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!

16 thoughts on “Variant: Dynamic Spellcasting”

  1. Hello,
    I am truly fond of this wonderful system you have brought to be. I really enjoy they way you have treated magic, and I have been looking for an alternative like this for a good long while. I love the way you have treated magic, and how skillfully you have woven three core classes into one absolute unit of a class that simultaneously innovates without throwing out babies with the bathwater. May I ask when we can expect a final release of this awesome system?

    1. Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for your kind words about the system!

      At present, we’re in the middle of playtesting other material and rather heavily focused there. We might revisit this as an alternative magic system for our version of 5.5e, but we need more feedback in order to ensure this is properly balanced. We might create a survey about this in the future, but in the mean time we would be grateful if you could share more about your experiences with the system—what works, what needs work, et cetera.

      the Archmage

  2. Here’s my two coppers,

    First of all, I’ll preface everything by saying that I LOVE this system. It gets rid of the spell slots problem without taking on the “nova” issues of spell points. It also achieves the secondary effect of making magic much more dynamic and flexible. Love the fact that any magic effect a player wants to produce can potentially be adjudicated by the DM as a spell of a certain school; just set the minimum mana cost, and you’re all set. It’s awesome. That said, here are my (hopefully constructive) criticisms.

    1. Using Constitution to set drain thresholds has the effect of making it a second key ability score for mages (alongside intelligence/wisdom/charisma). Other classes that are MAD (I’m looking at you, fighters!) get extra ASIs to compensate for this. Mages don’t.

    2. Allowing the Druid tradition to use Wisdom as their spellcasting ability gives them a bit of an advantage over the other traditions that use either Intelligence or Charisma, because the latter two are essentially dump stats in 5e with the exception of spellcasting (especially Intelligence), whereas Wisdom is important for saving throws and Perception checks. I realize this problem is a carryover from the official 5e rules, but that doesn’t change the fact that it needs addressed.

    3. The four separate traditions presented here feel a bit contrived. The Mesmer and the Battlemage are both awesome in their own ways, but their abilities are very specific, and I feel like they can simply be changed to be a spell or a spell school without requiring a separate tradition. For example, Battle Focus becomes part of the War school; Phantasm becomes part of the illusion school, etc. The Erudite mainly gets metamagic, but without spell slots the metamagic doesn’t seem nearly as interesting or useful. I’m not saying get rid of it, I’m just saying that it’s not as fun. And the Druid’s main benefit seems to be the ability to keep their own mental ability scores when shapechanging, which really depends on how the DM chooses to play the alternative. If other mages basically can’t shapechange without losing their minds, then it’s overpowered. If they can, then…..what does the Druid actually get? It’s hard to tell.

    My suggestion is to address all of the above together with the following changes:

    1. Make all the mental ability scores important by having each one do a different task. For example: Intelligence is used to make spellcasting ability checks (including to avoid Drain) and Concentration saving throws; Charisma is used to set the DC of saves and as a bonus to spell attack rolls; Wisdom is used to calculate Drain thresholds. This makes all of them equally important, but also creates meaningful choices for players, since no one will be able to max out all three scores. Do you want to cast irresistible spells? Go for high Charisma. Do you want to have magical stamina to keep on keepin’ on? Go for high Wisdom. Never lose concentration or fail a spellcasting check? Intelligence.

    2. Combine all 4 traditions into one. At levels 2, 6, 10 and 14, instead of a Tradition feature, mages get either an ASI or a special mage Feat. Those feats can include some on the regular feat list that are appropriate to mages such as Warcaster, Elemental Adept, Spell Sniper, etc. They should also include the Tradition abilities of the Erudite, Mesmer, Battlemage and Druid. This way, a player has much more customization of their character, and you avoid the issue of dump stats, MADness, etc that plagues 5e.

    3. Make Telepathy a spell. There doesn’t seem to be a thematic reason why all spellcasters are telepaths, unless your specific campaign setting calls for this.

  3. In the incredibly modified and self developed version of a D&D and Arduin hybrid that my group plays, we have a level of difficulty associated with successfully casting spells based on the spells level. Unless I missed it, I don’t see that here. I see that there is an increase chance for drain, but I am gathering that that is more about exhaustion and not about spell success. What it adds to the gameplay is the idea that the magic user is better at casting easier spells and has a better chance of it working. Casting a magic missile is less powerful, but easier and more likely to succeed than casting a fireball.

    Of course, as I’m typing, the lamentations of my magic using players is ringing in my ears. Maybe it’s unfair to ask them to have to succeed once to cast, and then a second time to hit an opponent, when we only ask fighters to succeed once. Is this how D&D works, do spells work automatically and the target’s save is the only obstacle to success?

    I guess one could say that, if the drain was at a certain level of potency, that the spell didn’t succeed, if one really wanted a chance of spell failure. What’s the general take? Should spells pretty much work automatically, or should casters have a chance of not pulling the spell off?

    1. Shoot, moments after sending this out I remembered what my point was supposed to be in the first place. So, a 10th level magic user is going to suffer the same risk when casting a low level spell as a 1st level, correct? That what I was hanging up on originally, and that’s why I was talking about spell success; in my game, success rates are on a scale determined by spell level and caster level. So, a first level mage has a 50% success rate, before modifiers, with a first level spell, but a 6th level mage would have an 80% success rate before modifiers.

      It seems to me that this is lacking in the system you are working on here. This is something that makes a lot of sense to me, the idea that higher level magic users are better at casting those spells, so I’d love to see it worked in. I’m thinking that the DC for casting could be affected by the spell level, and the DC roll could be affected by the character’s level.

      If it was a 1-1 ratio, then a third level spell would have DC 5+3+mana x2.

      Now, in my game (for reasons I have never understood) a magic user generally needs to be twice the spell level to cast it, so the magic user, presumably sixth level, would roll 1D20+6+any other modifiers to cast this spell.

      If I wanted to keep the 50% success rate, I could change the casting formula to DC5+(LVLx2)+(mana x 2).

      1. Hi Jason,

        Thank you for your question!

        Resisting drain is always a spellcasting ability check (d20 + your spellcasting ability modifier), and the DC always equals 5 + twice the mana you used to cast the spell.

        The assumption I made was that if a sorcerer starts off with Intelligence 16 at level 1, the DC for them to resist drain on their strongest spells would equal 9, which gives them about a 75% chance of success. Succeeding a 2-mana spell gets easier when they reach Intelligence 18 (80% chance) and Intelligence 20 (85% chance), with there always being a chance that they fail and incur drain.

        Drain becomes increasingly difficult to resist with stronger spells. A 13th-level druid with Wisdom 20 who uses a 5-mana spell only has a 55% chance of resisting drain, and a 17th-level mesmer with Charisma 20 who uses a 6-mana spell only a 45% chance. The punishment for failing also gets much more severe, with the mesmer potentially taking 11 drain if they roll a 1 on their check—possibly their entire Constitution score.

        The design philosophy I had behind this was that it gets increasingly risky to cast stronger spells, and a spellcaster with a limited pool of hit points would prioritize keeping up their drain buffer so as to not possibly deplete their hp through casting spells. At this point, I haven’t received enough playtest feedback to know if this is an effective deterrent. Most combats last only 3–5 rounds, and unless the DM throws multiple encounters at the party in a day, I can see this being a nonissue.

        On the other hand, this system achieves what I set out to do, which was a twofold goal:

        (1) Not limit spellcasters with arbitrary restrictions on their use of magic, as is the case with spell slots; and
        (2) Not require an additional roll to see if the spell succeeds when there’s already a chance the spell attack misses or the spell effect is resisted

        The second point is the issue that you’re running into with your system, and which I think is completely fair for your players to grumble about. As you said, the fighter doesn’t have to make a “competence check” (as I refer to these kinds of rolls wherever I see them) just to be able to swing his sword. Instead, the success or failure of his attack is solely measured by the attack roll (and the damage roll, to an extent). Likewise, forcing the mage to roll to see if he can use his core class feature that turn is completely inappropriate to my mind.

        Some additional or alternative options I’m considering for implementation, depending on how the playtest feedback goes:

        * Apply disadvantage on spellcasting checks made to resist drain when your drain total exceeds your Constitution score.
        * Whenever you suffer drain in excess of your Constitution score, you suffer 1 level of exhaustion (functionally the same as above, but also punishes other ability checks).
        * A random effect table for when you fail a check to resist drain.
        * A cumulative reduction to the maximum mana a spellcaster can channel into a spell based on how badly they’ve been resisting drain.

        Ultimately, the system has to be simple and logical as well as robust enough to accommodate progression. These are three factors that most RPG spellcasting systems fail to reconcile, which is why I released these rules in playtest stage to get feedback. The current form of the rules could possibly see significant revision based on everyone’s experience.

        the Archmage

        1. The intelligence increase makes sense. My system doesn’t really incorporate any increase in stats as players progress. I’ve toyed with the idea of changing this, but never followed through. I think I’m going to give this a go, but it won’t be a true playtest for you, as I’m going to have to adapt for that difference. Sorry to be a let-down.

          At the moment, I’m looking at DC 5 + (manna x2) + Spell LVL. I know yours aren’t broken into levels, but I’m going to stick with them and see how it goes.

          The players will roll 1D20+ability Mod + caster LVL.

          Let me know if you see and glaring and obvious issues with this.

  4. Really going to give this a through look through. I’ve been looking for a 5e system that can be adapted to the Channeling magic system in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and so far this seems to be the best fit.

    Thanks for all the work!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *