Thursday, August 8, 2013

Arnesonian Magic System


In First Fantasy Campaign, Dave Arneson describes in a brief thumbnail the original magic system he used in what would become Dungeons & Dragons.
In Blackmoor, magic followed the "Formula" pattern for most magic. The reason behind limiting the number of spells that a Magic User could take down into the Dungeon was simply that many of the ingredients had to be prepared ahead of time, and of course, once used were then powerless. Special adventures could then be organized by the parties to gain some special ingredients that could only be found in some dangerous place.

Progression reflected the increasing ability of the Magic User to mix spells of greater and greater complexity. Study and practice were the most important factors involved. A Magic User did not progress unless he used Spells, either in the Dungeon or in practice (there was no difference) sessions. Since there was always the chance of failure in spells (unless they were practiced) and materials for some spells were limited (determined simply by a die roll) the Magic User did not just go around practicing all the time. The Magic User could practice low level spells all the time, cheaply and safely, but his Constitution determined how often he could practice without rest. Thus, the adventurers might want a Magic User to come with them only to find him lying exhausted.

So to progress to a new level, one first learned the spells, and then got to use that spell. There was no automatic progression, rather it was a slow step by step, spell by spell progression.
It strikes me that this is not entirely gone from OD&D - magic-users preparing scrolls (only at wizard level) for 100 GP/level at a rate of 1 week/level seems to take a page from Arneson's non-Vancian style of preparation. Holmes took it even closer by allowing scroll creation at first level, following the same rules as OD&D. By the book, you could actually get pretty close to Arneson's spell system right there.

Taking a step back, the Vancian system is one that has survived not so much out of sentiment but because it is dead simple to use in a game. Like hit points and armor class, the specific rationale is second to the fact that the system is very effective in game. It limits the magic-user in a readily defined fashion and keeps the bookkeeping manageable.

For many players, though, Vancian casting is a weird limitation. It requires tactical choice, which is good, but very little flexibility. Once out of spells, the MU is useless. A lot of alternative systems such as spell points try to alleviate this by making the MU super-flexible. But with this advantage the game tilts entirely in favor of the spellcasters, who already get powerful at high levels with Vancian casting.

I like Arneson's concept because it invokes a bit more resource management than traditional Vanciancasting. A spell is not just an investment of a spell slot, but is a permanent resource bought with money and/or effort, and available to the magic-user as long as he or she is alive. The decision to use or not use a prepared spell is one that has lasting consequences and cannot be idly cast just to use up a spell for the day.

To use this I think the OD&D pricing is a good start. The prices are about right where an MU will not suddenly become super-powerful, and the referee might give a free spell or two at the game's start to speed things along. Also, an alternative method of preparing spells from ingredients that the MU has to search for at low levels might be a natural source of adventure fodder. The spell components for AD&D are one possibility, as are randomly determined components a la Arneson.

In practice, then: spells would cost 100 GP/level, but take only 1 day/level to prepare. The trade-off is that more spells can be prepared than could be cast. Magic-users would have alternative but difficult methods of finding ingredients. A spell, once cast, is used up. Beginning characters would have 2 spells already prepared. Characters can only cast spells of levels they would be able to cast per the OD&D Magic-User chart (i.e. level 2 at 3rd, etc). I'm also thinking that after some time a spell could start to go unstable.

Has anybody used this kind of system? Any thoughts on potential side effects? Maybe some differentiation in the pricing?


  1. Like a lot of weird rules that get overlooked, this seems like the kind of thing that ends up making a LOT of sense if you just shrug and go with it. If you look at an M-U's "prepared spell components" as the scrolls, and an M-U can start scribing scrolls at Level 1 (perhaps using some of his starting funds!) that can definitely work. After all, he doesn't need to upgrade his armor, buy a warhorse, etc. so where else should he put his money?

    Then the very small number of M-U memorized spells per day becomes the spells he can "cast freely" without long preparation and expensive investment. These refresh every day, so long as he has access to his spellbook to re-memorize any spent ones.

    An M-U who bemoans that his only useful act that day will be a single Magic Missile (or even better, a Sleep or Color Spray), and who is not deterred by the prospect of hurling daggers (although that's about as useful as anyone else at first level), now has something to fall back on in dire extremes.

    It's also a nice way to let the party decide where to sink their gold. They can pool up and let the M-U prepare more scrolls, making the next expedition much more likely to succeed. Or they can do the same to the Cleric, getting holy water and Cure Light scrolls. Or they can splurge on things like retainers, flaming oil, warhorses, war dogs, wagons, etc.

    It's also nice that it neatly solves the problem of the olde magick shoppe; the M-U is the go-to guy for gizmos, but limited by his level, investment of time and money, and procurement of special ingredients (a spur for adventure of course).

  2. 100 per spell level seems a bit low for higher level spells. A Wish is worth more than 9 Sleeps. Also, any ideas on now to handle spell components without excessive bookkeeping or requiring a specific monster part from a monster that might not fit a particular game world.

  3. Well sure, of course you'd keep it simple. First off, the money cost is enough I think to cover most spells. Really nice ones could require specific types of wealth: gems, incense, fur, ivory, etc. worth the given amount. The player is then very interested in the description of a treasure as much as the value of that treasure. And you can say "Otiluke's Blue Spheres needs gems as the material component" and that's all you have to remember. Well that and the spell level, which tells you how many GP in gems you need to use.

    As for the money, 3E was successful in scaling it up by using a formula 25(Spell Level^2), so lvl x lvl x 25, for scrolls (I think that's the number, can't remember). So a 9th level scroll would be (9x9x25) 2,025 GP.

    I think 100 GP is a good number for 1st level scrolls. Here's how that would break down:

    L1: 100
    L2: 400
    L3: 900
    L9: 8,100

    Which seems like it might be appropriate.

    Also I figured that in this system you'd have to be able to cast the spell in the first place. So you can't have a 3rd level M-U casting Wish off a scroll the party pooled their money to buy. Remember I'm not trying to talk about scrolls specifically, but the cool Arneson rule Wayne brought up.

  4. Also, imagine coming up with a list of unique rare spell components for the first 3 spell levels, which contain only a dozen spells each. That's pretty doable. Making that list, tracking the inventory, and making sure they appear in the dungeon is a lot more difficult when it's 9 spell levels of 50-70 spells per level like we have at the end of 2E.

    Maybe that's why he dropped the rule.


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