Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Heartbreaker Magic System

Still writing my fantasy heartbreaker and I'm trying to decide on a name.  Goblin Bones?  The Goblin Doctrine?

Today I'm spending a lot of time thinking about the magic system.  It's going to be 100% opinion.

I've already decided that the game will have a soft cap at 3rd level, with character advancement tapering off swiftly after that.

Since I'm going to be writing the magic system from the ground up, I might as well brainstorm on which aspects of the old one I don't like.

  • How shitty level 1 wizards are.
  • How some spells are way better than others, even within a spell level
  • That only wizards can use wands and stuff, and everyone else is assumed incompetent.
  • How incomparable effects are (arbitrarily) made comparable by sorting them into spell levels
  • Rigid Vancian spellcasting
  • Some spells bypass huge areas of the game, or make gameplay feel more like superheroes and less like Farfhd and the Grey Mouser (even Fly does this)

Flexible Vancian Spellcasting

I've already decided that wizards will use an MP-preparation system where they get a fixed amount of MP at each level and spend it during spell preparation.

Level 1 = 1 MP = one level 1 spell
Level 2 = 2 MP = two level 1 spells
Level 3 = 4 MP = two level 1 spells and one level 2 spell; four level 1 spells; or two level 2 spells

No Read Magic

Wizards can decipher a wand or a scroll with an Int check, or they can cast Detect Magic to do it automatically.

Magic items are the same: you can get a big clue about their powers + learn their activation by either (a) spend an hour making an Int check in a wizard-level laboratory, (b) cast Detect Magic on it, or (c) pay a sage.

You Cannot Make Your Own Scrolls

Each spell is a spirit/angel/demon that lives in a parallel and overlapping dimension to our own.  It lives in your spellbook.  You coax it into your brain with meditation and lies.  You cast it by opening a window in your head.  And then it flashes into the hostile world, burns like magnesium powder as it does (observable spell effect), then flees back into the safety of the spellbook.

Each spell, then, is a particular instantiation of a spell-species, and they have names, and some can be said to have minds.  One wizard's fireball might be named Oswald (a name the spell gave itself), and when cast, is slightly different than another wizard's fireball, who is named Magistrix Imperilla Sastane.

A wizard who scribes a scroll then, is giving up his private spell.  He's putting Oswald in a cage so that he can be bought and sold.  (Many wizards do this, when they need quick money.)  That is why scrolls are so precious: they're aren't instructions to be memorized; they're jail cells for a metasentient psycho-pelagic bioarcanum.

Wands are more like zoos, or animal collections.  They're also more stable.  (Spells are social and tend to go mad when confined to a single scroll for a century or two.  This is also why level 1 wizards begin play with 2 spells in their spellbook.)

You Don't Have To Be a Wizard to Use a Wand or Scroll

One thing I learned to like about roguelike games is that scrolls and wands aren't strictly the domain of the wizard.  Any class can learn to a particular wand or scroll once a sage or party wizard (who deciphered it earlier) mentors them through it.  They can use the wand/scroll with another Int check, failure just means that you spend a turn waving a wand around like a dope.

This doesn't add to a party's power, since they already had the scrolls and wands.  It just makes them more versatile, which I think is the fun of magic-spells-and-stuff.  Plus it gives the players more options, and therefore more tactical depth.  Should they give the scroll to the rogue or the wizard?  The wizard can cast it more reliably, but if the rogue has it, the party can potentially cast two fire spells in the first round.

This is also part of my "all adventurers are assumed to be competent at all adventurey stuff" philosophy.  I consider using wands basic adventurin' stuff.

Some Spells I Don't Like

Any spell that brings dead people back to life.  Teleportation.  Sending.  Detect Traps.  I even get grumpy about Fly.  (Sure, you might be able to bring someone back to life, but it'll be a dodgy quest, not a level 5 spell).

The reason I don't like these spells is because they make gameplay very different from an easily relatable set of tools.  Farfhd might bypass a moat of crocodiles by feeding them poisoned meat, but he'd never teleport over.  (Okay, He might fly, but it'd be a one-time thing.)  They also let magic solve too many problems that cleverness and hard work should overcome.

So those spells are out.

(A Rant: I Don't Understand Spell Levels)

I understand that you want to put the most awesome divination spells in the highest levels

Sure, a level 5 spell needs to be a lot more damaging than a level 1 spell because the monsters a level 9 wizard fights have a lot more HP.  Makes sense.  But pretty much everything else is equally useful no matter what level the wizard is.  Speak with Dead is fun and often useful at every level of play.  Same thing with being able to see through a door.  Invisibility is awesome against goblins and manticores, both.  Being able to ask a god a yes-or-no question is as useful at level 1 as it is at level 20.

It's like they made a list of all the illusion spells they could think of, and then spread them across nine spell levels.  Then they did the same for divination, conjuring objects, etc.  It's like they don't want you to have any fun with spells at level 1.  The idea of balancing these effects for a certain level is bullshit because they are essentially incomparable.  You can't compare a 9d6 fireball to invisibility, or polymorph to augury.  They are incomparables.

And I don't think these spells are unbalancing, because (a) is a minute of invisibility at level 1 really better than a sleep spell?, and (b) balance isn't a huge priority anyway.

No Spell Levels

Since I'm basically writing a game for levels 1-3ish, I first got rid of all the spells higher than 2nd level.

Then I decided that that was a bit too drastic, and wrote low-level versions of a lot of the spells that I just removed.

Then I decided to go for simplicity, and made everything a level 1 spell (that costs 1 MP).

But then I still wanted level 3 wizards to be more powerful than level 1 wizards, so I wrote up boosting.

Boosting Spells (i.e. Spells Don't Get More Powerful Just Because Your Caster Level Goes Up)

Basically, you can prepare a spell at a higher level to have it get more powerful.  (5e has pretty much the same thing).  Magic missile does 1d6+1 damage no matter what level the caster is.  But if you prepare it as a level 2 two spell, then it shoots out 3 missiles.

You can use the same concept to create a level 1 version of Fireball.  If you cast it as a level 3 spell, it does 5d6 damage, just like you remember.

Fireball (level 1 spell, like all others)
R: 200',  T: 20' diameter,  D: 0
1d6 fire damage.  Boost: +2d6 fire damage.

I should also mention that fireball is a rare spell.  It's not something that characters will begin play with.  It's a legendary spell.  Rumors that a dungeon holds a scroll of fireball is enough to get adventurers knocking on the door.

All Spells Are Useful And/Or Interesting

I feel bad for some spells.  Detect poison, read magic (already addressed), floating disc, alarm, light.  A lot of spells just don't stack up to other spells like sleep or color spray, either because their usage is too niche or because there are too few ways to use them creatively.

So, a lot of spells have been rewritten to make them more powerful at level 1.  Ideally, everything should be as useful as sleep, which is sort of what I used as the benchmark.  (i.e. "Would I consider taking this spell instead of sleep?")

For starters, detect spells last all day.

Before you accuse me of power creep, remember that

Wizards Don't Suck at Level 1

The original idea for wizards was that they would suck for a few levels.  The rest of the party would have to help carry them, with the exchange that the wizard would be crazy powerful at higher levels.  Nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as players are down for that sort of power-schism.

But if I've putting a soft cap on progression at level 3, wizards need to start being useful now, and for more things than just sleep spells.

No Stacking Spells

You can't prepare more than one copy of a spell.  No stacking fireballs.  They're like cichlids fighting in your brain.

Here are Some Sample Spells

Cure Wounds
R: touch T: creature D: 0

Target creature is healed for 1d6+1 HP. Undead are instead harmed for an equal amount. Boost: +2d6+2 HP healed.

Yes, you get AoE control spells at level 1.  Sleep is the benchmark here.

Color Spray
R: 20' T: creatures D: variable
Creatures are stunned for 1d6 rounds, minus 1 round for every HD they possess. No save.

R: 20' cone  T: creatures in cone  D: 1d6 rnd
Targets save or flee in terror. No effect on creatures with more than 4 HD. Boost: +2 maximum HD or +2d6 rnds.

R: 50' T: 20' dia D: 1d6 min
Targets fall into a deep sleep. Only alert targets (in combat, heard a suspicious noise) get a save to negate. Shouting is not enough to wake a sleeper, but slapping is. After the spell wears off, targets will usually remain in a normal (non-magical) sleep. No effect on creatures with more than 4 HD. Boost: +2 maximum HD or +2d6 minutes.

Invis as a level 1 spell is pretty similar to Invis as a level 2 spell.

R: touch T: creature or object D: 1 min
Target is invisible until it makes an attack roll. Boost: +2 minutes.

Divination at level 1:

R: 10' T: point in space D: 1 min
You can see and hear through the point in space that you designate. Unlike most spells, you do not need line of sight to the target, allowing you to cast this spell through walls. Boost: +20' range.


Floating Disk
R: 5' T: conjured disk D: 2 hr
You conjure up a floating disk. This disk will either follow you around, or you can stand on top of it and direct it. It can carry up to 1000 pounds. It can either hover a few inches above the floor beneath it, or it can maintain it's current altitude, allowing it to float across pits. Lastly, it can reach terrifying speeds if used as a frictionless sled.

So the thing to remember when judging shocking grasp is that (1) fighters can be doing 1d8+1 damage on a hit just fine, (2) wizards don't like making melee attacks for multiple reasons, and (3) the spell is wasted if you miss.  Having said that, here is a level 1 wizard's best chance for crazy spike damage.  [And consider the same spell in an enemy wizard's arsenal: if he misses, he's going to be standing right next to a pissed-off PC fighter.]

Shocking Grasp
R: melee T: creature or object D: 0
With a successful melee attack, you deal 2d8 electric damage. Boost: +2d8 damage.

Also, I sort of envision electrical as being the best element at high single-target damage, so it seems appropriate.


  1. Very cool. I'm still digesting it, but I wanted to laud you on your observation about D&D's mistake in assigning "levels" to incomparable abilities. This is a tangent, but I've noticed that this is a huge problem that crops up as early as OD&D.

    The original premise of "levels" derives from the distinction in Chainmail between Fighting Men, Heroes, and Superheroes (and also between Wizards, Sorcerers, Magicians, Warlocks and Seers). It maps directly onto a single attribute of a unit: its effectiveness in mass combat. (This is the only attribute relevant to units in Chainmail.)

    When you take this concept and translate it into the mixed-play environment of OD&D (exploration, social reaction, recovering loot, etc.) with multiple character classes adapted to this environment (notably the Thief and Magic User), things get really messy. Sure, these classes get better at combat as they gain "levels", just like the Fighting Man and Wizard do in Chainmail. But what else do they get?

    This is where D&D goes off the rails. A high-"level" Thief should be way better at Thief stuff than a low-level Thief, right? So if you can pick every locked door at level 10, at level one you should only have, like a 10% chance, right? This is madness. It means that a level 1 party's adventure ends when they hit their first locked door.

    As you've pointed out, this also shows up with wizards. Why should your toolset be so limited at low levels? Why should effects like invisibility or divination or illusions be inaccessible at level 1? Non-combat stuff should be fully cracked open at level 1, for magic users and for thieves. This is one of those early bad choices that poisoned the well for decades and spawned a thousand house rules trying to make sense out of it. I like the way you've addressed it.

    1. I agree. Do you think there's any danger that a low-level wizard might have access too too-wide of a toolbox? I know it depends on whether or not the DM gives full access to all the spells or not, but I can imagine it being either overwhelming for the player or unbalancing for the party.

  2. I love everything about this and really want to see the final result. From this short glance I think this might be game over, for me, for other D&D magic systems - this is immediately how I want magic to work, whatever edition or house rules I otherwise use. Great ideas.

  3. Ugh, it ate my comment.

    Have you considered allowing an increase of spell range for boosted spells? For example, boosted Fear could allow increased duration, increased HD affected, or increased range (say, +5' or +10' to the cone).

    Also, how about allowing certain classes (or feats, or something similar) to have a chance to fake their way through using an item. Or a class feature, skill, feat, whatever, that allows a character to be mentored in less time than someone else.

    I like what you're doing here and would love to see more!

    1. I have examples of +duration and +HD affected. Like: "Boost: +2 rounds duration or +2 maximum HD affected". I don't want boosts to boost both aspects, because that's where quadratic wizards come from. (They get more spells while old spells simultaneously get more effective, longer lasting, and further ranged.)

      Also, keeping the range constant helps with simplicity. I played a PF campaign for 2 years and there was a lot of looking up spells, even spells that we were really familiar with, just to double check range. There was also a bit of metagaming (the enemy wizard cast the spell when he's 170' feet away, so that means he must be CL 17th).

      I'm already playing around with the idea of letting everyone use any weapon/armor, and letting anyone use scrolls+wands with an Int check. I like the idea of characters getting more versatile as they level up, instead of more powerful in a focused area (and therefore less versatile).

  4. Fun stuff. I like the "no stacking spells" rule.

    Wondering if the lack of a boost option on Color Spray is intentional?

    If you wanted to add magic specialization to this system it would be easy - you may boost after casting the spell, rather than before.

    And you probably know this already but just in case, Necropraxis worked on a level-less magic system - http://www.necropraxis.com/tag/wonder-wickedness/

    1. No boosting on color spray was intentional, as I don't want it to be something useful against 4 HD ogres, but I may revisit that.

      Other specialization: one particular spell that is always boosted.

      And Brendan is brilliant. I already knew that much.

    2. Okay this was forever ago but it popped into my mind while shoveling snow this morning so:

      What if the bump on color spray increased the die size instead of adding to the roll? There are some diminishing returns involved then, but it makes it so it could be worth risking the bump against higher HD creatures. Maybe would want to start the die at d4 if that's the case, though.

  5. Honestly I'd love to see this statted out for all levels of spells!

    I think the spell levels for incomparable abilities was more about putting breaks on when the stuff entered play. You don't want a cleric to avoid your traps easily with Find Traps till they have 'earned' it...hence putting it as a level two spell.

  6. Going through back issues of this blog. I'm really liking this magic system.

    I especially applaud ditching spell levels. I've been looking over a variety of spell lists from different games recently, and have been asking myself over and over again "why is this level 1? why is this level 5?". There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.