Sunday, October 13, 2019

Of spells and spell lists

Interesting discussion last night during and after our Rad Hack game. Jeremy had wanted to run a standard fantasy type campaign using The Black Hack 2E. Dean had created his character, and was complaining that there were only a few spells on the spell list to choose from. Jeremy and I have also been looking and talking about Ba5ic by Fr. Dave of the Blood of Prokopius blog. It looks pretty fun, we'd like to play it sometime, but we both want to experience it as a player and we need someone to run it for us! But again, in Ba5ic, there are only 6 spells per level. Dean was unimpressed.

We also had a bit of discussion about how spells have generally become less powerful as editions progress. It used to be, magic-users and clerics had few spells they could cast, but the right spell at the right time (and a bit of luck with saving throws) could win an encounter. And without "my precious encounter' syndrome, you'd just rack up the win and move on to more encounters. These days, [again, I know I've said this before] a lot of game design seems to be afraid of that, thinking the only "fair" way to win is by a hit point slog.

And we also had discussion of spell lists in 1E/2E which were expansive, and later editions which are also fairly expansive. So why are most OSR games limiting themselves to small spell lists?

I can only answer for myself, but my thought processes in only having small spell lists in Flying Swordsmen and Chanbara and Treasures, Serpents and Ruins goes as follows:

Partly it's nostalgia. I grew up playing BECMI. It had 8 spells per level for Clerics. 12 spells per level for Magic-Users. Druids in the Companion set added 4 spells per level to the Cleric list (but had a handful of spells that were alignment based taken away). It was enough spells back then. It is enough now. Or so I thought.

Partly it's an artificial conceit among some in the OSR that the only worthy rule-sets fit in 48, 64, or 96 or however many pages. Based on the page counts of the old TSR books. And while I found it a useful constraint for me to keep Chanbara to 68 pages, it's not really a requirement that I need to stick to for everything I do.

Partly it's that a lot of those AD&D spells, especially some Unearthed Arcana additions, just never seemed worth taking, to be honest. Some of them are so specialized that they'd only be used in very limited circumstances, and it's usually better to fill a spell slot with something more generally useful. Granted, if you are packing one of those specialized spells, and the situation comes up, you look like a genius for having it ready. But how often do you really need to cast precipitation or fire water compared to the number of situations where it's useful to cast sleep or cure light wounds?

So, as I look over my spell lists for TSR-East this morning, I'm thinking maybe I should expand the spell lists.

But I want to be careful doing it. I don't want to be like 5E, where there are lots of spells, but a good 1/3 or so are only useful in combat (and most are just variations on how to do damage). I want a variety of interesting spells that can be creatively applied to a variety of solutions.

Time to expand!


  1. One solution is to have fairly limited spell lists but allow more utility/creativity by leaving descriptions very short & open rather than prescriptive.

    Something like Floating Disc- remove a lot of the fluff writing & suddenly there's room for a player to move it upright to block up a door- imperfect, smart things or slimy things will figure out it's a disc & go under/over, not a force field so it's not a game breaker. Could they use it as a shield? Sure, in a minimal spell list game you need to allow creativity.

    Between Affect Normal Fires, Grease & Floating Disc mages can have years of fun.

    You could also allow players to decide "the colour of magic"- my magic missile is a golden bow & arrow; my guy is a fire mage can mine be flame shot from my mouth? Palpatine style lightning bolts as MM? Sure- and allow each one of those "logical" results, flaming mm might set stuff aflame but fail in the misty waterfall cavern etc etc.

    That also gives the advantage of creating natural "traditions" of magic- "I see you studied your spells with the great Atten" when sorcerers can recognise each others styles or one which hasn't been seen in 1000 years re-emerges...

  2. Reason, I do keep the spell descriptions simple. Years of DMs getting tired of certain tricks, or TSR/WotC designers thinking these tricks were too powerful leads to the proscriptions in many spells from AD&D 1E forward. I'm much more loose and happy to interpret interesting uses, since that's how my friends and I played when we were young.

    Regarding the Color of Magic, that's something I'm always happy to let my players do. Recoloring spells is fun, and like you say it is a good way to play that themed mage. Magic missile is ice darts, hold person is encasing the victims in a block of ice, fly is making an icy roller coaster track like Iceman does. Cool. Doesn't affect the mechanics, most of the time.

  3. One of the compelling features of the AD&D games I played in the early/mid-1980s was partly random spell selection combined with discovery of random bits of spellbook or scrolls from which a magic user could learn new spells as he adventured. It meant that there could be a wide variety of spells. Players might be frustrated with not being able to choose but it always gave them hope of finding that spell they really wanted to learn.

  4. Your post makes me think about why I only used 9 spells for the starting spell list in the Magic class reference pamphlet I recently posted to my blog.

    One of my reasons was just space: it's supposed to be a quick reference for a new player wanting to play a magic-user, in three-panel pamphlet format. Not much room for even spell descriptions, as it turns out.

    But another reason in the back of my mind was: I wanted a distinction between spells players know about from the start and have easy access to vs. spells they find or design themselves. I really like the idea of making a quest for new spells one of the primary motivators for spell casters to go on adventures.

    Oh, and as for the magic page counts: I'm not sure how many people who limit their books to 32/64/96 pages know it, but those limits have to do with costs and feasibility for digest-size booklets with folded sheets stapled in the middle. 96 pages is about the practical limit, and even there, sheets tend to come loose in the middle. So having a higher page count really means a publisher ought to consider splitting the material into two or more booklets, or choose another format/binding.

  5. @Tallifer and Talysman - yeah, I was thinking that if I expand the spells in TSR, I'd keep the players' book you guys are using the same and just expand it on my side. Then throw in more scrolls, enemy wizards with other spells, etc. Of course, that means the Cleric/Druid spells would probably remain the same all through the game since they don't use spell books.

    @Talysman - Good point on the publishing limitations. DriveThru won't even do saddle-stitch binding on books over 48 pages these days. With perfect binding, the page count doesn't really matter so much.

    I don't see myself writing up 300+ page RPGs any time soon, but there's no need for the nostalgic artificial limits based on the actual limits of 40 year old publishers to affect the game books we produce today. [probably more convoluted grammar than I intended here]