Friday, June 2, 2023

My Magic (Part 1)

Oh, wow. Finally, a chance to blog (I'm waiting at the car dealership...again). Yeah, it's a Friday when no one reads blog posts. At least there'll be something for folks to scan over the weekend. 

I thought I might write a bit how I run magic spells in my campaign. This is due in part to Noism's post the other day regarding "underutilized spells" in which commenter Theo Thaconatos wrote:
I seems there are plenty of old schoolers who (gasp) let Clerics cast spells on-demand (well, on-imploration) as a kind of miraculous ask.
I run my clerics that way myself...and have for years. However, I couldn't seem to find an example in my 50+ posts on "clerics" that did more than (briefly) mention this fact. Since it's one of the very few house rules I've used for decades, I thought that might be something to write about.

[also, please note that this is "part 1" in a plan is to discuss ALL the various spell-user types found in my campaign]

Over the many years of writing this blog, I think most folks would find me a strong advocate for the Rules As Written camp of game play. Game designers design games in particular ways for particular reasons. It is not a great idea to change existing rules (especially not willy-nilly or without trying and testing them)...additional rules can always be ADDED (if/when necessary) to fill in the "blank spaces" not addressed by the game designer.  

Much as I've bitched and moaned over the years regarding specific design choices, this is generally my default stance when it comes to playing and running role-playing games. And even when I have added a house rule or five (and I have done so...many, many times) more often than not, I simply end up defaulting back to the rules as written during game play. In general it's just EASIER to do so...and well-designed games (like B/X or 1E) tend to play both smoothly and efficiently when run 'by the book.' Truly.

But, of course, I am also a gigantic hypocrite. Because I haven't run clerics RAW since ever.

As has been related before (here and elsewhere, many times): I cut my teeth with B/X circa 1982 before moving into AD&D sometime circa '84. The first cleric I ever encountered was Sister Rebecca in Moldvay's basic rules. The first PLAYER cleric I ever saw in game was a high (9th) level one I created for my buddy Matt to test out the Expert set rules (specifically regarding men-at-arms and wilderness travel). The first ACTUAL PC cleric I saw was in my hybrid B/X-Monster Manual days (i.e. before I discovered AD&D was a separate entity), when a guest player (Brian) showed up to play and brought his high level AD&D cleric to our table (complete with mace of disruption). Later, over several years of running straight AD&D campaigns, we'd see MANY clerics and cleric multi-classes. And, of course, since getting back into D&D (in the early 2000s) I've run a TON of 3E, BECMI, B/X, OD&D, and (of course) 1E.  My son's new 1st level character is, in fact, a cleric.

And through it all, since the beginning, I have run clerics different from the rules as written. Moldvay is quite clear on the specifics:
Since clerical spells are divinely given, they do not have to be studied; the cleric need only rest and then pray for them. As a result, the cleric has the choice of any spells of the same level for each adventure. Once a spell is selected, however, it cannot be changed during the course of that adventure (or day).
[emphasis added by Yours Truly; please note this synchs up quite readily with the first sentence of the second paragraph in the SPELLS section: "Spells must be memorized before an adventure begins." Earlier on, an 'adventure' is defined as a single game session]

And why would it not be clear? Gygax is equally as specific in the PHB (page 40):
Spells of any sort must therefore be selected prior to setting out on an adventure, for memorization requires considerable time.
[this following the discussion on clerics need to pray (and magic-users need to study) in order to stock spells in their brains]

But, as said, I've never run clerics like this. I have always, always allowed clerics (PC or otherwise) to cast any unrestricted (by level) spell, without prior memorization, up to the limit of their maximum number of spells per day. 

Always with the POSSIBLE exception of C1: Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan...because I've used that module with the pre-gen (tournament) characters, and the cleric's spell selection (including slow poison) is specifically designed for the challenges of that module. However, I've also run C1 without the pre-gens, and (in those cases) my standard house rule...regarding cleric spells...applied as usual.

I have multiple reasons for running clerics this way:

1) Philosophically, it matches/models my perception of "divine" magic. Clerics spells are miracles send from heaven (or hell or Olympus or wherever). They are the granting of divine aid to the passioned plea and prayer of the god's agent. Clerics call on their deity when their need is greatest (i.e. at the moment the spell is wanted)...and if the cleric has been faithful, and the request is deemed to be just and necessary, the boon is granted. In the Bible (the text of my personal religion) and the various legends/stories of saints, prophets, and miracle workers THIS is how the divine power of God works. It is not stocked up and stored in the is called on when the champion is tested. And God will either answer his/her prayers...or not.

2) Aesthetically, it helps distinguish divine (clerical) magic from arcane (magic-user) magic. The clerics of my game world are (and always have been) something other than "wizards of another order." By stripping off this part of the Vancian paradigm (i.e. memorization and mental storage of spells), the magic of the class becomes fully distinct from that of the scientist/academic/occultist that is the sorcerous magic-user. Clerical magic is granted from "on high," subject to the whims of their patron; it does not operate under the same rules and laws of wizardry.

3) Practically, the freedom to choose spells "on-the-fly" prevents the cleric from being relegated to the role of designated medic.  This freedom, in practice allows player clerics to make meaningful choices in play: they know how many spells they can cast per day, and what their options are, and they must decide how they husband that resource to make the best use for their party. Timely use of one of the cleric's (many) utility spells can prevent party members from sustaining damage or damaging effects, thereby mitigating the need to stock ONLY healing spells.

4) For the DM (me) it saves me the trouble of playacting an omniscient being. If following the DMG as written, clerical spells above the 3rd level are petitioned of and granted by the character's deity (i.e. from the DM) either directly or via the deity's "minions." This allows the DM to vet the player's spell selection, possibly saying "no" (or "yes") depending on the the behavior of the cleric and/or the determined needs as seen by the deity (i.e. the DM). 

Some DMs see this as an advantage...a chance not only to curb 'inappropriate behavior' (whatever that might mean) or a means to grant hints and help to the otherwise clueless player (who doesn't know, for example that a dispel magic or remove curse spell is going to be exceptionally necessary in the scheduled adventure/session). However, I dislike this practice on a number of fronts. For one thing, I think the deity should be determining whether or not to grant the spell at the time the petition is made (i.e. at the time of need)...and while some BTB DMs will say "of course!" (in addition to examining the cleric's behavior at morning's prayers), this 'double jeopardy' is not to my liking. For a second thing, there are already SPELLS (augury, divination, commune) that a cleric may cast for divine guidance. For a third thing, the DM restriction on spells (for the good or bad) negates the whole act of player choice, thus curtailing player agency....something I dislike immensely. Allow the PCs to sink (or swim) based on their own choices of action...but choices made within play.

"Within play"...that's key when it comes to the magic available to clerics. Clerical spells are, for the most part, designed to mitigate penalties and problems that arise and that inflict lasting harm on the party. Curing damage, yes, of course. But also removing fear and paralysis and blindness, revealing traps and locating paths, neutralizing poison, disease, curses (like lycanthrope), energy drain and death. They have other powers, too...offensive ones even (command, hold person, flame strike, holy word, etc.) but the CHOICE to use these (very effective) spells must be weighed against the need for other spells that aid...the blessings and prayers and divinations...or the need to save a fallen comrade.

In our last session, our newly minted 1st level characters found themselves in dire straits right from the get go: the DCC adventure I repurposed ("Madhouse Meet") has the party awaken in chains in a locked prison cell, with all their armor and weapons missing. Fortunately, escaping their manacles proved easy enough, as two PCs were able to pass a bend bars roll to pull their chains from the wall, while a third (the elven assassin) was able to pick the lock on his own shackles. When it came time to ambush the jailor...a huge brute some 7' in height and built like a bugbear...the fighter grappled him from behind while the assassin used a pick pockets roll to swipe the club from the guard's belt. The cleric, however, rather than engage in the unarmed melee chose to cast cause light wounds, figuring his deity would aid him in smiting his captor.

And, of course, he was right. 

Now, generally, one wouldn't see much use for such a's more the purview of the evil-cleric-masquerading-as-helpful-healer trope (see B2 for ready example). Most players wouldn't think to memorize it at the outset of an adventure, figuring the need to HEAL party members would be O So Much greater. Bur in this case, it was the PERFECT spell to cast...the perfect "miracle" to ask of a loving God that wanted to protect Its child from the depredations of evil men. 

ANYWAY. The four reasons listed above are all the justifications I give for why I handle clerical spells the way I do. However, none of them are the main reason I've continued to run the game in this way (since 1982...'82!). No, the MAIN reason I continue to run clerics this way is simply because: it works. It functions well. It speeds play. It doesn't "break" the game, neither destroying "balance" between character types, nor making the game "too easy." 

It's worked in my games for 40 years. The whole "player agency" and chance to use non-cure spells are really secondary considerations to that. And I've seen no reason to change it, even though it means I've never TRULY played D&D "by the book" as written.

Next post will be about magic-users.


  1. I've seen that used alot, I am fine with it or RAW.

    As a kid I never ran clerics, but now I think they are a fun and powerful class. You get to mix it up in combat and have spells.

    For my version of "D&D Mine" I modeled spell list by diety and then let clerics free cast from it using a spell point system with spells closer to the ideal of the diety costing less. Complicated but it works for me. Healing might cost 4 points for the sun cleric and 2 points for the healing cleric and vice versa for light.

  2. Stoked to see the rest of this series! I've been enjoying some mostly by the book play of TSR era D&D of all stripes at NTRPGCon this week, and it's really inspired me to take another look at my house rules and try to pare them down a bit (at least the ones that change rules as written rather than "filling in the gaps". Hearing which house rules a "rules-as-written" biased GM keeps around is always informative.

  3. The ACKs system (basically a BX clone) does this as a core rule. Divine spell casters get a set list of availible spells per spell level based on their diety (generally 10, which I have house ruled down to 8). This means 2 clerics from different faiths each have a unique flavor.

    Arcane casters use a different mechanic, getting a number of availible spells per level based on study. They select a number of spells to place in their repertoire equal to the number of spell slots plus their intelligence mod. This allows the use of more uncommon spells. To switch spells, however takes 1 week and 1000 gp per spell level.

    All casters still have to devote time each day to prepare (praying, reading tomes, enforcing magical bonds, practicing incantations) or risk spell failure.

    Having played this way for many years, I'll never go back to a purely Vancian system. This system, plus spell signatures (which requires each spell caster to come up with different ways their spells work e.g. magic missile is fire vs. cold vs. bone shards, etc.) makes even low level casters a blast to play.

    1. @ JojoDB:

      Huh, interesting.

      My next post will discuss how I handle magic-users. I will not disparage how you (or ACKS) handle spells. However, I will say I have ZERO problem with Vancian magic. Having tried many RPGs with MANY magic systems over the years…Palladium’s spell points, Chaosium’s POW vs. POW, Ars Magica’s formulaic vs. spontaneous casting (and Mage: The Awakening’s derivative system), MSH’s karma pool system, Shadowrun’s dice pool/mana burn, etc., etc….having tried MANY MANY systems over the years, I’ve found D&D’s Vancian system to be the easiest, most usable, most practically PLAYABLE system of all of them.

      In my opinion.

      But…to each their own.
      ; )

  4. That's pretty much how I've played it this last few years. One thing that sits uncomfortably with me are clerical spell scrolls. If clerical spells are given divinely then it would seem logical (ha! It is just a game, why would that be the case?) that the scrolls are prayers to the author's particular deity. In short why should a cleric of any other deity get the required spell response? Surely a cleric of a different deity would be punished doubly - once by the deity who's aid the scroll seeks and the other time by their own deity for heresy?

    It's just a game, and I don't mention it when a player with a cleric PC uses a scroll they've found, but it does seem a logical flaw.

    1. RE Clerical Scrolls

      I've had similar thoughts in the past. Here's how I roll with it these days:

      Have you ever seen that Brendan Frazier film, The Mummy? The spells being read from the "Book of the Dead" (animating corpses, bringing the dead back to life, etc.) is all very clerical in nature...the books/spells were written by Egyptian high priests after all. And yet the characters reading the spells (and making them work) are hardly members of the faith: the British folk are probably Anglican Christians and the "Magi" appear to be some sort of Coptic Christian.

      And yet the magic still works.

      A spell scroll is a prepared magic item...much like a potion or wand, etc. The scribing of the scroll imbues the thing with magic which is discharged upon use. Gygax also suggests the possible existence of rare scrolls that would allow more than one use (DMG p.128 under Use of Scroll Spells), which might include items like the Book of the Dead, if one were so inclined.

      SO...the magic scroll is prepared and ready for use, and is written in a way that only someone with clerical training (good, evil, or indifferent) can understand and unlock its use. The scroll doesn't call on the cleric's deity for power: the deity was called upon by the maker of the scroll when it was inscribed. The power is now imbued in the object. It's there for use: just a tool.

      Now, that doesn't mean a cleric's deity might be unhappy if the scroll is USED for some purpose antithetical to the religion...but it is otherwise only a tool. Just like the cleric's mace.
      ; )

    2. Good reply! The act of creating the scroll is an act of worship and the deity grants the scroll the magical power.

  5. I always read that bit about a Cleric's deity needing to approve their spells to imply that each deity would, at least in theory, have a different list of spells available to their Clerics. TSR tried to make this core in 2E with Priest Spell Spheres.

  6. Yeah, D20 did this with “domain” spells. Kind of a fun idea, but for purposes of world building and “standardized” game play (where the game works in knowable, recognizable fashion), I prefer the vanilla clerics of pre-1988 D&D.

    1. Kind of, 3E Domains add new spells and powers to the character, while 2E Spheres were used to remove spells from the character. For example, a Cleric of a sun deity didn't just get sunlight themed powers, they were unable to cast Darkness and other related spells.

      I understand the preference for pre-1988 D&D though. 2E seems to be where the designers moved away from creating a game with a specific play experience and moved towards publishing a toolkit to create your own play experience.

    2. "2E seems to be where the designers moved away from creating a game with a specific play experience and moved towards publishing a toolkit to create your own play experience."

      Huh. That's an interesting observation. And not sure one I agree with. I'd say the designers still had a very specific type of play experience in mind, ESPECIALLY in the 3E and 4E versions of the game.

      BUT, maybe 2E WAS different. Certainly there was a LOT about the design of 2E that was purposefully moving away from the way D&D had been "traditionally played" (i.e the way it had been designed to be played) for decades. Even before the advent of the Players Option series of books (which REALLY turned things into a "toolkit"), whole assumptions of gameplay were being abandoned / not supported by the publisher. They really pushed hard into the "story" thing...and "story" can be a LOT of things (lots of different stories that can be told). All those "Complete" books with their scores of "kits" and character background, the plethora of deviant settings. Yeah, 2E was a strange beast in a lot of ways.

      Yeah, I think latter day TSR still wanted a specific play experience (specifically, an experience that would put money into the company coffers), but they were definitely open to expanding the (perceived!) narrow focus of the game As It Had Been.

      [1E is a focused experience, but there's a LOT of room to maneuver on its path; it needn't be a "narrow" focus]

      Yeah. Hmm. Considering this, I wonder that Adam DIckstein ("Barking Alien") hasn't found 2E to be his jam. I mean, it's not outer space, but you *can* run it with SpellJammer.
      ; )

      [sorry for that last aside...Adam often drops by the blog to express his consternation as to why anyone would want to play old school D&D, finding its "lack of heroism" (i.e. murder and robbery) to be unsatisfactory]

    3. 2E was also the beginning of the "Design by Committee" editions too. I'm sure Zeb Cook had very specific ideas of what the D&D play experience was, but he was "in charge" of 2E's development in much the same way Mike Mearls is "in charge" of 5E now.

      In addition to what you listed, 2E also was a tonal shift. Compare the DM's Guides - 1E DMG very focused on campaign play and is full of Gary proclaiming the correct way to handle X situation, while the 2E DMG is much less focused on campaigns and full of "here's 3 ways to handle X".