Unstructured Spellcasting

A few days ago, I reviewed DragonCyclopedia: The Mage, from Glen Taylor Games, over on RPGNow. I won’t say anymore about the class here, since my review takes care of that, but it got me thinking about how spellcasting works in Pathfinder.

Now, to be clear, I like Vancian “fire-and-forget” spellcasting. It’s part of what makes Pathfinder (and D&D) what it is, at least to me. I’m certainly not saying it’s a perfect magic system, and it’s not for everybody, but I don’t have a problem with it. Conversely, I have no particular animosity to other ways of using magic in RPGs either.

Traditional Vancian spellcasting in Pathfinder is either prepared, or spontaneous. Typically, the former have less spells per day but can fill them with pretty much any spells they want, while the latter has more spells per day, but these are chosen on the fly from a hand-picked sub-list of spells. Okay, no surprises there, right?

However, the aforementioned Mage – with its largely unstructured method of spellcasting – made me think about a less restrictive form of Vancian magic for Pathfinder spellcasters, and I came up with the following idea.

Basically, what if you removed individual “slots” for spells per day, and instead pooled the total levels of spells a character would have, allowing them to allocate those levels as they saw fit?

For example, a 5th-level wizard with an Intelligence of 16 normally has three 1st-level spells, two 2nd-level spells, and one 3rd-level spell, plus one bonus 1st-level spell, one bonus 2nd-level spell, and one bonus 3rd-level spell from his Intelligence bonus. Now, let’s add those spell levels together – his standard spellcasting progression gives a grand total of 10 spell levels (three 1’s, two 2’s, and one 3), and his Intelligence bonus adds another 6 (one 1, one 2, and one 3). So he has a grand total of 16 levels’ worth of spells.

Now, let him prepare any combination of sixteen levels’ worth of spells that he can. For example, he could prep five fireballs (each level three) and one magic missile (level one). Or sixteen magic missiles. Or any combination thereof.

In other words, spellcasting characters aren’t bound by needing a set number of spells of every given level; they can allocate their totals as they see fit.

In every other regard, spellcasting works the way it usually does in Pathfinder. Spell DCs are determined the same. Characters still only gain the ability to cast certain levels of spells at certain class levels (notice that our example character doesn’t cast any spells higher 3rd-level), and need the requisite high ability score to do so. Preparatory spellcasters must prepare their spell allocations ahead of time, while spontaneous casters choose them on the fly. Metamagic’d spells require an extra amount of levels added to them, etc.

Now, there’s no denying that this is a power-up for spellcasters. With this much flexibility, PCs (and NPCs) will be sure to optimize their spell selection to a given situation – typically, this will mean (like our example character) using most, if not all, of their slots to prepare spells of the highest level they can cast. Those are the strongest spells they have, after all, and they’ll want more of the big guns rather than sticking with their weaker spells.

Still, it’s an interesting idea, and I wanted to throw it out there to see what people think. If by chance you should elect to use it in your game, please let me know how it works!

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5 Responses to “Unstructured Spellcasting”

  1. Will Says:

    I’ve actually seen these rules before somewhere, i don’t recall where, but basically the only problem with them is the one you identified; it’s a power-up for spellcasters. Quite a large one in fact. Whether or not this is a problem depends on the game, but it’s generally accepted that casters, especially full casters, really don’t need more powerups, they really, really don’t.

  2. Miguel Valdespino Says:

    The issue with this is that it can lead to the acceleration of the “5-minute workday”. Per your example, the charcter who prepares five fireballs and one magic missile could easily exhaust their spells in one battle, and would have a hard time lasting through more than three battles. After that it means the character can’t add much to the fight.

    • alzrius Says:

      Man, that adventuring day just keeps getting shorter! I used to always hear it referred to as the “15-minute adventuring day” and then it seemed to become the “10-minute adventuring day,” and now it’s down to just 5 minutes!

      On a more serious note, when I first dreamed up this idea (though it’s certainly possible someone beat me to it somewhere else) I really thought that it’d extend the adventuring day. I figured that with more flexibility in their spell choices, spellcasters would be able to configure them into selections that they’d actually use, extending their usefulness.

      Of course, then I realized that what’d really happen is that they’d load up on the heaviest combat spells they could and just unleash them one after another until they were empty. So you’re probably right that they’d burn out even faster using these rules.

      Ah well, back to the proverbial drawing board.

  3. UWTartarus Says:

    Reminds me of Power Points in the Psionic system of 3.5 and then the whole Augmenting powers with more points, etc.

    • alzrius Says:

      Yeah, that’s probably the closest equivalent to it. Which is also why people say that psionics are overpowered.

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