2020-01-05 Spellcasters and Spell Lists

Every now and then, people wonder whether there’s some magic system out there that could supplant the so-called Vancian system: have some spells you know, have some spell slots, cast spells until you’re “out of spells” and then wait for the next day, in game.

The variations I like work within these confines: I liked D&D 3.5 sorcerers, for example: they knew a limited number of spells but didn’t have to choose any before using them. The “repertoire” of spells used in ACKS works the same way, and I’m using the same for Halberds & Helmets.

Repertoire: The list of spells in your spell book make up your repertoire. It’s size is determined by your level. The table below shows the maximum number of spells in your repertoire and the number of spells you can cast per day. You regain your spell casting powers after a good night’s sleep at the dawn of day.


So, as a second level elf you have two spells (”of the first circle”) in your repertoire, and you can cast two spells (”of the first circle”) per day, without having to pick anything ahead of time. The drawback is that you can neither cast more spells per day nor can you learn more than given by the limits in the table above. If you want to learn a spell without gaining a level, you need to lose one of your existing spells in your repertoire. And you always need a mentor to teach you new spells.

I find this works well at the table.

In contrast, when I tried to use a magic words system in the past, it didn’t quite work: I was trying to go back to the old Schwertmeister system where player characters discover magic rune stones and can combine them in a triangle, one for medium, one for the means, and one for the target, except simpler. I thought: have some runes; tell me what spells you improvise on the spot and it will be great! Sadly, it also put a lot of pressure on players in a fast paced, immersive game where I don’t too much meta discussion about the game and the mechanics. Incidentally, that’s also what I don’t like about very light magic systems like the ones I saw in Burning Wheel and Barbarians of Lemuria. I mean, I like rulings, a “short negotiation”.

I propose how this is going to fall out and there’s a little moment of silence where players can interject or propose a different ruling until we’re all as happy as can be, and play proceeds.

But I don’t want to have this sort of discussion for every single spell being cast. Is power level two or three more appropriate? How about we figure it out and write it down? And then we write it down for the next spell, too. And for the one after that. Well, actually, now that we’re doing that, how about going back to those old spell lists. It works!

Yes, it’s less “mysterious”. But it works. I guess “spellburn” allows magic users and elves to cast more spells at the risk of permanently reducing their ability scores, and that fits well with some of the literature. I’d be willing to try it. Back when I was trying to run M20, however, where hit points also doubled as mana points and so casting spells simply drained hit points, my players were not amused. So I have the lingering feeling that this is great for short character arcs but less interesting for campaigns fifty sessions long.

Anyway... I still love good ol’ spell lists! I like Gavin Norman’s Theorems & Thaumaturgy. I like Nathan E. Irving’s The Basic Illusionist. And Ancient Vaults & Eldritch Secrets as been posting new spells since 2009! 😀

And I’ve been working on my own spells, too. I’ve been organising my Spellcasters document as a list of individual magic users and elves with their spell books, each with more or less unique spells (but in practice of course many of them also share such classics as charm person or sleep). In a game were casters need teachers, the magic users and elves in the book can act as such. Or perhaps they can simply be interesting non-player characters in your campaigns. Let me know if you ever use one of them! 😁

These last few days I’ve been working my documents:

You can find all of this in the download section.



Do you refer to first or revised edition of Theorems and Thaumaturgy?

– K Yani 2020-01-05 19:08 UTC

I think for the purpose of this argument it doesn’t really matter. The one I know best is the first one, though.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-05 20:16 UTC

I am asking because on DriveThru storepage one review mentions that some part(s) is/are removed in Revised edition.

– K Yani 2020-01-06 11:38 UTC

That is true. Contact me via email and send you a copy. 😀

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-06 14:58 UTC

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