Friday, September 3, 2010

The Guy What Uses Magic

I hit the same stumbling block every time I start making a setting for D&D. I map the place out, I come up with a basic idea of what the theme is, a vague idea of history, religion, culture, and all that good stuff. Then I start thinking about magic.

This probably won't endear me to the OSR community, but I kinda hate D&D magic.

All right, "hate" is a strong word, but I've played a lot of fantasy role-playing games, and I'm not exaggerating when I say I liked the magic systems in every single one of those games better than D&D's. This is the reason why practically every D&D setting that I think up gets moved to a different RPG when it really starts to take shape: the assumptions inherent in the D&D magic system rankle me. (My idiosyncratic Freed Lands setting, which will probably never see any actual play at a game table, was originally intended for Castles & Crusades. But now that it's taken the weird shape that it has, it would hypothetically use BRP or RuneQuest II.)

Anyway, I'm resisting that urge this time around. I'm not going to rip out the so-called "Vancian" spellcasting system for this one - frankly, it's just too much trouble, and I'm intentionally trying to make something that's recognizably D&D. Cosk is set up for a relatively traditional old-school adventuring model, so I want to keep the races and classes recognizable, for the most part. (No trisexual lizard people or egg-laying naked mole rat dwarves this time around.)

Still, even after I make my peace with Vancian magic, I still have beef with another weird idea D&D introduced. I'm talking about the cleric/magic-user split.

Accounts from people who played with Dave Arneson when D&D was in its nascency say the cleric wasn't one of the initial character types. The class was introduced when somebody wanted to make a character who could take down a vampire PC who had been causing a lot of trouble. Beyond the interesting fact that player vs. player infighting wasn't frowned upon, I'm intrigued by the idea of how the game worked before this Van Helsing character class was introduced. Was there magical healing at all? Resurrection spells? Turning the undead? Man, the undead must have been scary as hell without the cleric's turning ability.

At some fundamental level, I don't get the cleric. Apparently, sometime between its introduction at Arneson's table and the publishing of the original Dungeons & Dragons game, the class morphed from its Peter Cushing undead hunter roots into some weird, heavily armored, spellcasting healer-guy that can only use blunt weapons. I know the edged weapon prohibition was based on some historical individual whose name slips my mind, but D&D's cleric isn't exactly a strong fantasy archetype, at least at the time it was published. It's certainly become one thanks to the game's wide-ranging influence on the genre, but that's beside the point. (I can't help but wonder what would have happened if it was the vampire class and not the cleric that made it into the little brown books.)

I'll cut to the chase. The idea's pretty simple: I'm considering taking the cleric spells, giving them all to the magic-user, and dumping the cleric class entirely. (Since I'm using the Advanced Edition Companion for Labyrinth Lord, people who really, really want to make a crusading warrior-priest can make a paladin.) There's something appealing to taking the magic-user - the class that would later become known as the wizard - and giving him all of the magic, making its name more accurate in the process. The magic-user would be the character class that uses magic.

Given some of the truly crazy stuff the magic-user as written can already do, I can't imagine that letting them heal people is going to break the game, mechanically or thematically. I don't want to be rash, though. Despite years of playing D&D on and off, I'm far from an expert on the minutia of all those spells. I'll admit that I have no idea how this would actually work in play, but I'm sure I'm not the first to think of this. (In fact, I think James Maliszewski has discussed trying this very idea, but I'm not sure if he ever has, as I know he's not as big a fan of sweeping rules changes as I am.) So, if anybody out there has tried this, or something similar, how did it work out?

(And since I am using the Advanced Edition Companion, what do I do with the illusionist and druid spells? Give them to the magic-user too? And how would this affect the elf class? Hmm.)


  1. Give the elf class the Illusionist and Druid spells. Magic-Users get M-U and Cleric spells. Presto!

    That pic is amazing, BTW. It is now my desktop background.

    Although I have no intention of doing anything with it at any point in the future, I've been cobbling together a B/X D&D setting as a sort of mental exercise. To solve the cleric dilemma, I simply had the class be an order of warrior monks from the setting's predominant, monotheistic religion. Their holy symbol is a cross. That sort of thing. Then again, the setting as a whole is very faerie tale/Book of Weird in flavor, so being obviously derivative is a feature rather than a bug for me.

  2. By gum, that's a good idea. You'd end up with two magical traditions: one that's in-your-face cosmic zaps (chucking fireballs and raising the dead), and one that's more of a subtle "faerie glamour" affair (illusion, trickery, and talking to squirrels). I like it a lot.

    Right now my plan is for the cosmology and religion of this setting to be a lot more muddled than the usual D&D fare. There are powerful, often inscrutable supernatural beings hiding out in the nooks and crannies of the setting (or sometimes just walking around causing trouble). Some are worshipped by people, but whether a particular one is a god, monster, demon or spirit depends on who you ask.

    That having been said, my current plan is for there to be a new, monotheistic religion based in Ghoor-Ampava that says there is only one god and it is Law. This is where paladins would come from.

  3. I've considered this too - not because I have a problem with magic users, but because I have a problem with clerics. The mace-and-crucifix-wielding templar is just too an iconic image of medieval western Europe to fit in with my Sword & Sorcery games.

    I've already thrown out weapon restrictions for the same reason.

  4. I dislike the cleric for much the same reason. The class is probably the least malleable in the game, in terms of concept. In basic D&D, the cleric is pretty much a Christian templar, which brings all sorts of baggage with it and almost forces you to include a Christianity-analogue religion in your game.

    Now I'm wondering if I'm going to keep the paladin after all...

    I'm leaning towards throwing out weapon restrictions, too. I may have to beef the fighter up another way. Right now, I think I might give them something like weapon mastery from the Rules Cyclopedia.

  5. I'm on the same wavelength when it comes to clerics. They've never really worked for me as a core class, though I've usually kept them in anyway in D&D. This is actually one of the (many) reasons I like The Fantasy Trip so much: no clerics. Indeed, probably no true gods!

    I don't have any real experience with running a game that moves their spells to wizard, though I like the sound of it (and the idea of moving druid/illusionist spells to elves!). I have run a campaign where we decided that only Dwarves had Clerics (it was a setting thing, Elves got Druids, humans didn't have either). There was at least one unexpected consequence that arose in play. Suddenly, in human (and elven and halfling) lands, the undead became a lot more terrifying. No turn undead! So you might want to think about whether or not you want to do something with that.

    Now, in our case, the party had a dwarf cleric, so it wasn't directly an issue for them, and healing wasn't a problem. But in human lands, ordinary people did not live in a world with healing magic or clerics turning undead, which definitely added a certain flavor to the campaign. I was able to take a huge swath of the Elven Wood and say, "Haunted. The elves don't dare go there." Without undead turning clerics, they feared and avoided the heart of their own woods!

    (Tangentially, I can't resist a nerd nitpick moment -- I know, sorry -- The vampire PC and introduction of the cleric were in Dave Arneson's campaign, not Gary Gygax's. Here's one link. There's more out there that corroborates the basics of this report.)

  6. The OD&D Cleric class is one of the banes of my existence. I've tried various solutions, but LotFP solves the problem neatly for me by removing their weapon restrictions and any fluff connected with Christianity, and balancing them in combat relative to the Fighter so they're not strictly superior, as they've so often been in the past.

  7. Superhero Necromancer: Thanks for the correction. I thought it was Arneson at first, but second-guessed myself. I've fixed my post.

    Scott: I like a lot of LotFP's rules changes, and may adopt some of them for my campaign. I still think the cleric isn't really a great fit for the pulp "weird fantasy" feel Raggi's going for (though admittedly not as glaringly "off" as I found the demihuman classes).

  8. The only problem I can see is that it puts too many hats on the poor M-U's head. Is he going to be the guy who casts fireball, or heal serious wounds? Especially at low levels, it's tough enough to pick spells. If the DM is evil enough, every M-U is going to have to take cure light wounds as their first spell. And memorize it every single day. And that's assuming they have a choice--in games like Eric's red box basic game (hi, Blizack, it's me, the Pritchard Hood guy), you roll for them, and then have to find scrolls or copy spellbooks. That's great if you happen to roll for cure light wounds. Otherwise your party is going to be in trouble.

    As far as turning, it always seemed silly to me that it was an "at will" power. You could just make it a 1st level spell that ramps up based on caster level, instead. Which would still make the undead scary, but not unmanageable. Of course, that's another spell that every caster is going to be required to take...

  9. Naraoia: I did think about the issue you raise here, and I agree that it'd be problematic at best to just lump the spells together and keep the number of spells the magic-user can cast per day the same.

    That having been said, other games I've played give spellcasting characters both healing AND attack spells, and they worked out okay. I might just increase the number of spells low-level magic-users can cast per day. I could also change the way starting spells are determined.

    I will need to do some serious thinking on how to keep the problem you mention from making things too much of a pain in the ass for players of magic-users. If you (or anybody else) have any suggestions, I would love to hear them.

  10. Oh, and as far as "turn undead" goes, I'll probably just follow Lamentations of the Flame Princess' lead and make it a 1st-level spell rather than an at-will power.

  11. I'd be hesitant to load it all up on the MU. If anything, I'd consider going the other way: Dropping the Cleric's combat ability, giving them a spell at first level, and nudging their progression up towards MU.

  12. The "no edged weapons" thing comes from Archbishop Turpin in The Song of Roland, if I'm not mistaken.

    As to axing the cleric, that's a common thought; I've considered the same thing. One possibility that I've seen in various places online is a "white wizard": a magic-user variant specializing in healing magic. They could have a distinct spell list like the AD&D Illusionist; alternatively, they could share a spell list with the Magic-User but gain bonuses to healing spells and penalties to blasting spells, so that they function much like a cleric in practice while still leaving them open to zap stuff if absolutely necessary.

    - Eric

  13. These comments have given me some food for thought, and I'm thinking this is how I'm going to do things:

    Take a page from Dragonlance and classic console video games* and divide M-Us up into three orders. White Wizards use the Cleric spell list, Black Wizards use the M-U spell list (and must be Chaotic, as per LOTFP), and Red Wizards use the Illusionist list. Elves get the Druid spells. Or else just do White and Black Wizards and Elves get Druid and Illusionist spells.

    *I was going to do this anyway, complete with powers waxing and waning depending on the position of the moon as per the Dragonlance Adventures hardback.

  14. Yep, it was Archbishop Turpin. I couldn't remember the name and was too lazy to look it up. Seems kind of weird to base an entire class on one historical figure, but whatever.

    I was originally going to do the JRPG black mage/white mage split; I may still do that if I can't figure out a better way to dump the cleric. But rest assured: the cleric's getting dumped. Making the class less combat-oriented and beefing up its spellcasting abilities is a good idea, but I just plain don't like the class, its implications for the campaign setting, or the way most people play it ("say you'll accept my god or you'll get no healing") so it's not staying in my game as is. There might be a healer-mage, though, which (mechanically speaking) would be roughly the same as doing as Anonymous suggests.

    I like the idea of combining the illusionist and druid spell lists - both of which are somewhat limited in scope to begin with - so much that I don't think I can completely abandon the idea. I may end up with three classes:

    Blasty nasty mage
    Healy protecty mage
    Tricksy fey mage

    I might dump the elf "class" (something the LL AEC comes close to suggesting anyway) and let players make their elf a fighter/mage - it's practically identical, mechanically, and if anything I think it actually levels up faster than the elf class.

    This is excellent feedback, guys. Thanks!

  15. I don't have nearly the same background in game theory or knowledge of source materials as you guys do, but I hold back at some of the suggestions here.

    The spheres of magic - or how the magic originates in the world - feel like they are being unfairly lumped together, most especially the illusionist and druid spell groups. These seem like they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. One is fashioned out of pagan/celtic ritual and the other out of prestidigitation and parlor tricks, which is far more urban and cosmopolitan.

    The cleric spell-groups and wizard spells seem vastly different, too. Killing the cleric means there is no magic from prayer. It seems like once you lump wizards in with clerics you'll just have to separate them in the end again, because they interact with the world so differently. Priests are congregation-oriented, diety-oriented (whether those dieties exist); mages are selfish loners.

    If anything, I'd make mages into a sub-class of clerics, change weapon restrictions entirely, and allow for tailored spheres of influence similar to what later editions of AD&D started to do.

    That way you'd allow for earth/shamanistic magic or necromantic magic or illusion magic, and so on.

    I do agree there is a problem with the cleric. But I'd lean more toward trying to make it into a 'priest' - Polynesian, Mesoamerican, East Asian, etc. And do that by reducing its fighting abilities, perhaps, removing weapon restrictions, and consider turning undead a specialty spell.

    -Eric W

  16. I'm surprised I didn't get more responses like yours, Eric W. What I originally proposed was pretty radical. At the moment, I'm leaning more towards creating a "white wizard" to replace the cleric, as the other Eric suggests, in order to avoid the very real problems Naraoia pointed out. Think of it as a modified, non-religious cleric if you like.

    Still, I can't help but wonder if you're clinging a bit too tightly to the descriptions of the classes, rather than just looking at what their spells do. Just from reading the druid or illusionist spells, there's nothing that really spells out that one is "fashioned out of pagan/celtic ritual and the other out of prestidigitation and parlor tricks". In fact, the illusionist is definitely not just a stage magician - its spells cloud the mind, create images, and/or conjure phantasmal forces that can kill (well, sort of). The druid class is certainly inspired by the historical pagan priests you mention, but its spells are really just generic "control nature" stuff, nothing that really screams "Celtic" to me (with the possible exception of the shillelagh spell).

    The idea behind combining the druid and illusionist spells is to make something that feels fey, in the old faerie tale sense. I'm going for the capricious, often cruel elves of faerie lore, rather than Tolkien's snooty Eldar. Is it so hard to imagine elven magic allowing them to call upon forces of nature, as well as confuse and trick mortal minds? (That's not a rhetorical question, by the way. I'm genuinely curious if I'm the only one to whom the idea makes sense. If I'm really on crack with this idea, I'll scrap it.)

    "Killing the cleric means there is no magic from prayer."

    Bingo! This is exactly the result I want for this setting. I really don't like the idea of gods handing out magic spells to their faithful. There isn't really much of a precedent for the idea outside of D&D and similar RPGs. Now, I'm not saying a player couldn't make a character that was a priest who knows magic. A magic-user could certainly be a devout character - even an ordained priest. I just don't think "being a priest" should be synonymous with "can cast spells".

  17. Druid magic definitely feels celtic to me. I remember 1st edition explicitly developed this getting into misteltoe as spell components. And I do feel illusion spells are derived more from the smoke-and-mirrors kinds of tricks shown in movies like Bergman's The Magician or the more recent Prestige. 'Magician' is about the best description, or ventriloquist, etc. The prestidigitator is unconcerned with nature, but loves the trompe l'oeil. That's what I meant by it being more cosmpolitan.

    But of course it is your world. I guess what I meant by magic-users being folded into clerics more than the other way around is that there is much more diversity inherent in the cleric than there is the magic-user. This diversity, unfortunately, is roadblocked by the specific straits placed in early D&D.

    I don't like gods and all that, in general, and rather think of clerics are mistakenly tapping into a potent form of magic for delusional, if powerful, reasons. But then I'm not a believer myself. I tend to think of m-u and priest spheres of magic as ambient and taking different methods to enter into their mysteries. If you can find a way to form it into a spectrum instead of false divisions, more power to you.

    Oh, I do think it makes a lot of sense to get back to capricious, wicked faerie-kind. We think of druids and elves as pretty benign, because we think of 'neutrality' as benign and elves as wee and friendly, but this absolutely doesn't need to be the case. They are inhuman and as likely to draw humans to their deaths.

  18. Belatedly, I realize the real issue I have with putting druid and illusion spells together for elves: I wouldn't want illusionism to be exclusively their domain.

    But that's neither here nor there. Your campaign world will have its own wonderful logic.

  19. Actually, I think I might allow non-elves to learn "fey magic" (or whatever I end up calling it) as well, so you may not have an issue at all in the end.

  20. It seems your real issue is the implicit judeo-christian ethos of the class, and specific class abilities. You should change them. This is a setting issue, not a game design issue.

    The cleric is part of D&D at this point, I think arguing that they 'don't belong' somehow is insincere.

    Sure, the class didn't exist in some early sessions, but neither did a bunch of other stuff that "we" have come to fully accept as D&D.

    I've always felt this argument is a justification to pick on the poor cleric, rather than an actual design decision.

    Having Elf and MU as your only caster options feels limiting and kind of a bummer. I think you do need that in-between role filled of a slightly tougher spell singer. Make him a druid, a shaman, or whatever, but the game design benefits from having that in between guy with a different spell list and abilities.

  21. Rather than a "white wizard", for which there is no real archetype, how about a "witch" class, for which there are tons?

    They wouldn't have to be female, but they would go armor-free, use limited weapons, and mostly act like M-Us in general. And they would have clerical spells. I would cull the list but give them more spells per day; that is, limit them to healing, protective and utility magic, but start a spell rank ahead of the M-U, so they get two spells at first level. To simulate the traditional fearsome aspect of the witch, let all witches learn both the normal and reversed forms of all spells--so, bless/curse, protection from/susceptibility to evil, etc. Keep in all the "ask the DM a free question" spells, of course--witches see all--but cut out anything overtly religious or deity based. Make them use straight-up Vancian magic (instead of the confusing "pray for spells" rules), and instead of turning undead, having them control undead (but as a spell, not a power).

    Maybe--maybe--give them a bonus toward creating simple magic items like potions and scrolls. If you're feeling generous.

  22. If you want to go for a Tolkienish Elf, give Elves the healing spells.

  23. Lord Bodacious: You're right, I do dislike the cleric class. The Judeo-Christian feel is part of my dislike, yes, but what I really have an issue with is the way the cleric class implies so much about how the cosmology of any setting works. I don't want mine to work that way. In the case of the cleric, I am not really interested in what people "have come to fully accept as D&D". I know that a lot of people just want to go back to the way the game was played in 1980 (or 1974, or 1989, or whatever) but a big part of the appeal of old-school D&D for me is that it's easy to tweak. I'm a tweaker; I like tweaking.

    Also, magic-user and elf aren't going to be the only options for players wanting spellcasters. As I mentioned earlier, there are probably going to be three spellcasting classes, plus rangers and paladins (who get spells at high levels).

    Naraoia: "White wizard" is a placeholder name. I was trying to think of a better one this morning, and one of the frontrunners is "witch". Your suggestions for the class are good ones - the more I think about this, the more it looks like rather than just switching spell lists around, I'm going to be creating entirely new classes with new spell lists. (Which means what I originally proposed will probably be abandoned completely, but hey, that's why I encouraged people to comment.)

  24. Sry didn't read through all the comments; just thought I'd post my thoughts on Divine Magic.