Magic is Irresistible

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

For a couple sessions now, I’ve been wondering exactly how to handle spells in my OSR project. I feel like Magic-user spells in particular should be “overpowered” in the sense that they just work. No saves against the effects. Magic-user casts Charm Person? They are now your best friend. Until the effect wears off, at least. Sleep? Goodnight, sweetheart, have a great nap.

Because Magic-users are dangerous. Scary. What they command, just happens. That’s the whole schtick of the Magic-user. It’s why peasants and kings alike fear and distrust them.

Thus far, I’ve also semi-ruled this also applies to clerics, but I hadn’t really decided. I’m coming to think cleric spells should allow saves, as (among other class features) clerics already have the benefit of picking their spells at the time of casting, rather than being locked into memorizing the ones they want to use for the day, as Magic-users are.

Irresistible spells, however, can be a party-hoser.

Example: in a recent game session, a cleric cast Hold Person against the party, a spell which paralyzes the closet four humanoids within range. Every affected character failed their save. Which was all but one of the adventuring party (only the Magic-user was left standing, and forced to drag the bodies of her companions back to safety–at least after blasting the cleric and chasing her off). This essentially duplicated the result of an irresistible spell: total party shut-down.

I don’t know this is truly a negative, though.

Adventuring is meant to be dangerous. And I’m doing old-school gaming right now, which means character death due to bad planning or ill-luck is a given at some point. There’s a reason Jack Peasant doesn’t pick up a sword and go off to kill goblins.

Regardless, back on point: Cure Light Wounds ends paralysis effects against one target, as does Free Person for the closest four people within range, so total shut-down isn’t necessarily total for the prepared party.

But in this case, the party’s Cleric was one of those down for the count, making them sitting targets for a couple hours (yep, the duration of Hold Person in the earliest D&D rulesets is hours. Seriously: the duration of enchantment effects are crazy-long in the old D&D rules: turns instead of rounds. 6 turns, 12 turns, 48 turns, etc. Because, holy crap, magic. In my perception, rounds or minutes just don’t seem to carry the same oomph.)

My current ruling on all this would be that magic–Clerical magic–can be resisted with a Wisdom check against a target number of 10 + the spell caster’s level + the spellcaster’s Wisdom modifier.

But that spells cast by Magic-users can not be resisted.

However, there’s an important distinction to note by my using this particular phrasing: spells can’t be resisted.

That doesn’t mean spells can not be saved against; the damage or penalties caused by some spells can be blunted with a save (or ignored entirely) as those effects arise as a secondary result of the spell.

For example, the main effect of Fireball is to create a huge burst of fire over an area, which damages creatures and objects caught in the blast. Note that those within the radius are not resisting the creation of the fire, so a save to get clear of the worst of the flames is allowed.

Conversely, targets of
Sleep do not get a save, because the effect of sleep is specifically putting creatures to sleep, and therefore cannot be resisted.

A trade-off here will be that Cantrips can be resisted. They are minor magics, infinitely available to the Magic-user, and provide a Tool bonus for a supernatural or supernaturally-enabled action, at least where a check is needed (minor wizardly things like levitating tiny objects, or making tiny illusions, or causing a playing card to vanish just occur. Because wizards). And that’s actually how I’ve run Cantrips so far. Which I think is fair.

4 Responses to “Magic is Irresistible”

  1. Tommi Brander says:

    In one homebrew OSR ruleset I used, mages could prepare at most one spell per level, but there were no spell levels, so your first level mage could have whatever prepared. There were saves, but this still meant that mages could be very scary.

    In my current OSR ruleset mages can prepare a number of spells equal to a relevant attribute, but each spell only once. They start with three random spells. Recovering spells take significant time and effort in the fiction (one day per spell of study for bookish wizard, a lengthy ritual preferably at a hole place for a priest, immersion in the relevant element for an elementalist, etc.).

    Both of these make spells a strategic resource that you ahve very few of, but that can be very powerful. I think you should aim for the same dynamic with no-saves spells – they should be scarce and using them should be a weighty decision.

  2. greyorm says:

    Interesting take!

    The reason I went this direction is because Magic-users already get hosed in terms of their main in-game resource: casting spells is not only the magic-user’s main thing, it is literally their sole useful action. A Magic-user can cast a few spells per adventure, and then they are useless — they have no other effective actions to fall back on. Unlike the fighter or rogue, they can’t just try and do their thing again next round. Unlike the cleric, they can’t just switch to a different reasonable set of actions (fighting) once their expendable actions (spells) are gone. If the Magic-user’s spells fail? They’ve just wasted that resource, and worse, they’ve wasted their only action resource. (Let’s be honest, for a Magic-user “I wade into combat with my dagger” usually results in “OK, roll up a new character.”)

    This corrects that issue. The really limited thing your Magic-user can do? It’s still limited, but it also always works. It’s absolutely reliable.

    I feel even further reducing the availability of spells would simply un-fix the fix, or rather, exacerbate a different problem. After all, if a Magic-user can only cast a few spells a week, even if they unerringly work, well, why even play a Magic-user? That’s even more of a lot of sitting around doing nothing: “OK. That was my last spell. I’m out. I’ll head back to the tavern to study. See you all again in about a week!” It’s one thing to have a scarce strategic resource that should be expended only with care, and another thing to have a scarce strategic resource that also functions as the boundaries of a player’s effective action choices.

    I’ve been in that game: cast my spells, enemies made their saves, my next ten rounds were “I stay back, out of the fighting, and sit on my thumb.” It’s very boring. And frustrating. And I’ve watched my players be in that game, too. And it’s very boring and frustrating for them. Spending most of the time waiting and waiting to maybe get to do that cool thing my character can do before the adventure is over, hiding behind everyone else in the meanwhile…doesn’t sound like much fun. I want all my players to be able to shine every game, with high-fives all around because their class did its cool thing and helped save the day with its cool thing.

    That’s my reasoning, at any rate, based on play. Thanks for your input, Tommi!

  3. Tommi Brander says:

    That sounds like your games have a lot of combat, or long combats. Outside combat everyone can participate actively – mapping, strategizing, puzzle solving, etc.

    Given reactions and negotiation, combats seem quite rare, most of the time, to me. Maybe your game is different.

    In combat you might emphasize the fog of war – those fighting for their lives, especially if wearing helmets, are unlikely to notice much else outside the immediate threats facing them. Someone keeping an eye on what is going on, warning about surprises (combat makes noise, so a random encounter check is appropriate) and maybe even yelling orders might be useful.

    What happens at high levels, when mages have a large number of spells?

  4. greyorm says:

    We have a couple of combats per session. It is D&D, after all.

    Adding Fog of War rules and making mages into, well, battle commanders doesn’t do it for me. Wizards should wizard…for me, and the folks I’ve played with, the magic is the point of being a magic-user.

    As to higher level stuff: this is still early on with using these rules. Things may change or alter as time passes, and the characters are about mid-way up the power-scale right now. So we’ll see what happens.

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