Legends & Lore: Magic Systems in D&D Next

How does Elminster cast his spells? Any way he f*ing wants!

How does Elminster cast his spells? Any way he f*ing wants!

Mike Mearls has written a new Legends & Lore column, and as always I’ve read it with great interest. Today he talks about two main topics: “Why haven’t you given us more classes to playtest?” and “How can I customize the way that my character casts spells?” The first question is answered simply: Doing it right is better than doing it quickly. And I agree.

In the meantime, we have six classes to tinker with (fighter, rogue, wizard, cleric, sorcerer, warlock). Those cover the extremes of the class system, so they’re the most important anyway. [Readers who study linguistics (Okay, just me) may be familiar with the similar concept of point vowels.] Paladins and bards and monks will be better classes for having the big tent pole classes designed thoughtfully in advance. But it’s the second question that’s the real meat of the article…

If you’ve downloaded the second playtest packet you’ll find that it includes three different modes for wielding magic. Wizards and clerics cast spells in what gamers call the “Vancian” style, which was the subject of an article back in February. Vancian casters fire and forget their spells, or to use 4th Edition terminology, each of their spells is a daily power. Within that category, wizards operate under stricter rules and clerics slightly laxer, with wizards needing to choose in advance the exact spells they want to cast and clerics able to cast a certain number of spells of each level, in any combination, from those that they picked that morning (“spontaneous Vancian”).

Sorcerers, on the other hand, use a spell point system. They start the day with a pool of Willpower, and spend points from it to cast spells. It’s more flexible, since you can divvy those Willpower points however you like, but the trade-off is that you don’t have as many spells to choose from. The final spellcasting class is the warlock, who casts invocations and manages them as at-will or encounter resources. This is most similar to the AEDU (at-will, encounter, daily, utility) model from 4th Edition.

Mix-and-Match?

by Patrick

So, we can see that there are multiple spellcasting systems, each tied to a different class. I thought this was a great decision. After all, if my wizard could use spell points, he’d really be much more like a sorcerer. But not all playtesters were as pleased. Some argued that D&D Next was all about customization and player choice, and that they should be free to choose to play a sorcerer with encounter powers. It makes a certain amount of sense, but it leaves the design team in a bind.

Do they have to give each spellcasting class the option of using each magic system? I like my magic systems to live inside the classes, for the reason that this method carries information about how the world works. If you want to be able to carry your magic in a book and cast powerful Vancian spells, then you have to put in your time at a wizard academy. If you want to have the flexibility of spell points, then you’d better hope you’re lucky enough to be a dragon-blooded sorcerer. And if you want to be a limitless conduit of AEDU magic, then you’ll have to sell your soul as a warlock.

"You got spell points in my encounter power!"

Mearls presents the new solution (at least, for now, until everything changes in the next iteration of the game). The different magic systems aren’t specific to a single class apiece, but neither does each class embrace every possible system. Instead, the DM will be able to introduce modules that open up spellcasting classes to alternate magic systems. I appreciate that DMs will have the option of determining what classes can cast magic and how, and he suggests that if players want wizards who use Vancian magic and spell points, you could have those be two rival traditions of wizardry.

I can live with that, although I see it as a step in the wrong direction. While I’m sure other playtesters have felt similarly about decisions which I have approved of, I’m sad to say that this is the first design misstep I’ve so far felt disappointed about in D&D Next.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Module

by Colin

The real question here is, what do modules mean in the game? If you are a fighter and you get permission to use some advanced tactics module, you’re able to do things that other fighters can’t. Maybe there’s another fighter in your same adventuring party (not impossible, especially in a low-magic setting). If the tactical fighter is running rings around the enemy while the brutish fighter is hacking away each round, this begs for an explanation. Maybe the tactical fighter is trained as a soldier while the other fighter has been a bouncer for taverns.

On the other hand, maybe the soldier is the straightforward one and the fighter with the fancy tactical maneuvers is a martial aristocrat with formalized training. If I’m the DM, I would be tempted to standardize these a little and say that nearly all tactical fighters come from one background and nearly all brute fighters another. Maybe they are exceptions, but they are notable even for NPCs in the game.

Stupid classes... I wish I could just sell my soul and know all these books already!

So that’s the direction I see for modularized magic. Wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks all have their flavors and a wizard is not going to sell his soul for magic anymore than a warlock is going to rely on draconic ancestry. Maybe there’s a reason for two members of the same class to hurl spells in different ways, and it might be up to the player or up to the DM. I like Mike Mearls’ idea of rival wizard colleges and I think it could extend in a lot of directions.

Maybe two different cultures have different spellcasting traditions so you must choose between the “civilized” Vancian or the “barbaric” spell points, committing you to one side of the Mage Heresy conflict. Or maybe Vancian is an old magic from the Arkhosian empire so that only Vancian spellcasters can make use of magic items from that era, while spell points casters can pilot the elemental vessels from modern workshops.

Patrick outlines some fair critiques above, but I think the elephant in the room also deserves mention. Some people are not going to like this because it’s like 4e. The Edition Wars continue on these days and the most common complaint I hear from people is that, with everyone using the AEDU model, all the classes play the same. All of my arguments against this as a fault aside, in this system you have a choice.

If you’d rather not use a new spellcasting system but you want to try out this crazy warlock class, you can still play a Vancian warlock. If you want your warlock to be very different from the wizard you just finished with, there’s another style out there that’s easy to pick up. At the same time, if two people want to play wizards in the same party, they can choose very different sorts of wizards so they don’t step on each other’s toes.

This is the core philosophy of D&D Next: you get to play what you want. It still seems a little like a pipe dream to me, but this modular spellcasting idea is definitely along those lines.