Friday, May 4, 2012

Distinguishing spellcasting classes

The more I look over some D&D editions and their retroclones, the more I think about altering the magic mechanics to suit the game better. But why?

I think first and foremost that magic mechanics are one of the main ways that setting and rules need to be in sync. Second edition Dark Sun, for example, never really got the defiling mechanics right until Spells and Magic. Or, at least, the defiling mechanics didn't match the Prism Pentad novels, which I think were what the designers had in mind all along. Not only was it defiling magic that was somewhat out of sync, but even the templar, elemental priest, and druidic magic as well. Looking back on it, templar magic seems much more like the cleric or warlock type (4e might have gotten that right) but the part about memorizing spells doesn't seem quite right. Its not necessarily out of place per se. And it was about the only D&D magic mechanic at the time, so it didn't seem quite as odd back then.

Now that we have spellcasters who cast spells in different ways, it seems like the mechanics should reflect different play styles for that.

  1. Wizard - Arcane study. Its hard to keep all those spells in mind, so wizards are constantly refreshing their memories and preparing spells to be used.
  2. Sorcerer - Intuitive arcana. Sorcerers channel magic through their blood. They've got large reserves of power, but less variety.
  3. Warlock - Pact magic. Warlocks make pacts with powerful archmages, devils, or fey. They may even call on their patrons for more aid.
  4. Cleric - Divine aid. The gods will provide blessings to those who ask for them. Occasionally miracles as well.
  5. Invoker/Favored Soul - Wonder working. Invokers channel raw divine power and speak in the name of their gods.
  6. Druid - Magic of the earth. The earth itself is an extension of the druid's will.
  7. Shaman - Beseeching spirits. Shamen invoke particular spirits and beseech them for aid.
These types of differences could be handled with spell lists and powers, but the power system of 4e quickly became bloated and unreasonable. Moreover, when powers are limited to just one class, some classes receive a lot of support (4e wizards and fighters) while others are left behind. So I'm in favor, for the moment, of one unified spell list. Maybe psionic powers will work differently, or maybe psionic classes can still use the same spell list. I'm not sure. But one general spell system means that powers are potentially interchangeable between classes, so that each class could share some basic spells like light or charm person. Flame strike might be limited to clerics and invokers (and warlocks with angelic pacts?), while fireball might be the province of wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks. Bless and Curse might be shared by clerics, invokers, druids, shamen, and warlocks. Individual class powers (turn undead, eldritch blast) might only be available to one or two classes, but why not let a wizard also learn the Eldritch blast spell that he needs to memorize?

How might these systems work? Well spells have some unified mechanics (like spell levels and descriptions and ranges and such), then each class might have differential access to them. Wizards would still memorize spells in the morning, and then slowly blow through their selection during the day (whether they use abstract 'slots' or just forget the memorized spell). Maybe wizards also could use tomes to temporarily prepare a spell, though it might be slow and uncertain. Perhaps by dedicating enough slots, a wizard could have fully memorized the spell, so that it becomes useable once per encounter, or even at will by dedicating even more slots to its mastery.

Sorcerers, on the other hand, might know fewer spells but only have highest-level slots. They might also have one per-encounter spell slot (or the first spell they cast in an encounter doesn't take a slot to do so). So Sorcerers would have a pool of all-day points, but they'd essentially slowly refresh a bit over the day. A sorcerer could always cast something once per encounter, whereas a wizard might just run out. Sorcerer spells might even be slightly unstable, so casting your highest-level spells may run the risk of failure. Maybe not like the wild surge table from the second edition tome of magic, but a little unpredictability.

The cleric might have plenty of per-encounter spells (all those basic ones like bless, light, turn undead) but those are the low-key or situational ones. They'd also have a couple slots for domain spells, which are their daily miracles. So Clerics are often choosing to use general buffing prayers or to take work into their own hands (and weapons). But they'd still be able to call down a flame strike or conjure a spiritual weapon (or some other power thematically related to their deity), but those are the rare ones. Maybe clerics can also mutter quick prayers but a hasty blessing wouldn't use his full caster level as the properly prepared theurgic rite.

The Shaman might have a number of spirits that he can call on each day, and each spirit might grant 1-3 spells, but once you call on a spirit once it's harder to do it again. A shaman might have an limited number of spirits (and a limited type as well), but each one could be petitioned until they just got sick and tired of the shaman for the day.

Why use magic styles as the basis for classes? Well, the other option that comes to mind, thematic powers, doesn't seem like a viable one. Necromancers might be specialist wizards, sorcerers with death in their blood, warlocks who make a pact with death or some undead, clerics or invokers of death-gods, or shamen who deal with disease spirits and ancestor spirits. The same arguments could be made for fire elementalists, illusionists and enchanters, or folks that focus on weather- or  plant-affecting magic. But you better believe that that a necromancer would play differently as a wizard, sorcerer, cleric, invoker, warlock, or shaman. They'd have access to a very similar same set of spells, but they'd access them all differently.

Limiting classes to mechanical/thematic differences in casting does affect the campaign world. If sorcerers channel magic, then wizards study. There's not room for a world in which magic requires intense study and channelling unless multiclass rules are invoked or a new magician-type class is created. That's a trade-off I'm willing to take, however.

Distinguishing caster-classes based on magic styles will result in them being more distinct in game play as well. Clerics won't be wizards with different spells who fight a little better. They could be, but I'd like to see the mechanics reflect how the gods might treat the world. Using the cleric in your game might assume that deities respond to prayer, and occasionally reveal themselves in the world by granting their priests miracles. A world without clerics but with invokers is a very different campaign setting, perhaps a Dragonlance style game where the gods were gone but are now returning. Dark Sun, on the other hand, would eliminate clerics all together, though perhaps warlocks and invokers would fill the ranks of their templars. Perhaps invokers, shamen, warlocks, and sorcerers are utterly unheard of in the world.

This type of system doesn't preclude some sort of sub-classes wither. So bladesingers could be a subclass of wizard along with illusionists or necromancers, hexblades a subclass of warlock, or crusaders a sub-type of cleric. The role of subclasses in this system is to give more variant classes, but also to prevent some sort of multiclassing. As a wizard subclass, one can't be a wizard and a bladesinger, or, for that matter, a illusionist and a necromancer.
The ability to mix and match magic classes really changes the flavor of the world. So I'm not advocating for each fantasy campaign setting to have the full slate of casting classes. But a nice set of options to choose from (or assign to distinct races as culturally appropriate) would certainly give us the ability to customize our own worlds and to represent a number of distinct settings by marrying the rules to the story.

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