I'm finally nailing my very own ideas about arcane casters and what would really differentiate them in a way that most players would find meaningful and fun in actual play.
My comments to this very interesting blog post about arcane magic in D&D Next by Ari Marmell managed to say more about the matter than all my previous blog posts combined, so I decided to reorganize my ideas in a new post.
Three Users, Three Sources.
Yes, it may seem a complication, but no, I'm not actually proposing to split the Arcane power source, just "sub-categorize" it in a meaningful way that helps differentiating the classes and making the basic assumptions about the D&D world richer and more mysterious and varied (IMO of course, but a lot could be discussed about this!).
Here's what I came up with, three subdivions, in order of "simplicity", more or less:
Raw Magic: Sorcery
Sorcerers have an innate ability to control the chaotic and elemental forces that are the basis of all arcane magic and perhaps reality itself.
A sorcerer should be like a living nexus of power, a living point where invisible arcane leylines converge for some reason. It can be a matter of bloodline, the result of an accident or experiment, or even just blind luck (good or bad).
They can be in tune with either one or two elements in particular or with the "prime element", that is Chaos itself.
I'll just list a few chzracteristic of sorcery and/or sorcerers to get my vision across:
- The Fabric of Reality: sorcery is about that, and the power of messing with it comes directly from inside the user, although it might also ahve something to do with its surroundings, which brings to the next point:
- Power All Around: a sorcerer has an innate ability, but not all the power he or she needs: he must draw this power from the surroundings, and this might be a limit or a strength.
- No Fixed Spells: sorcery isn't about spells with given names. It's a flowing force that just needs to be morphed into something, so sorcerers actually create spell-like effects on the fly.
- An Arcane Body: sorcerers are not normal beings, the arcane energies they use are right inside them, to the point that the Sorcerer is the Class that most deeply interacts with Race. New supernatural abilities are gained, like Sorcerous Vision (detecting magic with normal senses and the contrary, sensing the surroundings with magic); but also some natural abilities become connected with their magic power. For example, high Constitution, Strength and/or Dexterity required to use Sorcery (or use it at its best), could be explained more as a result of sorcerous abilities than the cause, although this is of course merely flavor.
- Much Flexibility, Little Versatility: a sorcerer has nearly infinite ways to use his power. He basically has a set of tools that he can use in ways limited only by his or her creativity and experience. But a sorcerer can't learn new things by studying them, nor borrow powers from external sources: they have to deal with situations with what they have, always.
- Dangerous To The User: raw magic is the quintessential "dangerous energy". Sorcerers know that if they want to channel more of it, they will have to pay a painful toll with their bodies. Surges of power actually damage sorcerers, but they also make them the powerful adventurers they're famous as.
- Elemental Summoning: the Sorcerer doesn't truly summon elemental beings, or not at low levels. More than that, they can truly create minor elementals, just by giving "life" to the energy they cast. They'd be more like conjurations, and they surely don't excel at durable effects, so their summoned "creatures" don't last, although they can be effective as destruction engines or little helping critters.
- Magic As Armor: a Sorcerer's skin can be tougher than metal after the right elemental invocation, and flames linger around them when they cast balls of fire to their enemies. Sorcerers can be recognized by their very practical clothes, and sometimes lack of clothes, since any armor or heavy robe would just hinder their movements. I picture them a bit like "arcane monks" in this aspect: naked skin, but hard as nails.
This is of course the Wizard's department. This kind of magic builds upon raw magic to create something more complex. If Raw Magic is controlled mostly by physical abilities or sheer force of will, Wizardry is all about knowledge. It's like a programming language that helps to deal with the "binary code of the universe" (represented by Raw Magic/Sorcery). So if Sorcerers are more like man-machines able to deal with the bits and bytes of the universe directly, Wizards are more like human programmers who use their intellect and countless years of studying and delving into the arcane to "crack that code" and manipulate reality even without having any innate ability of their own. A Sorcerer rarely if ever has merit for his powers, while a Wizard has earned it all step by step, sacrificing time, normal life, and even health to acquire it.
So here's a list of characteristics associated with Wizardry.
- Spells: Academic Magic aka Wizardry is about Spells. The classic spells were born with it, and the way to learn them and use them too. It can create effects much more complex than Sorcery, but to do so, it needs to be a complex and indeed artificial system, created by the joint effort of many minds during ancient times. Which brings us to the next point.
- Vancian Magic: it's about difficult formulas and memorizing techniques. And when you cast a spell, you "forget it", your mind can't cope with such complexity. It's Vancian magic. But I thought about simple solutions to make it easier, more logic/organic and "momentous" compared to the Vancian magic of the older system. I will talk about it later in the Mechanics section.
- The Language of Magic: wizard spells can be written with an arcane form of writing, and this explains the spellbook of the Wizard. The same principle applies to scrolls and books of rituals, but rituals are a different matter that I'll talk about later.
- Different Schools: and not the canonical schools of magic. Academies of Wizardry teach different methods altogether, so there could be Wizard variants using less slots or more slots, different usages of spells, metamagic, anything.
- Much Versatility, Less Flexibility: wizards always have the right spell for every situation, and if they don't they can research it given enough time. They can also, with the right training, modify certain spells, but only in a few fixed ways: the ability to morph magic is the Sorcerer's. Additionally, their at-will spells are limited, and they depend on their memorized spells (more on that later). Powerful spells must be saved for the most important occasions, or the wizard could be in trouble, although he/she should never truly be out of spells like in the previous editions.
- Controlled Magic: Wizard spells are either inherently controlled in their behavior (that is, targeting only enemies), or they can be used so as to limit collateral damage. It's the safest form of arcane magic, although it also requires more thought to be used correctly.
- Summoning Creatures of Magic: Wizard spells shouldn't call demons or devils or elementals as they do now, because Wizardry is "the magic of the material plane", mostly. Their summoned creatures should be more like manifestations of pure magic, or beings created/invented by ancient mages as arcane constructs, or perhaps creatures from very "close" planes. Necromancers or Shadowcasters (specialized wizards), could be able to call creatures of shadow, and maybe certain creatures typically used as familiars could be summoned by classic Wizards too. I picture swarms of strange unkillable frogs jumping all around, or things like that. Also certain creatures of the feywild could be involved, although natural spirits should be a dominion of primal casters such as druids, and powerful and specific fey creatures dominion of Fey Pact Warlocks.
- Flowing Robes: Wizardry requires precise and wide gestures, but robes are more of a tradition to them, and also a plain limitation: armor not only impedes them, but is heavier than most wizards can sustain physically. In addition, robes and fabrics can be enchanted in specific ways that are more useful to Wizards than armors (or this could be a cool idea anyway )
This is actually Warlock magic, but I'm calling it Witchcraft for now, because of lack of a better work. Their spells (or some of them) can still be called Hexes, and Witch can be a class name or not, Witchcraft is just a placer. Although I can picture Witches as the name given to Fey Pact Warlocks or anyway a subclass of the Warlock.
Anyway, it's also called outsider magic because it comes not from the material world, nor the "inner planes" (the elemental planes or the all-including Elemental Chaos). It's magic that comes from the so called outer planes. And more specifically from "outsider beings". It's a magic that needs to be borrowed and channeled, through pacts and other dangerous rituals.
- Magic of Outside: it's like a form of Wizardry, but made by inhuman beings, and the Warlock can only channel these forces, be a vessel to them. They don't have it in their bodies nor in their minds, but they channel it from the outside, and this costs them both mental and bodily resources at times.
- Supernatural Abilities: the biggest advantage of these pacts comes in the form of supernatural abilities that defy even the normal limits of magic. Creatures normally resistant to magic can't resist to a Warlock's "Eldritch Blast", although on the other hand a Warlock could find all his magic useless against the beings(s) he/she receives power from: pacts always protect the patron!
- Hexes: all Warlocks can cast hexes. These are the most "spell-like" powers of a Warlock's repertoire, and they're as complex as the most difficult wizard spells, although they still don't require studying (Intelligence), at least as a general rule. The reason Outsider Magic always includes Hexes is that hexes are a way for the patrons granting this magic to gain some power for themselves. In fact, a hexed creature is losing bits (or all!) of its soul to the patron of the hexer. These kind of spell-like effects are among the most dangerous and double-edged forms of magic. The allies and companions of the warlock already know that they will suffer some ill collateral effects when the Warlock uses these powers, although the positive effects greatly outbalance the negative ones (at least on the surface..!)
- Not Flexible Nor Versatile, But Powerful: a Warlock as few hexes and summons to choose from, and few supernatural abilities. Most of his/her powers depend on the chosen patron, and changing patron is difficult. However, as a whole, the set of powers available to every Warlock is normally more than enough to deal with many situations, and it offers a good combination of durable effects, at-will abilities and daily powers of great effect. The AEDU system seems tailor-made for this vision.
- Summoning: Warlocks are the true masters of summoning (or should be in my vision). A Hell Pact Warlock should be able to summon devils, sometimes even specific devils, individuals that the Warlock has to deal with. The downside of this power should be that the Warlock must also pay more attention to the summoned creatures, because having them destroyed would damage him/her too, as part of the stipulated pact...
- Works Best Isolated: just as he's best left alone out of combat, when the Warlock contacts the outsider patrons and performs obscure rituals, in battle the Warlock works best if left alone, or at least distant. Eldritch magic is corrupting, its alien nature is intrinsically damaging to everything of the material world, and it could taint what stays too near. This is all part of the "double edged" theme of the class.
- Armored Caster: even if only certain Warlocks are true warrior-esque Hexbaldes, all Warlocks should be able to wear armor with no penalties. After all their magic doesn't require complex gestures, and the fact that they don't have to study much, but "just" commit their souls to a patron, also means that they have time and resources to train in more traditional and physical forms of combat. So I see no problem in Warlocks with armors.
Playing Differently: MechanicsI'll now try to make an example of the different mechanics that would define the three casters, offering three different styles of play.
Sorcerer:Elementalists and Chaos Sorcerers (the two subclasses that I envision) would work a bit differently, but the mechanics I envision for elementalists are something like this:
- Elemental Seeds: you chose one or two seeds at first level. These are the elements that you can manipulate. Each of them grants different possible forms and tricks.
- Basic Forms: you choose a few basic forms associated to your seed. Forms are exactly that: forms that the magic you cast can take, such as blasts, missiles and so on.
- Tricks (needing a better term): these are the "controlling" effects that a Sorcerer can infuse in his/her invocations/evocations (correct term could vary).
- Surges: suffering some physical damage, the Sorcerer is able to augment his powers for a brief amount of time, or cast spells more quickly. Note that casting time can be modified to either gain more power accumulating more energy (costs more time), or cast many less powerful invocations/evocations in less time. You should play a Sorcerer to be able to "cast two spells in a single turn" or "cast spells outside of your turn".
- Recharging (always needing better name): a Sorcerer needs to collect magical energy from the surroundings after evoking some amount of energy. I see this "recharging action" a bit as the actions that Sublime Way fighters needed to recover their maneuvers. In general, Sorcerers don't have a single ability with "daily usage limits". All of their abilities can be used over and over, but they require recharging. Of course though, recharging should also be something fun, so I picture something like "arcane stances" associated with it. Attack a Sorcerer while he/she is recharging, and bad things will happen to you, or you'll hit thin air while he/she teleports instantly.
With these few features, simple rules could allow a Sorcerer to morph just about any spell-like invocation/evocation. A few guidelines could even allow creative usages. A Fire Elementalist could manage to fly briefly with a fire based propulsion, or a Chaos Sorcerer could act perform physical sabotage on traps, making them easier for a rogue to deactivate, or things like these. Of course, some fixed rules should exist, but I see nothing wrong with some DM-Player interaction about creative usages of raw magic. Modular design (the central design principle of D&D Next) makes it possible for organized play or strict DMs to allow some systems and not others, and things can be adjusted accordingly. Very simply though, any effect that would not be game-changing, damaging and that's in line with the element spectrum of possibilities could be allowed.
My "Vancian 2.0" system would work a bit like this:
- Less slots: each spell is more complex and powerful than before and actually contains more powers within it in this system, so the class should grant a low amount of slots.
- Primary and Secondary usages of spells: a Fireball's primary usage is, well, a Fireball. But its secondary usage could be an at-will fire burst or another iconic but less powerful spell like a Scorching Ray. There are many ways to do this, but my basic idea is something like this:
Special: As long as you have Fireball memorized, you can use Scorching Ray once per battle after casting an at-will Fire spell, and you can use Fire Burst at-will. Once you casted Fireball, you still can use Fire Burst but only once per encounter.
I'd call these "spell chains" or even "books". This would be part of the Fire Book. Or simply just how Fireball works, but the "chain" element is visible: you have a daily spell that grants you an at-will and an encounter. When you cast it, you're left just with a weak encounter. Note also that the encounter requires youb to cast a Fire at-will before usage and guess what would be another line of the Fireball "spell-card":
Requirement: You have to cast 2 At-Will or Encounter Fire spells during 2 Rounds before being able to cast Fireball.
"Why?" you could ask... Well 'cause that's how Wizardry works. And also to make the game more fun. It should be difficult to start a battle firing a Fireball instantly, maybe some Feats could allow that, but in a limited way. The rules of Wizardry are fixed and not easily understood, and to cast a big Fire spell, you need to cast two lesser ones first.
This adds "momentum" to battles involving Wizards, and also makes it preferable to be more thoughtful in battle, which is exactly the Wizard's way.
You could say this could be an optional rule, I say optional rules could give you something different from this, while this is left as default. Because experienced players could find this too much against tradition, but new players would deem it logical and intuitive. They'd know that to cast a Fireball you need to cast lesser fire spells "to gain fire momentum".
This also solves the problem of "why can't I use a simpler (lower level) Scorching Ray if I have a more difficult (higher level) Fireball memorized, or even two or three?" I provide a possible answer. An easier take would be a simple rule stating that a Daily spell usage, that is, casting a memorized spell, requires two rounds of preparation, where preparation can include casting at-will or encounter spells too. Maybe encounter spells can be left out completely too, and it could be stated that at-wills are more or less powerful depending on how many and which daily spells are memorized. The important thing is adding "momentum" to the Wizard's mechanics: complex, encounter-changing effects shouldn't be usable as the first thing in the first round of an encounter. Anyone contrary to this simply wants overpowered wizards, and can houserule to have them, but let the masses enjoy the game without houseruling!
Another advantage of having an at-will associated to each daily is that you're encouraged to memorize a variety of spell, instead of the same winner spell over and over in all your slots. If you do that, maybe you can have a powerful at-will (some bonuses could stack), but it would also be redundant, since you'd have as many daily usages as you'd require. And no, you wouldn't have the usefulness of a different spell when you need it.
A Warlock, in my opinion, is well served by the current AEDU system as is. Daily spells should be Summons, which should possibly last until destroyed (and could be suppressed temporarily too, to prevent townsfolk from fleeing in every direction when you enter the gates with your summoned Baatezu). Encounter spells should be hexes or other powerful effects. These are dangerous and double-edged, and they should be used far from allies, and/or with some sacrifice of some ally.
At-wills should be the supernatural abilities such as Eldritch blast, and some utilities. Arcane-resistant monsters (admitting there are such monsters or resistances) would be pierced by these, because they're simply not arcane, or not "arcane of this world".
Additional Types of Arcane MagicArcane magic doesn't stop here though. Arcane as a term means "hidden", and arcane magic should always have hidden forms of it. Rituals are a compex form of arcane magic that require material components, familiars are something that all arcane characters could have although in different ways and forms, and magic items can be enchanted with magic substances and such.
There can be places with arcane powers unique to them, and functioning differently from everything else arcane, and artifacts are the epitome of "unique magic".
It's not like Arcane should be the catch-all of magic: on the contrary, arcane is justa catch-all term for many forms of magic that defy classification, and sometimes are vastly different.
A design philosophy like this, I think, should really bring "that magic feeling" back to D&D, perhaps more than it ever experienced..!