House Rules – Spellcasting

09 Jan

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.


Posted by on January 9, 2014 in Fantasy, Game Design and Mechanics


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6 responses to “House Rules – Spellcasting

  1. Matt

    January 9, 2014 at 6:49 PM

    When you mention that the spell casting classes were made to be more like superheroes than spellcasters in later editions of D&D, what thing or things are you referring to?

    While all the classes in 3rd edition were amped up with new abilities, I wouldn’t say that the spell casting classes lost their feel or felt more super heroic to me. Wizards still only got a few weak spells and low hit points at the beginning and had to struggle to survive until you got to about 7th level and started wielding more powerful magic.

    If anything, I though the later editions further limited the spell casting classes by imposing restrictions on how high certain ability scores needed to be in order to cast the highest level magics. Now instead of your wizard being able to cast 9th level magic because he’s managed to reach a high enough level, the 3rd edition 18th level mage also needs to also possess an intelligence of 19 in order to do so.

    This limitation is also one of the rules I wished Dungeon Crawl Classics had jettisoned when they created their game, but at least their expectation is more balanced than D&D.

    • Fractalbat

      January 10, 2014 at 12:15 AM

      4th Edition introduced a number of At Will spells, such as Magic Missile and a few other attack spells, allowing the caster to blast away with them repeatedly. From what I’ve read they are keeping this in 5th Edition.

      And I’d also say that I don’t think this is “wrong” from a gaming point of view, I’ve played in GURPS Fantasy games and blasted away pretty constantly too. But that was a different flavor game than what I think of as D&D. Of course a 4th Ed fan would look at 1st Edition and feel the same way regarding its flavor.

      I agree on your opinion of attribute scores and 9th level spells. Even if you have ways in game to increase a caster’s intelligence, requiring a 19 seems excessive to my first edition mind. That’s the attribute creep that you can trace all the way back to 1st Edition AD&D and the Unearthed Arcana book.

      Speaking of power creep, I was looking at a stat block for Warduke, one of the early iconic bad guys of D&D. His highest stat was a 16 strength. Based on the write up I’m sure it was from some version of Basic/Expert D&D, definitely not AD&D.

      • Matt

        January 10, 2014 at 7:52 AM

        If his highest score was a 16, then he probably was Basic AD&D. There’s a chance he could have been AD&D or even 2nd edition, but most of the stat blocks I remember from established 2nd level characters (mostly Forgotten Realms personas) had a couple 16s or higher in their stats.

        Getting off topic a bit, I understand why the stat creep happened with the subsequent editions. When I was a beginning player, I loved having a character that had all their stats at 14 and above. It allowed for characters who didn’t falter in any area and allowed for greater survivability.

        As I grew in experience, I grew to love low ability scores as it helped give my characters interesting personality quirks. I grew to appreciate the earlier editions since you could have perfectly viable characters with low ability scores. My wizard might not be the brightest at the Intelligence of 10, but he could still hit 18th level if his luck held and be wielding 9th level spells with the best of them.

        However not all players grow out of wanting their characters to have all high stats and be able to undertake anything you can throw at them. I understand D&D from a business model catered to this wish with each subsequent edition and made the characters more and more powerful since D&D is more of a gateway game. However I’m also sad that they did this because it’s left little to no place for a character (especially spell caster) to keep those average stats and become a powerful hero solely through gaining experience and leveling up.

  2. Fractalbat

    January 10, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    Your feelings mirror my own.

    GURPS does a really good job at scaling the game, coupled with a discussion of how and why a GM would want to do that to fit the world they want to build. D&D, at least up through 2nd Edition (I can’t speak as well for after that) has the tools for this, but I’ve rarely seen it discussed in the official books. There is a default level on which each edition is firmly rooted on and even discussions of variation are usually limited to boxed campaign settings and not in the mainstream books.


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