Alternative Magic, part I

September 30, 2006 at 8:11 pm (Articles)

In this series of articles I will explain what a good, solid magic system should be like, and then try to create one for my campaign. In the first part I will try to find what exactly bothers me about the magic system in the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook.

For long there has been talk of alternative magic systems for Dungeons & Dragons. Vancian magic (the default D&D magic system, where casters get an allotment of spell slots that they can fill when resting. It was named after Jack Vance, whose writings inspired Gary Gygax to create this system of magic) just does not seem to work for many players, at least as shown by the many topics about it on the house rules D&D forums. Instead, they opt to go for alternative magic systems, most often those based on spell points that are used up as “mana” to power the mage’s spells.

But what is so wrong about it to begin with? Well, nothing really. In fact, it seems to have worked well for years, and has survived through all these editions of Dungeons & Dragons. But still, Vancian magic does have its drawbacks, for all this talk of alternative systems to exist. Obviously, it restricts spellcasters to a certain selection of spells they cannot modify for an entire game day, or more, until they have a chance to rest. This forces the player to think far ahead, scratch what he thinks will not be necessary, and select only a handful of spells from the quite large and impressive list he might possess. The player understands that he will have to be stingy with the spells he does prepare, and that he might miss the spells he does not. He also understands that at some point he will not have access to a spell he absolutely needs, or his powers will run out, and then he will stop and rest.

Where does this fit into traditional fantasy? The mages in legends always seem to have the spell they need, when they need it. Further than that, I do not recall Gandalf ever getting the Fellowship to rest because he wanted to modify his list of prepared spells. Voldemort always seems to have enough Killing Curses and his utility spells. In fact, most spellcasters in fantasy fiction can cast just about as many spells as they like/need, or until exhaustion overcomes them, which oftentimes is the result of the draining power of magic.

I want to stay on the part about Gandalf a little. In D&D games, it just seems like the mage or cleric is the first person to ask for rest to refresh their spells. Not very cinematic, needing a break halfway to the final battle, and not very fun having to forget about the dungeon crawl and go back to town so that the mage or cleric can rest. Yes, this should probably be avoided if the DM prepares his encounters carefully, and the casters exercise caution, but when it happens it can ruin an adventure, or at least the adventuring mood everyone is in.

For the mage, this means two things. Obviously, he needs to be stingy with his spells, meaning he will not offer his character’s full potential until the boss fight. Fair enough, a mage’s best spells are powerful indeed, and he should not be allowed to throw them on every encounter otherwise he would outshine everyone else. But it also means that utility spells are the first to get hacked when resting and preparing. A mage is more likely to start an adventure loaded with fireballs, holds, death spells, and the like, instead of… anything else. From the hundreds of spells a mage can choose from, he will only be using the same 0.5% for all his life, or at least his adventuring career. And of course, if he needs knock or jump to defeat an encounter, he will just not have it.

Finally, metamagic feats are a thorn on the mage’s side. Quite often they hurt more than they are worth, as they are feats that you do not only pay with a feat slot, but you continue to pay for every time you use them, and they force you into even more “thinking ahead” when preparing spells. Sub-vocal casting sounds like most serious mages would be able to do at will, but no, you need to prepare your spells at higher level to be silent and make sure you silenced the right spells. More often than not, a mage finds himself using his silenced fireball in a typical encounter, and not having the silenced fireball when one day, he is, for once, actually silenced.

So what have we established? Vancian magic does not fit well with fantasy fiction, forces mages in the “planning ahead” mini-game, hurts utility spells and favors the memorization of the same common general-application spells, causes the group to routinely break the adventure to rest, and diminishes metamagic feats. Therefore a good magic system should fit well with fantasy fiction, should not restrict players too much, should allow for the more liberal application of utility spells, should not force the group to break the adventure to rest, and should work well with metamagic feats. In addition, it should probably retain some sense of strategy for the mages that prefer to use their magic carefully, and should not be unbalanced in regards to how well the mage does in relation to his fellow group members.

More about how a good magic system should work, next time.



  1. Alternative Magic, part II « The Dragon’s Lair said,

    […] In the second part of the article about an Alternative Magic system, some talk about how can a set of rules be designed to solve the issues about the traditional Dungeons & Dragons magic system. […]

  2. swtferguson said,

    I like what you’re saying. I read on with eager anticipation.

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