Monday, April 20, 2009

By Salamander, Drake, and the Power that was Undine

One of the challenges of my trip back toward the roots of D&D – sojourning not unlike Ratatosk down Yggdrasil to visit Níðhöggr – are the spell lists contained in Labyrinth Lord. As LL closely resembles those found in B/X (and therefore those of OD&D), I sometimes find myself looking to include a particular spell or effect down in the halls of Stonehell, only to discover that the spell I had in mind was a later addition with AD&D. At first, I was disheartened by this development but I’ve since come to embrace the limited spell listing as a feature rather than a bug.

The relatively limited spells of LL provides an excellent opportunity to both rewrite the magical history of the game and to customize the campaign world to one’s personal tastes and style. By presenting the referee and the players with a fairly clean tabula rasa to play with when it comes to spells, it opens up the number of possibilities available for new and never before seen incantations. Provided one is willing to tinker with the rules.

Looking over the rulebook of LL, I noticed one fairly significant departure from the rules of D&D: level limits for crafting new spells. Further research amongst the various editions has shown me that this departure is unique to LL, which requires Magic-Users to achieve 9th level before allowing for the creation of both magical items and new spells. Let’s get rid of that straight away, shall we?

Further explorations into spell research show that the method for determining the cost in money and time, as well as the probability of success, varies from edition to edition. OD&D stipulates that spell research cost 2,000 gp for a 1st level spell and this cost grows exponentially as the spell’s level increases. The time required is 1 week per spell level. This provides a base 20% chance of successfully developing a new spell. The probability for success can be increased by an expenditure of additional monies with every amount equal to the base investment increasing the chance of success by an additional 20%. The time required appears unaffected.

Holmes suggests a similar method, although the cost is reduced to a flat 2,000 gp per spell level and no rules are provided for increasing the probability of success by spending more money. B/X states a cost of 1,000 gp/level and a time expenditure of 2 weeks per spell level with no possibility of failure indicated. Mentzer reiterates this. Labyrinth Lord, with the solitary addition of adding a level requirement before spell research can be attempted, mimics B/X to no one’s surprise. The flat 1,000 gp and two weeks per spell level is repeated from those earlier books. AD&D in its various guises complicates the issue to a much greater degree – one I have little interest in pursuing.

Since spell research may play an important role in future games, I’ve given a bit of thought to the matter and decided that, out of all the systems presented, I like a mixture of OD&D and Holmes the best. By combining the flat increase in research cost in the Holmes edition (2,000 gp per level) with the rules for increasing the probability of success by the expenditure of additional funds in OD&D, one comes up with a nice combination of both a money sink and a reasonable “out of game” time cost.

Given that the Old School blogosphere is the Synchronicity Highway that it is, it’s something less than surprising that while I was pondering the idea of spell research, Grognardia exhibited a post about the magic system of Blackmoor. The concept of magic-users needing to practice spells in order to advance sprouted tiny tendrils in my grey matter which quickly began to bloom. Having settled on a basic method of determining the success and cost of spell research, I decided to spice up the process a bit.

In my mind and for “gaming realism,” there’s a reason why the spells on the spell lists are limited in number. Stated simply, these spells are the hoary old chestnuts of spell weaving that have become stable rotes which are guaranteed to work. New magic is always possible but, as with any new creation, it lacks the benefit of having been proven time and again. To represent this in actual play, I’m considering the addition of a house rule that allows for a newly created spell to perform in a less than expected manner when it first debuts. Nothing that would seriously cripple the already fragile magic-user, but something that would make new magic a bit shaky for a short period while it was being test-driven.

Imagine Mack the MU has spent the time and money needed to craft Mack’s magnificent mauler, which he hopes to use to put a serious hurt on that tribe of goblins down on level two of the local megadungeon. Back in town, Mack’s mauler works without a hitch as he’s smashing big rocks and stumps out behind the inn. Once he’s down in the dungeon, however, with goblin arrows flying past his head and the screams of battle in his ears, it’s a different ball game. He’s trying to invoke and modify the rules of magic in a way that has no established history of success. Mack wiggles his fingers, utters his invocation and – poof!!! – nothing happens. Uh-oh. Looks like he needs a bit more practice and may have to fine-tune the spell a little more.

The actual game mechanics for using a new spell would work like this: every newly created (not newly learned) spell has a breaking in period where the success of the spell is not 100% guaranteed. Each new spell has a chance of fizzling the first few times it’s used in real play. This number of potential misfires is equal to the level of the spell + a roll of a d3 or d4 (I’m still spitballing here). Thus, a newly created first level spell has a chance of failing the first 2 to 5 times it is ever cast. The success of the spell would be determined by a Intelligence or Wisdom check, with a successful check meaning the spell worked as intended. A failure means the spell misfires with no effect (I don’t want to get into wild magic territory here). Once that number of castings has been exceeded, the spell is considered stabilized and has been fine-tuned enough to no longer require a check. It functions correctly from now on.

The purpose of this house rule is two-fold. First off, I’d like to play up the concept that the spell is truly a new creation, one never before seen in the lands of Men (or Elves). Generations of magic-users have grown to power and died without the PC’s new spell ever have being attempted or, if it was, it wasn’t stable enough to survive the march of time. Secondly, I’d prefer to allow for a testing period where both referee and player can see how the spell functions in actual play. If either myself or the player feels that the spell needs to be modified to make it more suitable for constant use and inclusion in the game world canon, this is the time to make those changes while still maintaining an illusion of verisimilitude to the game world. The reason why the spell now has a shorter range, smaller area of effect, or now requires a saving throw, is because the magic-user found that by making small adjustments to the spell (and thereby adhering closer to the established “Laws of Magic”), he can ensure the spell’s regular success.

At the moment, I’m of two minds. While I think this proposed system provides an interesting twist on new spell creation and does a good job at simulating the theoretical difficulties of altering the laws of magic without being too cumbersome, I don’t want to deter the players from creating new spells to add to the game world. This is very much a real concern since the spell selection available in the earlier editions of D&D is so limited compared to the later ones.

If anything, I want the PC spell casters to create new magics to either replace the spells from AD&D or to produce something never before seen and allow them to make a very important contribution to our shared game world. I think the possibility of going down in the annals of my own personal campaign world as a hometown Tenser, Mordenkainen, or Bigby is too much of a cool thing to dissuade. The subject bears further examination and I offer it here to see where your minds may be on the subject.


Chris said...

Wha-? How? Is there some kind of grog hivemind or something? :O

I'd presume so; given that you seem to be answering questions I've only just asked myself (how can you model the rediscovery and experimental mastering of lost magic)

...and the fact your opening sentence reads like James Mal'. ;)

Michael Curtis said...

I think we all are exposed to the same sources of input and inspiration so it's not unlikely that our output is often so similar.

As for the opening sentence, Ratatosk is a running gag in my gaming group. I've been looking for a way to work a squirrel reference into one of these posts for weeks now...

Chris said...

I always liked Ratatosk. He was one of the odder little asides of Norse myth.

On a serious note. Doug Esterley has something germane to the spell misfire question over on Savage Swords of Athanor (inspired by Chainmail no less...)

Timeshadows said...

Good stuff.

Ragnorakk said...

by the way, that is probably my favorite song in the whole world! cool!

AndreasDavour said...

Cool idea!

I'd probably say that when the spell go poof, the slot is not wasted. But, maybe I'm just to soft. :)