Sunday, 20 June 2010

Spells and Creativity

The magic system is probably the thing that's the least to my liking in older editions of D&D. After, all what attracts me to the old school ways is the emphasis on player creativity and problem solving. Then I face the prospect of a spell system that almost seems designed to smother creativity. It's just perverse to force pre-memorization of spells, from a list where one or two each level stand out as clearly optimal in combat, at the same time you are encouraging players to come up with crazy solutions in every other area using ropes, spikes, mules, catnip and what have you.

I actually don't have a beef with Vancian magic. I wish the magic was Vancian. Check out Turjan of Miir. Not for him 3x Sleep, 2x Web, 1x Fireball. After all, if you are physically forcing spells into your head, it's absurd to memorize the same thing twice. So one fix is to slightly up the number of spells - maybe, for instance, first-level casters with a decent prime requisite get two - but make each one be different. That would really enforce creativity and variety.

Or we can go with later-period Vancian (Rhialto the Marvellous, written many years after the first printing of D&D), and assume that magic is done through spirit-world intermediaries of various ranks, which would handily explain the levels system. Any rules, really, can be justified with an image of fractious, bureaucratically minded minions following absurd empyrean regulations. So why not have it be a matter of using spell slots instead of pre-memorizing spells, with free choice at each use? In other words, everyone's a cleric. That allows the odd Comprehend Languages to be pulled out at the right time when it would really save the party's bacon.

I'll mull over those possibilities and maybe take your comments. I don't want to use a spell point system - that just increases the bias toward your most effective spells across levels. But here is the other principle I want to use in spell design.

Same object, two descriptions.

"It's a tool for brushing your teeth."

"It's a plastic handle about five inches long with a narrow head. On the head are mounted a thick array of plastic bristles."

I think you'll see that the more concrete description opens more room for creativity. Instead of being constrained by the function, the material description invites you to think of all kinds of uses for it - scrubbing small places, melting the handle and using it as a spoon ...

Likewise for

"This spell strikes an enemy within 60 feet unerringly for 1d4 damage"

"This spell imparts great force to a pebble-sized object, causing it to streak from one's hand for up to 60 feet. It always hits its target; if the target is alive, it does 1d4 damage to it."

This is what I want in my spell descriptions and designs. Spells that expand role-playing and problem-solving rather than shutting them down. You may think I have some culprit spells in mind and you are right. But that's for another time.


  1. I agree that that more detailed description is probably better. I also think, there's a little bit too much combat-centricness of spells.

    I understand combat is a big portion of gaming, but I'd rather see more spells that have combat application and fewer that that's there sole purpose. To me, that would have greater versimilitude.

  2. Yep, that's my aim too. I'm not just trying for detail but for concreteness. Let the DM figure out all the different possible rulings and limits on the spell; just giving a drier description of the real-world rather than game effect will give the appropriate clues to both sides.

  3. I like where you're going with this. I've been stumbling around with customizing the magic in my LL campaign, myself. I, too, really want the MU or Cleric to be able to pull out that "never memorized/prayed for" spell when it is actually a creative solution to a problem. For the cleric I've been toying with the idea of letting him pray for some of his spells for a given level, and then the rest are randomly picked, as if his diety is supplying for needs the cleric doesn't foresee. Or possibly he gets a random bonus spell per level.