DND MAGIC SYSTEM
Stuff That’s Wrong and How Can We Fix It
-Page flips. Player must flip between how many spells their class has, the spell list for their class, and the spell descriptions over and over again. Spell descriptions can get over 100 pages long, so lots of ground to cover.
-Hard to keep track of spell slots, spells memorized, spells chosen for the day, etc. Need for things like spell cards, spell trackers, and rarest and most prized of all, organizational skills.
-Exponential wizards vs linear fighters. Recent editions have tried to solve this by making other classes progress more exponentially, but that brings about a host of secondary problems such as inflating the action economy.
-Can often present clean problem --> solution loops instead of encouraging messy lateral thinking. Aka locked door --> knock spell. Invisible enemy --> see invisibility spell. The spells are too specific to be used to solve anything but the problems they were specifically designed to solve, and they solve the problems so cleanly that the act of solving them isn’t interesting.
-Deadweight spells. This is more a problem with earlier editions. Things like multiple spells that do the exact same thing but a little more. Scrap Princess does a better job than I could in detailing the issues in her review of 1st level spells: http://monstermanualsewnfrompants.blogspot.com/2018/05/what-exactly-is-problem-here-re-1st.html
-The dnd magic system is iconic, it is an important part of dnd as a cultural phenomenon. Spells like fireball, magic missile, bigby’s hand, etc. have entered the popular consciousness to the point where they have become memes (I cast magic missile!). This is less so in the OSR sphere with its emphasis on DUI content, more so in the pop culture 5e Critrole sphere.
-Musing of mine: it’s kind of charming how the player’s experience navigating the dnd magic system reflects that of their character; spending their golden years sorting through various dusty manuscripts and quibbling with their fellow mages over fine spell details until, at long last, their True Potential emerges and they gain near-limitless mastery over time and space. The countless page-flips, pockets stained by bat guano, and long nights destroying their eyeballs in dim candlelight are made worth it by the system’s exponential power curve.
-I don’t think these paltry upsides are worth the downsides.
HOW CAN WE SOLVE THESE PROBLEMS or THE IDEAL SYSTEM NEEDS TO
-be tight and space efficient.
-be easy to track.
-have progression similar to other classes.
-be free of deadweight.
-encourage lateral/sandbox thinking.
STEPS FOR CREATING SAID IDEAL SYSTEM
1 Give players an easy-to-manage resource with which to cast spells.
2 Make progression system where players gain (resource) at a linear rate.
3 Make magic system based off of ratios between (resource) and (desired outcome).
There is one game that does this very thing…
The GLOG http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-glog.html solves a lot of the issues plaguing the dnd magic system but keeps others. Here’s the GLOG’s take on wizards: http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2016/09/the-glog-wizards.html
It manages to solve the exponential magic-user growth problem, and it cuts a lot of the deadweight out of the spell lists, though some shaky spells like Knock yet survive in a much more usable form. Spell slots are still a thing, which does irk me, but the GLOG uses it tastefully, even adding an interesting “spells are sentient” bit.
The thing that really strikes me as beautiful are the magic dice, a resource that casters spend to cast their spells that recharges after a long rest like spell slots. This makes every spell variable, as spell effects scale off of the amount of dice spent to cast them. Things like damage scale off of the sum of the dice results once you roll them.
Because of this, we get some really compact, efficient spell descriptions:
Fireball Range 200’ Target 20’ diameter Duration 0
Does [sum] fire damage to all objects.
PERSONAL INTERJECTION: I do not like spell slots. I understand other people do, and they have good, well reasoned opinions for why they do and I respect that. It seems to me like a game in which delving into the unknown is a major theme and in which creative problem solving is to be encouraged hurts itself by having casters lock themselves into specific prepared spells. But that could be my own personal style talking, as I prefer on-my-feet problem solving over trying to solve my problems at spell-select. That’s why although I love the idea of magic, I have more fun playing rogues than magic users.
As such I think the GLOG is many steps in the right direction, but would be improved by casting aside spell slots.
MY IDEAL MAGIC SYSTEM
-Will use a resource like energy points/magic dice but no spell slots.
-Will try to have spell lists that are bare bones enough to fit on only a few pages while still get all the important info across.
-Be user-friendly. Maybe even user-friendly to a degree that old-schoolers would be uncomfortable with, aka give casters a very wide range of choice of what spell to cast.
-Focus on lateral thinking problem solving.
-Follow the laws of science i.e. physics, biology, and psychology.
-Have Rituals for more specific spell effects, akin to regular dnd spells. Associate a (resource) cost with them. Like a spell that causes somebody’s bones to grow out of control and imprison them in a tomb-exoskeleton. Stuff like that is too golden to throw out, yet too specific to fit in a space-conscious spell list.
-Make sure James Raggi’s Summon spell is in the system, because any magic system without it included is missing out. Can associate (resource) cost with (power of summoned entity) or (how safe the summoning is).