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Back in Black

Spellcasting Made Simpler and Better by Kenton Kilgore
As I’ve discussed here and here, I’ve been working to make the rules for my new 1st Edition AD&D campaign easier for players to learn and use, and more interesting and balanced. In this installment, I’ll discuss how I tweaked the spellcasting system.

As in the Third and 3.5 Editions of D&D, spellcasters in 1e Advanced Dungeons and Dragons got a certain numbers of spells per day, depending on class and level. These spells were chosen by the player, and as the character used them, they ran out. For example, an old-school 1st-level magic-user got one 1st-level spell, and once they shot their wad with it, that was it. As spellcasters went up in level, they got the ability to cast more spells per day, and they could cast higher level (thus, more powerful) spells.

All of this was pretty much fine and dandy with me: spellcasters start off pretty weenie and grow more and more badass as the campaign goes along, eventually becoming extremely powerful, with clerics able to bring back to life slain party members, druids bringing down lightning bolts from the sky to fry opponents, illusionists creating charades so vivid that they’re nigh-impossible to tell from the real thing, and magic-users casting Wish spells to accomplish almost anything. 

All that was needed, I thought, was a bit of tweaking here and there…

Messing with kobolds can be fun when you're a high-level magic-user

Resources. Spells for 1e AD&D were found in the Players Handbook (PHB), Unearthed Arcana (UA), and various issues of Dragon Magazine; when 2nd Edition came around, the Tome of Magic was released. The stuff in Dragon and ToM was, for the most part, okay, but nothing so earthshatteringly awesome that players couldn’t live without it. That, and the fact that it was a PITA (Pain In The—well, you know) to look up stuff spread out across multiple sources (all those Dragon issues!) meant that it was an easy decision for me, in a nod towards simplicity, to rule that we’d only be using the PHB and UA. Conceivably, one could run a campaign just fine without the spells found in Unearthed Arcana, but they nicely added some more beef to clerics, druids, and illusionists, so the UA stayed. 

Spell Memorization and Casting. The original AD&D rules stated that spellcasters were required at the beginning of each adventuring day to choose which spells they wanted to use that day. I tried that in previous campaigns, with the result that clerics took only Cure Light Wounds for their 1st-level spells, magic-users only took Fireball or Lightning Bolt as their 3rd-level spells, etc. The players thought (justifiably so) that they shouldn't “waste” a spell slot on something as esoteric as Tenser’s Floating Disc or Mending instead of taking combat spells like Magic Missile or other, “more useful” spells like Feather Fall.

So, as I did in previous campaigns (and as many Dungeon Masters back in the day did), I ruled that PCs can choose what spell they want to use (from among their collection of known spells) on the fly, as situations develop. The result is that players are more interested in acquiring and using a wider variety of spells, not just the ones that dish out or heal damage. 

Spells for Clerics. Under the original AD&D rules, clerics had a support role, able to cast some spells (mostly healing) and performing reasonably well in melee. For the new campaign, I wanted clerics to be something more than second bananas to magic-users and fighters, so I expanded on the concept of the class. Now, clerics are either shamans, who put their people first and interact with several gods on their behalf; or they are priests, whose primary allegiance is to a single god, acting as their representative. Accordingly, spell choices for clerics changed depending on their roles.

Back in the old days, clerics were mostly good for just healing and raising PCs from the dead

Depending on what pantheon they work with, shamans can almost always use all the existing cleric spells (subject, of course, to the number of times a day they can cast spells of that level), and might gain a few more spells from the lists for druids, magic-users, or illusionists. Shamans might also gain a few special powers granted to them by some of their gods. I’ve done this to make shamans more flexible than priests, to be a little more interesting than the old-school “basic” cleric, and to make them different from each other: a shaman who serves the dwarven pantheon should have a few different spells from one who serves, say, the Norse.

Priests are restricted (sometimes severely so) in the type of cleric spells they can use, being able only to access a few helpful “base” spells (Ceremony, Cure Light Wounds, etc.) and limited to those spells which reflect their deity’s sphere of influence. A priest of Poseidon might be able to cast Detect Evil (always useful to have), but is never going to be granted Flame Strike. However, priests gain spells usually only available to other casters (druids, mu’s, and illusionists), and gain special powers (some of them quite potent) as well.

As an example, here are the 1st-level spells available to Ennostielle, a player-character in my new campaign, who is a priestess of Hanali Celanil, the elvish goddess of love and beauty: 

  • Ceremony
  • Combine
  • Command
  • Cure Light Wounds
  • Charm Person 
  • Detect Evil
  • Friends
  • Purify Food and Drink
  • Remove Fear
As you can see, these spells are either “basic” spells that every cleric needs to know (Ceremony, Combine, Cure Light Wounds, Detect Evil, Purify Food and Drink), or are mind-affecting spells (Command, Charm Person, Friends, Remove Fear) that reflect Hanali’s mesmerizing Charisma and non-violent approach to resolving conflicts. 

When Ennostielle went up to 3rd level, she gained the ability to cast 2nd-level spells, and thus acquired the following:

  • Aid (a “basic” spell)
  • Detect Charm (goddess’ sphere of influence)
  • Enthrall (ditto)
  • Fascinate (ditto)
  • Forget (ditto)
  • Hold Person (ditto)
  • Holy Symbol (“basic” spell) 
By serving as a priestess of Hanali, Ennostielle also receives several restrictions and special abilities. They are:
  • May not wear armor or use shields (too concealing);
  • May only use the short sword and short bow (Hanali’s sacred weapons) in combat;
  • Must have minimum Charisma of 16; is considered to have +2 Charisma to the opposite sex;
  • All wounds suffered by Ennostielle heal without scarring;
  • Bedazzlement: Once per day, intelligent creatures (i.e., those above Animal intelligence) who can see Ennostielle and wish to harm her must save vs. spells or be unable to attack her (or do anything else) for 1 round/level that Ennostielle has. Ennostielle is free to act while opponents are bedazzled, but if they are attacked, the bedazzlement is broken. May be combined with Enhanced Influence (below);
  • Enhanced Influence: Opponents’ saves vs. Bedazzlement and mind-controlling spells cast by priests of Hanali are -1 for clerics of 1st to 4th level, -2 for clerics of 5th to 8th level, -3 for clerics of 9th to 12th level, -4 for clerics of 13th to 16th level, and -5 for clerics of level 17+
Spells for Druids. One of my first characters was a druid, and my wife played one for several years, so I’m very familiar with them and what they do. Druids have many solid (and underrated spells), but to give them a little more pizzazz, I ruled that at 1st level, druids could declare that they were becoming an “elementalist,” specializing in a particular element (earth, air, fire, or water). Thereafter, they would be penalized 10% on all experience points gained, as specialization requires extra focus that slows the druid’s advancement. An elementalist may never use a spell from another element, but gains the following bonuses when using spells from his or her chosen element:
  • Each day, the druid may cast an extra spell, per spell level, of the element specialized in; and,
  • Once per day, the druid may cast one spell of the element specialized as if the druid was d4 levels higher. He or she must declare their decision to do this immediately prior to casting the spell. This affects range, duration, area of effect, and damage; it does not allow the druid to cast a spell from a level he or she ordinarily could not use.
Spells for Magic-Users. Unearthed Arcana introduced “cantrips,” or “0-level” spells that beginning magic-users (and even higher-level ones) could use. Cantrips were inspired by, among other things, the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia: most of them help the aspiring magic-user do little tasks, (cleaning and cooking and such), or perform minor feats of magic similar to those practiced by real-life stage magicians. While cantrips were potentially interesting, in reality, no magic-users in any of my previous campaigns ever used them, so down the Memory Hole they went.

Second and Third Edition D&D offered spell specialization to magic-users—excuse me, “mages” and “wizards,” as they were respectively renamed. Magic-users/mages/wizards who decided to specialize did so with “schools” of certain types of spells: Abjuration, Alteration, Conjuration, Divination, Enchantment, Evocation/Invocation, Illusion, and Necromancy. 

My problem with that approach to spell specialization is that not only is it lame to have a character be an “abjurer” (sounds like some legal profession, doesn’t it?), it’s not always easily understandable. Sure, it might be easy to figure out which spells belong to the “divination” and “enchantment” schools, but how about “abjuration” or “evocation?” Beats me, and probably beats a lot of people, without looking up the spell in question. 

Simpler and better, methinks, to dispense with those stilted categories and go with something a little more organic. In my new campaign, I let the magic-user player define the category—“fire spells” or “combat spells” or “flying spells”—and I, the DM have final say on whether a spell does or doesn’t belong (and of course, a spell could fit into two or more categories). My older daughter Beth is playing a magic-user specialized in fire spells, so her character’s a “pyromancer” (which is a lot more badass than being an “abjurer”) and Beth has no questions about whether a spell fits under her area of specialization: if it makes something burn, that’s all she needs to know.

Obviously, she specialized in lightning spells....

I’ve ruled that magic-users need to announce that they are specializing at 1st level: if you’re gonna specialize, you need to get started early. Magic-users may not change their area of specialization, nor may they specialize in illusion spells: illusionary magic is so difficult that attempts at specializing it would require a PC to become an illusionist. Specialists are penalized 20% on all experience points gained (this can be mitigated by bonuses for race and/or high Intelligence), as specialization requires extra focus that slows a magic-user’s development. Unlike in 2nd Edition, specialists are not forbidden to cast certain types of spells. Specialization grants the following benefits:

  • Each day, the magic-user may cast an extra spell, per spell level, of the type specialized in; and,
  • Specialized spells are cast as if the magic-user were one level higher. 
So, for example, Abner the Magic-user decides at 1st level to specialize in “defensive spells,” and chooses Shield as his first specialized spell. At 1st level, then, he can cast Shield (as a 2nd level magic-user) in addition to another spell (Magic Missile, for the sake of example) as a 1st level magic-user. 

When he obtains 2nd level, he gains another 1st level spell, and chooses Light; now he casts Magic Missile and Light as a 2nd level magic-user, and casts Shield as a 3rd level magic-user. When he becomes a 3rd level magic-user (and thus, can cast 2nd level spells), he can cast the following spells:

  • Magic Missile (1st-level spell cast as a 3rd level magic-user);
  • Light (1st level spell cast as a 3rd level magic-user);
  • Shield (Bonus 1st level, specialized “defensive” spell, cast as a 4th level magic-user);
  • Detect Evil (2nd level spell cast as a 3rd level magic-user); and,
  • Mirror Image (Bonus 2nd level, specialized “defensive” spell, cast as a 4th level magic-user)
Beth has enjoyed playing her pyromancer: she’s been using Burning Hands (which she jokingly calls “Burning JAZZ HANDS!”) and Firewater, but I imagine she’s really going to like Fireball when she gets to 5th level. I may need more monsters…. 

Spells for Illusionists. For the new campaign, I consider illusionist to be uber-specialists. However, unlike specialized magic-users, illusionists are not charged a 20% experience point penalty, and they cast all their spells at their current level. To make them a bit more compelling to play, I decided that they get an extra spell for each spell level: thus, a 1st level illusionist has two 1st-level spells, a 2nd level illusionist has three 1st level spells, a 3rd level illusionist has three 1st level and two 2nd level spells, and so on. As I did with magic-users, I threw out the illusionist cantrips from Unearthed Arcana.

In Conclusion
I have three spellcasters in my current campaign: the priestess of Hanali; Beth’s pyromancer; and my friend Pat’s fighter/magic-user, who is not specialized in any type of magic. So far, these “simpler-and-better” rules adjustments for spellcasting have worked out well. My players are happy because their characters are more interesting and fun to play, and because they are encouraged to get creative with the spells they have. As the DM, I’m happy because I’m seeing players doing cool stuff and taking new approaches to solving problems. The monsters aren’t too happy, of course, but then, they rarely are.

Next time out, I’ll discuss how I made combat simpler and better….

More Black in Black

Posted August 2010


Fighting Tigers:
Codex <> Tactics <> Gallery <> Allies and Enemies <> Tales of the Tigers

Other Pages:
Main <> What's New <> Site Index <> The Tiger Roars <> Themed Army Ideas
Events and Battle Reports <> Campaigns <> Terrain <> FAQ <> Beyond the Jungle