Magic Disciplines

I read this post over at The Mule Abides about Starting Magic-User Spells, and for some reason that got me thinking about how higher level spells often seem to be improved versions of lower level spells. With a bit of mental flexibility, many spells almost feel like they belong in a progression. For example, consider a hypothetical discipline “gravity” with the following effects: floating disc, levitation, fly, telekinesis. Or a discipline “interposition” with the following effects: shield, protection from normal missiles, globe of invulnerability.

Extending this idea further, what if magic-users just had access to the discipline as a whole and never needed to learn (or prepare) individual spells? Higher level effects would just be harder to cast. Following the conventions of the 3 LBBs and B/X, there are six levels of effects (or spells) within each discipline. Spells are not learned; disciplines are determined at first level.

A magic-user gets one discipline, plus one additional discipline per point of intelligence bonus. All magic-users would get the metamagic discipline for free. Yes, this means that magic-users with a higher intelligence are more flexible, but we’re all playing 3d6 in order, no? A magic-user with an 18 intelligence is assumed to be a rare an wondrous occurrence. For example, a magic-user with an intelligence of 14 would have access to two spells, determined randomly (or selected, you cheater). It is not possible to switch disciplines after character creation.

The system I am envisioning for casting is similar to these variations of Vancian magic, but magic-users don’t need to prepare any spells beforehand. They may cast any spell which is of level less than or equal to half caster level (rounded up). For example, a 3rd level wizard may cast up to second level spells. When casting a spell, a magic-user must make a saving throw versus spells. Upon success, they may use spells from the discipline again in the same day. Upon failure (but not a roll of 1) the spell still goes off, but the magic-user may use no spells from that discipline again until they have had a good night’s sleep and studied magic books. If a 1 is rolled, the spell fails or backfires in some inconvenient manner (use the spell fumble system of your choice).

Higher level effects may be attempted, but at greater risk. The same procedure is used as above, but the saving throw takes a penalty equal to the spell level, and the save must succeed for the spell to go off. A roll of 20 is always considered a success. Also, the fumble range is extended by the level of the spell. So, if a 4th level magic-user (max spell level: 2) is attempting to cast a 5th level spell, they roll their saving throw with a -5 penalty and the spell backfires on rolls of 1 through 6. This same procedure will obtain until the caster reaches 9th level, when the save penalty disappears and the fumble range drops to 1. In other words, the progression is not linear (though the base save versus spells does improve at 6th level and 11th level); this is intended. You don’t get it, and don’t get it, and then it finally clicks.

Thus, magic-users may attempt any effect at any level, though doing something like conjuring an elemental or attempting telekinesis at first level will almost certainly result in disaster. This could also be done with an ability check and some DC math, but I prefer the simplicity of the traditional saving throw. If possible, I wanted to build this system entirely with traditional D&D spells, using the more iconic ones where possible. Here is an (incomplete, preliminary) example of how the disciplines might look:

Discipline 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th
Transmutation enlargements
polymorph self, polymorph others transmute rock to mud stone-flesh
Illusion phantasmal forces hallucinatory terrain projected image
Divination detect magic locate object clairvoyance wizard eye contact higher plane
Necromancy VAMPIRIC TOUCH animate dead, magic jar death spell
Destruction magic missile fireball disintegrate
Ward protection from evil prot. from evil 10′ radius
Shield shield protection from normal missiles anti-magic shell
Domination charm person forget confusion feeblemind geas
Thuraturgy knock, wizard lock pass-wall
Gravity floating disc levitate fly telekinesis
Stasis hold portal web hold person hold monster
Optics light invisibility,  invisibility 10′ radius massmorph
Energy shocking grasp lightning bolt
Summon conjure elemental invisible stalker
Space rope trick dimension door teleport
Metamagic read magic dispel magic remove curse

Spells that look like this are originally from OD&D.
Spells that look like this are originally from Holmes.
Spells that look like this are originally from B/X.
Spells that look like this are originally from AD&D.

Note that by “originally” I mean showed up in a major ruleset; they may have also appeared earlier in a periodical like The Dragon or Strategic Review; this is not intended as an historical treatise. That being said, any corrections are still welcome. Shield, magic missile, and ventriloquism were from Supplement I: Greyhawk, not the 3 LBBs. Merciful Shiva, but the spell list exploded in Second Edition!

Ideally, I would have one spell per discipline per level. Sorry about the overloading of terminology; I hope the meaning is clear. Though maybe it’s okay if a few disciplines are just inherently more dangerous, like necromancy or summoning. In a final system, the level of a few effects would probably be adjusted (for example, animate dead could be level four).

This system seems to have several benefits:

  • Familiar D&D spell effects
  • Simple character generation
  • No time spent selecting prepared spells
  • Risk/reward trade-offs
  • Genre flavor (apprentices overreaching their power, etc)
  • Each discipline could be given to a player as a one-page handout
There are a few downsides too:
  • No spells as treasure (at least not in the traditional manner)
  • Scroll rules would need to be revised
  • Potentially more powerful magic-users?

This almost ends up looking like a White Wolf power system (three circles in celerity allows you to do X, Y, and Z) but with traditional D&D effects. Such a system would work well for cleric spells too (for example: purify food and drink, create water, create food), though I’m not sure the flavor works unless you are merging the spell lists like Akrasia’s colors of magic system.

Okay, the data part of this post is not quite complete, but it is taking way too long to cross reference all the rule books, so I’m just going to go ahead and hit publish, and if I still care later I’ll come back and finish that part. In any case, the idea should be clear.

5 thoughts on “Magic Disciplines

  1. Lum

    I’ve done a similar exercise, but I just used the schools as presented to divide the spells in the 1e PHB into factions, similar to what you see in White Wolf games. I assumed that the game is always right, and had to make up reasons for why Alteration has so many spells, and necromancers don’t have any 1st lvl spells (for example). Along those lines, I like your saving throw mechanic to cast higher level spells, and it seems to me it negates the need to have a spell for each disciple at each level. Why don’t necromancers and summoners have any low level spells? because their cosmic corner-cutting batshit crazy daredevils that’s why!

    1. Brendan

      Yeah, the more I think about that, the more I like it. There is no reason to be shackled by unnecessary consistency. And in any case, low level necromancers can still cast spells, they are just really dangerous. Which fits.

  2. Rorschachhamster

    I think this could even work alongside normal magic-users: They don’t have the ability to cast spells “prematurely”, but they have the flexibility of spells from all disciplines…

  3. Peter K.

    Only stumbled across your blog recently, but reading through the old posts, finding a few topics that are near to my heart. So please pardon a little necromancy of the recently deceased…

    I’ve occasionally considered something similar to this in the past for 3E, redividing the Sorcerer and Wizard classes into something maybe called Adept and Savant.

    Savants maybe get two “spells known” for each spell level they can cast. Can include arcane and divine, as long as there is some theme tying all the spells together. The theme could be player invented. They don’t need to memorize to cast, just use up some mana. But they can’t cast spells outside of their area of expertise, or even use wands or scrolls unless related to their theme.

    Adepts are the opposite. They can’t invent new spells, only learn from writings or from training with a savant. But an adept can learn any spell (or maybe only the arcane ones) and have no obligatory field of specialization.

    Of course a multi-classed savant/adept might be possible in some systems.

    1. Brendan

      The arts of necromancy are dark, but the benefits are manifold.

      The savant/adept division is an interesting approach, and I like the idea of combining the divine and arcane spell lists (the colors of magic system by Akrasia mentioned above is one of the better systems for doing that that I have seen).


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