Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Homebrew Rules – Part 3: The Nature & Practice of Spellcasting

This is  the third part of a series of homebrew rules for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

Exhibit 3: Spellbooks & Preparing Spells

D&D - spellbook

This staple of the wizard class has always seemed to me to be more than simply a recipe book for spells. Surely the text isn’t as banal as “two dashes of bat guano, aged sixty-six days; a diamond worth at least 100 gp…” Perhaps I am biased in this regard because of my exhaustive experience studying textbooks (the closest analogy to a spellbook), and my notes for writing papers (an approximate analogy to spellcasting) are excerpts from various sources, exhaustively cited in what someone who has no experience in my academic field would find… well… arcane. Here is an excerpt from one of my university papers to demonstrate what I mean:

It is from Xenophon that we see our first approbation of the legendary law-giver Lycurgus in detail since the account of Herodotus.1 Any discussion of the “essential Sparta” immortalized in the Spartan mirage must needs include Lycurgus, central as he is to understanding the “ideal Sparta” as discussed by ancient sources. Lycurgus is almost invariably depicted as a paragon of Spartan virtues, a visionary reformer who set Sparta on a path to supremacy. So important were the Lycurgan reforms that the reason for Sparta’s eventual fall after the Battle of Leuctra, as Xenophon put it, was said to be that it was “manifest that [the Spartans] obey[ed] neither their god nor the laws of Lycurgus”.2 Yet, beyond his recognition as the traditional reformer of Sparta’s constitution, few details about Lycurgus are consistent across accounts. Plutarch perhaps most famously admitted:

Concerning Lycurgus the Lawgiver absolutely nothing can be said that is beyond dispute. His ancestry, his foreign travels, his death, and above all his activity concerning the laws and the constitution, all are reported differently. And there is the least agreement about the chronology of the man’s life3

1 6.58
2 Xen. Respublica Lacedaemoniorum 14.1f; cf. De Laix, Roger A. “Aristotle’s Conception of the Spartan Constitution”. Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan., 1974): 28.
3 Lyc. 1.1

While my exquisite prose is certainly sufficient to guide even an amateur historian through my complex assessment of ancient sources, few who haven’t done actual academic research (in Classics especially) will be able to follow the names and abstruse shorthand that goes into the citations. This is precisely how I imagine a wizard’s spellbook… notes which reference formulae and laws which the wizard will have experience with, compiled not so much as a series of instructions (a recipe of sorts) but a resource for a wizard to keep a spell’s mechanics fresh in their memory.

Of course, this is apparently not how Wizards of the Coast envisions spellbooks. The only official “fluff” that would align with this approach concerns adding spells to your spellbook from another source. From page 114 of the PHB:

Copying a spell into your spellbook involves reproducing the basic form of the spell, then deciphering the unique system of notation used by the wizard who wrote it.

The official concept of a spellbook appears to be pages and pages of complex “mathematical” proofs which a Wizard must memorize constantly, as they ultimately forget these details when they cast the spell. This is a system of magic known as “Vancian” after Jack Vance’s seminal fantasy series Dying Earth where mages effectively had to re-learn their spells every time they wished to cast them, as though they were a magic gun firing spells for bullets.

This cumbersome tradition is slowly becoming more streamlined in the vanilla rules. Wizards in 5th edition now no longer require perfect foresight in the spells they need for the day; they can prepare “x” number of spells and cast them as many times as they have open/applicable spell slots (instead of having to prepare, say, three Fireballs), but those spells are still their only selection until they spend time studying their spellbook again. Furthermore, most Wizard spells can be cast using higher spell slots for better results, allowing additional flexibility when it comes to using your total number of spell slots throughout the day. Nonetheless, Wizards are still locked into their selection, prompting issues which led to one of my favourite fourth-wall breaches by the webcomic The Order of the Stick:

Leeky Windstaff: You did not actually prepare any sonic energy spells today, did you?
Vaarsuvius: Not as such, no.
Leeky Windstaff: Truly, more wizards have been laid low by the writings of Jack Vance than by any single villain.
Vaarsuvius: On an unrelated note, would you consider a brief pause in the battle? Say, about eight hours or so?

– The Order of the Stick, #345

My solution to this insanity involves rethinking the way that Wizards prepare their spells. In fact, it involves rethinking the way that Wizards develop and maintain their powers on a fundamental level.

Solution: Inherent Magical Abilities

This is an unpopular solution among the legions of players who insist that it is Sorcerers who are born with innate magic, while Wizards learn their abilities, but I’m the kind of person who thought midi-chlorians were a plausible solution to the central question in Star Wars. (You know, the “why the fuck isn’t EVERYBODY a Jedi?” question.) If Wizards can manipulate space and time, destroy entire armies with a few powerful spells, and even cheat death through arcane rituals to “live” on as sentient undead, the only plausible reason to not become a Wizard is because it’s against your faith. And, let’s be fair, if my faith has Wizards, and yours doesn’t, your faith is not going to last very long.

But I digress. My solution is not so exclusive that common people couldn’t learn the fundamentals of magic. In fact, the existence of such options as the Magic Initiate feat demonstrate that anyone talented enough can master the basics. I envision Wizards more like Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Early in the series, all of her friends, battle-hardened as they were (even Xander, that lovable dork) are able to contribute to the curse which restores Angel’s soul, but when they get into the process Willow’s prodigious natural talent manifests, and she takes over its completion on her own (S2E22). Willow would go on to become one of the most powerful witches in history. This involved Willow possessing something none of her peers possessed, and it became her greatest strength in the “Scooby Gang”.

In much the same way, not everybody has the “stuff” to be a wizard, even though they might learn to cast Light or Magic Missile. Furthermore, being a wizard requires a singular dedication. Unlike Sorcerers, who have boundless potential waiting for them to grow strong enough to wield it, Wizards develop their potential and strength in equal measure through careful study and constant practice. It’s a thematic distinction, but an important one for explaining the class’ mechanics.

Rethinking Spellbooks & Prepared Spells

A consequence of wizards possessing inherent magic abilities is that their spellbook is there as more of a resource than a crutch. In my solution, wizards don’t need to study their spellbook every day to physically prepare the same spells over and over; they need to study their spellbook to change their prepared spell selection and maintain practice with the spells they are already familiar with using. The maximum number of spells a Wizard can prepare in a day (your Intelligence modifier + your Wizard level) represents what they can remember without having to spend long periods of study re-familiarize themselves with the interaction of certain magical effects necessary to produce the desired result (ex. a conflagration of flames). When studying their spellbook to prepare daily spells, the number of minutes of study required per spell level is always 1. For example, rather than having to spent 9 minutes “re-preparing” the 9th level spell Wish, a Wizard would only have to spend 1 minute studying her spellbook to stay familiar with its complex formulae. Additionally, my solution allows for Wizards to swap out their prepared spells during short rests, rather than only after long rests. That way, if the party unexpectedly encounters monsters with specific weaknesses and immunities, the Wizard can use the time they spend regrouping in some fortified part of the dungeon to swap out some less applicable spells. The number of spells that can be swapped out during a short rest is equal to the Wizard’s Intelligence modifier. Swapping out your entire list of prepared spells can still only be done during a long rest.

Another notable consequence of this solution is that a Wizard whose spellbook is stolen or destroyed doesn’t wake up the next morning inexplicably unable to cast anything more than a cantrip. They wake up able to cast the same spells they could yesterday, with certain restrictions (see below).

No longer a reason to “retire” your character to that farm where unwanted adventurers live happily ever after.

The most obvious restriction is due to eidetic memory having been scientifically discredited a myth (with possible exceptions such as John von Neumann). Even Wizards, with their practised abilities to focus, would start to forget minor details of complex formulae without constant study. For every day a Wizard goes without studying their spellbook, they lose 1d4-1 spells from their prepared list. This process continues until the Wizard creates another spellbook or they are left with only a number of prepared (“recalled”) spells equal to their Intelligence modifier. Because the higher the spell level, the more complex the formulae behind it, Wizards in this situation forget their highest level spells first. The only exception to this trend is if the highest level spell is from the school included in their Arcane Tradition (see PHB 115-119). For example, a 5th level Evoker who has lost his spellbook and whose only recalled 3rd level is Fireball would lose a lower-level spell from another school before he forgot Fireball. Additionally, spells that have been forgotten can be replaced in a new book (once you eventually obtain one) as though you were copying them from your old spellbook. For example, a Wizard who lost her spellbook and was re-learning the 7th level spell Fire Storm would need only spend 7 hours and 70 gp copying the spell from the new source, as opposed to 14 hours and 350 gp. See the “Your Spellbook” sidebar on PHB 114 for further rules regarding copying a spell into your spellbook.

The tyranny of Vancian magic has long stifled Wizards in Dungeons & Dragons, and these adjustments to the vanilla rules are intended to make the class more appealing both thematically and mechanically. Where before losing their spellbook would turn Wizards back to level 0 overnight, now they maintain utility based on innate competence and exhaustive practice. The days of contemplating throwing your Wizard into the same fire that claimed his spellbook so you could “re-roll” his twin sibling with exactly the same ability scores, experience total, and spell selection and have them conveniently appear to lay claim to the original’s share of the loot should, fortunately, be behind you with the implementation of these suggestions.

Image credit: Giant in the Playground Forums
Image credit: Wizards of the Coast (“Book Burning”, MTG)

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