One of the things that classic Dungeons & Dragons receives a good deal of criticism for is its magic system, and rightly so. On the one hand I love the wide variety of the spells, but on the other hand the memorization system is highly limiting. Having read Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories I have more appreciation for this approach now, but still the allure of playing a spell caster is in the casting of spells, and the limits of spell memorization detracts from the fun of playing a wizard or cleric, especially during the early levels.
This is one of the areas where I can sympathize with newer editions of D&D, though they take it to the other extreme and make casters more like superheroes than spell casters. I want magicians to have the ability to cast more spells, but I also want there to be a definite cost and risk involved. For most classic D&D settings magic should have a price and casters should have to weigh their choices carefully.
To that end, here are the house rules we use in our Lamentations of the Flame Princess game:
Recasting Spells: It is possible for a wizard or cleric to recast a spell previously memorized but already cast. The spell must have been cast within the last day and there is a price to be paid. For a wizard, the effort of recapturing the mental and metaphysical energies of an already cast spell is taxing and they take 1d4 points of damage per level of the spell. Clerics suffer the same penalties, but in addition they may incur the wrath of their god. A cleric who recasts a spell faces a 20% chance that they will receive one fewer spell from that level the next day.
Wizards may not attempt to recast a spell a third time, the energy being scattered too far. Clerics may continue recasting, but the chance of incurring divine anger increases by 20% each time. Incurring divine wrath for these repeated castings carries the risk of receiving no spells at all the next day, for the cleric is meant to spend a full day in atonement. At the end of the day of atonement the cleric rolls again to see if their deity has forgiven them.
A spell caster may still memorize a spell more than once and doing so will avoid the recasting penalty.
So far this system of recasting spells has served us well. A few times it has aided the party, several more times the option was considered and discarded for fear of the price. It’s that debate over the risk that I enjoy with this method. It remains to be seen how well it holds up at higher levels, where a magic user may have fewer qualms about dropping 1d4 hit points to recast a Sleep spell. We will see.
Another aspect of spells that is a staple in fiction, but which is poorly reflected by the classic D&D rules, is the casting of powerful magic through rituals. Scrolls help with this and powerful spells on scrolls can be the goal of an entire adventure, a concept I like quite a bit, but this still doesn’t capture the feel of a magician standing before a spellbook and performing great magics. Or the lowly apprentice attempting mighty deeds from a grimoire recovered from a forgotten vault. AD&D allows for casting magic from a spellbook, treating it the same as using a scroll and risking the destruction of the entire tome, but this doesn’t capture the feel of ritual magic.
To better emulate this we have the following system:
Ritual Casting: A spell caster may use a ritual to cast a spell that they do not have memorized. This process will also allow them to wield magic that is beyond what their level allows. If the spell is beyond the caster’s level, then an additional sacrifice of 1d6 hit points must be made per level of the spell. This sacrifice may be made by the caster, by sacrificing a living being, or spread out among other participants in the ritual. There may be no more participants in the ritual than half the caster’s level, including the caster, and they must all participate for the entire ritual.
The process requires suitable ritual tools and takes one full turn per level of the spell. If the caster or any participant is interrupted during the ritual it will spoil the entire ceremony. If the ritual is over half completed, the disruption will have a a detrimental effect on the caster, at minimum the damage of the ritual will be vested upon the caster. A sacrificial being is considered a participant and can disrupt the ceremony themselves unless charmed, drugged, or otherwise restrained.
Details of the ritual, including if a sacrifice is permitted or not, and the nature of the victim (animal or sentient), are at the discretion of the dungeon master.
So far the ritual magic system hasn’t come up in our game, so it remains to be seen how well it will play out.
Both rules are perpetually works in process, but work towards the goal of increasing the flexibility of spell casters while adding an edge of risk to using their reality-altering powers.
Do you have any favorite house rules? Particularly for magic, but I’d love to hear any other systems you’ve given an overhaul.