Lately I've been turning over alternatives to Vancian magic in my mind. Specifically I have an urge to change it with regards to Swords & Wizardry White Box and Skyscrapers & Sorcery (my print copy of the latter arrived in the mail yesterday! Woo!)
The two largest influences in my thinking at present are JB's magical skills and Matt Jackson's spell formula system.
Here are some of my basic conceits so far:
-Clerics will continue using the Vancian system, though they don't need to prepare spells in advance. This makes sense to me: the deity invests you with X amount of power, and the deity will only perform certain miracles through their mortal agents. Sorry, clerics. Hey, you guys still get better hit dice, saving throws, combat progression, armor selection, undead turning.
-The magic-user is a bit of a cosmic outlaw (to borrow a phrase from Ron Edwards.) Whereas a cleric's magic is basically "on loan" from a deity, the magic-user toys with the forces of the universe. Cleric spells are handed down, whereas every magic-user spell was researched sometime, somewhere, by a person with the will and the gall to bend the fabric of reality to their will. Damn, son.
-Cleric magic is inherently safe, so long as you stay on your deity's good side. Magic-user spells, however, are chaotic and dangerous. This is power that the mortal mind was not meant to wield.
-Being a magic-user gives you access to certain magical powers that aren't spells; these minor magics can be manipulated at will. Spells are more powerful -and therefore dangerous- effects.
Right now, I've seen more than one alternative system that uses the White Box saving throw mechanic as a roll to successfully cast a spell.
This system assumes a d6-type task resolution. While I was mostly thinking Lamentations of the Flame Princess for skill systems, recall that the d6 was often used for task resolution in early editions of the game. (Opening doors, finding secret doors, listening at doors, a thief's hear noise ability, etc) If you use a different method of task resolution (like the action check from Skyscrapers & Sorcery or the Traveller-esque skill system from Kevin Crawford's games), just...adapt it.
The magic-user begins with a 1 in 6 chance of using each skill. Magic-users with an intelligence score of greater than 13 add +1 to their skill level. Magic-users gain 1 extra skill point to spend at 1st level and an additional point at every level divisible by 3. Note that a 6 in 6 chance is possible. In that case, the magic-users only risks failure on rolling a 6. The player must roll again and only if a second 6 comes up does the skill fail.
Each additional use of a magic-user skill in a 24 hour period imposes a cumulative -1 penalty on that particular skill. Reducing the skill to 0 in 6 means that it automatically fails.
Dowsing- With a wand, amulet, or special dowsing rod, a magic-user may locate that which is hidden. The wizard may search for one of the following, determined when they dowse: a specific type of metal, fresh water, or buried corpses. The magic-user must spend one turn in concentration and make a Dowsing roll. On a success, the magic-user becomes aware of the general direction, distance, and amount, but only in qualitative terms. ("A lot", "a little," "nearby to the north," etc.) On a failed roll, the magic-user's reading is unclear. Dowsing has a -1 penalty within the confines of a dungeon or other subterranean artificial structure.
Foretell- The magic-user may employ some kind of divination device to get a glimpse of the future. Different magic-users use different methods: consulting the stars, reading entrails, casting the bones, etc. It takes one turn, after which the magic-user makes a roll. On a success, the player chooses one of two benefits: asking the DM one yes or no question (not about his own future), or giving a saving throw reroll to one other party member. (Never to himself) On a failed roll, the future is cloudy or uncertain.
Minor Alchemy- A magic-user may spend a turn examining a potion, oil, unguent, or other concoction to determine its effects without having to taste it. It takes one turn of examination. On a successful check, the magic-user correctly discerns the effects of the potion and how many doses are present. On a failure, the magic-user cannot discern it without resort to taste or spells.
Decipher Runes- A magic-user may attempt to discern lost or secret languages. At the DM's option, this can read magical writing as well. The magic-user must examine the writing for three turns. On a successful roll, the magic-user can discern the basic meaning of the text. On a failed roll, the magic-user cannot comprehend. Note that this is different from the thief's read language ability; it should be used only for ancient runes and lost languages.
A note about elves:
If you use the White Box version of the elf class that switches between fighter and magic-user, the elf can use the above skills only while functioning as a magic-user. If you use the version of the elf that functions as both classes (the B/X and Cyclopedic version) at the same time, the elf gains the same skills, but does not receive a bonus skill point at first level and does not gain any additional skill points. If you separate race and class, elves who are magic-users use the same rules as humans who are magic-users.
In Part II we will examine potential other systems for magic.