Sunday, January 6, 2013

Spell levels - so what?

I'm getting ready to start running a new D&D game, so I've been reading a lot of material and making some notes about ideas for the game. Today I've been rereading issues of the old Od&dities zine. Looking through issue 5, I was struck by something in an article comparing the Dragonquest game to D&D. One of the criticisms against DQ is about spell levels:

Another big difference was spell eligibility. The spells were never given a level of difficulty and were open to any appropriate class, regardless of the level of the spellcaster. What 1st level party wouldn't love to have its cleric packing resurrection? Or a 2nd level wizard with two lightning bolt spells?

For some reason, I thought about those rhetorical questions as actual. What if they did? Would it really break the game?

In the case of a lightning bolt, not really. Just reduce the damage accordingly.

In the case of resurrection, give the spell a chance of failure until the cleric hits the level he would normally get the spell. If you look at the B/X rules, clerics don't get access to resurrection, but they can cast raise dead as a fifth level spell. A cleric first gets access to fifth-level spells at 7th level. So just give a chance of failure if they try to cast it at a lower level. Arbitrarily, I would say a 15% chance of failure per level under 7, so a third level cleric casting raise dead would fail to cast it successfully 60% of the time.

For other spells, you could reduce the range, give saving throw bonuses to intended targets, or other balancing effects.  If you want to take a more literary approach, you might cause some kind of backfire or mutation if the caster fails spectacularly or it is a particularly difficult spell. For the most part, though, scaling the damage or giving a chance of failure seems to be reasonable and simple.

Just some musings as I fiddle with ideas on a lazy Sunday...


  1. I like the idea of letting one cast higher level spells with a percentage to fail. I might be saying that because, as time goes on, I'm having more and more issues with Vancian magic. I'm not sure about messing with range reduction or other fiddly bits. They seem too, well...fiddly. But that's just me. More to keep track of.

    Yeah, I'm just really having problems with D&D magic rules as written. The fire and forget thing, and other aspects, just don't appeal to me as much these days.

  2. I really go back and forth on this.

    I like the feel of the old rules, but a lot of that is that they're what I'm familiar with. On the other hand, I'd love to have something that is more flexible but simple enough to keep track of during a game. I hate the idea of spell points and similar systems because they take too much bookkeeping.

    Maybe I should keep working on this and see what I can put together.