Encouraging Spell Research

In old-school D&D, a magic-user’s ability to gain new spells differs based not only on which edition you’re playing, but on the DM’s whim. For instance, Holmes Basic allows you to learn new spells from scrolls and other magic-users, but it gives the DM carte blanche to decide what spells you’ll run across. One DM might provide stacks of scrolls and armies of friendly mentors, while another’s game may have no scrolls or mentors at all! Moldvay Basic is even stricter; not only does it restrict magic-user spell acquisition to leveling up and spell research, but even then it explicitly allows the DM to decide what spells you start with. He may let you choose a powerhouse spell like Sleep as your starting spell, or he may stick you with Hold Portal or Shield.

Spell research is available as an option by which you can individualize your magic-user’s spell selection, but it’s also very difficult to pull off. Not only is it expensive and risky, but it takes the magic-user out of play for weeks at a time, a severe penalty for a class that’s already slow to level up.

To encourage spell research rather than discourage it, I’m experimenting with some changes to the Moldvay rules:

1) Since we’re using Carousing rules (in which PCs gain experience points from frivolous expenditures of gold), I’ve ruled that gold spent on research counts as carousing, and thus is a good way to cash in your gold for XP, especially if it bypasses the usual caps on how much gold you can spend in one go.

2) I’m greatly reducing the time required to research new spells. Two weeks for a first level spell will take a magic-user PC out of play for several sessions, and it only gets worse from there! Halving that is a good start, and I’ll halve it again when researching a spell that’s similar to one that the magic-user already knows; this should encourage themed spell research akin to the suite of Bigby’s Hand spells.

3) Attempting to learn a spell from a teacher, captured spellbook or scroll will have a chance of failure, and failing to learn the spell precludes another attempt until the magic-user gains a level. Researching a variant of the spell in question should prove a viable alternative to waiting to level up.

How these rules will work in practice is anybody’s guess. If the party’s magic-users continue to die off at their customarily swift rate, it may never come up…

5 Responses to “Encouraging Spell Research”

  1. October 13, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Could thieves research trap-creation (or other special class features, this is just the one that comes to mind) in a similar fashion – either as part of carousing or just an investment in being less gimpy?

  2. October 13, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    I’m sure an argument could be made that spell access is more integral to magic-user utility than similar abilities are to thieves, but I see no reason not to allow PCs to develop new abilities and skill sets through play. Old-school rules are both guidelines and works in progress. If it turns out that it’s unbalancing for thieves to research new thiefly abilities and what-not, then we change the rules again! No harm, no foul, and we’d probably grandfather in your thief’s new trapmaking abilities.

    Tavis, would you be so kind as to write a post about the individualized special powers you allow in your game? It has some bearing on this line of discussion.

  3. 3 Rod
    October 14, 2009 at 12:20 am

    As far as the “DM picks your spells for you” business, I suspect that early on in the game’s history, someone discovered that making a party of Magic-Users and Sleeping your way through whole dungeon levels at a time was the way to go. I guess I can’t prove that, but it would explain all the DMG griping about how magic-user PCs shouldn’t be allowed to share spells for free and so forth.

  4. 4 maldoor
    October 14, 2009 at 1:39 am

    @Rod: I think you are on to something there. At some point there was probably a sheepish Mr. Gygax or Arneson deciding that undead are immune to sleep, and some surprised players…

    @Tavis: if you want to encourage research into new spells, which I agree would be awesome, one way to get M-U players interested is to make them declare their spellbooks. In the Caverns of Thracia game we are playing, the M-U characters have been choosing spells from the complete list of available spells. As long as they have 30 1st level spells and 24 2nd level to choose from, there is not as much urgency to research more. Although I can see spending time and gold to create very specific spells, such as Protection from Iron Golem, or Distract Patriarch.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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