An Infocom-Style Approach to Spells in Old School Fantasy Role Playing Games
Posted by jeffro
on December 19, 2011
Enchanter (1983) is one of my favorite computer games. That it provides insight into views of how some of the earliest dungeon masters of the seventies might have set up their campaigns makes it all the more interesting. For instance, in games where combat is almost certain to kill off weak beginning characters, it shows how to construct problems and obstacles for them to think their way through. Its take on old school magic systems is even more intriguing:
The creature looks you over keenly and speaks: “I should have thought they would send someone more … more …” She laughs in an unsettling way. “They’ve all left! A great storm is brewing in the east, my friend, and all have fled before it!” She starts to chuckle. “Take this and begone!” With a wave of her hand, you find yourself reeling out of the door of the hovel, holding some sort of scroll in your hand.
The scroll reads “rezrov spell: open even locked or enchanted objects”.
Your spell book begins to glow softly. Slowly, ornately, the words of the rezrov spell are inscribed, glowing even more brightly than the book itself. The book’s brightness fades, but the spell remains! However, the scroll on which it was written vanishes as the last word is copied.
Given that players almost universally ignored the limitations on spell choice and spell books back in the day, and also that it makes a lot of sense to simplify character generation as much as possible, I propose the following optional guidelines for magic in old school fantasy role playing games:
- Magic-users begin first level with only one spell in their books, however they do not get to choose this spell: they must start the game with Read Magic. This means that first-level magic users are largely restricted to casting spells from scrolls at first level. Depending on the cruelty levels of the game master, he can either provide 1d6 randomly chosen first-level spell scrolls to beginning magic-users as a gift from their former master, have a few first level spell scrolls for sale at the players’ base, increase the frequency of spell scrolls among the various loot the players acquire, or… if the players are taking on a particularly dangerous quest for the good of all, their patron may provide a scroll or two that could be useful to slipping past a couple of key plot points.
- As each spell is introduced in the campaign, it should be given a new nonsense name that is unique to the group. During the game, this name should be used as a verb to describe your spell-caster’s action. (So you don’t cast “continual light” on a stick, you frotz the stick.)
- There should be a difference between spell-casters of differing intelligence levels. One method for implementing this might be to secretly roll d20 when a player first casts Read Magic on a new, unidentified scroll. If the roll is at the character’s intelligence or less, they get a pretty good description of the spell. Otherwise, they only get a hint about what it might do. (Rolls missed by five or more should encourage the game master to look for ways to cause the spell to backfire in particularly entertaining ways.)
- Each time the magic-user levels up, he has an opportunity to gnusto a new spell into his spell book. The primary source for these spells should be scrolls recovered during adventuring. Of course, any scroll that is gnusto’d into a spell book is lost. (It seems almost perverse to require some sort of intelligence check for this, so I won’t suggest that.)
- While these rules are primarily intended for B/X games, they could even be adapted to GURPS for cases where the game master doesn’t want anyone to be saddled with grokking the entire spell system for the first session. Read Magic (VH) would be the one of the two spell-skills mage characters would start with and it would function largely as above. The second, Gnusto (H), would be a separate spell and new spells could only be gnustoed at any time if an skill-check is made if the magic-user has an unspent character-point. Additional skill points could be spent on known spells between games only if those spells were actually used in the preceding session. Note that in GURPS, you should not be able to gnusto a scroll for a spell that you do not have the prerequisites for.
- Of course, you don’t have to begin your campaign in this manner in order to go this route. Figure out what the characters’ spell books should be based on how play or character design have developed so far… and then sally forth more or less as I describe above.
Just wanted to leave a “great idea” comment here because of how much I like this idea. And so that I can be notified on follow-up comments via email (WordPress doesn’t seem to allow you to subscribe unless you comment).