Tag Archives: magic-user

Wonder & Wickedness draws near

wonder wickedness titleSoon, if all goes well, Lost Pages will release my sorcery supplement, Wonder & Wickedness.

The book will contain:

  • 56 spells divided into seven specialties
  • 50 enchanted treasures
  • 84 sorcerous catastrophes (12 each for 7 kinds of magic)
  • New illustrations by Russ Nicholson
  • Sorcery rules: spells without levels, spell duels, and more

The text is done and layout progresses, about 90 A5 pages. We are working on a small number of hand-bound hardcovers as well.

The spells and several of the enchanted items have appeared before on this blog, though I have modified a few of them. All of the catastrophes and the bulk of enchanted items are new.

We do not have an official release date yet, but hope to have this available before the end of december.

Stats and magics

Playing Dark Souls has helped crystalize in my mind a lot of how I want the character advancement options to work in The Final Castle. Back when I was working on the Hexagram rules, one of my main goals was to support flexible cross-class abilities without complexity or undermining traditional class archetypes, though now I find the particular approach I was working on somewhat unsatisfying. There was too much discretion, not enough structure, and the lists of system options were too long.

The Final Castle has a far simpler, and more elegant, method of advancement which I believe satisfies my original requirements. Characters may advance potentially to level ten, and each level gained allows the increase of one ability score* (though the same score may not be increased over subsequent levels). The ability scores are combined with a class bonus (which is half level, round up) to determine most action resolution. So, for example, a character is going to roll something like 1d20 +dexterity +fighter (shorthand here for fighter class bonus) when making a combat roll. Starting stats range from 0 to 3, a given stat can be increased up to +5, and the class bonus rises to +5 at most, yielding a nice range of bonus for even the luckiest and most focused character (up to +13 on the d20 scale at level 10). Such specialization comes at the cost of flexibility, as will become clear momentarily.

It may seem at first glance like this does not have much to do with the previous discussion of Dark Souls. However, like Dark Souls, the magic rules apply to characters of all classes. That is, a fighter, for example, rolls 1d20 +magic +magician when casting spells, and the number of spells that can be prepared is also governed by those numbers. (Recall that intelligence has been replaced by magic.) Now, in the case of a fighter, +magician (the class bonus) is always going to be zero, but +magic may be increased (if the fighter wants to dabble in magic) during level up rather than one of the physical stats. Magicians have access to more methods for learning spells, but any character with sufficient stats can at least learn spells from a teacher, and any character has the potential of sufficient stats through level up choices.

Cleric magic (called boons), is handled similarly, with +charisma and +cleric taking the place of +magic and +magician. Rather than learning spells one by one as does a magician, clerics are granted access to a full suite of powers upon making a covenant with a given immortal. The default covenant available to clerics at first level is with The King of Life**, but other covenants may be discovered during play and accessed by any character that has sufficient charisma score. Most immortals will not covenant with characters that use magic though, as such is considered presumptuous and hubristic. More than one covenant at a time is impossible, and breaking a covenant may come with serious consequences.

* Oversimplifying slightly for clarity.

** Inspired by Dogs in the Vineyard and used with permission.

Dark Souls magic

Almost all of the Dark Souls rules are somewhat applicable to the tabletop context, but the magic systems seem especially so suited. There are three magic systems: pyromancy, miracle, and sorcery. There are “classes” associated with each, but any character can level into the various kinds of magic by increasing the appropriate stats. Each magic requires a characteristic implement be equipped in order to cast spells of the given type. Each interacts with PC stats in a slightly different way, and the number of overall spell slots, which must be divided between all types of magic, is controlled by the attunement stat. Spells must be prepared (“attuned”) at bonfires, which is the equivalent of downtime or recovery in D&D, and may only be used a limited number of times before resting again.

Pyromancy is the simplest type of magic. There is some intimation that it is more primal and less sophisticated than sorcery. It is often associated with swamp dwellers, symbolic of exclusion and the primitive. There is a similarity here to the distinction WotC D&D makes between wizards (pseudo-academics) and sorcerers (wild talents, magic by lineage). Pyromancy power is not affected by any stats, other than the slots from attunement needed for spell preparation, and their power is dependent only upon the strength of the pyromancy flame used, which is the characteristic implement.

A pyromancy flame can be upgraded independently by spending souls, which, remember, function like both GP and XP. Most pyromancy is simple attack magic, fireballs and so forth, though there are also a few defensive spells, such as iron flesh and flash sweat (which increases defense against fire damage). From a game perspective, pyromancy gives players a way to get access to magic damage by dumping souls into an upgraded pyromancy flame and a few pyromancies without needing to increase level at all, assuming a PC meets the (very low) attunement requirement to be able to prepare any spells at all.

Sorceries are more academic, and higher precision. They often have intelligence prerequisites, and spell power is affected by intelligence. A character that wishes to be a competent sorcerer must dedicate a number of levels to the sorcery-oriented stats. The characteristic implement is the catalyst, often depicted as a wand or staff. Unlike pyromancy flames, or weapons, catalysts cannot be upgraded. You must find better ones.

Though there are several attack sorceries (such as soul arrows, which are basic “magic blasts” that also have the useful function of tracking enemy movement to some degree), there are in addition many utility and misdirection spells, such as aural decoy (which lures enemies away by creating a sound elsewhere), fall control (as feather fall), and hidden body (basically, invisibility). I have been playing a warrior and have only dipped lightly into sorcery so far, so I do not have much direct experience with these spells beyond soul arrows, but for a combat-oriented action RPG, there are a surprisingly large number of spells that seem to enable non-combat creativity.

Miracles are the province of the cleric, and are mostly, by default, as in D&D, defensive or restorative. However, the miracles a character has access to depends on which covenants are formed. For example, if you join the gravelord servant covenant, there are miracles that call giant phantom blades to attack your enemies. This is a fascinating system, reminiscent of “clerics of specific mythos” in 2E D&D, but much more dependent upon action during play. Further, a covenant comes with clear, objective factional duties and restrictions. I do not fully understand exactly how this affects gameplay, but what I have seen of the periphery makes the covenant system one of the most interesting aspects of Dark Souls design, and one that has been highly influential over my conception of clerics as servants of immortals in the world of The Final Castle. Beyond this contextual aspect, miracles work similarly to sorceries, requiring attunement at bonfires, and dependent upon the faith stat for power. The characteristic implement, which must be equipped to call a miracle, is the talisman.

This system design engenders several different kinds of trade-off. First, there are the advancement decisions about which stats are increased during level up. While strictly speaking it is possible to grind souls and increase everything, in practice this is tedious, and further unnecessary to be successful*. If you are just playing the game to explore and overcome challenges, you will naturally need to choose between physical capability and the various kinds of magic. This mode is also more applicable to the tabletop context, where grinding dynamics are minimized or nonexistent. Second, there is the cost and availability of various spells. Third, when you set out from a bonfire, you must divide your available attunement slots between spells. If you have four slots, for example, two could be miracles and two could be sorceries.

Fourth, and most importantly in terms of the gameplay experience, you must wield the appropriate implement to cast a given spell. While encumbrance rules do not prevent you from carrying everything with you (an aspect of the game I find somewhat strange), they do prevent you from equipping more than a few items, and switching between items that are not equipped during combat is asking for a quick death. In practice this means that you have a primary and secondary equipped item in each hand that is east to switch between. The left hand is usually occupied by a shield and either ranged weapon or tool (such as the skull lantern). This leaves the right hand for (likely) a melee weapon and magic implement. The final result of all of this design is that it is impractical to ready more than one kind of magic on a given excursion. Fifth, and finally, casting a spell has a more or less lengthy animation and thus requires a trade-off consideration in terms of when you start to cast a spell, as enemies may take advantage of that time or your vulnerability.

* At least in single-player mode. If you are into PvP it is likely different. The fact that grinding souls might make a big difference in the viability of character power is part of the reason I have little interest in PvP.

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…

d6

1

Gar’

Kolmabach

of the Hateful Face

demands

Joyous

Lie

2

Tur’nok-

Sek

the Moon-Eating Maw

commands

Vengeful

Theft

3

Silough-Ma’

Omon-Po

Who’s Wings Blacken the Sky

requires

Hateful

Murder

4

Durgen’opah

Sif Sanar

the Hungry Childe

‘suggests’

Unjust

Slander

5

Xaxaxaxxax-

Bloone

of the Thousand Eyes

orders

Deadly

Betrayal

6

Zef-Neh’

Shakan Gu

the Whisperer

ordains

Secret

Gluttony

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.

d6

1

Beechum

Hogsgutter

the Foundling

a surly

fat

youth

2

Plok

Weaver

the Butcher’s Child

a smart-arsed

dapper

idiot

3

Veenian

Smithsget

the Lord’s Heir

an ever-smiling

naive

liar

4

Shian

Pyronian

the Chosen One

a hot tempered

hungry

thief

5

Saria

Tup

the Privy Cleaner

an inept

sweaty

drunk

6

Ish

Derbian

the Prodigy

a gormless

little

student

Necromancer class

Several of my favorite archetypes are rarely handled as classes in a way that satisfies me, including the necromancer, summoner, and warlock/diabolist. It is possible to simulate these types of characters in traditional D&D, but only with a specific set of spells and a higher level magic-user. In a game where you are playing to find out what kind of magic-user you become based on the spells you find this can be fun, but if you are looking to play a particular kind of magician from the beginning it can be something of a letdown.

I have already attempted to create a necromancer class, but in review that approach (with variable undead creation costs) feels a bit clunky and bases too much of the necromancer’s primary competency (undead minions) on treasure cash flow. Like a traditional magic-user’s spell preparation, the necromancer should be able to recover thralls as part of the basic resource cycle. As such, there is no cost for the basic creation and maintenance of undead thralls. Procuring corpses may still require adventuring, depending on the setting, and each body can only be used once. Scarcity of corpses can thus be used to modulate thrall disposability, but the expectation is that necromancers should be able to burn through a collection of thralls between each downtime if desired.

This necromancer does not gain new spells automatically and can only learn necromancy spells. These can be found (unlikely, as the referee is not expected to tailor treasure found to desires of specific PCs) or researched at a cost of 1000 coins per spell level. In a game where treasure yields the bulk of XP, I would expect necromancer PCs to spend most of their money on researching new spells (or making scrolls of known spells, if that is an option allowed to magic-users). This also means players can handle most spell choices on their own between sessions, only relying on the referee for final approval, easing the administrative load.

Allowing any magic spell to be re-skinned with necromantic trappings (“skeleton key” as a knock spell, negative energy blast rather than magic missile, and so forth) will likely make this class overpowered (and also indistinct). So don’t do that. Require necromancy spells to be taken from existing books or newly designed around strong (and limited) necromantic themes. This necromancer is intended to play differently than the traditional magic-user.

See downloads page for a PDF for printing conveniently front and back on one letter-sized sheet.


Necromancer

Level progression, HP, saves, attack, weapons, armor, and spell slots as magic-user.

  • Prepare and cast only necromancy spells
  • Maintain control over up to 1 HD worth of undead per level
  • Assert control over undead as an action
  • Direct any or all controlled undead as an action
  • Create and repair undead minions up to 1 HD per level per downtime
  • Will not generally be served by mortal retainers other than apprentices

Spells and magic items

Given that the chance of finding many necromancy spells during play without fudging is low, necromancers of any level may research new spells during downtime. This requires 1000 XP-equivalent currency units per spell level and takes one downtime action irrespective of spell level. Necromancers may only research new spells of a level that can be prepared. Necromancers may craft scrolls of known necromancy spells following the rules used by magic-users and may only use scrolls, wands, staves, or other wizardly magic items that have a strong necromancy component.

Control and direct undead

Death and the miser (source)

Death and the miser (source)

Necromancers may maintain control over a number of HD worth of undead equal to level. No check is required, but asserting control takes an action if done in combat. Intelligent undead deserve a saving throw and a necromancer only gets one try when attempting to influence such beings. Directing newly controlled undead must wait for another action.

Most created undead have dim and limited intelligence. They can only follow crude commands and are unable to perform complicated tasks. An action such as “pull that lever” is about the limit of undead sophistication. As an action, a necromancer may direct (or modify previous directions for) any or all currently controlled undead. Directions must be clear and vocalized but need not be overly specific. For example, “attack those orcs” is acceptable; there is no need to declare exactly which orc should be attacked.

Actions available include attack (a target), defend (a person), follow (a person or thing), guard (a location), move (to a nearby place), patrol (an area), and retrieve (a nearby item). Minions will intuit needed movement given an attack command, but may not choose the smartest route on their own. Minions instructed to defend will hold actions and use opposed combat rolls to determine the success of a potential interception.

This structure means that a necromancer can either take an action themselves during a turn (such as cast a spell) or redirect minions but not both. Undead will continue to follow existing directions until new directions are provided.

Undead become uncontrolled upon the death (though not unconsciousness) of a necromancer master and uncontrolled undead without directions are hostile to all life. A necromancer may release undead minions from service at will.

Create undead

During downtime, necromancers may create or repair a number of HD worth of undead equal to level. This may result in a necromancer having created more undead than can be controlled. Excess undead are uncontrolled and hostile to all life. The propensity of necromancers to create uncontrolled “spares” that often get loose is no small part of the profession’s generally poor reputation. Strictly speaking, no resources are needed other than corpses that have not been previously animated, though in practice a private ritual sanctum is necessary for the sake of privacy (necromancy being widely vilified as black magic). Created undead are by default a form of zombie. Other undead may be controlled but must be discovered in play or created with the aid of augmentation spells.

HD may be allocated as desired between multiple minions. For example, a fourth level necromancer may create 4 minions of 1 HD each, one minion of 4 HD, or some other combination. Undead minions attack and save as a creature of the appropriate HD, have an AC bonus equal to HD, move in combat as a lightly encumbered human (three-quarters of an unencumbered human’s rate), and gain no benefit other than style from armor. Damage is by weapon or 1d6 from fearsome unarmed strike. Undead are not effective porters and have a tendency to hide or vandalize carried objects other than raiment or armament when unsupervised.

Weapons

Even if being strict about weapon usage, it is suggested that necromancers be allowed to wield sickles and scythes because of the symbolic value of these tools to the craft of necromancy.

  • Sickle: as dagger, not throwable, 1d4 damage
  • Scythe: as staff, requires two hands, slashing rather than bludgeoning, 1d6 damage

Good sources of necromancy spells for use with traditional class-and-level fantasy games:


Image by Millet (source)

Image by Millet (source)

Thanks to Duncan E. for suggesting Holbein as an illustration source.

Complete Vivimancer

complete vivimancer coverGavin N., author of the City of Iron blog and the previous Labyrinth Lord supplement Theorems & Thaumaturgy, has released another book, the Complete Vivimancer. T&T is something of an OSR Tome of Magic, introducing several new specialist magic-user variants and a host of new spells and magic items. I previously reviewed it (and the PDF is free, so you really have no excuse not to check it out). The Complete Vivimancer takes the eponymous class introduced in T&T and expands it further.

Unlike T&T, the CV has an A5 layout, which I much prefer. As a PDF, the size is perfect for tablets without needing to resize. Beyond the size, the layout style feels improved as well. Details like duration are offset from descriptive text when needed, but no strict format is used, which is appreciated (including useless null info like magic resistance: none rather than just leaving it out is something that bothers me in many RPG layouts). The art is suitably weird and of a particular, consistent style. There are many worms, veins, pustules, and so forth. Breeding and reproduction are (as you might expect) constant themes. Total content is around 80 digest sized pages with periodic illustrations.

In an effort to serve as an all-in-one reference, the Complete Vivimancer repeats the relevant content from T&T alongside the new material. I can imagine this might bother some folks, but it seems appropriate to the project, and in any case there is a lot of new content as well. Interestingly, a number of spells from core Labyrinth Lord are included also, but subtly adjusted to add a vivimantic flavor, which is a nice touch. For example, the vivimancer version of jump notes that the subject’s legs develop a springing capability similar to that of a cricket, which I would probably run with and rule to be an actual insectoid transformation. Depending on how seriously a given referee takes the re-skinned details, this could dramatically alter how some spells work (as it should).

That said, what exactly is included? First, the details of the class, which look at a glance to be identical to the standard magic-user (d4 HD, only daggers, no armor, create new spells and magic items at 9th level, etc). There are some guidelines about the cost of maintaining a laboratory and keeping experimental subjects, which are required for some vivimantic spells. The spell list itself is impressively large, with 30 spells each for levels 1 through 3, 20 spells for level 4, and 12 spells for each level thereafter. A slightly more restricted list of spells (12 per level) is also provided for referees to prefer a slightly more restrained spell list.

What are the spells like? Symbiotic familiar causes a plant- of fungal-based familiar to grow in or on the magic-user’s body. Anthropomorphism allows the magic-user to impart humanlike consciousness and tool using ability to an animal. Leech blast is an area effect spell that covers enemies in a mass of bloodsucking worms if a save is failed, doing continuous damage. The chimera spells are a take on monster summoning, with randomly determined qualities, and look like they would be fun in play. Detach makes a body part separate from its owner, though remaining under his or her control (allowing crawling hands and so forth). Lockroaches are a living magic item that functions sort of like a knock scroll (I bet you can guess how they work). While a large number of vivimantic effects are permanent, allowing, for example, a given vivimancer to over time create a horde of fungal zombies, importantly (as far as I can tell) vivimancers do not have any special influence over most creations, requiring intelligent and creative play.

How specialist magic-users interact with the advancement systems of a campaign is somewhat complicated. How do magic-users learn new spells? Must they find new spells through adventuring, as suggested by Labyrinth Lord page 19, or do they automatically add one or two new spells upon level-up? This is tricky because it interacts with the system that the referee uses for awarding treasure. If you are following the LL rules strictly, magic-users are not able to research new spells until 9th level. Personally, I think this approach has some shortcomings, as few games last until 9th level. It is mentioned on page 72 that one might want to relax this rule, but guidelines beyond that are not given. Some house rules or treasure placement fudging are likely required to make sure that vivimancer characters are able to acquire sufficient new spells.

In addition to the spells and magic items, which make up the bulk of the CV, there is a one page appendix of psionic powers which looks perfectly serviceable and a random table based mutation system. Like Gavin’s other work, the CV is thoughtfully written and carefully constructed. The LL chassis that it sits upon is widely compatible with traditional fantasy games, making it easy to incorporate spells and magic items into a given campaign even if you don’t use the class itself, though the vivimancer archetype might also be well served by some more innovative rules. That said, I understand the design decision to remain close to the original magic-user. As with T&T, the entire work other than the name is open game content, making it easy to include spells or other content that you like within your own OGL-licensed products. Overall, I think I would enjoy playing a vivimancer myself, which seems like a good bottom line assessment.

Complete Vivimancer hard copy

Complete Vivimancer hard copy

Souls as resource

Image by Chardin (source)

Image by Chardin (source)

James Y.’s necromancer class uses harvested souls as fuel for necromancy spells. From the post:

Last Breath must be collected at the moment of a creature’s death and is usually stored in glass vials.

I like the flavor of this mechanic, and the way it interacts with the encumbrance system (by using flasks for storage). It would be interesting to use something like this as a more general resource. Here is a simple idea along those lines.


After death, souls linger for a short time before moving to the next phase. Conveniently for game purposes, this period is about ten minutes (which is to say, one exploration turn). A magician may spend this time collecting a soul if an empty flask is at hand. Do not neglect to roll for random encounters. Soul capture requires reciting minor incantations and performing the proper ritual gestures. At the end of this time, a soul is captured. Flasks, empty or occupied, are significant for purposes of encumbrance. No more than one soul may be stored per flask.

Such trapped souls have a number of different uses, including:

  1. Casting a prepared spell without expending it (called “drinking a soul”).
  2. Animation of an object (chair, broom, sword, corpse, etc) for one exploration turn.
  3. Feeding undead (like how rations or livestock work for living monsters).

Using the soul in any of these ways negates its existence and destroys it utterly. Some claim that this is an abhorrent act, but certain groups of magicians have developed entire philosophies around the liberation of the souls bound to the reality through eternal recurrence. Sages have remarked that such philosophies are convenient for the earthly needs of magicians, but do not entirely discount the validity of such beliefs.

Bottled souls may also be traded between magicians or otherworldly beings.


Postscript: believe it or not, I totally wrote and scheduled this post before I started playing Dark Souls recently!

Monological save versus magic

Canto de amor (source)

Canto de amor (source)

In the example of monological combat I posted, I was not quite sure how to handle saving throws versus magic. The traditional approach (of the referee rolling saving throws for each monster) seems to break the design. Though I do not think that having a universal core mechanic is always desirable, I would still like to see if I can get magic to fit within this framework more naturally.

A first sketch of how this might look. Player rolls 1d20, and adds some bonus reflective of magic skill or spell power. This number is then compared to some sort of magic defense target number for each potential target. One simple instantiation of this structure would be 1d20 + magic-user level versus 10 + enemy combat rating. That is, the magic target number would be the same as the combat target rating. Given that many spells have non-damage effects, this would not entirely homogenize action types from different classes (something that I would like to avoid), though for damage dealing spells it does have that effect to some degree.

For example, a monster of level 5 has a target number of 10 (base) + 5 (level) = 15. Hitting it with a sword thus requires rolling 1d20 + combat bonus and achieving 15 or higher. Affecting it with a fireball (say) would also require rolling 1d20 + magic bonus (whatever that is) and achieving 15 or higher (with full damage being inflicted on success and half damage on failure). That seems usable, and has the added benefit of allowing compatibility with most published monsters that have traditional stats (just let level = HD, making the general target number 10 + HD). Exactly what the magic bonus is would probably depend on exactly what base system I was bolting this onto, but in addition to magic-user level, one could also use the max level of spell that could be cast (which is usually approximately class level divided by two).

The downside is that the differentiation between defense modes is minimal. The main difference is that armor (as damage reduction) would not come into play most of the time for resisting spells. Another thought I had is that monsters could be divided between supernatural and mundane, with only supernatural monsters adding their level to the magic defense target number. In this case, a bear, despite having a level of around 4 when considering physical combat, would have a magic target number of only 10, whereas something like a wraith would add level. This would make some monsters more susceptible to magic than others, which could lead to some interesting tactics. There is maybe space for a midpoint quasi-magic type of creature as well (that would add half level to the target number, or something along those lines). I am not sure if this would be too fiddly in practice, but it seems reasonable on paper here. Defaulting to 10 + level is probably easier though.

What about the equivalent of PCs making saves versus enemy spells? That is handled the same way, just with failure meaning the PC is affected and success meaning the effect is avoided (or mitigated). Sorcerous classes should probably add some bonus to this roll, while other classes would be more vulnerable to the effects of spells. Ability score modifiers could also be brought into play if desired without dramatically affecting the system.

See also:

Attack wands

A while back, I wrote these wand rules, which have been active in my Vaults of Pahvelorn OD&D game. I still like them just fine, but they are a bit more complicated than needed, and several of the flourishes (such as the final strike), have never actually been used, and could probably be removed without much loss. Below is another, simpler system for wands in traditional fantasy games that I think might be an improvement. It preserves the same basic dynamic of allowing magic-users to target an enemy’s save versus magic (which is a proxy for “magic defense”) rather than armor class.


Ace of wands (source)

Ace of wands (source)

The power of a wand is measured by damage die size, and follows the progression of d4, d6, d8, d10, d12. Wands cost 100 GP per die size and can be replenished or improved as a downtime action for 100 GP per die increased. All wands inflict damage of a specific elemental type, which is determined upon creation, and elemental damage may have additional effects depending on circumstance. Common elements include fire, ice, and lightning.

Wands may be used to attack a single enemy in sight within 60 feet. Damage inflicted is determined by rolling the wand die. The target then makes a saving throw, and decreases damage taken by the margin of success. If the wand die comes up 1, the wand die size decreases. If the wand was already at d4, it becomes exhausted until replenished.

For example, a magic-user buys a wand of fire d8 for 300 GP. This wand may be used to make any number of ranged fire attacks until the damage die comes up 1, at which time it becomes a wand of fire d6. The wand does fire type damage and thus may also ignite flammable materials, melt frozen objects, and so forth.

As an out of turn reaction, no more than once per turn, the wielder of a wand may counter another wand attack. Though no damage is dealt in either case, both wand dice must still be rolled to test for wand exhaustion.


This method does give the magic-user more combat options (though without completely avoiding resource management), and as such may not be appropriate for all campaigns. It is possible that the costs might need to be adjusted, but this will likely depend at least partly on other elements of a particular campaign setting. In the past, I think I have erred in setting the cost of consumable items too high to be attractive to players. Consumables need to be relatively cheap to seem worth it. Just expensive enough to seem like an actual expense, but not much more. In comparison, the prices in the Expert rulebook seem kind of out there: who would spend 10000 GP for 20 arrows +1 (page X52), even at high level, especially if magic items are sometimes found during adventures or if a party magic-user has access to a renewable attack spell?

Six sided die progression variation

1d6-1, 1d6, 1d6+1, 1d6+2, 1d6+3. These dice expressions have the same expected values as the polyhedral version given above, but smaller deviations. This method is thus slightly more consistent, but also has the potential for zero damage in the first case. That could be removed by specifying that minimum damage is one, at the cost of slightly increasing the statistical complexity (expected damage becomes 2.67 with deviation 1.49 compared to 2.5/1.71). The d6 chain also has a lower upper bound.

Expected wand damage
Rank Polyhedral Six-sided Expected damage
1 1d4 1d6-1 2.5
2 1d6 1d6 3.5
3 1d8 1d6+1 4.5
4 1d10 1d6+2 5.5
5 1d12 1d6+3 6.5

Optional capacity below d4

There are states less than d4, which are d3, d2, d1. These all count as a single step together for purposes of replenishment, however, so 100 GP is sufficient to bring a wand back to d4 if it is at any of those lower states. This variation would be appropriate for those that desire wands to be always at least a little bit useful.

See also

Genie binder

Image by Henry Justice Ford (source)

Image by Henry Justice Ford (source)

I was just recently glancing through the D&D Classics PDF of Arabian Adventures, and thus reminded about the sha’ir class, which is a wizard that consorts with genies. Conceptually, the sha’ir shares space with the warlock as a class that derives magic from powerful, but probably sub-divine, entities. As written in Arabian Adventures, genies bring the sha’ir spells, which can then be cast. While the concept is great, the second edition mechanics leave something to be desired, so here is a simpler take on a similar idea.

A formatted PDF version of this class is available.


Genie binder class

  • Hit dice, saves, and combat as magic-user
  • Genie consultation (see below)

I do not generally do weapon or armor restrictions, but if I did the list would be dagger, staff, scimitar, and light (leather) armor.

Unlike most sorcerers, genie binders do not use magic directly. Instead, they study the cosmic bureaucracy and compel services from minor genies. These minor genies have an aspect which determines the nature of their magical powers. Sample genie aspects include fire, time, desire, storms, and so forth (appropriate aspects should be less general and more specific).

Between downtimes, a genie binder may compel a number of genie services equal to class level. Thus, a third level binder may compel three services. Bound genies are not generally helpful types, and delight in following commands to the letter and twisting meaning where possible.

Services include commanding the genie to:

  • Perform a complex task
  • Retrieve a magic spell from another dimension
  • Engage in combat for an encounter

The material form of a bound genie becomes more impressive as the genie binder gains experience levels. At first level, bound genies are small, usually humanoid, creatures of between one and two feet tall with otherwise unique (but fixed) characteristics that reflect a genie’s particular cosmic aspect. They maintain their general form but increase in size and power as the binder’s experience level increases. Bound genie hit dice and combat stats while in material form are as a magic-user of one level lower than the binder (and thus as a zero level person for first level binders) with an armor class bonus equal to genie binder level. Slain genies are not fully destroyed, but merely banished to genie-land, and can be summoned back as a downtime action.

Bound genies have the ability to fly and to inhabit a specially prepared talisman (such as a lamp, jar, or other solid container which is equivalent to at least one encumbrance slot).

A genie binder may only ever have one bound genie in service, but may dismiss that genie at any time and summon another (as a downtime action). Binding a new genie only has a 3 in 6 chance of success, however, so previously bound genies are not generally dismissed lightly, though dismissal is the only way for a genier binder to gain access to a genie with a different aspect.

Retrieving magic spells

Bound genies may be sent to retrieve magic spells. Any spells sought must be related to the genie aspect (by referee ruling). For example, a genie of desire aspect would be able to retrieve charm person, but not fireball. Spells from any spell list may be used with referee permission. The maximum spell level of retrieved spells is equal to binder level divided by two, rounded up and a genie can hold only one spell at a time (the spell must be used before another spell can be retrieved). Fetching a spell takes one exploration turn per spell level.