Problems with spells

I’ve been working over and reworking the spell system for Game XYZ. For the current version, I have a Magic-User class and a Cleric class, each with their own big spell list, but many spells are on both lists. So for spell descriptions I just have one big list in alphabetical order. It’s a lovely advance that the D&D 3E Players Handbook had over 2E. But if two classes can cast the same spell, it’s always the same spell level for them. None of this (Wizard 4th, Cleric 3rd) stuff.

My problem comes in when I try to categorize spells. I’ve looked at categorization schemes from D&D, The Elder Scrolls, Shadowrun, Anarchy Online, Ultima, Ars Magica, and a few others. What I really want is a table of categories, with the Magic-User and the Cleric as columns, and a list of checkmarks saying which gets access to which category.

It’s not that clear. If I want a Magic-User to have a Fireball spell, and the Cleric to have a Flaming Sword spell, I have to give them both the same category. Each categorization scheme seems to create unintended overlaps, and most schemes leave many spells either out in the cold with no category readily assignable or else under multiple catgories.

The problem is that Clerics and Magic-Users have too much spell overlap. Clerics traditionally don’t do much direct damage, and Magic-Users cannot heal damage. But there’s no reason for this divide. If a Magic-User can create his own spells, why not create a spell that reverses blood loss, knits tissue together, and sets and fuses broken bones?

Entropy and Restoration
One answer is that entropy and destruction is far easier than restoration and creation. But then why is entropy so easy for Magic-Users and restoration so easy for Clerics? Obviously, they are specialists in the same field. Clerics are able to reverse the Law of Broken Pottery (I haven’t found a better name for it) because they pray to the gods for help – but the gods who are interested in creation are unlikely to offer destruction as well.

So I have my solution as it comes to Clerics and Magic-Users. Spells are either Restorative, Neutral, or Entropic. Clerics can cast Restorative and Neutral spells, Magic-Users can cast Entropic and Neutral spells. Perhaps I’ll let them access the restricted category as if they were half caster level (the spellcasting system makes this a pretty easy way to handle it). But maybe not – I might not want a Cleric to cast a traditionally Magic-User spell at all.

But this doesn’t actually solve all my problems. I want both of them to have Dispel Magic, but that’s quite obviously Entropic. I could shoehorn a bunch of spells into Neutral just because I said so. And if I ever want to create another spellcasting class, even if just for NPCs, the scheme breaks down.

Everyone is a Cleric
Another alternative is to say that all magic comes from the gods, but that the gods are distant and don’t really interfere much. That way you can play a character without getting into the religious aspects if you don’t want to. Instead of categorizing spells by effect, I categorize them by the personality of each deity. And those personalities can be self-conflicting, biased, and sometimes absurd. Which I think offers some verisimilitude, though at the expense of added confusion.

For example, I could have a deity of “War, to a lesser extent travel, exploration, trade, and games. He revels in victory and success but not necessarily slaughter”. His spells cover a wide range of things that an adventurer might find enjoyable and useful. But he wouldn’t have all the best damage-dealing spells. He wouldn’t have anything to do with creation. His spells for travel would be about making travel faster or easier, but maybe not instantaneous. After all, maybe overcoming the challenge of travel is what’s important, not just getting from A to B as fast as possible.

I’d want about seven deities, and thus seven categories of magic. But these wouldn’t be separate classes. There would be one magician class but his spells would be limited to the category he chose. Certain spells (like Dispel Magic) would be universal. Just because I said so, really.

That everyone has a religious connection is nice, because it helps connect them with the game world.

Nobody is a Cleric
There is just one spellcasting class. He gets access to all spells equally. I’d be likely to keep the spellbook-stacking Magic-User rather than the Cleric in this case.

Shadowrun does this sort of thing. If you’re a Hermetic Magician (an M-U) you can use any spells. You’re vanilla. But you can instead be a Shaman (Cleric) who worships an Animal Totem (deity). Shamans might get a special little bonus and penalty, but they all have one thing in common: a category of magic is easier, and a category is harder. Sometimes two instead of one to balance having no miscellaneous benefit or hindrance. Shamans also summon spirits, which are weaker than a Mage’s elementals. This scheme is nice, if a bit boring (there are five categories of magic and in the end, both characters can use any spells). Effectively, there is a Magic-User with a bunch of Specialist Magic-Users.

Nobody is a spellcaster
I’m not intrigued by this.

There are many different types of spellcaster
I could fill a binder with spellcaster classes. I could scour the Internet with my dollar-sign bag and little black mask, and combine every fantasy magical tradition. Really kitchen-sink it. But then how will I get someone to pick one of the 100 classes? How will I incorporate any of them meaningfully into my game as NPCs? Just too many.

So what do you think? Which would appeal most to you?

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