Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Homebrew '82: Magic and Miracles

It seems like messing with the "Vancian" magic system of D&D is a popular pastime these days. No exceptions here! (Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s it seemed like the combat system was the thing that got the most scrutiny and rebooting...)

So, Homebrew '82 still has magic-users with spells, and clerics with "miracles."  I wanted to make a clearer distinction between the two groups, so the magic spells are all very elemental and physical, and the miracles are all mental and a bit "psychic." No crossover in the lists. I'm also sort of thinking of a Dark Ages Britain setting, where the clerics are Christian and the magic-users are native Celtic enchanters or hedge-witch types. But I also don't want to rule out other representatives of the "countercultural" strains of the Western Hermetic tradition for magic, either.

No spell books for the magicians, since a big part of the training for each level is intense memorization. No gathering of material components, but I am toying with the idea of WANDS being necessary for M-U's. Mr. Ollivander's shop is just too inviting! :)

The biggest change to 1e-type D&D will be that each attempt to cast a spell or miracle will require a to-hit type roll on a d20. A higher INT or WIS will mean a better chance of success, and so will the "relative ease" of the spell (the caster's experience level minus the spell level).  A 9th level magic-user casting a 9th level spell will have the same basic chance of success as a 1st level magic-user casting a 1st level spell.  But a 9th level magic-user casting a 1st level spell? Way easy!

To balance out the increased rate of failure, there will be more spells/miracles available per day. I'll probably use a point system, where an Nth level spell costs N points to cast. First level M-U's and clerics start out with approximately 10 casting points per day, with a slight modification based on their CON score. The increase with experience will start out linear (20 points for 2nd level, 30 for 3rd) but will then slow down a bit. Maybe just 50 or 60 points by 10th level. This offsets the fact that the higher level spells pack much more of a punch.

Another change will be that the spell/miracle lists will be much shorter. However,
  1. Each spell will be broader in its scope, where the caster can make cosmetic variations to his or her heart's content. For example, there's only one Magic-Missile-like "direct damage" spell, but its appearance can be whatever the M-U wants it to be (fire, ice, a stream of rocks, etc). Another example is telekinesis. Why separate it into Feather Fall, Repulsion, Levitate, Rope Trick, and so on, when it's all just moving stuff around with magic?
  2. The power of each spell will scale with increasing level. In standard D&D this idea is present in Magic Missile and a few others, but here it will be used for everything. For example, if the clerical "persuasion" miracle is available to 1st level clerics and above, there will be 1st through 10th level versions of it. The 1st level version just causes a light "Disorient person" effect. The 2nd level version is more of a "Jedi mind trick" that can influence behavior more directly. Higher up still is Charm Person and other varieties of puppet-master control of another person (i.e., "blood-bending" to fans of Avatar: the Last Airbender!) Then higher it becomes a more long-lasting control: Geas or Quest.
Finally, I also hope to have more evocative names for the spells and miracles. (One instance of getting closer to Vance than in vanilla D&D!) Maybe for magic-user spells the names will be nature-inspired (e.g., "Dragon's Breath" for the Magic Missile like energy weapon). For clerics, maybe it's religion-specific. Biblically inspired names... or at least Latin... for Christian clerics? This is one case where I will definitely make it a point to search out the OSR blogosphere so I won't spend too much time reinventing the wheel.

Hopefully these changes will make spell/miracle casting more creative, fluid, and exciting -- and less an exercise in rulebook page-flipping. Also, I hope the ability to (TRY to) cast more spells per day will make it a more appealing option for newly minted PCs.


  1. I just realized the geeky irony of calling the term "Dragon's Breath" nature-inspired! If one lives too long in a fantasy world, the weird rules of that world will become internalized in one's mind here in this world! I'll leave it to others to judge whether that's a good thing or a bad thing! :)

  2. Besides, everyone knows that the dragon's breath is used to cross chasms, right? ;)

    As for wands, I've often toyed with the idea of wands, amulets, and staves being necessary. For what you've started with, maybe an amulet is necessary to even try, but a wand gives a bonus and a staff a larger bonus?

  3. These scaling spell effects remind me of the spell lists in MERP.

    A mage was able to learn one spell (list) per experience level, and cast spell effects up to his level.

  4. Thanks for the pointer, Greyhawk Knight. I've got to dig out those old MERP core rules... (never actually played it, but I loved all the non-canonical Tolkien crunch!)