Monthly Archives: October 2013

Various Magic Systems

Roerich - Spell-words (source)

Roerich – Spell-words (source)

Earlier this month, Paul V. from Dungeon Skull Mountain started a topic on Google Plus asking if there were any Olde Style D&D type games that ditch the standard “Vancian” casting and/or the classic list of spells. Ian B. left a very thorough comment summarizing the approach to magic taken by many different systems that I though might be useful in general, and deserved search engine exposure beyond the Google Plus walled garden. With permission, I reproduce it below (think of this as a Necropraxis guest post). Everything following the separator is Ian’s work.

Mana Point systems have been around for a loooong time (since 1974 at least) and vary in nature, from the simple (each spell costs a number of MP to cast equal to it’s level) to the exponential (each spell costs [level +1]^2 MP to cast) to the incredibly complex (if the moon is in Virago), to the explicit MP cost for each spell. The Arduin Grimoire used a mana point system with casting cost and ongoing cost.

I’ve seen “skill” based systems where the number of spells you get per level is your chance of casting a spell. The dice may be static or increase. One nice system stole from Barony in that if you rolled an 8 on the d8 the magic got out of your control and there was the chance that the Zaire (the greatest wizards of the land) came along, fixed the problem, and removed you from the universe (so that you caused them no more problems).

Speaking of which, Chainmail used roll to cast spells. Which means Five Ancient Kingdoms does as well.

Arrows of Indra doesn’t have spells, instead giving magicians random powers that they can use.

Beyond the Wall has a very nice magic system. Highly recommended.

DCC RPG also has an excellent system for Old School spell casting. Just remember that beginning spellcasters are expected to spellburn in order to get anything done – that’s the limit on casting spells.

Spell Law (the magic system in what was to become Rolemaster) was originally written for D&D, although I’ve forgotten the exact mechanisms (or rather, overwritten them with the Rolemaster descendant). Mana Point and spell list knowledge,

Thieves Guild had some magic stuff in it, although you’d have to dig hard to find it. I think the highly excellent Thieves Guild VI had the most, as well as an excellent set of naval rules and seabourne encounter tables. It was very simulationist though.

And of course the original 1E Chivalry & Sorcery magic system is perfectly extractable and usable in D&D.

Most published variant systems were built for 3E style play. This is mainly because people were trying to recreate the old games they adored in their youth.

I do like Call of Cthlhu d20 which had spells fuelled by the characteristics of the sorceror as the limit for casting magic.

True Sorcery has a complicated system that can be used to determine the DC of spells by assembling effects and limitations . To cast them, simply make the roll on 1d20 + modifiers. Most of the 3E D&D spells are replicated to show you how to do it, but the whole system is a bit too finicky for my tastes. Still it has interesting ideas how to go about thinking of designing new spells.

Blue Rose had a whole different magic system which basically emulated psychic abilities (give or take).

Elements of Magic breaks spells into category effects by level, and was interesting. again, it’s a method of assembling spells. I quite liked it, especially when you start thinking about a spell design system.

GOO’s old Advanced D20 Magic combined a DC system and mana points to try to replicate D&D spells with BESM style abilities. Agian it was to construct a system for constructing spells. Many of the 3E spells translated to this system. Again a bit finicky, but it actually provided lots of ideas for the system I currently use.

I’ll mention PIG’s Atomik Magic and Atomic Grimoire here as well, although it’s not a D20 or D&D system, but contains some interesting ideas on creating a skill and magic point system for it.

And there are many more I can’t remember – all people that had ideas of how to solve the “problem” of D&D magic. Such as Everquest, for example.

And this precis ignores hacks of other systems. I’ve seen both Ars Magica and The Fantasy Trip hacked to fit a D&D game, among others.

If you mean variant magic systems that capture the Old School feel but aren’t applicable to the rest of OSR D&D you’ve got far too many to list. I particularly enjoy the magic of Carcosa.

Warrior Class

Like the rogue and sorcerer classes, this warrior class is designed around the trichotomy of untrained, trained, and mastered. For warriors, these concepts are applied to weapons, armor, and shields. Similar to the other two classes in this line of development, the warrior uses the high rationalized hit dice progression and hit dice dice as attack bonus.

One improvement option is chosen each time a character gains a level. A character must have training in something before mastery.

This post completes a three-fold division of adventuring types. As discussed previously, the structural difference between the main classes is combat/renewable resource (fighter), combat/consumable resource (magic-user), utility/renewable resource (thief), and utility/consumable resource (magic-user). This scheme implements that structure by making warriors the only class that gets better at using weapons (renewable combat resources), rogues the only class that gets better at using skills (renewable utility resources), and sorcerers the only class that gets better at using spells (consumable combat & utility resources). It is also worth noting that the split is not complete, as all classes increase to some degree in hit dice, which gives sorcerers and rogues some minimal development in renewable combat resources, though much less than the warrior.

As you might suspect, I have thought about how classes might gain cross-class training. For example, how do you handle a sorcerer wishing to gain training in a sword or a warrior wishing to gain training in a spell? The approach I favor is simple, but must wait for a future post.


Initial training:

  • Four weapons from any weapons list.
  • Light armor, heavy armor, and shields.

Improvement options: weapon training, weapon mastery, heavy armor mastery, shield mastery.


  • Simple: dagger, staff, spear, club
  • Light: short sword, bow, sling
  • Heavy: long sword, mace, axe, pole-arm, longbow, 2H sword

Untrained Weapons

Attack rolls are penalized by four with untrained weapons.

Trained Weapons

Attack rolls are not penalized when wielding trained weapons. Training also often unlocks weapon-specific options (for example, daggers may only be thrown by characters with dagger training).

Mastered Weapons

Mastered weapons deal an extra point of damage. Mastery also optionally allows special weapon properties to be used (such as the long bow’s volley attack).


Are considered as trained for all characters, have a further bonus against armored targets, require a round to reload, may not be mastered, and are controlled munitions (any character not in a lord’s uniform carrying one will have it confiscated at the very least, and likely expelled from town or thrown into prison).

Armor & Shields

  • Light armor: leather (AC +2)
  • Heavy armor: chain (AC +4), plate (AC +6)

Armor Penalties

Wearing armor imposes two kinds of penalties on characters, a general physical penalty and a skill penalty. The general physical penalty applies to attack rolls, physical saving throws, and physical ability checks. This penalty depends on armor type (leather = -1, chain = -2, plate = -3), and is cumulative with any penalty from encumbrance.

Skills that require general agility (climb, stealth, and steal) are penalized by 1 if wearing chain armor and 2 if wearing plate armor. Skills are not penalized by leather armor.

Armor Training

There are two kinds of armor training, light and heavy. Light armor training applies to leather and similar armors, while heavy armor training applies to chain and plate armors. Having training in armor removes the physical penalty but does not remove the skill penalty. A character must be trained in light armor before being trained in heavy armor.

Heavy Armor Mastery

Characters with heavy armor mastery gain +1 AC when using exceptional armor, and decreases the skill penalty by 1. Exceptional heavy armor must be purchased at great expense (exact cost should vary based on available materials and labor, but ten times normal cost would be a reasonable baseline). Further, rare materials may be required for the crafting.

No benefit is gained from mastering light armor.

Untrained Shield Use

Untrained shield users gain +1 AC, but only when they focus on using the shield to the exclusion of all else.

Shield Training

Characters with shield training gain +1 AC when using a shield in combat.

Shield Mastery

Characters with shield mastery gain +2 AC when using a shield in combat.

Contest Update

NIN Closer video frame

NIN Closer video frame

I have decided to extend the contest deadline to november 10th so that it doesn’t step on Santicore’s toes. See link in previous sentence for contest details. Really, just do something cool that has relevance to DIY D&D and is related somehow to the idea of change, metamorphosis, or becoming.

I haven’t gotten very many submissions, so if you make something you don’t get have lots of competition.


Recently I have been thinking that it might be fun to try running some FLAILSNAILS games using my interpretation of 3 LBB OD&D as a base. Were any players interested in such adventuring, here is how I might run it.

  1. Ability scores do not provide bonuses, other than +1 to missile attacks from dexterity scores of 13 or higher and +1 HP per hit die for constitution scores of 15 or higher.
  2. Magic weapons do not add modifiers to attack or damage, though some monsters can only be damaged by enchanted weapons.
  3. The best AC is 2. It should be obvious whether a given visitor counts as unarmored (AC 9), lightly armored (AC 7), moderately armored (AC 5), or heavily armored (AC 3). Shields grant another further bonus of one.
  4. A per-session HP total using OD&D hit dice should be rolled. OD&D hit dice only use six-sided dice, with bonuses for partial steps (for example, a second level magic-user gets 1d6+1 HP).
  5. Death & dying is handled as a saving throw at zero HP, with success indicating unconsciousness and failure indicating death (there are no negative HP).

Other than the HP totals, none of these considerations should require any real work. For example, an AD&D paladin in full plate with a magic sword and shield would be AC 2, deal 1d6 “magic” damage with the sword, and use the fighter’s attack matrix values.

Enemy numbers follow the same rules (limited range of ACs, hit dice using six-sided dice, etc). Even dragons have no better AC than 2.

I generally have PCs re-roll HP per session to represent recovery, so rolling hit dice is something everyone does at the beginning of the session.

Some magic items may function slightly differently. For example, in my interpretation, continual light enchantments cannot be placed on objects. These would need to be handled on an ad hoc basis.

A summary of OD&D ability scores can be found here.

Pahvelorn Initiative

Back in June, I discussed potential rules for what happens when magic-users wear armor. I ended up settling on a d6-based individual initiative system, which makes armor increase the chances of spells being disturbed by penalizing initiative. I have been using this for the past three or four months now, and it has worked out well, though we still sometimes forget to enforce the declare spells step. From here on out though: if the initiative die has been thrown, but no spell has been declared, no spell will be cast! This is, of course, true for NPCs as well.

The procedure is as follows.

  1. Declare any spells
  2. Each player rolls 1d6 (including the referee)
  3. Subtract 1 for a dexterity of 13+
  4. Add armor penalty (see below)
  5. Referee counts up (so lower is better), and players act in turn
  • Armor category: heavy (plate) = 3, medium (chain) = 2, light (leather) = 1
  • Armor skill: fighter = 3, cleric = 2, thief = 1, magic-user = 0
  • Armor penalty = armor category – armor skill, minimum 0

That is a complicated way of saying that if you are wearing more armor than your class uses normally, you take an initiative penalty equal to the difference.

Magic-users or clerics casting a spell must chant and gesture, and are thus natural targets. If the character is disturbed before the spell resolves, the spell is interrupted, and a saving throw must be made or the spell is lost.

All retainers (or NPCs being controlled by a player) act on that player’s initiative number, and most of the time all hostiles act on the referee’s initiative number (though occasionally the referee may use multiple initiative dice for different groups of NPCs).

Armor penalty also applies to physical ability checks, physical saving throws, thief abilities, and other similar rolls. For example, even outside of combat, a magic-user wearing heavy armor will take a -3 penalty to attack rolls, strength checks, saving throws versus dragon breath, and so forth.

If a thief “wins initiative” (that is, acts before all hostiles), the option to hide in shadows while in melee is available (requiring the standard thief skill check). This allows thieves to then either retreat without chance of pursuit or take actions in future rounds with surprise (including backstabs). Thieves may always attempt to hide in shadows when not in melee.

Any character that has not yet taken a turn and is not casting a spell may attempt to intercept an attack directed at another character, as long as the action makes sense in terms of fictional positioning. Fighters may attempt one intercept per round without sacrificing their standard action. Retainers that have been directed to defend may need to pass a morale check before they will attempt an intercept, depending on the situation. Succeeding in an intercept attempt requires making an attack roll and hitting a better AC than the attacker (this is essentially a contested attack roll).

The formal hide in shadows rule is new. The intercept rule has been active for a while, but is one that we tend to forget about. It is worth remembering though, because it makes fighters and hired bodyguards more useful.

Magical Defense

I first mentioned this idea on Google Plus as a spell shield. The idea is a defensive analogue to the recently posted maleficence rule.

Any prepared spell may be expended to protect one person per sorcerer level from the effects of one spell. A decision to use magical defense must be made before damage or saving throw dice are rolled. For example, a second level sorcerer may expend a prepared spell in order to protect two characters from some hostile magic.

This rule makes prepared spells function somewhat like magic hit points, as a potential buffer, and means that sorcerers can absorb a magical assault for a party in much the same way that warriors can serve as physical defenders. It also supports the classic wizard’s duel without requiring a separate mini-game.

The magical defense rules may be used with traditional levelled Vancian magic. In this case, the number of people that can be protected is equal to the level of the spell expended.

Sorcerer Class

This sorcerer class was designed around the level-agnostic spells, and uses the same trichotomy of untrained, trained, and mastered that is behind the recently posted rogue class, but applied to spells rather than skills. It will most likely be included as an optional rule in Wonder & Wickedness.

Like the rogue, the sorcerer uses the standard fighter experience table, the low rationalized hit dice progression, and attack bonus is derived from hit dice. A table of simple weapons was included in the rogue post, so I see no need to duplicate it here.

It should be emphasized that only trained spells may be prepared in the traditional Vancian manner. Sorcerers begin with three trained spells and gain training in a new spell (or mastery of an already trained spell) with each level gained. Other spells may only be cast laboriously from magical texts, even by sorcerers. This is all explained in the training & mastery rules for spells, but is nonetheless worth emphasizing due to how it differs from the way most traditional fantasy role-playing games work.

Currently, I have untrained spells succeeding 50% of the time (4+ on 1d6), with a 1 in 6 chance of catastrophe. I also considered using a saving throw, with catastrophe on a natural 1, but am dissatisfied with that approach because high-level non-sorcerer classes would end up having a better chance at casting spells successfully than a low-level sorcerers, which does not feel right to me (despite how elegant it would be to use a saving throw). An intelligence check is another option, though standard roll-under would require catastrophe on natural 20, which I also don’t care for. I am still somewhat conflicted, but I believe the current d6 approach, though somewhat ad hoc, has the desired properties, and is not hard to remember. Obviously it would be easy to swap out the system used for casting untrained spells, and the only absolutely critical feature, from my point of view, is that it be possible for all classes to attempt, but somewhat dangerous.


Initial training:

Improvement options: spell training, spell mastery.


  • Untrained: from book, 1 day, uncertain success, possible catastrophe.
  • Trained: may be prepared, expended when cast.
  • Mastered: double duration, 50% chance not expended when cast.

Untrained Spells

Characters with no magical training, including those other than sorcerers, can still attempt sorcery, assuming access to a book with the appropriate spell. This takes a full day of feverish application, and succeeds only 50% of the time (four or higher on a six-sided die). Further, calling upon magic without training is dangerous, and if this roll is a 1, the spell fails in some disastrous and potentially dangerous (even deadly) manner, as appropriate to the spell in question.

Trained Spells

Trained spells may be prepared for use later, though they are expended when cast and must be re-prepared before they can be cast again. Spell preparation requires access to the spell in textual form. Trained spells may be prepared after a restful night of sleep in a place of safety.

Mastered Spells

Mastered spells have double duration, may be prepared without need of a spell book (though sufficient rest is still required), and only have a 50% chance of being expended when cast.

Rogue Class

Here is a draft of a new rogue class I developed recently. It uses the Gravity Sinister skills, though skill improvement is simplified into categories of untrained, trained, and mastered (which translate into chances of success on a six-sided die).

One improvement option is chosen each time a character gains a level. A character must have training in something before mastery.

Regarding experience tables, my inclination recently has been to use the fighter progression for everyone. The rogue uses the medium rationalized hit dice progression, and attack bonus is also derived from hit dice.

The omission of a separate sneak attack or backstab ability is intentional. I am thinking that surprise attacks are probably better handled independent of class in terms of effect (an extra die of damage seems reasonable), and the stealth skill grants rogues a better chance of setting up a surprise attack in any case. A separate backstab-type skill also focuses too much on damage per round type calculations for my taste.

Rules for simple and light weapons are also included with streamlined weapon properties for ease of reference at the bottom of the post.


Initial training:

  • Two weapons from the simple or light weapons lists.
  • Light armor.
  • Three skills.

Improvement options: skill training, skill mastery.


Skills are divided into basic and expert categories:

  • Basic skills: Climb, Listen, Search, Stealth
  • Expert skills: Devices, Locks, Steal

Skills that require general agility (climb, stealth, and steal) are penalized by one if wearing chain armor and two if wearing plate armor. Using a skill often takes some time and thus may require spending an exploration turn in focused application.

The climb skill allows allows the climbing of surfaces such as rough walls. Climbing a rope or ladder does not require a skill check. There is a penalty of one when attempting to climb smooth surfaces and a penalty of two when attempting to climb slippery surfaces. Climbing gear imparts a bonus of one on climb checks.

The devices skill can be used to disable or manipulate small mechanical traps and mechanisms. Failure does not trigger traps.

The steal skill allows something to be taken without being noticed. Steal can even be used in melee. On failure, the attempt is not noticed but the desired item is not acquired. Items held directly by others may be stolen, but this may not be done secretly.

Consider adding more expert skills if they fit your campaign. Some possibilities include tracking, poison-craft, herbalism, leadership, and chirurgy.

Untrained Skills

The chance of success when using an untrained basic skill is 1 in 6 for characters of any class. There is no chance of success when attempting an expert skill if untrained.

Trained Skills

The chance of success when using a trained skills is 3 in 6.

Mastered Skills

The chance of success when using a mastered skills is 5 in 6.


Simple Weapons
Weapon Properties Trained Mastered
Club bludgeon stun
Dagger throwable auto-hit after grapple
Spear reach throwable interposing
Staff two-handed, bludgeon +1 AC parry (melee)
Light Weapons
Weapon Properties Mastered
Short sword   +2 attack in formation
Short bow   +2 attack with aim
Sling unencumbering,
versatile ammo

LotFP Referee Book

From the upcoming referee screen (source

From the upcoming referee screen (source)

The crowd funding campaign for the revised LotFP Referee Book is almost over. At the time of this writing, there are about five days to go. If you follow this blog, you probably already know about it, but I am still going to write why I think it is worth supporting. It has already met its funding goal, and so is definitely happening, but some of the unmet stretch goals may still be of interest, and I also want to discuss what makes this campaign different from many others.

First, let me talk about what I like about this campaign. Most crowd funding efforts end up being a complex preorder system that guarantees a market floor, with exclusive extras to sweeten the deal for early supporters. There is nothing wrong with this kind of approach (and it certainly has its upsides, especially for a small niche market like the one for traditional fantasy tabletop RPGs), but it does not leverage the unique benefits available from crowd funding, which include an opportunity to make something better than it otherwise would be. This campaign, however, does allow supporters to more directly make the final product better, and in fact most of the stretch goals have this character. For example, indexes (covering both core books), and paying for an external, professional editor, have already been met. Additional full color art plates and a color layout in the manner of the hardcover Carcosa are still outstanding. Which stretch goal becomes active is determined by a supporter vote every time a goal is met.

Additionally, extra content, in the form of sample monsters and commentaries by other RPG designers, can be funded directly. The new monsters will be designed by either Aeron Alfrey or Rafael Chandler (author of the excellent Teratic Tome, one of the best RPG bestiaries yet produced). The commentary will be from Frank Mentzer, Zak S, Michael Curtis, and Kenneth Hite. Individual backers can choose which of these things they want to make happen, so you know your $50 (or whatever) is paying for a new Chandler monster (I funded one of these) that will then be available to everybody forever in the final book. This sort of thing is the way crowd funding should be done, and it is what makes the design of this campaign stand out, in my opinion.

There are also some pure extras that are less about improving the book for everyone, such as a slip case that will fit the revised Rules & Magic book (not included) along with this new Referee Book, a referee screen (which has spectacular art by someone I had never heard of before, Matthew Ryan), special LotFP dice, a poster walk-through of The God That Crawls by Jason Thompson, and so forth. Some of these extras still might be of interest to you, even though they are not so much about the Referee Book itself. I am personally pretty excited about the Thompson piece, based on the work he has recently done for WotC (for example, Isle of Dread, and he also created similar pieces for the recently reprinted S Series of modules). This option was a late addition to the campaign, so if you pledged earlier and are interested in it, you will need to add another pledge (I still need to do that, myself). There are also stretch goals for printing revised versions of some previous LotFP modules, and the one for Death Frost Doom has already been met (it is getting at least a new map and new layout).

From a consumer’s perspective, there are several aspects of the campaign that are somewhat suboptimal and potentially confusing. First, shipment is not included in the pledge amounts (you are basically pledging for a voucher that can be used in the LotFP store once the products become available, though some of the products will be exclusive to backers, such as the book with limited edition cover). While I understand why Mr. Raggi structured the campaign this way (to decrease the risk of unpredictable shipping rates), it still feels a bit half-baked. Second, only some of the pledge money is considered toward the stretch goals, and I don’t understand the strange accounting voodoo involved at all. But stretch goals keep getting met as more people pledge, which is what matters, I suppose. Keep these things in mind when you pledge so that you know what you are getting into.

Unfortunately, the new standard cover is much less attractive (in my opinion) than the cover of the older Grindhouse version, though the limited edition version (only available to backers) has a better cover. I still like the old Mullen piece more, however. If you want the limited edition cover, you will need to support the campaign though.

Despite the flaws, as is probably clear by now, I am pretty excited about this book, and think it is worth supporting.

Slipcase art, in progress, I think (source)

Slipcase art, in progress, I think (source)

More Necromancy Spells

Here we have a healing spell (that also allows stealing youth), a method of speaking with the dead inspired by Book 11 of the Odyssey, and a way for sorcerers to collect souls.

Also, Wonder & Wickedness now has a full complement of 8 spells per category, for 56 in total.

Life Channel

The sorcerer transfers life energy (either youth or vigor) from one creature to another by touch (a saving throw per turn is provided for the non-consensual, though a successful save does not end the spell). If youth is transferred, the source ages one die worth of years per turn and the recipient regains one year of youth. If vigor is transferred, the source takes one die of damage (though only one point of damage is sustained if the source is the sorcerer, with no possibility of corruption) and the recipient 1) regains six hit points but is permanently changed somehow by the dark magic (such as a dim translucency of skin, an aversion by animals, or an emanation that causes small fires nearby to extinguish), 2-5) regains the number rolled worth of hit points, or 6) regains six plus another die worth of hit points.

Occult Consultation

The sorcerer must dig a pit two feet square, into which is poured wine, fragrant herbs, and the blood of a sacrifice slain with a bronze knife. A throng of ghosts is summoned by this ritual, which may be conversed with as desired for the duration of the spell, though truth is not compelled (specific ghosts may be called if the sorcerer has material remains, a possession that was once treasured by the deceased, or a true name). Following the consultation, if desired, the sorcerer may follow the ghosts in katabasis to the land of the dead (along with any number of willing companions), though an easy path of return is not guaranteed.

Soul Harvest

By the casting of this spell a sorcerer traps a disembodied soul (of HD less than or equal to the sorcerer’s level) within an unoccupied clay jar or flask which has been previously prepared (these vessels are significant for purposes of encumbrance). Souls on their way to the underworld or other final reward may be captured automatically, but free-willed souls (such as incorporeal undead) are permitted a saving throw. A soul may be freed in exchange for a favor from the ghost (standard negotiation procedures apply), traded as sorcerous currency, or consumed for temporary power (such as a bonus to a single roll or a die worth of temporary hit points).

Corot - Orpheus Leading Eurydice (source)

Corot – Orpheus Leading Eurydice (source)