Spells by Reverse Engineering & Dissection

In a comment over at Gothridge Manor on a post about spells as treasure, Zzarchov mentioned that in his game (Neoclassical Geek Revival, or NGR) wizards can “learn” spells by reverse engineering magic items (destroying them in the process) or dissecting creatures with magic abilities. This mechanic could be thought of as a generalization of the rules for learning spells from scrolls (as the scroll is consumed). Reverse engineering is covered in NGR on page 12 (“Translate Magic”), though I don’t see any mention of dissection (I think it might have been a player innovation in one of his games).

NGR clearly owes a debt to D&D, but is not even close to compatible. Here is my D&D version of these ideas. Normally (Cook/Marsh Expert Rules page X51), spell research requires 1000 gp and 2 weeks of time per spell level. If you have a magic item that you are willing to destroy through reverse engineering, you can research a spell with effects similar to the item’s power. Instead of the normal costs, pay 100 gp and 1 day of time per spell level. Depending on the complexity of the spell, an intelligence check or 5 in 6 success situation roll may be required for complete (or even partial) success. Reverse engineering some magic items may be dangerous (save vs. spells to avoid or lessen the danger). Normal domain rules for spell research still apply, however. A magic-user cannot research a spell like cure light wounds, for example.

A newly dead creature with magic powers may also yield insight to spell research. The rules are similar to reverse engineering, but the corpse must be either newly dead or preserved in some way, and a lab (perhaps improvised) must be available. Costs are 500 gp and 1 day of time per spell level. Vivisection will increase chances, but may result in vengeful spirits. (I’m not sure if 500 gp is the right cost level for spell research through dissection; perhaps it should be lower.)

The discussion of counterspells in NGR also gave me an idea for why magic-users might be hesitant to share their knowledge like modern scientists: a magic-user who has been taught a spell by another magic-user (or copied it from their spell book) has insight into that particular method of casting, and can counter it in some way. Thus, if you teach someone your spell, you are also exposing your weaknesses. I’m not sure about game mechanics that might work well with B/X D&D for this yet, but I like the idea and will try to run with it at some point.

(Note: page references are to the “lion” printing of NGR.)

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