Monday, September 28, 2020

Why Rolling to Cast is a Bad Idea

               This article is really in response to Professor Dungeon Master and his video(s) where he professes to like random results for casting spells. Let me be clear here first, I love the Dungeon Craft YouTube videos and I love the FB group. I have stolen many of the Professor’s ideas and agree with him about 90% of the time, but I must break from him on this subject. This video also runs in complete opposition to the magic system that is used in Dungeon Crawl Classics. I love DCC’s style and I think their approach is wild. I like many of their adventures, but I will not be running any straight DCC anytime soon. The game, for me, is a bit too random. Though if that is your thing, more power to you.

DCCs art is rad.

                I brief synopsis of what I call “random” casting (or rolling to cast) is when a wizard/cleric casts a spell the player rolls a d20 to see if it is successful or not. Spells in this type of setting are not automatic (though I would argue that they are not automatic in classic D&D either). Depending on the d20 roll you can have about four outcomes. The spell goes off normally, the spell fails, the spell critically succeeds, the spell critically fails. The other bonus to this system is that spells can be cast an unlimited amount of times, but there is always a chance that the spell will backfire. I am sure that I am underselling the system a bit, but I think this is an accurate rough outline of how this system works.

Here is the video with his house rules. I agree with many, but not "Roll to Cast".

                Here are some of the reasons that I think this is not the best system to use. These opinions are coming from a classic D&D OSE/OSR perspective, so please keep that in mind.

1 – It is already tough being a low-level caster

                I have been running OSE/OSR now hardcore for about the last years and the biggest pile of dead heroes that I have is wizards. In my opinion they have the highest bar to cross as far as gaining levels, with the least going for them. They have bad ACs, they cannot use weapons, they have low hit points, and the list keeps going. The one thing they do have is a spell that possibly can turn the tide of battle once a day. Clerics are similar in that they have earn an entire level before even getting a spell and (odds are) that spell will be crucial in keeping another character alive. I just do not see the reason for having the one thing that makes both the classes unique fail or go catastrophically horrible. Why would people then really want to play these classes? The wizard sits back biding his moment and does little in the combats of the night. The Ogre rounds the corner, the party looks at towards the wizard and the wizard grins. He chants his magic as his eyes glow and casts Sleep. He then rolls a 1 and puts his entire party to Sleep and gets his head caved in by the Ogre. Fun times. They get one thing, let that thing be reliable.

2 – Unlimited casting is not a good option either

                I can hear the comments now, just allow the casters to cast unlimited spells with a risk and that solves everything. I am currently playing in a Microlite20 game where my character can cast not unlimited, but quite a few spells compared to his OSE counterpart. I can drop Sleep like it is nobody’s business. This makes fights boring for the other party members. Since I can cast it roughly 10 times, we can navigate most of a dungeon without many combats. I go out of my way to not cast it because I want other party members have a chance to shine. When you can cast that many spells at low level, even with the chance of failure, it can reduce the dramatic tension of a session a lot. Combat, Sleep, Bash, Next, Combat, Sleep, Bash, Next, Etc. Spells as a limited resource is a good thing and even plays into the fiction well. The wizard is tiring and cannot produce more magic, the cleric is desperate, and their faith is wavering. While I believe low-level casters, especially wizards, need a few more spells, unlimited spell casting just does not seem to fix this problem.


This supplement does have a critical system for magic if people are interested.


                As I said in the beginning, I do not want this to come off as an attack on Dungeon Craft. I love the channel and respect the Professor. This is just one professor sharing his opinion on the subject as well. I would highly encourage you to check out Dungeon Craft as a YouTube station and a FB book group, you will not regret it. I also want to state that I like DCC and Goodman games. I own several products. I encourage people to buy DCC, because even though I do not run it, I have farmed it for many ideas and their adventure modules are some of the best in print now.

This is one of my favorite of his videos and rings so true.

I have previous blog posts on my thoughts on Wizards and possible ways to improve them at low levels. Check them out HERE and HERE.

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  1. Ryan, as a player /GMof both OSR games and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, where there is a lot more available to casters, I agree that in a Vancian system, success should be limited only by Saving Throws. In my other system of choice, casters have a pool of energy based on their constitution to cast from,and may start out with a variety of spells, all of which are rolled for, but the results are less swingy than DCC, and in that system, it can work. On the other hand, spells tend to have a smaller effect,it takes considerable investment to build a character who can spam mass sleep spells in volume.

    1. Yes, in other systems rolling to hit is a perfectly viable solution. In classic D&D though, it is a bit rough.

  2. I use Runequest as the basis for my magic, with lots of spells converted from D&D. I make them roll to cast, but it's a simple skill roll.

    1. With a massive over-haul it can work. If going by roughly standard D&D rules, it tends to fall flat.

  3. I've liked what the guys at Free League publishing have come up with - also I believe Black Hack uses it as well. A Resource dice. Perhaps your spell caster starts with a 1D6 resource die at the start of the day - when they cast a spell, they roll the dice; on a 1 or a 2 the size of the dice is reduced (from a 1D6 to 1D4).

    This sort of adequately gives some "squish" to the magic - making it unknowable and a little unreliable. Either way - whatever the result of the dice roll - the spell goes off and you resolve it however your game does so. When you roll a 1 or 2 on the 1D4 - you're out for the day. Over time (with level gain) the caster can increase the size of their dice - 1D8 -> 1D10, etc. The math works out such that it's _likely_ you'll get off 2 spells for a 1D4. But having a 1D8 at the start of the day means you'll manage an average of 9 spells for the day (but could be as few as 3).

  4. When I proposed moving my existing campaign to a DCC style of magic I got a 50/50 split from my players. Half had your exact concerns that their one spell would too often fail and they'd be even more useless in play. So I proposed a compromise. On a 1 they fumble. On a 20 they crit the spell, and on a 11+ they retain the spell. Typically they get to use the spell twice in a session, and the chances of a complete failure, while minimal provide some additional tension to the play. I haven't noticed a huge change in the result of their encounters.

  5. You know what has changed is that each of my two MU players has developed a distinct style. The conservative player really doesn't cast more than under the OSR rules, while my other player has blown off the end of his finger casting magic missile and is growing ram's horns from his spell casting. Both are happy with how things are going.

  6. First of all, you say you cast sleep and walk through the dungeon? Why isn't your GM having monsters recover and then follow and entrap your party?