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.