Friday, March 01, 2013

Spell Books - A Lament


I’m not sure how many more Laments I have left (which is a good thing!).I’m not done, but I’m getting close.If you have not read my laments on Spell Components, Alignment, Troupe Play, and Magic Items, I would encourage you to do so. They aren’t required reading for this article, but all of them go together.

On to my topic!

Aren’t spell books the most iconic and at the same time least iconic thing in fantasy gaming? Think of all the genres of fantasy games the incorporate spell books in a significant way: D&D, EverQuest, Magic: The Gathering, etc. But in the end, what role do these prodigious tomes actually play in a typical gaming session? Answer: almost none. In fact, they are sometimes more of an inconvenience than an important feature of play.

That’s what I’m here to talk about today- how spell books are a key component of the fantasy RPG genre but at the same time almost universally marginalized during the action at the table. So what can spell books do? Historically, spells books in the most popular FRPGs (fantasy role playing games) have just been a collection of spells a wizard character memorizes at the beginning of the day then is stuffed in the backpack and left unused until the next morning. It always bugged me that spell books were treated this way.For characters with remarkably high Intelligence stats, wizards seemed to have really lousy memories.

I’ve considered this problem many times. There are three interesting ways I think spell books could be used that I want to touch on today: focus items, absorption devices, and advancement tools.

The first way is probably the simplest and least original, but at least it’s something. Spell books can be used as focus items. What this means to me is that when the character is reading from the spell book as he casts a spell, the player gets some kind of bonus. This could be a bonus toward success, an augmentation of the spell’s mechanical effect, an augmentation of the spell’s fictional effect, and/or the preservation of some other consumable resource. In these cases, the spellcaster should probably have to hold the book in both hands. Thus he is giving up the ability to hold weapons, shields, potions, or other items that might come in handy. The book provides a bonus, but it also has a cost- an opportunity cost. This is a simple thing that most FRPGs could add without significantly changing the game’s mechanics.

The second way is for the spell book to be a type of absorption device.Magic is brutal. It is primeval. It should not be benign in its use. One way to represent that is to have magic require some sort of tribute. The best way to explain this, maybe, is with examples.

Imagine a wizard wants to cast a healing spell. Rather than memorize an incantation and a few hand gestures from his spell book, imagine if the wizard had to go and find a plant with healing properties. Like aloe or athalas. The wizard would then dig up the plant, mix it with some kind of reagent, and then place it between two of the pages in his grimoire. The properties of the plant would then be infused in his book for a one-time use later. If he wanted to have five healing spells available, he’d have to kill five plants.

Let’s take this a step further. Imagine a spell casting duel.One wizard casts a fireball at the other.The target of the fireball chooses to try to block with his spell book. With specially prepared pages open and ready, he holds the book in front of him to block the orb of flame. If the player’s roll (or currency spending, card flipping, or whatever) is successful, the fireball will have no effect and is instead inscribed for a one-time use later.

Let’s take it ANOTHER step further. Let’s say our wizard friend wants to be able to cast a resurrection spell. What kind of tribute would the spell book require then? Interesting to think about, eh?

Finally, spell books could be used as actual books of knowledge.Character advancement can be a tricky thing. In many FRPGs including my own Ember Twilight and of course classic D&D, your character gains a bunch of XP then one day, boom!, he’s leveled up and better than before. This is just fine for games with a more tactical focus.Who needs in-game causality? But for some games, where the fiction is important, spell books (and their kin) can play a role.

What if characters had to accumulate the spell books of other wizards to learn new spells? Or study tomes and manuscripts from philosophers, naturalists, and sages gain a better understanding of the arcane arts? Spell books could then form a library the player-character uses to improve his craft. It would make the ever-present but barely justified “wizard’s library”motif more meaningful for the players. The books would have some mechanical weight rather than a place to find clues to the next encounter or quest. Wizards would have a reason to pile up tomes on nature, minerals, anatomy, and mysticism that are often thrown into campaigns without any explanation of how all these encyclopedias are actually used.

It would take some work by the designer. And it would take a lot of buy-in by the players to accept such a narration-centered method of character advancement, but I believe it could be fun. And at the very least, it would make the PC’s collection of books more personal and meaningful.

Are these ideas the only ways to make spell books more mechanically significant in an RPG? Nope! I could write for days about different ideas. This article is not prescriptive so much as it is descriptive. I’m describing how something can be important and yet barely used in many FRPGs, and then suggesting that designers do something to change that.

Oh, and one more thing. This idea is not limited just to spell books. What about technical manuals in a sci-fi or post-apocalyptic setting? What about lore books in a contemporary vampire setting? What about lab reports in a mutant/superhero RPG? All of these things are takes on spell books and can be used in ways similar to what I’ve described above.

When designing spell books (or their kin) in your RPG, think about how you can make them more personal for the players. How can you make them care about their tomes more than other games?  How can you make them special or memorable? If you can answer that question, I think your game will be improved.




Blaise Pascal said...

I had rationalized the "memorize a spell in the morning, or you can't use it" effect of D&D and similar games as more of a "partially cast the spell in the morning, leaving just the final trigger to use" effect.

In which case, I had considered a mechanic where a magic user could cast any spell in their spell book at any time, with the cost of having to spend the time (in game) of doing the complete casting from the spell book at that time. Obviously this would not work for tactical spells ("I want to cast a hold person on the advancing orc, let me pull out my spell book and spend 10 minutes..."), so those would have to be "memorized", but many spells could be practically cast only from the book.

This would also allow a mechanic where, after enough practice casting a particular spell, one could truly memorize it and cast it without the book (but still with the full casting time).

Troy_Costisick said...

"memorize a spell in the morning, or you can't use it" effect of D&D and similar games as more of a "partially cast the spell in the morning, leaving just the final trigger to use"

That's one way to look at it, I suppose, but that's not how the game texts present it. And, even if that were the case, it still marginalizes spell books to a large degree.

I think you're ideas definately have some merit. I especially like your last one. That would be a nice modular rule for D&D Next. I wouldn't hesistate to submit that idea to Mike Mearls if you could, especially if you or someone you know is involved at all with D&D Next's playtesting. However, again, it makes spell books kind of superfluous.



tus said...

actually thats how it has been described at least since AD&D
also as far as advancement goes, a wizard can scribe any scroll into his spell book (this destroys the scroll) or copy from another wizard's spell book (the other wizard's book is fine) also you can leave a slot open and cast a spell from your book at the full casting time (good to leave some slots open for nondescript utilitarian magic)

Veritomancer said...

It's actually funny that spell books were the subject of your latest lament. They've been on my mind as well, specifically how their mechanics can be used to establish setting Color.

The game I'm currently working on is called A Hero's Soul and is set in a fantastical version of the 16th century. My game's magic system is designed to emulate the real-world occult beliefs and practices of the 1500's, and as such grimoires and chapbooks on magic are an important part of any would-be sorcerer or cunning man's equipment.

From a mechanical perspective, "mundane" writings on magic (not written on consecrated vellum or parchment, without special ink etc.) such as chapbooks, pamphlets, etc are just resources that characters with the Low and High Magic skills can use to learn individual formulae, spells, and seals (the instructions to summon a particular spirit). In essence, these writings follow the format set forth in the later part of your article-one of very few ways (short of bargaining with spirits or extensive experimentation) that magic-using characters can learn individual spells

Grimoires, as in keeping with the period's occult lore are something significantly different; and are almost magical talismans in their own right.

Some have a subtle intelligence of their own, others will brave fire, theft, and other calamities to return to their owner intact, some are magical amulets of a sort capable of bringing good fortune, and others will bring down horrible curses on anyone not worthy of the knowledge within.

Grimoires CAN be bought and sold (for generally high prices), but since they can't be mass produced the most likely way for a magician to get one is stealing it, writing one themselves, or securing one by taking a mechanical option (called a Knack) that gives the character a Grimoire of their very own without the necessity of going through the fictional positioning normally required to get one.

Just wanted to let you know that not everyone simply thinks of Grimoires as an afterthought insofar as design is concerned.

Troy_Costisick said...


Wow, Veritomancer, that sounds really rad! I didn't mention looking to history as a source of inspiration for spellbooks. Drat, that's a major oversight on my part. Thanks so much for bringing that up in the comments! Are you working on your game in any public medium? A blog perhaps, or design forum? I'd be interested to read on your progress.



Veritomancer said...

I'm not quite done with the manuscript's first draft, but I have posted occasional updates on my ongoing design work for A Hero's Soul on RPG net. Here are some links to the threads if your interested:

These are all early design work, and the combat system and conflict resolution system has changed slightly, but it's a good hint of the general direction I'm headed in

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