Here, though, I want to review a few alternatives to the traditional Vancian system (prepare spells by slots, followed by cast and forget). It's a common topic among OSR house-rules, but it should be treated with care.
How magic works, in fact, has a profound impact both on the setting (a powerful magic system implies, usually, a society heavily influenced by wizards), and on the game-play (why play a Fighter if the Magic User is tremendously more powerful, even at the first levels?).
The first post is by Diogo Nogueira, and presents a different way to handle the Vancian system, but still remains Vancian... or actually, tries to make the system less DnD-like, and more Vancian-like, in the spirit of the books.
The system is simple enough and requires just a table of incidents that trigger whenever the character tries to memorize too many spells.
I guess I would try to improve the system, if I'd use it, to include a rule on how to cast a spell that the Magic User knows, but has not prepared.
Alternate Vancian Magic System for OSR Games
by Diogo Nogueira
[...] I’ve come up with an alternate Vancian Magic System that makes spellcasting more flexible, leveless (even though you can still use the standard spell list in your game of choice) and insert some risk in the sorcery art (which I think is essential, as we are dealing with unnatural forces).
In the stories I’ve read, magicians, when they were imparting the spell energies in their minds to cast them later, would make increasingly greater effort to put as many spells as they could in their memory. There was not definite limit. Some could impart more, some less, and this could vary. They could risk filling their minds with spells, but if they pushed too hard, they could lose and release all that energy uncontrollably. Of course some of you might see this differently, but that’s what my imagination has captured out of those stories.
Magic-Users can safely prepare a number of spell levels equal to their own character level plus their Intelligence modifier.
A character may attempt to prepare additional spells beyond his level limit, but that is risky. Each additional spell prepare triggers a Saving Throw with a penalty equal to the additional levels of spells prepared beyond the safety level.
Success means the spell is prepared normally and can be cast as if safely prepared. Failure however prevents the spell from being prepared and triggers a backlash. The character than rolls 1d6 and adds the total amount of spells levels prepared beyond his safe limit and consults the table below.
The penalty to the Saving Throws to prepare additional spells beyond the safe limit can be offset by sacrifices as the referee deems fair. A character may burn points of abilities scores to offset these penalties as 1 per 1.
The Saving Throw penalty resets after a full day of rest. However, if there are still levels of spells prepared beyond the safe limit, that number of levels is immediately applied as penalty to prepare any new spells.
1d6+ Spell Levels --- Backlash
2 --- Forces a Saving Throw to keep the lowest prepared spell still memorized.
3 --- The character suffers a number of points of damage equal to the number of additional spells levels he has attempted to prepare this day.
4 --- The character must make a Saving Throw not to release a offensive spell on himself he has prepared right away.
15 --- The Void drains the life energy of the caster and their allies within 30 ft range to power their spells. Everyone affected suffers a points of damage distributed between their Strength, Dexterity and Constitution for each additional spell level the character tried to prepare.
16+ --- The character accidentally summons an entity from the planes, possessing a number of HD equal to the total number of additional levels of spells he tried to prepare. The entity is determined to devour them and their allies.
The next post is by d4 Caltrops, and really goes further away from the traditional rules.
First of all, in this post the author gets rid of spell lists, which should speed up play (less time spent studying the spells, the effects, the best cominations for using slots to memorize them, etc.).
Spells are replaced by words, by powerful keywords, and effects are negotiated at the table.
Putting the User back in Magic-User
by d4 Caltrops[...] I’ve always been intrigued by eliminating/reducing spell lists (less to look up/remember or record).
The central conceit is that instead of learning spells from a list, Magic-Users learn “words” that are used to create new spells. I believe the old GURPS Magic had a Rune-Based system for noun/verb pairs for on-the-fly casting, and it always looked relatively tricky to judge without a ton of negotiation.
I do enjoy the idea of using the Magic-User’s initial spell outlay to determine the initial words known. The post postulates that new Spell Creation could be handled on a one-per-session basis, I’m inclined to agree, as adjudicating this kind of system on the fly may introduce inconsistent rulings. But spell creation by word combination “on-the-fly” is still somewhat interesting to me. I like the idea of making magic somewhat unpredictable and mysterious.
How would I use them? Well, I’d go ahead and follow the general advice outlined in the inspiring post and grant an initial outlay of two, standard, Vancian spells from the 1st Level Spell List for initial tinkering and combination. Maybe an extra word per point of Intelligence bonus to keep things interesting and encourage system-use from the start. Articles like “of” and “the” and targets like an implied “(self)” should probably be free.
Following the spirit of the magic by keywords, this third article by Martin O presents another interesting alternative, as long as your players enjoy the challenge.
As the previous system, it requires coming up with effects and details on the fly, negotiating between players and GM.
This system is particular in the sense that a spell can be cast only once, but then slowly changed into something else by replacing its letters.
At the same time, the challenge of coming up with something original each time, is definitely going to bring at the table the sense of challenge of magic, and of its infinite possibilities.
The Practitioners of Paronym
by Martin O
This is an insane subclass. Only a masochistic person would play it.
Or maybe someone who's very good at Scrabble and crossword puzzles.
The idea is that you take a magic class: Magic-User, Wizard, Bard, whatever.
You give them access to every single spell of a spell level they could cast.
You only allow them to cast any particular spell only exactly once. For the entire campaign.
You give them to ability to change the effect of a spell by changing the name of the spell...
There are a couple of ways to do this. I think I prefer a point system. Give them a certain number of points per long rest/day. Maybe caster level x 2 or something. For each point they spend they may perform one alteration on a spell.
Each point spent will either add a letter, subtract a letter, or substitute a letter for another. Spaces and removing spaces are free.
For example: Paromancer Bob wants to cast Shocking Grasp, but oh! That's boring. Instead he's going to spend 1 point and cast Shocking Grass. Or perhaps the less-effective sounding Shocking Gasp. Maybe he wants to spend 2 points and cast Shocking Grate, or Shocking Ass.
Yes, this means coming up with effects and damage on the fly. I warned you earlier.
I think a good way to go about it is this rule of thumb: the more useless the spell sounds like it would be except in this specific scenario, the more powerful the effect is. The more effective the spell sounds like it would be for most scenarios, the less powerful it is.
If I'd ever use this system, I would also like to understand how to deal with changing a letter then NOT using the spell... Can I change another letter another day, and slowly replace them and change the spell into what I need? Or do I NEED to cast a changed spell before I can change it again? (this would make for some silly moments for sure)
In the last post for today, we're looking at a short article by Patrick Mallah, with a simple and effective system. It uses magic points, which is the easiest alternative to introduce some limits to the ability to cast, if you don't use cast and forget.
Escape from Vancian magic
by Patrick Mallah
What do I dislike about Vancian magic?
What do my players dislike about Vancian magic?
[...]The idea I have now is to give wizards Magic Points that they use to cast spells.
Earning Magic Points by leveling up (this is a rough draft):
Level 1 = +1mp
Level 2 = +1mp
Level 3 = +1mp
Level 4 = +2mp
[...]Wizards add their best bonus between Intelligence and Constitution to their Magic Point total at each level. [...]
Spells also cost an equal amount to cast so a Level 1 spell costs 1 Magic Point to cast. There is no roll and no memorization, if the Magic-User knows the spell then they cast it. Magic Points recover completely after resting/sleeping for 8 hours. [...]
Spellburn: if a wizard "burns" their Constitution they can create an uber-effect with a spell. Burned Con points recover at 1 per week, magical healing doesn't increase the amount healed or reduce the time needed to heal. Maybe a purple lotus flower could recover burnt Con. [...]
- Alternatives to the traditional Vancian system: treat this with care as it impacts both the setting and the game-play (a system too powerful changes the setting into one shaped forcefully by magic, and makes Magic User the only viable, reasonable class to choose)
- Possible tuning includes the option to prepare spell beyond the traditional limit
- This might be handled with a Saving Throw: a fail results in not having the spell prepared, plus some penalties (i.e. from a table of incidents)
- In this case, keep track of what's prepared beyond the limit, so that multiple penalties would stack together
- An alternative system may use for example combinations of keywords: they require a negotiation on the effects, but could lead to interesting, original combinations and effects
- Using keywords and coming up with effects on the fly could be challenging, but there is also the possibility to mutate spells by changing, removing or replacing a single letter at the time
- Easiest solution to replace cast and forget, is to use magic points
- If you do, use a simple method: start with the cost per spell (usually 1 point per spell level) and then grant points to wizards according to their level (i.e. use a table, or they add their level to the total plus some bonus)