Monday, July 27, 2009

Magic Systems With Bite vs. Vancian Roteness: Some Thoughts

I have a fondness for magic systems with an element of unpredictability; magic systems like that found in Cinematic Unisystem, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition, both incarnations of Mage, etc. There have been a lot of musings in blogworld recently about systems to make magic more unpredictable/dangerous in good old D&D, many of which seem to have been inspired by the spell delay mechanic from Spellcraft & Swordplay, which, if I'm not mistaken, was inspired by the original Chainmail.

One of my old gripes with D&D's magic system is the relative safety of it. For the most part, spells have zero consequence for the mage, unless he tries to read a spell off a scroll that he is normally incapable of casting, or he uses haste on someone who is very old. After reading some of the excellent little subsystems out there, I had considered a system for adding variability to the magic system. (Both ways...spells that can occasionally go above and beyond the caster's expectations as well as spells that can go awry.)

Reordering my recent thoughts on Vancian magic, I'm not sure I need to do this for my current campaign. If Vancian magic relies on rote, it seems to me that it would be fairly safe. In Mage, there are no "spells"; every time the mage does something, he is literally warping the fabric of reality. Even an effect he has used before is a unique iteration of willpower and not a formula followed. In Warhammer 2nd edition (which has a very different magic system than the first edition), the wizard is taking hold of the Winds of Chaos and bending them into a spell. Granted, the spell is a rote itself, but the energy to fuel it is drawn from Chaos itself. D&D magic, by contrast, seems to be a bit more orderly. (Rigid is probably a better term)

Then again, just because you have a recipie doesn't mean the cassarole is going to turn out right... back to the drawing board, perhaps. I think I'll leave magic as written for my AD&D game, but future games I might have to tinker a little. The bottom line is this: I'd like for everyone to be just a little nervous when a spell is cast.


  1. Try it in different zones of magic density, so it can be an atypical event, but not entirely whimsical.

    One area on one 'level' or 'borough' has the strange effect, whilst the rest of the world is standard vanilla.

    If it works nicely, and everyone is pleased, perhaps the effect is spreading; a magical paradigm shift, as it were.

  2. I like Vancian. It's easy, it's traditional and it fits my perceptions of D&D.

    That being said, I introduced some variants into my game with counter-spelling - originally from Dubeers on OD&D forum. It was also proposed in FO#1, IIRC. It's a nice addition/danger for Vancian mages.

  3. I'm currently hard at work on something to shake up spellcasting a bit while not abandoning Vancian magic. All I need are a couple of free fifty hour days and I'd be able to finish it up.

  4. It may not have consequences, but it isn't without its limitations.

    A mage can still be interrupted during the casting of his spell, losing it from memory. Restricting the magic-users voice or gestures will also negate his or her ability to cast spells. As will the loss of spell components in later editions.

    One consequence that exists in AD&D (I assume also in AD&D2) is that the casting of several spells carry AGING penalties, as outlined in the DMG. This prevents MUs from glibly casting too many high level spells. In B/X and OD&D of course, this isn't a problem, both being much more "Vancian" in nature.

  5. @Timeshadows- Dang it, TS... whenever I get stumped on an element to the game, you bring a solution that is both simple and elegant. You're seriously cramping my ability to wallow in overcomplication. :P

    @Chgowiz- You wouldn't happen to have linky handy, would you? I think that DuBeers chap is a straight shooter, and I'd like to see his take on it.

    @Kilgore- I'll be looking for that, to be sure.

    @JB- I can't name any aging spells off the top of my head other than haste. I'll have to look into that.
    I definitely agree that Vancian magic has its limitations, and that fits in with my somewhat recent post about how Vancian mages basically have no idea what they are really doing; they are passing the test with notes copied, but not understood, from superior students.


  7. You want magic with bit look at GURPS Magic sometime. The odds are not good but if you critically fail your spell (18 on 3d6) and roll another 18 a demon will appear.

  8. AD&D 2nd edition does include the age causing spells, which is interesting. The most dangerous is Wish, I believe.

    Interesting concept Ryan. I try to leave spell casting alone, as JB pointed out, if you don't chose when and were to cast your spells wisely, then you are going to waste a spell, which in itself is devastating, considering the huge limitations already laid upon Mages in regards to how many spells they can cast per day.

    A good limitation is also the time required to memorize a spell, which is either 1 hour, or 1 turn per spell level . . . I'm not sure which, and I'm to lazy to look it up right now.

    There is also "Wild Magic", zones in the world which really screw up how magic works. Some mages have tapped into this power, calling themselves Wild Mages. This is all 2e, but it might be exactly what you are looking for.

  9. "Dang it, TS... whenever I get stumped on an element to the game, you bring a solution that is both simple and elegant. You're seriously cramping my ability to wallow in overcomplication. :P" -- You

    w00t! :D

  10. @Chgowiz: Thanks!

    @Rob: I used to own GURPS, and I do remember that result on the table. To translate this to AD&D, I'd have to have some kind of mechanic for a spell failure check, since they automatically go off as opposed to the skill roll in GURPS.

    @Ripper- Oh yeah, I remember Wild Magic from my AD&D2 days in high school. In fact, I ran a campaign where the party's mage was a Wild Mage. I remember many memorable instances of the wild surges saving and/or screwing the party. Sadly, I haven't owned the 2nd ed Tome of Magic for a long time.

  11. The thing to be cautious of is that, from a game-design perspective, magic unreliability is a balancing element. Limited usage is ALSO a balancing element. If you add more of one, it might be nice to give the mages something in return. It would be nice to throw a bone to the casters if you’re going to make their spells less reliable/more dangerous to themselves.

    One thing I really liked from the 3+ editions is making several relatively minor utility spells into cantrips, and building cantrips in as 0 level spells. Stuff like Read Magic and Light. I think stealing this from the late editions might be a nice choice.

  12. I'd give spellcasters a bunch of cantrips per day, too. Say 1 per level per day, plus one per point of ability score modifier (per extra language in AD&D that is). They don't really help in a fight anyway, but they make the character feel a WHOLE LOT more magical.

    And if they really want to, they can memorize four extra cantrips by sacrificing a 1st level spell slot that day.

    You can limit spellcaster power by limiting access to spells. Just make them more rare, wizards are reclusive, libraries hard to assemble for spell research, etc. But you need to make wizard paranoid and unwilling to shell out money to buy spells as well.

    Then again, as a player in a campaign like this right now, I have so many ideas to seize control of spell distribution and use an annual "wizard's fair" auction to attract buyers, releasing a spell under a threshhold pledge system. So don't count on your societal restrictions surviving contact with the ingenuity of players.

    Second, I suggest you roll on a wild magic chart when a spell goes awry, instead of just saying it dropped and memory is lost. So if the wizard wants to cast a spell in combat, there is a chance things could go horribly wrong if he's hit.

    Third, say that a spellcaster cannot have two of the same spell memorized at once. This will really hurt Clerics, but you could say that Clerics specifically can take as many Cure X Wounds spells as they have slots as the one and only exception.

    This would mean wizards would want to have a greater variety of combat spells, since they can't just memorize five Magic Missiles. It also limits the effects of any game-breaking spells (such as Sleep or Color Spray at low level) by restricting their use to once per combat per caster.

  13. There is actually some literary precedent for casters memorizing one of each spell. In Vance's books, wizards tended to load up four different spells instead of four of the same. However, this may not have been a restriction so much as a strategy. And it may have had more to do with Vance using them as a Chekhov's Gun.