Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Making Spellcasters More Effective at Low Levels

We continued our exploration of Hero Kids this week with a Thursday Game Night adventure I whipped up because the Little Guy wanted some action in a forest. My wife is playing a healer and the Little Guy is running a warrior. As we’re playing I’m appreciating how Hero Kids handles magic. Each spellcasting character has a magic-based attack they can use each round against a target within range. Each also has a special ability related to magic, such as the healer’s ability to brew replacement healing potions. I’m sure at some point we’ll transition to more involved roleplaying games, possibly even Basic Dungeons & Dragons, my personal favorite. Yet I’ve never been a fan of “Vancian” magic, in which spellcasters memorize a set of spells and, once used, can’t access them again until they find time to rest and study (with a similar prepare, use, and lose structure for clerics). Sure, I cut my teeth on B/X D&D and thus for many years just accepted the system as standard; spellcasters have a limited number of spells prepared from their spellbook, and they’re gone after cast until the character rests and memorizes them again. So I started thinking about an alternate magic system in my quest to make Basic D&D easier on beginning characters.

I understand magic-users in particular seem extremely powerful at higher levels, that the rules for them must apply evenly across all levels. Yet at low levels they’re terribly vulnerable. The B/X D&D first-level magic-user gets a d4 for hit points, no armor, suffers from severe weapons limitations, and has one measly spell they’ve memorized...and in this game they only have access to that one spell in their spellbook (instead, as I understand other versions do, having access to all spells at that level yet preparing only one). Assuming a game session take place during the course of one day, they have one effective attack (depending on the spell) and little combat ability. Other characters have better capacity for ranged or melee attacks. Even clerics and elves have better hit dice (d6) and combat ability to compensate for the slow progression and gradual potency of their spells.

Right now my wife has plenty to do during Hero Kids combat: her healer doesn’t simply use healing magic and brew extra healing potions, she steps up and uses her “searing light” attack to take out foes in combat. Her combat abilities are about equal with the Little Guy’s warrior, more so considering she has a ranged attack and he doesn’t. Translated to a B/X D&D game magic-user she’d have at best one magical attack/effect for the entire adventure and then must rely on minimal weapons, armor, and hit points to survive a fight. So I started thinking how I could use the existing character framework – ability scores, ability modifiers, character and spell levels – to reconfigure how spells work for everyone, with a focus on improving a low-level magic-user’s effectiveness in a party. I sought an alternative that addressed my concerns while still using as many established game elements as possible. (Since I’m a fan of B/X D&D, most of my missive refers specifically to the manner in which that game handle spells; yet most of these concepts can also easily port to other versions of D&D and OSR games.)

After a very cursory consideration I decided on a spell point system for all magic used by clerics, elves, and magic-users (and, theoretically, any alternate spellcasting classes). Each spellcaster has a number of spell points equal to their level plus their related ability bonus (Intelligence for magic-users and elves and Wisdom for clerics); at first level this ranges from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 4. To cast a spell the character spends a number of spell points equal to the spell’s level. Go into deficit? You can do it once for a spell you know; take the difference as a penalty to all d20 rolls (to hit and saving throws) until a full night’s rest. So you could cast more than one spell from one’s spellbook or holy repertoire each day, giving them more power (and more for magic-users to do) at lower levels; spellcasters could even push their limits if they choose, for a price. The spell points regenerate with rest, study, and meditation just like the original system.

Unfortunately this system seems to break down at higher levels. Take a magic-user with a +3 ability bonus from Intelligence. In this modified “spell point” system she gets 4 spell points (1 for her level and 3 for her ability bonus). So she could cast the one, first-level spell she knows four times per day. At tenth level, however, she’d only have 13 spell points (her level, 10, plus her ability bonus, 3). Yet, according to the Expert D&D character tables she’d have a total of 40 levels of spells! She could only cast two fifth level spells and one third level spell per day (or some similar combination, but I’m trying to max out the example here). Obviously that doesn’t seem fair. So I might change the spell point equation to two times the level plus ability bonus; in this case, she’d have 5 spell points at first level and 23 at tenth level. Her magic-user would still have greater power at first level and yet still a fraction of power compared to the normal rules (about half as effective).

Some might argue this makes spellcasters far too powerful at lower levels and unfairly reigns in their potency at higher levels, where they’re supposed to shine. If applied to clerics and elves – the two classes that can also cast spells and still use a greater range of arms and armor – it makes them extremely powerful (though I might argue having access to lots of healing spells could only benefit an adventuring party). I’m not too concerned about this for my own games. Rarely in my years of roleplaying have any characters become so powerful or high level that it imbalanced game play; my main goal has focused on making the early stages of the game mor survivable to low-level characters and hence more appealing to players. The spell point system offers magic-users more to do in combat and gives their players a means to budget for spell use...and the choice to go into deficit and suffer the consequences if necessary.

Such a spell point system isn’t for everyone; some might argue it pushes the boundaries of the “right” way to play D&D and the intended style of the game’s creators. In the established “Vancian” system of magic, spells remain extremely limited at lower levels and more powerful at higher ones...assuming the characters survive. The proposed alternate spell point system works well in a medieval fantasy setting where magic is more commonplace, making spellcasting more accessible and influential at lower levels. Every gamer has their own style, every game setting evokes its own tone. Adjusting the traditional rules can lead to imbalances or abuses in actual play, though I’m not privy to the issues of balance the game’s original creators engineered into the mechanics, only my perception of design choices intended to provide fairness. One might argue that the spell point system makes lower-level spellcasters more effective yet diminishes the traditional power of higher-level characters. Like any alternate rules interpretations, this is one I might play with with my exploration of solitaire play; perhaps by the time my family transitions from basic roleplaying fare with Hero Kids to B/X D&D I’ll have some better insights on alternate spellcasting rulings.


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