Monday, January 23, 2012

Magic Users and Spell Levels

One of the things I disliked about D&D 3.x was the fact that you had to level up to get the next coolest thing, especially if you were a magic user. I find that boring and tedious. If I'm a magic user I should have access to all the spells/powers available to me and not be restricted by some invisible barrier.

A consequence of this leveling up process is that a magic user at 10th level is really no different than a magic user at 1st level. The spells aren't harder to cast, they don't require more from the magic user, they simply do more damage. Accepting this as a basic premise, why not make all spells available at the start and then adjust how they work?

With that in mind here are some thoughts that I had about how to let magic users have access to everything at first level, but not make them overpowered, or boring because there's no challenge.

--change the damage done by a spell. As a magic user increases in power and knowledge his spells also increase. So he might start out as a d4, then move to a d6, then d8, d10, etc.

--change how many spells per day the magic user can do. Maybe at the beginning he can only do two spells per day and he's worn out and drained. Later on he can do four.

--increase the chance of failure at lower levels. If the casting of a spell had a difficulty of 15 normally, maybe a 1st level user could only cast it by hitting 18.

I also like the idea of a lower level magic user still being able to cast a higher level spell, just making it more difficult to do and more draining once it's been done. Similar to someone drawing on those last reserves of strength and will to accomplish things and get them done.

On G+ Ken Austin had a great solution for Pathfinder, where the magic user could take a feat of something like "Over Achieving Spellcaster". The magic user could cast a spell at any level, but would have to make a Fortitude save of 15 plus the spell level, plus the damage done by the spell or remain unconscious for the number of rounds equal to the damage done. This would allow a player to sacrifice himself for the good of the party in a grand heroic gesture.


  1. I didn't like a similar solution used in HARP. I think the explanation is the following, taken from a G+ post of mine: "I definitely think that the promise of ever changing game play is what makes D&D interesting. The reason this works, I think, is because the spells you gain don't simply scale. The game changes if you can be invisible and fly. The game changes when you can dimension door and teleport. The game changes when you can travel to the planes. Outside of the specific rules, the tradition also encourages changes to the game when you reach name level and build a stronghold, and it changes once more when you start to forge alliances with and wage wars against neighbors."

  2. (Yikes, could not continue after pasting.) My point was that you listed increased damage at higher levels, but my experience is that this matters little in comparison to these game-changing spells. How would you design your solution in order to preserve this feeling of slow changes to the game over time? loosing this promise is what I would fear.

  3. Wouldn't the ability for higher level wizards to cast more spells per day take care of that concern?

    I guess you could say something like "you can't use this spell until you've mastered these other spells", but then you'd have to determine what those spells are.

    The issue I have with D&D and it's many clones is that the line between the lower and higher levels seems so arbitrary. If there was a logical progression (like in mathematics for example), then I'd be happier with it. Obviously the smartest kid in the world won't be able to do quantumn physics without mastering addition--but it's not his ability that's constraining him it's not having the foundational building blocks.

  4. But isn't it part of the fun to discover the new spells through play? Especially if the spells in your setting are not exactly (or at all) by the book?

  5. To elaborate, I see it more like this: a first level fighter could wield a +5 sword at first level if the fighter had such a sword. But the first level fighter will not have such a sword; it has to be discovered first. Likewise, finding (or researching) a new spell is a great treasure for a magic-user in games that I run. Also, in D&D magic-users can cast spells of any level provided they cast the spell from a scroll. They only have to wait until higher levels to be able to prepare some spells. For some reason, scrolls often are underused, and I think that is a shame. In my opinion, they solve most of the issues people bring up with the magic-user class.

  6. @Brendan. That's a good point about the scrolls, but again that's reliant upon the same issue as faces the fighter--the magic user has to find the scroll before he can use it.

    Mostly the debate comes down to a philosophical difference for me in that I'm not a fan of Vancian magic, which is what D&D seems to be based around. I'd prefer that there not be any spells at all, rather that a person simply be able to cast whatever it is they have the ability to do.