Tag Archives: Magic

House Rules – Spellcasting

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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Favorite Magic Item

We’re in the home stretch on the 30 Day D&D Posting Challenge!

Today’s question:

25. What is your Favorite Magic Item?

Here we go with another hard one.  The AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is filled with tons of outstanding magic items.  When I was a teenager (and let’s be honest, even now) I would flip through the pages reading the descriptions and coming up with ideas.  The vast array of items is another strength of the D&D game.

For utility it was hard to beat the Gauntlets of Ogre Power.  This was one of the more spectacular items that showed up with any frequency in our games.  Slippers of Spider-Climbing and Ropes of Climbing were also great utilitarian items.

For magic weapons I liked the Sword of Sharpness and the Sunblade.  For gonzo weirdness there was the Apparatus of Kwalish.

Then there’s the thrill and danger of the Deck of Many Things and the Wand of Wonder.  Both present very different challenges to the players but no matter how often they’ve been burned it’s impossible not to play with them.

But when all is said and done, if I have to make a choice, I’m going with the Staff of the Magi.  A wizard wielding a Staff of the Magi is a fearsome thing.  A mid-to-high level magic-user finds their spell arsenal nearly doubled.  For a low level party a Staff of the Magi is worth being the object of an entire quest.

Then there’s the Retributive Strike option of the Staff, for when all hope is lost.  A magic-user surrounded by hordes of monsters, making his last stand and breaking his staff to unleash a huge fireball is the stuff of legends.  I question how effective it would be in practice, since the player will probably have expended most of the staff’s charges before that point, but the concept is fantastic.

One of the things I like about the module L1, The Secret of Bone Hill, is how you can tell the history of the ruined castle based on the description of its condition.  There’s a large circle on the map of the courtyard described as a large circle burned long ago by fire.  There are two charred pieces of a broken staff in the middle of the circle, still lying undisturbed years after the fall of the castle.

This tells us volumes about what happened.

You shall not pass!

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Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Fantasy, Gaming


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Zombie Jamboree

Zombie love is at an all time high, once again proving that gamers are ahead of the cultural curve.

Geeks, represent!

And when you’re going to fill out your army of undead, the zombie is an excellent choice.  Zombies are also flexible and easy to tailor to your specific gaming genre.  Modern day games have zombies born of disease who propagate through their bite, in fantasy they are the creations of necromancers and the children of the demon-lord Orcus, and when it comes to horror the classic Voodoo zombie is hard to beat.

But why stop there?  Here are some variations on the zombie theme that will help keep your players guessing.

1. The Conqueror Worm – The Fiend Folio introduced us to my favorite of the official zombie variations, the Sons of Kyuss.  “These ghastly undead appear as animated putrid corpses with fat green worms crawling in and out of all their skull orifices.”  The description goes on to tell of zombies that will pummel you to death, if you are lucky.  If you are not lucky a worm will leap from the Son and land on the hapless PC, burrowing into their skin like a rot grub, then bore its way to the victim’s brain.  “If the worm reaches the brain, the victim becomes a Son of Kyuss, the process of putrefaction setting in without further delay.”  The rules allow several opportunities for the victim to destroy the worm, both while it is burrowing into his or her skin and through spells while it works its way towards the victim’s brain.  But the player needs to think of these measures and carry them out, most likely at the same time the battle is still raging with the Sons.  Frantic terror is the result.

Sons of Kyuss are truly horrific beings that can bring all new terror to the classic zombie horde.  A good way to use them is to mix one or two in with a mob of regular zombies, which will have the added result that your players will never take a mass of shambling corpses for granted again.

2. A Fungus Among-Us – Another zombie creation trope is one that relies on fungus, spreading their infection through spores.  This is a popular one for modern day and science fiction settings, which is appropriate since scientists have discovered a gruesome real-life zombie fungus that thankfully only attacks ants.  At least… for now.  Again the Fiend Folio provides us with an excellent example with the yellow musk zombie, created from the pollen of the yellow musk creeper vines.

Fungus zombies also prey on our fear of airborne pathogens and open the potential for chemical weapons.  This is a great way for an evil mastermind to terrorize the populace, be it a wizard, mad scientist, or pulp alien invader.

3. Mind over Matter – Mind control is another staple of fantasy and science fiction and it makes a great tool for zombification.  Mind controlled zombies may be created via hypnosis, such as subliminal messages in film or backmasking in music, or direct mind control from a powerful psionic being.  Mind Flayers are good candidates for this, but there is a different kind of horror that comes from a powerful mind that lacks intelligence.  Unleash a telepathic creature who is capable of mass mind control, but whose motives are animal in nature; safety, food, reproduction.  The result would be something like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  

4. Exorcise Routines – A variation on the mind control theme is divine or demonic possession.  Clerics of an infernal being capture subjects and enslave them to diabolic spirits who take over their bodies.  These slaves range out in hordes to capture more victims and drag them back to the demon’s temple.  When the cult has created enough thralls the demon will be unleashed on the world.

This breed of zombie should be imbued with a sinister cunning.  Because they long to increase their numbers they will attack from ambushes instead of the traditional zombie wave attacks.  They will stalk and surprise travelers and isolated communities, leading to the players entering empty villages that show signs of recent habitation.  “They mostly come at night.  Mostly.”

5. All that Glitters – This breed of zombie is a trap conjured up by a necromancer of especially insidious nature.  The party will encounter a zombie whose eyes have been replaced by diamonds.  After dispatching the beast the party will likely follow the standard, “loot the bodies,” procedure and pry the jewels from their sockets.  Then the curse begins to take effect.

Anyone in possession of one of the gems must make a saving throw each midnight or lose 1d10 HP.  If the character possesses two gems, two saves must be made.  If someone dies while possessing a gem they will be reborn as a zombie, their own eyes having hardened into diamonds.  The curse is on the gems, so disposing of them or casting Remove Curse on the diamonds will solve the problem.  Anyone killed by one of these zombies will likewise be transformed.

If the players sell the diamonds they may have a nasty surprise waiting for them the next time they visit town.

For a cyberpunk twist on this, replace the diamonds with a valuable skill chip that rewrites the user’s brain and writes itself to any other skill chips slotted by the victim.  Bad luck choombata.

There are plenty of additional ways to come up with new breeds of zombies and if you have ideas I’d love to hear them.  Two rules of thumb to keep your creations zombie-like are;

1) Zombies are mindless.  They may have an innate cunning or be guided by an external intelligence, but the zombies themselves have no will.

2) There is some method of spreading their numbers, a threat that the players and populace will join the shambling ranks.


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Clerics of Babylon

This is a follow-up to my post about clerics and using divine magic to add flavor of the campaign world.

For this example I’m going to use the Basic Edition 1st level clerical spells and the Babylonian pantheon from Deities & Demigods.  Spell changes can be as simple as modifying the name or it can include changes to the spell effects based on the deity.  This also allows multiple flavors of the same basic spell depending on which god is prayed to.  Each is learned individually, so for example the cleric will choose between praying for Healing of Ishtar or Rally Cry of Marduk depending on which he thinks will better suit his needs.  This also helps to increase the options available to the spell caster instead of decreasing them.

Cure Light Wounds – Touch of Anu: This spell works exactly as Cure Light Wounds is written.

Cure Light Wounds – Healing of Ishtar: This spell works exactly as the normal Cure Light Wounds spell except that it grants a +1 to healing damage done in combat and a -1 (minimum of 1) to damage done in any other way.

Cure Light Wounds – Surge of Marduk: Instead of healing one target, this spell creates a pool of 3d6 points of healing magic.  These points may be divided among as many targets as the cleric has levels.  This spell only works on those acting in defense of a city.

Detect Evil – Revelation of Girru: This spell works exactly as Detect Evil is written.

Detect Evil (reversed) – Mask of Nergal: This is the reversed version of Detect Evil.

Detect Magic – Spark of Girru: This spell works exactly as Detect Magic.  Instead of glowing, magical items appear covered in fire.  The fire gives off no heat and will not cause any damage.

Light – Radiance of Anu: This spell works exactly as Light is written.

Light (reversed) – Cloak of Anshar: This spell works exactly as the reversed form of Light.

Light – Spark of Girru: This spell uses an otherwise ordinary torch, increasing its longevity and radius of illumination to match that of a Light spell.  The torch is otherwise normal, still able to set fires, be extinguished, and gives off smoke as normal.

Protection from Evil – Shield of Anu: This spell works exactly as Protection from Evil is written.

Protection from Evil (reversed) – Fist of Druaga: This spell works exactly as the reversed Protection from Evil spell.

Protection from Evil – Arm of Ishtar: This spell is similar to the Protection from Evil spell, except that it must be cast on a fighter.

Purify Food and Water – Purification of Anu: This spell works exactly as the Purify Food and Water spell is written.

Remove Fear – Rally Cry of Marduk: This spell works exactly as the Remove Fear spell is written.

Remove Fear (reversed) – Gaze of Dahak: This spell works as the reversed form of Remove Fear is written.

Resist Cold – Cloak of Girru: This spell works as the revised form of Resist Cold.  The cleric appears to be sheathed in flames.


Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming, World Design


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Clerics, Gods, and Magic

For most of its history Dungeons & Dragons has been a pantheistic world where the gods of many societies exist and vie for influence.  Books like Deities & Demigods encouraged this melting-pot and the progressive codification of the Outer Planes describing where different gods lived drove home the idea that a disjointed collection of cosmic beings was the de facto norm for the game world.

We like having lots of gods in our game worlds.  We like capricious gods, jealous gods, protective gods, warrior gods, nature gods, and evil gods.  This appeal can be seen everywhere from actual human religions to those of fantasy.  Even many monotheistic religions appeal to this with saints, angels, and demons who fill similar cosmological roles as the demigods of pantheistic religions.  There is something in human nature that finds it easier to identify with lots of individuals who have their own personalities and proclivities.  Maybe it’s simply that it offers better opportunities for storytelling.

This is a fine situation for world building and works great for just about every character concept, except the one it should be most important to; the cleric.  Clerics are the instruments of divine will upon the world, holy warriors who wield mystical powers gained through prayer.  This is reflected in their level titles (remember those?) which for Basic D&D are Acolyte, Adept, and Priest/Priestess for levels one through three respectively.  I’ve said before that the cleric is the class least easily identified with in fantasy literature, but in a universe where gods directly intervene in mortal affairs the presence of empowered followers doing their will makes sense.  For many cultures this is the sole basis of magic.

In a pantheistic society there is usually an understanding that all the deities have a role to play and should be respected, or at least placated.  A proper cleric should be the spokesperson for their pantheon, but while we like having multiple gods it’s hard for us to conceive of a holy warrior who represents an entire group instead of a single patron.  Maybe this comes from the same appeal we have for pantheons in the first place, the desire to link a single personality to an ideal.  Maybe it is because most of us come from a real world society dominated by monotheistic religions whose core tenants forbid the patronage of other deities.

Whatever the reason, it’s far more likely that you’ll find someone playing a “cleric of Thor” or “priestess of Ishtar” than a “weapon of the Gods of the Isles”.  Again, where world building is concerned, this isn’t a problem.

Where it does cause issues is in dealing with clerical magic.  Why would a god of darkness grant his cleric the Light spell?  Why would a goddess of pain grant her servants healing spells?  The spell list for clerics is wider than the scope of a single god.

There are a few solutions to this theological problem.*

1) Ignore it and just play the game.  This is the default answer that Dungeons & Dragons used up until 2nd Edition.  The advantage is that it’s quick and easy.  It’s suitable for a player who doesn’t want to get into the specifics of  a religion and for characters who do want to role play a specific religion it’s not going to break the game.

2) Restrict what spells a god will grant their clerics.  The 2nd Edition Complete Priest’s Handbook introduced the idea of clerics whose powers are limited based on their faith.  These restrictions are offset by strengths in areas related to the deity.  Thus the cleric of a death god would not have access to Cure Light Wounds, but would gain powers to Command Undead and Inspire Fear in compensation.  This has the value of logic but at the cost of flexibility and a big part of the appeal of spell casters is versatility.

3) Roll up your sleeves and play with the spell tables.  A cleric in a pantheistic religion, even a cleric devoted to a specific patron deity, is going to call on the powers of all the gods.  Conveying that goes a long way towards bringing the world to life.  If you can do it by increasing a player’s options instead of limiting them it’s even better, and since what defines clerics as warriors of the gods is their magic that’s the best place to start.

In my next post I’m going to demonstrate my idea, so stay tuned.

*These options are not mutually exclusive.  If one player wants to take option two and another likes option three, game balance won’t be upset.


Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming, World Design


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