as there is a reasonable cost in resources.

      Scrolls can be made at 5 th level, but cost time, money, and creature parts to make (e.g. hellhound blood or salamander ash for fireball scroll).

      Unlimited selection, however, would be too much for mid to high level casters imho.

      Both the kids and the old schoolers seem to like it they way we have it.

      Clerics cast from a short list of spells available per level (by faith).

  5. I've sort of always assumed the spell book stays at home, and the spells you memorize are the ones you have access to, period. If you want extra spells, carry scrolls (which are 100gp per level and can be created by 1st level MUs as per Holmes) and if you want different spells, you have to go retrieve that spell book.

    Come to think of it, would a Wizard's Guild actually be a library where MUs go to memorize spells instead of carrying spell books everywhere? This would make the whole Min/Max and % of knowing spells have more cultural impact. Maybe different Guilds are known for different types of spells...this could open up a whole new use for Schools of Magic and could explain why Illusionists can't/won't use MU spells and vice versa....hmmm (goes and starts jotting down notes)

    BTW what is your opinion of using a universal d4 for MU damage and allowing them to use any weapon?

    1. Well, Padre, I wasn't the first to suggest the idea but I did blog about it back in 2009:

      ...and I added the idea as an "optional" rule in my B/X Companion book.

      These days? Well, I'm inclined to keep the weapon restrictions as written in the books (for...reasons). But if someone were running a game with it, I wouldn't begrudge the choice. Certainly not nearly as much as someone allowing MUs to cast unlimited, damage-dealing "cantrips."

    2. I'm on the Team Padre. You don't carry your spell book on expeditions.
      Plus you have a 1-6 chance to remember one daily spell in dungeons and wilderness.

  6. Magic user (in some form or another) was the most popular class at my tables and the tables I've played at.

    As for the spellbook, I think it depends on the campaign, play-style, and effect you're going for. You can easily dump them without impacting the whole adventuring and exploring part. However, it can provide an early incentive to invest in the location your players are staying at. We always assumed the MU left their spellbook back at the inn and did not take it into dangerous situations for fear of losing it. That meant that as they leveled up they invested in places to store their spellbooks and means for protecting said spellbooks (especially from other MUs). They also invested in a travel spellbook that would contain a default set of spells they would memorize when adventuring.

    So I say dump them if it isn't adding to the game but consider using them if you want players to invest in a home base and want to ratchet up the resource management a bit. It is also a nice balancing factor for wizards that they need to protect that commodity or risk losing all of their power.

  7. Perhaps you could say that MU's don't need to memorise spells as such, and say that the spells they gain at each level are ones they realise after general research and contemplatio of the cosmos. They know all the spells but get confused when casting them, until a full nights sleep.
    Result: MU's can only cast known spells ones per "day". They don't need a hefty spell book. They don't need to study for an hour in the morning. They don't need to find new spells to be able to learn them.

    Researching new spells don't make sense in the traditional rules, then. Finding other MU books would likely have to give an XP boost as the PC won't get spells from it. I'm not sure of scroll implementation.

    Just loose ideas as was reading. Likely error filled :D