Sunday, March 5, 2017

Witch Spells

A power hungry wizard, delving deep into ruins of an ancient civilization, unearthing magics lost to this age.  Scribing spells into their spellbook as they grow in power and knowledge.

It's evocative, but I have never done that, nor seen it done in any campaign I've run or played in.  In DnD 5e, you start the game knowing cantrips and 6 first level spells.  You can learn 2 new spells per level, as the result of your personal research.  The Player's Handbook strongly suggests that you should seek out arcane spells to supplement this number.

As I said, I can't remember ever seeing a spell formula or teaching given as a treasure in any campaign, indicating that the few wizards I've know are quite spell ignorant. (I haven't played a wizard since 4th edition) I guess EDIT: 6+(level -1*2) spells known is probably enough.  More likely, people probably either assumed the rules for clerics applied and just prepared any spell out of the book as they required.

I'm not saying people were cheating.  In fact, I would rule that that's how wizards should work, as the way its written is stupid for two reasons.

1.  The first reason is one of bookkeeping. It requires the DM keep track of what spells their wizard has, and what spells their wizard wants.  But not the top two spells their wizard wants, that they'll just learn themselves.  DMs have to keep track of an complicated part of a complicated character so they can give the wizard access to spells (remember, divine spellcasting doesn't work this way, so it's JUST for the wizard).  For some DMs that might be fine, but I would never bother to do that, the same way I don't keep track of material components except for on very special occasions. I suppose you could just seed all your treasure with random spells, but I've never seen it done.

2. The second reason is one of flavor.  All the spells the wizard might like to learn, they could at least teach themselves their top two.  And all the other spells are in the PHB, free for you to read and know what they do.  That kind of undercuts the "ancient magics lost to time" vibe you'd like to go for.  Ideally a new spell you had to delve into a dungeon to unearth shouldn't be something some other wizard just taught themself between levels 4 and 5.  At least to me, the fact that all the spells are well known to me (the player) and all listed in one spot robs them of some mystery.

(Side note, I could see it being interesting that another wizard taught themselves the spell you delved into the earth to regain.  Are you in the middle of a magic renaissance, with a combination of new research and the wisdom of a lost age?  I could see it being cool, but it does still decrease the grandeur of your discovery, especially if the spells are exactly mechanically the same)

So in order to approach the flavor of that delve for forbidden magics and avoid extra bookkeeping, I've come up with some house rules.

Witch Spells

Wizards prepare spells like clerics (open to paring this part back if it ends up being too powerful or unfair to sorcerers or something) 

All the wizard spells in the PHB form a body of knowledge that is taught in wizard schools and are known in the wider culture.  The same way that in the real world the New Testament started as a collection of stories, oral traditions and romances and were gradually pared back into the current cannon by councils and decrees, magic started as a wide variety of traditions, abilities and rituals that were gradually pared down to the canonical spells by wizard councils and decrees.  The current set of canonical magic was decreed by the wizard Regilus 30-40 years before the campaign started.  

Of course, a lot of spellstuff didn't make the cut.  You won't learn these magics in school, but they are still practiced by hedge witches and superstitious commoners.  They very widely in efficacy and safety, some don't work at all, or only work under odd circumstances.  They are found deep in forgotten tombs, in the minds of warlocks or bound away in forbidden tomes.  

Each player can learn one Witch Spell, assuming they find a written description of the ritual or someone to teach them.  If you would normally be able to cast spells you can learn two.  If you're a wizard you can learn an unlimited number.  You can cast each spell once per day.  

An Incomplete List of Witch Spells

1. Ward Hearth
2. Shape Stone
3. Shape Wood
4. Deepwell
5. Mutation
6. Arrows to Asps
7. Steal Face
8. Cutwife
9. Summon Demon
10. Beginner's Luck
11. Bend Luck
12. Evil Eye
13. Drown 


  1. I actually think the bigger problem in most campaigns is down time at higher levels and cost at lower levels. Most of the games we've played have had plenty of spell scrolls to be found or purchased.

    Copying a spell takes spell level * 2 hours and spell level * 50 GP (half in both cases if the wizard is a specialist of that school). 50 GP at first level (or even 100 gp at third level) is actually a significant impediment to learning a new spell. 8-12 hours at midlevel is also an impediment in many campaigns as that requires a full day of scribing into a book.

    In this respect the wizard actually works significantly better in the "adventure of the week" format over the standard campaign. This is because the wizard can be presumed to spend time between adventures spending their hard earned coin and downtime scribing new spells (or acquiring spell scrolls), as opposed to the constant attention to adventuring most campaigns envision.

    I do think that having access to all spells is almost certainly too much. Wizards have 6 + (level-1)*2 spells. Sorcerers generally have level +1 spells, with a significant slow down after level 11 (although they can supplement with scrolls, wands and staves). Bards actually get more spells than wizard as they generally have level +3. By 6th level a wizard will have more spells than a 20th level sorcerer, it take 9th level for the Wizard to be guaranteed to have as many spells as a level 20 Bard.

    I do wonder if this is the mistake of thinking of the Wizard as the Elf from AD&D. The Elf from AD&D started with only read magic and then gained magic only via actively seeking it out. The 5th ed wizard primarily gains magic by gaining levels and also has the option to add spells to their spell book when they find them.

    Wizards as designed are a book keeping class. They have a ton of choice and more decisions to make than any other class. I think a lot of their appeal is that you do have to make so many damn decisions.

  2. Good point on 6+ (level-1)*2, neglected that.

    I don't mind the idea that wizards are a bookkeeping class, so maybe it's better to keep the wizards the same instead of changing them when introducing the witch spells. It certainly hasn't been a problem in our campaigns yet, so adjusting the wizard might be a solution in search of a problem, when really I'm more excited about the introduction of unknown, dangerous spells as loot.