Category Archives: Guest Posts

Circumplex ability scores

On G+, Ian B. has regularly mentioned his house rules for ability scores. Whenever he has, I have been impressed by the elegance of his approach. He views the six ability scores as divided between physical and spiritual domains and encoding several underlying properties: power (strength/charisma), finesse (dexterity/intelligence), and durability (consitution/wisdom). Further, each individual ability score has application to many other concepts, including character class, saving throws, weapons, and social caste.

Recently, he posted an extra-thorough description of the system. I thought it would be a shame if the exposition was buried in a G+ comment thread rather than easily available using web searches, so I am publishing it here as a guest post. Below the horizontal rule are Ian’s words, used with permission, lightly edited for blog post form. Find the original text in a comment on this G+ post.


Image from Ian

I arrange the attributes in a circle. In the upper half (left to right) are Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity. these are the physical abilities. In the bottom half reading from right to left is Intelligence, Willpower, and Charisma, These are the spiritual attributes. They reflect the nature of the physical attributes above them. This makes it very easy for players to identify the role the attributes play because they can compare the more abstract spiritual quantities to more physical representations.

[Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I renamed Wisdom Willpower. It made sense in OD&D because the first three abilities represented the native ability of the three classes (which is why they were tradeable). So Strength might as well be called Fighting-Man Ability, Wisdom could be called Cleric Ability, and Intelligence called Magic User Ability quite easily. The other three abilities were discrete supporting abilities common to every “figure” (and characters were still really figures on the battlefield in many senses in that first version). But when people started thinking the names of the attributes were significant and they started having their own application outside that of the character xp gain (that is, in Greyhawk), then you started getting confusion over what Intelligence and Wisdom meant to many people. This avoids the confusion by what I mean when I say Willpower.]

Actions taken to the left of the diagram involve the use of physical or spiritual force. So wrestling might involve a contest of Strength, whilst an argument might involve a contest of Charisma to see how well it sways people emotionally.

Actions taken to the right of the diagram involve the use of physical or spiritual finesse. Such as accurately hitting a target or negotiating an agreement.

Very few intentional actions can be taken using the middle of the diagram (Constitution and Willpower). Mainly they provide the intrinsic resilience of the character (the ability to endure physically and spiritually). They boost both hit points and spell points respectively.

Each Saving Throw maps directly to a characteristic (even though this does mean adding an extra one), which provides a bonus. They are:

  • STR: Paralysis and Petrification
  • CON: Death and Poison
  • DEX: Blast and (Dragon) Breathe
  • INT: Magical Devices (formerly Wands & Staves)
  • WPR: Spells and Magic
  • CHA: Fear and Charm

Where multiple saving throws might apply characters may select a specific one by reacting appropriately. For example against a wand of paralysis they could seek cover from the wand wielder (INT), dodge the caster pointing the wand at them (DEX), attempt to actively resist the magic itself (POW), or passively resist the effects of the magic (STR). (Brendan here: note the POW intrusion from RuneQuest.)

Each of the primary six adventurer classes is directly connected to each of the characteristics as their prime requisite.

  • STR: Fighter [melee specialist]
  • CON: Ranger [missile specialist]
  • DEX: Tomb Robber/Dungeon Explorer [still flipping between class names because I don’t really want to use Tomb Raider] (Brendan here: presumably this is the thief class analogue.)
  • INT: Warmage [D&D magic user]
  • WPR: Sorceror [closest analog is the 5E Warlock. I may just change the name to Warlock since Mages normally use sorcery rather than wizardry (which is something quite different)]
  • CHA: Demon Hunter [D&D cleric except without a divine connection; they use antipathetic magic rather than the sympathetic magic of magic users]

This not only strongly affects abilities central to the class but because abilities increase each level (and a random prime requisite increases every odd level they get the maximum boost in their prime requisite). Incidentally I start PCs off at 2nd level (“normal” people have a level of between 1 and 4).

Player character generation is also tied into the characteristics, with players either selecting or rolling their Birth Caste, which gives a bonus to the related characteristic.

  1. STR: Military Caste (2/3 [depends on culture])
  2. CON: Peasant Caste (5)
  3. DEX: Artisan Caste (4)
  4. INT: Religious Caste [ie Educated] (2/3)
  5. WPR: Outcaste (6)
  6. CHA: Aristocratic Caste (1)

“(#)” indicates hierarchy rank. Note that 95% of the people in the wold belong to the Peasant Caste and may actually serve in other castes. So a common soldier is Peasant Caste (albeit more privileged by their association with sharp pointy things), whilst a knight would be Military Caste.

The other major philosophy in my current home system is that spellcasting and fighting abilities for the basic classes are at opposite ends of the spectrum. So if your class gives your d10 hit points (a fighter) then you would get d4 spell points. The reverse is true for a magic user. [It used to be offset slightly to match the initial D&D spell allocations (for instance an average cleric had a 50% chance of being able to cast a first level spell each day (1d6 spell points and costs 4) which was a nice compromise between early editions I thought, but I want to get players using their casual abilities more.]

The hit points die is also the base physical damage a class does (although it actually works out closer to the types of weapon the class can actually wield. For example a mage with a +1 Strength bonus could wield a shortsword in one hand rather than just a dagger. [Bonuses from abilities always increase a die roll – bonuses from magic are always added to a die roll.] A fighter armed with just a dagger is still only going to do d4 damage although they are much more likely to cause it. On the other hand at the upper end of the scale it can start getting complicated as fighters trade damage boost for increased utility with the weapon.

If the walls can bleed of course they can heal

My friend mentioned in this post wrote up her reflections on refereeing for the first time and even sent me the map sketches. Below the divider are her words. This could be an interesting case study for designers interested in what is useful to a new referee. And it sounds independently like a pretty great scenario.

When my little brothers (12-year old twins) told me they wanted to play when they came to visit me this past weekend, I was both excited to be introducing a new generation to the game I have recently come to love, but also more than slightly terrified at tackling the elusive role of DM.

I wasn’t too concerned about embellishing on the setting or the scenario, nor was I concerned with the edition rules and stats we would use since I planned on throwing most of them out anyway. I was more so worried about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of being a DM in real-time. Ultimately, how could I make this an epic one-shot with a climactic finale, without it feeling forced or coerced or like the players lost autonomy?

Naturally, I reached out to a DM friend, and he sent me this.

I found Michael Prescott’s dungeons to be quite inspiring for dungeon stocking and Dyson’s maps gave great suggestions for layout. The DM Information gave me the language I needed to conceptualize the concerns I had, and gave a really great straight forward and concise guide for how to build a dungeon without any waffling. I didn’t use any of the rolling systems for NPC creation or dungeon stocking, but the suggestions were inspiring.

What I ended up with was a mötley crüe of a game inspired by what I thought were either the most interesting or the most straight forward elements from the other DMs. I drew up a baby map, drew a picture of the town, and wrote up a short and dirty little summary of the key things the players may or may not encounter. Did it look or play like a 5e game? Heck no. But with a few exceptions it worked for me, and designing my own game gave me the peace of mind to improvise mid-play knowing I wasn’t going to miss anything “important.”

The game ended up looking something like this:

Scenario: The Athenian authorities are concerned with the sudden halt of raw silver deliveries from one of the most bountiful mining sites in the land. They are willing to pay handsomely for any adventurer who can get production going again. Upon arriving at the island, players learn that silver shipments have stopped because the miners are refusing to enter the mines. For the last 3 weeks, anyone who has entered is never seen again.

village copySetting: 4th/5th Century BCE Greece, in a mining town on the island of Thassos. Options to explore included the marina, the little mining town, a set of miner barracks outside the entrance to the mine, and of course – the mine itself. In hindsight, grounding the game in non-fiction was probably the best decision I made for players with little to no exposure to fantasy/sci-fi. I knew they’d have at least a basic understanding of ancient Greek mythology and folklore, so the ideas and objects they’d encounter would have natural affordances for future action without requiring too much exploration or coercion.

Special Monsters: This was by far the most fun. Following naturally from an ancient Greek setting, the players would eventually find out that the mine was having problems because recent activity disrupted the centuries-old prison of Phobos (God of Fear) and Deimos (God of Terror), twin sons of Ares and Aphrodite. Their sister – Adrestia (Goddess of Revenge), had lured them to the island and captured them in a tomb in retribution for the fear and terror they had caused her as a child. In search of strength, Phobos and Deimos had been luring miners into their prison and turning them into undead acolytes (complete with eyes sewn shut and ominous chanting- terrifying imagery for 12 year olds!)

Setting up the monsters as part of the story in this way was both limiting and freeing. On the one hand, since the monsters were there for their own reasons, they didn’t necessarily have to kill or even fight my players (thanks, Brendan ☺). This gave both the players and me the flexibility to have an ending that played out however it wanted to. However, this setup also relied on the players getting the information they needed beforehand to make that choice. Overall, this ended up working really nicely. The players got the information they did, and formed lay theories to fill in the missingness. This lead to an ending that was as much of a surprise to me as it was to them.

I had hidden some crawling claws and shadows in storage alcoves in the mines, but no one explored these. Also, a swarm of spiders came into unplanned existence from a bleeding cave wall when one of my players seemed to have decided he would rather mine for silver all day than finish the quest 😉

dungeon copyMap: Super simple. The most complex thing was the final room where Phobos and Deimos were imprisoned. I took inspiration for this room largely from the great hall in Michael Prescott’s map, “The Chain of Heaven.” The room ended up being a 180-foot cylindrical cavern mirrored in silver ore, with a hole 90 feet up where the miners had originally broken through and disturbed the prison. At the base of the cavern was a shallow pool surrounded by an earthen ledge. Otherwise, the map had 2 other larger rooms and a few alcoves connected by hallways, and I suppose the town and marina count as part of the map too. Note to self for the future: long hallways leading simply from A to B with nothing in between are a waste of time and space.

Stock: I decided to keep the role-playing and potential combat areas separate, allowing for information gathering in the first half of the game, and exploration/combat in the second half. In hindsight, the game probably would have been more complex and interesting if these things were mixed, but for the sake of story telling and introducing players slowly into game mechanics, it worked pretty well. I also kept treasure to a minimum given this was a one shot game.

Marina/Mining Town/Barracks: This is where the players could gather information. There were 5 main sources planned, and the players ended up getting 4 of them. A marina keeper directed them to important folk in the town. The last two men out of the mine (one of whom went mad) gave them the run down on the last thing they saw before fleeing the mines. They spoke to Bion, the local philosopher and historian, about the Gods. Finally, they spoke to a miner’s son, who swore he could hear his father’s voice from the mine at night.

map copyMines: Nothing too exciting in any of the other rooms except for a bunch of abandoned miner tools and the monsters that no one found. The walls of the mine bled if axed. The first main obstacle in the prison was the 90-foot drop to the bottom. Also, the pool couldn’t be looked at directly without risking mind-control, but indirect looking via the mirror-like silver walls revealed two glowing human-heart-shaped orbs at the base of the pool. There were 4 doorframes around the perimeter of the cavern, behind which were small alcoves. In the event of a pool disturbance, these alcoves filled with apparating undead acolytes who didn’t attack unless provoked, but chanted menacingly about a choice that had to be made. At one end of the cavern was a large sacrificial platform, upon which were a golden gong and a black dagger. Both the gong and the dagger were ornately carved in patterns unrecognized by any of the party, but seemed weathered and tarnished with age. I had originally intended a blood sacrifice with the dagger to wake Phobos and Deimos, and a ringing of the gong to summon Adrestia, but of course – neither of these things happened and Adrestia still showed up!

Compared to some of the games I’ve played as a player, this is really sparse stocking. I was worried about that before we started, but it actually worked well for a 3 hour game with young and brand new players because 1) it allowed for a focus on building a transporting story more than a game with treasure splitting, repetitive combat, and/or undirected information seeking would have allowed, and 2) the sparseness afforded elaboration on all the elements in an environment together– everything in the room had a purpose, and it was up to the players to figure out (or, in some cases, tell me!) what that shared purpose was. If I were doing this again, I’d say this amount of stocking is just about right.

Mechanics: In terms of game mechanics, since my players were brand spanking new to the game and I was already worried enough about keeping the dungeon straight, I knew I’d want to keep them as simple as possible. This meant getting rid of alignment and 5e backgrounds. We didn’t track movement. Skill checks were only used when whatever they wanted to check was unexpected and I needed a few extra seconds to invent something plausible. I actually found structuring combat with initiative was really helpful. The players got super excited about how they were going to kill the thing, so being able to go through a list systematically was a good way to keep things straight.

In hindsight, I wish I had simplified even more. Even the skills-only character creation process took nearly an hour and already had one of my players thinking DnD was complicated. If I could go back, I would consider getting rid of race and skills and just using the appropriate ability checks for skill checks.

Final Details: The best lesson came in the form of a logical anomaly in play. I accidentally made the opening to the final prison much smaller than would have been possible given other information they had. My mom pointed this out, and as I’m wracking my brain for a semblance of a plausible explanation for this anomaly, my brother turns to my mom and says, in a tone only a 12 year old can pull off, “DUH!! If the walls can bleed of course they can heal!” Not only a perfectly plausible explanation- but way better than anything I would have come up with! I somehow managed in my shock to put an all-knowing DM smile on my face as the players moved on to break down the wall. The moral of the story – it’s often best to just shut up for a second and let your players do the talking.

Overall, DM’ing was a fantastic experience that I would love to do again. While it was a bit nerve wracking to get started, once I had hooked on Phobos and Deimos the rest kind of fell into place and I ended up with this cute baby dungeon that I was quite literally giddy with excitement to have the players explore.

I loved seeing the different personalities of my players, and listening as they elaborated with such creativity on the tasks I had designed for them. My one brother was super into role-play and kicked ass at getting information out of people. Unfortunately he also had a penchant to jump into situations without thinking, which lead to near death quite a few times. Luckily, my other brother had the most ingenious ways of using his spells to make combat virtually irrelevant, and it was absolutely hilarious hearing my mom use vicious mockery to kill a swarm of spiders.

Oh, and the players loved it ☺ My brother bought his first set of polyhedrals the next day, and we played a second game that night!

Game Notes

A marina town in ancient Greece on the island of Thassos, a mile or so south of a silver mine. Rumors are that the Gods had spited the mine, as miners had mysteriously been disappearing and random wails of the men who worked there can often be heard at night.

The miners refused to show up to work in protest, so the Athenian authorities promised significant reward to anyone who would enter the mine to appease the Gods. They were losing a lot of money from the stalls in the silver trade.


NPC – Marina Keeper (Trechus the Keeper) – repeats the intro.

If asked: Says that it seems to have started about 3 weeks ago, when two miners (Nilus and Kittos) ran out of the mine in Terror. Nilus has gone mad and is being housed in the infirmary. Kittos hasn’t left his side since the incident. From that day, anyone who has entered the mine has not returned. They called in Bion the local theologian to


Bookshop, Infirmary, Market, Bar, Inn

NPCs – Nilus, Kittos, Bion
Nilus wailing: The pool! OH the Horror, Oh Phobos, Oh Deimos, my fear, my terror!

Kittos: The miners had recently broken ground into a cavern they hadn’t seen before – the cavern was larger than they had ever seen, and unusual for the rock formations found in the mine. Oddly, the cavern was basked in a pool of light seemingly emanating from the sparkle of more silver embedded in the walls than any of the miners had ever seen before. This was a great find, and since the miners get to keep a small portion of whatever silver they find, Kittos and Nilus thought they would be rich. Kittos was behind Nilus when they broke through, and could see the silver in the wall, but only Nilus looked in, yelled at the splendor of the room, and then started screaming in terror. Kittos yanked him back and ran out of the mine, and Nilus has been wailing these words ever since.

Info (if you can calm Nilus’ Horrors somehow): At the base of the cavern was a pool of water. The rubble from knocking through the wall disturbed the pool. When Nilus looked in the pool, his greatest fears and terrors ripped through him.

Bion: Knows the myth about Phobos and Deimos being coerced by their sister Adrestia to the island of Thassos, where she trapped them in a tomb to save her and her brothers (Eros and Anteros) from the troubles of horror.

Miner Camp

Miners are congregated out in the pavilion beside, playing games and drinking because they refuse to go in – you can talk to them and get more info if you really wanted to, but it seems they don’t know much except about the wails late at night, and this constant echo sound like chanting from deep within. Even the vermin have fled.

The son of one of the guys who went in swears he hears his dad in the wailing.


NPCs – Lots of Monsters: Cultists, Gods, Gross Hands

GONG – If they ring the gong on the big table, the room starts shaking, the cultists chant louder and the pool begins wavering, but then Adrestia appears and stills the pool.

DAGGER – If they offer a blood sacrifice on the tomb, they awaken Phobos and Deimos and basically die.


Learning spells: risks & investments

I have been experimenting with an approach to learning spells inspired by AD&D’s intelligence derived % chance to learn system. The goal is to individuate magicians by the spells that they are able to learn during play. My own issue is that the magic stat in the rules that replaces intelligence and controls most aspects of sorcery increases somewhat predictably, making it easier to learn spells if you wait, which is a dynamic that I do not want. I did come upon a solution (or rather, someone suggested something that I think will work), but that is not what this post is about.

While discussing the problem on Google Plus, Benjamin Baugh threw out an idea that I thought was worthwhile even though it did not fit exactly what I was going for, and I suggested that it was worth a blog post of its own so as to not be forgotten. As Benjamin does not maintain a blog, I thought it would make a good guest post, and he liked the idea as well. All words below here are Benjamin’s.

I riffed this originally on a g+ post of Brendan’s related to how a magician would learn spells in his old school game’s magic system. It was too verbose for his tightly focused ruleset, but he invited me to expand on it, and host it as a guest column on his blog, so here we are.

I’d originally tossed this out as a way to see if a old school mage could learn a given spell, with the chances being modified by the effort they put into the magical study and what they risk up front to learn it.

I went with one of the simplest possible old school mechanics – the X chance in 6. I also didn’t include anything like level or ability modifier, though there’s no reason you couldn’t do this too for something a little fiddlier. You could expand the range as well, making the check based on 2d6, and using the Basic reaction table’s range of outcomes. But for now, I’m going to stick with the chance in 6, as it’s dead simple, and keeps the effort focused on player choice and character action rather than stats.

You could use this kind of scheme–with different risks and investments–for other downtime actions, like making contacts, hiring retainers, sourcing rare equipment, accessing specialist services (like curse removal or resurrection). You could expand on it, and turn it into a general purpose ritual magic system.

So to start, here’s the basic scheme for learning new magic. All the things invested in the learning process are committed before the die is rolled, and lost if it fails. Them’s the breaks. This scheme is especially advantageous in B/X and other editions which don’t have a system in place for learning spells outside of those granted by character leveling.

The basic chance to learn a spell is 1 in 6.

You might rule that the basic chance requires some reference – a scroll, spellbook, or instructor. Or, you could rule that with those reliable basics, you don’t need to make a check to learn a spell, and the following scheme is for personal experimentation. It works however you position it.

Each risk or investment you make in the process expands your chances by 1.

It will be possible to take on as many of these as you like – and with five, you can learn a spell without any chance of failing. But, the process is going to be fraught, and there’s going to be consequences.

To keep things interesting, you can rule that a character can’t use the same risks or investments twice in a row.

Take extended downtime, requiring weeks of seclusion. The character is unavailable to play during at least one session, possibly longer.

Expend high quality materials – magical reagents, experimental apparatus, baths of ritually purified mud, inks made from monster blood, sheets of colored crystal, incense, oils. This costs you up front d6+spell level x 10 gold.

Invoke Demonic Aid – there are many otherworldly creatures willing to aid a spellcaster in his studies, for a small price. Such a small price. A magician has a lunar month to meet the price, and if he fails to do so, the knowledge of the spell curdles in his brain, becomeing useless – and that spell may never be learned again. Roll 6d6 to see who you invoke…





of the Hateful Face







the Moon-Eating Maw







Who’s Wings Blacken the Sky






Sif Sanar

the Hungry Childe







of the Thousand Eyes






Shakan Gu

the Whisperer




Mortify the flesh to exalt the spirit. Ritually deny the body, castigate the flesh, use bloodletting, leeches, sweat lodges, or other methods to invoke altered states of consciousness with extremities of pain and deprivation. Suffer a d4+spell level Con loss, which returns only slowly.

Pick up a Habit. There are many formulations of herb and alchemy which expand the consciousness and open the inner eye. Many magicians find these dream drugs enhance their perceptions of magical realities. Using such drugs in quantity is a way to discern occult insights, but risks addiction. Spend d6x10 gold on occult drugs, and make a Save vs Poison. Success on the save means you are free of addiction. Failure means you pick up a nasty habit. Without at least 3d6 gold worth of the drug in your system each day, you are at -1 on all checks and rolls, and can memorize one spell less from each level you can cast. Only high level curative magic or extended downtime with the Brethren in the mountains can cure this addiction. It is possible to have more than one addiction, and the effects of detoxing are cumulative.

Perform Risky Experiments. Suffer a d6 damage per spell level. Save vs Spell for half damage. This might kill you. If it does kill you, you are dead.

Bribe a powerful mage to tutor you. A more powerful spellcaster might be induced to aid your studies and share her knowledge, but magi are jealous of their power, and their integrity does not come cheap. This will cost a d6x100 gold pieces, but this cost can be reduced by finding leverage with which to blackmail, intimidate, or otherwise force the wise one to share her secrets. This costs nothing, but earns an enemy.

Cause a Magical Catastrophe. Your experiments release terrible magical contamination into the area, with character, range, and severity based on the level of spell being learned. This poisons your reputation locally as surely as it poisons the land – you and those associated with you will be unable to buy and sell in the area, and hirelings from the area will abandon you or refuse to answer the call. There might be local legal sanction as well, if you stick around to find out. If done in the wilderness, this this contamination is the seed of a tainted land, and will attract dark things.

Allow the magic to mark you. The magical revelation marks your flesh permanently, altering your appearance in weird, grotesque, or horrific ways. You have a harder time convincing hirelings to join you, and those you meet on your adventures will be more wary of you. Your charisma is reduced by 1 permanently. The changes wrought on your flesh will be in character with the spell being learned.

Take on an Apprentice. They say the best way to learn is to become a teacher. In exchange for helping you with your studies, the local magic guild, college, or counsel of crotchety old bastards sticks you with an apprentice. You must teach the surly youth the ways of magic, keep them from harm, and see that they do not get into trouble. You are responsible for their health and their actions, and officially anyhow, they must call your Master and obey your will. Roll 6d6.





the Foundling

a surly






the Butcher’s Child

a smart-arsed






the Lord’s Heir

an ever-smiling






the Chosen One

a hot tempered






the Privy Cleaner

an inept






the Prodigy

a gormless



GM Lessons from Aliens

This is a guest post from Stuart of Robertson Games.

Originally, a year or more ago, Stuart shared this essay privately on Google Plus. I thought it was insightful enough that I saved a text copy for my own personal use, and recently while looking through some of my files I came upon it again. It was a shame, I thought, that it was not available to the general web, and so I asked Stuart if he was amenable to me publishing it as a guest post here, and he generously agreed. All words below the horizontal rule are Stuart’s, very lightly edited for flow in the blog post context.

Everything I Need to Know About GMing I Learned from Aliens

Aliens (source)

Aliens (source)

Aliens was very influential in the way I approach GMing. Over the years I’ve noticed that there are so many great tips for running the style of game I enjoy that can be taken from this movie. That doesn’t mean the genre or plot of the movie (although I think it could work) but rather little bits and pieces that are applicable to running a game about exploration and adventure with a lot of suspense and danger.

Very important is that the Aliens don’t show up until well into the movie, but you see lots of clues about them earlier in the film. Fighting a monster isn’t as scary as knowing there’s a monster somewhere in the environment and learning about how much you don’t want to be fighting that monster.

The monsters move around the environment and your actions (or inactions) have a lot of bearing on what will happen when you run into them. Aliens is not a “kick in the door, kill the monsters, take their stuff” kind of movie. When the Marines try that kind of thing in the Reactor Room… it goes very badly for them. Scouting, sentries, patrols — and fighting withdrawals are an important element.

When the Marines set off at the beginning of the film there’s a lot of bravado and they have lots of big guns, armour, and they feel very confident. They’re soldiers. But “It won’t make any difference” if they start making bad choices and their strategy is poor. The situation isn’t one they can make their way through on force of arms alone.

There’s a big group of Marines initially. Some, like Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez are more well defined characters (like PCs) while others like Crowe, Spunkmeyer and Frost aren’t around long enough for us to learn much about their personalities (like Retainers). Seeing the group suffer casualties lets you realize how dangerous the situation is and the main characters can shift their tactics before they’re removed from the game/story (“Drake! We are LEAVING!”).

Even the humour in the movie is what I think the right balance for a scary and tension filled adventure game. Monty Python jokes and “silly” jokes can spoil the mood, removing the tension and making everyone take the game less seriously. While darker humorous moments won’t do that. Characters losing their cool in humours ways (“Game over man! GAME OVER!”) or suggesting clearly ridiculous things that demonstrate they’re not handling the situation well (“Maybe we should build a fire. Sing some songs.”) adds levity but doesn’t take the players out of the game world.

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.