Variant: Dynamic Spellcasting

Lake Geneva, 1971. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, finding their Chainmail Fantasy Supplement to be of surprising popularity, begin work on a new supplement that would be the first incarnation of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. This supplement would take the fire-breathing dragon, the spell-slinging wizard, and the mighty hero (worth four normal warriors), turning them from mere afterthoughts into the stars of the show.

It was an exercise of turning square holes into circles and rounding out the concepts behind each character type, making for unique options that would offer a variety of play styles. Chainmail had already shifted the focus from units of men to individual heroes, and this new supplement had to go the extra mile. The game distanced itself from the battlefield simulations and focused on indoor adventures, such as castles and dungeons. This, more so than anything else, necessitated a change to magic.

In the Fantasy Supplement, wizards had essentially been given re-skinned catapult shots (fireball) and cannon fire (lightning bolt), as well as a few other spells still familiar today, such as invisibility and conjure elemental. But even with these concepts to work with, there were significant holes in the mechanics of how a single spellcaster would learn and cast spells. Some framework had to be established, something that would allow for each spellcaster to interact with the levelling system and grow more powerful as they advanced in their adventuring career.

And thus began a long and tempestuous relationship between Jack Vance and Dungeons & Dragons.

Vancian Magic

Jack Vance (1916-2013) was an award-winning mystery, science fiction, and fantasy author. Among his most well-known works is The Dying Earth series, a collection of books beginning with the eponymous The Dying Earth (1950). In the world of The Dying Earth, there are many wizards who memorize lengthy arcane formulae for their spells, casting them later by speaking the proper arcane words. Sound familiar? Well, that isn’t even scratching the surface of the mechanics which Gygax and Arneson wholesale stole borrowed liberally from Mr. Vance. The following quote from The Dying Earth sheds some illumination on this:

The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time. […]

Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

That pretty much reads as though it’s straight out of your D&D wizard’s journal, doesn’t it? Especially if your wizard has been around since, say, 3rd edition, when you had to prepare your spells every day as opposed to simply having a list of prepared spells that you could always cast as long as you have spell slots. That’s right, if orcs broke down your front door in the morning, you needed three minutes to prepare a fireball to dispatch them.

For all its many flaws, it makes a lot of sense that Gygax and Arneson would use this system. After all, it comes with two built-in ways to advance as you level: you acquire more powerful spells and you can hold more of them in your mind. Powerful spellcasters can cast stronger spells more often in a day than less powerful spellcasters. It made sense then, and in many ways it still makes sense today.

But what if your world doesn’t have Vancian magic? What if magic isn’t a set of spells with names and prescriptive formulae, but rather an expression of the spellcaster’s will in the moment? What if spellcasting is like swinging a sword, with every stroke able to be measured and balanced for the precise task? What if you just want to light your pipe without burning a 3rd-level spell slot to cast fireball? Well, then you need to tell Jack Vance that he has to stop dictating how magic works in your world.

Magic After Jack Vance

One helpful method of limiting the influence of Vancian magic is already presented in chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide in the form of the spell points variant. This eliminates the clunky and arbitrary spell slots mechanic in favour of providing a pool of magical power that behaves rather like mana. You can use as little or as much of it as you need in the moment, allowing you to cast more lower-level spells or a few higher-level spells as the situation demands.

However, this still leaves the issue of idiosyncratic spells that are set in stone and cannot be adjusted for the moment. The magic of a fireball spell is such that it always blows up in a 20-foot radius conflagration—you can’t shrink it to be more potent, nor make it bigger at the cost of some of its damage, even if such options would be balanced in terms of gameplay. Nor can you spread its magic out over a longer period of time to, say, heat a bath for an hour. Yes, you can always create a spell that fits all these situations, but then you run into the problem of only being able to know so many spells. Obviously, having an infinite number of marginally differentiated spells covering every conceivable situation is not the solution. And similarly, allowing existing spells to be altered in infinite ways conflicts with the checks and balances inherent to the existing framework of magic.

This leaves us then with the issue of needing an entirely new framework for magic in D&D if we really want to get rid of Jack Vance’s influence. Something that allows us to break the yoke of slavery to 40 years of prescriptive spellcasting.

Dynamic Spellcasting

Unlike Vancian magic, our new dynamic spellcasting system completely dispenses with spell slots. In fact, there are no limited magical resources of any form—not even spell points. Thematically, this is not unprecedented in Dungeons & Dragons. When warlocks were first introduced in Complete Arcane (2004) back in 3rd Edition, they eschewed spellcasting as a wizard or a sorcerer “through the medium of spells”. Rather, they invoked “powerful magic through nothing more than an effort of will”. As a warlock gained levels, the effects they could produce became stronger as they learned to get more from the magic that they harnessed to create them. This concept has carried forward to 5th Edition, where warlocks can use invocations to improve the effects of their eldritch blast. It is this mechanic that we believe holds the key to a new paradigm of spellcasting.

This new framework, having no daily allotment of magical power, dispenses with the so-called “8-hour adventuring day”, where the party’s progress abruptly halts when the spellcaster is out of spell slots (or spell points). Instead, spellcasters can draw on magic in the form of mana, which is measured in game terms by arbitrary units called mana points. A spellcaster can never run out of mana, since it exists everywhere and within everything. However, reckless abuse of their power can lead them to suffer drain, which has increasingly detrimental effects and may even pose a risk to the spellcaster’s health.

In addition to reworking how spellcasters interact with magic, dynamic spellcasting also completely overhauls the nature of spells, how they are learned, and how many of them function. Spells that are essentially the same thing, like hold person and hold monster, have been combined; spells that are thematically linked are able to be learned at the same time by studying their associated discipline; and spells that were horribly broken, like wall of force and contagion, have been reworked. In short, we’ve taken the Vancian concepts of only being able to know so many spells, and those spells always being the same discrete formula, and we’ve chucked them out wholesale, lit them on fire, salted the earth, and set a holy order of knights to watch it for all eternity. Using this system, you are free to sling spells the way the gods of magic intended.

Excited yet? We are. This project has been a labour of love for some time now, and we’re ready to put it to the test. ‘Test’, of course, being the operative word; revising the entire magic system is a massive undertaking, and we need your help to do it. The rules right now are written in pencil, not ink. We fully expect significant changes to follow the current version of the rules. In fact, we’re hoping for it. We want to hear your opinions, your experiences, your suggestions, your accolades, and your complaints. All of it. Let us know what works and what doesn’t. Let us know what’s fun and what isn’t. We can’t make it better without feedback.

The playtest rules also come with a new class, also fitting with the theme of deconstructing and reinventing the way D&D approaches magic. The new class, the Sorcerer, is a combination of druids, sorcerers, and wizards. You could justifiably also use it in place of clerics, as well, depending on the nature of your world. The class includes four archetypes: Battlemage, Druid, Erudite, and Mesmer, each with their own playstyle and open-ended flavour.

You can get the Spontaneous Spellcasting supplement right now on Dungeon Masters Guild. Click here or on the image below!

Join the discussion on this in the comments below or at our official Reddit page!

6 thoughts on “Variant: Dynamic Spellcasting”

  1. Hi everyone,

    Just as a quick note, I am not going to approve non-constructive comments on this project. I respect that some people have certain opinions about the spell slot system which differ from what is envisioned in this supplement, and that’s fine. I would ask that you also respect that for as long as magic has relied on spell slots in D&D, there have been attempts to eliminate the spell slot system, and this is ours.

    If you have constructive criticisms of the system or legitimate complaints about how it has been designed, please share your thoughts. Don’t think that we don’t want to hear, “[This] doesn’t work” or “[This] might be better”. Just leave out the “I hate [this] because it’s different” comments.

    – the Archmage

  2. This looks fantastic and I’m excited to read it over, mastermind with my players, and give it a shot. For our current campaign, set in my world of Aerinnia, I turned the D&D rules of magic on edge with a modified spell slot system and branches of Elemental Magic (yes, I separated out ALL of the spells into related elements and added more from homebrew and D&D official resources for balance!) plus a War Mage school that is the only branch that is learned at a royally sanctioned university (think Hogwarts). I look forward to providing feedback!

  3. Took a quick read-through of this, and it looks pretty solid and would probably make more sense for my GM since he can’t grasp the spell slot system. The one thing I would like to see, and this is likely my enjoyment of Final Fantasy and SMT talking, but I would like to see spells have a “tier” on their sheet so that leafing through you can quickly determine the minimum mana for casting them. This fits my idea of what magic should be far better than the current system or spell point variant. Magic should follow some archetypes but have a lot of wiggle room to make it work for you.

  4. Hi! I’m really interested in this, because a *lot* of my players want more freeform style magic casting. I just, have a few questions. How is this supposed to interact with halfcasters, or ever ‘tertiary casters’ like eldritch knight, and such? Also, What about bards, clerics, and warlocks? Should they keep using the base system while ‘wizards/sorcerers/druids’ use this system? The fact that all spells are subtle, seems like a rather important advantage? Though I may be overestimating how good that is. Also, can you explain why all sorcerers straight up get telepathy at level 2? Seems kinda… really powerful, I’d have preferred it as a psychic talent. It just, seems rather odd?

    Outside of those questions, some thematic thoughts: It seems rather hard to represent the variable styles found in three classes, in this single class. Honestly, I feel like there should be another ‘druid style’ path to go with, because while shapeshifting *is* peak druid themes, I feel like there should be something to match the other, less ‘turn into monsters’ aspects of druids as well. Something more ‘elemental/nature master’ perhaps.
    I do, however, *adore* the mesmer path (guild wars 2 inspired?) And think it’s a really good unique style.

    1. Hi Alice,

      Thanks for your message!

      I’m still trying to work out how half casters would work. Like I said, these are playtest rules, so nothing is set in stone as the mechanics are being fine tuned. When it works for full casters, I will try implementing the half-casting rules. My current design angle is twofold:
      1) Halve the maximum mana per spell for half-casters and one-third casters; and
      2) One-third casters suffer hit point loss when their drain exceeds their Constitution modifier, not half their Constitution score

      At this point, drain is the main mechanic that needs to be resolved. Is the current system a sufficient deterrent for people to stop spamming full-powered spells, or does it need to be made more significant? If it needs to be adjusted, then it might be back to the drawing board with half and one-third casters. So for now I’m just waiting for more feedback like yours.

      I’ll also definitely reconsider having it as a psychic talent. I always resented that magical talent didn’t simply allow telepathic communication by nature, but I accept that I may be biased in this.

      Thanks again!
      – the Archmage

      1. You could consider limiting halfcasters and/or thirdcasters to certain types of magic. Limit eldritch knight to battle magic, paladins to heal-smite-y magic, etc.

        Personally, looking through it, I feel like drain basically says “You cast using health, but don’t always *spend* health depending on how luck and the strength of the spell you’re casting.” Which, is honestly a cool concept, I like it.

        Telepathy is probably a whole lot better as a psychic talent, partly because it’s not in theme for all ‘Sorcerers’ and thus, would be better as a choice.

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