17 October, 2010

Spell Points

"The magic system works fine, and it's part of the 'feel' of DnD.. why mess with it?!"
I've heard this argument many times, and I totally understand it. The DnD spell memorisation system is great. For a DM who gets a lot of inspiration from literature, however, it's in some ways an odd choice. It's one of the singular systems amongst all literature, unique to its own setting. Like LeGuin's true-name system or Anthony's 'I-found-my-special-purpose' system, it's in a niche off to the side of the main body of literary wizardry. By far, the most widespread representation of wizardry in fantasy fiction is a spellcaster who knows certain spells, can cast them at will, but becomes fatigued in the process.

My answer to this, then, is to rely on the well-worn idea of spell points. In my games, these spell points definitely don't indicate some sort of mystical energy reserve, like mana (though that could be another potential niche system.) Rather, it's an abstract measure of the caster's mental wherewithal, much in the same way hit points are an abstract measure of a character's physical soundness.

Here is my posting on spell point rules from one of my online PbP games:

Spell Points

Wizard = Int + (Wis/2) + 1d6 per level

Cleric, Druid, Ranger = Wis + (Int/2) + 1d6 per level

Bard, Paladin, Sorcerer = Chr + (Wis/2) + 1d6 per level

Rather than the cast-and-forget magic system based on the books of Jack Vance, which every version of D&D uses to some extent, I found that this much more open system promoted more creative gameplay. Under a Vancian system, there are a lot of good spells that honestly just never get used since the circumstances where they might be more useful than something like a Fireball are rare enough that hardly anyone ever memorises them. I think this outweighs the 'interesting gameplay' factor of having to plan hours ahead for what spells you're likely to need for the day.

At first level, your spell point total is equal to your prime caster ability stat. In other words, Wisdom for clerics, Intelligence for mages, Charisma for a bard, etc. To that you add half your Constitution score. To that sum, you add half of your Wisdom score, unless it is your main casting stat, in which case you would add half your Intelligence.

Spell points are regained with complete rest, at the rate of 1 per hour.
Your 'main casting stat' is the one your class uses to determine whether you get bonus spells.

The ability that governs bonus spells depends on what type of spellcaster your character is: Intelligence for wizards; Wisdom for clerics, druids, and rangers; and Charisma for bards, paladins, and sorcerers.

If your bonus-spell-ability is high enough to get you bonus spells, this becomes bonus spellpoints instead.  You add the number of points it would take to cast the bonus spells allowed for your level.

How many points does it take to cast a spell?
Here's a quick list:
Level 1: 1 point
Level 2: 3 pts
Level 3: 6 pts
Level 4: 10 pts
Level 5: 15 pts
Level 6: 21 pts
Level 7: 28 pts
Level 8: 36 pts
Level 9: 45 pts

As you can see, it's the points required to cast the previous level spell, plus points equal to the current spell's level. Mathematically, it's the additive cumulative of the spell's level.

At first level, and when you gain a caster level, you gain 1d6 spell points, plus the general modifier from your main casting stat.

After using this system for many years in both low-level and mid-level games, I'm very happy with the results. High level spells are a huge deal to use. Low level spells can be tossed about fairly freely, but my caster players soon learned that it added up quicker than they expected. Wizard cantrips are 1 point each, not free. Any caster has to study their spells or pray daily, or they begin losing their detail and become dangerous to cast. Cure Light Wounds is the only real game-changer here, but in play it has never come even close to making the stylistic difference in the game engendered by healing surges.

In the end, my players still choose to play fighters, and feel satisfied in doing so. Players still end up dead, too. But the experience of magic in the game gels much more closely with what the players saw in their imagination.

I'll go on in the future to detail a lot of the other magic systems my players have run into, including what my players always enjoyed as a great take on the Dying Earth system.


Ben L. said...

I agree that it's a bummer that, for example, Lazlo can't ever memorize unseen servant, which is a wicked-cool spell, but not nowhere in the ballpark of sleep.

But this fix seems very powerful at low level. If I have an intelligence of 12 and a wisdom 10, and I roll a '3', then I start with 20 spell points. According to your chart, this is enough to case 20 first level spells!

migellito said...

Back when I came up with the genesis of this system, I and all my players had the initial reaction of "wow, that's going to be over-powered." But, we decided to try it out and see how it played. We were all pleasantly surprised.

Rather than making it easier for players, or overpowering them, it has always instead seemed to just get casters casting, while fighters are fighting and thieves are thieving :) They still have to think just as much as the other players, but now (like the other players) their toolbox isn't gone if they decide to use it.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that 8 hours of sleep just give back 8 pts, not a full compliment.

Ethan said...

With rules like that, I'd be tempted to play a caster class.

Scott said...

I've been thinking about messing around with the magic system, but I really want to get a full campaign with the base LotFP rules under my belt before I get under the hood.

I've thought about everything from spell points to reagents to ... well, mainly just spell points and reagents, although I've been meaning to design some rituals.

Sean Robson said...

And I thought I was the only person that didn't care for Vancian magic :)

I've been using a spell point system that is very similar to yours, though I've only been using it for a few sessions now, so I haven't the advantage of your years of play testing.

I've been allowing characters to recover spell points at a rate of 1 point per hour, but wasn't requiring them to rest. The idea was that after exploring and mapping they would regain about 1 spell point between combats, thus allowing even tired mages to cast at least one 1st level spell. I'm finding though, at least at low levels, that the characters never seem to run out of spell points. Perhaps I might have to adopt your system and only allow points to be recovered when resting.

migellito said...

We had the same problem early on Sean. I originally let them regain 1 point per hour during regular activity, 2 pts per hour of rest, and even more (don't remember the exact amt) during sleep.

Much like you've experienced, they ended up having enough regen that they barely had to watch their resource.

Eli Arndt said...

Thanks for posting this. I stumbled on this (and your blog) and will be using this Spell Points system in an upcoming Labyrinth Lord game.

Great blog, by the way.


migellito said...

Thanks Eli! Let me know how it turns out in play.

Aaron DaMommio said...

How, using this system, do you limit player access to higher level spells? That is, a 1st level character might end up with 15 spell points in this system. Does that allow her to cast a 5th level spell? Are you limiting this via their spell book -- starting them out with only 1st level spells, letting other spells get acquired via play?

Aaron DaMommio said...

Contemplating this system makes me want to use more than the very few spells available in the Swords & Wizardry white box. :)

migellito said...

Aaron, when I'm using this system the caster's still have the minimum level requirement to cast spells. Thus, a wizard would have to be level 3 to cast 2nd level spells, would have to be level 5 to cast 3rd level spells, etc.

After they get their starting spellbook, which has a number of first level spells based on their intelligence, they have to find all spells after that.

Aaron DaMommio said...

Thanks, migellito, that makes total sense.