Solutions to Bring Vancian Magic into Your OD&D/Holmes/Moldvay Game

I’ve written in the past how Basic D&D’s magic system isn’t truly Vancian. I’m not talking Vancian in the “Fire and Forget” manner which has become so reviled because it is so misunderstood. I’m talking Vancian in the sense that the flavors of the mechanics evoke the sense of one having to scrounge for and collect ancient lost and forgotten arcana at great cost.

In OD&D and (to a lesser degree) Holmes, Magic Users have access to all spells at levels they can cast at. There are even rules that imply they can simply go down to the spell emporium and buy a replacement spellbook at fixed cost to replace any spellbook they lost. In B/X, Magic Users only learn one spell/add one spell to their spellbook per level. In all of those cases, there’s no finding scrolls to learn new spells by adding them to your spellbook.

Shitlord: the Triggering settles on a hybrid of Holmes and AD&D that allows you to incorporate truly Vancian magic into your setting, and it arrives at the place that my own house-rules on magic were more or less heading.

S:tT uses Holmes’s Intelligence chart for chance to learn spells and minimum/maximum number of basic spells per level for its Bullshitter (Magic User) class. It specifies that “a beginning Bullshitter’s spell book contains as many of the eight basic first level spells as the newb character can know.” However, it goes on to specify that a MU would need to find and copy new spells into his spellbook. So, here is how it would work:

-At first level, the DM would select the MU’s INT guaranteed 1st level spells, then MU would roll to see how many of the other 1st level spells they know. Based on the wording, the rules imply that those spells are simply not in their spellbook, but they CAN be learned in the future if a)the MU finds the appropriate scroll, b)the MU has not reached the maximum known spells for their INT, and c)the MU succeeds on the chance to learn the spell.

-At third level, when an MU gains ability to cast 2nd level spells, instead of suddenly gaining access to a new spellbook full of all 2nd level spells that they either can or cannot cast, the MU can begin to inscribe 2nd level spells that he finds. Up to their minimum spells per level number, the MU would not have to roll to learn the new spell. Once the minimum number of spells per level has been reached, the MU would need to roll their % chance to learn the new spell.

While not flawless in its explanation (some of this is my own extrapolation), this offers a potential model, along with the necessary charts missing from Moldvay, of how to do AD&D-style Vancian magic in a Basic game.


Magic: the Gathering Artwork – a Look at Some Old Favorites

One of the few things Anna Kreider and I have in common is we both find the art in Magic the Gathering rather disappointing. However, whilst Wundergeek’s complaints largely revolve around boob plates and the elves being too sexy, my gripe is the artistic shift away from the iconic art styles that defined MTG during its 90s heyday.

Before his death, Quinton Hoover, one of the artists who, perhaps more than any other with the exception of Douglas Schuler, shaped the aesthetic and implied setting of MTG, remarked that one of the reasons why he was out was that by the 00s, the art directors just didn’t want the kind of fantasy art he was known for and he couldn’t conform his style to the sort of art they did want.

The art was still pretty solid by the time I had quit regularly playing and collecting(late 1999), and not all of the stuff I’ve seen since was bad, but I’d noticed that there was definitely a shift that had started going on in Rath and Urza that struck me as being stylistic forerunner of the typical Wizards of the Coast fantasy art that you see all over the place these days. But rather than complain about the new art, I’d like to show a few of my favorite examples of the classic art.


Quinton Hoover’s clean line-art was second to none.  Even so-so cards like this one became icon parts of MTG because of Hover’s art.


Another classic Hoover common.


A card whose endless popularity has nothing to do with how good it is.

pixie queen

I promise, Hoover illustrated cards that didn’t suck, but even the ones that did, his art made them worth holding onto.

uholy strength

All censoring this card did was send us kids to the dime boxes to buy up as many of the older versions as we could when we found out we’d been cheated out of burning pentagram.


But Schuler was someone who knew that evil existed and could be vanquished by good.  Only thing that would make this better would be a Teutonic Eagle.


I also dug this Joan of Arc-ish piece; these found their way into a lot of my white decks.


Never neglect your education.


Of course, his Serra Angel is perhaps one of the most iconic images in all of MTG.


Whoa, hey, a thing is happening here!  Betcha the squeamish Pathfinder feminists aren’t happy about this lady character or the lady who illustrated her, but man, don’t you want to know more about this character whose story this card gives you a tiny window into?!  Baroh’s a mixed bag, but I do like a lot of her stuff.


Though Rebecca Guay often goes for a hazy feel in her water-colors, all of her line-work is incredibly strong and solid.


This was one of my all time favorites.  It was a mediocre card in its day and even just a couple years of power creep later rendered it beyond bad, but man, who would not want to read half a dozen short stories about this lady!?  Really, the early MTG flash fiction was a bigger selling point for me than the game itself.


Read Magic Through the Ages: Part 1 (OD&D)

After realizing that Magic doesn’t come close to working the way that we’d always played it, I decided to go back to the source texts and figure out where we’d gone wrong.  One thing I’d discovered was that Read Magic was the ONLY way scrolls could be used in B/X, and one had to sacrifice one of at most four level one  spells that one would EVER get on Read Magic or NEVER have access to Scrolls.  You could theoretically write a scroll and use it without having read magic, but this has more to do with B/X’s magic item creation that’s based on charges – it’s not a scroll you’re reading from to cast the spell, it’s a sheet of paper magically imbued with one or more spell charges, and you’re just as well off enchanting one of your other items, like your dagger, with whatever spell you want.  But I digress; I’ve decided that I will be doing a comparative look across all editions of Read Magic to dig just how possibly misunderstood this little spell is!

Read Magic: The means by which the incantations on an item or scroll are read. Without such a spell or similar device magic is unintelligible to even a Magic-User. The spell is of short duration (one or two readings being the usual limit). – Dungeons & Dragons Volume 1: Men and Magic, Page 23

So, in this case, Read Magic is the only way in which a Magic-User can read a scroll or spellbook, possibly even their own. One could theoretically cast at most two scroll spells using Read Magic. It says nothing about deciphering spells (i.e. the spell does not explicitly grant a MU the ability to go back to a previously Read Magicked scroll or spellbook with an ability to read and understand it; in fact, it almost sounds like the spell would not last long enough to transcribe a spell!)

In Men and Magic, we’re told under the Magic-User class”Wizards and above may manufacture for their own use (or for sale) such items as potions, scrolls, and just about anything else magical.” (p6) Scrolls are 100 GP per spell level. This means that only 11th level MUs and above can scribe scrolls!

I could be wrong in my interpretation, as there’s not a lot of meat to M&M, but I think that Magic-Users just get to know whatever spells they want from the various levels so long as they are capable of casting it. The concept of the dungeon book and refreshing your spells with scrolls introduced in Holmes is absent here. Both Magic Users AND Clerics can research new spells that are not on the list. A newly researched spell can, however, be shared with the party: “Once a new spell is created the researcher may include it in the list appropriate to its level. He may inform others of it, thus enabling them to utilize it, or he may keep it to himself.”(p34)

So, in OD&D, it looks like there is a list of “known spells” which all Magic Users in the world have access to some way or another. Those spells are there in their books that they bought at Spell Emporium at the cost of 2000 GP per spell level, I guess. “Characters who employ spells are assumed to acquire books containing the spells they can use, one book for each level. If a duplicate set of such books is desired, the cost will be the same as the initial investment for research as listed above, i.e. 2,000, 4,000, 8,000, etc. Loss of these books will require replacement at the above expense.”(p34)

Rules on scrolls are elucidated on in Monsters and Treasure:

“All Scrolls are spells for Magic-Users, and regardless of the level of the spell they can be used by any Magic-User capable of reading them. All “Protection” spells can be used by any character who is able to read. Scroll spells are of the 6th level unless necessarily higher, in which case they are of the minimum level necessary to generate such a spell. After reading a spell from a scroll the writing disappears, so the spell is usable one time only!” (M&T p32)

It’s also worth noting that DMs are advised to make non-Cursed Scrolls disappear to force players to read Cursed scrolls that will summon monsters, give PCs fatal diseases, turn them into insects, transport them randomly 1000 miles away or to another planet (like those are literally the 5 options on the table).

So Read Magic in OD&D:

  • Very probably the only way to use non-“Protection” scrolls.
  • Probably not useful to transcribe spells into your spellbook, but it doesn’t matter because you have all of the spells anyway.
  • Maybe necessary to read one’s own spell book.
  • If not necessary to read one’s own spell book, possibly not necessary to read another MU’s generic spellbook.
  • A fist-full of scrolls would not be of any benefit to increasing your overall casting power as Read Magic is likely required to use them; however if you have two scrolls, Read Magic could allow you to cast two for one once if your DM was generous enough to say that Read Magic lasts long enough to use two scrolls.

Magic in OD&D – very different from what one assumes as the Vancian Dying Earth themed system of scrounging magic and stealing spells!  I’m beginning to think that this aspect of D&D doesn’t show up until 1e AD&D, cuz it’s sure not here, not in Holmes, and definitely not in B/X.

I will be looking at Holmes in part 2.

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!

Roped into a Shadows Over Innistrad Booster Draft

Over the weekend, I got roped into a Magic: The Gathering tournament by an acquaintance.  There was a booster draft going on and they needed an 8th, so the guy offered to pay my entry fee if I’d take the slot and let him keep the drafted cards.  Not as cool as Hornblower being paid to hang around and be a 4th for Admirals playing whist, but the D&D game I’d been hanging around waiting on had moved to another location unbeknownst to me, so I figured why not?

Having not played Magic in a decade , it was a surreal experience.  Some bad draws screwed me, and my last loss came because I didn’t bother to call the other player on his misinterpretation of the rules and was really more eager to be done than anything.

One thing that struck me was how many new rules and terms have been tacked on in the years since I quit playing.  The last time I still collected –over 16 years ago – Interrupts were a thing, and when I started playing, creatures had only 5 named abilities (flying, banding, trample, first strike and rampage) while the rest were spelled out in detail.  These days, lots of the old familiar phrases, such as ‘remove from the game’ and ‘play any time you could an instant’ have their own unannotated terminology.  Simpler, sure, but not exactly clear for someone who hasn’t been steeped in the game for any long period of time.  It made me realize just how much I’d taken for granted MTG’s complexity back when I did play it and how strangely impressive it is to have all of these folks playing such a game without a single rulebook present.

While it’s not one I look to revisit any time soon, it was an interesting experience.  The guy who paid my way in was actually impressed by the deck I’d drafted; it worked in theory, I just never got what I needed until it was too late a lot of times.  He was happy with the cards he got, even though we both ended up losing pretty hard.

While I miss the old old old old artwork and style, the new set Shadows Over Innistrad isn’t as bad looking as some of the recent stuff I’d seen, even if it is still that muddy modern fantasy style that’s everywhere.  If I were still into MTG, it would be a set that I’d be interested in (thematically, at least), as it aims to be sort of a ‘gothic horror’ block.  In some ways it reminds me a bit of Homelands which, while universally accepted as one of the worst expansion in MTG history, was always one of my favorites in terms of art, flavor and overall setting.

Some Observations on DCC Magic

Some of the initial honey-moon sheen is coming off of DCC.  I mean, we all still love it, but now that we’ve been playing it for a couple months, we’re starting to find the bits that are something of a headache.

The magic system is one of the biggest things that stands out as unique to DCC that keeps it from just being a stripped down 3e.  From what I see on the net, it’s very much a love it or hate thing for some folks.  We’re still enjoying it, but it has its issues.

Without spellbooks, MUs function a lot like the Sorcerers in 3e, and with the random spell selection, it’s hard to make decent strategic spell selections or develop your character as you would in a game like AD&D or Holmes Basic.  The Mercurial Magic table offers a lot of neat and wild effects, brutal and grisly spellburns can supercharge your casting, and the crazy range of effects each spell gives off after its cast gives a really unique flavor to the magic in DCC.  But maybe it is a bit too complicated.

A long time ago, I’d extolled the virtues of low-level play because players need only be aware of a handful of rules general to the game and one or two exclusive to their class; a 1st level mage typically must know one additional rule: their 1st level spell.  In a system where 1st level mages have more extensive spell books, they might need to know a couple extra rules, but each spell is really just a single new rule, described in a couple sentences, that a player must be aware of.  The problem we’re having with magic in DCC is that a spell is not just one more rule but two or more tables – an entire page of rules – for each spell they know.  And frankly, that’s not something that players can just remember.

Where in B/X, you always have a general idea of what your spell does and how it works. At most you might need to brush up on some language or check the range if you’re trying something weird.  In DCC any spellcasting is going to involve a quick but thorough review of at least a full page possible outcomes of casting the spell.  And when you’re sharing one, at most two, copies of the DCC rules, it can drag combat to a screeching halt.

We had our first battle that involved an enemy magic user, and our party now has several casters.  It was actually a push-over battle, but it felt far more arduous than it actually was because the DM and the three casters at the table had to keep passing the book back and forth, checking our ranges, effects and rolling on spell result tables.  DCC is in desperate need of a discount players’ edition.  The DCC core book is one of the most beautiful game books I’ve ever seen, but it’s also one of the most impractical.  If you’re in a game where not everyone has a copy of the book, it’s helpful for the book to be smaller and lighter than a cinder block.

That said, I don’t have a problem with the magic system itself.  The flavor of the various effects have as big an impact at the table as the mechanics behind the spell.  And one advantage, I suppose, of the complexities of the various manifestations of spells is that it does keep players in the dark as to what they’re up against; for the same reason a MU player has to check the book every time he casts, it’s harder to meta-game and be able to call whatever spell is being cast against the party.

It’s beautiful to watch: when a party doesn’t know EXACTLY what they’re facing, they assume the worst.  In my old B/X game, a wizard who’d cast mirror image and shield was perceived as an unstoppable monster because he would swat arrows out of the air instead of attacks just missing him; that detail had my players so freaked out that they didn’t stop to think “maybe he just has improved AC against missiles”.  In our game the other night, an enemy caster just mangled herself to cast a maxed out version of shield.  Or at least we think it was shield.  Big black rift in space surrounding the caster, projectiles and even spells having no effect…  Everyone was completely terrified of it… until we just bum-rushed her and killed her one or two hits.

So, I LIKE that there are weird crazy spell manifestations and the spells have varied effects based on the wizard’s strength and their roll, but moreso than any RPG I’ve played, MU players need their own copy of the rules or photocopies of their spells.  There’s too much to memorize and too much to short-hand onto your character sheet.

A part of me is hoping my spellsword will die so I have an excuse to play my thief again without being the guy who alternates between characters.  She’s in a bit of demand, though.  My having said she might be around somewhere as a back-up got retconned by the rest of the party into “she’s back at the town; let’s take this chest back to town for her to search it for traps.”  If anything, I’d be one less person having to toss the book around like a hot-potato any time combat rolled around if I switched back to a non-MU class.

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.

Spells: Why Sometimes Less Is Better

“Another reason why B/X is right about everything: the only spells that a new group would have had to learn was Sleep or whatever spell the magic user actually chose during character generation. Most other iterations of the game require people understand the implication of dozens of spells right out of the gate.” – Jeffro Johnson

Every new mechanical ability you give a player makes it that much more difficult for a player to grasp his character’s abilities and figure out a rational way to play the game. I say mechanical abilities, because in an RPG players can and should be able to attempt anything at all; how it plays out is determined by a combination of the roleplayer’s abilities, the system’s mechanics and the adjudication of the GM. The problem with mechanical abilities is that each one entails a rule one must learn and remember to apply in the relevant circumstance.

It can be a lot of fun to play magic characters, and new players are often intrigued by the potential of wizards and mystic types. The difficulty with any class that uses magic (or systems that use myriad skills, non-weapon proficiencies, daily abilities, etc.) is that every spell or ability is a new rule that must be learned and remembered and applied on top of whatever other mechanics may be in play. So not only does one need to remember how to move, how to attack, how to figure out what one’s armor is, or whatever other various tasks fall into the purview of tables and dice rolling as opposed to simply saying “I do/say/look at this”, one has to remember those additional rules pertaining to one’s class; and with any class that’s going to have a lot of spells, that could potentially be a lot of rules. This is one reason why I really like B/X for people new to roleplaying and why I really like low-level play.

I’ve talked about the game I was in where we were all level 12 gestalt characters in 3e; some players were new to the system and everyone but me had ridiculously complex builds* with lots of spells or psionic. What ended up happening was the players had a ton of abilities which they had no idea what they were, how or when to use them, and ultimately didn’t get to use many if any of them. While it’s not as extreme at lower levels in 3e or other systems, there are still going to be a lot spells and abilities and mechanics which new or inexperienced players just aren’t going to be able have enough of a grasp on to play effectively.

My opinions on cantrips and 0 level spells have changed considerably over the last few years. One of my problems with D&D mages was how unmagical they felt and how impractical they were as adventurers, but the weaksauce 1st level one-spell mage really does work both in a lot of settings (especially if you make extensive use of scrolls and adopt some of the implications of the ‘dungeon book’ from Holmes) and in teaching new players the game. That new player who wanted to be a mage? ‘Well, you’re special, so you get one extra rule (your spell) that you need to remember; think you can remember it? Good. If you need to double check, it’s written down.’ But imagine if that player had all of those cantrips (most of which are useless and you’ll find out don’t apply to the situation you want to use them in once you’ve double-checked the actual wording**) and several other spells to start with. ‘Here are all of your spells/abilities. They can be found here, here, and here. Here, they’re alphabetized. Here, they’re arranged by cost. And these over here are sorted by level and alphabetized by level’. You’d better believe that things are going to grind to a screeching halt when that player tries to do something and has to look it up, and he or she will be just as frustrated for the causing the holdup as the other folks will be by the holdup itself.

Having only a few things that one absolutely needs to remember and understand the workings of right out of the gate helps new folks learn the system bit by bit. Learning and acquiring new spells becomes something exciting to look forward to. Players will be excited to have mastered the rule because they’ll know exactly when to apply it, with an ‘aha!’ moment, and will be eager to move into new territory. That’s the difference between magic in a game being fun vs. being burdensome.


*:I actually had to fight to be allowed to play the simple Fighter-Rogue mix; I was strongly encouraged to pick dozens of skills from various splatbooks and use prestige classes and what-not to maximize my character; as it turned out, I was the only player who did not have to go searching through assorted books and pdfs when my initiative came up.

**We can use UA in the AD&D game I’m in, but almost never do. Remembering the mechanical implications of nearly a dozen worthless level 0 spells is more trouble that it’s worth. Phantasmal Force is better than anything else in there anyway, especially since it plays heavily to the aforementioned “players can and should be able to attempt anything at all”.