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Gnomish Workshop: A Pointed Discussion of Magic

This article was first broadcast in Episode Fifty-Seven on 16th January 2019.

LennonOstron? Is…oh.
ROSTROGreetings
LennonRecalculating the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything?
ROSTROI would not presume to question the conclusions of my peers.
RyuLennon, did you find Ostro-…ah
ROSTROOstron requested that I assist in an analysis of magic so that his spellcasting can be improved.
LennonAnd how did that go?
ROSTROI have some possible courses of action based on comparative analysis of other systems of magic as they exist in the multiverse. A review with other parties would be welcome at this juncture.
LennonOkay but Ryu? Poke me every so often and make sure I stay awake.
RyuHow do you know *I’m* going to be awake?

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Whether or not you think much about how magic works in D&D usually depends on two things: If you play a spellcasting class at all, and whether you’ve played any other tabletop or video games that involve magic.

D&D’s magic is loosely based on what’s commonly known as the Vancian magic system. Named after Jack Vance, a space fantasy author Gary Gygax was a fan of, the system is mostly defined by two principles:

  1. Spells are designed for a specific purpose, and that purpose never alters
  2. The ability to cast said spells relies on memorization and preparation; even if the caster is aware of other spells, they cannot be used until sufficient time is spent preparing them.

The Vanican system as a game mechanic is somewhat unique to Dungeons and Dragons, a fact which can probably be attributed to Gygax’s fondness for the titular author. Unless they are specifically paying homage to D&D or are heavily based off the D&D SRD, tabletop RPG systems trend toward establishing an alternate reservoir of resources each character possesses, and energy to cast spells is drawn from that reservoir. Non-D&D video games with magic apply this system almost exclusively. This mechanic is partially and concurrently present in 5th edition, specifically in the sorcery points used by sorcerers and the Ki points employed by Monks. In most cases the reservoir is termed “mana,” however it can acquire different monikers if the setting is more futuristic or the creators endeavored to obfuscate the vocabulary. Given the more common denomination, I labeled this mechanic “mana casting.”

If you look in other systems, there are also examples where magic spells scale a lot. Of course you can upcast spells in D&D, which is a departure from pure Vancian magic as far as ROSTRO is concerned, but in these other systems it works more like you learn “conjure fire” and then you can conjure anything from a candle flame up to a complete firestorm depending on how much energy you pump into it. Very often in systems using those type of spells, casting magic also requires the character sacrifice some physical attribute, like health or mental stability. This tends to make magic a much more dangerous and infrequent tool and is most often used in horror settings. ROSTRO felt “blood casting” was an appropriate label.

So all that is well and good but why did Ostron care? Well, if you dig into the Dungeon Master’s guide on page 288, there are actually rules mechanics for implementing something much closer to mana casting in D&D. Instead of spellcasters acquiring spell slots, they acquire so-called “magic points.” These points are then expended to create spell slots sort of the way Sorcerers do with their sorcery points. A first level slot requires two points to create, and the cost goes up with level slots.

The DMG presents the rules as a possible class feature for a custom class, but there is a conversion guide and tables for how many points to award at what levels for each spellcasting class if you want to use it for the ones that already exist.

If implemented, this provides spellcasters with even more flexibility in spellcasting than they currently enjoy. Consider: a third level wizard in the base rules has four first level and two second level spell-slots at their disposal. With the points system, they instead receive 14 spell points. With the conversion options presented, they could opt to have three 2nd level slots and one first level slot if they so desired. They could also postpone commitment to a strategy until events have progressed, tailoring their ability to the situation at hand.

The system in the DMG imposes artificial limits on spell slots the point system is able to generate at given levels, and establishes the limit that no slots of sixth level or higher can be created more than once between long rests. Such restrictions serve to keep the power curve similar to the existing Vancian system. However, if such restrictions are removed, spellcasters’ options increase exponentially.

If the DM lets the spellcasters create any spell slot they want whenever they want (if they have enough points) then even if they keep the restriction that they can’t learn higher level spells until later levels, you still have the possibility of a caster pulling out a 9th level fireball at level 3. Now, that’s the only spell they’re going to be casting all day because they burned all their points, but it still means there’s probably one group of opponents that the characters just won’t be fighting because the wizard decided to turn them into a crater before anyone could draw a sword.

Particularly crafty players, or ones that think like Ostron does when he looks at skills and damage math, could crunch some numbers and figure out ways to seriously change how much danger the players face against certain opponents. That puts the DM in a tight spot because they would have to weigh scaling the encounters to what the spellcaster might be able to defeat or keep it based on the party’s levels and accept some of the encounters will be cakewalks if the caster pulls out the big slots.

If further alteration is desired, it is possible to remove the concept of levels from spells entirely and convert them into point costs using the same tables on page 288. In that exercise a 5th level spell would cost 7 points to cast and the label of “5th level spell” would be entirely discarded. Gaps exist in the progression as given: for example 2nd level spells cost 3 points while 3rd level spells cost five. However, those gaps provide further opportunity for alteration. If there is a desire to increase the granularity of spell differentiation, spells could be modified to cost slightly more or less, designating certain effects as “level 2.5 spells” were they to be converted back to a pure Vancian implementation.

Apart from tweaking the magic system just for the sake of changing it, or creating a new class like the DMG suggests, the primary reason for doing any of this would be if there is a group more comfortable with a mana casting system, either from familiarity with different RPGs or just because the concept of “buying” spells with points makes more sense to them than preparing slots in advance. It would require a lot of preparation and collaboration between the DMs and the players but if you’re willing to put in the work, it could be interesting.

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ROSTROI would make my resources available to assist with such an effort
RyuOf course you would, but we kind of need Ostron back now.
ROSTROMy analytical capacity far exceeds his.
LennonYes, but something tells me you aren’t as good at conversing with listeners.
ROSTRO…more empirical data is required. Currently, the point is conceded
*ROSTRO power down*
OstronMuuggghhhhhh
RyuOkay, I’ll get the smelling salts and the coffee.
LennonLast I checked, he doesn’t drink coffee
Killer DMWhen he astrally projects himself into a creepy machine for too long, he’ll drink whatever I pour down his throat.
RyuNow you head over to the scrying pool and we’ll meet you there.

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