Friday, July 4, 2014

Revisiting D&D Schools of Magic

As I've been thinking that a D&D style game is hindered by overly generic classes (the exception being a game with only a small number of classes: maybe 3-5), and doing away with the generic Wizard or Magic-User might open up a few more doors. Replacing the generic class with the specialty versions prevents one class from stealing the thunder of its subclasses, and allows multiple of those types of characters to coexist a little better in play, I think. The natural D&D thing to replace the standard Wizard with is thematic specialist Wizards. But a few seem a bit off.

One issue, in Second and Third edition, the schools are somewhat poorly defined. Transmutation is a heinously powerful school, and Abjuration is horribly ignored. There's no contesting that an Abjurer has a terrible selection of generally useless spells (they don't even get all the defensive ones!) and Transmutation has a strange abundance where things like Burning Hands could just as well be evocation. Conjuration, too, in 3rd edition gets a strange set of ranged touch attack spells which could easily fit into evocation. This didn't matter so much in first edition where schools were largely story-based (until Dragonlance Adventures came along and divvied them up between the different orders of High Sorcery).

Another issue is reversible spells: spells that summon things are clearly conjuration/summoning, but spells to dismiss them are abjuration. Two sides of the same coin should be maybe combined into one school, no? I suppose this is just another instance of schools being poorly defined.

Yet another issue is schools are only slightly relevant. Pathfinder almost neuters the idea of an opposition school for specialists by just forcing the wizard to learn the spell as one level higher. The Illusionist can still cast Animate Dead, it just is harder. So the specialty goes from a meaningful choice to a thematic choice. Any wizard can basically cast any spell. First edition Illusionists simply cast a slightly different set of spells that normal Magic-Users had, and while not exactly weaker, they were overshadowed by the generalist Magic-User.

So what would the fix look like for a game with a healthy set of classes but without a generic ones? I think you could still use a generic Wizard (who's intelligence and prolonged study grants magical mastery) but require a specialty: no generalists allowed. Second, give a smaller set of coherent specialists. For example, a Binder or Conjurer would focus on various protection-from-X spells, wards, summon monster spells, and a few others like maybe Charm Person and Hold Person. A thematic and coherent set. An Enchanter or Beguiler might focus on charms, illusions, and people-based transmutations (think Bulls Strength or Polymorph Other).  A Necromancer would have their traditional suite of spells (death spells, animating and controlling and destroying undead, fear and some curses). An Elementalist could take the role of the war wizard and evoker throwing around fireballs and lightning bolts. An artificer or alchemist would enchant items, change and create physical items, and other genuine transmutation spells.

This set-up just did away with the abjurer (mostly by giving his spells to the conjurer) and the illusionist (by folding him into the Enchanter). I'd also throw tighten up some of the definitions and probably allow some subschools to be shared (people-based transmutations could belong to an Enchanter or an Alchemist, Fear or Curses could be had by an Enchanter or Necromancer, etc.). By properly subsetting schools into more thematic lists, a given wizard could slowly grow in mastery of his own specialty and possibly sacrificing a little depth for the breadth of choosing spells from outside his specialty list. I think it'll work as long as each class has 3-4 clearly thematic subschools.

So what would this look like? Assume you chose Enchanter:
  • Level 1: Basics of Magic - Choose two Enchantment subschools: you can learn spells from those two.
  • Level 2: Expanded specialty - Choose a) another Enchantment subschool to add to your allowable spells, or b) focus one one of your subschools and gain s +1 bonus to caster level with that subschool.
  • Level 4: Magical Might - Choose a) any school of magic and add it to your allowable spells, b) any non-Enchantment subschool youve already mastered and consider it to be an enchantment school, or c) an Expanded specialty benefit.
  • Level 6: Expanded specialty
  • Level 8: Magical Might
  • Level 10: Expanded Specialty
Space these out as appropriate for the getting the right number of subschools into each school.

If this is too complex, imagine it more like the 3.5 Beguiler, Dread Necromancer, and War Wizard type class, but that's not exactly how I envision it. You could also do this 1st edition style and simply give each specialist type their own appropriate list of spells. The catch is these specialists are a bit more focused on their specialty and can only master a few spells outside their usual domain.

If you follow the Third Edition school descriptions, your school options would include; Charms, Compulsions, Figments, Patterns, Phantasms, Glamours, Shadow, plus a subset of transmutations or two which focus on personal augmentation and shapeshifting, and maybe fear spells and curses. (This is a lot, really).

Necromancers might have: Undead Creation, Death spells, Fear Spells, Curses, Shadow illusions, communing-with-the-dead, and possibly healing spells.

Conjurers would have: Wards, Protection from outsiders, monster summoning, teleportation, creation, and calling spells (I don't quite buy healing as conjuration).

Elementalists would have the four basic elements plus maybe things like lightening, weather control...

Artificers would need a few different types of transmutation spells (people affecting and object affecting), item enchanting spells, creation spells, wards...

I haven't included a diviner. Either consider doing it second-edition style where most divination spells are generally shared between wizards, divide them into a few appropriate sub-types and give certain specialists access (Conjurers might Contact Other Plane, Artificers and Enchanters might use crystal ball-style scrying spells, Necromancers would speak with dead, etc.). Divination spells can be the hardest to use and ruin the most fun anyways.

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