Doing It Wrong When It’s Right There In the Book pt 2: Magic in B/X

magic doing it wrong

We’re all familiar with how magic in Dungeons & Dragons works, right? You have your daily spell slots with the spells you memorized from your book, you gain new spells by finding scrolls and enemy wizards’ spell books and adding them to your own. Your library of spells may exceed the number of spells you can cast in a single day, but the point is collecting them like Pokemon: find ’em out in the wild or steal them from rivals. Only you’d be wrong. That’s not how magic works in B/X AT ALL.

I’ll make no bones about the fact that I house rule magic, though my house rule is to basically use the Holmes Basic rules or at least what I understand them to be from my extensive following of Zenopus Archives. I like the flavor of it: giant books and magic users with a fist-full of scrolls plunging the depths to find new scrolls and steal spell-books to write new spells into their own (which are hopefully not stolen while they’re off adventuring). I go with the whole 100gp x spell level scrolls as part of resource management that jibes with some of Holmes’ own articles and, of course, the gaming supplements I use that were created by Zenopus Archives, and in every game I’ve run, it’s worked. Besides, isn’t that the whole spirit of Vancian magic, Dying Earth and all that stuff?

Still, I managed to be surprised and taken aback when I actually READ THE RULES.

Moldvay only talks very briefly about spell books:

Each magic-user and elf has a spell book for the spells that he or she has learned. A first level character will only have one spell (a first level spell) in the spell book. A second level character will have two spells (both first level) in the spell book; a third level character will have three spells (two first level spells and one second level spell) in the spell book.

The mechanics of spell books are left mostly to assumption in Moldvay*. Cook, on the other hand, writes extensively on them, codifying rules pertaining to spell books and how they work in basic. More importantly, Expert explicitly states how Magic Users learn new spells and how many spells they can have in their spell book:

Magic-users and elves must be taught their new spells. Most player character magic-users and elves are assumed to be members of the local Magic-Users Guild or apprenticed to a higher level NPC.  When player characters gain a level of experience, they will return to their masters and be out of play for one “game-week” while they are learning their new spells. Either the player or the DM may choose any new spells. Magic-users and elves are limited to the number of spells they may know, and their books will contain spells equal to the number and level of spells the caster can use in a single day (thus, the books of a 4th level elf will contain two first and two second level spells).

(Emphasis mine)

This one paragraph at the beginning of Part 3: Spells radically affects the implied setting of B/X, moving it away from the Vancian implied setting (if not the system) as it’s usually understood. In two sentences, Magic Users go from scroungers of lost arcana to part of what will eventually morph into the magitek society settings of continuous light street lamps and tinker gnomes. Magic users would always need to find higher level characters to teach them new magic. Even more significantly, Magic Users cannot add spells they find to their spell book, whether in the form of scrolls or rivals’ spell books!

My first thought was that maybe I’d been doing the Holmes stuff wrong, too. I mean, for the most part, I’d just been taking Zenopus Archives’ word for a lot of stuff, since I don’t actually HAVE a full copy of Holmes basic. Yet when I turned to what I DID have, a facsimile pdf of the Tower of Zenopus, it was immediately apparent that B/X’s magic rules do NOT jibe with Holmes’, as is illustrated by the fact that the 4th level evil magic user has six known spells** he can cast in addition to his scroll. Rather than make the primitivist assumption that characters above 3rd level in Holmes are unknowably powerful, I’ll venture to say the spell books of Magic Users in Holmes are not limited by level.

So what does this mean for B/X Magic Users? Unless a Magic User can apprentice under someone, he cannot learn new spells when he levels up. He also cannot learn spells by saving scrolls or stealing spell books, because he cannot write them into his own spell book. But here’s a real kicker… Remember Read Magic, that spell that no one wants at 1st level because it doesn’t really do anything or you give it to all MUs and Elves in addition to their one first level spell? Suddenly, it becomes a big deal, and here’s why. Look at the text for Read Magic:

By casting this spell, magical words or runes on an item or scroll may be read. Without this spell unfamiliar magic cannot be read or understood, even by a magic-user. However, once a scroll or runes are looked at with a read magic spell, the magic-user becomes able to understand and read that item later without the spell. A magic-user’s or elf’s spell book is written so that only the owner may read them without using this spell.

Without this spell, Magic Users will NEVER have access to scrolls. A low level Magic User who can ONLY ever know one or two 1st level spells, because the caster can only have spells in his spell book “equal to the number and level of spells the caster can use in a single day”, has to make a major decision: Do I want to sacrifice a sure-thing spell for the day like sleep or do I want to never be able to use any scrolls I find until I get another 1st level spell slot? Suddenly, Read Magic is HUGE, especially if you’re only going to be allowed 2 or 3 level 1 spells EVER.

I’m not certain how stolen spell books work, whether they’re treated like scrolls or if they can be used as a new and separate spell book. It depends on whether Cook means “know” as in memorized or as in available to memorize when he refers to the limits on spells per level. A Magic User may not be able to add that wizard’s spells to his spell book or ever learn them unless he levels up and a slot becomes available. Then the primary benefit would be that the Magic User might not need training under a master or a guild to learn one of those new spells, provided it was a) in the book he stole and b) could be fit into the new spell slot the MU acquired when leveling.

The inflexibility of magic in this case is dire; you won’t want to risk getting a bad spell because you can’t just say “Well, Locate Object is lame, it’s a good thing I have two or three other first level spells to choose from for today.” Nope, that’s it.

Cook also offers us rules for scroll creation where Moldvay did not***. Expert contains a simple system for creating one-shot/charged magic items at a cost of 500GP x spell level per charge. Included in this are scrolls, which makes scrolls much more expensive in B/X than in Holmes. Additionally, because of the flat cost of item creation, it would be more awesome to make, I dunno, a tie-rack of Magic Missile than a scroll.

*:One difference which I was already aware of was that rules for memorization are different, something which Holmes himself wrote about; B/X magic users can quickly relearn spells after a nights rest, whereas Holmes magic users, unless aided by scrolls (their ‘dungeon book’) would need to spend full days at study relearning with their spell book. Restrictions on taking one’s spell book into the dungeon are not mentioned, so that would eliminate the need for a separate dungeon book.

**:This raises more questions for me; are there bonus spells in Holmes, does this guy just get a boss-bonus, is he expected not to live long enough to cast all of these, does he not have the less useful Read Magic memorized, and, since that still gives him 5 spells, which other spell does he not have memorized? He does, however, explicitly have two books of spells (one for each level).

***:Scrolls are only mentioned in Moldvay as a treasure type with descriptions on how the DM can come up with them, but without any rules for writing scrolls.

16 responses to “Doing It Wrong When It’s Right There In the Book pt 2: Magic in B/X

    • I came upon this realization because someone was letting me start as a 3rd level elf in his B/X game. I was all “Derp derp, I wonder how many spells I would’ve had in my spell book from scrolls that I would’ve surely found in my 8000 xp worth of adventuring! What is this… OH NO!”

  1. I think I saw this pointed out before, and I’m not sure what I’d do with it. B/X is pretty much my preferred version. At one point I was making Clerics use spell books too (though I wimped out and let them have all the 1st seplls in their standard prayer book).
    Anyway I think I’d probably let PCs swap out spells if they find a scroll or another spell book; still limited by the number they can actually cast, but the list could be changed with research/writing. If a PC got to high enough level that he can research new spells (not sure if B/X actually discusses that), he’d no longer need a higher level MU teacher, because otherwise you get an infinite regress!

    • It makes it similar to the AD&D track for Druids & Monks. Someone on Jeffro’s feed tossed out some stuff from Mentzer, but Mentzer’s not B/X… As for spell research, B/X allows for even 1st level magic users to research their own spells, theoretically (Cook assigns only cost in terms of GP and time, so there’s no reason a Magic User couldn’t create their own 2nd 1st level spell.)

      I think I’m okay with using Holmes’ magic rules in my game. It actually allows for a decent bit of flexibility for lone wizards and apprentices. Loners will be reliant upon stolen scrolls and spellbooks for any new spells; apprentices will have their master’s library at their disposal, but there will certainly be costs.

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  4. Yep. But realize Cook provides rules for spell research (creating new spells) as well. At higher levels, I think it fair to assume that the “training” part ends, and wizards are responsible for researching their own spell book editions.

    Taken to its logical extreme, a 36th level wizard will know 9 spells per level by the end of her career. As B/X only has 12 spells per spell level, that accounts for the majority of “standard spells,” and is still a shit-ton number of spells the PC can have in her spell book (the same maximum number as an AD&D wizard of 14 intelligence…and AD&D has a much larger spell list from which to choose).

    • Yeah, but 36 level mentzer is all kinds of screwy and unbalanced beyond the Cook/Moldvay content. I think the most significant aspect of this is how it radically changes the role of read magic and scrolls from how D&D is typically played.

      Thanks for dropping by!

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  8. I didn’t start out playing OD&D, I started on 5e. I am however DMing an OD&D game, my ruling on the matter is to treat it like 5e spells. so a second level magic user can cast 2 first level spells but might have more than that in their spell book, so they must choose which they memorize for that day. But if someone starts with a 3 level character they start with the minimum number of spells(2 first level and 1 second level spell).
    I also rule that to read a scroll or spellbook it must be identified for you or you must be able to read magic, but if it is identified or you can read magic you can add it to you book. So for example a MU could not cast a scroll they just find randomly with out first casting read magic or having someone else identify it.

    • What got me was how different it was across all of even the early systems…

      Full spell-books in OE & Holmes
      Gimped spell-books in Moldvay/Cook/Mentzer
      Custom/individualized spell-books in 1e and beyond.

      And in each system, Read Magic served very different functions.

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