Casting rolls instead of spells per day

This clever lad wrote up a spellcasting system that doesn’t use vancian memorized spells or spell points. You roll every time you want to cast a spell, and if you succeed then the spell has all its normal D&D effects. If you fail, nothing happens. If you fail miserably some horrible magical fallout blasts the area.

I commented.

Just to follow up on my comment, I’ve playtested a system where the caster rolls to get the spell off and has no limit on spells per day.

I stole Shadowrun’s spell duration system. Spells are either Instant or Sustained. Sustained spells must be kept up by the caster so if he falls unconscious he drops all sustained spells. There is no limit on number of spells sustained at once, but his casting roll for a spell is at -2 for every spell currently “online”.

We realized that it just wasn’t as “magical” to have your character fail over and over at casting spells. So I set the roll such that unless you were pretty dumb you’d succeed most of the time. Roll 1d20, add INT modifier, roll 4 or higher. But because spellcasters wanted to sustain a lot of spells at once, they would quickly rack up casting roll penalties. If you fail a casting roll, all sustained spells cease immediately.

For example, let’s say my Magic-User (with +2 INT bonus) needs a 2+ on d20 to succeed: it’s almost guaranteed. But I want to set up two protective spells on myself and buff up the two front-line characters with one spell that affects both of them. So personal spell #1 goes off without a hitch (I need 2+ on d20 and I roll a 5). To set up personal spell #2 I need to roll 4+ on d20. To set up Fighter-buff spell, I need a 6+ on d20. After those are running, and it may take a couple tries, they’re stable. If I want to then cast a Magic Missile I need to roll 8+ on d20. Then a Fireball? 8+. Then a Lightning Bolt? 8+. Those are all Instant spells and I don’t have to sustain them, so they don’t affect subsequent rolls.

The game system assumes spellcasters will want to set up a reinforcing matrix of spells on themselves and their friends. The only downside is that it limits further casting: if you toss off a Magic Missile you risk dropping all your own spells when you fail. And that could be disastrous.

So instead of a resource expenditure system, it’s a resource allocation system. As your power increases you get access to a greater variety of spells, more powerful spells, and a slightly greater number of spells you can sustain at once.

To keep the mindless rolling to a minimum, if the PCs have some clear time when nothing pressing is going on, I let the spellcasters set up their magical matrices without rolling. I limit them to as many spells as they can sustain and then have a casting roll of 12+ on d20. This takes 1 turn. For every extra pip on the roll the time needed doubles. So to get up to a casting roll of 13+ from any position takes 2 turns, to get to 16+ takes 16 turns, 18+ takes 64 turns, 20+ on d20 takes 256 turns.

Mostly they don’t want to waste the extra time. I’m rolling random encounters every hour. I assume the spellcaster has the first half of his spells up when the encounter comes, regardless of when it comes. They’re willing to blow 1 turn or even 2 turns, though the benefit of gaining the extra defensive spell for an extra turn (six turns to a random encounter check) is generally not worth it.

A couple miscellaneous details:

Magic-Users and Clerics both need to learn spells as if those spells were feats. Spells are more general-purpose than standard D&D spells. If you were to just use this system for say, 2E D&D, it would still work but everyone would want to be a spellcaster unless you beefed up the Fighter and Thief classes. In my game this wasn’t an issue because spellcasters got spells while Fighters and Thieves got pretty cool little powers themselves.

This was the game I was playtesting in Undermountain. Maybe it has better legs than I thought at the time. It definitely needs a slimmer monster statistic block than I had.

The game incorporated size as a basic feature. So you’d have size HP, size armor value, size based footprint, etc. One big table had all the size modifiers. It was pretty sweet. But it was somewhat based on 3E’s size system, just incorporated at a much deeper level into the basic creatures. And I guess one of these retro-clones uses the same kind of bonus HP for size? I read it on a blog somewhere.

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2 Responses to “Casting rolls instead of spells per day”

  1. Greg Says:

    Thanks for the shout! The instant vs sustained thing is quite useful and adds another layer of depth to the system. How did all this play out with your group? Did they dig this approach to spellcasting?

  2. 1d30 Says:

    Well I just explained the basic setup and they extrapolated what I would have done too:
    Play a full caster who maintains a few buffs and casts one combat spell every round,
    or
    Take one level in a casting class, then take for that one level a single personal spell, then cast and sustain that spell and put your armor back on. Since you don’t have to cast after that (unless you wanted to cast your personal defense/buff spell on someone else), you don’t worry about roll failures crashing your sustained spells.

    The main downside that I saw was that it made everyone want to be magical. I mean, if you had a game system based realistically on modern guns and swords, nobody would choose to specialize in swords instead of guns. Guns are just better. There’s a reason our military isn’t running around throwing shuriken at people.

    Even though it should be better, magic in D&D has never been such a clearly superior choice. I guess I just didn’t like that everyone was magical.

    Including a magical mishap table on a fumbled casting check would have been a good plan I guess. But that would have kept people from setting up defensive networks and sustaining them, which I kind of wanted.

    They liked it, but some didn’t like the character they ended up with. You see, because the system had so many feat choices, I just asked them what kind of character they wanted to play and then made up that character as best I could. I was able to fulfill their requests, which I count as a strength of the system. But they were playing 4th level characters and I think they wanted to be more powerful.

    It’s also hard to separate changes in my DMing style and philosophy, and the module, and the system. Not to mention the player side of things. It’s tough to say, but I think for people who like the feat-based 3E this would be a good alternative. But, if you like 3E, you’d rather just play 3E and not some halfbaked new thing 😛

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