Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Back to the traditional "Vancian" spellcasting issue...

Back to the traditional "Vancian" spellcasting issue...

As I noted in some previous, I have struggled with the traditional D&D magic system. On the one hand, it's a simple, elegant subsystem that's easy to teach a new player. On the other hand, aside from Vance and the second Amber series, the magic system doesn't really seem to reflect much in the source literature. No magical mishaps, no dark rituals for the heroes to disrupt, and no fear of corruption to the spellcaster. The only danger in magic is having the wrong spells memorized.

Option 1: A Variant Magic System.
In his comments on my last post, Matthew Slepin, the fiendish Dr. Samsara, pointed out that Spellcraft and Swordplay had used a system based on the old Chainmail spell-casting charts. As I posted a while back, I have already thought about those very charts and even come up with a nifty chart of my own:

To use a spell, roll a d20 against the target number listed below:

Spell Spell Caster Level
Level Effect 1-2 3-4 5-6 7-8 9-10 11+
----- ------ --- --- --- --- ---- ---
1 I 16+ 14+ 12+ 10+ 8+ 6+
D 12+ 10+ 8+ 6+ 4+ 2+
N 11- 9- 7- 5- 3- 1

2 I 18+ 16+ 14+ 12+ 10+ 8+
D 14+ 12+ 10+ 8+ 6+ 4+
N 13- 11- 9- 7- 5- 3-

3 I 20 18+ 16+ 14+ 12+ 10+
D 16+ 14+ 12+ 10+ 8+ 6+
N 15- 13- 11- 9- 7- 5-

4 I n/a 20+ 18+ 16+ 14+ 12+
D 18+ 16+ 14+ 12+ 10+ 8+
N 17- 15- 13- 11- 9- 7-

5 I n/a n/a 20+ 18+ 16+ 14+
D 20 18+ 16+ 14+ 12+ 10+
N 19- 17- 15- 13- 11- 9-

6 I n/a n/a n/a 20+ 18+ 16+
D n/a 20 18+ 16+ 14+ 12+
N n/a 19- 17- 15- 13- 11-


Spell Effect:
I = Immediate -- spell takes immediate effect.
D = Delayed -- spell delayed to next turn
N = Negated -- spell does not work. Prepared spell is lost.
Now, this chart needs some thought to work, particularly in terms of how I'm going to handle spell preparation. I'm likely to just use the standard magic-user charts and go from there. The down side of this rule is that magic-users will get off more spells per day, particularly utility spells where having a delayed effect will not be a problem. The plus side is that there is a good chance that combat spells will be delayed, which is a big issue to push flavor and the danger of spellcasting in combat. This also gives magic-users a little boost in power, with some danger to balance.

I would add the chance of a severe mishap any time a player rolls a 1, even if the spell would normally work automatically. Also, since delayed spellcasting will be common, I would add that anyone damaged while still spellcasting would need to roll a save with a penalty equal to the damage taken to avoid a mishap. A failure would result in a roll of 1d20 + spell level + damage taken on the Spell Mishap Table:

Spell Mishap Table:

Roll Result
------ ------
1 - 3 Spell misfires. It takes effect as usual, but strikes a random target.
4 - 6 Spell backfires and strikes caster.
7 - 9 Spell backfires and has opposite normal effect.
10 - 12 Spell fizzles and is lost from memory
13 - 16 Spell fails as above. Caster cursed per Bless (Curse) spell description.
17 - 19 Spell fails as above. Caster disoriented, cannot cast spells 1d3 rounds.
20 - 22 Spell fails as above. Caster disoriented, cannot cast or attack 1d3 rounds.
23 - 25 Spell fails as above. Caster stunned 1d3 rounds.
26 - 27 Spell fails as above. Caster stunned as above, take 1d6+spell level damage.
28 Spell fails as above. Caster struck by Hold Person spell.
29 Spell fails as above. Caster struck by Confusion spell.
30 Spell fails as above. Caster struck by Feeblemind spell.
31 Spell fails as above. Caster struck by Death Spell.
32 Spell fails as above.
Opens dimensional gate 1d6 rounds, releases horrors chosen by GM.
33+ Spell fails as above. Opens dimensional gate 1d6 rounds,
caster is sucked in.
With this system, I would discard the idea of the rogue class, and keep just the fighter and the magic-user.

Option 2: It's all about flavor.
Another option is just to go with the flow and accept the weirdness of "Vancian" fire and forget spells as they are and add some flavor to the actual role-playing part of the game. That would take re-imagining what is going on in-game when describing actions, even if the rules don't change. Both Samsara and p_armstrong make strong points in their comments for the flavor aspect of the rules. For instance, abandoning the terminology of memorizing spells and describing the process as something like binding spirits or demons (as Samsara notes) or taking a cue from Zelazny and saying that spells are hung on a matrix in the caster's mind with a few "lynchpins" unspecified goes a long way to changing things. Adding some customized names for spells as they are learned is a nice touch, as is describing the danger of the process (stealing from Vance, as Anonymous laments about the use of "Vancian" as a term.)

But I think there might still be a need for a mishap table. When is there a magical mishap? When a target saves with a natural 20 or when a character is damaged while casting a spell or otherwise disrupted. Those both seem like good reasons to make the danger of magic seem more real. And that takes less rules-mucking-about.

I'll have to cogitate on this, though I often tend to reduced rules-muckery.