Monday, October 12, 2015

The greatest old school spells (low levels) and dreams of a better system.

Now that I'm running an Al-Qadim Church for SundAD&D morning fun, its feeling pretty crazy to explore some of the brokenness that was old school D&D. Obviously we're doing it with some mid-to-late second edition material, but its is crazy seeing some of these hidden gems.

1) Animal Friendship. Traditionally a druid spell, but it turns out any specialty priest with the animal sphere gets it. This is a set of permanent animal companions, whose total hit dice is less than twice your level. You do need to train them tricks if you want them to do more than follow you around friendly-style. The animals won't be your friend if you have ulterior/sinister motives, but basically its a huge pile of semi-competent companions. Good uses thus far: big cat than can shred goblins. Good suggested uses thus far: guards to stand watch at camp (especially at night) and something small/quick that can fetch things. There's probably a lot more uses, but eventually one or two combat creatures plus one to master each other trick sounds pretty reasonable to me.

2) Charm person. The duration is measured in weeks. And this is a step down from permanent in the Swords & Wizardry book (which I assume is faithful to the original edition). In my game calendar, I have to roll a bunch of saves to see how long folks will be charmed and I'll mark it off when we come to that date. This means if a character of average intelligence is charmed for about 1-4 weeks for each failed save, and the save for 0-level characters is a 19+ on a d20. Still less broken than permanent, but I literally now have a day log so I can eventually decide when NPCs break the charm.

3) Goodberry. This second level spell belongs to druids too, and is a nifty way for them to provide some food or minor healing to the party. The Antagonizer pointed out that the spell seems to need fresh berries, so I guess this is mostly going to be things on the vine from now on, but I also have to keep track of how many berries were made on which day. I think, perhaps, I'll need to start sharing my calendar with the PCs so they can more easily keep track of some of these things. I did decide to enforce that goodberries will first function as rations before doing healing, but only if its actually been 24 hours or so since the last meal (i.e. you don't need to have one for breakfast before you can get healed, though that'd be another good ruling). We're playing in a jungly setting, but I suppose maybe there could still be a winter-ish month where berries are out of season.

4) Armor. Thankfully it doesn't actually stack with actual armor, but it does stack with physical shields (not the spell) and dexterity, and it lasts for a long-ass time till you start taking damage. This spell is definitely saving the collective asses of the players, but they're all restricted in their armor somewhat (specialty priest, or multiclass wizard or thief).

5) Sleep. I knew it was good, but it can basically take out a couple low-level goblins like none other. I'm waiting for the PCs to use it for a hunting spell (sleep on a flock of game fowl?) or some other good uses, but even just putting one or two guards to sleep is pretty amazing.

6) Entangle. This is another druid spell that the specialty priest has, but its basically stopping creatures in their tracks. Because its a huge radius, its stopped a couple encounters right away. Rereading this, I think the creatures aren't effectively paralyzed, so next time I think the party will need to expect a few missile attacks or creatures struggling to free themselves (probably depending on the weapons creature have and the plants in the area), but even if the creatures might get missile attacks this spell is pretty great.

-1) Ventriloquism. Not really a great spell, but I managed a pretty fun encounter with it because it was the only spell the enemy wizard could cast. Obviously he's going to use it as best he can, even if his goblin allies didn't get a surprise round.

These have been the big-use spells thus far (minus ventriloquism), but I expect some others eventually. One disappointment is that I think other low-level spells would be a lot more enticing if their durations were a bit longer to begin with and didn't creep as much. A lot could be something like one hour plus 1 turn per level, and they'd actually be pretty competitive with some of the ones listed above. Invisibility to Undead, for example, lasts a flat six rounds and never improves.

To be fair, some of the lackluster spells of 5e suffer this problem as well. A lot of them simply don't scale with higher slots, and I'd love to re-write some to do this. Things like Invisibility and Greater Invisibility should just be combined into one spell, for example. I'm just yearning to use Create Water to flood things in my 5e game, but that's in part because I once won a 2nd edition gladiator game with the spell when my 30+ level wizard cast it once or twice to flood our arena (8 feet of water really puts a damper on the dwarf warrior). Also, by the book, the 5e version of Create Water fills a container, dramatically lessening its use potentially. I like the precision of 5e, but sometimes things like spells attacking a creature really rubs me the wrong way.

Ultimately, I'm really liking some of the clunkiness of these old school spells. As I do this a bit more I think I'd love a game that is a bit more of a blend of old school stuff with 5e. I like some of the simplicity of how 5e has a nice handful of conditions which don't really overlap, but I also like how the old school spells leave a lot more room for interpretation (I like the reaction mechanic of 5e and would love to see feather fall be able to stop missile attacks mid-flight). I like how the old school game is decidedly lower-powered at low levels so far and its fairly gritty. While I love warlocks and sorcerers, I really love how I can hand out spellbooks to PC wizards to give them things to find and potentially add to their list of powers. I also like how not everyone has to have magic. I suppose there's always room to tinker. I do like 5e, but wish it had skewed a little more old school or that those modular dials that were touted could be turned down from Heroic a bit more. I might have to look at some other OSR games and see what's best to steal from them eventually, but I think this Al-Qadim game, crazy old school spells and all, will keep my attention for a quite a while still.


  1. Reading this again and just realizing with some amusement that out of the four characters in our Al-Qadim game, only one isn't at least partially a spell caster... I can see how pre-3e D&D could be frustrating if you ended up being a spell caster who didn't have a really good low level spell and watched the Druid turn into a combat monster just because at 2nd level they could, say, have a jaguar to fight for them.

    1. Yeah, definitely. It also brings to mind the part of 5e where clerics get more spells prepared regularly than wizards do because they get bonus spells for their domain. However, for as long as clerics have had bonus spells for wisdom and a quicker XP chart, they've had more spells than wizards have.