Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Mechanics of Spell Scrolls


As a break from developing the bestiary for Basic Fantasy Heroes I’ve occasionally diverted to dabbling with magic item concepts for the treasure section. While much of this emulates the category conventions found in Basic Dungeons & Dragonsin terms of weapons and armor with bonuses, I’m rethinking the concept of spell scrolls as exclusively the province of wizards and priests (and as an extension, the use of enchanted wands and staves). Do I continue what seems the standard practice of limiting magical scroll use to spell/canticle users (wizards and priests), or do I provide some ability for non-spellcasters to use them on a more limited basis? My general instinct leans more toward the inclusive than the exclusive, offering the non-spellcasting classes of fighter, thief, elf, dwarf, and halfling a rather risky opportunity to use a scroll discovered as part of a typical adventure’s treasure.

Understanding the fundamentals for using spell scrolls requires a short primer on magic and abilities as developed for Basic Fantasy Heroes. (I’ve outlined some basics for this game earlier, particularly the Oracle System dice mechanics.) In the game wizards and priests do not normally keep scrolls to memorize spells like in D&D; they gain a new spell as a specialty (similar to a feat or special ability), just like other heroes gain combat or non-combat specialties to provide some bonus in the game and define their characters. Using them requires them to roll their hero dice, with the number of successes rolled determining the effectiveness of a spell’s powers. Their training and experience enables them to cast a number of spells and canticles every day equal to their hero dice (three dice for starting characters). 

Spell scrolls in Basic D&D enable a magic-user, elf, or cleric to cast a spell once before the writing fades from the parchment; characters who can’t normally cast spells cannot use spell scrolls (though they can pawn, trade, or otherwise use them as a commodity). In Basic Fantasy Heroes non-spellcasters can try casting a spell from a scroll once per day, but must roll a number of successes equal to the spell’s “tier” or level (usually one for basic spells, two for mid-level spells, and three for higher ones); failure results in the spell backfiring in some detrimental way and the destruction of the scroll…to include any other spells inscribed upon the parchment. This gives non-spellcasters the chance to use spell scrolls at their own peril. Is it open to abuse? Certainly. But it offers heroes a choice if their party doesn’t contain spellcasters. It also opens the debate whether to use a scroll spell to save themselves when it might backfire, harming the group and destroying the scroll.

Of course spellcasters may cast a spell from a scroll but can only do so as their only spell use that day, regardless of how many spells their hero dice level normally allow; when they do so the writing does not fade, so they can use the spell again if they dare. The spell backfires (destroying the scroll) if they’ve cast any other spell earlier that day or if they fail to roll any successes in the casting attempt. They may also use the text to learn the spell as a specialty when they level up (when they’d normally choose another spell specialty as part of character advancement). Finding a scroll with a particular spell they wish to learn could form the basis for a leveling-up adventure and a premise for gaining that specialty.

A similar mechanic could function for other treasures enchanted with spell effects usually reserved for wizards and priests, including wands, staves, amulets, or anything else with limited “charges.” I’m debating whether to set a fixed number of charges for such items or simply have them run out under certain conditions; for instance, should a hero use them and fail to roll any successes in the attempt.

I’m hoping to find time to explore some of the game mechanics under development on my own using some modified random dungeon generation, and we’ll see if the typically reckless dwarf I like to play gets into trouble trying to cast spells from any scrolls discovered….

As always, I encourage construction feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.