Friday, March 13, 2015

(Extremely) Literate Wizards

A man by the name of Simon Washbourne wrote a game based on the old school retroclone Swords & Wizardry that he called Sabres & Witchery and which was by his description an rpg of historical monster hunting.  Being set in a fictional historical Europe like one might find in the film Solomon Kane from 2009/10, Washbourne's excellent (my opinion) re-working of the Swords & Wizardry rules provided a different kind of Magic User that kept both the old school flavor of the M-U and the historical flavor of the setting in a rules lite format.  I find it most intriguing.

We've seen magic systems that use power points and we've seen the standard Vancian Magic of Dungeons and Dragons, and we've even seen the barter with spirits and risk your life (and immortal soul) style of Deadlands, all of which I like for various reasons.  Washbourne's S&W magic system is bit like Deadlands and a bit like Vancian, but differs from both in that it feels more real than all of the systems I've mentioned.  It requires actually reading the spells.  Now in your Vancian "fire and forget" systems a wizard can read a spell from a scroll, and we know that the wizard must read his spells first thing in the morning and commit them to memory.  He's bringing his weapons, loaded and primed, in essence, with him.  He might have a vast library of spell books and resources, but these are the ones he's bringing to the fight today.  In the Deadlands system the wizard knows a small pool of spells but must duel with a demonic entity to get the power to use them; consorting with spirits, essentially.  Power point systems are just convenient ways to power up a few spells as a resource and rarely carry the risk of the spirit route.  S&W tries something very different.
"Wat!  Bring me more books; I've got casting to do!"

The spellcasting class of S&W is called a Magus and can choose either Intelligence or Wisdom (traditionally Magic User and Cleric respectively) as the casting stat.  The Magus starts with a spellbook and no spells in it and cannot learn them until he reaches level 2.  Doesn't sound like fun?  Well it gets better.  The Magus must find spells and copy them into his book to use them.  When he wants to cast a spell he has to actually READ it from the book to get the verbal nuances correct and he can only copy spells into his book that his level allows him to know.  The chart tells us how many spells of what level the Magus can easily cast per day.  Easily is the key here, for you see the Magus can attempt to cast spells all he wants, it just carries penalties that can lead to dangerous backlash and spell failure.  So you can certainly attempt to cast a spell, if you like, but a set of cumulative penalties (-1 each time) to the skill roll almost ensures that to push too hard to exceed your abilities will result in bitter disappointment for you.  It is risk and reward and I like that.  It makes magic dangerous and magical.  Want to cast a spell not in your book (such as from a scroll or some other source)?  Take a penalty.  Spell higher than you currently can know?  Take a penalty per level difference.  Already cast your number of spells for today and want to cast some more?  Take a penalty.
It adds up quickly.
Failure might result in nothing more than not succeeding or it might give you a phobia, blank your mind from casting until you sleep, or age you a decade.  It's a crap shoot.
Must be some pretty powerful spells to have to go through all this trouble, right?
Yes...unless you were expecting direct damage spells, in which case you will be disappointed.  There is not a single direct damage spell in the game.  Not a one.  Well Cloudkill, but that's not a map zap beam or anything and you can just sort of avoid the cloud.  And for good reason, unless you have fighter protection it is not going to be very easy to stop and have a read during combat.
Wait, Rook, what the shit?  Why is any of this good?  Why do you like this?
Okay, let me explain.  Firstly you get some good benefits in exchange for Magic Missile and Fireball.  The Magus fulfills both MU and Cleric roles, and thus can learn healing spells.  His combat profile is a bit better than a standard Wizard as well.  Regardless of casting stat (INT or WIS) a Magus can Turn Monsters (defined as undead, demons and evil beings).  That's quite useful.  While he can wear no armor of any kind, his weapon list is not bad: dagger, quarterstaff, SWORD, & PISTOL.  Aha.  Saw that did ya?  Suddenly looks much better, does it not?
He's 1st level.  That's not even his spellbook.  He's gonna go for it!  Good luck, Numnoots.

Secondly it's all about what you like, isn't it?  If you like magic to be explosive, flashy, and just another way to do damage, you know, MMO bollocks, then this is not for you.  If you like to think like a Magic User, like the subtle way spells can alter a battle or serve you in non-combat ways then this is for you.  For me it is about how the magic feels magical.  All the trappings of it, including the reading from the book, give it a feel of verisimilitude.  This Magus feels like a Wizard.  It's not unlike a Gandalf or Merlin where knowledge is power and the knowledge is right there, in the book, and he can access it.  Failing that he can shoot something in the face with a black powder pistol.  Un-Magic Missile does more damage than Magic Missile and makes a boom to boot.  Do you define the Light spell as powerful?  If you do not then this system is not powerful at all.  However this system does not have elves or dwarves as player characters.  Nobody has infravision save for the monsters.  Light sources, the ability to see that is, are going to be pretty important.  The S&W document is pretty big at 102 pages, but it is still a rules lite core that relies upon general familiarity with RPGs and with Swords & Wizardry to be most effective.  Plenty of monsters, often altered to fit the particular genre, are resistant to non-magical weapons (maybe having an elemental bane, such as silver) so the ability to use magic items, or even cast a spell that temporarily enchants a normal weapon, is a major part of the setting.  Such a setting allows the player to be like Van Helsing, using knowledge, items, and a bit of magic to take on a powerful evil monster.  The subtler magic of the system then simply does not work with fireballs and lightning bolts.  Indeed this is part of the appeal to me.

How would this stack up in a regular D&D game?  I'd still find it a good magic system.  It allows, as with Deadlands, the caster to be more useful in terms of magic if he is willing to take the risks.  Instead of determining which spell to memorize the Magus simply picks a spell from his book when the need arises, which gives the Magus utility, but if the spell is not there then it is the same as not having it memorized in Vancian magic.  At the same time the spell list and the inherent danger combine to make the Magus more than just a spellslinger, as so many modern systems would have it (and even a few of the older ones that tended to focus so strongly on casting spells that the wizard became just a piece of mobile artillery).  Just the inclusion of the sword and pistol to the weapon list makes a world of difference to me.  With a lack of armor the Magus would still be wise to avoid melee when possible, but know he can be seen as more of a well-rounded character.  Most importantly the idea that this erudite figure can do as so many have in literature, which is find a spell in a book and read it to cast it, taking the chance of failure and grave results, gives the entire magic system of feeling more akin to the books, legends and shows we watch about magic, rather than a simple mechanical process in a game. 
"This is my lab.  I have that little gargoyle thing over there.  Oh, that?  That's my spellbook.  What?  Yes, I can read.  I can read quite well thank you.  The stick?  You don't want to know about the stick, mate."

Ultimately I'm saying it is a good system and it feels good to think your smart guy is actually a smart guy who can read and solve problems but can make recourse to a boomstick when necessary.

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