Magic is Broken Part 2: Advancement

This is the second and last entry on my issues with the current magic system. I also present a solution that may help alleviate the issues I identified.

Advancement for casters is different than other PC classes. Every class receives some benefit for achieving a new level. Things like feats, a better “to hit” bonus or some new “widget” are very common. Other than that, the PC must accumulate equipment, both magical and mundane to increase their abilities. Most casting classes get some new spell slots at a new level. I have no problem with this. A fighter gets better BAB, a caster gets a couple of new spells. That actually has some parity. The problem is that casters can learn spells from other sources.

In “Dungeons and Dragons” and many other systems, casters can go to school, buy scrolls or sometimes observe a spell cast and then learn it for all time. Fighters cannot got out and buy a scroll of “Power Attack” and scribe it in their “melee book” for later use. Effectively, a caster learning a new spell before achieving a new level is getting feats, not spells. This is a powerful ability and really does not work well. Especially at the higher levels, wizards have so many spells that they are “Swiss Army Knives.” A spell for any occasion.

Give a caster 24 hours notice and triple his effectiveness. For example, you know you are travelling to a frozen waste. Load up on the fire spells and redefine “global warming” to your enemies. The best a fighter can do is put on an extra coat.

To slow this accumulation of spells and attendant flexibility, learning a new spell should be difficult. I am not talking about a clumsy restriction to a PCs ability to learn new spells by fiat. I am talking about a new mechanic with story justification and integration.

Here is my idea. As one learns a spell, there is a physical change to your body. A crystal-like “spell matrix” grows within your body. As you advance in experience you grow more crystals to represent the spells you learn through personal study. This represents the “level-up = more spells” mechanic from the base rules.

In this world, there are no spell storing devices, like scrolls. The only way to learn a new spell is either long, tedious study or carving a matrix out of a living being.

This extraction process is invariably fatal.

Even worse, you have to make a skill roll to “extract” the spell from the stolen matrix. This adds an element of chance to learning a new spell. Once a caster dies, their matrices decay within a few minutes, making storage impossible.

I know there are those that scream “that screws the casters!” True, learning new spells is much harder, but the story benefits and role-playing opportunities more than outweigh the perceived penalty.

PCs still have opportunites to learn spells, but now it has story implications. Evil NPCs have no issue murdering innocent casters to accumlate more power. Good NPCs must now be looking constantly over their shoulder. Even worse, they face tempations kill to gain more knowledge. Being a caster is no longer a happy experience. It is a terrible burden, always one step away from slipping and murdering to learn a new spell. Or falling victim to evil casters seeking more power. It would be like a pool of hungry sharks constantly circling each other, looking for any sign of weakness or aggression. Two casters meeting on the street would never know what the other might do. It would very much be like “Highlander,” without the swords.

It also offers some quality role-playing opportunities.

Imagine a lawful good PC having to carve open a recently deceased villianous caster. Standing over his body, he tears out a matrix and glows with power as he absorbs forbidden knowledge. Turning to the rest of the party, he sees their horror at his desecration. He is still lawful good, but now forever tainted in the eyes of his friends. Great role-playing fodder by anyone’s definition.

I like this idea because it does limit casters, but it also injects some drama into your game. I hate rules for their own sake. They need to both solve a mechanical issue and integrate smoothly into the dramatic setting.

If anyone thinks they might use this in a game, or just wants to tell me I am completely nuts and destroying game balance, leave me a comment.

Trask, the Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.