Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Some ideas for a better S&S magic system

I've been re-reading Dying Earth recently, and it's pretty obvious when people say D&D has Vancian magic they're not exaggerating. Spells are memorized and cast, spell casters can only have a few spells memorized at a time, there are a limited number of total spells, etc. One thing that D&D lacks, however (especially the most recent versions) is flashy names. There are a few holdovers (Tenser's Floating Disc and the various Bigby spells for instance) but the names are largely descriptive and lack flavor. Upon reflection, I think this is because Gygax was trying to create a "generic" fantasy game based on a specific world. Greyhawk and Blackmoor were for the most part fleshed out universes with their own rules, hence the spells created for those environments reflect their place of birth. Even if I create my own world completely detached from Gygax's campaign, the mere fact spell-casters are using Tenser's floating disc invariably ties them to Greyhawk. Once again, the notion that D&D is generic goes out the window: it is in fact a very specific game, not intended to duplicate any story. The base assumptions definitely lead to a type of play that is more pulp than anything else, yet not Swords & Sorcery due to the way magic is handled. To summarize this rambling introduction, D&D's spell-casting system reflects a very concrete definition of how spells should work, which is why all the complaints about D&D not being up to task to duplicate various stories are 100% accurate. But the complaint itself is idiotic as D&D is for running games in Greyhawk. Or worlds that share the same assumptions as Greyhawk. Whatever, you get the point. Strip out Vancian magic and D&D ceases to be the same thing.

So there are two conclusions to reach: 1) if using D&D for a custom game world, the spells should be renamed to reflect the game world. Magic Missile, for instance, needs to be called The Unerring Bolt of Doom or whatever, something that sounds cool and reflects the purpose and effect of the spell. It's entirely possible such names existed initially, but were changed upon publication of D&D. It's a pity we never got to see them. Okay, and 2) S&S games based on something like Conan need a different magic system completely. The base D&D game works perfectly fine for combat, etc. It's easy to understand and not very complex. I'm totally joking about that, but whatever, rolling a d20 to hit is ingrained in our brains, might as well stick with it. The magic system, though, scrap that. Here's what I thought might work...

Instead of specific spells, most spell-casters in S&S tend to instead create effects as needed. It's a very ad hoc system. There are no utility spells in general as such power isn't wasted on menial tasks better handled by more mundane methods. A S&S game definitely needs thieves, warriors, etc. Mages aren't going to waste their time opening locks or shooting magic arrows when those things can be done much more swiftly by someone else. This fits the genre, anyway. Coming up with a new spell can take quite some time, and casting it might even take longer. There are no spells that can be cast in a single combat round. For a dungeon-crawl, this sucks, but wizards rarely go into dungeons in S&S, right? That's not much fun though; there has to be a tradeoff somewhere. Essentially a wizard should be able to do anything he can justify to the DM, with complex things taking a long, long time. A high level wizard should be able to do minor magic without much preparation, while even the most powerful spells could take days or weeks for anyone. Enough nonsense, here's a proposed system.

There are no generic magic-users; the player of a wizard character must pick a specific domain of study at 1st level, and every few levels he gets to pick another. We can just use the current D&D schools to simply the process (abjuration, evocation, whatever). Each of these domains has a skill level associated with it, based upon level and length of study. So if a sample mage named Cugel decides to study Illusions at 1st level, he might get a base skill of 5, increasing by 1 per level, so at 5th level he has a total of 9 in Illusions. At 4th if he selected Abjuration, he'd have a 6 skill at 5th level. Maybe allow a new selection every 3 levels? So 4th, 7th, 10th...to create a spell effect, the player tells the DM what he wants to do and how he's doing it. The domain is important, obviously: you can't permanently alter anything with an illusion, just like you can't fool anyone with abjuration. The DM then assigns a level of difficulty to the spell and the player rolls a d20, adds his skill, done. The level of success should play into it. If the target is 10 and the player rolls a 17, the spell should work really well. If he rolls a 10, perhaps it works only marginally. Failure means it didn't work, with a really low roll resulting in some sort of mishap or backfire. Even a 1st level mage should be able to do some pretty cool stuff if given enough time, so time taken should decrease the difficulty. The obverse is true, which means it is entirely possible a 20th level wizard could throw fireballs around in combat; if it's a difficulty 30 to cast such a spell in 1 round, even a mid-level mage could pull it off, but he might not want to try unless it was a dire circumstance. If the player comes up with a cool name for the spell, he should get a bonus when rolling. This encourages creativity, and also allows for a "spell book" to be created on the fly during play. That wizard gets better when he uses the same spell a few times. In effect, this means every wizard will be completely different, with a totally different set of spells. The creation of magic items should be much, much easier than in D&D for this to be fun (see above about wizards not going into dungeons). Even a 1st level wizard should be able to make an item of low-power given some time.

Obviously this needs to be fleshed out quite a bit, but the title IS "some ideas", not a specific system. Maybe I'll work on that...


  1. If you want to base a game on Real Vancian names check out THe Primer of Practical Magic by Pelgrane Press. Although it is written for d20 style game mechanics, it is chock full of all things Vancian ( spells, magic items, monsters and other stuff like Creation of Vat creatures). Its pretty easy to adapt the suppliment to other D&D systems.

    Barbarians of Lemuria put out by Beyond Belief Games ( but I think you can still download the PDF for free), has much of what your looking for I think in how it does classes and spells. ( spellcasters "create" their own spells based on complexity level - so a spell that duplicates an effect that a person or persons could do given the right amount of time and equipment would be an easier spell than a spell that could cause earthquakes for example. Also, it includes lots of options like magic books, stars being in alignment, special focii, etc to make the spells easier to cast if those needs are met- sounds confusing but honestly its easy and the entire magic rules take up about 4 pages).

  2. IF you want a totally awesome magic system which is not only "school" specific but also " order" specific, go for my ALL TIME FAVORITE RPG setting Talislanta- The 4th edition ( they did make a d20 version as well- it sucked), So you can play a Witch who uses the Order of Witchcraft, or a Priest who uses the Invocation Order for example. All have access to most of the Schools such as Attack, Summon, Reveal, Influence, Ward,etc but the way they use these Schools is defigned by how their Order views the School. So the way a Witch performs a Heal spell would be ritually different than a Priest and therefore different in its final casting and execution.

  3. The system you are describing with spell casters able to cast spells that have moderate to low to bad effects and first leve magic users able to occionally cast awe inspiring spells is completely detailed including the Check to make to cast the spell ( and any modifiers that help the check- like a Crystalmancer using certain crystals to cast certain spells, or a Necromancer using bones and skulls), The rules are set up for the spellcasters to create their own spells, though there are many examples given for use. Also, there are rules for creating a needed effect "on the fly" at a significant penalty ( so if a spellcaster needs to summon a wall of fire and doesnt know the spell, they can attempt to create the spell on the fly)
    "Spellbooks" are Order defined, so a Wizard will use a spell book, while a Cartomancer would use a deck of cards as his spell focus and to cast spells, and a person who uses Mysticism would only need to meditate for their spells)

  4. Have you read Lyonesse? The same kind of magic as the Dying Earth, but more serious.