Saturday, November 20, 2010

Spell Complexity

As most of you almost certainly know already, spells in Chainmail are rated according to their complexity. There are six levels of complexity, which not at all coincidentally maps on to the six levels of magic-user spells in LBB-only OD&D. An optional rule pertaining to complexity compares the complexity rating to to power of the magic-user casting it (there are, in descending order of power, wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, magicians, and seers). The more powerful the magic-user, the more likely his spells will take immediate effect, while less potent casters have a greater chance for their spells to be delayed until the next turn or to be negated entirely.

This is a rule I find intriguing and one I've often contemplated adding into my OD&D game, but I've never done so, both because I'm not sure how I'd implement it and I'm uncertain the effect it'd have on gameplay. I'm familiar with the original Chainmail rules, as well as adaptations of the spell complexity system in Spellcraft & Swordplay and Brendan Falconer's article from issue 2 of Knockspell, so I do have resources to draw upon should I ever go ahead with the idea. However, I do worry about the impact it'd have on spellcasting in an OD&D campaign. Clearly, it'd make things more unpredictable, which I like, but it might also make magic-users more ineffective as well, unless one adopts the interpretation that only negated spells vanish from the magic-user's memory. In that case, it might be a fair trade-off, I don't know.

Does anyone have experience with using spell complexity on a long-term basis?


  1. Why have negated spells disappear from memory if you are using spell complexity? After all, they are all reusable in Chainmail (although you only get half as many of them as in D&D).

    We'll ignore the point that Wizards in Chainmail can become invisible at will* and cast as many lightning bolts** and fireballs as they wish. <grin>

    Actually one thing I like about these sorts of magic systems is that they allow low-level magic users to attempt to cast high complexity spells (albeit without a great expectation for success). I find this much more in keeping with the literature where an incautious, hubristic, or simply desperate magic user getting in over their head. To this end I'd add a F (for Fumble) value as well.

    [* But so can hobbits in brush and woods, so it may not be the invisibility you think it is, but rather nobody noticing that strange old man with the pointy hat in the middle of the battlefield...]

    [** One interesting thing is that there is an implication that the commander of the wizard has to call the range of the missile spell before the range is actually measured or the template is applied (at the range specified). The fact that both spells are capable of indirect fire as well is interesting (although you can easily visualise indirect lightning as something similar to the Call Lightning spell.]

  2. Why have negated spells disappear from memory if you are using spell complexity? After all, they are all reusable in Chainmail (although you only get half as many of them as in D&D).

    Well, my interest is not in adopting the CM system in its entirety so much as adapting the idea of complexity.

    We'll ignore the point that Wizards in Chainmail can become invisible at will* and cast as many lightning bolts** and fireballs as they wish.

    They can see in the dark and affect morale by their mere presence too.

    Though, now that you mention it, I do wonder if perhaps the it'd be possible to stay true to CM's description of a wizard's powers while still making it fit within the structure established by OD&D. I'll have to think on that.

  3. James, I'll be emailing you something.

  4. Your mention of spell complexity made me think about computational complexity in computer algorithms.

    (i.e. for the computer scientists here.)

    If spell complexity were anything like computational complexity, then casting time could be proportional to the number of targets/victims - O(n), or better e.g. O(log(n)), or worse e.g. O(n^2). Or perhaps the spell level is a function of the number of targets, or area of effect.

    In plain English, it might take longer to Charm 10 people vs. 1 person. It might even take more than 10x longer to cast that spell, because the more people being charmed, the more intricate the magic. Or maybe the penalty gets diminishingly smaller the more targets you add.

    Just a thought. Not proposing that it's a fit idea.

  5. I've run some OD&D campaigns with Spell Complexity from CHAINMAIL and I like it, although some of my MU players aren't so sure. SC gives the MU the abilty to over-cast their usual level, but it does delay the spell sometimes and it's the delay drawback that the MUs seemed to dislike. Of course, that drawback has always seemed to be a fair trade considering the ability to cast higher level spells.

  6. I've used this a few times - not long-term, unfortunately, but briefly enough to give my players a taste. I modified it a little bit, by having a spell cast successfully, fail to cast but remain in memory, or else negate/forget, and i've kept the chances of negation at the lower end... For a 1st level MU casting 1st level spell, target number 7 to cast, 5 or 6 fails, 4 or less negates. Casting keeps it in memory, so spells can be recast.

    Only a few players ever tried it out. The one who'd played much D&D before didn't care for it, though i think he was just thrown off by things being different from what he was used to. When i used it as the prevailing magic system for a campaign with a lot of new players, they all seemed to grasp it easily enough, and I didn't get any of those confused reactions newbies often give when "Vancian" magic is first explained.

    I did find it opened up a few options. For example, I've never liked the way that Cure Light Wounds interacts with increasing hit points to become less effective over time, and found some ways to tweak it in this system that worked for me. A few other little options seem to open up with use.

    Currently, I'm experimenting with a spell called Ritual Magic that can be memorized in any level spell slot. While the spell is memorized, a magic user who has his spellbook with him can perform any spell recorded therein of level equal to or less than the slot he used for Ritual Magic. The spell is cast using a version of the Spell Complexity table, and requires 1 turn per spell level to cast. It hasn't been put to use yet, so I don't know how it will turn out, but I have hopes. (also, I believe someone else in the blogosphere came up with something similar; no recollection who, though.)

  7. Actually one of the things I was thinking of to bring magic use back into line with a lot of literature is to make it risky. To make magic users loathe to actually use magic, either because it presents an internal risk to the spellcaster (and thus leads to, in Jungian terms, to the wizard becoming a sorceror [or if you prefer another analogy, a Jedi becoming a Sith, which is a far better reason for why Jedi generally used passive/reactive force powers]), or because there is an external risk (too much magic disrupting the world, spells getting seriously out of control, demons eating the caster or just the casters soul making them a gebbeth or quilloth). Or maybe because magic users have to remain in the world but not of it.

    Of course, this isn't D&D, where the magic user is traditionally the heavy artillery of the game. And reliable to boot (at least until they run out of ammunition). It just seems wrong.

    {And it leads to interesting world design, such as in the Barony RPG, where there is a high council of mages (the eight Zardoz), who are responsible for correcting the faults (and punishing the miscreants) of bad magic use (even if done accidentally because a spell got out of hand).

  8. " may be totally negated due to some error or distraction."

    This is similar to what was adopted in 1e where the formula for spell interruption was losing initiative minus weapon speed vs casting time. With the "abstract 1 minute round" it makes more sense to use the chainmail rule as a means of determining--abstractly, if someone was able to ruin the spell. I wouldn't use the spell failure chart for spell levels equal to 1/2 of character level outside of combat.