Friday, March 29, 2013

Vancian Spell Ideas

Our brains are weird.  I haven't even been thinking about spells recently but trying to fall asleep the other night Vancian spell slots popped into my head and a tumble of ideas:

With most of the spells I've come up with I've tried to build a cost into the casting of them, so that level might not matter as much. But the ultimate built-in cost of a spell might be a permanent limit on casting it: 

1. The spell you can only cast once.  What spell would be interesting or good enough to mess with if you can't cast it multiple times?  Maybe they are spells with permanent effects and the power is based on the level you cast it at.  Like a permanent Palimpsest Pack.  Do you want to have two packs at second level or wait around until 5th foregoing all the convenience the spell would give you now for more convenience later?

Then I thought what if there was a limit to how often spells could be cast at all, by anyone? 

2. The spell with 1d4 castings per campaign.  You might call them Grand Dweomers or something.  What the heck would be powerful enough to be so limited?  Maybe a gate to another plane or mass charm type spells or zombie armies.  In a way this is like an artifact with limited charges and would have the same potential for plots and quests.

The Vancian system, by definition, is one spell-one slot, but what if it wasn't? :

3. Spells that cost variable slots.  Rather than having weak monster summoning and strong monster summoning, what if a spell was just a type of reaction and the caster decided how many slots to use up in memorizing it.  Traditionally some spells scale with level, but these would only scale if you decided to use up more spell slots. This would take more bookkeeping, though, so your MU player knows they have 1 2 slot magic missile and 1 3 slot magic missile, or whatever.

4. Spells that cost variable slots II.  Another way to think of spells that have different slots costs is if spells were like computer algorythms: some might be more efficient than others.  So you find magic missile that costs 2 first level slots to memorize but you've heard of a version that only requires 1.  This would tend to make wizards weaker because the most common spells would probably be weaker than traditional in this kind of campaign.  It would fit the idea of wizards scouring old libraries for spells well, though.

5. Spells that increase in price.  You could have a cool spell that requires higher level memorization slots as the caster increases in level (you could also ratchet it up on each use but I'm averse to so much bookkeeping). So, either Cool Spell costs you 1 first level slot at first level and 2 at second level and so on, or it costs you 1 first level slot at first level and then 1 second level slot at second level and so on.  This is kinda topsy turvy because it means these spells would be cheaper for lower level wizards (while possibly having the same effect) but maybe that could still fit demon or fae magic.  It could be an interesting reason powerful mages seek out weaker ones: to cast these for them.

6. Contingent spell slots.  What if you could keep 2 lower level spells "on hold" in 1 higher level slot and then pick which one, but only one, to cast later?  Why would you want to ?  Well maybe the lower level spells are utility spells of some sort and you don't know what you'll need in the next adventure.  It would allow the caster to sacrifice some firepower for flexibility.  This breaks the definition of a Vancian slot technically if not in spirit.

7. Multi-Slot Rituals.  Spells so powerful they require more than one caster are a cool idea that show up in the literature a lot, but not really in old school D&D.  What if you made a spell and said it requires X number of slots.  You could treat this unit, "slots," as first level slots so a ritual of 4 could be prepared for and cast by 4 first level mages or 1 5th level mage, using all their available first level spell slots. You might also convert slots by multiplying by level.  So that same ritual could be cast using 2 second level slots or 1 4th level slot.  Starting to get mathy, but if you wanted a world that had a lot of social, multi-caster magic I think you could do it with little trouble.

8. Multi-Spell Requirements.  What if to cast a certain spell you had to have other spells in memory?  That latter spell would have to be pretty good to be worth it.  The list of spells needed might make sense, for example a low level fire spell and and a low level wind spell required to make a high level firestorm spell.  If you had all powerful spells assembled from lower spells you might be able to do away with levels all together.  The lower level spells could be consumed or not.

9. Research branches.  This isn't related to slots so much as learning new spells.  What if you could only learn spell C after you've learned spells A and B?  These could be like branches of magic: fire spells or charm spells for example.  I suppose this could be a way to limit caster power without requiring levels at all as well.

10. Sacrifice spell slots for Permanency.  First edition made you lose constitution points and only allowed a greatly curtailed spell list to be cast permanently.  What if you made it much simpler: cast a spell at its level and then lose that spell slot permanently (even if someone dispels the spell).  That would be interesting and cause for some tough decisions I'd think.

11. Sacrifice spell slots for Psionic Powers.  If spell slots represent some inherent mental capabilities, what if you could sacrifice them for psionic abilities?  See this post.  You could use some kind of conversion like that mentioned in #7 and have each slot raise your power by one.  Would losing 2 first level spell slots permanently be worth having precognition that allows you to see the future several months ahead?

12. Spell slot fingerprints.  You might have players roll up a pattern of slots their wizard will be capable of memorizing at character creation.  This would make magic use more like a genetic ability.  Maybe wizard A has few low level slots but can hold more 5th level spells than anyone around while wizard B can hold tons of low level spells but few higher level.  I guess this would give MUs something like a Dragon ball Z power level.  It would make some mages much weaker at start than they already are for a payoff later that is already hard enough to achieve for old school play, though.  It also goes against the idea that through learning and practice you increase your ability to work with difficult magic.

13. Non-Slot spell limits.  The system of how many spells of which level you get per caster level is one chart I always have to check.  I would prefer something simpler.  You might use other numbers to limit spells cast per day.  How about: Int points, Int bonus points, Con points, HP, or even XP.  This is basically the simplest possible spell point system.  Of course you'd have to figure some conversion factor for high level spells or just convert all the traditional spells into your new units (e.g. magic missile = 1 Int point cost).  Using attribute points would result in much fewer spells.  HP would scale with level but change the tone of magic to one of strength as power rather than knowledge.  XP might be the most interesting possibility, it goes up but then whipsaws back down when you use your powers.  You would probably want to use your spells as little as possible.  That seems very like a Sinbad movie.

One of the criticisms Vancian magic gets is that it makes magic like bullets, but what if we embrace the idea of spells as ammo and see where it goes:

14. Shift spell type.  Just like you can load blanks in a revolver, you might allow for memorizing different types of spell "ammo."  Then you wouldn't need an illusionist class, for example, just make every spell also available for memorization as an illusion.  You could have other types of spell ammo, like fire, shadow, or poison instead of having to invent many different but similar spells for pyromancers and shadow mages the way 2e did.

If we think of spells as ammo you might wonder what the gun is:

15. Wands and Staves as foci.  Rather than giving magic items limited spell casting ability make them true focuses of power.  So, any caster without a focus has all spell range, duration, damage at 1/4, with a wand, 1/2, with a stave normal.  And these items could have requirements as to materials or value in your campaign.

16. Wands and Staves as spell slot holders.  Rather than charges you must place at the creation of a magic item, what if these had slots just like those in a wizards brain?  So a wand might have 5 slots and you could put whichever 5 first level spells in it each day that you wanted.  It could be interesting to have a campaign based on this, where no person is capable of holding spells in their head, only loading them into magic items.  Finding more powerful items would be a big goal.  Also, can non-wizards release the spells?  That would create an even differently flavored magic campaign.

17. Multi-spell memorization packages.  What if you could quickly learn certain combinations of spells together?  This is like a banana clip.  It is similar to #8 above but meant to be an advantage.  It would probably only matter if you are a stickler for memorization times or conditions.  Might still be cool to have a magic statue in a dungeon that dumps 6 spells in your brain when you touch it, or maybe fills any empty slot with the same spell-- all of a sudden you have 10 more magic missiles.

18. Quick Swap spells.  Related to the last idea. Think of the way some FPS limit the kind of weapon or grenade you have and when you encounter a new one you have to decide which to keep.  What if you approached the statue in the dungeon and you could have a cool new spell only if you dumped one you had memorized.  This would be more interesting if you allow players to scribe brand new spells into their spell books from their minds.  Heck, what if you could swap with nearby casters.

19. Spell Slaves.  If spells were that easy to swap from caster to caster a powerful mage could keep a bunch of lower level "clip" mages around to grab spells from their memory when needed.  Why not just have all those noobs cast one their own, though?  Hmm, maybe the spells become more powerful when cast by a higher level caster or maybe they involve control of summoned monsters or something that the big wiz doesn't trust to the minions.

20. Spell Entities.  What if spells are not used up but must be removed from memory and stored elsewhere to allow for other spells to be memorized?  This would make spells more like pokemon.  It would also make wizards much more powerful if they could repeatedly cast something like magic missile (and it just returns like a boomerang).  Well, unless those kind of direct damage spells became much more rare in the world.  This kind of campaign/wizard would be more interesting if the DM really put pressure on storage and safety of those spells not in your brain.

Okay, that's all I got.  I'd be supremely surprised if a lot of these haven't shown up before.  But maybe one or two are new to you.  I think the multi-slot rituals and the slot-sacrifice permanency are actually things I might try in my game.


  1. The old Metagaming RPG The Fantasy Trip (aka Melee/Wizard) had a multi-caster mechanic that worked slightly differently: all spells cost strength (ST) points, so a spell could have an ST cost so high that no individual living is strong enough to cast it. To this end there is a spell called Aid, which other wizards use give ST points to the one casting the big spell. (This was said to be the major service provided by apprentices.)

    To adapt that into a Vancian multi-slot system such as you describe, you could require that a specific number of apprentices memorize and simul-cast a support spell as their master casts the big spell, OR you could require that a specific number of powerful wizards all memorize and simul-cast the big spell. That could allow meta-gaming of tense alliances with wizards powerful enough to be partners in casting, etc.

    Anyway, great list of ideas for rejiggering the spell-to-slot mechanics --- much food for thought.

  2. Thanks, I didn't know that. Yeah, anything that forces mages to work together could be ripe for drama.

    Also, I forgot one I had in mind for the post:

    21. Spell Slot curses. A simple and effective way to curse a caster is to say an image/dream/thought occupies a spell slot preventing its use. Higher level curses could fill higher level slots.

    1. There's also the possiblity of sabotage-in one of the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth someone buys a spell that's been jimmied with. IIRC it's a repulsion type spell that actually ends up causing the monster (a deodand) to "stick" to the caster, causing all kinds of odd couple hijinks.

    2. Oh that's good Andrew, thanks. It's been a long time since I read those stories. I need to revisit them

  3. The "1d4 spells" idea makes me think of Dunsany's "The King Of Elfland's Daughter" - the King has magic, but also three runes of ultimate power even he hesitates to use.

  4. I really like these ideas. Any one of these on its own could have been a good post, but twenty at once is just awesome, especially because I've been having trouble with magic house rules lately. This is great.

  5. Um, do you want to write this up for inclusion in the Vancian Magic Companion, Telecanter?

    Freaking awesome!

    flowthrake AT gmail DOT com

  6. "Slot" no longer looks like a real word, haha.
    However, it does seem to suggest a nice graphical representation you could make. For 16, especially, you could have a handout with an image of the item and boxes for each slot, sorta like the pack animals you did a while back.

    12 might be a good way to get a sorcerer variant of the magic-user.

    As a variant of 16 and 21, you could have hostile spells that try to leap from spellbooks into the minds of unwary readers, and camp out in one (or more!) of their spell slots until cast (with appropriate dire consequences).

    You could also have spells that can only be memorized in certain locations or with the assistance of devils or whatnot, then sit in memory until used. Like a lower-key version of 1, I suppose.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Thanks, everyone.

    @Pere Ubu: what did those runes do?

    @Ozzie: Sweet, hope a couple are useful.

    @Gorgonmilk: Sure, I'd forgotten about that project. I'd probably just pick 5 or so of the most interesting. How would you want it a openoffice document?

    @Anon: Hah! like slacks, you say slacks too many times, and the concept of language sloughs away like a pair of slax.

    I really dig the idea of "hostile" spells. these things that we treat as tools become more meme-like. That makes me think, what if (kinda like 4) there were different versions of the same spell and some were dominant. If you learn the dominant version first that's all you'll ever be able to cast. But some of the recessive spells are better and enclaves of hermit wizards keep their memory alive.

    Also dig the spells that need a certain location to be memorized. A very easy way to make certain campaign locations matter, and making them safe and accessible are automatic adventure goals.

    @JDJarvis: I managed to see you ideas before deletion. I thought the key idea was interesting and not quite what I already had for 8, you had *cast* certain spells, right, not just have them in memory. That seems like another simple and straightforward way to handle rituals to: rituals just being strings of certain spells cast in order. Thanks.

  9. @Telecanter: Open Office works fine. Thanks!

  10. Numbers 2, 7, and 16 are great. Especially #16.

  11. These are great - and really nice to see all at once like this!

    Tartary has rituals that require multiple casters and expensive ingredients. It also has spells that can only be cast a limited number of times at all ever and/or that become more expensive every time they're cast, but there's no system to it right now - cost is in HP to activate and/or material components. My favourite inflating spell is Summon Bigger Fish - you must summon a bigger fish than the last one summoned, and the spell demands HP sufficient to bring the fish into being, so it's a good idea to have lots and lots of ritual participants just in case someone already summoned a megalodon. Possibly the really big fish are unique, so once you get above a certain threshold you can only summon the earthquake carp that lives under Japan or Jormungandr the World Serpent.

  12. A spell that inflates with use by whomever casts it, and which you can't know what level of power it currently is at, and which has a set expense for trying to cast it, is an awesomely interesting mechanic.

    Summoning creatures is less interesting to me because, eventually, it really only fits with I-want-to-cause-as-much-chaos-as-possible arch villain types. If it were to summon a permanent magic abode, or summon a slice of another plane, or summon an army of ivory warriors, all of which get bigger and bigger--my character might be veeery interested. Thanks!

    1. summon a slice of another plane is a nice idea - especially if you don't have interplanar gates. You have to find somewhere to put it.

  13. Totally stealing #10 as is unmodified for all the games I run going forward. Great post

  14. Awesome. Thanks for letting me know.