Saturday, March 4, 2017

B/X Magic & Retro-Clones

Reading Moldvay/Cook edition of Dungeons & Dragons regarding magic I came to this conclusion; the magic-user's spell book cannot be read by anyone else, even with a Read Magic spell, because a spell book is not inherently magical. A close reading of how Scrolls operate and the text in the Read Magic spell description brought me to this conclusion. My previous two blog posts go into more detail on my study of the B/X magic rules as written, and why I bothered.

In this post I'm going to take a look at my favorite B/X retro-clones and see how they've house-ruled magic-users, spell books, and Read Magic. My initial assumption is the authors assumed Read Magic allows reading of another magic-user's spell book, that spell limits enforced by character level don't translate to spell limits in a spell book, and spell books and scrolls are treated as if they are similar magical items thereby rationalizing, in my opinion, an incorrect reading of Moldvay/Cook rules. I know my head has never been on quite straight on the relationship between learning spells, the character's spell book, and spell limits. And I don't think I'm alone in this. Hence every game I've run or played in has their own house rules regarding these issues. And if I don't understand something I'm not going to want to play it so much. The magic-user was for me always the character class of last resort. If I wanted a magic wielding character I always choose cleric.

Cleric's are easy to understand. Doing this close reading of the rules I've decided the cleric really benefits from the Spell Research rules found on X51. Just think, with enough gold they can continually expand their initial spell list and put them into play the next day. Your Light spell not turning you on so much, maybe you can get the DM to go for “Religious Fanaticism” as a first level spell. The cleric can go all day pulling nonsense out of his ass and putting it into play with a willing DM. Not so the magic-user/elf. Their spell research can only benefit them when they have the opportunity to learn a new spell. Having a magic-user play strictly by the rules found on B11 some might come to the conclusion the cleric is an unbalanced class!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

This is the first retro-clone which turned me on to retro-clones. It opened my eyes to a smart, polished “house-ruled” system can be done without trashing overall game design. Reviewing magic rules the author's description of a spell book is near perfect in how I see Moldvay/Cook's vision of a spell book. From the Grindhouse Edition; “Each spell notation is a combination of reference notes, philosophical debate against the universe, and gibberish scribbling; all of which serves one purpose: To trigger dream-state understanding within the Magic-User's mind. Nothing contained in a spell book is a 'how to' guide so much as an individual recipe for self-induced hypnosis.” But there similarities end. The beginning spell user gets a total of three spells in their spell book plus Read Magic. There is no limit to the amount and/or level of spells which can be added to the spell book, even if the Magic-User has not reached a level high enough to cast it. Other spell books can be read with Read Magic spell and copied. Scrolls can be created from spell books.

I asked James Raggi, the author, if the Moldvay/Cook rules influenced his magic rules at all. James answered: “I was introduced to D&D through the Mentzer red box, then AD&D very shortly thereafter. I didn't even see the B/X rules until 2008, 2009, somewhere in there, and it's definitely not internalized. I can't tell you without looking it up what the differences might be between Mentzer and Holmes. (hell, I bet I don't even remember Mentzer's rules correctly... and hell, I've been using a completely new spell system in my own games for the past few years, so the LotFP rules haven't seen use in my own campaign in awhile. :P But I still agree with the blog post, pretty much. Don't need Read Magic to read your own spellbook, but can use it to read other spellbooks.”

So that explains the LotFP retro-clone. It is similar to the Mentzer interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons magic not Moldvay/Cook. Cool to know for a nerd like me. So no validation will come from this splendid corner of the game world whether my interpretation of the magic rules from Moldvay/Cook holds water. Of course I had to curse and damn Raggi's black soul to hell, because now I need to thoroughly review Mentzer Basic/Expert rules to see if I like them! What is clear is Mentzer is not Moldvay and the magic rules are significantly different.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game

This quickly became my favorite retro-clone when I started looking into the entire line of retro-clones for the game which was going to hit my sweet spot. It obliterates the race as class distinction while still running on an all too familiar B/X chassis. And yeah, compared to AD&D, a simple book of rules appealed to my limited gaming time as an adult-man-child-working-nerd. Modern upgrades like ascending AC and attack bonuses, all the while maintaining the clean organization found in Moldvay/Cook. The robust community support, cheap price, and free content closed the deal

The author Chris Gonnerman specifically states that BFRPG is intended to emulate the 1981 edition of Dungeons & Dragons so let us see how he interprets the Moldvay/Cook magic rules. Not like B/X at all.  As will be found common in retro-clones, a magic-user can have any number of spells written in their spell book. Character level only limits level and number of spells which can be cast on any given day. Unlike B/X, BFRPG directly calls spells in a spell book "magical script" which can be read by another magic-user by casting Read Magic on the book. Furthermore, Read Magic "is so ingrained that a Magic-User can prepare it without a spellbook." BFRPG considers this spell so foundational to the use and learning of magic the character can always cast it. The author also makes it clear the cast spell "is permanent with respect to any given magical work (spellbook or scroll)." It is not even included in the list of spell descriptions. It is not so much a spell as it is one of the class's natural abilities like, say, the Thief's ability to climb walls. Bravo for BFRPG and the other retro-clones out there for their clarity. There really is no way to misinterpret how magic-users learn new spells and the relationship between spell books, scrolls, and how Read Magic is used. 

Like Mr. Raggi, I wrote to Chris asking how the B/X Moldvay/Cook magic rules influenced his own. At this writing he hasn't responded yet, but reading some of his own blog posts at the BFRPG site demonstrate he is very thorough, that he puts a lot of thought and playtest into his products. So I'll assume he looks at the Read Magic spell and a spell book much like most of us have house ruled it through the ages. His writing of Basic Fantasy literally bears that out. If he tells me otherwise I will update this here blog post.  But the quest still stands; does my reading of the rules have merit? I like to think Tom Moldvay and David Cook were pretty thorough guys as well. That what they wrote they meant. Read Magic is for empowering scrolls and runes. That magic-users and elves must be taught their new spells or they must research new spells by spending time and money.

Labyrinth Lord

Goblinoid Games goes to great lengths to let the reader know this game attempts to replicate Basic Dungeons & Dragons of 1981. And it does a bang up job. None of those fancy-smanshy modern touches are found. This is Descending Armor Class as god intended, and Daniel Proctor, the author, most likely has a Tom Moldvay tattoo on his body somewhere.

Buuut, the rules do not adhere to those clearly stated rules found on B10. Much like Basic Fantasy above, magic-users can copy spells from spell books into their own. They can copy spells from scrolls into their spell book. Of any level. A beginning spell caster will have more spells in their spell book than they can cast. Unlike Basic Fantasy though it leaves Read Magic as a separate spell and includes the maddeningly ambiguous spell description as found in Basic Dungeons & Dragons. So it is a faithful reproduction of B/X with a few of the more popular house ruled aspects of magic hard coded, but doesn't go all the way like Basic Fantasy did.

For example; the rules state you need to cast Read Magic to utilize a scroll as a spell. But the rules are mute on whether you need to cast Read Magic to record the spell into a spell book. And I quote: "Scroll spells of any level may be copied to a spell book, but the spell disappears from the scroll. Characters may also copy spells from one spell book to another, and this process does not erase spells from a book." Kind of wishy-washy on the whole subject. These house rules leave the players with some more house ruling to do.

Like Mr. Gonnerman and Mr. Raggi, I emailed Daniel on how he reads Moldvay/Cook. Taking the writing of Labyrinth Lord at face value I feel he was undecided like most of us when we first used Basic and just went with what felt right. If he gets back to me I'll update this post to reflect his thoughts more specifically. So it appears the debate still has room to rage.

In closing on my personal magical navel-gazing on this topic; I think there is sufficient textual support for my interpretation within the B/X books and this reading of the rules creates a vastly different magic-user class than any of the retro-clones published does, and creates really interesting implications for the campaign world. And if you are in a B/X game I run you know how I plan to handle magic-users and elves!