The Gassy Gnoll: Shifting Magical Paradigms Without a Clutch

Last week the Gassy Gnoll asked why 4e spell powers are so cut and dried. This week he wants to throw the D&D magic system out the window in favor of something much more open…

Right now you create a wizard, pick a few powers, and run. All the powers work generally the same, using certain forms of energy to perform certain effects on particular targets. But what if you want to do something completely different?

Take for instance, the idea of a runic mage. This mage doesn’t cast active magic, but instead composes one or more symbols or “runes” to define a particular effect to be triggered in a particular way. For instance, let’s say they’re protecting the Threshold of a home or business from anything non-human. So in the door frame at each of the four corners they place runes of protection along with runes describing something “non-human” in a runic alphabet, perhaps using “not” and “man”. Once all four corners are protected, a barrier forms to prevent anything “not a man” from entering.

How would you pull this off in 4e or D&D Next? A wizard could perhaps cast “Hold Portal” and a “Protection” spell, but they fade with time. The runic mage is creating something to last a while that can perhaps be re-energized with less energy in the future or through a ritual the owner of the house could perform on their own.

I would propose that instead of concrete implementations of wizard abilities as powers, the whole system becomes more flexible. The goal of any spell is to achieve a desired effect with a particular form of energy. A wizard wants to damage a group of enemies with a Fireball. A cleric wants to channel the love of their god to heal the sick or wounded. A sorcerer chooses to summon a magical being and force it to work on his behalf.

So why not take the magic system and break it down a bit so we can put it together in different ways?

A wizard wants a Magic Missile spell. What’s the goal of this spell? Ranged blast of energy to damage a target. Ok, so the desired effect is damage at a distance. And in 4e, the current Magic Missile spell uses force energy, so that becomes the combination. Damage, Range, Force. It could just as easily be Damage, Range, Fire or Damage, Range, Cold.

That’s a bit vague, so let’s confine the Damage and Range keywords a bit and bring in some of the other keywords 4e likes.

  • Arcane – because this is a wizard spell, not a cleric spell
  • Evocation – because 4e likes its schools of magic
  • Force 2 – because we want the effect to be 2 + the INT modifier in force damage
  • Range 20 – this isn’t in the existing spell description, but I think is important and we’ll say 20 because that’s what the spell says now
  • Implement – because we want the spell to be directed through an implement like a wand, staff, or orb

We could easily swap out “Force” with “Fire” or “Cold” and even increase damage and decrease Range to balance things a bit. Perhaps for spell construction each keyword has a particular cost in points to help with balancing.

Runes futhark old

Runes futhark old (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s go back to our runic mage trying to protect a threshold and try to apply this approach.

Let’s call the spell Protect Threshold.

  • Arcane
  • Enchantment
  • Force 20
  • Defense
  • Threshold

So this is a wizard spell that defensively enchants a threshold with a number of HP equal to 20 + the caster’s INT. We may need other keywords in there to define the hardness of the door (perhaps Defense 20 to give it an AC of 20 instead of putting that on the Force keyword).

Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way, but I think if there was a cost to the use of some of the keywords (perhaps based on the spell level), there could even be a Spell Creator at the WotC D&D site that would allow folks to create their own schools of magic and collections of spells. Imagine the fun you could have with that. The costs would help with balancing and DMs would ultimately have the last say in whether a spell was approved or not, but you could end up with some very creative magic systems as opposed to the tried-and-true laundry list of spells.

What do you think? Any merit to this approach?

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