While I continue to beaver away on the skill list (who would have thought coming up with rules for cheese making would take so long?), I thought it well past time to turn our attention to the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about Magic.
D&D is not D&D without magic. Fighter’s need their magic swords, rogues should clammer to have invisibility cast on them, wizards should be able to flash-fry foes by wiggling their eyebrows, and clerics… well, clerics should do whatever their god teaches (none of this namby-pamby all clerics are healers nonsense). Magic is the great defining element in D&D, and it also presents the greatest challenge to HD&D. We need to get his right and, to save us some work, we need to get it right the first time.
In this post, I will give you an overview of magic and how I think it should work in the game. We’ll look again at how the skills system interacts with spellcasting, as well as the different traditions of magic, the spells themselves and how it all comes together. There’s a lot to get through, and a lot of questions I want answered by you, so sit up straight and pay attention.
Spellcasting is King
First: a statement of intent. If, after reading the following, you believe that spellcasters are likely to be more powerful than non-spellcasters then you probably have a point. Of course, spellcasters will have their weaknesses but on the whole a high level mage is so versatile and can throw down so many odd and esoteric effects that he may begin to eclipse other classes. I’m perfectly happy with this.
By every leap of logic and fantasy convention, magic should be more powerful. I am not going to neuter wizards (or clerics, or psions) because of some misguided sense of game balance. The integrity of the campaign is more important than that. In my experience, the power of magic has not stopped anyone playing a non-spellcaster. I am sure that will continue to be the case.
Yes, I will tweak things to aid the play experience. Hopefully high level magic will not be a means to bypass all roleplaying as it has been in previous editions. However, I see no reason why a rogue should be the combat equal of a sorcerer just because they are both PC classes. I think I have the balance right, and I hope you agree.
How Spellcasting Works
Rant over. I’ve alluded to the mechanics of spellcasting in other posts, but it’s just as well to set everything in one place. Spellcasting in HD&D looks more like third edition D&D than fourth. To some degree this is a legacy issue. I want a game that looks and sounds like D&D. However, let’s not disregard the overwhelming practical concern that the fourth edition system of powers is less than adequate for our purposes. Yes, it works perfectly well in the context of 4e, but I really don’t want to run 4e and most of you don’t want to play it.
Magic is divided into various traditions: Arcane, Divine, Primal, Sonorism, Psionic and Pact to name the most common six. Each of those traditions is governed by a special Spellcraft skill. You use Spellcraft (Pact) to cast pact magic spells, Spellcraft (divine) to cast divine magic spells and so on.
Spellcasting for each class is also divided into a series of nine spellcasting talents. While, the spellcraft skill encompasses a broad spellcasting tradition, the talents are more specific. For example: Wizards and Sorcerers both cast spells from the Arcane tradition. They use Spellcraft (arcane) to cast their magic. However, Wizards and Sorcerers select different talents:
- Wizardry Level One
- Wizardry Level Two
- Wizardry Level Three
- Wizardry Level Four
- Wizardry Level Five
- Wizardry Level Six
- Wizardry Level Seven
- Wizardry Level Eight
- Wizardry Level Nine
- Sorcery Level One
- Sorcery Level Two
- Sorcery Level Three
- Sorcery Level Four
- Sorcery Level Five
- Sorcery Level Six
- Sorcery Level Seven
- Sorcery Level Eight
- Sorcery Level Nine
Sorry to spell it out as if my audience is aged five, but I hope you get the idea. Each spellcasting talent gives access to a level of spells. These levels are exactly the same as we had in third and second edition. So a Wizardry Level Nine would give the wizard the ability to cast Meteor Swarm, Timestop or any of those other excessively groovy spells.
In order to select a spellcasting talent you need to be of the correct class, the right level, have the appropriate Spellcraft as a class skill, and also have the preceding talents in the chain. So you can’t select Wizardry Level Nine unless you have wizardry levels one to eight.
It’s possible that some talents may also require certain ranks in a related Knowledge skill, but I haven’t worked out the details of that yet.
Changes to Spellcraft
After having read the above, you will realise that I’m treating Spellcraft differently from how I originally presented it in the post on Knowledge and Magic Skills. Well, I listened to your comments, and I changed a number of things.
I removed the need to know a Knowledge skill to cast spells. I think the mechanic of “make a Spellcraft roll using either your ranks in Spellcraft or your ranks in Knowledge X, whichever is less” is a clumsy mechanic. I intend to excise it from the rest of the skill system too. Knowledge skills remain skills of knowing stuff. They have no inherent connection with spellcasting.
By creating specialist Spellcraft skills for each different tradition, I felt able to fold the function of the Arcana skill into Spellcraft, without making Spellcraft seem too powerful. So the new version of HD&D dispenses with the Arcana skill entirely.
Here is the text of the brand new version of the Spellcraft skill:
Spellcraft (Varies) [Trained Only]
Destroy your foes with fire, ice or thunder. Animate the dead. Snare the mind. Heal the sick. Summon inhuman servants to do your bidding. You are a spellcaster, and there is nothing that you cannot accomplish.
Spellcraft is, quite simply, the ability to cast magic. It is the skill you use to focus the weave and create magical effects. Without Spellcraft spellcasting is impossible. All spell-casters must have ranks in this skill, and would be advised to max out those ranks.
Like Knowledge, Craft, Perform and Profession, Spellcraft is actually a number of separate skills. You could have several Spellcraft skills, each with its own ranks, each purchased as a separate skill. The different Spellcrafts each represent different traditions of magic:
Arcane (wizards and sorcers); Divine (clerics and paladins); Pact (warlocks); Primal (druids, shaman, rangers, healers); Psionic (psions, wilders); Sonorism (phonomancers, bards). Full details of these traditions are given in the section on Magic.
The ability score used to modify Spellcraft varies by class, not by tradition. Int is used by sonorists, wizards and psions; Wis is used by clerics, paladins, rangers, druids, healers and shaman; Cha is used by sorcerers, wilders, warlocks and bards.
Casting Spells: In order to cast magic you must have ranks in the appropriate Spellcraft skill, and have access to the required spellcasting talents. You may need ranks in certain knowledge skills to qualify for some spellcasting talents. Access to the skills or talents of one spellcasting tradition gives you no ability to cast spells from a second.
The section on Talents gives a comprehensive list of all the spellcasting talents associated with each tradition. Often there are unique talents for each class. For example, sorcerers and wizards are both of the Arcane tradition but have their own series of spellcasting talents (sorcery and wizardry respectively).
Full details of the traditions can be found in the section on Magic. A complete listing of all available spells, follows in the Spells chapter.
All spells have unique mechanics. Most are cast as standard actions, although the most powerful may require hours or days to cast. Most spells require a Spellcraft vs. Defence roll to affect a target. The DC of the test is therefore the enemy’s Reflex, Fortitude or Will defence.
Equally, most spells need time to recharge after they are cast, so if you miss you may not be able to try again. At least, not right away.
Identify a spell: If you see a spell of the same tradition being cast you can attempt to work out what it is by making an Spellcraft check against DC 15 + 2/spell level (e.g. DC 33 for a 9th level spell). Doing so does not count as an action. If you do not see the spell cast, but the spell affects you (whether successfully or not) you can also make a roll to try and identify the spell. However, add +5 to the DC in this case.
You can also try to identify a spell from a different tradition. Make the roll normally. If you succeed you do not learn the exact spell, but you do learn the tradition, school and the spell’s power (its level).
Detect Magic Auras: When using the detect magic spell, you use the Spellcraft skill to interpret the spell’s findings.
Decipher Written Spell: You can use Spellcraft to decipher written magical writings of the same tradition, such as spells or another wizard’s spellbook. You must make a check for each spell, and the DC is 15 + 2/spell level. Once you have made the check once, you need never make the check again for that particular magical writing. If you fail, then you can try again after taking an extended rest.
You cannot decipher written spells from a different tradition. However, a successful Spellcraft check will reveal what tradition the written spell is from.
Identify materials worked or shaped by Magic: You can tell the difference between a Wall of Stone and a stone wall. If something has been created by magic a successful check at DC 20 + 2/spell level will tell you. This applies regardless of the tradition that formed the material.
Identify magic item: Spellcraft is used in the process of identifying magic items, however it cannot be used to do so in isolation. Normally divination magicks would also be required. Identification of an item may depend on the tradition that created the item.
Learn a new spell: Most spellcasters know a set number of spells at level one, and then gain an automatic understanding of one new spell per level. If they want to learn any spells outside that, then they must learn the spell. The spell might be bought, found or gifted by another spellcaster (such an another priest in the same church). However, the mechanic is always the same.
You must succeed in a Spellcraft check of DC 15 + 2/Spell level. If you are working from a written source (e.g. you are a wizard) then this check represents your attempt to decipher the spell. If you are taught a new spell through an oral tradition (e.g. you are a druid) then the check represents your ability to absorb what you are being taught.
You spend one day learning the spell. If the spellcaster is a wizard, then this probably involves shutting himself in a room surrounded by dusty tomes. If the spellcaster is a druid then it probably involves sitting in the rain while contemplating the world around him. At the end of the day you make the check as indicated above. If you succeed then you have learned the spell. If you fail the check then you have not learned the spell. You can try again after an extended rest.
You cannot try and learn spells of a different tradition.
What about my Cantrips?
The astute will notice that spells of levels one to nine leaves no room for zero level spells: cantrips, orisons and psionic talents as they were referred to in third edition. I had always intended to have ten spellcasting talents, the first of which gave access to zero level spells, but I made some fundamental changes that meant this couldn’t happen.
I am now determined that HD&D will be a twenty level game, not a thirty level game. None of the underlying maths needs to change, but this means that the crowning ability of each character class now needs to be available from level 20, and not level 30. This gives me less talents to work with.
By level 19, a character will have access to fourteen talents and twelve feats. If a spellcaster wanted to know his most powerful spells by this point then he would have to invest ten of those fourteen talents in spellcasting. Now, spellcasting is awesome, and it would probably still be worth it, but I felt it would be nice to free up one additional talent for wizards and clerics to play with.
I therefore returned to the second edition way of thinking. No zero level spells. All the spells that were of level zero in third edition have been folded into the selection of first level spells. They are not any more difficult or draining to cast (most will be at-will) and everyone’s happy.
Spells are categorised as either At-Will or Recharge. At-Will spells can be cast continuously without wearing down a spellcaster’s resources. Recharge spells requrie the spellcaster to rest between casting. For example, once a wizard has cast fireball he can’t cast it again until he has taken a five minute rest. This means that a wizard needs to run through his repetoire of spells, and cannot rely on just one spell. It also means that during an extended combat, a wizard could run out of spells.
The other thing to consider when casting a spell, is the spell’s casting time. Most spells take one standard action to cast. However, the most powerful spells may take much longer: minutes, hours or even days.
The HD&D spellcasting system is therefore a happy union between traditional D&D spellcasting and fourth edition rituals. The most powerful and elaborate magic spells are not the sort of thing you can dash off while waiting for the barkeep to pour your pint. These are exhaustive incantations that take time, ready gold and a laundry list of components.
Components? What about components?
Over the years I have come to view spell components as a pain in the rear. Keeping track of them is boring, and so no-one really bothers. Therefore what colour they could lend to a setting is made rather redundant. However, I would like components to play a role in HD&D. So how do we approach this?
In second and third edition components were divided into three categories: Vocal, Somatic and Material. Yes, I know there were more categories in third edition, but they don’t count and I’m certainly not using them.
To my mind the easiest way to handle Vocal and Somatic compoents is to just assume that every spell has them. If a spell doesn’t have them, then it should specifically say so in the spell text. For example, Power Words arguably need only a verbal component, but they are an exception rather than the rule.
Material components are more of a challenge. In 4e, simple spells (the powers) don’t require components at all. The more complicated spells (rituals) do require them, but they have been terribly simplified. Instead of a wizard spell requiring 500 gp of crushed agate, a feather from a hormonal cockatrice and a pinch of iron filings, it just requires 600 gp of “alchemical reagents”.
Now, I was against this flavourless drivel when I first read it, but as I have played 4e, I have noticed that it actually works rather well. For the first time it’s easy to keep track of components. I have to say that if we keep Material components at all then I’m leaning toward this method of recording them.
Obviously, all the details haven’t been ironed out yet. I am sure that powerful spells could still require unique compoents. If you need the tongue of a copper dragon in order to cast a spell to talk to Io then you still have to go and get one.
What do you think? If material components are going to generic then what advantage is there in having them at all? In 4e the cost of the components acts to control the use of the magic. I’m unlikely to go down that road in HD&D, so do we really need components?
Learning New Spells
This is mentioned in the text of the Spellcraft skill above, but it bears a little underlining. One of the major problems of third edition was the number of spells a character knows. A 3rd ed druid or cleric knew hundreds of spells which either meant he had an answer for every occassion, or he spent twenty minutes pouring through eight different sourcebook on his turn during combat.
I propose that all classes start with few spells, and do not automatically gain very many as they rise in level. Once a character chooses their level one spellcasting talent, they gain eight first level spells. From that point on, every time they gain a level, they automatically know one more spell of a level they can cast. All spellcasters be they wizards, druids or clerics are limited in this fashion, so there is parity between all the classes.
Of course, they may still learn, beg, buy, borrow or steal additional spells from other sources. However, the very fact that this has to be done during game time is sufficient to slow down the acquisition of spells. We should never again return to the insane heights of third edition.
One of the advantages of giving powerful spells a longer casting time is that it limits their use. I’m sure that my players are aware that I have issues with certain spells that are available to high level casters in D&D. These are not the big damage-dealers or the save-or-die effects (although the latter is a problem); I have issues with spells that enable characters to circumvent obstacles and encounters.
Now, I have nothing against a player using a clever application or combination of spells to do something I hadn’t anticipated: that is to be encouraged. It’s when the spells are actively designed to circumvent roleplaying that I have an issue.
There are times in a campaign when something like a teleport spell is very handy to speed things along (we’re at that stage in the League of Light campaign). However, there’s a difference from using that spell to get from A to B and using it to bypass a series of interesting and challenging encounters that the GM has spent his precious time creating.
Divination spells are another example. What’s the point in creating a mystery or a puzzle for the party to solve, just have all the answers available from one casting of a spell?
Powerful spells such as Teleport without Error, Contact Other Plane, Greater Scrying and their like are the reason I don’t like playing high level games. They make it impossible to run the challenging scenarios I want to run. Yes, I know the DMG is replete with advice on to how to get around such abilities, but I don’t want to have to get around them. Why give the PCs something and then list the 101 ways they can’t use it?
These spells make the game boring. The PC spellcaster might feel a small rush of power and smugness, but it’s not to the benefit of the play experience. Isn’t it more interesting to interact with the plot than avoid it? Isn’t it more fun to find out information by talking to NPCs than casting a spell and having the GM tell you everything?
We have a golden opportunity to right these wrongs. We are adopting HD&D over third edition, and the Iourn has now got to a stage where the Weave has been completely rewritten. We can make whatever changes to the way magic works that we like.
Now, I am not advocating getting rid of spells like this completely, I just want to see them reigned in.
The Linked Portal and Planar Portal rituals from the fourth edition PHB1 is a far better way of handling teleport than third edition. Rather than a wizard blipping where-ever he likes he needs to travel from one magic portal to another portal. It creates a magical ‘Stargate’ system. Extraordinarily powerful wizards (level 28 in 4e-speak) are required to duplicate the effects of a fifth level third edition teleport spell.
As for powerful divinations, let the casting of such a divination be an adventure in itself. Maybe the PCs need to travel to a far off oracle, or collect unique components related to the question at hand. Never should a powerful divination be an off-the-cuff casting.
Polymorph and Summoning
Here are two types of spells that often cause problems – not because they are too powerful, but because they slow the game down to an absolute crawl. Who hasn’t seen a wizard turn himself into an owlbear and then spend the next fifteen minutes recalculating his ability scores, skills and other statistics?
My solution to this thorny issue is not revolutionary. I intend to do away with Polymorph, Shapechange and like spells and replace them with a suite of separate spells. Rather than Polymorph we might have Panther Shape or Proctor’s Amazing Spell of Rodent Transformation. Polymorph becomes a descriptor, not a single spell.
Likewise, Summoning spells won’t give you a choice. There will be no such thing as Monster Summoning VI. Instead we will have spells such as Summon Elemental, Summon Basilisk and Summon Pot Pourri. I’ll merge the “Summoning” and “Calling” descriptors from third edition. I prefer the Planescape way of thinking: that all summoned creatures have to come from somewhere.
Creating and making magic items has been a staple of D&D for years, and I want to retain this element in HD&D. However, I prefer to run games in low-magic worlds where magic items are a rarity. This is why most of the magic items in my ongoing third edition campaigns have been made by players.
Magic items in HD&D must confirm to the following broad rules:
All magic items are unique. Magic items are significant. Even the lowliest of them will have its own origin, legends and place in history. There are no generic magic items.
No flat bonuses. Magic items will never confirm static bonuses to hit, damage, defences, ability scores or the like. There is no such things a +1 Sword. These sort of bonuses cripple the system. We either have to inflate DCs to accomodate them (if which case anyone without a magic item is shafted), or we keep DCs as they are (if which case those with items are at a strong advantage, and those without magic items are still shafted). It is my belief that we can come up with interesting and colourful powers for magic items without resorting to anything as dull as a +2 ring of protection.
So how do you create a magic item? In second edition it was a spell. In third edition it was a series of feats. In fourth edition it was a ritual. In HD&D, creating magic items will be a series of unique spells, each spell will only be good for creating a certain type of magic item.
For example, there might be a spell called Forge Holy Weapon that allows the caster to create a holy sword. The spell would only be available to clerics, it would be of such a level that a holy sword couldn’t be introduced to the game until the game was ready, and casting the spell would be a pretty serious ritual requiring unique components, money, time and perhaps the odd quest.
By creating a unique spell for every magic item then we have complete control over the availability of magic items. PCs could create their own spells to create their own unique items. It’s creative, and will lead to imaginative magical devices, not simply utilitarian ones.
These are my initial thoughts on magic. Please tell me what you think. I’m particularly looking for opinions of material components, but all comment on any aspect of this post is welcome.