Thursday, July 15, 2010

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part VI)

The general description of "magic" -- meaning the "workings of a magic-user" -- in Holmes has much of interest, so I'll quote a large section of the text here:
The magic-user acquires books containing the spells, the study of which allows him to memorize a spell for use. He can then throw the spell by saying the magic words and making gestures with his hands. This means that a magic-user bound and gagged can not use his magic. In some cases the spell may require substances or apparatus, such as conjuring a water elemental (5th level) requires the presence of water, a sleep spell requires a pinch of sand. A magic-user must concentrate on his spell, so he can not cast a spell and walk or run at the same time, and he certainly can not cast a spell while engaged in combat. Then, after all that, the spell may not work!
There's lots of information to digest in this paragraph. I'll begin only by noting that I'm personally amused by the appearance of the verb "throw" in reference to casting spells, a usage I see a lot in earlier gaming materials but that seems to have been superseded (The same usage also occurs in reference to dice too).

Holmes elaborates greatly on the in-game mechanics of magic, noting that spells require what AD&D calls "verbal" and "somatic" components to function. I wonder, given this and his reference to a bound and gagged magic-user, if this wasn't the beginning of the notion that the 2nd-level cleric spell, silence 15' radius, could be used as an offensive spell to shut down enemy spellcasters. Holmes notes too that some spells require "material" components, but, despite his examples, the descriptions for spells introduced later make no mention of material components. The requirement for absolute concentration is one that I've retained all these years and has colored my vision of how magic operates. His reference to spells not working "while engaged in combat" must be read with reference to the note about concentration: a magic-user actively fighting, as opposed to casting spells from a safe distance, lacks the focus needed to work magic.

Spell memorization is fleshed out slightly. The text notes that "as the spell is recited it fades from the spell-caster's mind and he can not use it again!" Re-memorization "takes at least 1 day" and, for unexplained reasons, "Magic-users can not bring their magic books into the dungeon with them." As a younger person, I took this to mean that spell books were tomes of immense size and weight, since spells were complex formulas, but Holmes nowhere explains his meaning.

Perhaps one of the best-known idiosyncrasies of the Holmes rulebook is its rules for scroll use and creation. Under these rules, magic-users of any level can make scrolls of spells they already know at a cost of 100 gp per spell level and 1 week's work, a rule I've used for years and that I allow in my Dwimmermount campaign. As Jeff notes, scrolls are specifically usable only by magic-users in Holmes, which raises some issues I'll discuss in a later post in this series. Spell research is also possible for magic-users, at a cost of 2000 gold piece per level of the spell and one week time, seemingly regardless of level. This expenditure grants a mere 20% chance of success, however, so researching even a new 1st-level spell may take much gold and many weeks. The level of any new spell under research is determined by the referee, of course, as with so much in Holmes.

Holmes includes Supplement I's "Chance to Know Any Given Spell" table based on the magic-user's Intelligence score. He also includes an actual explanation for how the table works, which is nice, since the Greyhawk table is quite mysterious on its own. I'll admit that I've always liked this table, as it gives magic a weird quality to it. There are some spells that are simply impenetrable to a given character and no amount of trying will enable his mind to grasp them.

Holmes uses the same saving throw categories as the LBBs, more or less, although his wand category doesn't explicitly include "polymorph and paralization [sic]" as OD&D does. They are, however, in a different order. Except for the fact that he groups thieves with fighting men rather than magic-users as in OD&D, the tables are functionally identical to those in the LBBs. Monsters are treated as fighting men of equal level in most cases, except for those whose magic use suggests they ought to be treated as either magic-users or clerics. Holmes also alludes to the existence of magic resistance for "large and powerful creatures like demons, balrogs and dragons." He also reiterates the traditional resistances of undead beings to sleep and charm type spells.


  1. "Magic-users can not bring their magic books into the dungeon with them."

    I've always wondered about the rules that restricted magic-users from carrying spell books around with them - what is their purpose? Was it a way to excuse the rule that says you only have a number of slots available per day - as if it were somehow easier to ban carrying spell books around than it was to just say "you have to rest before you can do that"?

    I wonder because from early on in my gaming we always ignored that rule. We were forever exploring dungeons where we would find a room, secure it, spike the doors and use it as a "base" during our explorations - returning to it when we needed to rest and only returning to town occasionally when we needed to resupply or do other things you needed a town for. That was pretty much the SOP of the group that introduced me to the game, and I never saw a reason to disallow it when I later started DMing. So of course the magic-users needed to have their spell books because otherwise that style of exploration just couldn't have happened.

  2. Does he ever elaborate on the statement that "the spell may not work"? Or is that the reference to MR?

  3. It's a reference to saving throws, I suspect.

  4. Just out of curiousity, do you allow magic-users to cast spells "while engaged in combat?" If the M-U declares the spell before hand and wins initiative, does it matter whether he's in melee range? Labyrinth Lord at least doesn't appear to be explicit about this (though of course I could be wrong). How about anyone else out there?

  5. Magic-users can not bring their magic books into the dungeon

    Occasionally I'm tempted to run a perverse D&D game that attempts to make physical sense of all those rule oddities: that exploits the perfect fit between the gelatinous cube and the standard corridor. In this case I'd say spell books are repelled by dungeons, via something like magnetic repulsion, while scrolls have been somehow demagnetized. The important effect being that you can find dungeons at a distance using the repulsive effect, and determine if you're in a proper dungeon or merely a catacomb/cavern/necropolis/citadel.

  6. In Best of the Dragon 1, Gary Gygax makes the exact same reference to "water to raise a water elemental". I wonder if the two were collaborating at that point? I can't figure out what issue of Dragon he wrote that in from my copy of BoD#1. Maybe he wrote it in the Strategic Review? Perhaps '76 or '77?

  7. Jim,

    There's lots of text in Holmes that is more or less verbatim what was written in the LBBs, Supplements, SR, and TD, since Holmes (mostly) saw himself as an editor and compiler rather than a designer. It's also possible that Gygax inserted those references into Holmes's original text in order to bring the game more in line with the AD&D PHB he was writing.

  8. I like what Philotomy's interpretation of dungeons suggests would be the reason for a the lack of spell recovery and healing in dungeons - that it is not just normal tunnels underground, that it is a mythic underworld and hostile to your presence in supernatural ways, including that it is impossible to recover in such a miasma of unnatural hostility.

    Certainly the Vancian conception of magic as active, almost sentient, and in any case difficult to grasp or retain, easy to unbalance fits with the idea that you can concentrate in the underworld enough to throw a spell you've already prepared, but not enough to once again master it into preparation.

    Likewise, magical writing is not like normal writing and represents another uneasy capture of writhing, Protean powers - a delicate balance you wouldn't want to upset by exposure to the malignant underworld. Who knows what would happen if the spells in your books loosed their bonds and went off in mutated form? Best to keep those babies somewhere safe, stable, and normal where they won't get too excited.

  9. I have never really seen "material components" as "Vancian," but rather a game balance thing added because magic-users had too much power at higher levels (I have an old Gygax article somewhere in which he expresses this sentiment). Is Holmes the first mention or material components? Or was there something in those earlier LBB supplements?


  10. I feel more ashamed than I should to realize how easy I am on MUs (and Clerics) as a GM. I allow re-memorization in any setting, provided that there is uninterrupted study for half an hour per spell level. I do make regular wandering monster checks during that time, and spike or no spike, an unexpected guest at the door is going to break your concentration so you have to start all over again. I guess it's a little something to make life easier for low-level characters. Or at least more interesting.

    Because what's more depressing-- being a 1st-level M-U who's just waiting around for a chance to use his magice missle, OR being a 1st-level M-U whose used his magic missile and is now waiting to go home?

  11. I wanted to add something about "throwing" of spells.

    In Rolemaster, which after all started out (just like RQ) as extra rules for D&D, you also "throw" spells.

    "Elemental" spells, which target a single target, actually have their own attack tables and you can develop your skill rating for each of those. Thus, a bolt of lightning is actually not just unleashed, it is "thrown". I always found that interesting.

  12. @Brian: But of course in OD&D & Holmes, all weapons do d6 damage, so a magic-user can inflict serious damage with a dagger - and once magic weapons are found the possibilities increase. He or she is at more risk because of the lower hit points and lack of armor, but the tradeoff is that every now and then the magic-user can do something miraculous.

    That is, in Holmes and OD&D, magic-users are useful even when they aren't casting spells. Variable weapon damage seriously hurt the value of magic-users by starting the AD&D arms race that left magic-users behind in combat - thus creating the problem you had to solve with your house rules.

  13. Likewise, when AD&D increased the bonuses and penalties for high or low stats - including the strength adjustments to damage - something similar occurred. In Holmes, the best fighting man with normal weapons does d6 damage, just like the weakest magic-user.

    In AD&D, the variable weapon damage combined with pronounced stat bonuses and penalties changes the entire game dramatically, basically sidelining magic-users and making them more dependent on their magic to be able to contribute in combat.

  14. "Just out of curiousity, do you allow magic-users to cast spells "while engaged in combat?" If the M-U declares the spell before hand and wins initiative, does it matter whether he's in melee range? Labyrinth Lord at least doesn't appear to be explicit about this (though of course I could be wrong). How about anyone else out there? "

    We handled Magic-Users in combat with the following rules in AD&D.
    On the first round of melee combat, if the Mage won initiative they could cast their spell. We subtracted casting time from the Wizards roll, and weapon speed from the opponents roll. It was sort of assumed on the first round the weapon speed was how long it took the fighter to deploy his weapon and take a swing etc. On subsequent rounds it did not matter who won initiative, the wizard could not cast spells, otherwise they would be standing more or less still and would get hit disrupting their casting. It worked fairly well. Weapon speed of a long sword was 5, so if the wizard is casting sleep (1 segment) odds are the wizard will get off the first spell. I know it's kind of stupid given the 6 second segments, to think an opposing fighter takes around 30 seconds to get off his first swing, but it worked ok in play.

    Against other casters, both casters subtracted casting speed from their initiative. A tie meant both spells could go off. Most spells take as many segments as the spell level, so most magic duels involved trading low level spells like magic missiles until someone tried to get lucky and casts Hold Person; or an archer starts shooting at the rival caster, or maybe you cast stinking cloud (2 segments) to distract them. The system worked very well, casting a powerful spell was a gamble, since they took longer, but the shorter spells tended to give you no permanent advantage.

  15. In Best of the Dragon 1, Gary Gygax makes the exact same reference to "water to raise a water elemental". I wonder if the two were collaborating at that point? I can't figure out what issue of Dragon he wrote that in from my copy of BoD#1. Maybe he wrote it in the Strategic Review? Perhaps '76 or '77?

    That article ("The Dungeons & Dragons Magic System") originally appeared in SR issue 7 (April 1976). Pretty much everything in the paragraph James quotes is paraphrased from that article.

  16. @Michael: Thanks for your advice; that does sound like a pretty good system for AD&D. B/X (my preferred system) works a little differently, because there are no casting times, no spell components, spells take immediate effect and the combat round is only 10 seconds long.I started a thread over at the Goblinoid Games forums, if your interested.

    My apologies to all for the somewhat OT discussion. I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...

  17. I think Gary had always intended for magic to require verbal, somatic, or component aspects in any revision of the game. It seems obvious from many of his early articles in The Strategic Review and later in Sage Advice that he was straying towards a more complex spell system than oD&D presented.

    As far as spellbooks in dungeons - I always just assumed that they were much too valuable to a m/u to risk in a potentially hazardous environment like a dungeon. Page 34 of LBB Vol. I even has the costs for purchasing duplicate, and very expensive, blank books for the back-up of spells. At Lvl 1 they cost 2000 GP and double per level, 64,000 GP for your 6th level spellbook!!

    Also the LBB specifically stated that spells were memorized for a single adventure and that each memorized spell could be cast but once per day. So you would have to wait 24 hours between uses of re-memorized spells. Not sure when the requirement for a full nights rest (8 hours)prior to spell memorization came about, ADD maybe.