Arcane: of Spells and Rules Obscurum

January 9, 2017

Man, it’s taking me a week to get to this. Arcane is such a mess, thematically and mechanically, in D&D and I’ve been really unsure about how to go about this. What I’m looking for, though, is player agency. Player choice. This is what I’ve come up with.

We’re ditching spells for Arcane. Spells are clunky, weird, and poorly costed. There are some spells that are just obnoxiously powerful for their level, other spells that are totally worthless until you have extra caster levels to cast them with, and yet others that should never be used at all. This is exacerbated in tabletop where “creative” uses of spells have gone on to break the game. The comments here can help explain why the so-called Quadratic Wizard is a problem. On top of that, many Wizard players may come away with a feeling that they’re kind of pidgenholed into a certain kind of play style – even if they’re not playing 4th Edition. The spells are poorly written, which is the biggest problem for me.

So we’ve got to replace the most archaic and traditional D&Dism ever. With something that gives players more agency, which D&D players famously hate. Yay!

My first go-to for situations like this is points. Points are good. Points are a great way to limit things but provide flexibility, provided you cost everything right. So, points. Right now, all Arcane-based classes are going to get spell points equal to their Intelligence modifier at level up. That means an Arcanist, at level 1 with 18 Intelligence, would have 4 Spell Points. These points are used to build and cast Arcane spells from a list of options.

This is the weird part, though, because that list of options has to thematically feel like D&D, provide flexibility, and not be terribly overpowered. The solution that I’ve come up with I’m calling Engrams. Engrams are kind of spell “archetypes” that can be activated. An Arcanist can only have a certain number of Engrams prepared, making them limited, and can change those by studying their spell book or meditating for natural casters. Engrams are also arranged into Schools, like spells from D&D. For most Engrams, using them costs 1 spell point and each Engram would have a small text block to explain what they do. An example

ARROW (Universal, 1 SP)

This Engram forms raw energy into the shape of an arrow and sends it speeding toward an enemy. The Arcanist rolls to attack using Intelligence, and damage is equal to their Caster Level in d6.

The entire Engram system would be…lists of these. Though much smaller lists than spells. Specialized Arcanists would get discounts on Engrams related to their School specialization. I think the Engram system will also allow for more creativity overall, as well as ways of approaching class design that was impossible in D&D’s arcane spell system before.


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