Saturday, April 11, 2009

D&D Magic, Blackmoor Style

In Blackmoor, magic followed the "Formula" pattern for most magic. The reasoning behind limiting the number of spells that a Magic User could take down into the Dungeon was simply that many of the ingredients had to be prepared ahead of time, and of course, once used were
then powerless. Special adventures could then be organized by the parties to gain some special ingredients that could only be found in some dangerous place.

Progression reflected the increasing ability of the Magic user to mix spells of greater and greater complexity. Study and practice were the man import factors involved. A Magic user did not progress unless he used Spells, either in the Dungeon or in practice (there was no difference) session1. Since there was always the chance of failure in spells (unless they were practiced) and materials for some spells were limited (determined simply by a die roll) the Magic User did not just go around practicing all the time. The Magic User could practice low level spells all the time, cheaply and safely, but his Constitution determined how often he could practice without rest. Thus, the adventurers might want a Magic User to come with them only to find him lying exhausted.

So to progress to a new level, one first learned the spells, and then got to use that spell. There was no automatic progression, rather it was a slow step by step, spell by spell progression.
That's one of the fascinating little tidbits from The First Fantasy Campaign. I'll admit that I'm not entirely clear on what it means in practice. As presented, it's more a sketch of an idea than an actually fully detailed system. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating and praiseworthy for the simple reason that it suggests a way to interpret the OD&D magic rules that is unique yet doesn't require any significant alteration to the rules. That is, it retains the number of spells per day a magic-user gets as described in OD&D and then presents an alternate explanation for why the class is so limited.

I can't help but approve of this approach, as it nicely embodies the do-it-yourself sensibilities of OD&D and the early hobby I so love. As I said, I don't think the sketch presented in FFC provides enough details in order to emulate it accurately. But I do think it provides a potent example of how to take OD&D's rules and then make them your own. I'm very much of the opinion that what the hobby needs is more of this kind of thing and not less. The zeal for standardization and conformity is perfectly understandable and proceeds from rational impulses. Yet, I also think that zeal has inadvertently put a stopper in the parallel zeal for originality and uniqueness. Great as it is to be able to move effortlessly from one campaign to another, sure of the rules the referee will use in his campaign. it's often at the expense of the individual quirkiness that I feel is at the heart of this hobby and gave it such appeal.

16 comments:

  1. I'm afraid the first thing I think of upon reading this is, "Great. I'll spend two days preparing spells and have twice as many spells when we go adventuring tomorrow." ;)

    Of course, the second thing I think is that the idea of balancing training/practice vs. the limited resource of spell components is rather clever. (It also reminds me of the later systems that evolved where all/many the classes got XP for different things.)

    And I've also always liked the idea of needing to quest for your spell components. In practice, unfortunately, I found it didn't work so well. It did limit the wizard's power, but it radically increased their spotlight time: Every campaign I ever tried the system in was instantly 50-75% about getting the wizard's components.

    I eventually dropped the idea. During 3rd Edition, Monte Cook revived my interest in it by offering up similar gameplay around empowered spell components -- components that make certain spells more powerful if you use them in place of (or in addition to) the normal components.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "But I do think it provides a potent example of how to take OD&D's rules and then make them your own. I'm very much of the opinion that what the hobby needs is more of this kind of thing and not less. The zeal for standardization and conformity is perfectly understandable and proceeds from rational impulses. Yet, I also think that zeal has inadvertently put a stopper in the parallel zeal for originality and uniqueness. Great as it is to be able to move effortlessly from one campaign to another, sure of the rules the referee will use in his campaign. it's often at the expense of the individual quirkiness that I feel is at the heart of this hobby and gave it such appeal."

    I'm very glad to read these words, James. I heartily concur.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post! "I don't think the sketch presented in FFC provides enough details in order to emulate it accurately."

    That's the real glory of the FFC magic "system." It's incredibly vague, but the ideas are potent and inspiring. I've only been exposed to the FFC in the last 6 months or so, but it's been a huge influence on my game in several ways - including magic.

    A summary of my tinkerings with FFC-inspired "Arnesonian" alchemical magic (for Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox) will appear in Knockspell #2.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Gathering reagents and experimenting with assembling them with the proper incantations has worked well in slowing down magic users in the early versions of online games. How it works with a weekly game (versus the minute to minute play of online), I would be skeptical. But, hey, see how it works in your next couple games.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Might be interesting to reward magic users with XP for successfully casting difficult spells (those with gathered ingredients , etc.).

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great find. I agree and I think that is the most rewarding approach for a DM. I have contrasting rules for MUs depending on which nation they are from.

    ReplyDelete
  7. James,

    I've very recently begun to explore the history of D&D after having played it for 30 years. It's fascinating to rediscover the roots of the game, and I have to thank you and other dedicated souls for your efforts at bringing the history of the game to light.

    I'm currently playing a d20-based homebrew that very much focuses on the story. The mechanics of it all have been minimalized as much as I'm able. That said, I'm looking for ways to balance the magic system and it was helpful to read your post, and the FFC quote.

    ReplyDelete
  8. ...many of the ingredients had to be prepared ahead of time, and of course, once used were
    then powerless. [...] adventures could then be organized by the parties to gain some special ingredients [...] A Magic user did not progress unless he used Spells [...] there was always the chance of failure in spells (unless they were practiced) and materials for some spells were limited [...] The Magic User could practice low level spells all the time, cheaply and safely, but his Constitution determined how often he could practice without rest.


    Wow. That sounds vaguely like quasi-alchemical 'Caster Level check' alternate casting system I've been tinkering with.

    Intriguing stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  9. You can also see how this might have influenced the designers of Chivalry & Sorcery, though I doubt Simbalist and Backhaus were very familiar with Dave's way of doing things. But you can see similarities between their rather complex magic system and Dave's original system in FFC.

    ReplyDelete
  10. James - this is the first time D&D magic and its bizarre rhythms have made any sense to me - thank you. I will certainly implement somethig like this net time I run a D&D MU....

    That said, these comments are a really great thread on the problems of "ingredient quest" as a genre. I think Ars Magica points in this direction, while Nephilim shows some severe problems with it. Ken Hite once wrote up a brilliant Iron Chef('s ingredient procurers) riff on it, in which the sorceror is an NPC patron. Can anyone else flesh out what they think is problematic about taking a campaign in this direction?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Just an idea:

    Have spells take 100 gp per level squared to prepare. Chance of successful casting determine by INT and level relative to spell level. MU get exp based on the cost of the spell.

    The spells per day is how many spells a MU can cast without having to check to see if they remember how to cast the spell.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I've always used a requirement where my characters were required to spend their gold to get XP for it. For magic users this took the form of creating a laboratory (and accompanying library). And similiarly to other classes, they were also required to spend downtime practising their art to earn the XP bonus, to develop and learn new spells, and so on.

    The actual laboratory contents were always left rather vague (apart from the obligatory stuffed alligator hanging from the ceiling in later years), with the value of the lab being the only thing really recorded. Although taking a look at costs of individual magical equipment (even considering much will be used up in normal usage) will show that it soon becomes quite encumbering, and a magic user will soon want to establish a sanctum of his own. Even portable kits aren't really that portable (they just allowed the magic user to set up in a new location. One effect did have was the position of Court Wizard was eagerly sort, not only for the paycheck, but also to have place where one can keep their laboratory without the need for building their own tower.

    Of course, a magic user didn't need to do this. They could still advance as natural magic users simply by not spending any GP on XP. For some reason nobody ever really seriously considered that option. <grin>

    ReplyDelete
  13. There has to be room for personal interpretation. Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Makes sense in it's own way, but a new dimension is added when a wizard has to worry about having a high con as well as int.

    ReplyDelete
  15. the first thing I think of upon reading this is, "Great. I'll spend two days preparing spells and have twice as many spells when we go adventuring tomorrow."The first thing I thought on reading this was: "let them. It's an investment, why not let them invest heavily?"
    Over the past few days, though, I've kept thinking about this question. It seems to me perfectly suited to D&D's peculiar capitalism, with its hirelings who fight for a wage until they 'make partner" (filling a dead PC's shoes) and its universal money and its economics of dungeoneering. Fighters and clerics can only invest so much in their equipment, but this mechanic allows MUs to really plow their take back into the business, to take advantage of the destabilising effects of capital accumulation. It wouldn't hold them back, it would push them forward, and incite them to push the envelope ever further - in terms of spell levels, ingredients and bodily demands. Coupled with some of the chaotic/cancerous costs of magic James has talked about previously, I can't think of anything more pulp-fantasy.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Like Justin Alexander said I'd like to see massive playtesting of that. Much about it I like, but wont it make the MU be way to much in focus of everything?

    Frankly, how many people ever was that strict about components in AD&D anyway? reading about it on Dragonsfoot I get the impression it looks more fun that it is.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.