Thursday, May 13, 2010

OD&D Magic Champions Style

I asked a question the other day as to whether or not anyone had tried to break down the OD&D spell list into quantified mechanics ala Champions superpowers. I did this because I have been contemplating doing exactly that, but didn't want to duplicate any work already done (it is a rather daunting task, especially with some of the higher level spells). Thanks to all those who answered, but it seems that if someone has done such a thing, those who read this blog don't know about it.

I'm interested for a couple of reasons. It allows a lot of freedom for players — when special effects are up to player creativity, it can expand the idea of 'what is magic' in ways that D&D has never conceived. It also makes magic adaptable to all kinds of genres and settings.

The first step in this process is to come up with a list of categories that describe the various spells in OD&D, regardless of spell level. For example, both sleep and hold person incapacitate their targets. The next step is to break down the various mechanics of these spells to determine what mechanical variables each category has and how many spell levels each mechanic is worth.

As an exercise, let me tackle one of the easiest categories in OD&D: damage dealing spells. Surprisingly, there are only two spells that directly deal damage to their targets: fire ball and lightning bolt. Both of these spells can be broken down into three mechanics:
  1. damage of 1d6/ level
  2. area effect (total of 4 one inch squares)
  3. ranged
Since both spells are 3rd level, each mechanic costs one level. In the case of area effect and ranged , it is easy to construe what a spell would look like sans these mechanics: a target of one creature and a touch attack. The damage, however, requires some interpretation. Since damage is linked to the spell caster's level, I am going to assume that a lower damage slot ought to as well. Thus, a lower damage level could be 1d4/level or 1d6+level. At lower levels 1d4 is not worth wasting a spell on and at higher levels, it will always average above 60% of the damage done by 1d6/level. In my opinion, this is too powerful. On the other hand, 1d6+level is a good hardy spell at lower levels and at high levels starts to average around 30% of what 1d6/level does. This seems to me a good balance.

Thus, players are now free to create a plethora of damage dealing spells ranging from 1st to 3rd level with all sorts of special effects. As an example, let's take three 1st level spell concepts from later editions of D&D:

  • Magic Missile: ranged, single target, damage = 1d6+level of caster
  • Shocking Grasp: no range, single target, damage = 1d6/level
  • Color Spray: no range, area effect, damage = 1d6+level of caster

The beauty of this, to my mind, is that we are not limited to the special effects of existing spells. The three spells above could be anything we want to imagine: the three above could just as easily be called Arrow of St. Sebastian, the Hand of the Necromancer, and the Aura of Pain.

Unfortunately, not all of the mechanics of OD&D spells are this easy to dissect. Hopefully, I'll have more to share in the future.


Talysman said...

That's actually sort of the way the alternate Microlite 20 spell system worked. I tracked down the thread here. The OP presents a set of ideas, including the magic system, which has different base damage for touch, ranged, and area effect spells. You purchase damage effects or healing effects. Later in the thread, I counter-proposed adding damage resistance and non-combat spells: each spell level is worth 1 die of effect (damage, damage resistance, healing,) or a broad +1 bonus, or a narrow +2 bonus, or one color adjective.

I later developed a related system -- actually, a way to convert The Fantasy Trip spells, weapons and talents to Microlite 20 -- in something I called Lowlite6. It might be useful, even though it's not strict D&D.

Of possible interest: there was a Dragon article some time back about creating custom spells, which worked somewhat the same way: take a base spell, add 1 level for each addition effect. It also talked about varying range, duration, area of effect, and casting time by doubling one of the first three and halving two of the others, or cutting one of the others to one-third, or tripling casting time.

FrDave said...


Thanks for the links and for your ideas. Unfortunately, this is not as helpful as I had hoped. I started with damage causing spells, because they are simple; however, I am also trying to include all of the various special effects from the OD&D spell list. I happen to be a big fan of utility spells. When used creatively, they can be far more effective than pure combat spells.

For example, I once took out a group of mounted skeletons using a ball of twine and an enlarge spell. As someone who played a lot of spell casters over the years, I am not interested in ridding the game of this kind of creativity.

Hobo Ogre said...

I like your approach. I'm doing this for my "Fractured Ways" adventure setting, only I go one step further by letting the player decide which elemental form they conjure to power such spells.

Magic Missle can be a bolt of lightning, fire, acid, etc. But the damage, range, and area of effect are determined by how many "points" (levels) they put into the spell.

This elimates the need for spell lists by letting the player choose a few variables, coming with a cost or spell level and applying in against their "Spells per Day" chart.

This sort of "behind the scenes" approach to magic, for elemental spells anyway, covers all of the "Missle", "Wall of...", "Fireball", and "Meteor Swarm" spells by making them specific examples of a larger, flexible system.

sycarion said...

I'm trying something like this myself. I've made a class generator and a semi-functional monster generator.

At, someone has used the Champions 4th Ed system to create every D&D spell. I don't know how useful it will be, but somehow had mentioned it.

I'm looking at the D6 Fantasy rules to see if I can use their system. There's a simple and advanced method that feels straightforward. I'll let you know if I get anywhere.