Thursday, September 16, 2010

REVIEW: Old School Magic

Old School Magic is the latest PDF by Charles Rice, a 29-page supplement for OSRIC introducing nine new magic-using classes and new spells for use by them. Unsurprisingly, it's a very meaty product, with nearly every one of its two-column pages devoted to the presentation of mechanical material. About 5 pages pertain to more "philosophical" subjects, including rebuttals/defenses of Rice's approach to design against criticisms I've made in past reviews (at least I think they're directed toward me, but then, as we all know, I think everything's about me, right?). I'll address those sections later in this review. First, I'd like to look at the new classes and spells Old School Magic introduces.
  • Alchemist: This would appear to be the very same class I reviewed in an earlier product and my feelings about the class remain much the same.
  • Artificer: An interesting but very weak class, devoted to the crafting of magic items. Members of this class have no ability to cast spells but instead imbue items they construct with such magic. This struck me as more appropriate as an NPC class.
  • Conjurer: A magic-user specializing in summoning creatures to battle on his behalf, the conjurer consequently has a very limited selection of spells. As members of this class advance, their summoned creatures become more powerful and numerous, but summoning is their sole magical ability. I found this class rather weak as well, especially given that its XP requirements are the same as standard magic-users.
  • Elementalist: Another specialist magic-user with a limited selection of spells, the elementalist is at least potent within his sphere. I very much like the idea of this class, even if I'm not sure about its implementation here.
  • Hermit: Again, another great idea -- a solitary divine spellcaster whose austere lifestyle grants him remarkable proficiency with divination and healing -- that I don't think gels quite right. In any event, this is another class that strikes me as more appropriate for NPCs than adventurers.
  • Holy Man: This is an alternative class to the cleric in low magic campaigns, focusing on fighting undead and medicinal knowledge.
  • Naturalist: Another alternative class, this time for the druid, the naturalist is a kind of cunning man with knowledge of the wild places of the world.
  • Sage: This is a nice expansion of sages as presented in Supplement II and the Dungeon Masters Guide, with lots of useful abilities, but, again, I have a hard time seeing him as an adventurer.
  • Seer: Another specialist magic-user with a limited spell list, this time focusing on detection and divination. The seer's only unique ability is its resistance to illusion, which give members of the class a greater chance of seeing things as they truly are.
As you can see, all of Old School Magic's classes fall into two categories: intriguing non-adventuring classes (some of which don't quite match up with AD&D/OSRIC's implied setting) and highly specialized -- but underpowered -- adventuring classes. The non-adventuring classes are, by and large, very well done; they're flavorful and channel recognizable fantasy archetypes, but I have a hard time imagining a player choosing to create any of them as a character, as they're more "stay at home" types. The adventuring classes are all more or less "specialist wizards," to use 2e parlance. However, they all pay for their expertise in a narrow field by having extremely limited spell selections, which I fear will make them a lot less attractive than the standard magic-user as PC options.

Old School Magic also introduces 31 new spells, most of them intended to fill out the spell lists of the aforementioned specialist wizards. Most of the spells are clever and provide some much needed versatility to the conjurer, elementalist, and seer classes. Unfortunately, there simply aren't enough new spells to put these classes on par with even the illusionist, the lone pre-2e example of a specialist magic-user. Where the illusionist typically has between 8 and 12 spells per level, the specialists of Old School Magic generally have about half that (or less, especially at high levels). Certainly they all get some minor class abilities, like the seer's resistance to illusion, but I'm not sure they make up for the loss of versatility in terms of spell selection, at least not enough that I'd choose to play one over a standard magic-user.

Early in Old School Magic, after discussing "levels of magic" and "laws of magic" (which I'll get to in a moment), Rice takes a couple of paragraphs to answer criticisms made in the past (by me primarily, unless I'm mistaken) about his approach to game design. Rice places himself in the "variety is the spice of life camp," stating that he liked the "wild and woolly" days when publications featured "new classes of every shape and description, some balanced, most not in one way or another, either overpowered or purposely gimped and cordoned off as 'NPC only' classes." That's fair enough and I appreciate his addressing this upfront.

Now, obviously, given my past reviews, his position differs from my own. I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of having a class for everything. That's an approach that, while having a long old school pedigree, I don't care to see revived. But then I'm generally of the opinion that AD&D probably had too many classes, so what do I know? This is an example of a philosophical difference, I suppose. I remember all those classes from the pages of Dragon back in the day and I was generally baffled by most of them. What was the point in having an armorsmith class or a scribe class? They seemed so unnecessary to me. Clearly, not everyone felt the same way, which is why they kept getting created and published, so there's an audience for them, even if I'm not a member of it.

Fortunately, the new classes all contain good ideas and, even though I won't be using any of them in my campaign, I might well re-purpose bits and pieces of them in other fashions. In addition, Rice's discussions of "levels of magic" -- low, medium, and high -- and the "laws of magic" both contain interesting concepts, particularly the latter. He makes suggestions for other approaches to magic that replace or supplement the tradition spell slot system. Again, there are lots of good ideas to be had here, such as mana channeling and astrological magic, that more than justify the $3.50 price tag of Old School Magic, particularly if, like its author, you prefer a smorgasbord of new classes, abilities, and game mechanics in your campaigns. Even if you don't, you still might find some inspiration here for unusual NPC spellcasters; I know I did.

6 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Get This If:
You love having lots of different classes in your game or are just looking for a few ideas about spellcasters to pilfer for your own game.
Don't Get This If: You're not a fan of having lots of different flavors of magic-user.


  1. Sounds interesting, but I'm afraid I'll have to wait until January to buy it. I don't want to be even unconsciously influenced by others' take on new classes before I've fully developed the Mystic, Bard, and Savant for my own ADD game.

  2. I was always puzzled by the wild proliferation of NPC-oriented classes in the 1e Dragon days. I suspect that for some of the combat types, "NPCs Only" was intended with a wink, but for complete nonadventurers - noncombatant Armorsmiths? Hermits who can't leave their cave? Why did they need a systematic division of the abilities into levels and XP like a PC class when their stats were unlikely to ever even come up, and the level/ability breakdowns only serve to restrict what the DM can put on a map when he needs. You can tinker with it, of course, but it's just more work to undo work at times. I've changed my mind about this over the past several years, but I think it's a more efficient and more honest way of doing things to just put together the numbers for NPCs that they need to have to serve their purpose in the campaign world.

  3. most of this stuff looks like Dragon material or covered in 2nd Edition's splatter books. but those creative ideas are evil because all pre-1989 AD&D is sacrosanct. barf. (aka 2e rules)

  4. "What was the point in having an armorsmith class or a scribe class? They seemed so unnecessary to me."

    I with you. The proliferation of classes was bothering me, and the highly-specialized NPC classes most of all. In fact, thinking about it,this proliferation was likely one of the factors that drove me away from class-and-level altogether and toward skill systems.

  5. Two things:

    First, the majority of these classes fare quite well in playtesting. They were all used by Player Characters I drafted to try them out.

    I can tell you that they all fared well and were viable. Some of them to the surprise of their players.

    The Conjurer for example, was a combat monster. He's not as versatile as a magic-user, you're spot on there James, and maybe he isn't even as versatile as an Illusionist.

    But in combat he was terrifying. And his summoned monsters were useful for problem solving too- traps, tripping ambushes, scouting large areas quickly.

    Second, there's only one comment in the book directed to you, and you didn't mention it!

    Anyway, thanks man, great review as always. You always give me stuff to think about :)

  6. I'm not sure that restricted spell options are a big issue, provided that the available spells are good. My own campaign tends to see PCs have access to only 3-5 spells, that they can use a lot; but the spells themselves are quite powerful. A lot of modern games - Warhammer 3, D&D4, and the Japanese game Double Cross 3 are examples I'm thinking about a bit at the moment - seem to have shifted to this idea of having a few spells and using them often.

    In practice, I have found that D&D spell-users tend to end up memorizing and using the same limited selection over and over, because although the spell lists are versatile the opportunities to use many of them are very few and far between, even with a creative GM. (Yes, Magic Mouth, I'm thinking of you).

    So maybe in practice the restrictions aren't an issue.

    Oh, and I wonder how many variants of the "elementalist" have been tried and published over the years...?

  7. Curious if you would see "NPC" classes as interesting additions to multi-classing for player characters? Could a Magic User cozy up to the powers of a Sage to create a more good archetype that would play a little different then your standard Wizard in pointy hat? Though I don't see some of these as all that interesting on their own or paired with a more solid class.

  8. RE my philosophical comments.

    My musings about lots of classes vs. minimal classes weren't inspired by you James, not specifically.

    As I'm sure you're aware, that's a discussion our little hobby has been having for YEARS.

    In OSRIC circles it's certainly a "hot button" issue. It's wrapped up in the reasons for Unearthed Arcana being such a contentious book, for example.

    For many folks I have talked to, the classes and races in Unearthed Arcana were fine as Dragon Magazine articles.

    But once they became an Official AD&D Hardcover with Gary Gygax's name on the spine, suddenly they had an "officialness" that meant their inclusion was more expected and suddenly all that extra crunch was a burden.

    I also think this ties into some people's varying preferences for OD&D/S&W vs. their preference for OSRIC/AD&D.

    In short, as someone who clearly likes a lot of crunch and fiddly bits, it seemed something that needed to be addressed, because it's clearly a major point of difference in the hobby at large.

    I also put those thoughts there because I frequently get the impression from my fellow old-schoolers that "splat books" were an invention of 2nd and 3rd edition D&D.

    This seems mistaken to me. The AD&D era was a golden age for crunch. Not in books dedicated to it. I think Unearthed Arcana wins the prize there.

    I on the other hand, remember to this day my delight at springing a Ninja and his Houri assistant on my players, both from classes found in White Dwarf magazine.

    And of course, I loved the Winged Folk from the pages of Dragon, and preferred the alternate monk from Dragon to the "real" one.

    So that one wasn't you James :)

    It was more a product of how for some, Unearthed Arcana is where it all went wrong. While for me, it was maybe my single favorite AD&D book.

  9. Even if those non-adventuring NPC classes had an audience, I wonder if they ever had *users*.

    Did anybody ever really wile away their precious free time filling out whole character sheets for each blacksmiths and scribes in their campaign?

  10. One great thing 4e did was to revive the old 1e DMG and prior notion(?) that NPCs didn't need to be statted with class levels to be above '0 level'. In my new 1e/OSRIC campaign the DMG Sage and Ruffian (2hd folks from the random encounter table) have been my model for statting 90% of encountered NPCs, and I think the game benefits greatly from this approach. From your review I really think this book might have been better as a compendium of such magic-wielding NPCs, akin to the DMG Sage.

  11. Will, I ran a city campaign where the players all started out as members of those classes. We had a Scribe and a Blacksmith that I remember, forget what the other PCs were.

    They all had the chance to dual class into adventuring classes as the game went on.

  12. Chuck, you...are something else.

    And I mean that in the best possible way. :)