Alternative Magic, part II

October 8, 2006 at 5:19 pm (Articles)

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.

First of all, “feeling”. Fantasy fiction does not usually differentiate between wizard and sorcerer. Spellcasters of legend always seem to have the spell they need, when they need it, and never does a mythical figure feel the need to stop and rest just to prepare the right spell for a situation. This brings spontaneous casting to mind immediately. In a new magic system, all casters would be spontaneous, kind of like the sorcerer, and no caster will need to prepare his spells beforehand like the wizard does. The game moves one step closer to traditional fantasy and our mages feel more like people who use real, living magic, than magicians who draw from their bag of pre-prepared tricks.

Spontaneous spellcasting immediately eliminates the second problem, too, that of the preparation mini-game. The party’s mage will no longer need to guess what the adventure will require. This saves him the frustration of seeing spells go without use (“Why did I prepare hold person, there are only undead here!”) while at the same time freeing up his mind about how exactly he will use them(“Do I cast my only fireball now on the conveniently clumped minions, or do I wait until the boss fight?”). This should make spellcasters more able to adapt to situations around them and players that enjoy mages happier.

The mages would also be happier because they would be able to use more of their spells. Why prepare knock when more than half of those locks can be broken down with acid arrow? Who would choose floating disk when you can have one more magic missile? Yes, these spells do have their uses, but one needs to anticipate when they will be useful to prepare them (or carry scrolls with them) because otherwise they are a wasted slot 90% of the time. However, with a truly spontaneous magic system, mages will in theory be able to draw from any of their known spells as the situation demands. A learned mage with dozens of spells in his spellbook(s) will be able to call forth any of them, instead of the generic, “works-well-in-most-situations”, “best-spells-of-each-level-only”, same old, ultimately boring list.

The obvious danger is that of overpowering the spellcasting character, making him outshine all other characters in every situation, and in a way penalizing the other players in the group for not playing a spellcaster themselves. So there needs be a limiting factor, whether that is a number of “spontaneous spell slots” (like the sorcerer’s), a pool of spell points (often called mana), or another limiting factor (like each spell cast slowly draining the caster’s constitution score). I think I will leave spell slots aside – I am designing a new magic system, and while spell slots might help keep it familiar, I do not feel like keeping anything for old time’s sake. Mana on the other hand is often seen in video games, as well as other tabletop RPGs, and should serve here well. On the other hand I like the flavor of magic that is draining to the user, so I will save that idea for later use.

Finally, metamagic feats. Ah. The idea of feats that improve your spells in some ways is extraordinary, but it has problems in its implementation. In fantasy, a well-trained wizard would be able to cast most of his spells while silenced. In theory, he can. But no one does because the additional level hurts enough to only use the feat when absolutely necessary (that is, when silenced). But how can one predict when that occasion will arise? Instead, with a spontaneous magic system, metamagic feats will work as they do for the sorcerer, applied at the caster’s whims, and should see much more use in the right situations. The player will no longer be penalized for using them on his spells (“Great, lost a fireball for stilled summon monster II and for what, nothing restricted my movement after all!”).

But before actual work on the system begins, one last thing is to be remembered. The exciting thing about mages, is, often, how they strategically prepare and apply their spells to the situation to save the day. The wizard is, after all, an intelligent person, and one that spends much time in thought and preparation for a coming battle. A spellcaster should be careful with his spells, and it is that care that often distinguishes a master from an apprentice; a thoughtless mage would be always outshined by a prudent rival. Balance aside, a magic system should be restrictive on the player’s usage of spells to maintain that sense of strategy, which is a motivation for many players that choose to play a mage character.

Next time, the actual work/design process…



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

    […] Last part of the Alternative Magic article, this time I’ll try to break down how I did the work on the magic system we are using in our running Dungeons & Dragons campaign. In the previous article, I decided it would be a mana-based, no memorisation set of rules that would make no distinction between wizard and sorcerer. […]

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