Friday, January 8, 2010

Spell Complexity

Has anyone successfully used the spell complexity rules (or a variation thereof) from Chainmail in their OD&D campaigns? It's something I've long pondered and am considering testing in the next session of my Dwimmermount game this weekend. The gist of it is that, when a spell is cast, a roll is made to determine if the spell is cast immediately, is delayed, or fails entirely. In addition, there's a chance the spell may or may not fade from the character's memory upon being cast, introducing the possibility that a spellcaster could cast, say, charm person successfully and then still have access to that same spell for another go rather than having to re-memorize it.

That may sound like a serious buff to the effectiveness of spellcasters, especially magic-users, but there's no guarantee of this. Moreover, the possibility of a spell's not fading from memory is counterbalanced by the chance that a spell could be delayed in casting or fail entirely, outcomes not possible under straight OD&D rules. I am intrigued by spell complexity because I think it'd go a small way toward making magic more unpredictable and less exacting. That's a good thing to my mind. I've never been particularly fond of D&D's "scientific" approach to magic, even if it does make the game run more smoothly than other options. The notion that even a veteran spellcaster can't be certain that a spell will function as planned -- or at all -- is something I think adds great flavor to the game, but does that flavor come at the cost of useless complexity? That's what I'd like to know.

If anyone's used Chainmail's magic rules in their OD&D games, I'd love to hear about your experiences.


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  2. I've used one like it experimentally. Looks like it could work in a campaign. I haven't played with the system long enough or often enough to decide which numbers work well and if I should change spell availability.

    Here's the one I've tinkered with:

    I thin integrated and spell slot free counter spelling let's MU's really shine as Mu's. They aren't just mobile artillery but an important defense as well.

  3. "In addition, there's a chance the spell may or may not fade from the character's memory upon being cast..."

    How is this chance determined? I don't see it in my copy of Chainmail.

  4. I used a similar system for a short while and found that it didn't really add any fun to the game. Instead it just frustrated magic using characters by adding unpredictability to their abilities.

    I later added the ability for magic users to 'overcast' their spells, essentially allowing them to cast more than their daily allotment. This use imposed potential penalties (like delayed or failed casting, or brain damage, or death). In that context it worked pretty well, allowing the magic user to shine in desperate situations, but with an element of risk involved.

  5. I've used a system like that in a different RPG (Warhammer Fantasy, 2nd ed) and I thought it worked fairly well. However, it isn't an exact analog. It might be worth taking a look at though.

  6. Jason Vey's excellent Spellcraft and Swordplay game (blogged herein and elsewhere; essentially it is OD&D redone as if Chainmail had remained at the core of the system) uses exactly this system. We've been using this to run our weekly campaign for 9 months or so now and we find it a most excellent way of introducing some fun uncertainty into combats.

    Our 1st party Wizard was grumbling the other week that at least in OD&D you were guaranteed to get off one (but only one) spell but the 2nd level Cleric was certainly not grumbling this week when he was able to cast the same Cure Light Wounds spells four times consecutively!

    Works well for us and if you haven't checked out S&S, you should.

  7. @mthomas768
    > I later added the ability for magic users to 'overcast' their spells

    That is a really cool idea. I'll have to try it. I've always preferred a model of magic that involves risk, as if you're dealing with powerful forces that are not entirely under your control. But its hard to do that without turning the poor MU characters into crippled paranoiacs. Giving them a "safe" amount of spells (as listed in the rules) and then allowing them to do more at the risk of "overburning" their brains seems like an awesome solution. After all, as Jeff Rients once remarked, memorizing Vancian spells is like putting a demon in your brain!

  8. It remeinds me of the BRP Magic system (as opposed to their Sorcery rules) in which each spell is a skill, and the results of casting can vary by the degree of success or failure. While the Chainmail rules obviously aren't a skill system, the end effect sounds similar. It's an appealing idea, as the mechanistic sureness of xD&D magic always felt a bit flat to me.

  9. Re: safe spells, in my OD&D campaign I give clerics the ability to either:
    - memorize spells as per a magic-user and gain the ability to be sure of being able to cast it
    - pray for their alloted spells/day only when they're needed, gaining flexibility of spell choice in exchange for the risk that the god wouldn't grant the prayer. No one has ever latched onto the latter option, so I do think that players are kind of risk-averse when it comes to spells. - Tavis

  10. I've been allowing a hybrid system with my campaign. A spell caster is allowed to cast a spell and have it work automatically and immediately, but have zero chance to remember the spell. If they want a chance to remember the spell, they must role with a chance for spell failure or a delay.

    I have found that my players normally prefer the former, especially the clerics when casting healing spells. Our magic user, however, loves to gamble and this has led to several tense and exciting moments, especially when that spell they really need succeeds but won't fire until next round. It has resulted in the magic user being able to cast a spell multiple times during some sessions and none at all in others. Over all, it has balanced out quite nicely.

    The unintended consequence for my group is that arcane magic has in practice been far more dangerous and unpredictable than divine magic (which is a wrinkle I kind of like).

  11. What are the chances of spell failure?

    A 1 in 10 chance seems fair. A simple d10 roll with 1 being a failure a 2 being a delay a 9 or 10 being a kept in memory is easy enough. You could add in a modifier of character’s level – 2x the spell level, this would make it easier for a higher level MU to recast lower level spells but make them a little shaky on that fireball they just learned.

    At 6 level you might have too many magic missiles at your disposal with a 60% chance of retention.

  12. In my experience, adding unreliability to magic makes it much less likely that players will play spellcasters, and if they do, the novelty of having their spells going awry soon wears off and turns to frustration. Personally, as a DM, I like the idea of less-than-perfect magic. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to translate to fun for my players.

  13. I for sure agree with Fitz, and threw out spell failure/fumble type stuff not too late in the 80's.

    In fact, in my contiuing efforts to further simply my 1st ed. games, I've been thinking of chucking chance to know spells. Two MU's in my game recently got a decent trove of scrolls and spellbooks. The bookkeeping and extra rolling involved in that seemed like kind of a lot to ask of my players.

  14. Jason Vey use it S&S. I was thinking about it in E&S, but decided to not use it - I just kept the counter-spell.

    In my new PbP Castle Snoggard, I ask myself again if I would do, but had doubts it was in 1st edition of Chainmail. After verification, it apperead in the 3d edition only (as said in Europa 6-8). So... not old-school enough ;)

  15. Weird. I've never owned Chainmail and was not aware of this alternate rule, but I put something very similar in my house rules for a B/X Krull campaign. It was the only way I could find to mimic the magic-use in the film.

    Since Krull was originally being written under the working title "Dungeons & Dragons," perhaps the character Ergo was based on someone's actual OD&D campaign that used these Chainmail rules?

  16. Mthomas768: your overcasting system sounds very interesting, and might work very well in my current campaign. Would you mind sharing?

  17. If I recall, spells could "fizzle" in everquest the mmorpg. I wonder if they got it from chainmail? I always fondly remember the Jack Vance short story with Maziran the Magician? The magic-user who got eaten in the woods when he tried to track down that female clone and got torn apart by a living bush/vine thing.

    Once he was out of spells that was it! How many spells was he able to memorize? 3 I think maybe. He started the story out with the "excellent prismatic spray" and two others if I recall.

    You could just introduce two different types of magic-users into your campaign and let the players opt for which they like. A "trained" mu from a proper school and a "hedge wizard" who is a bit more unpredictable?

    that way if the players don't like having their spells fizzle they have no one to blame but themselves!

  18. My Onderland Campaign for Spellcraft & Swordplay has been going on a year now and I've liked this rule. It certainly chnages the dynamic of playing a wizard, but I've never really liked the "utility belt" nature of the standard system. A

    nd dissuading players from playing wizards isn't necessarily a bad thing IMO.

  19. Does using this slow combat? Would it work some what like a To Hit roll?

    It seems like a rule somewhat like this was built for on of the "options" rulebooks for 2e...

  20. I'm quite entranced by these chainmail rules, rules I've never read. Your post really got me thinking.

    In a way, isn't the ability of a caster to memorize the same spell multiple times kinda similar to the idea of spell failure?

    take a 3rd level mu. 2/1 spells. The d&d idea of him memorizing magic missilex2 doesn't really make sense in the Vancian system. But the idea of a mu at 3rd level being able to cast mm twice before the spell fizzles from his mind makes me think on the chainmail system.

    It's as if, though, they let the player choose which spells will fizzle (after casting), in a way, blending the 2d6 method with the rigid method.

    anyway, you've really got me thinking about chainmail, and now I'm gonna have to go find the rules on teh interwebs.

    On a related note. Am I reading the rules wrong, or is the chance for the spell to fizzle actually quite high? Say mm at first level has a 11/9. That means on a roll of 11 the spell goes of right away and can be cast next round if desired. On a roll of 9 the spell is delayed 1 round, but can still be cast again. On a roll of 2-8 however, no luck and the 1st level mu is out of spells for the day.

    good thing he has d6 hit points and does d6 damage just like the fighting man eh?

  21. Lawful wizards could use the rules as written, and Chaotic wizards could use a Chainmail-like system.

  22. Systems like this in published RPGs have tended to be too balanced. A fumble is way worse than a critical success or spell/mana retention is good. So if I were designing a system like this I would make the chance of a random positive effect 2-3 times more likely than that of a random negative one, to avoid the problem Fitz and others point out.

  23. Doug uses the Chainmail casting rules (or a variation thereof) in his "Savage Swords of Athanor" setting.

    (amazed I'm the first person with this...)

  24. You could use the Chainmail spell casting rules for psionics thereby separating magic-users from mentalists.

  25. Less than perfect magic is already in the system (see, saving throws to nagate) and we play a variant rule that allows spellcasters to regain their first level spells after just ten minutes of studying their spellbooks. We find this works well. Note that we don't allow spell casters to change their first level spells, only rememorise them quickly.

  26. To continue with what Chris was saying above about the system used for "Savage Swords of Athanor," the particular system he uses is discussed here and here. Also, there's another one available at Ode To Black Dougal in his B/X sorcerer class.

  27. James, I'm not seeing the part about 'forgetting' a spell in the Chainmail rules -- that was a AD&D element (the quote in the White Box Men & Magic is "A spell used once may not be reused the same day."!)

    All of which is not to say I don't really like the idea you've suggested here -- I ran a low level OD&D game last year and the one MU (played by a 1st time D&Der) was a little frustrated by his small aresenal.

    This, at least, would give him a chance to keep the spell, even if the casting was wonky (an idea, btw, I think the player would like. More mythical and arcane a feeling.)

  28. > A spell caster is allowed to cast a spell and have it work automatically and immediately, but have zero chance to remember the spell. If they want a chance to remember the spell, they must role with a chance for spell failure or a delay.

    I've been mulling this idea over the last few days and would suggest this:

    1) The complexity level is also the number of melee rounds a MU must spend uninterrupted to cast the spell. If they do this, it goes off immediately and as planned.

    2) If they want to cast it faster, say, immediately, they roll for the delay or misfire. (Same is true if the casting is interrupted.)

    3) After casting, roll against their INT to see if they forget the spell. If they roll over - *poof* - its gone. Under and they retain it. The MU gets a penalty to the memory roll if they fired it off without going the full casting time. Say, -1 for each turn they didn't spend casting (or, if too annoying to track, -1 for each level of complexity.)

    This makes casting spells more like cooking or baking -- you check the recipe before you start and know exactly what you're doing, but in the heat of the kitchen (battle), you might forget some ingredients and have to go back later and consult your recipe book. Or something like that.

  29. On final note (and I don't know why my name is coming across as a string of digits) --

    A cursory check of the "complexity rating" of spells in Chainmail matches, with a couple of exceptions*, the level of the spell in D&D -- so translating the Chainmail concept directly to White Box rules would be easy.

    * Those exceptions are Protection from evil (Complexity 3), and fireball and lightning, which, strangely enough, *have* no complexity rating

  30. Grognard,

    If you're still interested in spell complexity rules (especially failure modes and whatnot), you might be interested to check out a series I've started writing in my blog which covers that (among other things):

    Love your blog, by the way.