HD&D: Instinctive Magic

The sorcerer. The wilder. The mystic. Three character classes from three different magical traditions. Their commonality is that these characters do not obtain their magical powers by dint of dedication and study. They are born with an innate talent to tap the weave and cast magic. In this post, we’ll look at how to make this a mechanical reality in the HD&D system. My first thought is that it won’t be easy.

Part of me wishes that I had never included sorcerers in the Iourn setting in the first place. Wizards and sorcerers don’t sit very comfortably together in the third edition game. They represent two different magic systems. It’s almost as if the original 3rd edition designers didn’t like the old “Vancian” magic system but didn’t have the guts or the managerial support to do away with it completely.

The problem with my house rules is once you introduce a spell point system for all casters, you are immediately at a loss to differentiate between the sorcerer and the wizard. I included the wizard and the sorcerer in Iourn because they were both in the core rules. I don’t regret it in hindsight because we’ve built a number of memorable adventures on the differences between the two. But it would have been easier if I hadn’t have bothered. I bent over backwards to make the wizard and sorcerer mechanically different, and I don’t think my solution was particularly successful.

I have no firm ideas or solutions of what to do with sorcerers. I am instead going to present a number of options, none of which have been as well thought through as Recharge Magic. Hopefully, one of the ideas will spark someone’s imagination and we can start to run with it. In the following, when I refer to sorcerers I mean “sorcerers, wilders and mystics”. Sorcerers are the class that is most important to the setting and one that we’re likely to finish first. Let’s dive in:

Spot the Difference

Wizards have a potentially unlimited number of spells, but are resticted in how often they can cast them. Sorcerers have no such restriction on casting their magic, but they know less spells. Wizards are more versatile when they have time on their hands, but in stressful situations a sorcerer is the one with all his options open.

This is the fundamental difference between wizards and sorcerers in third edition and the Iourn setting. It’s s distinction that I want to keep in HD&D. In HD&D wizards can learn as many spells as they like, but once they cast a spell they can’t cast it again until they rest. Sorcerers should therefore know less spells (or a smaller variety of effects) but have access to those magicks all the time.

What do we mean by “all the time”? Do we mean that all a sorcerer’s powers are At-Will? I would say not. Giving a powerful spell as an at-will ability is a recipe for disaster. Players of sorcerers will still have to manage finite resources for their spellcasting. Without finite resources then spellcasters really do become too powerful. I hope that everyone can see that.

Option One: Fatigue

Perhaps the obviously solution is that spellcasting simply tires a sorcerer. They could cast their spells all day if their body let them, but they are mortal creatures and frankly it just wears them out to cast magic. This is a similar idea to the one behind the current house system.

At the moment, casting a spell inflicts nonlethal damage on the sorcerer equal to the level of the spell. Therefore spellcasting actively reduces the sorcerer’s hit points. As I mentioned in my comments in the thread on Recharge Magic, I don’t think this works particularly well. On the one hand sorcery is too good – a simple healing spell is all that is required to restore a sorcerer’s spell points. On the other hand, sorcery is not good enough – a sorcerer who finds himself in combat goes down too quickly because both he and his enemy are chipping away at the same hit point total.

However, such a system is not without published precedent. Force users in the original d2o Star Wars game used exactly the same mechanic for their force powers. If d20 Darth Vader wants to batter d20 Luke with telekinetically charged objects on d20 Bespin then the Dark Lord of the Sith takes subdual damage when he does so. Jedi that use the Force to heal themelves take the subdual damage from using the power, and then receive the hit points back with interest when the power goes off.

If we were to use a system like this in HD&D then we would need to use the same subdual/nonlethal damage mechanic employed by third edtion. I haven’t decided whether I want to do this yet – although if we decide that this is how we want to handle sorcery, that alone would convince me to use it. There is also the issue of how well this idea sits along side Recharge Magic.

Imagine a wizard using the recharge mechanic fighting alongside a sorcerer using the same rules we are using at present. Would one overshadow the other? Would you automatically want to play a caster of one type over the other, because the other is just a bit rubbish? If that is the case, then we haven’t found our solution.

Or is there another way to reflect fatigue in the rules without using inflicting subdual/nonlethal damage on a sorcerer? The third edition game has two conditions to reflect general levels of tiredness. Observe:

Fatigued: A fatigued character can neither run nor charge and takes a -2 penalty to Strength and Dexterity. Doing anything that would normally cause fatigue causes the fatigued character to become exhausted. After 8 hours of complete rest, fatigued characters are no longer fatigued.

Exhausted: An exhausted character moves at half speed and takes a -6 penalty to Strength and Dexterity. After 1 hour of complete rest, an exhausted character becomes fatigued. A fatigued character becomes exhausted by doing something else that would normally cause fatigue.

Now, the definitions as they stand are largely useless to us, but what if we could find another way to measure fatigue that didn’t refer to a character’s hit points? Maybe a sorcerer has to roll to cast every spell and failure means that they take on some form of fatigue? This fatigue would have in-game effects and seek to discourage a sorcerer from extended periods of spellcasting?

Of course, this begs the question of why a fighter can wave a two-handed sword around all day without becoming fatigued, while a sorcerer who casts two light spells needs bed rest. Frankly it needs work, but there are other systems out there that do it successfully. Take Shadowrun for example. I’m not completely familiar with it, but I know spellcasters have to roll to cast a spell and have the potential of damaging themselves if they push themselves too far. Could we adapt something from that?

Option Two: Recharge Magic

Let’s not knock the easy way out. If we already have a workable magic system in Recharge Magic, why don’t sorcerers use that as well? They cast their spells in exactly the same way as wizards, have the same recharge problems as wizards and the same solutions to those problems (talents, feats and items). Okay, that would work. But what’s the point?

In this proposal wizards and sorcerers use exactly the same system. So what differentiates a wizard from a sorcerer? If they’re both the same why not just have wizards, or just have sorcerers? Fortunately, we can look back at last two incarnations of the D&D game for some inspiration.

Third Edition followed this route, but it didn’t do it for the wizard and sorcerer. As I have said, in 3rd ed, wizards and sorcerers used different mechanics. For a true parallel we have to look at the Expanded Psionics Handbook and compare the Psion with the Wilder.

In third editin both the Psion and the Wilder use a spell point system. They have the same total spell points. However, the Wilder gains access to power levels slightly more slowly than the psion, and knows less than a third of the psion’s total number of powers. This follows the typical third edition principle. The psion is the wizard (more spells) and the wilder is the sorcerer (less spell). However, they both have instant access to any spell because of the spell point system. On the face of it the psion is king, and the wilder is a waste of time. So what did third edition do to remedy this?

The psion is a classic wizard type character. Psions gain spellcasting and a selection of bonus feats as they gain levels. The wilder is the class with the more interesting class abilities. Wilders have the ability to use a “wild surge”. This means they cast their spells at an elevated caster level. They also get numerous bonuses to attack rolls and saving throws because of the elation of using a wild surge. If they wild surge too much they are in danger of ‘psychic enervation’ and dazing themselves. Wilders also enjoy a better base attack bonus and hit dice than psions.

Is that enough to make the wilder an attractive proposition? I have to say that I’m not entirely convinced, although it does make for quite a flavourful class. However, if we are in a situation (in HD&D) where the wizard has unlimited spells and the sorcerer knows a finite number, then a sorcerer’s class abilities (his talents) are going to have to be pretty damn special to make up the gap. If you consider that spellcasting itself will take up nine of the fourteen talents a character will obtain between level one and level twenty then we immediately hit a wall. Is it even fair for a sorcerer’s spellcasting to take as many talents as a wizard’s does, if the sorcerer gets less versatility and benefit from them?

Okay, what about good old fourth edition? What does it do? The 4e wizard and the 4e sorcerer use exactly the same mechanics. They have the same number of daily, encounter and at-will powers. How do they differ? Firstly, 4e has the advantage of defining their characters by role as well as class. The wizard is a controller, the sorcerer is a striker. Immediately, the player knows that their spells are going to be different. Wizards retain the trappings of the spell books and their implement mastery, while sorcerers gain something else:

4e sorcerers choose between being using Dragon Magic and Wild Magic (presumably they’ll have more choices when Arcane Power is published). This is almost akin to giving the character a bloodline power. Dragon Sorcerers gain bonuses to damage with spells equal to their strength, they become resistant to a specific element and sometimes gain bonuses to AC. Wild Sorcerers are more random. Their defences oscillate depending on whether their attack roll for the round was odd or even. On a natural 20 their spells have additional effects. On a natural 1 their spell goes off at ground zero.

So again, we have a variation on a theme. The mechanics for spellcasting are the same, but the powers of the classes are different. Although 4e is far from a system to hold up in awe, it is full of interesting mechanical solutions. It’s also interesting that both third and fourth edition have chosen to equate free spellcasting (be it a wilder or a sorcerer) with Wild Magic. Could that we a path to take? Could sorcery use the same mechanics as wizardry but just be inherently more random and dangerous? Does that really sync with our intentions for sorcerers?

Remember that sorcerers must be instrinctive casters. Their advantage over wizards is that they don’t need a spell book, they don’t need to study and their don’t need to prepare their magic. That has to be expressed in the mechanics, or there’s not a lot of point in having the distinction in the first place.

Option Three: Bloodlines

Why do sorcerer’s have this intrinsic link to magic? Because they are born with it. Somewhere in their past, lurking in some dark and twisted branch of the family tree, is a creature of extreme magical power. For Iourn, these creatures have always been dragons. Sorcerers are descended from dragons. However, that doesn’t need to be the case. The door is open for sorcerers to be decended from all manner of arcane creatures. It follows that wilders and mystics have their powers from their blood as well. Their could be other origins, of course. Maybe a mystic was present when a god manifested and it left a lingering taint on the character. All things are possible in a fantasy game.

However, all of the above was just flavour in third edition. It didn’t actually have anything to do with the rules. Separate rules for blood lines and half-races were published in Unearthed Arcana, but there was no deliberate attempt to tie them to sorcery. Happily, I am not the only one attempting to overhaul the Dungeons and Dragons game. Let’s take some inspiration from Paizo and their Pathfinder Roleplaying game. It’s probably long overdue.

Paizo were a company that produced third party supplements and adventures for the third edition game. The company decided not to follow the game into fourth edition, and instead produce their own revision of third edition: Pathfinder. If I wasn’t creating HD&D then I would probably adapt Pathfinder. It is better than version 3.5 of third edition, but because it tries to be backwards compatible with the whole of the third edition catalogue it doesn’t actually address the problems I have with the system. The grapple rules are better, though.

Anyway, the Beta Test of the Pathfinder game is free to download from the Paizo site. Get over there and download it if you haven’t already. The published version is out in August 2009, and I’ll definitely be picking up a copy. So what were we talking about? Oh, yes. The sorcerer. Spellcasting in the Pathfinder game works in exactly the same way as regular third edition. However, in addition to spellcasting, each sorcerer picks up a bloodline. Here’s what the Beta version (page 42) says about them:

Bloodlines: Each sorcerer has a source of magic somewhere in her heritage that grants her spells, bonus feats, an additional class skill, and other special abilities. This source can represent a blood relation or an extreme event involving a creature somewhere in the family’s past. For example, a sorcerer might have a dragon as a distant relative or her grandfather might have signed a terrible contract with a devil. Regardless of the source, this influence manifests in a number of ways as the sorcerer gains levels. A sorcerer must pick one bloodline upon taking her first level of sorcerer. Once made, this choice cannot be changed.

At 3rd level, and every two levels thereafter, a sorcerer learns an additional spell, derived from her bloodline. These spells are in addition to the sorcerer’s list of spells known. These spells cannot be exchanged for different spells at higher levels (although variations might exist, with GM permission).

At 7th level, and every six levels thereafter, a sorcerer receives one bonus feat, chosen from a list specific to each bloodline. The sorcerer must meet the prerequisites for these bonus feats.

The bloodlines listed in the Pathfinder game are Aberrant, Abyssal, Arcane, Celestial, Destined, Draconic, Elemental, Fey, Infernal and Undead. In addition to the extra skill, spells and feats the sorcerer picks up a bloodline power at levels 1, 3, 9, 15 and 20. To take an example, the powers granted by the Draconic bloodline are claws, natural armour bonuses, breath weapon, wings and various other draconic immunities, including an immunity to the energy type that makes up your breath weapon.

So, could we use something like this?

If we follow the third and fourth edition route, then wizards and sorcerers have an identical mechanic for casting spells. Wizards have a greater repertoire of spells. Sorcerers have these bloodline abilities. Would that work? And would it work in the context of the talent system in HD&D? And does it fit into Iourn?

The actual bloodlines may need to be tweaked. Surely a character with a celestial bloodline is better a mystic than a sorcerer? But these are small potatoes. We can sort them out after we create a workable system.

Option Four: No Spells!

Consider this option a combination of several of the options above. Both Marc and Daniel have suggested something approaching this in the past, and I think the idea has merit. Under this options sorcerers will choose a source for their power. A bloodline. Each bloodline will give the sorcerer access to a specific suite of feats and talents. In the same way that a warlock’s choice of Pact patron influences the powers and abilities that he has.

Some of these bloodline talents will be the sort of general bonuses or weird tomfoolery that you would expect from any talent. Others will give the sorcerer access to an area of power that is normally the purview of one for more spells. For example: there are many spells that use fire – burning hands, fireball, flame strike, wall of fire, meteor swarm… the list goes on an on. A sorcerer (perhaps with a Red Dragon bloodline) might have a talent called Master of Fire, that allows the sorcerer to shape and utilise fire magic. A sorcerer with that talent inflicts an escalating amount of damage as he gains levels, and can manipulate the fire into various shapes and areas. Related feats could make the sorcerer more proficient at his art. Maybe there’s a feat that allows a sorcerer to lay down a fireball-shaped attack that automatically misses all of the sorcerer’s allies.

How do we limit the use of the power? I’m of a mind that a Recharge mechanic works in this context. Not because sorcerers are like wizards, but because they’re like dragons. A dragon uses his breath weapon and he cannot use it again for a while. Breathing fire diminishes the dragon’s reserves and he has to recharge his batteries before he can do it again. The same might apply for sorcerers.

Perhaps sorcerers can take a talent that allows them to repeat an effect without resting, but doing so fatigues them in someway – or costs them health or hit points. This way the mechanics would underline that a sorcerer who uses too much power begins to cannabilise their own body. The Master of Fire who keeps blasting away at the bad guys eventually atomises himself in an heroic last-episode-of-blakes-seven sort of way.

Or maybe, as a sorcerer gains levels, he gains greater mastery over lower level powers. Maybe a seventeenth level sorcerer could do 17d6 damage with one burst of fire. Doing that much damage causes him to lose access to the power and have to recharge it. But, if he just threw fireballs that only did 5d6 damage, he could blaze away forever?

Under this system the wizard and the sorcerer are very different. The wizard knows a potentially infinitie number of specific spells, but these spells have prescribed effects that the wizard cannot change. The sorcerer is a much freer and spontaneous animal. He doesn’t have the range of the wizard – a sorcerer would be more than just fire spells, but his bloodline would limit the potential number of magical effects he could draw upon – but what the sorcerer lacks in his repertoire he makes up for in his versatility. A sorcerer who can draw on fire magic can send bolts in different directions, blanket an area, form a wall, light a campfire, roast dinner, melt stone and heat marshmellows. All of those actions would be a separate spell for the wizard.

In terms of flavour, this is my preferred solution to the sorcerer.

Now, it isn’t polished. It isn’t workable in its current form, and all the numbers and powers I have mentioned in the above text have been pulled out of my ear. But I think it has potential. Rules for what a sorcerer can and cannot do with his bloodline talents would have to be simple and clear. We don’t want to spend an age adjudicating each new revelation from a sorcerer’s bag of tricks. “I trap the baker in a cage of flame, and then steal his baps!” There need to be limits, probably by level, or even ability-score dependent.

Wilders and Mystics would have psionic and divine flavoured talents, and subtely different effects. Perhaps some bloodline talents would cross over between sorceres, mystics and wilders. There’s no reason why they all couldn’t wield fire is there?

Of course, this option is the one with the greatest amount of work for me and anyone who cares enough to give me a hand.  Could we do it? Would the finished article be worth it?

In Conclusion

Sorcerers cast magic instinctively. How do they do it? Do we have spellcasting impose fatigue on the sorcerer? Do we keep the same spellcasting mechnic, but give the sorcerer different class abilities (talents), perhaps dependent on their bloodline? Or, do we dispense with spellcasting entirely and make sorcerers the unknowable magical force that the background has always suggested they are, even if the rules never backed that up?

There are four options above. Leave your comments and your suggestions. Do you like any of the options, or none of them? Do you have a completely revolutionary option five that will blow us all away? Over to you.

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14 thoughts on “HD&D: Instinctive Magic

  1. How about the sorcerer developing spells like skills. This does away with the problem of fatigue and the problem of differentiating with the wizard using the spell point system. The individual sorcerer can then have more variety, a few good spells or lots of average ones that don’t always work. The only down side i can see immediatly is the need for an additional dice roll during casting, expecially with offensive spells.

    The spell-skills would have to be carefully calculated so sorcerers can’t max out on certain spells and become too powerful …

  2. I would say love the final flavour you have suggested.

    As an initial thought what do you think of the old 3rd edition Warlock’s blast invocations, by which I mean the shape, blast and essence. They come with level limits and a bredth of choice.

    Shadowrun has three stages to spells casting and drain. A spell will have a difficulty to cast (based on the target of the spell), the effect level of the spell (based on the force of the spell), and the drain (resisted by will, target based on the force of the spell)

    P.S. still dislike aspects of recharge magic (and the reproduce talent doesn’t really work more effective to go up a level and have a similiar and slightly more potent spell)

  3. Jack: My first thought with this solution is that a sorcerer’s class abilities would eat up all the sorcerer’s available skill points. It’s one thing having just one skill to cast magic (Spellcraft). If it’s one skill per spell, then a player might not have the freedom to select all those other skills he wants to round out his character: Athletics, Intimidate, Bee-keeping and so on.

    That said, if we combined this idea with Option Four above, then there would be less skills to work with with. A sorcerer with the Red Dragon bloodline might be able to summon the magical effects of Fire, Domination and Fear. That’s only three skills. That might work.

    Part of the issue with HD&D, how I’ve designed it the skills, is that it follows the third edition route. You need to have maximum ranks in the skills you want to epitomise your character (sword fighting, spell casting, sneaking) if you want to remain good at them level after level. A sorcerer who devoted few skill points to a spell just to have the spell, would find that he couldn’t use that spell to affect anyone of an equal level to him.

  4. Marc: I’ve answered your comment on Recharge Magic over on that thread.

    I do like the third edition warlock: the eldritch blast, the blast shape evocations and so on and so forth. However, I was hoping to keep those mechanics to use with the HD&D warlock. My thoughts for the warlock would be to have less spell-talents (perhaps four for least, lesser, greater and dark invocations), then the rest of the talents can be spent on the elditch blast and other talents that exemplify the pact: Fey, Infernal, Star, Dark, Vestige or whatever. The possibility of folding the Binder into the Warlock is also tempting.

    However – using something similar for sorcerers didn’t occur to me. So, taking the Master of Fire fictional talent above: the sorcerer can field fire. The blast shape invocations that a warlock can use to change the shape and form of the eldritch blast could be taken as the template to change and manipualte that power. Yes. Interesting. That could work, and it comes complete with pre-tested mechanics.

    Regarding the Shadowrun thing:

    To convert that to HD&D, we’d have two rolls. First the sorcerer rolls to hit the target, then the spell rolls to hit her. If it succeeds then she takes damage. Of course, we’d have to balance that just right. Again that could work.

  5. Neil, perhaps the skill reserve for spell could developed seperatly from ordinary skills … but maybe that would make it too confusing.

  6. Having a different pool of skill points for sorcery is similar to one of my suggestions on how we handle supernatural attacks. I argued that characters of weirdo creatures couldn’t be expected to invest their skill points in specific skills for Fear Aura, Breath Weapon, Petrifying Gaze and the like – therefore we should just give those characters the skills they need in that area.

    It wasn’t a popular suggestion. Extra skills for a sorcerer to spend on his spellcasting may well be a tough pill for some to swallow. It would work, though.

  7. I think the option four sounds the most interesting by a long shot, but it all depends if anybody can devote the time to developing it. My biggest issue with it is that it would be difficult making something like master of fire a 1 talent ability. It looks dangerously like a single sorceror talent could cover 90% of the things that a fire priest can do. Perhaps split it between multiple talents such as initiate of fire, adept of fire etc.

  8. I see your point Steve, and I think we’d have to be very careful how we handle this. I’ve been thinking about how it could work mechanically, and these are the ideas I’ve come up with so far:

    Each sorcerer’s bloodline has a number of talents associated with it. The exact number may differ depending on the bloodline, but shouldn’t be any less than five. To take the Red Dragon bloodline as an example, a sorcerer would be able to choose talents that granted her the following:

    Fire Projection
    Fire Resistance
    Flight
    Domination
    Draconic Attacks

    Within each talent, there are five levels of proficiency to master. Almost like little sub-talents. In order to gain access to the more powerful uses of the talent, the sorcerer needs to fulfill two prerequisites: He must be a certain experience level and he must know other sorcerer bloodline talents.

    Let’s take something close to Nicos’s heart, like fire projection:

    1) No Prerequisites. Sorcerer can inflict a flame attack that does 1d6 damage per level to a maximum of 5d6.

    2) Prerequisites: Level 5, must know one other sorcerer bloodline talent. Damage cap increases to 10d6.

    3) Prerequisites: Level 10, must know two other sorcerer bloodline talent.Damage cap increases to 15d6.

    4) Prerequisites: Level 15, must know three other sorcerer bloodline talent.Damage cap increases to 20d6.

    5) Prerequisites: Level 20, must know four other sorcerer bloodline talent. No cap on the damage, it’s just 1d6 per level.

    I’m largely making this up as I go along. I’m not suggesting that a sorcerer with a Fire Projection talent can only just shoot bursts of fire that do x amount of damage. Obviously, there is room here for bursts, walls and so on and so forth. Neither have I given any thought to how a sorcerer manages these abilities. We may use a fatigue or recharge system, or perhaps a mixture of both.

    The point is that the rules above are designed to do two things. Firstly, they limit the power of a sorcerer by level. Secondly (and most important) they prevent a multiclass character from gaining too much sorcerer-related power. If these restrictions weren’t in place, you could have a PC mulitclassing into sorcerer, taking one bloodline talent, and then never visiting the class again and *still* being as good at shooting fire as a sorcerer of the same level. I don’t think we want that.

    I’ve tried not to think about all this too deeply, as I realise we might not even be going down this road. But I’ve shared what I’m considering at the moment. Of course, this could all change.

  9. Perhaps it might be worth using the 3rd edition epic system as a starting point. i.e. each talent acts like a seed that the sorceror can then apply factors to at will, but within a certain power level.

  10. To be honest, I’m rather wary about the spell seeds from the Epic Level handbook. I think they work well enough if they are used (as they were in that book) as a means to develop extremely powerful spells. However, if the seeds are used to create magical effects on the fly I can see the game grinding to a halt if we don’t have some very clear guidelines. And I’m not sure I would know how to write such guidelines.

    Obviously I don’t have some or any of the answers for how we approach this. The “no spells” solution seems to be the most popular in the poll so far, but the implementation is going to be the trickiest part.

  11. I’ve been meaning to comment on these magic posts for ages but not got ’round to it. Unsurprisingly, I’m all for option four. I think it has great potential and coming up with brand new solutions to the problems of the past (like sorcerers), makes all of this worthwhile. I think we need a system with talents that create the basic effects, then feats that manipulate them. So, as has already been said, talents should create effects like fire or fear attacks and feats should manipulate them to create fire balls, fire cones, walls of fire or fiery auras. Effects could be combined to create fearsome, fiery attacks or fiery wings. I don’t think it would be too hard to create, although it would take some work.

    The bloodlines idea is nice too, and could be combined with idea four. I think this is already being considered. I’ve never liked systems that use fatigue to regulate magic. It doesn’t fit the sword and sorcery style, in my opinion.

  12. Once I have the basic combat system out of the way, I’ll try and put together an example sorcerer bloodline that uses Option Four. Unless of course, Daniel, you would like to have a go at it in the meantime?

  13. From Neil:

    Instinctive magic: by far and away option 4 is the best, it is evocative and nicely delinates from casting spells, and incidentally is similar to a mechanic I have in my system! I like the idea of having to use skills to some extent and I also like the idea of shaping the magic, again similar to my own system.

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