Wizard Spell Research Variant

William Fettes Douglas The Alchemist Looking At VialWizards are the scholars of Pathfinder. Other spellcasting classes, such as the sorcerer, cleric, or druid, draw their powers from their ancestry, their gods, or nature itself. The unique flavor of wizards is that they are the scientists of a magical world. Their power comes from hours of study, and dutifully logged research. At each level, wizards automatically learn two new spells which represent research performed between adventures. A wizard can also learn new spells by studying the spellbooks of other wizards. The only real limit on the number of spells a wizard can know is however many books the GM will let him get away with carrying.

This versatility is one of the great draws of the wizard class. Unfortunately, the nearly limitless ability to expand their spell repertoire also allow wizards to completely overshadow the other classes. This uncontested dominance has plagued the game ever since D&D 3rd edition’s release. Over time, balance has improved through lowering the effectiveness of some spells, and increasing the abilities of other classes, but wizards are still considerably overpowered in Pathfinder.

Editions ago, when wizards were still called magic users, this was not as much of an issue. I’m not exactly an expert on older versions of D&D, but my understanding is that not only did wizards level at a slower rate than other classes do, but their abilities were also significantly less comprehensive. In Pathfinder, the idea is that anything which can happen in the game world can potentially be achieved by players. If there are mighty magic users who can cast spells powerful enough to raise continents out of the sea, then players should be able to look forward to similar abilities at some point. Obviously this creates much more powerful casters, but I don’t think I would want to give either of these things up. I like that ever class levels at the same rate, and I like that nothing is ever completely out of reach of player characters. I would, however, like to see wizards brought more in line with other classes. It’s a problem which is often floating around the periphery of my awareness. I haven’t come up with a solid solution, but recently I struck upon an idea which I think is flavorful, interesting, and goes a small way towards helping with balance issues.

As I’ve posted about before, I’ve been reading a few first edition D&D modules. Alas I’ve been too busy to really make a dent in the small stack of them that I have, but one thing I’ve noticed is the big to-do which is made about NPC spellbooks. Any time a magic user appears in a module, the author makes note of where the magic user keeps his or her spellbook, and what spells are in it. Magic users often seem to go to great lengths to hide their books. It seems that in 1st edition, stealing finding and stealing a spellbook was considered a great prize. And why shouldn’t it be? In first edition, as in Pathfinder, getting your hands on someone else’ spell book means that–after a little study–all of that person’s spells can be added to your own collection.

I toyed with this idea for awhile, not really sure what I wanted to do with it. I could start making spellbooks a bigger part of my games, but all that would do is make any wizard players more overpowered than they already were. I jotted the idea down in one of my notebooks for future reference, and promptly forgot about it for a few weeks. That’s when I read a post by Paul over at Blog of Holding called 4e Spells as Treasure. I find it amusing that many of my best ideas come after reading Blog of Holding, since it most often focuses on 4th edition D&D, a game which I find personally quite distasteful. In this post, Paul discusses the possibility of including scrolls which have improved versions of spells in treasure hordes. Wizards could transcribe the spells into their books, and forever be able to cast a slightly better version of a common spell. This set me to thinking:

What if wizards only learned spells by finding them?

It wouldn’t be difficult. Simply drop the 2 spells wizards learn automatically with each new level. Since those spells are explained as research performed between adventures, all a GM need say is that spell research in the game world is significantly more time consuming and difficult than in the standard Pathfinder game. Players could still research spells on their own, but doing so would need to be handled with the GM, and would probably have significant costs associated with it. As Paul writes, “DMs and players can go crazy with rules for spending money on research, libraries, and labs.”

Using this house rule, characters would no longer be able to learn spells independently from the game world. Players never like to see their characters become weaker, but once they accepted this way of doing things, I think it would make spell acquisition a much more involving and entertaining process. Gaining two new spells instantaneously with each level is fine, but it’s an abstraction which reminds everyone that they’re playing a game. Instead, every time players encountered a wizard, they would be engaged in trying either to befriend her so they could learn from her, or defeat her so they could steal her secrets.

This house rule also provides the GM with useful tools for controlling their game world. Many spells make a GMs job significantly more difficult, such as the various permutations of polymorph, flight spells, teleportation spells, invisibility spells, and worst of all, divination spells. And while I think it would be inadvisable to simply block players from ever finding these spells, this rule does give the GM a throttle with which to control their inclusion in the game. Overland Flight, for example, might never appear in the game until an enemy wizard uses it in a level 14 adventure. If the players then earn the spell by defeating their foe and finding his spellbook, it’s still just a 5th level spell. But the GM is able to prevent it from effecting the game until they’re ready for it, 5 levels after it would normally be available to characters.

Another benefit of this house rule is that treasure hordes become much more interesting. My experience with D&D is that most GMs include two things in treasure piles: coins, and gear they want their players to use. I did this myself for many years, so I understand the desire to simplify player rewards. Artwork, weapons which won’t be used, and even gems seem like they’re simply obstructions to game play. All the player will want to do is find out how much gold he can get in exchange for these items, and sell them as soon as they can. But simple treasure hordes become boring very quickly. Players can only get excited about a pile of coins and a replacement for their weapon with an extra +1 on it so many times. Including the spellbooks of long dead magic users, or even just scrolls containing a new spell, will go a long way towards getting players more excited about what they find.

It’s just a thought at this point. I haven’t had an opportunity to implement this rule in a game yet. When I do I’ll be sure to take copious notes on player reactions and update the blog on how it went.

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8 thoughts on “Wizard Spell Research Variant”

  1. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

    Name: -C
    Date: Nov 29, 2011 12:08 PM

    One thing that always greatly mitigated the power of wizards in earlier editions was that spell’s learned on level up were random.

    There was none of this “I build my wizard”, and there were spells that were not as good as other spells to boot. You played with what you got.

    1. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

      Name: LS
      Date: Nov 29, 2011 10:14 PM

      I had two responses to learning this.

      1) That’s ridiculous. Not only does it pointlessly steal player agency, but it destroys the foundation of what a wizard IS. What kind of scholar would have no idea what they were researching before they drew their conclusions? I can’t even explain why the spells learned would be random.

      2) That sounds AWESOME, and I would love to try it. I love getting a literally random set of tools, and trying to come up with efficient ways to use them.

      1. What if you got random spells from a particular school of magic? Maybe you were just experimenting, and you know generally what you’re experimenting with, but you’re not really sure what you’ll learn from it (hence the randomness). Then mechanic-wise, it would be a bit of a happy medium, because it would still have the fun of randomness, but the players would still have some say. Further, with occasionally found spellbooks/scrolls, and having the options to spend (potentially a lot of) money (and time) for particular spells they really want, I think that could be interesting without completely removing player choice from it.

  2. I guess I’m the old man in the room, but I actually played under those rules when I first started back in the 90’s with AD&D.
    Our DM started playing when the game came out in the 70’s and was very strict and hard but ran the best games I ever remember playing.
    And yes, wizards (or mages) had to to learn their spells at random. We had a blast, and one of my favorite characters was a thief/mage under that system.
    However, a word of caution, such a system may not work with 3.5/Pathfinder. In AD&D saving throws, spell levels and such worked very differently. In 2nd, a first level spell like charm person might actually work on a 17th level human fighter. In 3rd, fat chance unless you’ve got it souped up with heighten spell and what-not. So in 2nd if you got random spells and only a few were offensive spells, that was ok because those few could last you a long time. Now they’d become obsolete in a level or two and you’d need to replace them fast and with certainty.

  3. I agree with the other Jason, I myself am very fond of playing wizards. An yes they are strong most likely stronger then most non caster classes but I don’t think depriving the player of spells dose anything for balance. All you’re doing is just increasing the DC as it were not only are you only delaying the inevitable (they player will get their spells eventually) you’re making the game boring for them. In pathfinder classes get something when they level up, a new feat a new ability a mount something. If you were to remove the spells they get when they level up… well just take a look at this table and tell my what is there for a wizard to get exited about when leveling up?


    1. Umm….the spells? Even if they’re random, they do still get more spells on level-up, and can still be excited about finding out what they’ll get.

  4. What about a compromise?
    Let the player choose the spells in their book ahead of time, with a number of spells at the GM’s discretion, likely based on the normal spells gained upon leveling, say 10-15 spells, up to say level 3-5 spells. Include cantrips in that number.
    They gain access to these on leveling but other than those few spells they have to research or find spellbooks.
    This would allow even low level spellbooks to be valuable loot.

    I’m wondering if the random spells would be a good idea for sorcerers?
    A base list of spells + spells from bloodline. Allowing for re-rolls if the spell rolled is completely opposite to the bloodline or character concept.

  5. >>What if wizards only learned spells by finding them?

    Slowly, people are remembering how to play D&D.

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