Colorful Magic

magic the gathering colors

Something that I’ve thought about off and on for several years concerns re-working the spellcasting classes in D&D. I’ve never been 100% convinced that the cleric belongs in the game, at least not in the “adventuring religious fighting priest” concept, and though I think the illusionist is interesting, he doesn’t seem viable except in certain circumstances. I’ve re-envisioned clerics as mystic warriors, removed the religious themes to the class, and explained their spells as being more like powers. I’ve described how magic works in our game. I’ve tweaked spells slightly and dropped the pre-memorization requirements. But still I’m not overly thrilled with any of the spellcaster classes.

So I dusted off an idea I had for Swords & Wizardry White Box last year and redid the spell lists. I took all the spells and sorted them into five “colors” or “schools” loosely based on (and this is sure to ruffle some feathers) the Magic: The Gathering card game.

(Yes, I realize I just lost a lot of folks right there. That’s okay. If someone is likely to arbitrarily dismiss ideas just because they sound like something from WotC games, I’m not really interested in their opinion anyway.)

So I have red magic, white magic, green magic, blue magic, and black magic. With red wizards, white wizards, green wizards, blue wizards, and black wizards to use it. Roughly one-sixth of the spells at each level are “colorless,” meaning they’re available to wizards of any color. Spells like read magic, hold portal, light, dancing lights, and dispel magic can be used by any wizards.

Reversed versions of spells are separate in this system, meaning that detect evil and detect good are separate spells on separate lists. The same goes for cure light wounds and cause light wounds.

White wizards are not necessarily good, but they cast a lot of the healing and protection spells. However, even though many of their spells are from the standard cleric’s list, they aren’t exactly clerics. Magic missile, for instance, is a white spell.

Black wizards, of course, deal with darkness and death. They get the cause wounds spells, sleep, and lots of the other nasty magics. They end up being a sort of anti-cleric/necromancer mix that isn’t afraid to mix it up.

Blue wizards are the masters of illusion, trickery, and water and sky. Much (though not all) of the standard illusionist spell list is available to blue wizards, and they also get some spells that deal with unseen forces such as feather fall, invisibility, and teleport.

Red wizards are masters of fire, chaos, and warfare. Many of the fire-based spells (like fireball and pyrotechnics) are theirs, as well as a good selection of direct combat-related magic and monster summoning.

Finally, green wizards are not only in tune with nature and life with spells like sticks to snakes and entangle, they get some pure magic like fly, knock, and charm person. Though many standard druid spells were spread out among the other four colors, a lot of them stayed with the green wizard.

The spell lists still need a little tweaking, but I’m pretty happy with them after the first stage of sorting. I’ve done spell levels one through six, which is as high as our game is currently designed to go.

I’m toying with the idea of giving each type of wizard a special power, such as turning undead for white wizards and maybe even some weapon/armor allowances (or even thief skills?) for others, but I haven’t got that far yet. I’m also considering wizards of one color to have access to the spells of another complementary color once at higher levels.

I’m not at all sure where this is going to go. Maybe it won’t ever be used at all. One major downside is the fact that it would pretty much wreck compatibility, something that we’ve been trying hard to maintain. I’ll keep messing with it for a while and see how it turns out.

UPDATE: Check out the first draft of the list here.

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22 Responses to Colorful Magic

  1. Roger GS says:

    Don’t let the haters get you down. The color system is the coolest thing about the Magic “world” and very easily maps onto the functions of magic in a D&D environment – clerics, druids, eeevil, manipulators, and straight ahead blasters.

    Your other ideas for the classes really support my contention that magic is one of the least setting-neutral things about any fantasy game. I think the reason more people don’t mess with it to fit their own vision is just the sheer amount of labor involved in coming up with a coherent set of spell descriptions.

    I’ve been working out a very non-Magic-y color system on my blog for the past few weeks, if you’re interested.

  2. The Fool on the Hill says:

    I love the concept of incorporating magic colors into D&D, and – were I not so lazy – I’d put something like this together myself. If you were to make this into a PDF, I’d certainly download and use it.


  3. daenralworld says:

    This sounds great. I actually worked on integrating MtG and D&D once back in the day – I thought the idea of the five kinds of magic (and, consequently, five kinds of mages – plus the “rainbow” mage maybe?) was a great way to organize the D&D magic system – and the cards had great spell ideas… I’m really looking forward to this.

  4. TimmyD says:

    In one of the editions of MtG that I played, there were rules for a 5-person game (one for each color). Each color had allies and enemies.

    White: allies (blue, green), enemies (black, red)
    Blue: allies (white, black), enemies (green, red)
    Black: allies (blue, red), enemies (green, white)
    Red: allies (black, green), enemies (white, blue)
    Green: allies (red, white), enemies (blue, black)

    In that game, allies would not directly attack each other, but may play spells to affect (even negatively) each other. Your goal was to destroy your enemies.

    This dynamic could really carry over well to D&D, creating alliances and prejudices and enmity. It could also grant access to low-level spells from allied colors.

    • Kilgore says:

      IIRC, the layout of the colored stones on the card back (see the pic on this post) corresponds to that dynamic. The stones next to any stone are sympathetic while the two opposite are apathetic. (My word choice…I don’t know quite how it’s officially described.) This seems to match the “teams” you listed.

      As I mentioned in the post, I’m wondering if it might make sense to make spells of a sympathetic color available at higher levels. For example, maybe at 4th level a white wizard gains access to blue magic and then at 8th level he gains access to green magic as well. Perhaps a limit on the levels of the new colors available such as only 1st level spells the first level that the color is available, 2nd level spells the second level, and so on. I’m not sure if this is really necessary as there are already quite a few spells of each color, though, and might dilute the differentiation between the colors.

      • TimmyD says:

        An alternative to give access to sympathetic spells would be to make magic items color-specific, and let a wizard use sympathetic magic items.

        • Kilgore says:

          You know, I had been considering aligned magic items for our “Light Side / Dark Side / Unaligned” system, but that would work perfectly well here, too. Maybe even better.

    • Kilgore says:

      I had never considered the idea that the actual wizards themselves might feel animosity toward apathetic color wizards while feeling friendliness toward sympathetic colors. In fact, the colors might fit straight into the five-alignment system. Great idea. Must ruminate on it.

      EDIT: Green would probably be “neutral” in the five-alignment system, but because of the layout and the nature of the apathy/sympathy oppose/support scheme, green is not “in the middle” or “unaligned.” So maybe there would be five alignments PLUS neutral. Or maybe don’t allow a neutral in the standard sense of the alignment.

      • TimmyD says:

        No, Green is not a “neutral”. It represents the savage forest, elves, and the untamed fury of beasts.

        Green is sympathetic to red (fury) and white (life), while apathetic to black (decay) and blue (illusion).

        Green could be the wild druids who live in dark caves or hovel-huts beneath the roots of massive trees.

        • Kilgore says:

          That is a great way to describe it. I agree.

          I meant “green would be ‘neutral'” in the sense of if you had to slot the five colors into the five alignments, green would the one to get neutral. And, as I noted in the EDIT, I don’t think it quite fits. But maybe we don’t really need a neutral/unaligned alignment in the game. No fence-sitters!

          • TimmyD says:

            I’ve always hated the how neutral is presented as “balance and harmony”.

            I prefer to think of neutral as “every man for himself”, more of a selfish alignment.

            I can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

          • Kilgore says:

            Our current take removes “neutral” and replaces it with (more or less) with “unaligned,” meaning “not on anyone’s side.” That COULD mean “balance and harmony” but most unaligned people would be more toward the “selfish” side as you describe. Certainly not green as described in MtG.

  5. Roger GS says:

    “Antipathic”? (I learned that word straight from the AD&D PHB, the Antipathy/Sympathy spell … the more you know)

  6. kenohhkc says:

    Warhammer has used a colored magic system for years as a way to sort out the archetype of the wizard you wanted to play(RPG) or use(Mini battle game). I like the idea of classes of wizards based upon some ordering system. It could be elemental as well – earth, fire, water, air, with chaos and order thrown in.

    Keep going I like it.

    • TimmyD says:

      Yeah, the elemental divisions are nice too.

      But the Asian elements are different (more interesting?):
      earth, fire, water, wood, metal

    • Kilgore says:

      I’ve heard this before but have never looked at Warhammer.

      It’s also sort of similar to 2e’s sphere/school system. I never had a problem with the concept of specialist mages, though we didn’t use them much when we played 2e. Part of the problem was that some schools didn’t have many spells and didn’t seem to fit the adventurer vibe.

      What I’m doing here is taking the spell list and dividing it up pretty evenly. So some choices are arbitrary and some don’t quite “fit.” I want all five colors to be more or less balanced and playable, so a lot of the damage-dealing spells that might truly belong to red (for instance) are instead spread out a bit.

      I may change the names of some spells (but keep the effects mechanically the same) to make them feel more like they belong in the color I slotted them in. I’m sure the exact slotting will vary a bit while I work this out and get feedback from you guys and my son.

  7. The Fool on the Hill says:

    I am extremely excited at the prospect of this rules hack. I was a fan of M:tG in college, when it first came out, but kind of let my interest wane since then.

    I love the idea of integrating this into my new S&W: WhiteBox setting.


  8. Pingback: Five Color Magic « Lord Kilgore

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