Alternative Magic, part III

October 27, 2006 at 8:26 pm (Articles)

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.

Luckily for me, Wizards have already done work on a mana-based magic system. It was published in Unearthed Arcana, and is (luckily, again) part of the System Reference Document. It can be found here. I will use that as a start and continue from there (so one might need to have a look at it to understand what I will speak of next).

The first I notice is they have done the heavy work of assigning spell points per level and for high ability scores to spellcasting classes. Though I cannot decipher what formula the used for it, it must be numbers that work in the game. I notice two things; one, most spellcasters receive less spells points per day than they would if all their spells were exactly translated to spell points. Two, paladins and rangers seem to get their full allotment. I keep a mental note of these two points and will consider them again when the balance of this system comes on the table.

That system uses a form of memorisation. Why? That only brings back half the troubles that Vancian Magic has in the first place. I do not like jobs half-done; memorisation goes out of the window and I think I will let spellcasters cast all the spells they know/have on their spellbooks. That does not break balance as much as it would seem in the first place since a high-level mage would have enough slots to prepare most of his spells if he only needed one of each and most low-level mages do not have a selection of spells large enough to warrant a balance issue. An obstacle is clerics and druids – they “know” all spells of any level they can cast! I need rules to deal with that, but I already like the idea of priest scrolls, prayerbooks, or even druids studying runes scribed on ancient stones that serve as nature’s spellbooks.

Next on, that system makes it so spellcasters need to spend more points to cast damage-dealing spells at their maximum possible caster levels. Really, it seems to upset balance between spells if a mage can spend 5 points for a 9d6 fireball but needs 9 spell points for a 9d6 cone of cold. At its heart, this is a problem with the spells themselves and would be a non-issue if cone of cold’s area of effect (for example) scaled with the caster level (as was the case in 3rd edition) but it needs to be taken under consideration.

Now, open parenthesis; Skill-based magic is right out for me, because it is so hard to design right with excellent balance. The DCs for spells are very hard to design so they are not impossible at low levels but ridiculously easy at the higher levels, and PCs can more often than not boost their relevant check bonuses to out-of-control numbers quick, with feats and magical items. Besides, skills in this game already represent something entirely different than magic; and forcing mages to throw ranks in skills just to be able to use their main class features is not a great idea. It is in fact unnecessary since all mages would simply maximize those ranks. End parenthesis.

The thing is that I like the final part of the system, where it goes on about vitalizing. The idea of mages throwing spells around without limit but at their own peril fits very well with my idea of sorcerers and I want to keep that part. But looking at the numbers, it has the problems of skill-based magic. There is really no good reason to use concentration for that check. The DCs are also strange in that they scale funnily (just +1 for every spell level). So I will keep that last part but I will change the concentration check to a caster level check, and then make the DC based on the spell points the mage is trying to spend. This also helps me better assign DCs to spells modified with metamagic feats.

Metamagic feats; I like how they work for the sorcerer and part of the reason I worked in this system was to make them more useful in the right situations. So they now can be applied to any spell on the spot, but increase its cost. The increased cost is slightly lower than it would be for most spells cast at higher levels but I wanted to make the basic ones (like Silent Spell) easily accessible. Besides this system already gives less spells per day (spell points) to mages than Vancian magic.

Finally, something quick to balance mages for all the added versatility, as well as something to make them more careful with how they spend their spell points; the fatigue part of the Unearthed Arcana system. But there it is complicated, and ultimately broken, when a Restoration spell can potentially restore so many spell points and a simple Touch of Fatigue can mangle a spellcaster. I will keep it simple; as spell points drop the caster is fatigued, then exhausted – he may recover from that fatigue by resting a while, but he will not regain any spell points without 8 hours of rest. On the plus side, if he is fatigued through other means, he does not lose any spell points.

So in the end I am left with what is more of a variant of a variant; a spell point system based off the one found in Unearthed Arcana. I like a first draft, but it will need refinement, playtesting, and perhaps a few touches of flavor to be complete. Until then, I am happy that I have cleared in my mind exactly how I want a working magic system to be, to fit the needs of players (of spellcasters and non-spellcasters!) and carry the flavor and fun of fantasy magic that my campaigns need and Vancian magic lacks.




  1. Jason Przybycien said,

    I like your ideas. I am trying to create a classless, levelless variant of D20 or True20. I am not a fan of Vancian magic, either. I want mages who can keep casting as long as they want, whatever spells they want, but with an increasing risk of truly harming themselves. I intend not mana points but an increasing DC to overcome as more spells are cast. Also, this allows group casting. One mage is spent, but he knows a killer spell you need. A second mage helps him cast and you still win.
    For more of the reasoning behind my ideas, see the post on my blog.

  2. Firkraag said,

    Group casting like that is a great idea – it can allow for powerful mages drawing power from apprentices, minions, perhaps at times even unwilling individuals, fitting another fantasy fiction wizard archetype.

  3. Kahn said,

    In a recent D20 Fantasy game I used a similar point based system but with a few changes.

    First, all items had charges, even your basic +1 sword. 1 charge gave you the bonus for 1 scene. Wizards could refill the items by imbuing mana points. This forced the mages to horde spell points to fuel the rest of the party. Mages had reasonable mana pools and magic items were introduced which could ‘store’ the points. The mana stones didnt refill on their own, but could be filled like any other item by the mage. Drawing points from mana stones in a non combat situation took a few minutes concentration. During combat or other stressful situations, a Concentration roll was required and failure meant possibly damaging the stone.

    Second, I also hated the idea limitations of memorization. Mages tended to always choose the same spells and rarely bother with the utility spells. Instead, when a mage studies he chooses a specific spell book to study from. Spell books are X number of pages depending on quality, cost, etc. I went exponential, so 100pages cost 10x what 50 pages cost you. Each spell requires a number of pages equal to it’s spell level. When you study from a specific spell book, you have those spells available the next day. It creates a system where you have let’s say 100 pages to ‘memorize’ your spell choices, but when casting you pay from your mana pool. You’re forced to still be selective but have much more flexibility. Also greatly increases the value of spell books.

    Other changes were introduced to place limitations on mages as well, but were setting specific, largely social restrictions on how mages were viewed by the world at large. The idea was to give mages choices and flexibility, without overpowering them. It worked well altho the parties’ mage was known to grumble about being a mana battery.

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