The Gassy Gnoll: Shifting Magical Paradigms Without a Clutch

Last week the Gassy Gnoll asked why 4e spell powers are so cut and dried. This week he wants to throw the D&D magic system out the window in favor of something much more open…

Right now you create a wizard, pick a few powers, and run. All the powers work generally the same, using certain forms of energy to perform certain effects on particular targets. But what if you want to do something completely different?

Take for instance, the idea of a runic mage. This mage doesn’t cast active magic, but instead composes one or more symbols or “runes” to define a particular effect to be triggered in a particular way. For instance, let’s say they’re protecting the Threshold of a home or business from anything non-human. So in the door frame at each of the four corners they place runes of protection along with runes describing something “non-human” in a runic alphabet, perhaps using “not” and “man”. Once all four corners are protected, a barrier forms to prevent anything “not a man” from entering.

How would you pull this off in 4e or D&D Next? A wizard could perhaps cast “Hold Portal” and a “Protection” spell, but they fade with time. The runic mage is creating something to last a while that can perhaps be re-energized with less energy in the future or through a ritual the owner of the house could perform on their own.

I would propose that instead of concrete implementations of wizard abilities as powers, the whole system becomes more flexible. The goal of any spell is to achieve a desired effect with a particular form of energy. A wizard wants to damage a group of enemies with a Fireball. A cleric wants to channel the love of their god to heal the sick or wounded. A sorcerer chooses to summon a magical being and force it to work on his behalf.

So why not take the magic system and break it down a bit so we can put it together in different ways?

A wizard wants a Magic Missile spell. What’s the goal of this spell? Ranged blast of energy to damage a target. Ok, so the desired effect is damage at a distance. And in 4e, the current Magic Missile spell uses force energy, so that becomes the combination. Damage, Range, Force. It could just as easily be Damage, Range, Fire or Damage, Range, Cold.

That’s a bit vague, so let’s confine the Damage and Range keywords a bit and bring in some of the other keywords 4e likes.

  • Arcane – because this is a wizard spell, not a cleric spell
  • Evocation – because 4e likes its schools of magic
  • Force 2 – because we want the effect to be 2 + the INT modifier in force damage
  • Range 20 – this isn’t in the existing spell description, but I think is important and we’ll say 20 because that’s what the spell says now
  • Implement – because we want the spell to be directed through an implement like a wand, staff, or orb

We could easily swap out “Force” with “Fire” or “Cold” and even increase damage and decrease Range to balance things a bit. Perhaps for spell construction each keyword has a particular cost in points to help with balancing.

Runes futhark old

Runes futhark old (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s go back to our runic mage trying to protect a threshold and try to apply this approach.

Let’s call the spell Protect Threshold.

  • Arcane
  • Enchantment
  • Force 20
  • Defense
  • Threshold

So this is a wizard spell that defensively enchants a threshold with a number of HP equal to 20 + the caster’s INT. We may need other keywords in there to define the hardness of the door (perhaps Defense 20 to give it an AC of 20 instead of putting that on the Force keyword).

Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way, but I think if there was a cost to the use of some of the keywords (perhaps based on the spell level), there could even be a Spell Creator at the WotC D&D site that would allow folks to create their own schools of magic and collections of spells. Imagine the fun you could have with that. The costs would help with balancing and DMs would ultimately have the last say in whether a spell was approved or not, but you could end up with some very creative magic systems as opposed to the tried-and-true laundry list of spells.

What do you think? Any merit to this approach?

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3 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Shifting Magical Paradigms Without a Clutch

  • Philo Pharynx

    There’s some good ideas in there. Most flexible spell systems end up breaking down because they get complex. But a system with an app to help tame the complexity would be good. One thing to note is that anything that makes spellcasters more flexible makes them more powerful.

    This sounds like it would work well in 5e. In 4e, there’s also class flavor issues. I could see the point costs being different for different roles and specific classes. For example, Invokers and Wizards are both controllers. But there are differences when you examine their powers. Invokers have more powers that are enemies only and there’s plenty of radiant and psychic. Invokers also have some powers that involve a little sacrifice. Wizards have lots of elemental powers. They have a few that don’t have hit rolls and some encounter powers with half damage. But most of their bursts and blasts hit all targets. If the point system doesn’t take these differences into account, then you lose some of the flavors of different classes. Everybody does the same spells.

    Also, to play devil’s advocate, part of the fun of D&D is the limits. For example, in 3e two of the people in my gaming group had great debates about the power of wizards vs. the power of sorcerers. Each has flexibility and limits, but they are at different times. A wizard can potentially know the entire spell list, so they start out extremely flexible. But when they prepare spells, they limit their flexibility to the mix they have. As each spell is cat, they drop in flexibility. Keeping some spells unprepared reduces flexibility for the chance to be flexible if they take the time to fill those slots. The sorceror makes his choices when he levels up. He limits his initial flexibility in order to be more flexible through the day. He also loses flexibility as he casts spells, but much slower. Until he uses up his highest level spell slots, he doesn’t lose any options. When anybody can cast any spell, it’s less of a challenge.

    • Fitz

      @Philo Pharynx – True. Flexibility can definitely mean balance and power issues, but I suspect that with some basic guidelines and an app much of that could be balanced out. Perhaps you only have a certain # of points to spend per “level” of spell. You could almost get into the whole benefits and liabilities management for a given spell to increase its power. For example, maybe you can cast a big ugly spell with the help of a summoned being, but the summoned being gets to take a point of an ability score that may or may not recover…

      And you’re right that part of the fun is the limits. If you see a Fireball, you know a character is a 3rd level mage. It’s always been that way.

      I’m not saying that we replace that wholesale, but offer it as an option. 🙂

  • This is exactly the kind of magic system I’ve been working on for a while now. It took a lot of iterations and testing with various groups over the years but I finally settled on one that I find acceptable. The idea is fantastic and I really like the way more free-form systems of magic like what you’re describing can capture the feeling of magic so much more effectively than the traditional spell list. However, the difficulty comes when you start trying to codify it. You can have a wonderfully complex system that grows up within a group, but when you try to codify it in terms for someone else to sit down and learn all at once, it becomes overwhelming.

    I suppose you could design a complex system that starts out very simple and requires increasingly difficult to achieve pre-requisites (levels, intelligence, whatever) in order to ensure that the character access to the more complicated magic does not outstrip the ability of the player to learn the ins and outs of the more complex parts of the system. I’m not sure everyone wants this much complexity in their magic rules though, lol.

    What I’d really like to see is a system that starts out with simple “spells” that are more like small rituals utilizing minerals and herbs that anyone can do (like what you describe in your article), then advances to more complex rituals, then full on spells and finally more powerful rituals for planar gates and such powerful magics. The problem is, I’ve seen the reference books for magical herbs etc. in new age bookstores and to do the system I have in mind justice I think you might end up with a rules manual of equal size, just for magic.

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