Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts On Mastery

Good news, everyone! I've just created a house rule that will outlaw clerics forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

Well, sort of.

Not long ago, I discussed a number of fiddly ways to handle my proposed removal of the cleric class from Dungeons & Dragons (or Labyrinth Lord, if you prefer). You may recall that by the end of it, I was ready to give up and just let the cleric stay. After all, what right had I to just rip one of the original classes out of the game, with no respect for its legacy? It's not as though I'm a stranger to backpedaling, especially when it comes to tweaking the core assumptions of D&D.

I'm backpedaling on my prior backpedaling. I'm reverting to my original idea: putting all the cleric's spells (and maybe the druid's and illusionist's, too) in the magic-user's basket.

There were a number of objections to this idea, most of them centering around the cleric's iconic status, the setting implications of its removal, and other issues of flavor. Frankly, none of these really bothered me, which shouldn't be surprising considering what I'd proposed in the first place. I have a pretty solid idea of how religion, faith, and priesthood work in my setting. It's not that these things won't exist in it; it's just that none of them are inherently magical. In Cosk, the gods don't just hand out spells to their faithful, in other words. (You might have priests that use magic, but in game terms, I think you can guess what class they'd be in my setup.)

The comment that was most troubling to my initial "lump 'em all together and let the player sort 'em out" idea was this one, from my fellow New York Red Box player Naraoia:

"The only problem that 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."

Spell memorization! That's the problem, of course. Clearly, the answer is to just dump it! Easy, right? Well, no. I'm trying to put together a campaign that's recognizably old-school D&D here, and I've already made up my mind not to chuck Vancian magic in the bin, no matter how badly I may want to at times. So, what to do?

My idea is this: Let magic-users have "spell mastery". Any memorized spell can automatically be replaced by a mastered spell of the same level or lower. Let's say your magic-user knows three spells: charm person, magic missile, and cure light wounds. He's mastered charm person. He heads into a dungeon with cure light wounds memorized, in case somebody gets badly hurt. As it turns out, his companions find some healing potions in the dungeon, so nobody really needs that memorized spell, but it would be useful if the magic-user could charm a goblin they captured in order to learn the location of some treasure. Remember, the magic-user has mastered charm person, so he can automatically trade that memorized cure light wounds spell for charm person and proceed to make a new best friend.

(Anybody who's played some version of 3rd edition D&D will recognize this as a warped version of the cleric's "spontaneous casting" ability. I happen like this mechanic a lot, and think it's worth stealing.)

Obviously, the next step is figuring out how magic-users get masteries. I could just hand out a certain number per level. I could make characters spend money for training, much like weapon mastery in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, or use something like Jeff Rients' well-received carousing rules to determine whether a spell was successfully mastered. I've got a few ideas as to how this could work, but first, I'd like to see what repercussions my idea would have on the way the game is played. So, let me know what you think.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Answer

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album, expertly colored by my older siblings, was the first D&D book I can remember looking through. Later I picked up the Monster Manual and Monster Manual II, purchased at a WH Smith bookshop in Edinburgh, and later still the AD&D 2nd edition Player's Handbook, but it's this cover image that pops into my head when I hear "Dungeons & Dragons".

Monday, September 13, 2010

More On Magic (or: Moron Magic)

My last post outlined my plan to merge the magic-user and cleric spell lists. Upon further reflection, and taking into account some of the excellent points raised in the comments, I'm pretty sure that I am going to head in a different direction, namely: to remove the cleric class and then create something else to stand its place.

I've had a few different ideas on how to accomplish this, many suggested by commenters on the previous post:

I could simply create a cleric variant that is closer to the magic-user in terms of its hand-to-hand combat effectiveness - weapons, hit points, and the like - but retains the same spells. The "flavor text" of the class would be changed from an armored servant of a god to a magician specializing in spells of protection and healing.

Another possible course of action goes like this: Eliminate the spellcasting classes as they currently stand. Lump all of the spells in the rulebook together and then reassign them to new spell lists, each with its own class. My guess is that there would be at least two, possibly three or four classes when all was said and done - maybe a "white mage", a "black mage", and a "witch" with illusion and nature powers? This solution is one I've considered before, but it's not without its own potential pitfalls. For one thing, I would have to figure out exactly what kind of spells the ranger and paladin classes receive at high levels. Also, I'm worried it might be overly complex. Something about the idea smacks of 3rd edition D&D to me. That's not the feel I'm going for.

More or less independent of these possible courses of action, I'm also thinking about creating a "universal" spell list - a dozen or so 1st-level spells that any magic-using class would be capable of adding to their spellbook and casting. I'd like to make it so that even an attack-oriented class like the "black mage" would be able to cast a simple healing spell, and that a "white mage" could likewise zap a foe if need be.

An even more radical idea would be to split up all of the spells into themed lists, like "fire spells", "detection spells" or "healing spells" and give spellcasters a choice of one or two lists (possibly with access to more as they increased in level). This is similar to the approach taken in Rolemaster. It's also reminiscent of the cleric's "spell domains" in D&D 3rd edition. This idea appeals to me on a mechanical level, because it would make D&D magic work a lot more like some systems that I've enjoyed in the past, but again, it'd add a lot of complexity and might be wrong for the old-school feel I'd like to evoke. It would also mean a lot of tinkering with the classes, and frankly, I don't know if I'm up for that. It'd take time and expertise that I'm not sure I have at my disposal. (The irony that it would mean I had basically turned the magic-user into a cleric, rather than the other way around as I had originally proposed, is not lost on me, either.)

I'm a little worried that these are all potentially game-breaking ideas, and I have to admit that I'm starting to wonder if I wouldn't be better off just leaving the classes as is...

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.)