Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Advanced Spell Research

I love the idea of spell research in D&D. It happens, in my experience, with unfortunate rarity, but I still love it. In my opinion, research is what wizards should be all about. Those pesky adventure things may provide some interesting opportunities to uncover secrets about lost magicks, enchanted items, mystical creatures, planar anomalies, and so on, but a wizard's true work is in his lair.

For some time now, I've been contemplating  ways in which one could make the spell research process more appealing to players and more interesting. This post is about the latter.

The traditional spell research rules are pretty vague and boring: Spend some amount of money (possibly involving the procurement of rare tomes or ingredients -- which is cool). Spend some time. Maybe make some kind of die roll, depending on the system. It either works or it doesn't. If it fails maybe you try again. Logan recently posted some interesting stuff developing some variance on the success side of the equation. (The DCC mercurial magic system is another similar approach.)

I'm also interested in the failure side of things, as well as what happens during the process. I don't imagine spell research as a long process of noodling followed by a eureka! resulting in a fully functional spell. I like the idea that the magic-user works his or her way through a whole sequence of baby spells, developing an idea which eventually, all going well, bears fruit in the perfection of the envisioned spell. Maybe all does not go well, though, or maybe the research is interrupted or abandoned, leaving a semi-functional spell. A reckless wizard might choose to still cast this imperfect dweomer... Perhaps it's still useful in some way, despite it not living up to what its creator intended.

I've done this kind of thing informally a couple of times in play, when a PC wizard has attempted and failed a process of spell research (I had the player simply make an INT check to see if the research worked first time off). We had a transparency spell (see The Complete Vivimancer) which only affected the skin of the target and a cannibalize spell (see Theorems & Thaumaturgy) which permanently added 1 pound of warped flesh to the caster's body with each casting. In both cases, I gave the player the option of continuing the research (entailing more time and money) in order to try and perfect the incantation, or to stay with what he had. (He chose to keep the cannibalize variant but put in the extra time to perfect transparency.)

I'd like to come up with something a little bit more systematized for this kind of thing. A couple of things I have in mind:
  • A slightly more detailed spell research system with various stages, leading up to the fruition of the final spell.
  • Tables of minor and major complications which mutate a spell's functioning. These would be applied to partially developed spells, either during the research procedure or after a failed research procedure.
  • Tables of drawbacks: detrimental side-effects which accompany the casting of an imperfect spell.
I'll develop these things and any other ideas on the topic which come along in future posts. Feel free to feed me with any ideas you have on the subject!


  1. I am not sure whether I agree that wizards should be all about the research.

    Yes, in the sense that they should be in literature, I think, with BIG EVENTS being necessary to draw them forth. But not PC wizards. PC wizards ought to be the Indiana jones of the wizard set.

    1. Yeah i guess i was exaggerating a bit maybe ;)

      When i think about this kind of thing, what i usually have in mind are campaigns where wizards are the central focus. So, all or most of the adventures of the campaign would be driven by the research of one or more wizards.