Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Spell Gathering

It was recently pointed out to me that I have few posts on this blog on the subject of magic, and there is one simple explanation. This is one very large part of the original AD&D system that I don’t have a problem with.

To some degree, I have over the years sat down and done rewrites on many of the spells, tweaking them here or there to make them moderately more powerful, or moderately less powerful, as I feel necessary to keep a level of playability in my campaign. I have dumped the somatic and material components, something I’ve mentioned before. Beyond that, however, I can think only of one other significant change - and it doesn’t seem like a change to me, since it follows a practice that virtually everyone I knew adopted decades ago.

Before I get into that, however, I just want to say I’m going to be writing a number of posts in the near future about magic, all in answer to a very long email from a fellow named Andy, asking me quite a number of questions. It seems better to answer them here, since it is that email that told me I don’t write about magic.

As I understand it, according to either the Player’s handbook or the DM’s Guide (I haven’t bothered to look it up, I’ve never played by this rule anyway and I leave it to the ambitious reader to go find the passage), a mage is supposed to roll a percentile according to his or her intelligence for each spell - to see what they are capable of using. Out of the thirty first level spells given in the PH, a mage with a 17 intelligence (75%) would be expected to miss seven or eight.

(for clerics, druids and illusionists, the limitation is I believe the complete spell list)

Then, each day, the caster would ‘memorize’ the spells of his or her choosing, from among those which were successfully added to the spell book. If the caster were to be powerful enough to use two spells, then this morning they might choose jump and magic missile. But tomorrow, they might choose instead to take find familiar and shocking grasp. The logic is that the caster would take whatever spells from the list which seemed most eminently practical for that day.

The problem arises, always, in that the mage will generally fail to announce what spells they have taken that day ... until, of course, the encounter arrives. And then the caster will conveniently say that they have taken whatever is best for that moment.

For some of you that are out there, who write blogs and who comment on this one, that is all well and good. From what I’ve read, many soft-hearted DMs would insist on the caster taking the best possible spell. Why not give the caster precognition? Hell, why not give the caster the privilege of using ALL their spells, and as often as they want?

I learned to play this game with some rather stiff-necked folks, who got testy when the caster suddenly decided they had taken feather fall on precisely this day. And from there the arguments would start. Which led to soreness, which led to everyone agreeing to set a ‘default’ on the spells they would take IF it turned out they’d failed to announce them.

Well, obviously, the default was used more or less continuously, particularly as spellcasters gained in level to the point where they had ten or more spells they could use each day. Anyone would get tired writing them out over and over, in the world of pencil and paper - and most everyone just said fuck it and kept the defaults. Until, obviously, the group of DMs I played with (me included) made the final decision that everyone would use ONLY the defaults, and to hell with this picking spells every day.

And that is how I play it.

Most casters in my world have three first level spells to begin with (instead of one as in the PH), and these spells are unchangeable. I have been doing it this way for so long - and I have no complaints. I am flexible enough in my use of magic that mages feel, in the long run, as powerful as fighters, and so the methodology is accepted.

But it does assign a lot of the spells in the lists to the scrap heap. Who would take mending as one of their first three spells? Or as their fourth, fifth or sixth spell? Recently I am bitterly struck with the thought of those who might do that - a post I am saving for another day. The players I have wouldn’t.

The only time when mending might come up as a spell would be on a scroll. Who is making this scroll, I can’t imagine - perhaps some very low intelligence mage who failed every spell except mending. In any case, I can easily see such a person pumping out dozens, hundreds of scrolls for a local lord, who would then give them as gifts to other people.

The economic effects of this ‘giving out’ might be seen as significant - but I don’t think it would be. And it is the effect of magic on economics that I will be talking about next. This post was only to establish how casters obtained spells, and which spells they might be expected to have.


  1. I totally LOLed at the thought of the dumb ass mage who can only make Mending scrolls. Hilarious!

  2. I had a player roll a character on Sunday and he chose to be a Magic User and Thief. We checked his "known" spells of first level until he had 11 (max known for 16 INT) and then we stopped.

    I decided that he had a spell book. In that book were these 11 spells that he knew. He can memorize one per day and cast it. So, he's got a great selection of spells to choose from and with a day's notice he's sure to choose the right one.

    When third level comes round for him and he's allowed to learn 2nd level spells, we had no clear answer about how he would go about acquiring them, so I made another decision. Those 11 spells in his book were all the spells he would have, barring research or finding spells somewhere.

    Now, I'm not going to let him have 3 spells per day. He can cast one and he can write down his memorized spell on a Post-It and hand it to me at the beginning of the session. If he fails to do this, I will simply revert to the last Post-It.

    If he chooses to research a spell, I'm sure there are rules for the amount of time and money it takes in the DMG. If there aren't then it's going to be time-consuming and expensive, but mostly time-consuming.

    If he finds a spell of first level, he won't be able to learn it because all his first level slots are full. If he gains a point of INT then he can attempt to learn more 1st level spells.

    If he finds a spell of a level other than first that he can cast, he may attempt to learn it. He will roll percentile dice to determine if he's able and if he succeeds, it will be one of the spells he knows for that level -- forever, unless his intelligence changes.

    I'm not seeing any real issues with the system as-is. I may, like you have, tweak a spell here and there to improve playability or viability of the spell.

    Can't wait to read your next series of posts, Alexis.

  3. Alexis,

    Thank you for an unbelievably prompt tackling of my email! While you have discussed your perceptions of the magic system in snippets I do look forward to a full fleshing out of your views.

    To give a bit of background for the query I am typically a 2E player, being only 30 my formal introduction to D&D was with 2E. Although I have played OD&D extensively as well I tend to feel more at home with 2E, but such is a product of nostalgia I imagine. I have ran a stable corral of 6-7 people (with a few in and out due to scheduling) over the last 7 years and I find that the one thing that sparks the most hot headed debates are the perception and understandings of what is normative magic wise.

    Even going strict book definitions there is quite a bit of variation. These citations are out of the 2E DMG (3rd printing circa 1992, mentioned just because page numbers do vary through different printings) on page 41 it addresses initial wizard spells, providing two options; Player Choice and DM Choice. The player choice is your outlined system where the characters rattle off spells and roll their percentile to see if they can learn the spell until they either exhaust the list or reach their maximum number. The DMs option gives the characters Read Magic and Detect Magic plus four spells choice with no rolls to learn required. Unless your player has a 9 Intelligence this does not cap out their maximum known spells.

    These provide two very disparate power levels for your starting mage. I personally tend to lean towards the DMs options personally; this may be for many reasons. First off I tend to take the view of ‘secretive’ magic worlds. This is different from ‘rare’ simply in that while magic is not more or less common (via the barometer in my mind) mages keep it close to their vest. Being that magic can achieve amazing things, I tend to assume that it is not dolled out willy-nilly to the plebs. This does fly in the face of establish name brands like Forgotten Realms, which I hate but is a rant for later. Secondly I have played with a lot of hard nosed/assed DMs in my formative stages that made the acquisition of new spells a significant event requiring takes more than two people in robes eyeing each other and spontaneously comparing their knowledge base and commencing a swap meet style magical exchange.

    Venomous words, yes. However after decades of play under such draconian rule (as my party tends to see it), it may have become hardwired. Which I am personally fine with, yet has initiated a near decade of bitching from my players. And it is not the initial selection of spells that tends to rankle feathers as much as the inability of characters to escape the trading card game mentality of spells and embrace, or at least acknowledge, a more secretive view of magic. I sand box game as much as my players allow, which despondency of players is apparently ubiquitous, and have talked out of game with most of my die hard mage players about my and thus my world’s perception of magic, at length, several times, nearly continuously. The tragedy of the situation is that both are very intelligent people in real life, but remarkably stubborn. That and very resistant to the idea that it may take more than the shared acknowledgement of magical prowess to have one mage trust another enough share with them the secrets that they have mastered a the cost of a life time of study.

  4. (sorry for spill over, passing the character cap on comments)

    But I will offer my own house rules for discussion as well (and this may be a good motivator for the start of my own blog which I have been procrastinating about for a while). Beyond the DMs Choice options, I stay hard and fast to the provided spell chart. However I do allow for three variations: Spellbolt and Cantrip and component usage.

    Spellbolt is a home brewed ability rather than spell, allowing the mage to produce a magical blast (special effect to be determined by the player, and typically reflect a desired area of study/element that they feel closer too) that does a mere d4 damage, no save, with a range of 60 yards. This can be used infinitely and saves the tedium of mages loading up on darts and throwing daggers to use after they blow their initial spell wad. Typically as power levels progress it falls into disuse. However it requires a to hit roll and only one blast is generated ever, making it a lesser choice to Magic Missile providing some benefits for the character to take that spell if they choose to.

    Cantrip is merely the ability for the caster to use cantrips without devoting a spell slot to them. I am fuzzy on OD&D and do not feel like digging them out of my bookshelf at the moment so I cannot remember if they are an at will, but I do not think so. My interpretation of them are similar to the 2E reading of the spell (or Prestidigitation in 3/3.5E) as just small magical effects with no perceivable combat value that also do not have the effect of full blown spells (i.e. could make a light that would be equal to a candle, but not brighter as that would be the jurisdiction of the Light spell), which the character can do cinematically as more flavor than anything else.

  5. (good lord I am wordy tonight)

    Spell components are something that have wandered in an out of games I have done and played in over the years. While I agree that tracking the number of pinches of rose petals you possess is largely counterproductive (although I have had wonderful discussions with prior hard assed DMs about what components can be logically incorporated into unassuming wardrobe when in areas where magic would be prohibited), I do tend to keep track of cash valued components. The 100gp mat for Identify is something I keep around not so much out of sadism but out of a desire to persecute laziness and bad play. The option to research the strange and magical statue you have found, consult sages, bards, works of art/literature, and local folklore always yield the same results and typically lead to more and better role play, so if the characters want to short change themselves NPC contacts, world information and possible adventure hooks, I do not feel guilty about dinging them 100gp for it. But I do put in the presence of ‘component belts’. These are essentially articles that contain the mundane components in infinite amounts available for the players. They do have a cost of 20gp per spell level, however. As such a character with a 40gp belt can infinitely cast spells up to 2nd level, but once he gains access to 3rd level spells he will need to upgrade his belt (which can be done for the 20gp not the full 60gp if you were to purchase it outright).

    It is a very nominal fee in my mind, for a mage to pay for their components for every day use. Plus the presence of them can become cinematically interesting if a character is captured or separated from their belt (let alone spell book), but if characters find themselves in these situations it is usually after a string of very, very poor choices. I do also use the presence of this belt as local flavor as it relates to magic. Certain areas, with less magic, may not be able to upgrade belts to certain spell levels, and the characters may have to travel to greater areas of magical knowledge to do so (of course this also provides opportunities to learn additional spells of that more powerful levels) and of course they are also loot-able if the players should engage in pelt/spell hunting from other mages of they are so inclined. I can already forsee the alarm bells as gentle wafting of railroad grease may come off of this, but that was never the original intent for this mechanic, and it rarely works that way in practice, as I do try and provide multiple options for acquiring said upgrades, but I can recognize that criticism as well.

    Well, perhaps enough for now, but I do welcome feedback/thoughts.

  6. Interesting - it never occurred to me that the mage's were supposed to roll their "chance to learn" against the entire spell list. I've only ever had players start with 1 spell plus read magic and detect magic.

    As far as the default memorizing, I just prompt the mage each morning. If this is forgotten, then it's assumed they re-memorized the same spells from the previous day. Of course, I usually only have 3-4 players and there are 0 to 1 wizards, so it hasn't been much of a problem over the years.

  7. In the two games of Pathfinder I am running, mending is used often to fix gear or restore broken potential loot. It's memorization becomes commonplace after 3rd level spells are gained and 1st level attack spells are no longer the wizard's mainstay.

    Perhaps my players are cheap and don't want to buy replacement gear or duplicates if they can just mend it.

  8. You know that 'all spells all the time' is not 4e at all? I know that's besides the point of your post, but edition sniping is tiresome. I don't play 4e anymore and am happy with my C&C/1E game but at least I can criticize other systems with actual learned knowledge rather than bias.

    Shame that you've encountered players that cheat on what spells they've memorized.

    To me it isn't hard to track. The spells are listed by level on the character sheet. A box or bubble is made next to the spell if it is memorized, and this box is marked when the spell is cast. There is minor variation from that format, but it is pretty standard in my experience (off and on since 1978) and as verifiable as anything else on a character sheet.

    If I doubted a player, I may ask to see their sheet. I periodically do audits to see what folks are recording (Hackmaster had 'encumbrance audits' I think.)

    As a player I once had to draw several cards from a Deck of Many Things because the party's cleric was honest and hadn't memorized Cure Disease that day.

    Keeping track of material components is much more likely to be mishandled.

    Personally, I'd miss the 'paper chase' of magic-users searching out spell books and scrolls from which to learn new spells. It is a stereotypical, but yet evocative, adventure motivation.

    Currently one of our magic-users is recruiting players to not visit the megadungeon (Zagyg) and instead come with him to investigate a wizard's tower wherein he hopes to find certain spells he requires.

  9. We had similar problems with overly-convenient circumstances, but it was our casters who came up with the solution. Every time they prepared spells differently they saved the sheet and named the spell list. Our main caster had lists titled "dungeon" "town" "travel" "Jassa" (our campaign's recurring villain) and he kept only a few open slots on each list for very minor tweaking. This way he would only have to announce the list (not every spell, since the list was static) and he could only cast what was there.

    Functionally very similar to your "default" list, but it was nice to keep the flexibility of picking spells (and the look on his face when he needed a spell he didn't think to prepare was priceless).

    I believe this falls in the new concept category, and apologize if it doesn't.

  10. I always let characters choose their spells when they need them. It may seem like a cop-out, but it's more defensible from a realism perspective (what, exactly, would memorizing the same thing twice on one day actually entail?!?), and I deal with the power-related issues by being very parsimonious when it comes to giving magic-users new spells. If a 5th level m-u isn't overjoyed to find a gust of wind scroll because it means he finally has a 3rd level spell to cast, you aren't doing your job right.

  11. Hi Alexis,

    I know I'm commenting on a very old post... let me just say I just discovered your blog I've been having a great time going back and reading your posts. Thank you!

    I have a question about your handling of the spells... so let's say a caster has his 8 spells learned and those are what he has available for the day... and forever (until he goes up levels).

    How do you handle the idea of having the character discover new spells or learn from a defeated wizard's spell book?

    Do you allow the character make a change to his list at some point, and have that be the new list henceforth? Would your character have to wait until he acquired a spell slot at a new level?

    I ask because I have in the past liked giving unique spell books or spells as part of a hard-won treasure. I'm wondering how you handle that sort of thing.

    Thanks for your fantastic posts - useful and entertaining, both!


  12. No problem, Taren. I have a feed that tells me these comments are here.

    I believe I'll write your answer in a post today.


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