Standard Book of Spells


One thing that’s been bugging me a bit about Swords & Wizardry White Box is the question of how to determine the number of spells in a beginning magic-user’s (or elf’s) spell book and which spells they are. Read Magic is a given, but I’ve been struggling to come up with an elegant way to get the rest.

I posed the question on the S&W forums and got a number of good answers, but I must admit that I was surprised by the fact that two suggested allowing beginning magic-users have all the first level spells.

That’s something I’m having a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around.

On the one hand, I’ve always felt that the Vancian magic system was a bit too limiting, and have played with various options to increase the options available to mages. On the other, I fear that granting all first-level spells (granted, there are only 8 of them in WB) would open things up a bit too much.

I always liked 1e’s version of randomly determining spells which had players roll for one offensive, one defensive, and one miscellaneou spell. With the small number of first-level spells in S&W White Box, though, this isn’t really an option.

So I’m going to take the plunge and borrow a page from Harry Potter. All first-level magic-users and elves will get all eight first-level spells listed in the WB rules in a Standard Book of Spells:

  • Charm Person
  • Detect Magic
  • Hold Portal
  • Light I
  • Protection from Chaos I
  • Read Languages
  • Read Magic
  • Sleep

Part of my reasoning is that I’d like to see more variety from low-level magic-users. I’d also like to make them a bit more fun to play. Finally, the low number of spells at first level is not replicated at higher levels. You’d think that basic magic would be the most diverse out there, but, in fact, no other spell level in White Box has fewer than ten spells.

I’m taking this to mean that while the eight spells listed above have become the standard that all educated magic-users learn, there is a very wide range of other first-level magic out there that has been developed “in the wild” and can be discovered on scrolls, in enemy’s spellbooks, or by research. While there are a lot of them, none of them have become well-known enough to enter the mainstream. This will be a good way to get the wide range of first-level spells from other editions into my WB campaigns. One at a time. With much effort required.

Who knows? Maybe the exact formula for a magic missile spell may become a sort of holy grail sought by wizards across the lands.

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10 Responses to Standard Book of Spells

  1. bat says:

    As one of the people who gives them all of the spells (and I was thinking Core, not White Box, although you posted in the White Box section), I have to say: How much damage can be wrought with those eight spells?

    I believe that this also allows the a magic user to feel free from the start and think about tailoring their spells from then on out. There are necromancers and illusionists out there and they did not start off by randomly generated spells. There was a root and they grew their own tree from it.

  2. bat says:

    They get punished enough in the game. Do you see some of the stuff I throw at them?

  3. Ripper X says:

    Great post! I know for wizards in my games, I start them off with Read Languages, Detect Magic, Cantrip, one offensive spell, one defensive spell, and if they are a specialist, an additional spell out of their specialized school of magic.

    I use to give wizards every spell, and then we used a house rule about magic points instead of using the chart in the books. It sounds great on paper, but in practice, it makes all of the wizards exactly the same. Everybody uses the same spells, and it is also more complicated. Players spent most of the time reading books then they did role-playing.

    Now, I am exactly the opposite, I prefer the core wizard rules and would like to transfer that system over to the Priest class.

    • Kilgore says:

      Ripper X: I, too, tried the magic points method and found that yes, it sounds good by plays bad.

      In fact, this Standard Book of Spells approach is meant as a sort of middle ground, giving the options for spells that don’t get used quite so often while keeping the original magic system in place and keeping it all pretty simple.

      I’m thinking of a “no duplicate spells memorized” rule, but I’m not sure if I really like that.

  4. Badelaire says:

    I personally don’t have any problem with this, but I’m sure there are people who would.

    I’d say that it would depend on how “Institutionalized” magic is in your setting. If there is such a thing as a Wizard’s Conclave or a Mage’s Guild, then it makes sense to have a “Spell Primer” or some such that every starting mage gets. Or, another way to do this is the carrot-and-stick approach; your PC can have this great spell primer and easy access to new spells…but they have to join a guild that may have a pretty hefty degree of control of the PC’s actions throughout the campaign.

    In a campaign setting where there is no established “body” of magic-users, I’d say the idea of one single primer makes a lot less sense.

    • Kilgore says:

      Absolutely. That’s exactly why I specified “educated” magic-users get all these spells. I can see a “self-taught” magic-user only having one spell, for instance.

      As for how “institutionalized” magic is, I haven’t really given that a lot of thought yet. I certainly don’t have wizard-wannabes going to Hogwarts.

      It could be that these eight spells just happen to be the ones that have leaked out enough that nearly anyone can find a copy, while the rest are jealously guarded by whoever possesses them. (The “jealously guarded” bit IS in my campaign…no copying spells between PCs or with NPCs.) Since these are pretty common knowledge, nearly everyone learns most of them. But the master does not teach the uncommon spells even to his own pupils.

      “I taught you everything you know, but not everything *I* know.”

  5. bat says:

    Which is sort of my way of doing things. Take these spells and see what you can do with them, you get to work for the rest. I allow spellcasters to copy from each other or sell spells to each other in addition to wizard’s guilds. No wizard in his right mind is going to be free and easy with their spellbook, though.

    • Kilgore says:

      Yeah, I’ve imposed a bit of a “non-proliferation rule” with spellbooks. The first thing everyone was doing was spellcasters would huddle up and copy all spells into all books.

      But I’ve decided (at least for now) that the eight White Box 1st level spells are “public domain,” so to speak.

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