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.


  1. I think this is a great idea. I've long thought about removing clercis from play - as this idea of "priests with specialised magic" is entirely a construct of D&D as far as I can see.

    In other media it is the wizards who cast both the fireball spells and do the healing (look at Zed in Legend Of The Seeker, he uses both wizard's fire and healing spells, often in the same episode).

    When a priest appears who can use spells he is (a) often unique among his peer group and (b)a practitioner of some dark arts, rather than being powered up by his god.

    I look forward to seeing how your project develops - as it may well inspire me to get down to some serious work on my own game.

  2. One thing you may want to consider is tying spell mastery to a kind of specialized wizard class.

    This thought is sort of half formed but I see it as being very similar to 2e and 3e's magic schools, though much more simplified. Basically the M-U would pick what school they belong to and that would determine their mastered spells.

    Just a thought.

  3. I'm interested to see how this works out. I've long been wanting to get rid of clerics, myself, to better simulate the Sword & Sorcery genre, but have run into the same issues you have. I can't see how to accomplish it without dumping "Vancian" magic as well. I've been fiddling with a spell point system that gives magic users more power, particularly at low levels, to make up for the 'double-hatting,' but this is a lot of work and there are potential balance issues.

  4. [My post didn't go through for some reason so I'm reposting as much as I can remember of it.]

    I generally like this idea. I think a good way to do spell mastery would be to tie it in to another new-er school idea: schools of magic. Basically when you make your character you would pick a school you're a member of and that would determine which spells you could -- or maybe automatically have -- mastered.

    You, obviously, wouldn't have to use the ones outlined in 2e(?). You could base them on whatever metaphysical ideas you prefer.

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. I'm curious to hear how it works in play should you try it. Ultimately, it needs to be playtested before you an truly know what the ramifications will be.

    Personally, in B/X D&D, I have always wanted to remove the cleric, give most of their spells to elves, and make magic-users the only ones with magic-user spells. In my mind it just makes sense to have elves be the healing/protective magic guys not the fireball slingers, and I think giving it to them and removing the cleric also gives the elves a more interesting and unique role.

  6. Evan: I may well come up with mastery "lists" similar to AD&D schools or D&D 3rd's clerical domains. It's a good idea, and would give individual magic-users a theme (think Gandalf as wielder of the Flame of Anor or whatever it was) as well as limiting the mastery concept a little.

    Sean: I'm always tempted to go with spell points, as they're what I'm most familiar with, but want to avoid fiddliness as much as possible.

    Anonymous: I'm still strongly leaning towards giving elves druid spells, illusionist spells, or both. I'm going for more of a "capricious fey" feel than Tolkien's lofty elves.

  7. I LOVE the idea of giving the elves the druid and illusionist spells. Do it! Do it!

  8. An alternative specialization mechanic would be 3e's domain spell system. Each school would have a set of core spells, and at least one spell you prepare of each spell level must belong to your school's core spell selection.

    - Eric

  9. "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."

    This is only a problem if there's only one Magic-User in the party. Assuming you've got two or more available (whoever would have played the Cleric can also play a Magic-User), you've got one to prepare Cure Light Wounds, and another to prepare Sleep.

    As they rise in levels, they can plan together which spells each will prepare for any expedition, so that they both have some combat spells, some defensive spells, and some utility spells, and between the two of them they have as many bases covered as possible.

  10. A player who might have been happy to play a Cleric might not want to play an MU who's relegated to the clean-up aspect of being a Cleric, without the ability to fight or turn. It also strikes me as very likely that MUs will want/be pressured to make Cure the mastered spell to preserve the option of being able to memorize any spell but revert to "spontaneous" cure. I think it would be better if you were to borrow this from 3e to also borrow something like domains, so that casting something from the clerical basket doesn't preclude casting from the regular MU basket.

    (second try, since the site ate my first reply)

  11. Joshua, you raise an interesting point that I hadn't really thought of. I was kind of anticipating that most people would pick up CLW at first level, but that didn't really bother me too much. However, it would be kind of a bummer if every player decided to master it as well. I don't have a problem with wizards that can heal, but I don't want to make every wizard a healer, either. Hmm.