Sunday, October 5, 2014

Counter-Spells (for real this time)

OKay, moving on...counter-spells are something I've been wanting to write on since Eric Treasure commented that it would be good (for magic-users) if one could combine the "no saving throw" thang with a workable counter-spell mechanic. "Workable" is the operative word. Remember me writing about cutting down on dice rolls during combat, especially reactive/defensive rolls (like parrying/dodging?). Well, that's the main principle here preventing me from using some sort of dice-roll counter-spell "save" type thing.

Chainmail had counter-spells: an opposing wizard can spend his entire action during the round to counter the spell of another wizard. A 2D6 roll is made with the target number determined by the difference in power levels between the two (targets range from 7 up to 11). Here we have something workable...the counter-spelling mage still only receives one die roll for his "go" in combat (as opposed to a dice roll to cast a spell). But then, D&D doesn't have casting rolls.

[as an aside, Five Ancient Kingdoms, largely inspired by Chainmail, uses a similar mechanic for counter-spells]

As far as I'm aware, the first published attempt at counter-spells in D&D is found in 3rd edition (though admittedly it's been a loooong time since I've owned a 2nd edition book or played that version...and I didn't play it more than a couple times). And it's pretty cumbersome: the wizard has to actually know and have memorized the spell which she wants to counter. Then, if the would-be counter-speller makes a successful skill roll (*barf*) to identify the enemy wizard's spell, she can counter it by burning her memorized version of the same spell.

The way counter-spelling works in 3E, it just doesn't look very useful. I actually played quite a bit of 3E and never once saw an attempted counter-spell. I mean, if you have flesh to stone and the enemy has flesh to stone, why not just try to stone them before they stone you? Because you lost initiative and your spellcraft skill roll is easier than your fortitude save? I guess...but this is just fiddly rules for the sake of fiddlyness builtin the already shaky foundation of an inconsistent approach to magic (in earlier editions magic-users always had good saving throws versus magic because it was a save versus magic; beginning with 3E, different spells started targeting different...well, you know I wrote a whole series on this, so I'm not going to go through that again).

I've no idea what 4E's approach to counter-spells is because, you know: garbage. But 5E actually has a very simple solution: a 3rd level spell called "counterspell." You cast counterspell as a "reaction action" to another wizard trying to cast a spell: if the spell is 3rd level or lower it's countered, if it's 4th or higher it might be countered depending on a die roll (though a mage can memorize counter spell at a higher spell slot in order to give it more auto-dispelling "punch"). This is very similar to the use of dispel magic as a counter-spell in 3rd edition, except for the auto-effect. It's kind of a Magic: The Gathering approach to counter-spelling ...throw down your two mana "instant" to knock out the opponent's spell.

I have this card in a shoebox somewhere.
[Note that dispel magic still exists in 5E (as a separate spell) but it is used to dispel existing magic, not magic being cast]

Here's the thing about counter-spells: how you implement them is going to say a lot about what magic is in your world and how it (magic) operates. It's going to (in part) define something of the cosmology of your world.

If you've got Vancian magic (D&D) and you need to cast the actual spell to achieve a counter (as in 3rd edition), you are reinforcing the idea of spells as living things, with only their identical siblings being able to successfully combat each other. If you say you just need to learn and memorize a candle-snuffer like 5E's counter-spell, you're saying that magic is a harnessing of forces easily disrupted and dispersed with the right application of "zing."

When you define magic in this way...i.e. when you start nailing down the behooves you as a designer to consider the implications. If magic is so easy to disrupt that it only needs a 3rd level counterspell, then many professional adventurers are going to want to study at least a few levels of wizard just to pick up that ability (or to be able to read a scroll with it or whatever).

My own game...*ahem*...that is to say, the game on which I'm currently working doesn't have "counter-spells." It also doesn't have spell design, either. It's a fairly finite world in that regard: the magic is what the magic is, and spells are limited to the Forty Magnificent Marvels. Mastery of said spell list is possible, with dedication and sacrifice, but it's a noteworthy feat. These spells cannot be countered...nor are there saving throws...but we're talking about reshaping the universe and breaking natural laws here, not things that can be brushed aside by humans. Even magically trained humans...if you unleash the beast, it's gonna' roam. Spell-breaking (of the remove curse stamp) is possible, but requires a broader base of knowledge than most other magics.

'Course, that's all subject to change: the game's not even to the play-testing stage.
; )

Because I do like the idea of counter-spells. Or rather (and more accurately) I like the idea of opposing magicians struggling against one another. The idea of the "wizard duel" which was so poorly implemented (IMO) in the Ars Magica game. The concept that when two wizards meet in battle, they can effectively neutralize each other...leaving the resolution of an encounter to the sword-wielders or (if one wizard can get the upper hand) decisively turning the tables for one side.

But that's something I've yet to work out. Heck, I hadn't even put much thought into it till writing this (too busy worrying about hats, I guess). It is something I'm considering now, though, and for the new heartbreaker, it will probably take the place of any "counter-spelling" mechanic.

Just as an aside: I was talking to my (three year old) son a couple days ago and I asked him, "If you were an adventurer living in olden times, would you rather be a caballero or a mago?" His response? Caballero ("knight"). Why? Because they have armor and swords and get to fight. What does a mago ("magician") do? They do magic and make potions. Can't they fight? Not like knights.

He really is a boy after my own heart.


  1. I tried to think of a simple yet fun "magician duel" system for Flying Swordsmen, based on that scene in Big Trouble in Little China where Egg Shen and Lo Pan shoot beams of light at each other, twiddle their fingers like they have Nintendo controllers, then astrally project as warriors and duke it out.

    Obviously I failed, as no such thing exists in Flying Swordsmen. If you think of an elegant mechanic to emulate that sort of thing, I'd love to read about it!

  2. Thanks Lord G. I was considering a spell called "wizard duel" (or something like that) when I was writing 5AK...solving the issue the way 5E 'solves' counter-spells...but obviously THAT didn't make the final cut of my game either. It's a concept that's prone to fiddly-ness. I'll put some more brain power into the issue while I digest breakfast and watch football.
    : )


    I playtested this in my Dark Ages campaign - AD&D light/OD&D based. It was a lot of fun, from player feedback.

    1. Hey, Michael:

      Yeah, that looks a lot like how I did counter spells in 5AK. I think I want something a little different for this one (maybe with more back-n-forth, perhaps something involving a D20). The idea that keeps coming into my head is something akin to 1E psionics combat...but I'm considering everything right now.

      (BTW: great to hear from you man; hope you and the Princess Wife are doing well!)