Saturday, May 30, 2015

Some half-baked ideas about spells

There are a couple schemes floating around the OSR for spells without levels, or for having every spell have a 1st-level version and boosting its range, duration, and/or damage by using higher level spell slots when casting.  That gave me a framework for some thoughts I've been mulling about making each spell an entire category or family, with the range of effects (rather than just numerical parameters) expanding according to what level of slot is used to cast it.  A family of spells must be learned in order; you can't learn the 2nd-level spell until you know the 1st-level one, and so on.  However, then you'd only have to memorize the base spell (1st level) in order to cast any spell in that family by expending a slot of the appropriate level.

As the post title says, this isn't a fully developed system yet, just some preliminary thoughts and ideas.

For instance, Feather Fall, Levitate, and Fly could form a neat little spell family.  As a first level spell, it gives you a bit of lift, but not enough to completely overcome your own weight.  You can't gain altitude, but you float gently to the ground, and you don't trigger most weight-activated traps.  At second level, you gain the ability to rise or descend vertically.  At third, you gain full three-dimensional movement.

Charms could be made to fit the pattern too, starting off allowing the caster to charm beings similar to himself (Charm Person), working up through normal animals, to monsters, to plants, to mass charms, and maybe even constructs and undead for the highest level versions of the spell.

Polymorph self?  At first level, you can change to human or humanoid forms, up to plus or minus 50% of your size.  You can't take the form of a specific individual, but you can alter your height, weight, body proportions, coloration, or apparent sex.  Second level, partial polymorph - say, change your hands to claws, grow a tail, and things of that nature.  Third level, you can change yourself into any normal animal of your level/HD or less.  Fourth, polymorph into any monster form of no greater than twice your level/HD, as per the spell in the rule book.  Fifth, polymorph self into plant forms.  Sixth, polymorph yourself into mineral or non-living matter.  Seventh, polymorph yourself into multiple creatures whose HD do not exceed twice your level/HD.  Eighth, you get the special defenses of your new form, e.g. immunity to normal weapons, immunity to fire, etc. Ninth, you get all special attack forms too, just like the Shape Change spell.

Illusions work too.  First level, you can cast an illusion that affects any one sense within a 20' cube.  Second level, you can affect two senses; the illusion still needs to fit within a 20' cube, but you can move it around within the 240' spell range.  Third level, you can affect three senses, and the illusion can fill the entire 240' range.  Fourth level, four senses, and a static illusion can be made permanent.  Fifth level, five senses, and you can program a sequence to go off under circumstances of your choosing.

I could go on, but you probably get the gist.  Of course, some spells don't lend themselves easily to a scheme like this, and others won't stretch all the way up to 9th level.  Is that a feature or a bug?  I'm not sure.  It seems like it might be a cool way to shake up the traditional spell system of D&D without warping the power curve too much.

Feel free to weigh in, or take the idea and run with it.


  1. Seems a sound scheme. I would be completely untroubled if there were no spells of any level beyond four or five. How often do you see a wizard of level beyond nine or ten?

    1. A fair point. I do like to have the option for high-level play, but B/X doesn't go over level 6 spells anyway.

    2. I played in a couple campaigns in college that went up to the mid/upper teens (albeit in 3E). For that matter, sometimes it's just fun to make a bunch of high-level characters and go wild, even if just for a one-shot.

  2. I like this a lot.

    I also like the idea of spell casters being able to attempt spells beyond their ability...just enough rope to hang themselves with and all that.

  3. This sounds like a pretty cool idea. (Yes, I'm one of those people making a sort of one-size-fits-all magic system; mine is based on a Call-of-Cthulhu-like resource system where "energy" spent on spells must come in the form of fatigue, mental strain, or even harm.)

    A lot of the spells in the published lists fit naturally into this sort of progression (e.g. the Summon Monster spells, where you gain access to a new list or greater numbers of creatures from the lower-level lists at each new spell level), and a lot of the others could be strung together very simply (e.g. Burning Hands - Flaming Sphere - Fireball).

    The big things I think you have to watch out for, if you flesh this out:

    - Don't fall prey to the temptation to need to fill in a distinct version of every spell at every level. Even if you only go 1-5 or 0-6, there's nothing wrong with skipping level 3, for example, rather than forcing in an awkward version.

    - Don't just make power/range scale with spell level; IMHO that would be kind of trivial, and would shift the foundation of an aspect that's better left to scale with caster level anyway.

    I will say that thinking about possible progressions has made me rethink some of my own possible spell descriptions, though, so thanks for the inspiration! 8^D