Arcane stress

Chainmail Spell Complexity from here

A while back, Jeff wrote a post about Chainmail-style roll-to-cast magic. This came to my attention again recently because Jeremy was discussing using a similar system to replace spell preparation. And then I saw this by Brock about replacing cleric spells with general “miracles” and a saving throw mechanic. The details of that system are not important for my purposes here, save one: every miracle granted imposes a -1 cumulative penalty on future attempts.

What if we combined Chainmail casting with a cumulative penalty? A point of “arcane stress” would accrue to the magic-user upon any result of delay or worse. At no point is a magic-user ever prevented from attempting to cast, but the more they cast, the less reliable magic becomes, and the more likely a mishap or backfire will be triggered. This could entirely replace prepared spells, yet maintain a cost to casting.

Like my save to retain spells variation, it makes lower level spells closer to at-will magic as magic-user level rises without actually removing resource management (the resource cost comes in the form of potentially making future spell casting more difficult). Arcane stress goes away between sessions or adventures (basically, any time that a character would traditionally be able to prepare spells). It has most of the benefits of a spell point system but far superior atmosphere (in my opinion, at least).

9 thoughts on “Arcane stress

    1. Brendan

      The link works but the post wasn’t shared publicly, so you have to be in Brock’s circles. With permission, here is the post quoted:

      Clerics: Spells or Miracles?

      I’ve drafted the following into my house rules. It has had zero play testing:

      Clerics do not cast spells. Instead, whenever the Cleric needs something really bad he pleads to his Deity to help him. The Cleric then makes an immediate Will Save. If he succeeds on the Save, some sort of help is provided. “It’s a Miracle!”

      The power of the solution should be guided by the Cleric spell list, but the exact form is up to the DM and creativity is encouraged. For instance if the Cleric falls into a pit trap, and a miracle occurs, the DM might consider how much damage can be avoided based on the healing spells available to a Cleric of that level. But the cleric isn’t healed per se – maybe he “just happens” to lands on a soft pile of something at the bottom of the pit. Or hits a couple branches on the way down, slowing his descent.

      Each miracle granted imposes a -1 penalty to all future rolls. The penalty is only removed once the Cleric returns to civilization, tithes 10% or more of his recently acquired wealth to the Church, and spends a week in fasting and prayer.

  1. Psychochild

    I think it’d be interesting to have ways to avoid the arcane stress. Maybe something where doubling the casting time, halving the effect, or something along those lines would allow you to avoid accumulating arcane stress. Or if you feel generous, allow the caster to take additional arcane stress to push to effect of a magical spell past normal bounds; maybe with effects like the Metamagic feats in 3rd edition. Give the caster a few more interesting options to push or pull back on casting depending on the situation.

    I kind of like the idea of letting higher level mages have some sort of “at will” type power. But, make them do it slower, or not quite unleash the full magical force they could to not take too much stress.

    My thoughts.

    1. Brendan

      Or if you feel generous, allow the caster to take additional arcane stress to push to effect of a magical spell past normal bounds; maybe with effects like the Metamagic feats in 3rd edition

      Oh, I like this idea, especially if the potential increases in power could be easily notated and remembered. I’ll check out the metamagic feats again.

      I would be hesitant to allow characters a way to entirely avoid the risk of arcane stress, because in my experience players tend to be very loss averse. But it probably requires some play testing to see how players would handle it.

    2. Hedgehobbit

      I did a similar thing in my 3e game where players could learn variants of their spells. So, for example, they could learn cast Fireball at a lower level without the explosion effect or with at the same level but with a larger radius but for less damage etc. Fly could be cast with slower movement but for a much longer time (for outdoor travel). This idea combines spells such as Invis and Invis 10′ radius. It always bugged me that similar spells were treated as completely different objects.

      I’ve since expanded on the idea and decided that most spells should be unique or vary from the baseline. It’s an idea I know you don’t approve of.

    3. Brendan

      Do you have a write-up of the rules you use for variations on spells?

      I don’t disapprove of unique spells at all, actually. I suspect you are thinking about the rock, paper, scissors post? The point there is that the tools players get access to should fit (at least some of) the hazards that show up in gameplay, and that seeing some of the original spells as useless actually shows a misunderstanding of the kinds of puzzles and hazards that were part of the original game. If you can have keys (spells) that fit the locks (hazards) of your campaign world in a way that everything is unique, that would be great! It might run into infodump and player buy-in issues though, unless there is a very good way for introducing the custom powers slowly (like through finding scrolls).

      I feel like I just rambled a lot, so let me know if any of that is not clear.

    4. Brendan

      I’ve also played around with the idea of “spells” being broader concepts such that invisibility, 10′ radius is just a higher-powered version of invisibility. I think the idea has a lot of promise, but probably demands a more thorough overhaul of the spell list to reach full potential.

  2. Christopher O'Dell

    I’d be really interested in seeing the mechanics for this written up. Before I discovered the OSR and was converted to Vancian magic I played a Constitution-based Cleric in a 3.5 game because I wanted my magic system to work so that casting magic made the caster “tired” and less able to cast as time went on. While I love Vancian casting in D&D, I don’t have a problem with other types of casting co-existing with it in games I run, and a system like this might work great in a game setting with wizards that feel more like Gandalf than Rhialto.

    1. Brendan


      What further mechanics do you feel are needed? I think Jeff’s post plus a magic fumble table are probably enough, but I haven’t actually tried to run it yet, so I am probably missing some other vital component.


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