Arcane and Divine Spells

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In this post I’m looking specifically at the mechanics of spellcasting, concentrating on the sections on Arcane and Divine spells printed on pages 218-221 of the Pathfinder Core Rules (2009). The same material can also be found on the Pathfinder PRD. Details of spellcasting is also divided among the  Wizard, Cleric, Sorcerer and Oracle classes; but for the most part I’m ignoring mechanics unique to individual classes in favour of a broader approach. We’ll deal with the classes in due course.

Because I am solely dealing with spellcasting mechanics in this post, it makes more sense to me to divide spellcasters along mechanical rather than narrative lines. Therefore I am considering Acquired casters (wizards, druids, paladins, rangers, witches and clerics) separately from Instinctive casters (bards, sorcerers, summoners, inquisitors, magi and oracles). This is helpful because other spellcasting classes such as psions, psychic warriors, wilders and hexblades also neatly fit into one of these two core mechanics.

Before we begin could you please make sure you’re aware of the existing house rules for spellcasting by checking the New Deal index. I won’t repeat them here.

Acquired Casters

Acquired casters have a fixed daily limit of spells they can cast, as noted in the “Spells per day” section of their advancement table. If they have a high prime spellcasting ability score, then they may get a few additional spells per day on top of this total.

Acquired casters need to prepare their spells in advance in order to be able to cast them. It takes one hour to prepare spells to fill the slots in the “Spells per day” section of each class’s advancement table. For the arcane caster this hour is usually first thing after waking from eight hours sleep. The divine caster prepares spells at a prescribed time of day depending on her faith, such as at dawn or at dusk. When preparing spells, the acquired caster must select specific spells to fill his spell slots.

For example, a third level wizard prepares four 0-level spells, two 1st level spells and one 2nd level spell. He has to choose specific spells to fill each slot, therefore his versatility for the day is set during the hour he prepares his spells.  The same spell can be prepared twice or more, but once the spell is prepared it cannot be forgotten and replaced by another – even if that is more convenient. Acquired casters can always leave certain spell slots empty when they prepare their spells. Then they can use a quiet 15 minutes later in the day to fill it.

An acquired caster from the Arcane tradition is able to fill a higher level spell slot with a lower-level spell if he wants. So instead of fireball  (a 3rd level spell) the wizard could prepare invisibility (a 2nd level spell). The rules as written do not specifically state that divine casters have the same freedom. However, its not entirely clear so I’m happy to rule that divine acquired casters also have this ability.

Once a spell is cast then it is forgotten by the acquired caster, cleared from his mind until he prepares his spells again. Arcane casters must sleep or otherwise rest for eight hours before preparing their spells. If they do not rest then they cannot prepare their spells until they have rested. Divine casters do not need to rest, but they still need to wait until the appointed hour to prepare their spells and therefore cannot prepare them more than once per day.

0-level spells (cantrips and orisons) work a little differently. Although the acquired caster must still choose which cantrips he prepares, he can cast those cantrips as many times as he likes during the course of the day.

There is no limit to the number of spells an acquired caster can know, but how spells are learned or gained varies widely. Most arcane classes gain two spells per level as they gain levels, and can also research, beg, borrow or steal spells from other spellcasters. There are extensive rules for arcane magical writings and spell-books in the Core Rules. Divine casters automatically gain knowledge of all the spells they have access to at their caster level, and choose to prepare spells from this extensive list. They can also research new spells.

Individual acquired classes may have special abilities to regain cast spells, spontaneously cast certain types of magic or possess some other clever way to influence their spellcasting. However, the above represents the core mechanic shared by all acquired casters: prepare, cast, forget, sleep.

Instinctive Casters

The instinctive caster knows an extremely limited spell list. Each instinctive class has an associated “Spells Known” table which denotes the number of spells of a particular level that the instinctive caster has knowledge of. This is a fixed number dependent on the instinctive caster’s level, and is not affected by the caster’s prime spellcasting ability score, although certain class features may add additional spells known to the list.

The instinctive caster also has a “Spells per day” section in their advancement table. These are the number of spells of a particular level that the instinctive caster can cast in one day. Unlike the acquired caster, these spells do not need to be chosen in advance. Generally, the instinctive caster abides by this limit of spell slots per level per day. However, Arcane instinctive casters can elect to cast a low level spell instead of a higher level one.

For example, a eighth level sorcerer can cast six 1st level spells, five 2nd level spells and three 3rd level spells in the same day. If the sorcerer wanted to cast a seventh 1st level spell, she could do so by using one of her 2nd level spell slots, although she would then have one less 2nd level spell slot for the day. Again, the rules don’t specifically indicate that divine instinctive casters (such as inquisitors) have the same freedom, but like clerics I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this.

0-level spells (cantrips and orions) are always available for an instinctive caster to use. However, they will have far fewer to choose from than the acquired caster.

Instinctive casters only require 15 minutes to ready their spells. Arcane casters must have 8 hours of sleep/rest prior to attempting this, but divine casters do not need any rest. The time at which divine instinctive casters ready their spells may be prescribed, or may be at any time during the day. However, they cannot ready their spells more than once per day.


The Three Tests

So as we can see, the rules as written present us with some very different spellcasting mechanics. Personally, I’d like to use them as written because I feel (after all these years) handling magic as it’s presented in the game will lead to less problems between spellcasters and non-spellcasters. However, I’m willing to be guided in this.

Narrative Integrity

I don’t see any great story-related issues in implementing this change. Acquired and Instinctive casters are still different, and these rules aren’t a million miles away from the flavour of the house rules that currently exist. Plus, magic has only just changed anyway, so we still have the in-game excuse of the move away from spell points etc. Iourn has traditions of Primal magic (druids) and Song magic (bards) but these are just words that don’t have any mechanical weight behind them. The actual rules don’t present any narrative problems.

The main issue is how this form of spellcasting is explained in game. With Acquired casters it would be easy to rule that spells simply cannot be cast on the fly at all, and that spellcasters are simply using the hour in the morning to ‘pre-cast’ their magic. The spell sits in the mind until it can be unleashed by a gesture. In which case we can say that Acquired characters never actually ‘know’ magic at all, but require their spell-books or their supplication to gain power. Which is pretty close to where we are now anyway.

Instinctive casters develop spellcasting powers as they grow older and more experienced. The compartmentalisation of spells per day is a bit artifiicial, I will grant that. However, the fact that the instinctive caster is able to use a higher level spell slot to cast a lower level spell goes a long way to overcome this inconsistency. It’s probably fair to say that sorcerers are less able to cast higher level spells and more able to cast lower level ones. I think I can live with that.

Games without Miniatures

While some individual spells might need to be tweaked to take into account the lack of a battlegrid, the base rules for spellcasting exist completely separately. No issues here.

Our Preferences

So it boils down to whether we like the spell system or not. Having been a fervent detractor from the rules as written for the last twenty years, I think it would be helpful as to why I’ve changed my mind. I’ve always implemented house rules to govern the spell-casting systems in the game. They’ve met with mixed success over the years, but all of them have taken time and effort to implement. The magic system is a massive part of the game, and requires a commensurately massive committment to maintain. I don’t  really have the time to that anymore. I’d rather be writing be writing adventures or expanding the campaign world.

We must understand that these are the rules the game comes with. Therefore these are the rules that are balanced across the whole of the Pathfinder system. With the best will in the world the house rules eat away at the parity between PCs and their adversaries. The game, as a whole works better with these rules. Are they the best magic rules in the world? No, not even nearly. But they aren’t so offensive, that I would rather indulge the prospect of continuing not to use them.

Many of my other changes to the spells system – such as the way I’ve nerfed teleportation and divination magic – simply aren’t necessary if we use the rules as they’re written. If a seventh level cleric can only cast discern lies once per day instead of eight times per day (as it was under the spell point rules) then there’s no need for me to adjust the spell. It’s only the repeated use of these things that bugged me. Use the rules as written as that problem goes away. It’s liberating.

There are two areas regarding the spellcasting system as noted above where I think a small change – a minor house rule – would be beneficial to the game. Now, I’ve far from wedded to these ideas. You might think that they are the thin end of the wedge, and that we should shy away from any modification to the system. If that’s the consensus then I’d accept it. Have a read and see what you think:

Rituals: This gives acquired casters a little more versatility, while at the same time being flavourful and helping to explain how magic works. Under this variant spells can be cast by acquired casters without being prepared in advance, but they must be cast as a ritual. A ritual version of a spell is exactly the same as a normal version of a spell except that it takes much longer to cast. I would peg the casting time as one hour for a spell of levels 1-3, two hours for a spell of levels 4-6, and three hours for a spell of levels 7-9.

In story-terms this makes sense. We can say that rituals are the default form in which all spells are cast for acquired casters. It’s the way they manipulate magic. However, in order to be of some use during a day acquired casters can prepare certain spells in advance, pre-casting them and holding them in their mind until they are needed. However, there is a limit to the number of spells an acquired caster can hold in this way and must often cast certain less utilitarian magicks in the traditional ritual manner.

What this change to the system also does is allow certain spells to appear in the game that would not normally be prepared by your average player. D&D is a combat game, and inevitably combat and not utility spells are more likely to be prepared. The very obscure spells might never see the light of day. These house rules follow the rules as written, but still give acquired casters the ability to cast any spell in their repetoire if they were prepared to invest the time. So a wizard would never need to prepare the Alarm spell, but he could still spend an hour every night casting it before going to bed.

These are very similar to the rules presented in the playtest material for D&D Next, and I like them a lot. You may feel that this shot in the arm for acquired casters is unfair on instinctive casters, as I have nothing comparable to offer them.

Less is More for Divine Casters: As the rules stand at present, when a cleric or a druid gains access to a new level of spells they automatically know every spell that is available to them. So on gaining fifth level a druid immediately gains knowledge of every single 3rd level druid spell that exists in every sourcebook; and it is from this repetoire that druids would prepare their spells.

What we found at higher levels is that this degree of choice can paralyse players. It’s bad enough in a spell-point system, but in a system where you need to select the best handful of spells to see you through a day… I think it would be better for players to have a thinner list of spells to choose from. What we’ve been doing recently is having divine casters gain spells in the same way as arcane casters. So they gain two spells they can cast every time they go up a level, and have the ability to learn more by consulting tomes, trading with their fellow clerics and so on.

If we assume (as Iourn does) that gods simply grant divine power and it’s up to the clerics to invent spells, then this approach make a good deal of narrative sense as well. These rules do not tie a cleric to a prayerbook in the same way a wizard has a spellbook, but they do make divine magical writings more important in game. I like this option very much, and it doesn’t really do anything radical within the system.

I’m not adding a poll to this post, and it’s all a bit to complex for that. Please leave your comments below and let me


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4 thoughts on “Arcane and Divine Spells

  1. Hey Neil. I agree with decreasing the number of divine spells known as you suggest. There are far too many choices under the rules as written. We have all seen that vein on Indrans head throb when the spellcasters in the party are picking what spell to cast on their action.

    The rituals suggestion makes sense as it would be a shame for the more obscure spells to fall out of common usage. However, I think it gives too big an advantage to acquired casters without a boost to instinctive casters as well. Then before you know it, we have a load of house rules.

    Just at thought, but in 3.5 there were a few feats (like Mother Cyst in the LIbris Mortis) that add a very specific list of spells to your spells known lists. Could we create some feats that add thematically similar groups of spells to the instinctive casters spell list. These groups would deliberately contain some very useful spells and some less frequently used spells. As a consequence we would see instinctive casters with different spell lists. Perhaps this could balance the rituals for acquired casters.

  2. Hi Steve. I’m glad you agree with decreasing the spells for clerics and druids – especially as you play a cleric yourself. It does speed things up, and as it’s a rule we’ve played with for a while I know that it works.

    I think I’d rather dispense with the idea of rituals entirely than layer further house rules onto the instinctive casters. Maybe whenever I get around to converting more third edition stuff into Pathfinder I could look again at the feats you suggest. I think it would defeat the purpose of the exercise layering too many extra or new rules onto the game at this stage.

    I’m not 100% sure that the ritual rules would allow the acquired casters to overshadow their instinctive cousins. After all, the rituals would have a pretty long casting time – which is hardly convenient.

    Also, I feel that the obvious consequence of adopting the rules as written for spellcasting, is that there will be a greatly increased use of scrolls for acquired casters. They’re relatively inexpensive to create, and allow the casting of those more obscure spells that a wizard wouldn’t necessarily prepare because wouldn’t be certain that he would need them.

    In light of acquired casters having numerous scrolls to hand, I don’t think the rituals would be that destabilising. Particularly if the rituals had an additional component cost as they do in D&D Next.

    But still – they’re not rules that are in the game, so we probably don’t need them.

    The Sorcerer Bloodlines do attempt to flesh out a sorcerer’s spell list with slightly less obvious choices. However, I agree that it would be nice if not all sorcerers knew the same 14 spells.

  3. You know I’ve never had a problem with spell memorisation. It makes perfect sense to me, but then I really like Jack Vance who makes it all real. Wizards brush up on their spells in the morning, storing the patterns in their minds and bodies before unleashing the power upon completion of the ritual. I think it’s pretty evocative and works perfectly with wizardry on Iourn.

    Set numbers of spell slots just represent the body/soul’s capacity for channeling power in instinctive casters. In acquired casters it represents the limits of their training in the various circles (read levels) of magic. Fits the narrative in my book. Also makes the book-keeping easier than spell points.

    Restricted divine/primal spell lists get my vote. There are just too many spells to choose from. Far too many.

    I actually like rituals as an idea. They are evocative and I don’t think they give too much power away. Spending an hour casting a knock spell is not too much and could create dramatic tension if the caster could be surprised any moment.

  4. Well, it looks as though we’re going for the restricted divine spell lists. Of all the house rules I have, I think this is the one that makes the most (positive) impact on the game. I’m glad there’s growing support for it.

    I’d like to give these ritual rules a whirl, but would be interested to see what Jon says about them.

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