Expanding Specialties: Mysteries of Magic

Phase 1 of the Specialties system was “eh, basically,” accomplished before I knew I was doing things in phases. That was to build a rough framework for replacing skills and proficiencies. I still have a couple to squeeze into place, but that article I wrote last time covered the ground work.

Here in the second phase, my concern is with magic. I’ve discovered that the Specialty system will probably work really really well for my “Naked” D&D concept, a game of D&D without classes. But to really make that work, I have to figure our how magic works in such a world. And magic is hard.

Idle Thought Leads to Inspiration

On Wednesday, before D&D, we didn’t play a game due to the weather, so we had a longer than standard session of breeze shooting. Magic was talked about a lot and the idea of system of magic that was completely ritual based was discussed.

This, I should mention, was interesting and relevant.

There wasn’t a lot really decided on how such a system should work, although higher level utility spells that like, keep your apartment clean or automatically bring in the groceries or something were discussed. I’m not sure of the right way to do that. As a GM, I’d probably let that happen with a casting of Guards and Wards. But the idea of a ritual based system was interesting to me. It might be good for phase two.

Just because an idea basically fits, doesn’t mean everything is all hunkey-dory. I do not have a Phase 2 Specialties document for you. Heck, my version 1.3 only changed two things so far (although athlete is a much better specialty, now). Anyway, I have to squeeze Spells through the lens of Rituals into the mold of “works with Specialties”

What’s in a spell?

I’ve put a lot of thought into D&D magic this week and I’m not really impressed and I’m not sure what to do about that. I went down the whole list of D&D spells, all 463 of them and culled and curated the list until I had around a hundred and forty to try and squeeze into some method of assigning to players. Which is where I hit a massive snag that I need to work through first.

See, D&D has a specific way of doing things. Here is a list of spells that are castable, even if you have an entirely different source, its the same basic spell. The Spell Lists deal with that a little, but the spells seem to fit the same basic structure, no matter how they were taught, how they’re cast, or where the power comes from. A god is still casting the same Magic Missile as a level 1 wizard.

Now, this is understandable. D&D is a game of structure. I’ve played some games where you can do ANYTHING with magic or Science! and its first, overwhelming, and second, it feels overpowered to not be that person while they’re off making cool stuff and having adventures. To help make the game sane, the GM needs players to be functioning on a reasonable scale, that paces the other players somewhat, and has a lot of rails so that a babby GM isn’t going to have to deal with all the chaos a real magic user would use in the world.

I just realized I need to be building my specialties system so it works for GM and monsters as well. Strahd is a 10th rank spellcaster, a 10th rank fighter, a few ranks of charmer and noble, and oh, yeah, like 15 ranks in Vampire. Which is interesting, because while Vampire is going to be a specialty, its not ones that players can get without direct GM approval. AngryGM was talking about that recently and having player building materials that playerd can’t get normally is an interesting way of building an RPG.

Anyway, D&D has a very specific structure, that is built in part so it still looks and plays like D&D. This is so the people who have been playing it for decades can recognize it and start buying it again. Which I totally get. But, having already bought into 5e, I kinda wish it was a little deeper of a well to draw from. More filling.

Player Centric Spells

On reflection, I’m starting to really dislike how the spell system was entirely built around the PCs. (Again, I understand why, but in this hatching of a new magic system, we’re going to have to break some eggs.) So many spells are combat, first of all. That doesn’t make sense for a world of magic. There would be a lot of infrastructure spells. I mean, think about all the technology you’re carrying on you right now. How many of them were designed to be a weapon? Not many. (Probably)

Now, if you asked that to a fully equipped soldier, the answer would be different. Even the things that aren’t directly weapons are designed to be combat multipliers, making the soldier as effective as possible. So that’s thing about the spell list. Very combat focused.

Also, there are rules and restrictions on spells because they’re used by PCs, not because of what makes sense in the world. Take Polymorph, for example. Why does it revert to original form at 0 HP? Why does it only last an hour? Why does breaking concentration stop the spell? In the reality of the game world, a form has 100% been replaced, right? Are forms resilient enough to snap back, instantly?

It really depends on your world. And that is a big problem in D&D. They don’t really want to tell us how the world works, so we can’t figure out how magic works. Magic, in D&D, works because that what makes spellcasters on par with other classes. There’s no system of gods or elements or rules of the world behind it.

Which is unsatisfying when I’m trying to map one system to another. Turns out, D&D isn’t a magic system, but a bunch of individual spells that all work diffently. They just look the same.

What’s the difference between Animate Dead and Animate Object? How much do Dragon’s Breath and Darkvison, both Transmutation Spells, change their target? What’s the problem with giving Fireball or even Firestorm to a level 1 character?

Framework First

I was hoping this would be a quick article with “Oh, look, I made a magic system!” But that turned out to be wrong. Instead, I’ve been beating my head, trying to step logically through what’s going on with magic and it’s not been fun.

First for this section, let’s make it completely clear: There’s nothing inherently wrong with using the D&D magic system. I just might be watching a baby volcano of an RPG erupt in a sudden act of self-creation. You don’t have to think in depth on a system if it works well enough. I’ve just played enough that I can see the seams and the edges where the system doesn’t always perform elegantly and when trying to rebuild a system, hit a snag.

D&D has a good enough magic system, but its seeming like my game isn’t going to be actually D&D when its done.

I’m not sure if that’s liberating, yet.

So without the structure of D&D,  have a list of spells I can cherry pick from, tweak, edit, and grow into my own thing. And for that, I need a framework of some kind. How do people in the world cast magic? That is… a big question. Which world? Which people? I was starting this based on my Oriental Adventures world- do I want to restrict my creations to that? Or do I want to create a bigger, better version and adapt it to OA? How universal do I build a system?


This is long enough. I’ll start writing the next bit immediately. I don’t have answers, but I think, if I’m tying it into my Specialties system, I should start there and figure out what I want from the universe afterwards.

What spells are most important to you and your characters? What do you wish your spellcaster could do?

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