5% of All Sales go to Support The Tavern

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Some Thoughts on Magic Users Learning New Spells in Swords & Wizardry Complete (and other Old School Games)

I was listening to THAC0's Hammer (an excellent 2e podcast) in the shower and one of the topics that came up was "chance for magic-users to learn a new spell". In truth, I never liked these numbers, even back in my early days of gaming. Even with a high Intelligence score (say 16), a magic-user would still fail on his chance to learn a new spell 1 time in 4.

Fail that roll to learn "fireball" and you'll never learn it. It's pretty much why I don't use it in my current S&W campaign - it's a huge downside with little upside as far as I'm concerned.

I seem to remember the stated reason for the limitation was that each individual magic-user interprets every single spell differently. Get a dozen magic-users together, and not one will have the exact same "recipe" for "magic missile". Which got me thinking - what if the chance to learn was actually the chance to understand that particular interpretation of the spell?

You failed to learn "fireball" from the scroll you found? Sucks, but at least you can try again when you find the next "fireball" scroll.

I'd also rule the chance to learn does not apply to spells learned directly due to level advancement, so if you REALLY want to learn fireball, make it the free spell you learn at 5th or 6th level.

Hey, look at that - a really gaming post squeezed in between OSR Christmas Gifting ;)


  1. The M-U gets another chance if he/she fails to learn at least 6 spells of a given level. I guess. That's what the last column is about, right?

    Or you could interpret 'New Spell' as a totally new spell created by a player or NPC. But that's pretty lawyer-ey. Cops LOVE lawyers, right?

  2. I never EVER use this rule. Like. Ever. Ever.

  3. That;s how I did it back in my 1E days....the chance of failure only applied to that version of the spell at the moment.

  4. This is one of the things that "balances" MUs vs other classes. It also makes MUs different from each other.

  5. This is one rule I never enforced in my 1st/2nd AD&D games. The option of allowing a new chance to learn a spell each time a different copy is found is a good compromise I suppose, but even then it could be a long wait for the M-U between tries.

  6. We tried using just a d20 vs INT once. That made a heckuva lot more sense to me. But no, if you're a Wizard you should know enough to be able to cast something that you come across. It always seemed to me to be like a new page in a book in a foreign language you've learned. If you fail to read every word on that page do you not only know what the page says but you will never know? SIlly.

  7. EH? Man I must be super playing wrong back in the day. I could have sworn, at least D&D style, that every level you advanced you got another chance to roll those dice again. My players were lucky.

  8. In my game, I don't rule that you can NEVER learn the spell, just that you have to spend some money to further research the spell. Spend 200*level gp on research, and you can roll again.

    I do favor the idea that your free spell is whichever one you pick to know.

  9. I'm not agree, this is not the phylosophy olf old school.
    You said "Fail that roll to learn "fireball" and you'll never learn it", well it's false: you must wait to gain a new level and you can try the check again. This is the same as for the thief that isn't able to unlock a particular chest or trapped door etc.
    Advancing in level means that you learn new formulas or equations (spells!) or particular tricks to do better your job (the Thief).
    And this is the right phylosophy to approach the old school games: otherwise, guys, let play to D&D 3.5 or similar games.

    1. every group i played with in High School and College ran AD&D differently (although none ever used weapon speed).

      Old School gaming is all about house ruling. If you aren't house ruling, you may as well be playing 3.5 ;)

  10. Yep, your PC MU can try again if:

    1) He goes up a level
    2) Spends time and gp on research in a lab and/or library
    3) Somehow has another copy of said spell from a different source

    MU's were always the class with the highest power potential (name me a fighter in Toril that could take on Elminster?) and they had several things to balance that out.

    The only "cheat" we used was the spells known were always in memory to avoid the oh so not thrilling situation where your MU memorized the exact wrong spell for the day's adventure and so was nothing more than a 4 h.p. sponge.

    That and a MU could overcast the daily allotment of spells but... The first time incurred a roll against % to know spell. The 2nd time incurred a roll against %/2 (rounded down). The 3rd time, %/4 rounded down, etc. Any failure to successfully know the spell brought down an episode of Wild Magic. Needless to say overcasting was about as rare as an unguarded dragon hoard.