Doing It Wrong When It Was Right There In the Book Pt 3: Still doing Magic Wrong!

Where do I keep getting these assumptions about how magic works in D&D?

Wrong Again

I was brushing up, looking at the Magic Users class section in Blueholme, a Holmes clone, when I realized I had it wrong again.  I cannot be possibly be trusted to know what I’m talking about in matters of mechanics in B/X apparently.

“A magic-user is not necessarily able to learn and transcribe all spells of that level into his book. This is determined by the magic-user’s Intelligence score, as detailed in the table below. A magic-user only gets one chance to figure out each spell; if he cannot learn it then, he never will.

“Minimum denotes the fewest spells a magic-user will know for that level. Before the player makes any of the d% rolls for “chance to learn”, the referee will randomly choose this many spells from the spell list for that level and inform the player that his character already knows those spells.


“Every time a new level of spells is acquired, and after the referee has picked the minimum spells, the player should roll a d% for each remaining spell of that level; if he rolls equal to or less than the chance listed, then his character has that spell in his magic book.” – Blueholme Prentice, pg 11

Yeah, I totally remember the whole “start with a minimum # of spells in your spellbook at level 1 and then roll for the rest of them” part.  What I did not remember was repeating the process every time you unlocked a new tier of spells.  You hit level 3, you suddenly know as many as a dozen level 2 spells without ever having to find them. W… T… F!?


Where do your new spells come from?  Certainly not from finding scrolls and stealing spellbooks!  God, now I need to start digging through OSRIC to figure out where I came up with this idea.

“Magic users do not gain bonus spells for high intelligence scores; intelligence does determine which spells they can understand and how many spells they may learn for each spell level.

Magic users are dependent upon their spell books, and normally may only cast spell they have learned from these books (exception: magic users may cast spells from arcane magical scrolls). Mages may not cast spells from divine, druidic or phantasmal magic scrolls. The acquisition of a new spell is difficult and demanding and must normally be accomplished through adventuring, although the mage will automatically receive one new spell of the highest spell level that he or she may cast upon acquiring a new level of experience.


Magic users may memorise and cast arcane spells in accordance with the tables provided below. A beginning magic user character will know four spells. One of these will automatically be Read Magic. The second spell should be chosen by the player from the list of first level spells, and the last two should be determined randomly from the list of first level spells.” – OSRIC Page 16

Huh!  Okay, so I’m not totally crazy and that IS a thing in a version of Dungeons & Dragons somewhere!  So, all this time, I’d been conflating multiple rule sets in my mind based on a combination of half-remembered 1e games from highschool, video games and context of ‘how it ought to be’ via on my understanding of Vance.  Yet even here in OSRIC, it does not explicitly state that MUs can acquire spells by copying scrolls into their spellbooks.  The only place I am 100% certain that this was the case was in that crappy Neverwinter Nights compy game from over a decade ago.


Apparently, I’ve been using Holmes’ spell book (the physical item, that is) and scroll rules, smeared with some Moldvay (I typically gave 1st level MUs 2 spells, including Read Magic), but used a half-assed version (no need to roll % chance) of AD&D’s rules for learning new spells from scrolls & other spell books with some minute differences.

At some point, I may need to do an in-depth look at Read Magic and its implications across all editions!

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.

Into the Tower of Zenopus Pt 2: TPK

We had a reduced party for the second session of Zenopus, with only two players showing up. I let them pick up a few mooks from just off the ship to help pick up the slack. I was surprised that they opted to go straight back into the dungeon rather than ask around for the “boss” whom the goblins told them about. They seemed to think that the goblins might be more inclined to show them to the boss themselves if the party showed back up where they were told they didn’t belong.

The party initially opted to check out a different direction, going north. First rule of dungeon fighting: don’t knock on doors and don’t wait for things to answer your knock. Because you’ve just lost any element of surprise and whatever is coming through the door is probably not going to be friendly. The party was crammed into a hallway while two ghouls burst through the door they’d been knocking on.

The party order was Dwarf/mook, mook/mook, and elf in back. While the front rows sissy slapped each other (no one was rolling particularly well last night), the elf took a shot with his bow. The mooks in the middle didn’t have a chance to duck or move out of the way, so the elf, who rolled a 2, plugged one of them in the back of the head, killing him straight out. By the end of the scuffle, two hirelings and both ghouls were dead. The hirelings were all heartless ruffians and pirates; the one who lived kicked the corpses of his companions and took from their pockets “what they owed him”.

The party followed the path south until it eventually led to where they had fought the rats and met the goblins. An unfortunate wandering monster roll meant that the same goblins who’d told them to get the hell out the previous night were hanging around and waiting to be relieved. High charisma modifiers meant that the goblins weren’t going to try to kill the party outright, but they did tell them to get the hell out. The party decided to try to bribe the goblins with the platinum pieces that they had found in the coffins where the ghouls were; the goblins are nothing, if not greedy, so after a quick huddle, they negotiated up to 15 platinum pieces: we’ll introduce you to the boss tonight after sundown and we won’t tell him that you’ve been down here. The goblins were convinced to take 5 platinum right away and 10 later at night.

You can never trust players to not knock things off the rails, even if they’re knocking things back onto the first rails they’d knocked themselves off of in the first place… While the goblins were trying to figure out how to divide 5 by 4, the party decides that they could take the goblins. Right as they decided to attack, seven more goblins show up to relieve their companions. And yeah, I rolled it. The goblins swarmed the party. The elf opted not to run and leave the dwarf (with his slower movement) behind. After the first round, the pirate mook ran. Even though the goblins were rolling low, when you’re rolling for 8 or 9 of them, some of them are eventually going to hit. And when they did, they rolled high damage.

Luckily, my players were happy to roll up new characters and try again, showing up in town looking for their friends that they’d heard had gone to Portown in search of treasure and adventure. The barmaid told them their friends had gone off the other day with some pirates and were never seen again. The priest of Triton mentioned that he’d healed a dying elf, but that had been a few days ago. No, he didn’t have any Acolytes to spare on a fool’s adventure. Yeah, there were a couple of wizards who had a damnfool rivalry that might have something to do with tunnels under the cliffs. Hey, check with Lord Alba.

The new party, two fighters, opted to call on the rather Bronte-esque Lord Alba, who cursed the loose lips of servants and asked that discretion would be appreciated, telling them of his missing daughter (Lemunda), whose return would be greatly appreciated and rewarded. He mentioned that she liked to visit the sea cliffs and watch the sunsets, when she wasn’t cavorting down at the wharfs.

Out on the cliffs, they could see a ship anchored about a mile out. The party had a random encounter with some picnicking teenages, who were there to watch the sunset and watch the smugglers who sometimes row into the sea cliffs. How can you get there? We don’t know. By boats, we guess… At that point, we had to wrap because the library was closing and we were being hurried out. It’s remarkable how much can happen in a session with a simple system. Two combat encounters, half a dozen RP encounters, a TPK and a new party getting rolled up all happened in just an hour and a half!

I’m a little disappointed that the party didn’t try to meet with the Thaumaturge; I’d cooked up a thing where he was going to get the party to rescue Lemunda for him, charm her, and convince Lord Alba to marry her off to him. It still might come up, so who knows? Players now know that there’s a missing girl somewhere down there and they’ll be on the lookout for her.

It’s interesting, because I was a little bit worried that Tower of Zenopus wouldn’t have enough content for my group. If I’d run it strictly as a bug-hunt, that might be the case, but by sticking it in a slightly fleshed out town and giving the scant denizens of the dungeon a lot of motivations and rivalries, I think I could get about twice as much, if not more, play out of it than I’ll actually have time to run.

Tower of Zenopus Game Prep

Science Fiction is stressful, so Cirsova is a gaming blog again.  Aw, man, gaming is stressful too, but for reasons that don’t involve being told I’ll need to answer to Jesus for my lies.  I’m a bit overloaded, and if I don’t do my game prep like this and organize my thoughts, I might never get all of it done!  I’ve got my DMs notes, a map of the city, my own dungeon expansion map, a list of notable NPCs, bought a battle mat, ultrafine graph paper.  I need to print character sheets and an extra character creation chapter or two, copy paste some equipment lists from Zenopus Archives, draw a player map with a starting point so they have a fair shot of not mapping off the page, maybe paint some minis, buy some wet erase markers and god knows what else!

Awhile back, I saw someone say that Deities and Demigods Guide was actually an integral part of the Dungeons & Dragons game; a few folks pooh-poohed the notion that the DDG was an indispensable part of a dungeon master’s arsenal, but trying to create even a small local setting in which to stick the Tower of Zenopus, I’ve noticed the most glaring omission from B/X: it does not cover religions. Gods are mentioned in only 3 places in the Basic book: once, stating that Clerics have them, once, in the play through mentioning that a character’s god would not condone certain behavior, and finally, in the adventure suggestion section concerning gods sending players on a fetch quest. But we aren’t really given any tools or examples for how to create world religions on the fly.

The easy answer is to make up a few generic gods over various spheres that are analogous to or literally our own mythic gods, but there’s a lot of depth to the interplay of religions, their trappings, their dogmas and, most importantly, their views on other gods and religions, that DMs aren’t really given any sort of guidance on in B/X. Some of this gets worked out in modules – the Lost City is a great example of how to handle this sort of thing – but it’s a bit of flavor that can be really important to games and game worlds. For now, I’ve made a generic sea god whose worship has replaced the worship of a less generic sea god, but mostly because that’s all I have time to do with my first session being in two days. Otherwise I’d probably take a minute and put a smidge of effort into stealing Tyaa.

One of the problems I’ve run into with Tower of Zenopus is how low XP it is. Monster XP aside, there’s only enough treasure to get a Fighter and Cleric going it alone up to level 2. That’s not a huge problem in and of itself, but I’m sure that folks, some of whom might be playing D&D for the first time, would like to level up at some point. So, I’m going with the module’s suggestion to expand the ghoul tunnels a bit. Of course I don’t have quite the time I’d like to really flesh out my own dungeon, so I’ve created my own cave-network mini-dungeon with some slimes and shadows and some treasure to connect a bit of expanded upon crypt to B4 The Lost City (which will undergo substantial changes as well).

Writing up DMs notes for Tower of Zenopus has got me thinking as well about wandering monsters, tweaks to the table and sensible dungeon designs. Tower of Zenopus itself is not particularly conducive to the standard wandering monster table for a few reasons, mostly geographical:

-The Tower is in town: The Tower is also overlooking the town, but if the sea and sea cliffs are to the north and to the west, and the other wizard’s tower, which is just southwest of the ruins of Zenopus’ Tower, is specifically stated to be in town and on a street, we have to assume that the Tower is in town. Wilderness monsters need not apply. In fact, there aren’t really very many good reasons as to why the goblins are there.

-There are only 3 entrances to the dungeon: the base of Zenopus’ tower, the Thaumaturge’s tower, and the cave entrance that the Pirates use. Anything coming into the dungeon has to either swim or come in by boat or wander in from town. The best explanation for why the goblins are there and with a barracks is that the Thaumaturge is paying them. But there’s not going to be much in the way of wilderness monsters.

-Lack of ecosystem: the caves to the west are the only viable ecosystem for animal type monsters, though aquatic creatures would likely stay near the underground river with access to the sea for feeding. Anything else in the dungeon is probably going to be an intelligent hominid who would not have been killed or arrested in the city who came in through the main entrance or was a Pirate.

-Size constraints: the dungeon complex is small enough that if there were more than a few folks wandering about down there, they’d certainly run into one another.

So, how have I handled including a sealed-off complex of caves to the east that are? I can’t stick any sort of hominid thing down there, aside from a few ghouls, and megapredators like giant insects wouldn’t make sense. Isolated cave areas are perfect for slime monsters, so, despite those being the most loathed of dungeon creatures, that’s what I’ve gone with. And living stalagmites. They seemed fitting for wandering monsters in a cave.


In searching for equipment packets on Zenopus Archives, I found the vacation bible-school style children’s song I wrote up months ago:

Zenopus built a Tower
A Tower In Portown
Zenopus had a Tower
Until it was knocked Down

Zenopus had his Tower
Where he could be real mean
Until his big bad Tower
Got burned up good and green

Now there is no Tower
Just rocks there in the town
Zenopus has no Tower
Because it was knocked down

Adventure hook ahoy!

“Why Basic?”

As mentioned before, I’m going to be DMing at a library as part of a summer reading program.  One thing that we were asked to do is come up with a short pitch for our games at a kick-off type meeting.  I came up with this one-sheet which I may end up using, that highlights a few reasons as to “why basic” as well as a very brief history* of B/X.  I got the retro fonts from Random Wizard’s new site.

Feel free to use this yourselves.  The fonts are non-commercial and the art is lifted straight from Moldvay, so needless to say, don’t try to make money off this.

Why Basic

*note: I left out the Arneson lawsuit because these kids probably won’t care, and I left out Mentzer because I hate BECMI.