Another Way of Spellcasting

Wielding spells without that pesky memorisation-thing

There is no doubt that many attempts have been made to revamp or streamline the official OD&D spell-casting system. This article is yet another, but is intended not so much to build a better mousetrap, but more to make sense of spell-casting within the context of game “realism.”

Our first concern is spell memorisation, as we believe that if a magic-user knows a spell well enough to memorise it, he should retain it after a successful cast. Our second concern is the predictable spells-by-level progression all casters follow, and we think a system to add some variation would be a helpful tool for players and DMs. Our final concern is the result of spell failure, which is hinted at in the rules, but not part of the spell-casting process as presented.The system herein is completely optional, and while we find it useful, it doesn’t necessarily fit into every campaign (or even a majority of campaigns). If you find the concepts below intriguing, we suggest applying them to the PCs and one or two NPCS for a few sessions before converting your campaign’s spell-casting rules wholesale.

Total Spell Levels (TSL)

These guidelines are founded on a caster’s Total Spell Levels (TSL), or the sum of all spell levels he can memorise at his current level, under the official rules. TSL can be thought of as the pool from which a caster draws his spell power, and while it would be an oversimplification to equate TSL with “spellpoints,” the comparison isn’t far from the mark.

A caster’s TSL is based on the spell progression table for his class (cleric, RC/14; magic-user, RC/19; elf, as magic-user; druid, as cleric). Calculate the caster’s TSL as follows:

  1. Reference the caster’s level on the appropriate spell progression table.
  2. Sum the number of spells allowed at each level.

The result is the caster’s TSL, which indicates the maximum number of spell levels the caster can loose during a single day. For example, a 7th-level magic-user is allowed three 1st-level spells, two 2nd-level spells, two 3rd-level spells, and one 4th-level spell. The TSL is 8, as shown:

Spell Level Spells Allowed
1 3
2 2
3 2
4 1
Total Spell Levels: 8

The caster may use only those spells contained in his spellbook (grimoires for magic-users or lectionaries for clerics). When a spell is cast, the caster’s TSL is temporarily reduced by the level of the spell loosed; when TSL reaches zero, no more spells may be cast until the following day (or, at the DM’s option, after 8 hours of uninterrupted rest). However, when a spell is cast, it is not forgotten, and may be re-used as often as the TSL allows.

  • The 7th-level magic-user above has a TSL of eight, allowing him to cast a total of eight levels worth of spells per day. These could manifest as eight 1st-level spells, 2 4th-level spells, 1 5th- and 1 3rd-level spell, or a single 8th-level spell. Once he has cast eight levels worth of spells, the caster is done until rested.

The Spell Check Roll

To offset the ability to re-cast spells without memorisation, and the use of higher level spells than normally permitted, this system requires any spell-casting attempt to be arbitrated with an attribute check (called a spell check or spell roll).

As with other attribute checks, the spell roll’s target number is 16, and the Difficulty Modifier is equal to the level of the spell cast. Casting magic-user spells is based on INT; casting druidic or clerical spells is based on WIS.

  • A 5th-level magic-user with INT 16 as primary casts Web, a 2nd-level spell. The spell check has a TN 18, and the mage’s check modifier is +10 (+5 for 5th-level, +5 for INT as primary); the caster needs a 8 or better on the d20 roll for the spell to succeed.
  • A 1st-level cleric with WIS 14 as primary casts Cure Light Wounds, a 1st-level spell. The spell check has a TN of 17, and the cleric’s check modifier is +5 (+1 for 1st-level, +4 for WIS as primary). The cleric needs a 12 or better to cast the spell successfully.

When a spell check fails, consult the Spell Failure table unless otherwise noted (see below).

Spellbooks and Reference

A spellbook serves as a reference source for the caster. This is not spell memorisation in the same sense as outlined in the official rules, but more of a “refresher” or lookup, like that performed by a computer programmer who consults a manual to check a certain function or instruction set.Each point of TSL per day requires a total of one hour of study (or prayer) per week. To simulate this during play, each spell-caster declares his intended number of study hours at the start of each game week; this is his daily TSL, up to the maximum allowed by experience level (see above). The weekly hours should be spread evenly throughout the week so that the character knows how long he has to study each day. Depending on circumstances and environment, it may be impossible for a caster to find enough hours in the day to reach his maximum TSL, and the daily TSL may be adjusted on a weekly basis depending on how much study time a caster can manage (you may require a minimum 8 hours of sleep per night in order to “”recharge”” one’s daily TSL).

  • A 3rd-level magic-user has a TSL of 3; to achieve a daily TSL of 3, he must study his grimoire for a total of 3 hours per week. Spread out over the course of a week (assume 7 days of 24 hours each), this equates to about 25 minutes of study each day.
  • A 12th-level cleric has a TSL of 18, so he needs to pray for 18 hours each week to maintain a daily TSL 18. This equates to about 2.5 hours (156 minutes) per day.
  • A 36th-level magic-user has a TSL of 81; this requires 11.6 hours of study per day. Given the need for 8 hours of sleep each night, this leaves a total of 4.4 hours per day for other activities. This might be alright for a calm week of research in the home laboratory, but this week, the mage is adventuring—he needs at least 9 hours of free time each day. Working backwards and accounting for sleep, this allows for only 7 hours of study per day, or 49 hours per week. As a result, even though the magic-user is 36th-level, his daily TSL is reduced to only 49 (about that of a 25th-level mage). While this is still pretty powerful, keep in mind that the mage is missing out on 32 spell levels per day (the equivalent of 10 fireballs, 6 contact outer plane, or 3 shapechanges).

Learning and Acquiring Spells

Magical spells are essentially recipes that combine mundane and arcane incredients into spell effects; these recipies are kept in a mage’s grimoire. As a magic-user advances in his career, he may “invent” his own spell recipes (q.v., spell research).Clerical spells are revealed to clerics as prayers and are kept in lectionaries. As a cleric rises in experience level, his lectionary grows through the addition of catechisms taught by the church or traditional prayers passed by his mentors.

When a spell scroll containing either clerical prayers or magical forumulae is discovered, a spell-caster may loose the spells directly from the scroll or copy the spells into his spellbook. Before either option can be exercised, the caster must read the spell(s) inscribed. All spell scrolls are written in ancient or dead languages (e.g., the campaign equivalent of Pelopenesian, Aramaic, or Latin). This requires either read languages or read magic, assuming that the caster cannot read the script through mundane means.

Invoking a spell scroll (i.e., casting a spell by reading it aloud) does not impact a caster’s TSL or require a spell check. However, unless the caster already has the spell in his arsenal, it is typically wiser to add the spell to one’s spellbook (N.B. the DM may rule that prayers on a clerical spell scroll may be unuseable by clerics outside the religion for which is was written).When copying a spell from a scroll to a spellbook, the caster must make a successful spell check roll (as noted above). With a successful roll, the caster understands the spell and has copied it into his spellbook. If the roll fails, the duplication process turns out to be wasted time. Regardless, the magical script on the scroll fades.

Casting Spells

Once a spell is copied into the caster’s spellbook, it can be referenced and cast at any time. Using a spell requires a successful spell check roll (as above). If the roll fails, the Spell Failure table must be consulted immediately. Regardless of success or failure, the attempt reduces the caster’s current TSL by the spell’s level. As mentioned previously, when the TSL reaches zero, no further spells may be cast until the caster rests.

Players may balk at having to make a spell check roll for every casting, since spell-casting is automatically successful under the official OD&D rules. However, this practice helps to balance our spell-casting system. Its purpose is to prevent high-level spell-casters from hurling spells willy-nilly, and to preclude low-level casters from becoming too powerful. The DM should explain these factors to recalcitrant players; if complaints persist, the DM should point out that fighters have to roll whenever they swing their sword, thieves whenever they pick a pocket, and clerics when they seek to turn the undead. Given the need to roll for other class abilities, it seems fair that spell-casting follow suit.

TSL by Class and Level

For convenience, each spell-casting class’s TSL has been calculated and is cited below:
Cleric and Druid

Level TSL Level TSL Level TSL Level TSL
1 0 10 14 19 32 28 48
2 1 11 16 20 33 29 49
3 2 12 18 21 35 30 51
4 3 13 21 22 36 31 53
5 4 14 23 23 39 32 55
6 5 15 25 24 41 33 57
7 7 16 27 25 42 34 59
8 9 17 29 26 44 35 61
9 11 18 30 27 46 36 63

Magic-User and Elf

Level TSL Level TSL Level TSL Level TSL
1 1 10 14 19 32 28 56
2 2 11 16 20 34 29 59
3 3 12 18 21 35 30 62
4 4 13 19 22 38 31 64
5 5 14 21 23 41 32 68
6 6 15 23 24 45 33 72
7 8 16 26 25 47 34 75
8 10 17 29 26 50 35 80
9 12 18 30 27 52 36 81

Update – 22 April 2015

As noted in the comments below, I’ve streamlined this system since writing this article in 2002. Basically, it comes down to this:

A spellcaster may cast any known spell, up to a number of spell levels equal to his experience level each day. Additional spells are possible but cost 1hp/spell level to represent fatigue.

Obviously, this approach removes the need to consult the TSL tables, but (importantly), it also bypasses the spell roll and thus is easier to plug into any D&D or retro-clone game.

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Erin Smale

Erin Smale is the author of the Chimera RPG and, a sporadic, rambling blog that provides tips and tools for the time-challenged game master. He lives in secret along the New Jersey coast with his ass-kicking wife Kim and astoundingly cute dog Bella.

5 thoughts on “Another Way of Spellcasting

  • April 7, 2015 at 22:33

    I like this system. I love how it adds a hint of tension when casting magic, but allows magic users to cast spells that they need at the moment rather than what they memorized at the beginning of the day: “Web would have been handy to cast but instead I have Wizard Lock.” Thank you!

    • April 10, 2015 at 10:16

      I’ve taken a closer look at this system, and I’m really jazzing on it. I think this sounds like a pretty alternative to Vancian magic without going hog wild. What I like, too, is that Magic Users at low levels can spend a few minutes of game time to recoup their TSL points, so that even if they only have one spell, they can regain that point to cast again. Of course, as a DM I will also encourage MUs to take the time so that I can role some more wandering monster checks!

      • April 22, 2015 at 08:40

        Glad you like it! For me, this is all about offering spellcasting PCs more options while giving a nod to Vancian resource management.

        Since writing this article, I’ve streamlined the system to allow a spellcaster to cast a number of spell levels equal to his experience level each day (i.e., 3rd-level MU gets 3 spell levels). Additional spells are allowed, but take a hit point per spell level (representing fatigue).

        This is faster, requires no table lookup, and gets rid of the spell roll, so it’s easier to fit into your favourite flavour of OSR.

        • April 22, 2015 at 09:36

          Have those changes been made in the above article? Have you thought of creating a PDF of your rules for easy download? Thanks for creating this alternative system.

  • April 22, 2015 at 11:30

    Good call – I provided an update above (thinking the change is too short to warrant a new article).

    I tend to use different rules for different settings – one size does not always fit all. Maybe instead of a single rules PDF, I’ll share some of the Players’ Guides I create when I start up a campaign. IME, rule mods always make more sense in the context of a given setting.


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