Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It's all about the ingredients ...

We all know that: we see D&D spells and are like "Way cool! I wanna do that!" and then we see a beholder and ask ourselves what his story is. This is something that's been bothering me on and off for a long time now and I think it's time for a post about it. This turned out to be a bit rambling. That's the stress making me think less coherent. I guess. Anyway, bear with me, it has a nipple wizard and a Gygax quote in the end, so that's something.

The origins of D&D magic

They winged it, plain and simple. Man, there are interviews about it*. They made it up as they went along. All that stuff about Vancian Magic? As if it would mean something? All make-belief (and not the kind we usually talk about). And who could blame them. It's been one huge experiment with lots and lots of play-testing. It's genius, too. On many levels, actually.

This is not supposed to be an analysis of what they wrote back then and why but more about what they didn't have. They had, for one, no idea how magic worked in their worlds. It just was a tool. In a way it was used to bridge aspects of the game they hadn't covered ... Hold Portal, Open Lock, all those utility spells had been there for a reason: they are tell-tales about what the original designers felt missing during play-testing sessions. It is nice to have an universal key for everything.

There is a great freedom in that, I think. In a way it's the purest form of our hobby when the game grows organically with the group instead of being predetermined by sets of rules. And if something is missing? Magic is the key ... Just needs a bogus story about ingredients, something you got to do to get it with a little quest on top of it as the cherry. The rest is negotiating with the master, also part of the game.
It's funny how D&D codification changed the whole concept over time. [source]

So many thoughts ...

Here are some ramifications of this. Just from he top of my head. This is by no means a complete list or meant to be one. Here it comes:
  • This is why the cleric can be so brutally boring: development had been the other way around. Instead of saying "If it's needed, we just use the MU for it", they must have said something like "Yeah, so we have a holy man and he needs to do that and that ...". Totally different process. Clerics never really recovered from it.
  • And we just follow those established patterns instead of breaking free from them and doing our own thing. I know, I know, iconic spells, yadda-yadda, all that noise (I love it, too). Can't beat a fireball. Just can't. But what if ... Mordenkainen, Bigby, Elminster, all player characters in games! What's the problem? Does it take another type of player to develop instead of just copying? Maybe.
  • So the wizard in D&D is traditionally weak ... is that because he is the ultimate connector? Not because he's too powerful (always thought that's bullshit, btw**), but very, very flexible in a D&D context? At least when it was played a way no one plays it anymore (exaggerating here, I hope).
  • Would it still be D&D if people just came up with their own spells as the characters grow? I'd argue: yes. Even more so, maybe. You'd still have the same wacko monsters ... or just do that new, too. Would still be D&D. In a way we don't play D&D but mimic the way those old guys played it. A bit like a religious ritual, worshiping it something fierce. But that true form, that would be something else entirely. You'd play how them not like them (if that makes any sense).
  • And yet, the rules don't encourage that really, do they? It's far more difficult to create your own spell. Getting harder with every edition. So what's the problem? Uncontrolled power rushes, I suppose. Designers not trusting the ordinary folks doing it right ... Maybe. But isn't that one of the lessons a DM has to learn? How to judge what works in the game and what doesn't? Well, that might not be what being a DM is all about nowadays ...
He broadcasts, too ...***

So what the hell am I meandering towards?

I believe D&D magic is like a window into another world. It gives us hints how this game emerged from the brains of those people playing it back then. It's less about quoting Vance or Tolkien or whatever, but about developing the game together at the table. A lesson about making it work, sometimes just in a specific moment of a specific campaign. It's full of short cuts, too.

I think I see glimmers of that when play-testing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. It is a different way of gaming, not only exploring a world, but also exploring a system. It's never the DM alone, it's the resonance created between all those playing. Kind of scary, too, to play it like no one else does. Hard to communicate or compare. It's its own thing. Just like those original games.

Well, what to do with this, though? Should we just ignore the spells when playing 1e D&D and allow players to find their own way? Maybe. But is it even possible? People have expectations, especially when it's about having options. And creating is so much more difficult than just copying. So that might not be a point I want to be making here.

But a thing I see missing more often than not in rule books is stuff that encourages DMs to go their own way, to develop themselves. It's not that I don't see that happening anyway. I do. We all do, I guess. But it's not encouraged. We are made to believe that "house rulings" are tolerated, but not how the developers intended it to be played.

Looking at those first games, or listening to the guys who played back then, I get a totally different vibe. You know, that culture of slavishly copying and ritualizing of what we got sold is successful for more than one reason and I don't want to dwarf or ridicule that. But is that really what D&D was? Or can be? Whatever it is, it starts with encouraging others to create their own and that's so much easier when they get a chance to understand why the things they use work how they work. Right?
I wonder what kind of spell he cast to get there ... [source]
I'll close with some words by Gygax and from the introduction to that first rpg:
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time. We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old "laws" altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable." (D&D: Men & Magic, p. 4)

And one last thing: who is reading this and wrote his own D&D spells. Really curious here ...

* I really like that guy, though. Best wizard EVAR!

** Magic is the ultimate tool. A level 20 fighter, grown organically in a campaign, will be just as nasty as a level 20 wizard. Who wins in such a match will largely depend on the situation, the game, the dice ... really every factor other than the wizards spell roster. On paper, maybe. But I think that's the main problem. In the game all bets are of, people just believe the written word too much ...

*** This is a pic from the Hackmaster Supplement "The Spellslinger's Guide to Wurld Domination" (on p. 88). Don't know who the artist is, but it cracks me up every time ...


  1. When my friend introduced me to D&D back in grade five, his older brother had the Rules Cyclopaedia'; we had nothing. We made dice out of Chits, literally tiny pieces of paper with numbers in piles that we closed our eyes and picked randomly. We had only a basic idea of classes, monsters, spells, made most up from cartoon monsters, our reading experiences. It was enchanting; we played for hours, often while hiking, doing a sort of LARP/ D&D mix. I still remember that world we made, the characters, everything. Pure Magic, with just the 'Idea' of D&D inspiring us. I think many have learned this way.

    1. That sounds beautiful! And from what I have heard, it really has been like that for many others. Not sure if it is today, though. But be that as it may, thanks for sharing! Cool stuff.

  2. I could see this article appearing in a Men's Magazine back in the day, it is THAT good!

    There are SO many spells that have been written and published over the years, it just boggles the mind. At some point you've got to decide if they even exist in your campaign world or not.

    The original Wizards as they were played and intended to act is rarely how they appear to us now. I prefer the goofy Elminster of Dragon Magazine than the Gandalf he became.

    A very nice read, Jens. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Ripper :-) I don't get to write as often as I used to. Don't have it in me right now. So it makes me happy when the little I get to write is appreciated.

  3. Back when Otto was on the West Coast he was playing in my game via mail. Back then he played a caster named Sorek and many of his letters were about spell research. I don't remember all the details but he reerched a collection of three of four original spells before he came back East to play a few games. "Sorek's Dark Servants" is the only spell name I recall.

    I like to play utility wizards, all about using mend and rope trick.. that sort of thing. I think newer iteration of the game have made it harder to do that.

    1. Thanks, Mark! It's a nice idea to have the caster making spells when the player can't attend to the game (or in general, between games and when the character has off-time). Didn't think about it in the post, but it would be interesting to know how much of this was/is intended to happen off-game ...