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”.

Alternatives to Spell Books

I’m trying to think of some more ‘primitive’ alternatives to spell books for a character in a game I may be joining. Most of those that I can imagine have certain disadvantages, though one can imagine that dragging your spellbook through the dungeon can’t be very convenient either.

I figure that either you’re dealing with a massive arcane tome like from Holmes or you’ve got what is basically a moleskine with your spells scribbled down in it. Because of how AD&D treats spell scrolls (which in Basic are the bread and butter of mages, since they can be used for memorizing), your spellbook is your ONLY means of refreshing your daily spells with. You can’t always just go home every time you run out of spells, especially at lower levels. I’m not really sure, but there may be some indication that the amount of script and therefore physical space which a spell requires may be significantly less than in Basic, which offers a bit more lee-way.

So, here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:

Ivory Spell Fetish – Worn around the neck, each tooth of a beast which the spell caster has slain is carved with the symbols of magic. More complex and powerful spells would, naturally, need to be carved on larger teeth of more more dangerous beasts to accommodate the additional characters. Big-cats, especially saber-toothed varieties, are a popular choice. A powerful wizard with countless teeth worn about his neck would be a frightening sight, indeed!

Spell Staff – Combining spell book and weapon, and possibly continuing with the bone theme, depending on your tastes, the mage carries a staff with each of his spells meticulously carved in the wood or bone spiraling downward. On the plus side, you have convenience of portability. On the down side, your ‘spellbook’ is somewhat fragile (though how much more fragile it is than a book is debatable, especially given the hell that most PCs go through). More worrying is what sort of powers all of that magic might imbue whatever was etched onto it.

Tattoo – This is kind of a favorite idea of mine, having the various spells tattooed with special ink over the mage’s body. This would certainly be one of the most painful and time consuming methods of entering new spells in one’s spell book, but just imagine the frightful sight of a half naked wild mage covered head to toe in runes. I wonder what sort of effects it would have on the body? Maybe certain ‘buff’ spells would have a degree of permanency, like Mage Armor. Another idea I had, which would be more in line with Basic, is that in a pinch, the mage could use any tattoos that were currently visible as scrolls, though the ink would fade and the tattoos would need to be reapplied (yeowch!)

Given that I’m wanting to play a Rakasta, I’m thinking that the tattoo thing wouldn’t be an option, but as for the other two, I’ll see what the DM says.