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An Argument Against Spell Lists

On the shelf beside me sits a variety of books detailing wizard spells. From my humble 1984 copy of "The Complete Wizard's Handbook" to my special edition "Dungeon Crawl Classics", they are all packed full of spell lists and detailed descriptions of the magical effects. They are absolutely wonderful. I think it's time to do away with them.

Modern D&D has, over the years, tried to undo the power curve of wizard. There is no quadratic wizard in 5e (in part because they are less powerful and fighters are more powerful). Now wizards get cantrips and their most powerful spell (wish) comes with a host of restrictions. Wish being restricted so much is pretty egregious, but I digress; wizards are now "balanced". Zzarchov Kowolski does a great job of summarizing the origin of this imbalance, in his blog post Everything you think about Game Mastering is probably wrong: Part VI Assumptions about game play, Kowolski points out that we've only assumed we control a single character, making for unfun low level wizards and unfun high level fighters. Our assumptions about D&D has made it less fun. Let's look at spell lists.

There are is only one reason for the existence of a standard list of spells. They exist to give new players and GMs a conceptual list of the powers granted by magic. This means a new player can jump into the game, roll up a wizard, and be of an appropriate power level. It also means the referee has a basic guideline on those powers too. The list of magic spells is basically a crutch to introduce magic to the game without it being vague and annoyingly powerful.

The truth is, there was a time before a list of spells. What D&D must have been like while still in development I cannot say for certain, but I theorize playing a wizard must have gone something like this:

G: Before you stands the wooden palisades of the goblin fort

D: I cast fireball at the wooden palisades to burn them down

G: Uh, no way, fireball is way to powerful for a wizard just starting out like you are.

D: Okay, I cast a spell that... makes me... jump higher?

G: Yeah that works

This post on the RPG stack exchange goes into a good detail about the transition from chainmail to D&D. The spell list being ported from chainmail created the spell levels we know today. The reality is that in that tradition there was likely a space of time where there were a lot of higher level wargame combat spells (like lightning bolt and cloudkill) and almost no low level utility spells. And that was probably really fun for everyone involved.

I shouldn't need to explain how this would have been a lot of fun. Imagine not knowing what your wizard can do. Sure they are young and weak being first level, but they can do magic. They can do whatever you can imagine! It's magic for fuck's sake! So what if something is too powerful for me to do, I'll think of something different. There's a reason that modern D&D has so many spells named after members of the circle of eight.

So why even have spell lists? It might make sense for the referee to have a list of spells to give out from behind the screen, but to the player, spell lists are ultimately restrictive. Having a defined list of spell abilities feels less like playing with actual magic and more like playing someone who knows how to do weird things. I'd liken it to the difference between morrowind and skyrim. In skyrim you can cast fire spells, in morrowind, you can come up with a spell that lights your enemies on fire and then makes them attack their buddies. Magic spells, in my opinion, are worthless without some form of spellcrafting.

Yes, all versions of D&D (except 4e[?]) let players come up with their own spells. In general, it works something like this: spend 1 or 2 weeks as well as 1000 gold per level to have a chance to make their idea come to life. Oh, and you need a library. This is extremely limited, likely as a way to keep things simple for the referee (but maybe also to sell supplements with new spells in them, though I have no proof of this). However, to build upon Zzarchov's post, this likely isn't that bad in games where you are controlling multiple characters. Since low level wizards contribute little, it makes sense for them to take a break to study a new spell. Even if they fail, the rest of the adventurers are out and about bringing back more treasure to fuel the mage's research.

All of this ties back into the quadratic wizard. It makes sense for wizards to be more powerful at the higher levels because at the lowest levels, they would need to come up with their own spells to do awesome things in creative ways. If they are allowed to, this makes the lower levels just as fun and interesting as the higher levels. If you get stuck, leave, come up with a new spell, and come back with it prepared.

What about balance? I think many referees are against the idea of letting their players create new spells because it will effect the balance of the game. Some player will make a seemingly okay spell and then suddenly they start exploiting it and breaking the game. To those people I say 1) don't worry about balance that much, and 2) just impose your law and take it away from them. These concerns might be another reason for why spellcrafting is so limited, but I think there's a better solution.

Magic is fallible. A spell that works one day might not work the next. The page in your spellbook might have burnt up. The spell might have negative consequences that rear their ugly head only after it's 5th cast. No one knows what's going on with this stuff!

This might be leaning into gonzo territory, which might be a problem for some. I'd say its doable though. So long as all spells pass through the referee, it's possible to keep things grounded and without breaking things. Also, what's so wrong about a bit of gonzo spellcasting?

Here is my argument for getting rid of spell lists (at least the player facing ones) all together. Without a known list of spells, magic users are forced to get creative, and make use of the real powers of magic. It increases the roleplayability of the magic user class, a druid is just a magic user with a different spell list, so is a moon-crystal summoner, or a coral witch. Players who know the list well and want spells off of it are not restricted by the lack of it. It makes magic feel more magical. It lets your magic get a little weird and a little specific.

Such a system would not get rid of spell slots, and spells do exist. Only the existing spells would be dropped or at least hidden away. The caveat is that if playing by the one character per player rule is that you will likely need to make spell crafting quicker and cheaper. New players might need guidance on spell levels and damage and things of that nature, but I think you'd be surprised at the ingenuity of new players.

I would like to propose the following rules for your next game:

An infinite array of magic. Players never see a spell list. All spells are either handed out by the referee through loot, randomly as they level up, etc, or are created by the player.

Magic of your own making. Magic users start with read magic and 1st level spell of their creation. Being able to create spells is the hallmark of a mage. The rest of the starting spells are handed out in the usual way. They may also get a new spell of their own making when they level up. This introduces the procedure of coming up with a spell and also gives the mage a strong investment in their character.

Experimental Spellcrafting. Creating a spell is relatively straightforward. It takes one day plus one day per spell level. Subtract your intelligence modifier to the number of days it takes to a minimum of 1. You need access to a library – any major town or city will have one – otherwise the process is free. Give the referee a description of your spell and level, and add it to your spell book. This process cannot fail. Any new spells are labelled as experimental until proven safe. Experimental spells are prone to miscasts, backfiring, or not working altogether, this is at the referee's discretion. 

You may still wish to use a chance-to-learn roll. If doing so, failure results in the referee having complete control over the spell, including saying no outright, making it a higher level, or changing the spell description.

Making spellcrafting cheaper and easier removes the barrier to entry, encourages experimenting, creativity, and downtime. You can still research "existing" spells, I suppose. Experimental spells makes attempting to cheese a 1st level dimension door result in a one-way portal to the land of fire & death.

Optional Rules. Maximum spells known if a part of your rule set, is now optional, as are chance-to-learn rules.

Maximum spells don't work if constantly experimenting with new spells. There should at least be a way to get rid of useless spells.

This concept isn't new. Whitehack and knave come to mind as not having spell lists. Personally, I'm not a major fan of systems that attempt to tear out and overhaul magic from D&D. Something about getting rid of that slot table makes me feel like I'm not playing D&D anymore. Not that that is a bad thing, but it does effect compatibility with existing content.

I think this system has a lot of potential. Let me know if it makes an appearance at your table!

Expect more magic from this blog soon...


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