Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Casting off a Vancian magic

JB at B/X Blackrazor has been carrying on the debate about the magic-user's role and power in early D&D and similar old school tactical RPGs. The two key aspects are generally spell access and rate of use so here's a suggestion for each.

First access. The suggestion here is having spell levels exchangeable at a given rate, which could be one-for-one, i.e. two first level spells are worth a second level, a first and second are a third etc. The magic-user can pool spell slots to memorise more spells of a lower level or fewer of a higher.

Second is rate of use, arguably the least intuitive element of the Vancian approach. The suggestion in this case is that spells are not lost if cast, but cause harm to the user, a more Bujillian and Lone Wolfish approach. The MU can use each spell multiple times a day. However, each use costs, say, a number of HP equal to 1D[spell level], i.e. a first level spell 1 HP, a second 1D2, a third 1D3 etc., adapted to suit spell progression. With no Zocchi dice, and for a D9 or D11, roll the die for a level higher and reroll a maximum.

If this seems too easy on the party, or you want more drama, a simple, non-tabled side effect could be a blast of energy over an incremental radius, e.g. HP x 5', so a loss of 4 HP means anyone at 20' from the MU takes 1 HP damage, at 15' 2 HP, at 10' 3 HP etc.

Using the first suggestion could shake up the usual campaign pacing, and maybe even the setting as the world-changing spells became available far earlier. With the second, MUs could be more involved and even sacrifice themselves to a higher purpose. It could also encourage riskier play, keeping a party pushing where they might now withdraw.

Update: There are some thoughts on fighters here.


Kelvin Green said...

I very much like tying spellcasting to physical strain -- Shadowrun does it very well -- but in D&D, I would consider giving the mage more hit points -- perhaps 1d6 per level, or maximum hit points at first level -- to take some of the fear out of casting; if you want wizards to be more confident and useful, then you've got to give them something back.

I also like roll-for-casting systems like Savage Worlds or -- in particular -- WFRP2, but those would involve bigger changes to the core system.

Extending the damage to an area is a nice, evocative idea, and is sort of what they were getting at in Dark Sun; in an abandoned Savage Worlds conversion, I had wizards able to draw life from the rest of the party in order to power spells, which I thought was an interesting economy.

Trey said...

Kelvin has some good ideas.

I also wonder about rather than having artificial levels, but just putting things to a roll to cast with modifiers essentially create the same effect.

Johnathan Bingham said...

I also like the idea of extending the possible number of spells cast and level of the spell cast resulting in possible physical harm to the caster. How many times have literary mages risked all to cast spells for either the greater good or greater gain? Afterall, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward right? I have some ideas on this that I'll be expounding upon.

Porky said...

@ Kelvin Green - I see what you mean. The thinking here is that the greater freedom is reward enough, but not every player will necessarily go for that of course, and giving more HP as clearer compensation does make sense.

Other options could be guaranteeing starting HP as at least half the max, or giving a 1 HP bonus, for a starting minimum of two. Coming at it from the other direction could mean having first level spells cost 1D2-1 HP, i.e. only a 50% chance of a loss. All of these would mean unhurt starting MUs could cast without being reduced to zero, and with the last option, weaker individuals in general would see chance of surviving a session drop less quickly.

The key really, if all else in the system is acceptable to the gaming group, is to do what keeps overall casting and survival rates at roughly the same level, assuming extremes in any given session average out, so basic dynamics and general balance stay similar.

That drawing of life energy to power magic is a very good idea. It opens the door to far more complex negotiations and relationships within the party, and things getting really emotional. There's also a lot of scope for side effects and subtle changes among participants over time. Opening it out to all life energy could be interesting too.

@ Trey - I wonder too. I'm a big fan of open spell creation systems with no levels but increased difficulty in casting as a result. This or that base effect being bought, even on the fly, and more power added where preferred. A fireball then becomes a incendiary effect of variable strength and radius with motion added, but for more expended energy and greater risk of failure other aspects are possible, stickiness say, with the GM arbitrating where it gets wackier.

Kelvin also makes a good point when he says that introducing this kind of thing could mean larger changes to a given core system, and that might lead to a cascade of knock-on effects. At some point a system could become unrecognisable. Then again, that doesn't need to be a bad thing.

@ Johnathan Bingham - Good points. The suffering approach does tie in well with existing literature and the trade-off suggests that kind of philosophy. It could get very dramatic. I'll be interested in where you take it for sure.

Kelvin Green said...

The maths are off because I'm making this up as I go along, but I like the idea of a wizard partnering with a fighter as a magic point reservoir. The wizard has the opportunity to cast a ninth level spell, but only has eight hit points, so he puts a hand on the fighter's shoulder and draws the nine points from him in order to power the spell.

It would make powerful spells more easy to cast, perhaps too easy; a party of five first-level characters could donate two hit points each to fuel power word kill, and that seems a bit abusive, so you'd have to place some limits.

Perhaps the wizard can only draw energy from himself or those he touches, not the most convenient method when in the middle of a battle.

Porky said...

You could tinker with cost of course, to see what works, especially to see what survives contact with resourceful players. If you wanted to start conservatively, expecting the kind of response you suggest, maybe even double the spell level for cost in HP, so a ninth level spell cost 18. Or to discourage that player approach, maybe only double the cost of the extra HP from the non-MU - in your example, the wizard could take a full 18 from the fighter, or compromise by personally giving up maybe 4 HP at one-to-one and then taking the remaining 5 HP from the fighter at a cost to the fighter of 10 HP.

Then again, if it is restricted to physical contact, there's a natural limit on the ability to group up, or at least the practicality of it, as with the example of being in the middle of a battle. You could also take into account area of contact, or give each of an MU's hands a maximum capacity, maybe the current HP of the caster per hand for simplicity.

In some sense though, the higher the cost of the spell to the party, the better, for the kind of drama Johnathan mentions, and for bringing the group together, and maybe making the play experience a deeper one.

Kelvin Green said...

In some sense though, the higher the cost of the spell to the party, the better, for the kind of drama Johnathan mentions, and for bringing the group together, and maybe making the play experience a deeper one.

Exactly my thinking behind the idea of drawing energy from other party members; it ties the party together, puts a limit on the spellcaster without reducing his power, and can make for interesting negotiations in play. If the party need that power word kill spell, will the thief sacrifice his life to fuel it?

It also gives a neat explanation for distrust of wizards; imagine playing a spellcaster who has harmed or killed his comrades in order to use his abilities.

Porky said...

You could even have a party member make a save the first time, or first few times, or after someone known to them dies this way, to represent trepidation or unconscious struggle. If the save is passed, the tapped character resists at a deep level and the spell fails.

Anonymous said...

I once ran d&d3.5 with a magic point system similar to HPs, but in reverse: Paladins and rangers got d4, bards and clerics got d6, wizards got d8. Used wisdom/int/whatever for bonuses, and then had the spell cost its level in Mps to cast. (Or I may have made it 2*lvl-1, can't remember now). Anyway, it worked out so that if you wanted to be able to cast a mixture of spell levels in a day you didn't get more than 1 or 2 of your highest level spells (just like trad D&D) but you got a lot more of the lowest level ones, which I liked.

A while back I had the idea of using material components to determine spell usage rates - you could keep casting spells till you ran out of components, then you were done for till you got more. With a few tweaks I think that would make for interesting D&D magic...

Porky said...

I like that magic points idea for the same reason, not to mention the fact of it being so easily remembered and managed.

The components approach could work very well with the right group. One of the more obvious arguments against it is the potential record-keeping, and in your post you cover the problems involved brilliantly. To counter it, maybe the basic unit could be the prepared mix or single key ingredient per spell, or the approach could be abstracted to use general types of mix or ingredient, maybe with a roll to determine whether any two units can be jury-rigged into a third, possibly with reduced or unexpected effect. Something like magic points could also be a way of doing this, just with more of a physical element to accompany the casting.

With components in general, the door is open to much more fun. Making more useful units - whatever they are - harder to find and a potential source of adventure could be a clear bonus of course. Even with more abstracted components, your suggestion on taking into account the effects of minor details - the origin of the eyelash for example - could still be used, maybe by encouraging the MU to pick up odd things here, there and everywhere and look to use them later for a bonus to a relevant spell, when the GM/DM is persuaded. This kind of thing could bring the enviroment alive - the comments at this post have some good thinking on that too. This kind of permissible improvisation could loosen things up, and help justify the approach in the eyes of the players.

As with the need for physical contact in Kelvin's party reservoir idea, the need to store, rummage for and handle components could be a way to offset any perceived overpowering of the MU. You cover this too of course, and as well as damage from strikes we have trips, gusts, decay, odd scents etc, potentially a whole new world of interactions...