The books of magic

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Recently I have been fascinated with the idea of magic books as things with identity over and above individual spells. Here is a system for handling the main D&D spells using grimoires rather than generic spell books. All but eleven of the spells in Men & Magic are accounted for. Magic-users may begin with a copy of Arcana Metaphysica and with one other grimoire (choose or roll 1d12).

Researching a spell for personal use or scribing a scroll is different than creating a grimoire, which is not just a collection of spells. A grimoire is a book of power, painstakingly copied down through the ages, and often the work of an individual (perhaps mad) genius. They also often contain things like poems and chants in addition to spell formulae. Many parts of these eldritch books are unintelligible, even to magic-users. However, the spells listed have been identified by sorcerous tradition, and are commonly understood to exist, even if not all magic-users have the talent or experience to cast them safely. Individual magic-users often create spell books, but these are not grimoires and cannot be used by other wizards (though they may grant a bonus to magic research rolls if examined with the assistance of read magic). Magical spells cannot be shared like science, and often die with their creator.

Some of these grimoires contain very high level spells. Magic-users may attempt to cast or prepare spells above their normal ability, but at great risk. The casting or preparation takes 1 turn (10 minutes of in-game time). If prepared, the highest level spell slot must be used. When cast, a saving throw versus spells is made with penalty equal to spell level and bonus equal to 1/2 level. On a roll equal to or less than the spell level, the magic user suffers a catastrophic backfire. Note that the fumble range is not decreased by increasing level until the magic-user is able to prepare the spell as normal. The saving throw is not made until the moment of casting.

All grimoires are looked upon with fear and awe, but of the individual books, Arcana Metaphysica is by far the most common (relatively speaking) and least mysterious of the known grimoires. Anyone with an education will be able to identify it, and anyone carrying this book will be assumed to be a magic-user. Grimoires are quite bulky; one will occupy most of a backpack or sack. Travelling with several grimoires generally requires multiple chests and servants, or at least a pack animal with generous saddlebags.

Arcana Necromantica, Conjurations & Banishments, and The Roads Between the Stars are all considered forbidden knowledge, and will mark the possessor as a necromancer or demonologist. Even many magic-users will destroy these books if given the chance, though the status of Conjurations & Banishments is ambivalent, as the fragments do contain warding spells. Unfortunately, most of the spells of banishment have not survived.

Copying a grimoire correctly is not something that a common scribe can accomplish. It must be done in the proper ritual setting, and requires the finest materials. Costs as per magical research in Men & Magic. Arcana Metaphysica is the primary exception, often being created by a magic-user during apprenticeship (though some individuals have been able to teach themselves from a pilfered copy of the Arcana). It is also the only grimoire that a magic-user can recreate from memory if the original is lost. The great cost of creating a grimoire does not encourage experimentation, however, and small variations can sometimes doom an entire project.

(Spell levels are indicated by the number prior to the spell name.)

The Basics

Arcana Metaphysica, anonymous

  • 1 Read Magic
  • 3 Dispel Magic
  • 4 Remove Curse
  • 6 Anti-Magic Shell

Specialized Grimoires

Roll 1d12:

1. The Hidden Knowledge, attributed to Cochyla the Younger

  • 1 Detect Magic
  • 1 Detect Evil
  • 2 Locate Object
  • 2 ESP
  • 3 Clairvoyance
  • 3 Clairaudience
  • 4 Wizard Eye

2. Realms Seen and Unseen, attributed to the Fifth Council

  • 1 Light
  • 2 Detect Invisibility
  • 2 Invisibility
  • 2 Continual Light
  • 3 Invisibility, 10′ Radius
  • 3 Infravision

3. The Organ of the Inner Moon, attributed to Sezius Elfblood

  • 1 Charm Person
  • 1 Sleep
  • 3 Hold Person
  • 4 Confusion
  • 4 Charm Monster
  • 5 Feeblemind
  • 6 Geas

4. Mastering Gates, attributed to Marlow Shadow-Walker

  • 1 Hold Portal
  • 2 Wizard Lock
  • 2 Knock
  • 5 Pass-Wall

5. Codex of the Cloud-Masters, anonymous

  • 2 Levitate
  • 3 Fly
  • 3 Protection from Normal Missiles
  • 5 Telekinesis

6. Illusio, anonymous

  • 2 Phantasmal Forces
  • 4 Hallucinatory Terrain
  • 4 Massmorph
  • 6 Projected Image

7. On Essence, attributed to Caleia

  • 4 Polymorph Self
  • 4 Polymorph Others
  • 5 Transmute Rock-Mud
  • 5 Growth of Animals
  • 6 Stone-Flesh

8. Arbatel of Flame

  • 3 Fire Ball
  • 3 Lightning Bolt
  • 6 Disintegrate

9. Songs of Three Winters, attributed to Taymar the Wise

  • 3 Slow Spell
  • 3 Haste Spell

10. Arcana Necromantica, anonymous

  • 5 Animate Dead
  • 5 Magic Jar
  • 6 Reincarnation
  • 6 Death Spell

11. Conjurations & Banishments (fragments), anonymous

  • 1 Protection from Evil
  • 3 Protection from Evil, 10′ Radius
  • 5 Conjure Elemental
  • 5 Contact Higher Plane
  • 6 Invisible Stalker

12. The Roads Between the Stars (fragments), anonymous

  • 4 Dimension Door
  • 5 Teleport

20 thoughts on “The books of magic

  1. Jack

    Niiiiiice. You’ve outdone yourself here. I will definitely steal these and add some Realms of Crawling Chaos grimoire stats to each. Niiiiiiiiiiice (again).

  2. LS

    I’m a little confused how this works in practice. Do magic users get both Arcana Metaphysica, as well as one of the 12 more rare grimoires?

    If so, Margo Waggletongue rolled the Codex of the Cloud Masters. I’m declaring now that his teacher, who handed the book down to him, was Beronamir the Flighty.

  3. Erin Smale

    This is excellent – I like this spell grouping much more than assigning to spell “schools.” Also great setting description by instantly creating 12 master-level sorcerers.

    1. Brendan

      Let me know how it works out for you if you try something similar.

      The biggest unknown here is the house rule for casting risky high-level spells. I like it, and I think tempting PCs to do dangerous things is always fun, but you never know about unintended side effects regarding these kinds of rules changes.

      Of course, it should work okay without that rule too. It would just provide the beginning PCs with a few aspirational spells.

    2. Ed Dove

      @Brendan — About your house rule for casting risky high-level spells…

      How are you determining exactly what happens when a casting attempt fails?

    3. Brendan

      Well, first there is a distinction between failure and fumbling. Failure loses the spell, and the effect does not happen. Fumbling I plan on handling by ruling, either backfire or mistarget most of the time. So a fumbled levitate spell might result in the fighter’s weapon floating away to the ceiling. A failed lightning bolt might be a random target or strict backfire. The understanding is that fumbling a dangerous spell could potentially be the equivalent of a save or die situation (first level magic-users should be wary of summoning elementals, even if they have a chance of success).

      As a referee, I’m not opposed to being pretty direct about potential outcomes, such as “if you fumble this death spell, you will probably die yourself” so that players have lots of info about risk levels (while still leaving possibilities open ended). I find this style works very well for me, and allows crazy rulings to also be fair and fun, without needing lots of tables (which is the DCC approach).

  4. Alex Schroeder

    I do something very similar in my campaign (using the Wilderlands of High Fantasy): I’m identifying all the magic-users of level 9 and above. I develop their spell book (using the controversial rule that no magic-user can have more spells in their books than they can cast per day) and whenever there are lower-level magic users in the setting, I determine their teacher. And with that, the spellbook of the Sea Queen Gerdana gains instant fame: all the sea-faring elves will have spells from her book where as all the forest elves use spells from Alder King Terbrimbor’s spellbook.

    1. Brendan

      That’s a very nice way of doing it too. Certainly something I might consider for a game with a much longer default spell list, like AD&D or AD&D Second Edition.

  5. DrBargle

    I have to say this is really evocative way of dealing with D&D magic, which can be a little bland. Books of magic should be something more than just a loose-leaf binder of transcribed invocations, which the standard D&D spellbook can appear to be. This reminds me of grimoires in MRQII and Call of Cthulhu, which is no bad thing.

  6. Beedo

    Brilliant stuff. I’m lurking on vacation this week, but this one had me turn off the cloaking device and come out of subspace or whatever to send you a multiple thumbs up. Strooooongggg.

  7. Ed Dove

    Sorry I’m late to the party.

    I agree with everybody that this is an extremely cool idea that vividly evokes an intriguing game-world with a rich history.

    It’s such a good idea that it’s inspired my wife & me to begin work on something similar for our AD&D games.

    Thanks, Brendan!


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