Magic-User Spell Selection

Based on a G+ conversation, I had a few thoughts about how magic-users acquire spells. The method that seems most commonly used is the following:

  1. Several starting spells (often randomly determined)
  2. A free spell when gaining a level (either chosen or rolled)
  3. Spells may be copied from spell books (perhaps at small cost)
  4. Spells may be copied from scrolls (which uses up the scroll)
  5. New spells may be researched (at great cost, often only at higher level)
  6. There might be an intelligence-based % chance to know roll (AD&D)

Taken together, these rules have some consequences, especially if rule 6 (% chance to know) is not enforced. Specifically, given that it is rational to share knowledge between party members, magic-user spell lists often converge as players trade spells. Further, magic-user spell lists grow without bound. The process of spell accumulation is fun, admittedly, but if you enjoy bounded power levels, such accumulation might be suboptimal.

If I were starting a new game of TSR D&D (or simulacra), instead I might do something like the following.

  1. 3 random spells to begin with
  2. 1 random spell per level gained
  3. No spell books
  4. The only mode of scroll use is one-shot casting

I would also divide the spells into schools and allow specialists, which would draw their random spells only from the chosen school. Specialists would also gain one extra spell slot to make up for the loss of versatility and represent their focus. Thus, a player that definitely wanted to play an offensive magic-user could opt for an evoker, and be guaranteed to only get evocation spells, at the cost of generality.

This would help keep power levels more controlled while still supporting my favorite aspects of the magic-user class (creativity, preparation, being able to bust out a big nuke solution every once in a while). Magic-users could still have access to an arbitrary number of spells through the use of scrolls, but scroll use needs to be more carefully considered since scrolls are nonrenewable resources. It would also encourage more emergent character development as not every magic-user would be able to cast sleep and fireball (to be fair, that is also addressed by % chance to know spell rules, but those rules have other issues, such as increasing the importance of the intelligence score).

This will obviously not work well for players that want more control over the development of their character. It is not intended to be a panacea though, and I think it would be satisfying for players that enjoy the process of character emerging from the juxtaposition of randomly determined characteristics and events during play.

7 thoughts on “Magic-User Spell Selection

  1. Aaron

    I limit spell selection based on wizards guilds. Each guild “owns” certain spells and only allows their members to cast that spell. So, if you want Dimensional Door, you need to join the Silver League, you want Fireball, you need to join the Burning Hand, etc. That gives an in-character incentive for magic-users to go into dungeons because that is often the only place they can gain access to certain types of magic. I never really liked “schools” of magic because they seem arbitrary as there is a need to have them all equal in a way that is often artificial.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Do you allow PC magic-users to share spells? What prevents one wizard gaining fireball from meaning all wizards from then on have access to fireball? Or do you not consider that an issue?

      The specialties need not necessarily be balanced, as long as players realize that picking one might be more “hard mode” (or at least different) than another (the original 2E specialist schools definitely had something of that character). In the same way that thieves are usually considered to be harder to play effectively than fighters.

  2. jeffro

    In your first set of 1-6, I disagree with #2. No free spells after you start adventuring! If you want them, you gotta go out an find them.

    Though I gotta say, the TSR adventures are not a good fit for that– there needs to be more scrolls in the loot. Though I also think there should be more scroll use in general.

    With your 1-4… I think that the starting magic-user should have some random one-shot scrolls on top of his starting spells. (They’d be his apprenticeship copywork, maybe?) If the new spells gained are definitely random, then that’d be even more reason to have lotsa scrolls available as loot, in my opinion….

    1. Brendan Post author


      In Monsters & Treasure, 19% of magic items are scrolls (percentile roll 66 – 85). 50% of those scrolls have spells on them (from 1 to 7 spells), 10% of scrolls are cursed, and 40% of them are scrolls of protection. So if the treasure tables are respected, there probably would be a significant number of scrolls found as treasure.

      I’m all for making consumable magic more available using scrolls, but I think the game is made more interesting when spells that can be reused through preparation in spell slots are more restricted. So basically, the biggest change here is not being able to transcribe scrolls into spell books or share spells between spell books (which, I think, is more or less where following the rules in Moldvay Basic strictly would lead).

    2. Brendan Post author


      I still really like your idea of all spells being found, but then you need to have rules for transcribing scrolls, or do something like making all magic scroll casting and doing away entirely with prepared spells (as the recent adventurer class I posted does).

  3. Brendan Post author

    It has been pointed out that this is very similar, and perhaps identical, to the system of spell acquisition used by the 3E sorcerer class. I need to check that out again.

    1. Brendan Post author

      Okay, not exactly the same as the sorcerer. At least in Pathfinder, the sorcerer does not have to prepare spells and also gets to pick spells upon level up. The system described in this post requires spell preparation and determines new spells randomly (but I will grant that it is similar).


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