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Spell System Overhaul for OD&D / White Box

Posted: Sat May 30, 2020 6:59 pm
by merias
From ... white-box/ - written with OD&D in mind, but applies equally to S&W White Box and most other games with Vancian magic rules.

At low levels, traditional Vancian magic can get a little stale. Most 1st level Magic-Users (MUs) memorize sleep, rarely any other spells. Who can blame the player for this? They get to choose one spell and sleep is the nuke in old-school games. This might even have a subtle impact on the way referees design adventures, so wouldn’t it be cool if the referee could feel free to add tricks, traps or loot that could be defeated or detected by some of the utility spells like read languages or detect magic? So how can we encourage the use of some of these spells? Here is such a system. None of the ideas are new – but taken together they should make the spellcaster much more useful.

Spell Study Scrolls

At 1st level spellcasters are assumed to have a study scroll of all available 1st level spells. They gain study scrolls of spells for each level as they are able to learn them (so a 3rd level MU would be gifted another study scroll of all 2nd level spells from his guild or master). MUs or Clerics must study or pray over these scrolls each morning for one hour to prepare for the day’s spell use. Note these are not typical scrolls and the spellcaster cannot cast spells from them directly. Any new spells or study scrolls beyond those given are per the magic research and book rules (Men & Magic [M&M] p. 34).

Study scrolls are of high quality, but still fragile and vulnerable to damage or destruction by liquid spills, crushing and fire. Because of this, many spellcasters seek out waterproof satchels, sturdy tubes or stronger, magical protection for their study scrolls. Due to the risk of theft, it is not uncommon for spellcasters to carry their study scrolls with them at all times. Higher level MUs will have magical wards and deceptions in place to protect their study scrolls, which will be safely hidden in their strongholds.

Read magic is required for a MU to read the study scroll of another, but once read it is not required again. Clerical study scrolls are written in scripture specific to a Cleric’s church, and so are readable only by Clerics of that church, but any clerical study scroll can be deciphered by a Cleric of another church given enough time (one week per spell level).

Casting Spells

Characters have a number of spell slots as per the spell tables in M&M, modified by the table below for INT or WIS. Casting is ‘free’ for all spell-using classes, meaning the player can choose which spell to cast at the time of casting. However, spells take one round to prepare before they can be cast. One spell can be prepared ahead of time and held in memory indefinitely, but any break in the PCs concentration (e.g. if they enter melee, flee or are hit by a spell or melee attack) causes the spell and associated slot to be lost for that day.

Also see the important note on M&M p. 19 – “A spell used once may not be reused in the same day” (although this does not apply to Clerical casting or to the use of casting scrolls by MUs).

Once prepared, spells go off first in the combat round, (along with gaze and breath attacks or use of any casting scrolls or spell-like devices). Compare DEX scores if it is important to know which spell or effect goes off first among members of the same side.

Casting Scrolls

MUs can prepare casting scrolls of spells they know (i.e are already on on their study scrolls) and are of a level they can cast for a cost of 100gp per level and one week of time per level. Spells can be cast from these scrolls directly, with no preparation time required. Read magic is not required for a MU to identify or make use of such a scroll.

Clerical casting scrolls, however, are extremely rare and the method of scribing such scrolls has been lost to time, although it is thought to include a ritual collaboration with one’s deity.

Bonus spells for Clerics (WIS) or MUs (INT)

Clerics or MUs of above average WIS or INT, respectively gain the bonus spell slots as listed in the table below. Note this is not cumulative, for example a Theurgist (4th level MU) with a 16 INT who normally has four 1st and two 2nd level spell slots would gain two bonus 1st level spell slots and two bonus 2nd level spell slots. This would give them a total of six 1st and four 2nd level spell slots.

Code: Select all

|INT/WIS|1st  |2nd  |3rd  |4th  |
|13     |1    |     |     |     |
|14     |2    |     |     |     |
|15     |2    |1    |     |     |
|16     |2    |2    |     |     |
|17     |3    |2    |1    |     |
|18     |3    |2    |1    |1    |

Final Notes

While this system does increase the power of low-level spellcasters, it is offset by the need to prepare spells, the possibility of losing a prepared spell, the inability to cast the same spell more than once per day, and the fact that enemy spellcasters will use the exact same rules. The prohibition on casting the same spell more than once per day for MUs also encourages creative spell use.

It also makes describing and playing NPC spellcasters easier – rather than having to list the NPC’s memorized spells, the referee can simply note how many spell slots of each level are available, and can improvise what is cast as needed during play.

Re: Spell System Overhaul for OD&D / White Box

Posted: Mon Jun 01, 2020 2:59 pm
by jcftao
I agree with you. Very rarely have I been in a game where MUs choose a starting spell other than Sleep or Charm Person. As you said, Sleep is a nuke in the game for low levels. Having no saving throw makes it really effective.

So, let us say all spells aren't equal. Good adventure writing can get spellcasters to think outside the box. Also, I like the idea of study scrolls and casting a spell from a list with no prep.

I think an interesting idea would be this...

Magic Users receive a spellbook from their master at 1st level. It would contain a handful of spells...Read Magic, Detect Magic, one offensive, and one defensive spell. The off/def spells would be randomly generated. Then as MUs travel and adventure, they may find other spells, scrolls, etc., that they can collect into their library of spells. Some may be out of their ability to cast for the time being. Others would add to the growing list of spells they can cast.

If the MU wants a special spell, such as Sleep, they either need to come upon it adventuring or seek out a particular wizard that is known to use the spell. This is fodder for more adventure and a reason to cover some ground in the campaign world. I'd rather play a MU that is constantly seeking access to old libraries and tombs and gaining information on the whereabouts of powerful magic-users INSTEAD OF the MU that has one puny spell...casts it and then skulks behind the lines.

None of this is to punish the player who wants to play a MU. On the contrary, I believe it offers a great way to put the spotlight on them by giving them a quest.

Alex Schroeder has some very good podcasts about how he handles this in his campaign.

Re: Spell System Overhaul for OD&D / White Box

Posted: Mon Jun 01, 2020 6:56 pm
by merias
I love the idea of MUs going on quests for spells or spellbooks! In the case of OD&D/WB, the spell lists are so short already that is why I assumed the 'by-the-book' spells are already known. Additional spells outside of that could be quested after or researched, but at least early on they will have some options (and that does rely on the GM being creative also, I think a lot of old-school GMs don't even consider that players will memorize anything but charm and sleep).

I like Alex Schroeder's magic rules, at least the elemental domains and the novel new spells he created. I like less his strict interpretation of Moldvay B/X because I think it leads to the very problem I was trying to solve - that of freshly minted MUs getting to cast one spell per day and not being able to use spells creatively to solve problems (plus the whole read magic thing with B/X has to be house ruled anyway). They can seek out mentors to learn the new spells, but that takes a while. Clerics too are kind of forgotten, with a decent number of utility spells that could be interesting if they can get out of the 'cure light wounds' mindset.