I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, June 24, 2022

Finding spells is better than choosing them

D&D is probably my favorite RPG nowadays - mostly in the OSR versions, but even 5e sometimes. But one of the things I dislike the most about it is picking spells: there is a HUGE number to choose from, and depending on the system you get to choose EVERY DAY which spells you'll prepare.

I have my own "fixes" to that - which I included in Alternate Magic.

But there is a "fix" I haven't tried much - is just forcing spellcasters to FIND their spells, in scrolls, grimoires, etc.

And it makes sense. Not only because it saves time, but because fighters must find their own magic, too - magic weapons, magic armor, and so on. Both modern and old school versions of D&D assume fighters will get those weapons, but not be able to CHOOSE a Flame Tongue or Vorpal Sword at level 10, for example.

Maybe you can BUY spells if other magic items are available for sale (although a functioning magical economy would encourage all casters to buy the "best" spells unless they are more expensive). Maybe you can ask a specific spell from your deity. Ideally, you'd go on a quest. I prefer to be agnostic about this. Maybe you can even choose a small number of spells. The important part is - do not assume you'll be able to choose new spell as you gain new levels.

This doesn't only make character creation and improvement infinitely faster and easier, but avoids any worry about "balancing" spells, and keeps magic mysterious and unpredictable. It will make wizards crave rare grimoires like fighters crave magic swords. Spellcasters are now shaped by their quests and experiences instead of an "optimal builds".

We probably should consider a roll for learning a spell (see AD&D 1e); some people are unable to learn some spells. I've seem it time and time again when playing D&D: the party defeats a wizard, and wants to learn his spells. It's great!

No two spellcasters are identical. Of course, casters will choose the best spells AVAILIABLE, but what is available will change from campaign to campaign.

(BTW, after you learn a spell, it should be HARD to forget it. Spells are living thingsDark Fantasy Basic has a system that will make spells invade your mind if you use scrolls too often).

Now you only need a spell list of generator. I like this one from Cairn if you want something free-form. There are generators for 5e. And if you're playing OSE, just roll a 1d6 to find spell level and 1d12 to choose a spell. Alternate Magic has 12 cleric spells and 12 magic-user spells, all of them very flexible; just roll 1d12 and flip a coin. And so on.


  1. I fully agree with this idea, but I would go further and have different magical classes get different spells or even different types of magic.

    Wizards are straight up what you have. Clerics make a religion check for each spell they want; success they get it, failure and your god gives you what THEY want (or maybe nothing). Sorcerers don't get spell but can shoot fire or freeze something, or just generally do more free form magic stuff.

  2. I'm 100% with you on this. It's what we did when we started d&d and it made magic-users more varied in their skills. It also it made scrolls much more valued when found.

  3. Dammit, the blog ate my post.

    In short, I do like this idea, but was curious if you had any thoughts on a free form magic system coexisting with the strict memorized spell system at the table? Was thinking of prepared magic being more stable in a fashion but you have the issue you describe here with perhaps some ability to make scrolls at higher levels that explain why spellbooks are a thing.

    Give specific benefits for memorized spells/scrolls (shorter casting time perhaps?) with the old fire and forget (because you build a specific instance of the spell), but free form spell casting is flexible but more time consuming (think in terms of initiative cost).

    1. Strangely enough, I can still se your original comment:

      So I am still generally a fan of the 'build a spell' concept for more free form spell casting, for both player flexibility and better odds of keeping spell casting coherent (less power creep, etc.) But would it work to have the two systems (Strictly finding spells and free form) with trade offs? Perhaps free form casting carries risks of backfiring (thinking HP/HD/Exhaustion cost) after a certain point, that using magic items/scrolls/prepared spells does not? Because I agree with you about the value of scrolls in such a system (which I also like). Perhaps scroll/item crafting is a high(ish) level ability (thinking equivalent to name level 'this is why magic users are famous')

      And yes, I like all of those ideas.

      In Dark Fantasy Basic, since spellcasting is a d20 roll, casting without memorizing is possible, but will give you disadvantage; also, you can change a spell (with the metamagic feat), which will cause a penalty. There are many other ways to achieve a similar result, of course.

  4. One of the fixes to choosing spells is requiring magic users to roll to see what spells they start the game with and what spells they get when they level up. The only time they get to choose their spell is when engaging in research, which can result in a failure.