In every edition of D&D, you can gain the ability to cast spells of powerful magic. Nowadays, most classes are spellcasters. Back in ye olden times, there was "the Magic-User" class. They have always carried three assumptions:
- You acquire the ability to cast spells by enrolling in a spellcasting class.
- You acquire more spells (both spells known and spells you can cast per day) automatically from leveling up.
- You get access to better and better spells as you level.
But the system I'm using does not agree with those three basic assumptions. There's about a billion and a half ways to do magic systems in fantasy fiction gaming. One of my favorites in the system found in Ben Milton's Knave, which is one of many reasons it forms the basis of my own game. And out of all stuff I'm changing, this is one of the few things I want kept the same. I'll summarize:
- There are no classes. Rather, spells come in the form of books. One spell per book, and each book can be cast once per day. Thus, the spells you "know" are just the spells you own, and the number you can cast per day is the number of books you have on you.
- Like all other items and magic artifacts and treasure, you acquire them by adventuring for them. They have to be put into the world itself by the referee and then fought for by the PCs. There is no automated system for gaining spells.
- There are no spell levels. They're all of "equal" power. Now, many spells will have built-in numerical variables that are keyed to the level of the person casting them, so that they can scale in power. For example, Sleep targets a number of creatures equal to your level when you cast it. But many other spells don't scale at all. Read Mind lets you hear the surface thoughts of all nearby creatures and that's it.
How do you mechanically create options for "improving" at spellcasting or somehow allow for a PC to "invest" in the magic system without breaking the current assumptions in place?
The up-front stuff
This post is about the two major spellcaster-relevant parts of my RPG, Brave, that I have in development. The first is a supplement to expand spellcasting, the list of spells, some rules surrounding magic, and some other goodies. All optional. I like modular games. This book is tentatively titled Grimoire of Medicine and Magick. I want to explain what my thoughts are about how that book will look, and the trickiest part is their complicated relationship to both the base game's magic rules and the new Wizard class.
The second, which has a solid draft ready for use that I can show you, is that very Wizard class. Classes in Brave are also an optional rule that are confined to their own supplement, a book I'm planning on calling Enchiridion of Fates and Fortunes. Make no mistake, though. Optional doesn't mean of lesser quality or importance. The weird and unique class system is probably the most special and, as far as I've seen, acclaimed part of my game so far.
I don't feel like writing out all the research stuff I've done so far but before anyone brings it up, yes I've already watched Miscast's videos on developing magic for his game Arcane Ugly. They're good.
This post contains art by Tony DiTerlizzi, Yoshitaka Amano, Larry Elmore, and Paul Kidby. It almost feels silly crediting such legends but just in case you aren't familiar with their work, go check it out.
First, the Grimoire
So the idea for the Grimoire supplement started out as me thinking that I'd like to offer another avenue for players to acquire spells. Like, if you adventure enough and win treasure then you can choose to spend it on armor and weapons and invest in the fantasy of being a "warrior" or "paladin" type character, despite the game not having formal warriors and paladins. But as it currently stands, you cannot do the same if you'd like to invest in a very wizard-y build. You are at the mercy of the referee for when you can gain more spell books. So I thought, "why not let there be a way to acquire spells outside of adventure?" The vanilla rules explicitly say that you only get new spells by finding them in your adventures, but is it not reasonable to ask where spellbooks come from to begin with? I like downtime and campaign-level play, so it seems a sensible enough activity to invest in between adventures.
But I still didn't want it to become like that thing in D&D where you can automatically learn new spells just as a benefit of leveling up, with no corresponding in-world action to "gain" the spell. After all, when a player decides they want to use this supplementary system to acquire a new spell, then how is it decided what spell they're going to get? I don't really want them to be able to just point at a master list of hundreds of spells and pick anything they want off the menu. So what would be a "diagetic" method of acquiring spells aside from just finding them?
First, I still want to keep a lot of control in the hands of the referee over what spells are available in their world. All D&D worlds have all 8 of the traditional schools of magic unless the DM goes out of their way to hand players a list of banned spells. And players hate getting a list of banned spells. They'll always fight you on it.
But in Knave, it's kind of the opposite. Any given spell isn't in the game unless the referee chooses to put it in. You only get that Ray of Sickness spell if the referee put a copy of it in the world somewhere for you to find. So even if I'm offering a new avenue to acquire spells, it's still in a diagetic way. It's still, "you gotta meet a guy with a big library of necromancy spells and ask to make a copy of his Ray of Sickness tome." Or you gotta buy a treatise outlining the principles of the necromancy school in order to independently research how to make the Ray of Sickness spell. The referee can still control for whether or not there's ever any chance that a spell will ever be accessible, because they could just never have that necromancy-focused NPC or never include that necromancy treatise. This is essentially because the idea I've come up with for what a "spell school" even means is quite different than normal.
A school is a collection of spells perceived to be meaningfully related by experts on magic, and which are typically studied and mastered together. Schools are a total fabrication of academia, a social construct that isn’t actually a “real” part of how magic works. Different scholars use completely different schema of organizing the same spells. But by focusing one’s studies and research on a school of magic, a character can gain certain advantages to casting and learning spells within that school.
So unlike in D&D, schools are not an intrinsic part of all spells. It's up to the referee how they'd like to define which spells are "related" to which others. And I'm 100% in favor of letting spells belong to multiple schools, because literally the only criteria is whether or not scholars of magic think it makes sense as a category. Speak With Dead is a necromancy spell and a conjuration spell and a divination spell because all three are justifiable interpretations. But also, it could be none of those things because your world might not even use those three schools as categories. Maybe it belongs to the "Rooster" school because you're using spell schools based on the Chinese Zodiac.
My Grimoire of Medicine and Magick will offer a long list of schools to use, each with their own fun spell list, but if the referee never puts the spells from one of those schools in the game then that school doesn't exist in their world. If they want to, there's nothing to stop them from only ever inserting the spells from the Blood Magic school and the Psionics school. Or they could design their own schools. It's literally just a question of making a list of existing spells and saying they're "related." Want to recreate Final Fantasy's magic system? Alright, look at the master spell list and start picking out every spell that you think could be on your list of "White Magic" and every spell that you think could be on your list of "Black Magic," and then boom—there's your campaign's schools.
This helps with the DIY nature of most OSR games, especially in regards to how most OSR GMs treat magic and spells. If you own Wonders and Wickedness or Folk Magic of the Haven Isles or even just, like Veins of the Earth (with its own small section of a few new spells) and you want to use them in the game, then they should all be compatible with this system. It is the most inclusive definition of "magic school" that I can possibly come up with.
The fun side effect is that this would incentivise players to invest in a specific theme of related spells, but also, like, they never have to firmly declare themselves to be committing to that theme mechanically. Being an "X-mancer" isn't a formal status, because again: spellcasting isn't acquired by enrolling in a class or subclass. Just by owning the books. Thus, you become the Pyromancer if you keep acquiring spells connected to each other through the school of pyromancy. "Pyromancer," as a title, is more a question of your reputation among NPCs than anything having to do with the rules and mechanics.
Alright, returning to the question of "how do you get the new spells?" and now knowing that it'll have something to do with this definition of "schools," here's the text I have for that so far:
Catalogued here are a range of defined schools which the referee may include in their world as established fields of study. A character can begin studying a school of magic if they gain access to a sage or wizardly mentor on the subject, a higher institution of magic learning which offers classes on the subject, or a supply of arcane texts and research materials that can help them self-teach the subject.
And here is, vaguely, what I think the process look like:
A character studying a school must do several things to become an expert in it:
1. Enroll (study the basics for like a whole week)
2. Research (copying down one spell at a time by hand)
3. Experiment (make a new spell)
4. Compile (re-copy eight or more spells into a grimoire, mastering the school)
Once a school has been mastered, you get a discount to crafting scrolls/books for its spells, plus a bonus to researching new spells in it.
- Recharge spellbooks from this school by doing X ritual (I dunno what yet)
- Durations of spells in this school are twice as long
- Cast spells of this school as if you were 1 level higher (remember that some spells are scaled to your level)
- Memorize one spell from the school (always cast once per day? Or you can convert other spell books to this one whenever you want?)
- Can redirect spells from this school that are cast on you
- Get one signature spell from this school that you can always cast from any empty item slots you have (see, this is fine because you still have to commit item slots to spells instead of other things)
- Every time you cast a spell from this school, you get a little side bonus (e.g. heal a certain amount, change your appearance slightly, learn a fact about your target, etc. I dunno what the actual list of little bonuses would be)
As long as you have your grimoire in your inventory and you spend an hour each morning studying from it, you can convert the spell from any other tomes in your inventory into one of your grimoire spells on the fly. Kind of like a cleric being allowed to convert any spell into a healing thing, a wizard can convert any spell into one they’ve mastered if they think that’s a better use for it.
Researching spells means either 1: copying from a source, 2: trying to recreate a spell from descriptions of it, or 3: trying to invent a new spell entirely. It’s possible to invent a “new” spell that’s actually just a pre-existing spell.
In addition to time and materials, this process requires access to at least one magic treatise. These are books that do not contain spells, but which instead describe the theory of magic. Examples include Arcana Metaphysica, the Hermetica, the Voynich Manuscript, the Canon on Elements, the Necronomicon, Picatrix, the Key of Solomon, the Syballine books, the Codex Gigas, the Magdalene Grimoire, etc. Each one is associated with one or several schools of magic, however. They usually contain a description of many of the more common spells from their school as detailed examples of the principles in action (name the spell and there’s a 1-in-6 chance it’s described in the copy of the treatise you own).
Christ, this is some the jankiest and least graceful game design I've ever done. But this is all early stuff.
- You can now also acquire spells, diagetically, by creating or copying them, given the right materials.
- This is expensive and time-consuming unless you can optimize it into a specialization called a spell school. This way you can get a lot of spells out of the same small bits of research material (or the small bit of expertise your highly-specialized wizardly mentor has), and once you've invested in it enough then it'll only get cheaper, faster, and more beneficial the further you invest in that school. Soon you'll acquire a sizable collection of thematically-related spells just from research and writing during downtime.
- A player can feel as though they're really the "magic specialist" in the party not just by owning the most spell tomes, but also by having the most perks to casting their own brand of magic.
- Virtually any kind of "X-mancer" you can think of could be possible to achieve, so design your personalized magic system layout to taste.
Second, the WizardYou can read more about that here if you haven't already.
But the point is that there's been a huge gap in my existing class list so far. Ever since I began this, everyone has been asking where the wizard class is. I have to admit, it's a pretty glaring omission. I created an assassin class before getting to the wizard. Shame on me. But it's hard, you know? Magic is intimidating. And I kept running into these design problems I'm talking about now.
See, when you say your game has a Wizard class, most people assume that means there's a class that lets you cast spells. You know, like in D&D. But again, that doesn't make sense if it's a game where everyone is capable of casting spells. I want anyone with a spellbook in their hand to be able to use it. So then some people suggest that the benefit of the Wizard class is either 1) it's a new avenue to somehow acquire more spells, or 2) it lets you cast spells without books. Again though, both of these are problems.
- I've already sought to address the first idea with the Grimoire supplement, and I do not want to build it into the Wizard class. For one thing, I want those rules available to all players, since they're just a question of how you spend your money and downtime. But the actual character classes in this game are, instead, a question of trained skills and factional ties. For another thing, all of the content in both of these supplement books need to be compatible with both the core rules and each other, but also could each work on their own apart from one another. Modularity, remember? My class system might not be for everyone, but if this Grimoire supplement ends up going well then I can see it being adopted by lots of people who play Knave or other Knave-variants, not just my own game.
- Back when I first released "Brave 1.0" I included a primitive version of the class system, including a table of some "magic skills." One of the most important lessons I learned in playtesting was that the Bookkeeper skill needed to go. Being able to acquire new spellbooks as a leveling-up benefit conflicts with the core assumptions of this game and it creates problems. I had a player who had gotten, like, 5 spell books from that one skill alone. Then an evil NPC stole them. And while I don't regret doing that, I did agree with my player's complaint that, "it's not really fair that my level-up benefits can be stolen from me but the other players can't have their Strength or Dexterity increases stolen from them, or their Sneak Attack or Survival skills stolen from them." He's right.
|This is what happens when a knave tricks everyone into thinking they know what they're talking about.|
The Wizard class in Brave is based on Gandalf and the things which Gandalf is based on. It's got a bit of Saruman and the blue wizards too. That's not to say that they fit the Middle-Earth definition of a "wizard," being some kind of god-sent angelic figures or whatever. No, none of that. They have at least as much Merlin and Morgan le Fay and Circe in them, too.
- The prerequisites for this class include only one ability requirement, but a high one. This is the first time I've had the idea to tie the language/literacy system into this and I'm proud of it. And of course, the silly meta gimmicky one (among the most popular features of any class in my game). One of my players proposed instead that it could be, "the player has to perform a magic trick for the referee" and I do like that, but I think the tarot reading is probably better. Just in case you've never done one or you don't know how, there's lot of ways and some of them are quite short and sweet. I would just require my player to do a simple 6-card-draw on a website like this and that would meet the requirement.
- The apprenticeship idea can be for studying underneath both solitary Wizards and Wizards who work at an institution, just in case you still want that Hogwarts thing going on. I might put a list of good "Wizard apprenticeship riddles" in the eventual Referee Guide since they can be hard to come up with.
- In the meantime, here's one for free: "A live squid is suddenly and inexplicably teleported into your stomach. It's about the size of a housecat and it's freaking the fuck out. It's tentacles are reaching up into your mouth and shit and neither of you are going to last long. Which of these 8 spells is the best one to deal with this situation?"
- Fuckit, here's another: "You've had your body swapped with a nemesis who's framed you for their crime. You're in a prison cell and must reach the other side of the castle to stop them from marrying your fiancée, the princess. If you could use only one of these 8 spells, which one would be the most helpful for your plan?"
- Here's a better one: "Two elementals are having a feud. The seas are fighting with the wind over who controls their favorite toy, the ship, and will lead it to its destination. As long as both are pulling, the ship goes nowhere, but neither will give in to the other. Which of these 8 spells is the best to resolve this problem and get the ship home?"
As of this writing, this still needs playtesting.