Wednesday, February 10, 2016

OD&D, B/X, WhiteBox Alternative Magic System

This is an idea I am around toying with and hope to put through some play testing soon. One complaint I hear, and understand, is that OD&D magic systems suck. Yes, I agree they do, but how to make them better? I propose a basic spell, a foundation that sets up what a basic spell can do. This requires a little bit of 'freeform' creativity, but do not let that scare you away. I feel this approach is perfectly acceptable considering the amount of freedom and flexibility the early games provided the GM and players.

A basic spell sets up the basic powers or limits of a spell and we will build upon this as we calculate the 'cost' of a spell. A Magic-User would be required to make a successful Saving Throw (ST) to successfully cast their spell as they desired. A spell configured at the basic level requires a ST roll equal to the current ST for the caster.

Basic spell Calculation:
Die effect (Power?): d6 (or modifier to target's Saving Throw)
Range: 10 yards/meter
Duration: 1 round (or instantaneous)
Area of effect: 1 target (equal to one person's mass, could also use Hit Dice)

Casters would use their ST as a target to roll or beat, plus or minus an applicable ability bonus. If the roll is a failure the spell is not cast, GMs can have them simply fizzle out or come up with some crazy DCC style spell failure table if they like a little gonzo in their game.
Example: Bryan wants to cast a fireball. His St is 15 and he has a +1 bonus to his roll from his Intelligence. He needs to roll a 14, plus his +1 modifier, to cast his fireball spell successfully. If he is successful, his fireball goes 10 yards, does d6 damage to one target, and lasts just this one round.
But how to cast more powerful spells? We use what I am called "steps". Each attribute above for the spell is a baseline that we can raise in steps to increase the power of a spell, but this increases the difficulty. Raise the Die effect of a spell to 2d6? That costs a -1 to your roll. Increase the range to 20 yards? That costs a -1 to your roll. Want the effect to last longer, say 2 rounds? That is a -1 to your roll. For simplicity, keep the ST the same and apply all modifiers to the die roll.

Each step effectively doubles the previous level. In other words, Die effect ladder is d6, 2d6, 4d6, 8d6. Range ladder is 10 yards, 20 yards, 40 yards, 80 yards. Duration ladder is 1 round, 2 rounds, 4 rounds, 8 rounds. Etc, etc. I am still debating on this as this doubling might cause magic to become extremely requires a good deal of play testing. I may decide to use a more simple step such as d6, 2d6, 3d6, 4d6, etc. My main problem I have with this concerns the duration, many spells last longer than 1 round but jumping from 1 round to 1 turn is a massive jump, combine that with a d6 spell and you have a seriously major kickass spell. I will need to think on this more.
Example: Bryan is desperate and needs his fireball to really pack a punch. He Decides to raise the damage to 2d6. Now he will need to roll a 15 ( ST:15 -1 (die effect) +1 Int modifier).
If a magic-user wants to offset some of these steps, they can trade hit points on a one for one basis to reduce these step modifiers. Even if the spell fails, these HP are lost until recovered naturally through rest.
Example: Bryan's battle is going badly and he needs a strong spell to turn the tables. He bumps his fireball spell up to 8d6, that incurs a -3 modifier to his roll but he also wants it to hit all four of the enemies before him, bumping the AoE up to 4 and incurring another -3 for a total of -6 on his roll. He would need to roll a natural 20 to succeed (natural 20s are always a success). Not thinking Lady Luck is on his side, he opts to cough up 5 Hit Points, nearly all of his 7 HP, and rolls the dice. He needs a 15 on the roll to cast it successfully.
Magic-Users can also reduce the ST number to successfully cast a spell by using this method (instead of reducing the negative modifiers). Every HP 'spent' would reduce the ST by one.

Using Saving Throws produces a naturally progressive increase in the mage's ability. Offering up the chance to cast spells more frequently, offset by the chance of failure, puts the Magic-User on the same footing as a Fighter. Both now have a change to hit or do something each round but both have a chance at success and a chance at failure.


  1. Seems a little too difficult and risky to cast even the most basic of spells, with the added chance of a spell fizzling as you cast it and for the opponent to resist it.

    I would enjoy house ruling something like this for when the spell caster wants to try to 'force it' and use their magical energies to do something different than their spell list. I think the riskiness and highly variable power fits in better as a supplement to spell lists instead of replacing them.

    1. There would be no 'penalty' for the spell failing unless the caster tried to 'force it' and then it would be only as much as they wanted to push it. The way I see it, and I could be wrong, the caster can attempt to cast every round - just like a fighter swinging their sword - without penalty. Additionally, if they wanted to make a spell easier to cast, add in some components, or take two turns to cast the spell.

  2. I kind of dig it. I've been turning over different alternatives to the Vancian system for my next Swords & Wizardry White Box campaign. I think I might use yours as a starting point. I like magic systems that have a little risk to them. I think a combination of this and JB's "Magical Skills" ( idea could do nicely.

    1. Cool, I look forward to seeing what you do with it. I remember reading the cantrip ideas. I think I am going to run with this and see how a little play testing goes.

  3. From 3rd edition onwards, Runequest's Sorcery system has similar ladders of effect. They've done the play testing for you! Albeit on a different baseline.

    1. Hmmm, never read any Runequest, I will have to check it out, thanks!

  4. Replies
    1. I think most can be tweaked out using the system above and a little freeforming by the player and GM. Detect magic type spell? Use the basic spell set up, extends out 30 yards. Teleport? How far do you want to go, just a single target? Fly? How long do you want to fly? With the basic guidelines above I think you can pull off most spells, and for me, if it works 90% of the time, I can wing it as a GM for the other 10%.

  5. Nice system, Matt. I've been using a saving throw mechanic for spellcasters in my LL game for a few years and it works quite well. However, in my version, the spell works like it always does unless a 1 is rolled. The saving throw is made in order to retain the spell and cast it again.

    I really do like the use of hp for spellcasting which I've seen used in a few house rules. I like what you did here by allowing hp to be pumped into the saving throw, so I'm probably gonna steal that for my own game!

    1. I have a player that prefers a more freeform casting system, allowing him to do mundane magic more frequently over doing massive batshit crazy powerful once so this was kind of designed with him in mind. I also agree with him somewhat that MUs tend to be active, or have the ability to do things less often as the other classes. fighters can always attack, thieves are thieving, rangers are tracking...but the MUs cast a handful of times and then sit around picking their noses. So this is also an attempt to rectify that and allow them to at least attempt something more often than they are typically allow. It might not be as powerful as it used to be, or easy, but they still have the chance to try it.

      Another person recommended a table to make the stepping easier so I am going to try to come up with something. If I do, I will post it. If you use it, let me know how it works out.