Tag Archives: magic-user

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.

Strict spell learning

S&W Complete revised cover (lifted from here)

S&W Complete revised cover (lifted from here)

I have already discussed this on Google Plus, but I figure I should put it in a post for officialness (and stable accessibility). These rules are somewhat similar to the spell training rules for the recent sorcerer class, but in this case are intended to apply to standard magic-users.

In the upcoming S&W Complete based Finchbox campaign, sorcerous classes (magic-users, elementalists, necromancers, vivimancers) will begin with three first level spells and learn one per level gained as described below. The same procedure will apply to clerics demon hunters (which will use the LotFP cleric spells), but with only one spell to begin with at first level.

Magic-users will learn spells from the Dying Earth list, while elementalists, necromancers, and vivimancers will use the appropriate spell list from Theorems & Thaumaturgy.

See also Alex S.’s related comments.

Characters may only learn spells when a new spell slot is gained. For odd levels (including first), this spell is determined randomly. For even levels, spells may be selected by the player from the appropriate spell list. One new spell slot is gained per character level, with spell level equal to character level divided by two, rounded up. This means that spells will be acquired by magic-users as follows: 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, and so forth.

Spells may not be copied from spell books or scrolls. There is no need for players to decide which spells to prepare, as each spell known may be cast once per session.

Read magic is a class ability rather than a spell, and requires a successful intelligence check (only one try per magical text is allowed per character). Magic-users can cast spells that they do not know using scrolls, talismans, and fetishes. Such items cannot be created and must be found by adventuring (or, occasionally, purchased from curiosity shops or wandering cheapjacks).

Undle Nine-Fingers’ Life Hook

Nifft the Lean, by Michael Shea, is one of the more enjoyable fantasy books that I’ve read in a while. I first saw it mentioned by Chris K., and then came across a copy in a used book store. I suspect I will have more to say about the book in the future, but for now have rules for a spell taken from its pages.

The spell was the great bibliophile’s only original creation in thaumaturgy–he used it to secure the loyalty of the slaves who worked in his vast archives. It puts your life in the spellcaster’s hand, and until it’s removed he can jerk the heart out of you at any time. It also lets him visualize where you are–quite vaguely, but enough to distinguish between sunlight and the subworld’s lurid sky. (Nifft the Lean, page 123.)

Undle Nine-Fingers’ Life Hook

Magic-user spell, level 2.

Properties: psychic, sustain, touch.

Nifft the Lean

Nifft the Lean

The caster may at any time end the life of the enchanted person. Casting the life hook requires a complicated purification ritual only possible if the target is either willing or restrained. The ritual takes one hour. The spell does come with some minor degree of risk to the magician for as long as it is maintained, because it requires the existence of a spiritual tether. Another skilled sorcerer, if aware of this tether, can make use of it (for example, as a vector for an ESP spell).

This I experienced as a little sore spot in my heart, the kind of pang a large, old scar sometimes gives you–a flesh-memory of pain. (Nifft the Lean, page 129.)

Spell dice

A magic resource and resolution system:

  • Magic-users get 2 + level six-sided spell dice.
  • Any number of spell dice may be used to cast a spell.
  • Casting a spell successfully requires rolling 7 + spell level or higher.
  • Any die that comes up 1 or 2 is removed from the pool.
  • All spell dice are recovered following a restful night of sleep.

This method is separate from the approach used for deciding which spells are available for casting and could be used with any spell preparation scheme, including the traditional complicated collection of level-based slots, or something simpler.

For example, a third level magic-user has 2 + 3 = 5 total spell dice. This magic user attempts to cast a second level spell, which has target number 7 + 2 = 9. Three spell dice are committed and rolled, yielding 2, 4, and 5, with a total result of 2 + 4 + 5 = 11, which is enough to cast the spell. One of the dice came up 2, however, and so is removed from the pool, leaving the magic-user with only four dice for future spells.

IMG_3751 2d6This would work with level-agnostic spells. Just treat every spell as level 1 (meaning the target number is a flat 8).

The scarcity of magic can easily be adjusted by changing the number range which removes dice from the pool (specified above as die results of 1 or 2).

Any number of other bonuses could be factored into the spell roll, but any math beyond the calculation of the initial target number (7 + spell level) will make the procedure for casting spells feel more cumbersome in terms of game mechanics.

The above rules are the minimum required to make the basic system work, but there are several other details which would add to the system.

Catastrophe & Empowerment

If the spell fails with a result that includes snake eyes (two or more 1s), the outcome is a magical catastrophe (with effect appropriate to the spell in question). If the spell succeeds with a result that includes boxcars (two or more 6s), the spell is cast with greater effect than normal (increased range, more enemies affected, extra damage, or something similar).

As the number of dice recruited rises, so does the chance of rolling either snake eyes or boxcars. This is thematically appropriate, given the idea of drawing on more unstable power at once. The chance of either extreme result is 1 in 36 (approximately 2.7%) for two dice, 16 in 216 (approximately 7.4%) for three dice, 171 in 1296 (approximately 13%) for four dice, and chances continue to increase. ★

Using Life Energy

When spell dice resources are depleted, magic-users can also draw on their own life essence to fuel spells. Life energy dice may be used, but they deal damage to the magic-user whether or not the spell is successful. The number of life energy dice usable at one time may not exceed the magic-user level. Care should be taken with this option based on the availability of healing, as any effect that can restore HP can also be used to power spells, and healers may become spell batteries. Life energy dice are always expended when used.


It would be reasonable to apply armor penalties to any spell roll total if armor is not restricted by class. Similarly with encumbrance penalties if encumbrance is tracked.

This is a mutation of a system described by Courtney. The major changes are that there is no fivefold results table (allowing the system to be used without any lookups) and here higher spell level makes spells harder to cast successfully whereas Courtney’s system makes casting high level spells more likely to exhaust dice. I have also been informed that Courtney has simplified the results from fivefold to threefold:

  • 1-5: spell goes off at the end of the round, lose the spell.
  • 6-8: spell goes off at the end of the round.
  • 9-12: spell goes off instantly.

It is also an example of concentric game design (the first five points are necessary while everything else is supplementary).

★ This is a binomial distribution. Probabilities can be found in the rightmost column of this spreadsheet. Thanks to Joshua M. for assistance.

2013-11-02 Edit

Corrected paragraph comparing this to Courtney’s system, as I misread how he applied modifiers, and added info about how he changed the results table after seeing it in play.

Based on discussion here and here, I am concerned that an unlucky first-level magic-user might not be able to get off any spells successfully before exhausting all the dice (this would happen about 15% of the time, assuming that life energy is not used, according to Ian B.’s numbers, if any die that comes up 1 or 2 is always removed from the pool). That’s no good. This could be somewhat mitigated by starting off beginning magic-users with more than 2d6 base spell dice. However, I think a better solution would be to only exhaust dice on either successfully casting a spell or failing with a catastrophe. That way, any given spell casting would not be guaranteed, but magic-users would not expend dice without also producing some sort of effect (either good or bad).

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.

Magical defense

I first mentioned this idea on Google Plus as a spell shield. The idea is a defensive analogue to the recently posted maleficence rule.

Any prepared spell may be expended to protect one person per sorcerer level from the effects of one spell. A decision to use magical defense must be made before damage or saving throw dice are rolled. For example, a second level sorcerer may expend a prepared spell in order to protect two characters from some hostile magic.

This rule makes prepared spells function somewhat like magic hit points, as a potential buffer, and means that sorcerers can absorb a magical assault for a party in much the same way that warriors can serve as physical defenders. It also supports the classic wizard’s duel without requiring a separate mini-game.

The magical defense rules may be used with traditional levelled Vancian magic. In this case, the number of people that can be protected is equal to the level of the spell expended.

Sorcerer class

This sorcerer class was designed around the level-agnostic spells, and uses the same trichotomy of untrained, trained, and mastered that is behind the recently posted rogue class, but applied to spells rather than skills. It will most likely be included as an optional rule in Wonder & Wickedness.

Like the rogue, the sorcerer uses the standard fighter experience table, the low rationalized hit dice progression, and attack bonus is derived from hit dice. A table of simple weapons was included in the rogue post, so I see no need to duplicate it here.

It should be emphasized that only trained spells may be prepared in the traditional Vancian manner. Sorcerers begin with three trained spells and gain training in a new spell (or mastery of an already trained spell) with each level gained. Other spells may only be cast laboriously from magical texts, even by sorcerers. This is all explained in the training & mastery rules for spells, but is nonetheless worth emphasizing due to how it differs from the way most traditional fantasy role-playing games work.

Currently, I have untrained spells succeeding 50% of the time (4+ on 1d6), with a 1 in 6 chance of catastrophe. I also considered using a saving throw, with catastrophe on a natural 1, but am dissatisfied with that approach because high-level non-sorcerer classes would end up having a better chance at casting spells successfully than a low-level sorcerers, which does not feel right to me (despite how elegant it would be to use a saving throw). An intelligence check is another option, though standard roll-under would require catastrophe on natural 20, which I also don’t care for. I am still somewhat conflicted, but I believe the current d6 approach, though somewhat ad hoc, has the desired properties, and is not hard to remember. Obviously it would be easy to swap out the system used for casting untrained spells, and the only absolutely critical feature, from my point of view, is that it be possible for all classes to attempt, but somewhat dangerous.


Initial training:

Improvement options: spell training, spell mastery.


  • Untrained: from book, 1 day, uncertain success, possible catastrophe.
  • Trained: may be prepared, expended when cast.
  • Mastered: double duration, 50% chance not expended when cast.

Untrained Spells

Characters with no magical training, including those other than sorcerers, can still attempt sorcery, assuming access to a book with the appropriate spell. This takes a full day of feverish application, and succeeds only 50% of the time (four or higher on a six-sided die). Further, calling upon magic without training is dangerous, and if this roll is a 1, the spell fails in some disastrous and potentially dangerous (even deadly) manner, as appropriate to the spell in question.

Trained Spells

Trained spells may be prepared for use later, though they are expended when cast and must be re-prepared before they can be cast again. Spell preparation requires access to the spell in textual form. Trained spells may be prepared after a restful night of sleep in a place of safety.

Mastered Spells

Mastered spells have double duration, may be prepared without need of a spell book (though sufficient rest is still required), and only have a 50% chance of being expended when cast.

More Necromancy Spells

Here we have a healing spell (that also allows stealing youth), a method of speaking with the dead inspired by Book 11 of the Odyssey, and a way for sorcerers to collect souls.

Also, Wonder & Wickedness now has a full complement of 8 spells per category, for 56 in total.

Life Channel

The sorcerer transfers life energy (either youth or vigor) from one creature to another by touch (a saving throw per turn is provided for the non-consensual, though a successful save does not end the spell). If youth is transferred, the source ages one die worth of years per turn and the recipient regains one year of youth. If vigor is transferred, the source takes one die of damage (though only one point of damage is sustained if the source is the sorcerer, with no possibility of corruption) and the recipient 1) regains six hit points but is permanently changed somehow by the dark magic (such as a dim translucency of skin, an aversion by animals, or an emanation that causes small fires nearby to extinguish), 2-5) regains the number rolled worth of hit points, or 6) regains six plus another die worth of hit points.

Occult Consultation

The sorcerer must dig a pit two feet square, into which is poured wine, fragrant herbs, and the blood of a sacrifice slain with a bronze knife. A throng of ghosts is summoned by this ritual, which may be conversed with as desired for the duration of the spell, though truth is not compelled (specific ghosts may be called if the sorcerer has material remains, a possession that was once treasured by the deceased, or a true name). Following the consultation, if desired, the sorcerer may follow the ghosts in katabasis to the land of the dead (along with any number of willing companions), though an easy path of return is not guaranteed.

Soul Harvest

By the casting of this spell a sorcerer traps a disembodied soul (of HD less than or equal to the sorcerer’s level) within an unoccupied clay jar or flask which has been previously prepared (these vessels are significant for purposes of encumbrance). Souls on their way to the underworld or other final reward may be captured automatically, but free-willed souls (such as incorporeal undead) are permitted a saving throw. A soul may be freed in exchange for a favor from the ghost (standard negotiation procedures apply), traded as sorcerous currency, or consumed for temporary power (such as a bonus to a single roll or a die worth of temporary hit points).

Corot - Orpheus Leading Eurydice (source)

Corot – Orpheus Leading Eurydice (source)


Ciurlionis - Lightning (source)

Ciurlionis – Lightning (source)

Direct damage spells are much maligned, especially among those who are interested in elements of the game such as exploration and problem solving in addition to combat. Even within the category of attack sorcery, magic missile in particular is a rather lackluster spell in a number of different ways, especially for a low level traditional magic-user. It doesn’t seem effective enough (despite automatically hitting in most interpretations), because it only does something like 1d6+1 damage. The primary benefit provided is to have some way of damaging monsters with immunities to mundane weapons, but even then the damage is not likely to be enough to make a difference.

However, playing as a sorcerer, it is also true that it is quite pleasing to call conflagration down upon the heads of your enemies. There is the danger, though, that available attack magic will displace other interesting spells. Some approaches to this problems have been unlimited use attack cantrips or at-will magic (such as the ray of frost or cloud of daggers) in games like Pathfinder and 4E. This approach preserves the viability of more unique spells, but also makes magic too common for my tastes, and does not distinguish it enough from the methods employed by other classes. Instead, why not make the attack magic more powerful, but allow sorcerers to cast it in place of any prepared spell? This maintains both distinctiveness and resource constraints.

If you don’t go in for the idea of sorcerers being able to trade in prepared spells for default effects (because it goes against the preparation ethos of the class), you could also probably just make this a standard first level spell. Another variation, if you wanted the damage to scale with level, would be to use 2d6 + level rather than just 2d6 (intelligence bonus could also be incorporated here, if desired). Or, if using traditional ranked spells, make the bonus damage dependent upon the level of spell sacrificed rather than the sorcerer’s experience level.


Any prepared spell may be expended to conjure calamity, doing 2d6 damage (save for half) to all in a melee area or to a single enemy. Each sorcerer’s maleficence is unique and should be determined at the time of character creation by choice of a single additional descriptor (fire, lightning, shadow, cold, acid, and so forth), which can also cause secondary effects (igniting flammable objects, freezing a small pool, doing extra situational damage based on enemy weaknesses). When both damage dice come up 6, or if a natural 1 is rolled for the saving throw, the magic permanently disfigures the place or person afflicted (some examples include permafrost, an affinity for ghosts, a strange high pitched whining, the attention of a demon, a scar that senses the presence of the sorcerer).

Rogue, sorcerer, warrior

Why this split? This began as a comment on a Google Plus conversation, but I think it’s worth a blog post. For me, the split is based on two things: problem solving tools and archetypes. For archetypes, the inspiration is swords & sorcery. This, in my opinion, is uncontroversial and does not need further elaboration (other than to remark that the cleric, if taken too far away from the original Van Helsing and Solomon Kane inspirations, does not fit so well aesthetically or culturally).

Clerics are really a hybrid class in terms of problem solving, and could potentially be either fighter/mages (for the trad crusader vampire hunter that also has some magic) or thief/mages (a version less often seen, but just as thematic for zealous witch hunters or hashashin characters). However, the hybrid nature of the cleric means that it can be understood based on the other three main classes, so no more need be said about the cleric independently.

The primary problem solving qualities of the core classes are: combat/renewable resource (fighter), combat/consumable resource (magic-user), utility/renewable resource (thief), and utility/consumable resource (magic-user). Thus, the magic-user is more versatile, but resource-limited (and in most incarnations, more fragile). Obviously there is some bleed between the approaches when you consider the actual implementation (everyone can make melee attacks, fighters can still use some magic items, etc). So that’s where the split comes from in terms of OD&D game mechanics.

Edit: I should also link to Talysman’s post on classes and problem solving here.