Pop quiz, hot shot.
Let's say you're a complete newcomer to roleplaying games. You and your friends want to jump into D&D. And you, you lucky bastard, have been elected Dungeon Master. Well, guess what? You're literally the only player who needs to have the rules on hand. Serves you right for being so handsome and personable.
What do you do? What do you do?
90's action-movie references aside, your options are as follows:
Amazon can take the sting out of the cost of the core rulebooks, dropping the cost to around $60 for just the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual. The Starter Set generally runs close to retail, but you can sometimes find a third party seller packaging it with extra dice.
My personal recommendation? Don't start with "official" D&D. Start with the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game.
Like most independently-published retro-clone games, the core rules are available as a free PDF. Unlike most of them, that free PDF includes all art and illustrations. The game's publisher has also made the print version available at cost, meaning a physical copy of the rulebook will only set you back $5.
And that rulebook is an all-in-one, containing the complete Players' Guide, Game Master information, and Monsters. Getting the same "complete" rules for 5e will run you around $150.00, by comparison.
Below is my copy of the core rulebook, along with six sets of dice (and bags) I scored for $10.99. Total cost? Less than sixteen bucks before tax.
For my money, this is the best "D&D Starter Set" you can build. It's cheaper than the official one, provides complete rules, and each player gets their own set of dice. Hell, if you wanted to be extra generous, you could buy each player a copy of the rulebook. You'd still come out of it cheaper than the 5e Players' Handbook.
Sure, BFRPG lacks some of the bells and whistles of 5e, like Backgrounds and Feats. But it's close enough to give you (and your players) a real taste of the game. You can always upgrade to 5e later, after you're all hopelessly addict— er, umm... comfortable with the game. Even if you don't, BFRPG has enough free supplements available to keep your group going for years.
No matter what version of the game you start out with, just remember: the smart DM lets his players buy the pizza. The wise DM gives them an XP bonus to make sure they do it again.
For part one of this series, click here. For part two, click here. For part three, click here. For part four, click here. And for part five, click here.
To close this little experiment out, I'm going to end right where the games do: with Dracula. Now, statting out the big boss for a Castlevania game could be easy. After all, he's a vampire, right? Why not just use the same Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game template I did for Carmilla?
Well, that gets back to what I said in my last post, about Ravenloft and Castlevania being two properties with different feels to them. Case in point: Strahd Von Zarovich is probably my favorite D&D villain of all time. He's devilishly smart. He's an accomplished wizard, who uses both magic and his environment to his advantage. But he's basically just a standard vampire, with a few tweaks to his power level. A canny-enough group of PCs could conceivably surprise him in his coffin, drive a stake through his heart, and end the problem. It's not likely, mind you, but it's possible.
Dracula from the Castlevania series, however, is another matter entirely. The climax is always a pitched battle, with Dracula taking on multiple forms. His human facade melts away, revealing a hideous, demonic nature. Only by defeating his final form (however many he goes through), do our heroes save the day.
And sure, part of that is because it's a platformer game, and platformers always end with a big boss fight. But I also think it's an essential part of the franchise. Simply put, if you're running a Castlevania-themed game, the only way to make it "feel" like Castlevania is to end it with an epic, shapeshifting, "now-face-my-TRUE-power"-style boss fight.
To that end, the first thing to realize is that Castlevania Dracula isn't really a vampire. Not in the Bela Lugosi/pop-culture/European folklore sense. Castlevania Dracula is really a maō, or Japanese Demon Lord.
Don't just take it from me. The Japanese title of the first game is Akumajou Dracula, or "Demon Castle Dracula." The akuma is an evil fire-spirit in traditional Japanese folklore, and when Christianity came to Japan in 1549, Akuma was the name applied to Satan. Language drift being what it is, "akuma" was sometimes shortened to "ma," meaning devil or demon, and maō is "demon ruler" or "demon king."
This article on Legends of Localization goes into more detail, but for our purposes it's enough to know that Dracula is much more than a vampire.
With this in mind, I decided to stat out three of Dracula's forms separately. I did use a modified vampire for the first one, since it seemed appropriate. For the second, I leaned heavily on the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game Infernal races (specifically the Malebranche and the Vrock). The last one—based on the cluster of floating heads from Castlevania III--is a modification of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game Giant Flying Brain.
But enough talk! HAVE AT YOU!
Vlad Dracula Tepes (First Form)
Armor Class: 21
Hit Dice: 12 (attack bonus +12)
No. of Attacks: 1 or magic
Damage: 1d10, or magic
Movement: 40' or 60' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 12 Fighter
Treasure Type: Special
In his first form, Dracula appears to be an abnormally large vampire. He resembles an 8' tall human male, with pale skin, dark hair, and flaming red eyes. His canine teeth are sharp, and his features are vaguely lupine.
Like mundane vampires, in this form Dracula casts no shadow and no reflection. Unlike common vampires, he is perfectly capable of crossing running water and entering another's home without invitation. Additionally, mirrors and garlic have no effect. He may pretend to have these weaknesses at first, in order to lure his enemies into false confidence.
A cross presented with conviction will keep him at bay, provided the wielder is at least level 3 (for more information on this weakness, see the Vampire, p. 124 of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game). He may also be turned, but the Cleric attempting to do so faces a -5 penalty.
Dracula is immune to Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells. He does not use weapons, preferring to use spells in combat. If forced to fight physically, he slashes at his enemies with his claws for 1d10 damage.
Dracula is not known to bite in combat. However, his bite inflicts 1d3 damage, and drains two level of energy for each round he continues to feed. While feeding, he suffers a -5 Armor Class penalty. Victims reduced to 0 hit points by in this manner die, and they will rise again as vampires during the next sunset. These new vampires are permanently under Dracula's control, and always act as if under a Charm spell.
Dracula has access to many magic spells. One of his preferred methods of attack is to cast Teleport (which he can do at will) to take an advantageous position behind his enemies, and then attack from a distance with Hellfire. For purposes of spell duration and saves, Dracula's Caster Level is 20.
Dracula can command common nocturnal creatures. Twice per day, he can summon 10d12 rats, 5d6 giant rats, 10d12 bats, 3d8 giant bats, or 3d8 wolves. The creatures must be nearby to be summoned. Once called, they arrive in 2d6 rounds and obey his commands for 2 hours.
At will, Dracula can transform into a swarm of 4d4 giant bats. The bats are identical to those detailed on p. 58 of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Dracula often uses this ability to flee the area when surprised or overmatched. As long as even one of these bats survives, he is capable of returning to his first form, retaining the same number of Hit Points he had before transforming.
Dracula also has the common vampire's Charm gaze, which his victims must save vs Spell to resist. Victims save at -4.
Dracula cannot be harmed by non-magical weapons. Reducing him to 0 Hit Points or exposing him to direct sunlight for more than 5 rounds only destroys his first form, causing him to assume the next one.
1st Level Spell
Range: 100' + 10'/Level
This spell causes a small ball of fire to shoot forth and strike a target of the caster's choosing, causing 1d6+1 damage. The target must be at least partially visible to the caster. For every three caster levels after 1st, an additional fireball is generated: two at 4th level, three at 7th, four at 10th, and the maximum number of five at 13th level and above.
Vlad Dracula Tepes (Second Form)
Armor Class: 24
Hit Dice: 14 (attack bonus +12)
No. of Attacks: 1 or Special
Damage: 1d10 or Special
Movement: 30' or 15' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 14 Fighter
Treasure Type: Special
In his second form, Dracula resembles a huge, ugly, gargoyle-like creature. Membraneous wings connect his arms to his torso. Ram-like horns extend from the sides of his head.
Dracula is incapable of true "flight" in his gargoyle form, as his wings cannot support his massive body. However, he can use them to leap vertical and horizontal distances of over 15 feet. He uses this ability in combat, leaping at his enemy and slashing for 1d10 damage with his feet.
He is also capable of breathing modified Fireballs at will. Dracula's fireballs are treated as if generated by a fifth level caster, causing 5d6 damage, and having a range of 150 feet. Rather than saving vs. Spell for half damage, his targets are allowed a save vs. Breath Weapon to avoid damage altogether.
While in this form, Dracula can only be harmed by magical weapons and spells cast by a character of 3rd Level or higher. He is completely immune to Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells. Additionally, as he is no longer assuming the shape of an undead creature, he cannot be turned. Reducing Dracula's Second Form to 0 Hit Points does not kill him. It only causes him to assume his Third and final form.
Vlad Dracula Tepes (Third Form)
Armor Class: 14
Hit Dice: 24 (attack bonus +1)
No. of Attacks: Magic or Special
Movement: 30' or 15' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 14 Magic User
Treasure Type: Special
In his Third and final form, Dracula appears as a massive cluster of 4d4 giant heads. The heads float 5-15 feet in the air, continuously pulsating and moaning. Upon first seeing this form, all creatures must save vs Spell or be paralyzed for 2d8 turns, as if targeted by a Hold Person spell.
In this form Dracula can cast spells as a 14th level magic user, although for purposes of damage, spell duration, and saves, his Caster Level is treated as 20.
Additionally, each of the heads in the cluster drips a corrosive acid from its mouth. The acid causes 2d8 points of damage. Those hit by the acid drops must make a save vs. Breath Weapon. If unsuccessful, the acid dissolves 1d4 random unenchanted object on the target's person, rendering them useless.
When Dracula's Third Form is reduced to 0 Hit Points, he is not killed. His spirit is either returned to the primordial chaos beyond the world, or it is absorbed by the walls of Castlevania itself. Dracula will Reincarnate into his First Form in exactly 100 years, unless outsiders attempt to revive him early.
This is part of a continuing series. For part one, click here. For part two, click here. For part three, click here. And for part four, click here.
While the previous posts in this series have mainly been concerned with showing how to adapt Lamentations of the Flame Princess' various character classes to Castlevania-appropriate archetypes, this post will handle the setting of Transylvania itself. And while I dipped into Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and Symphony of the Night to build a D&D style adventuring party with, neither game really offers much in the way of setting material outside the castle.
For that, I'm going to go back a little farther into the franchise's history, to the much-maligned proto-Metroidvania, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest.
Please, hold all torches and pitchforks until the end.
Just a brief side note: If I really were to run a Castlevania-themed campaign for a group of PC's, I'd probably lean heavily on Simon's Quest to do it with. While the 8-bit NES wasn't quite up to the developers' ambitions, the game has some good bones to build off of.
I would probably have the players roll up original characters, with at least one being the next heir to the Belmont line. I'd have the game take place a few years after one of the "major" Dracula battles outlined in the main series, and have the Belmont player character's relative be suffering from the same curse Simon did: The wounds taken in his battle against Dracula are not healing. He is slowly dying. As his condition worsens, he has visions of becoming a creature of the night. A fortune-teller reveals the truth. If he dies before the next full moon, he will become a vessel for Dracula to be re-born, stronger than ever. The only way to lift the curse is to bring Dracula's spirit back into its previous body. But Dracula's minions have scattered his remains, to ensure that his curse will run its course.
Honestly, the only major difference in the set-up would be that the "cursed" Belmont wouldn't be accompanying the PCs. I'd hole him up in the basement of a church, surrounded by garlic and crosses, with monks praying over him day and night. It would then be up to the group of relatively green and inexperienced adventurers to run a desperate race against the clock, with only minimal guidance from their mentor.
(I'd also make sure that the enemy kidnapped the cursed Belmont as the night of the full moon approached, giving the PC's one more thing to worry about. But that's just me...)
Anyway, there are a few resources I'd recommend using here. First and foremost is A Guide to Transylvania, which I mentioned back in my Alucard post. The PDF is available on DriveThruRPG for about eight bucks. The crunch inside is AD&D 2e specific, but everything else is system agnostic. This book details everything from Transylvanian history, to peasant superstitions, to secret societies. No other supplement will help you fill in the details of the Transylvanian countryside as well as this one.
The second (more expensive) resource is the current D&D 5e Curse of Strahd campaign book, which is an update and expansion of the original Ravenloft module. Why this one instead of the (many) older ones? First, it's widely available in hardcopy. And while I'm not completely in love with what I've seen of 5e's rules, you just can't deny that Wizards of the Coast puts out a high quality product these days. This thing will survive some wear and tear at the table. Second (and more importantly), it maps out and expands the land of Barovia far beyond what the older editions did.
The third (completely free) resource is the Transylvania map that appeared in the old NES Game Atlas. A high-quality scan is available here at castlevaniadungeon.net.
The simplest, easiest way to take care of mapping the Transylvania countryside is just to use the foldout map that comes with Curse of Strahd and swap out the names. For example, swap out the starting village of Jova from Simon's Quest with the Village of Barovia from Curse of Strahd. Swap out Yomi—the nearly-abandoned town just outside Castlevania—with the destroyed village of Berez.
While this won't be 100% faithful to the geography on the Castlevania map, enough of the landmarks in Simon's Quest have a rough Barovian equivalent to make it work. Below are some suggestions, with corresponding map and page references.
Castlevania Location / Barovia Location / Curse of Strahd Foldout Map Location / Curse of Strahd Page Reference
Town of Jova (Area 1) / Village of Barovia / Location E / Page 40 - 48
Town of Aljiba (Area 16) / Village of Valliki / Location N / Page 95 - 124
Yuba Lake (Area 14) / Lake Zarovich / Location L / Page 38
Town of Veros (Area 6) / Village of Krezk / Location S / Page 143 - 156
Town of Yomi (Area 48) / Ruins of Berez / Location U / Page 161 - 166
Laruba Mansion (Area 36) / Wachterhaus/ N/A (Located in Vallaki) / Page 110 - 115
Brahm Mansion (Area 21) / Argynvostholt / Location Q / Page 129 - 142
That should be enough to get the idea. That said, I'd probably also swap out some of the obviously non-European names with some real-world Transylvanian ones. Targoviste for Aljiba, for example.
One pro to this approach is that it requires relatively little prep time, especially for an inexperienced DM. Curse of Strahd has plenty of fleshed-out NPCs, side-quests, and description boxes for just about every building and room, if you decide to use them. You can use the encounters, too. Stat conversions from 5e to LotFP are simple: Just use the closest equivalent monster from the free Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, and add two to the creature's Armor Class. Don't sweat the other details.
Me? I probably wouldn't go that far. I'd probably just use the maps, crib or ad-lib all of the descriptions from the Transylvania Guide, and wing it with the NPCs and encounters. Similarities aside, Castlevania and Ravenloft are two different properties, with two entirely different feels to them. Relying too heavily on the published material just means you're playing Curse of Strahd. Which is okay. But it isn't Castlevania.
Which, of course, leaves open the question of Castlevania itself.
The Castle Ravenloft layout in Curse of Strahd is unchanged from the original I:6 Ravenloft module. It makes a perfectly serviceable stand-in for Dracula's Castle, provided you're taking your inspiration from the first couple of games. But if you want something closer to the sprawling, changing, living embodiment of Chaos featured in Symphony of the Night and most of the later games, you'd be better off creating your own funhouse-style Mega-dungeon. As with anything, which you choose will depend heavily on your group, their preferences, and their play style.
Before I close this installment out—and since I'm already mining Castlevania II for ideas—I'm going to give some sample stats for that game's two Boss monsters. For Carmilla, I used the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game version of the Vampire, with almost no modifications. For Death, I re-skinned the BFRPG Lich, added a bunch of Hit Dice, and swapped out his spell casting for a handful of specific, spell-like abilities.
If neither one seems challenging enough, both are easy enough to scale up in power. After all, when it comes to "end game" content, you're bound to have a pretty high level party. Watching them effortlessly steamroll the final bosses would be sort of anticlimactic. If that's a concern, my personal preference is to creatively choose the location for the encounter.
Instead of meeting Carmilla in her vampire lair right away, why not have the PC's encounter her at a masquerade ball, using the powers of her enchanted mask to appear as one of the living? Force them to use roleplaying and guile to maneuver her to a place they can fight her without harming innocents. What about having the PC's run into Death on the grounds of an old battlefield or cemetery? He could raise dozens of allies among the dead, forcing even the most powerful group of PCs into a pitched battle for survival.
Granted, if you're planning to use Castlevania II as your template, you could always just let the PC's walk right by them with no consequence...
(Note: the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules assume ascending armor class and a base, unarmored AC of 12. If using these creatures with a system that has a base AC of 10, simply subtract 2.)
Armor Class: 21
Hit Dice: 9 (attack bonus +8)
No. of Attacks: 1 weapon or special
Damage: 1d8, or by weapon, or special
Movement: 40' or 60' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 9 Fighter
Treasure Type: Special
Beautiful, vain, and cruel, the aristocratic vampire Carmilla is one of Dracula's most ambitious servants. Famous for her inventive and sadistic tortures, she is best known for bathing in the blood of young women. She possesses Carmilla's Mask, a powerful, cursed artifact.
Like all vampires, Carmilla casts no shadow and no reflection. She cannot cross running water, and may not enter another's home unless invited. She cannot tolerate the strong odor of garlic, and will recoil from a mirror or from a cross presented with conviction (for more information on these weaknesses, see the Vampire, p. 124 of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game).
Carmilla is immune to Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells. If unarmed, she will treat her hands like claws, raking her target for 1d8 damage. When armed, her vampiric strength gives her an additional +3 to damage when using melee weapons. Her bite (though seldom used in combat) inflicts 1d3 damage, and drains one level of energy from her target for each round she continues to feed. Feeding places her in a vulnerable position, and she suffers a -5 to her Armor Class.
Victims reduced to 0 hit points by Carmilla's feeding die, and they will rise as vampires during the next sunset. These new vampires are permanently under Carmilla's control, and always act as if under a Charm spell.
Carmilla can command common nocturnal creatures. Once per day, she can summon 10d10 rats, 5d4 giant rats, 10d10 bats, 3d6 giant bats, or 3d6 wolves. The creatures must be nearby to be summoned. Once called, they arrive in 2d6 rounds and obey her commands for 1 hour. If she chooses, Carmilla can also assume the form of a giant bat or a giant wolf at will.
In addition to the above abilities, Carmilla also shares the common vampire's Charm gaze, which her victims can save vs Spell to resist. Unlike her more common brethren, Carmilla's charm is exceptionally powerful, imposing a -3 penalty rather than the standard -2.
Carmilla cannot be harmed by non-magical weapons. Exposing her to direct sunlight for more than 1 round destroys her, and submerging her in running water causes her to lose 1/3 of her Hit Points per round for three rounds, with death occurring on the third round. Any other method of reducing her HP to 0 merely incapacitates her, causing her to fall into an apparently death-like state. But if her body is not exposed to sunlight, submerged in running water, or burned, she will begin to regenerate 1d8 hours later, at a rate of 1 hp per turn.
Carmilla's Mask (Artifact)
This artifact is a smooth, silver mask, closely resembling the kind commonly worn during masquerade balls. When the mask is placed onto a human or a dhampir, dozens of hollow, silver spikes appear in the inside, causing it to latch onto the victim's face, and inflicting 1d3 damage. Each round the victim is prevented from removing the mask, it drains 1 energy level, feeding as a vampire, until the victim is reduced to 0 Hit Points. Once dead, the victims do not rise as vampires.
If the mask is freshly fed, bloody tears will pool in the corner of its eyes, and for the next 1d12 hours it will convey several abilities on any vampire that wears it. While wearing the mask, the vampire casts both a shadow and a reflection. Garlic, holy symbols, and holy water have no effect. The vampire may enter any home with no invitation, cross running water, and even walk in the sunlight—although this last will still be uncomfortable.
Additionally, victims of the vampire's Charm gaze suffer a further -2 penalty to their saving throw.
Armor Class: 26
Hit Dice: 15 (attack bonus +10)
No. of Attacks: 1 touch, weapon.
Damage: 1d8 touch+drain, by weapon.
Movement: 30' or 60' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 15 Magic User or Cleric (use lower)
Treasure Type: Special
Death is Dracula's top lieutenant. Fiercely loyal to his master, Death will fight to protect him at all costs. Death's actual nature is unknown, although he is believed to be an evil manifestation of pure Chaos. His physical form resembles that of the classical "Grim Reaper," a skeletal body wrapped in a tattered cloak. He carries Death's Scythe, an artifact-level magical weapon.
Upon first encountering Death, all intelligent, living creatures must save vs Spell or flee in terror for 2d6 rounds. Even on subsequent encounters, Death's gaze is terrifying. All creatures that meet it must make a save vs. Spell or be paralyzed with fright for 2d4 rounds. Dhampirs, due to their half-undead nature, get a +2 bonus to this check.
Death prefers to attack with his scythe when possible. If forced to make a physical attack, his touch causes 1d8 points of damage and drains 1d4 points of Constitution, while simultaneously healing him for the equivalent amount.
The Constitution loss is permanent. It can only be healed by the casting of a Restoration spell, at a rate of 1 point per casting. If a character's Constitution score falls to 0, he or she immediately dies, and rises the following round as a lesser wight. This creature is identical to the wight described on p. 126 of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, except its attack causes 1d4 points of damage and 1 point of Constitution loss. All characters killed and transformed into wights are considered permanently dead, and cannot be Raised. They may still be Reincarnated.
Death is able to cast Speak With Dead, Animate Dead, and Raise Dead at will. And while he rarely feels the need to disguise himself, he is able to do so with the aid of Polymorph Self. Additionally, Death is always treated as having an active True Seeing spell cast on his person. For purposes of spell duration and saving throws, Death's caster level is 20.
Death is immune to all non-magical weapons. Like all skeletons, Death only takes half damage from bladed weapons, and only one point from arrows, bolts, or sling stones (plus any applicable magical bonus). Additionally, he is immune to Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells. Death cannot be turned by the cleric's Turn Undead spell.
Death cannot be permanently killed. When reduced to 0 Hit Points, Death's physical form is destroyed, and his spirit re-joins the primordial Chaos outside the world. After 1d10 months, Death will Reincarnate on the physical plane, although in a weakened form equivalent to a wraith (see Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, p. 127). He must then drain the equivalent life force of 2x his normal Hit Dice (a combined 30 levels) in order to regain his full strength and powers.
Death's Scythe (+3 Great Weapon)
Like Death himself, Death's Scythe is believed to be an evil manifestation of Chaos. In combat, Death's Scythe delivers 1d10 damage, with an additional +3 magical damage bonus. On any natural attack roll of 18 or better, the target must save vs Magical Device or die instantly. Any mortal being who attempts to touch the handle of Death's Scythe must make the same saving throw, but at a -4 penalty.
3 times per day, Death's Scythe can create 1d3 Phantom Sickles. These are smaller, ghostly sickles that spin out towards their intended victim. The sickles last for 1d4 rounds, continuously attacking, and causing 1d6+1 damage per successful hit.
Creatures killed with Death's Scythe may not be Raised, but they may still be Reincarnated.
As I mentioned a few weeks back, I've been drafted to run a D&D game for a group of new players. We're getting close to running our zero session, probably by the end of this week. I have two players interested in elves, and a third that apparently likes to play healing classes whenever he plays MMO's. I'll lay out all the options and see if that changes come game day, but for now I'm going to run with the assumption that this will be the makeup of the party.
If so, it throws a small hiccup into my plan of using Lamentations of the Flame Princess as my base.
In LotFP, only Fighters get an increase to their attack bonus as they level up. I actually think this is one of James Raggi's more inspired decisions. It clearly blocks off combat as a the sole specialty of the Fighter, which then encourages the group to work together. After all, you're going to need at least one character to get better at hitting things as the game progresses. Otherwise, your band of adventurers is going to have a very short career.
That said, as much as I admire Raggi's design choice, I'm not about to force a first-time player into a class they don't want. But one of the wonderful things about OSR games is the ability to mix and match them until you arrive at just the right combination.
So, my options:
However I do it, I'm still planning to use the LotFP encumbrance system, as well as swapping out the Specialist class for the Thief. I also plan to keep the D6-based skill check system.
Anyway, I'm rambling a bit here. The main thrust of this post is about a weird feature of Old-school D&D, and just how I'm planning to introduce it to a bunch of new players.
That's right. I'm talking about Vancian Magic.
I'll admit, I absolutely hated Vancian magic back in the day. I could never wrap my head around the "fire and forget" nature of the spells. How could a character spend hours studying a spell each day, only to forget it once it was cast?
It never made sense to me, and when I ran my games I used a house-ruled "mana" system instead. Granted, now that I've actually read some Jack Vance, my opinion on the matter has changed. And as in so many things, context is everything.
Part of the problem is that none of the more experienced guys in my old D&D group ever ran magic as anything other than a character's superpower. In every campaign, spells were widely known. You got access to spells automatically at new levels (no studying or finding a mentor), and there were mid-to-high level mages operating public shops in every jerkwater little village. Before every adventure, we could buy magic items, potions, and scrolls to our heart's content. I distinctly recall abandoning +1 Magic Swords when we found them on certain adventures, because they weren't even worth the effort of bringing them back to town to sell.
Compare that to this passage from Vance's The Dying Earth:
"At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses, and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the South, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic. Ponticella the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.
"Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort, forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipresent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch."
In Vance's work, magic is mysterious, ancient, and virtually forgotten. Less than a tenth of the spells once known to humanity are left. Powerful wizards hoard them in hopes of getting one up on their rivals. Magic is the currency of power in this world, and great effort is spent to seek it out.
Furthermore, the spells themselves aren't passive. Mazirian has to force them into his brain. Once there, the syllables and symbols struggle to escape his consciousness. Casting a spell in these stories isn't so much a matter of reciting words as it is releasing a chaotic force, one the magician is just barely holding in check.
In this context, D&D's default "fire and forget" magic system makes sense. And while I can see why alternative spell systems are popular (like Sorcerers from the 3.X and later editions), there's a kind of pulpy weirdness to the Vancian method I really like.
As for introducing it to the players, I'm probably going to kill two birds with one stone here, once again taking some inspiration from Vance. I'm thinking about giving the party a mid-level Mage as their patron/employer. He'll pay them on a freelance basis for recovering bits of magic for him. He's looking for anything at all: half-torn scrolls, pages from spell books, items he can research. In his quest to re-discover lost spells, he's spent decades tracking down minuscule scraps of them to re-assemble like a jigsaw puzzle.
This also gives the PCs a specific reason to go dungeon delving, as well as reinforcing the overall mystery and rarity of magic. Plus it allows any magic-using PCs to have easy access to a mentor/teacher when it comes time to learn new spells.
Sure, the set up has the potential to be a little railroad-y. But also I think it can give the PC's a little bit of forward momentum, provided I let the adventures themselves evolve organically.
Hmm... I just might have to roll up a paranoid, power-hungry Wizard NPC along with the rest of the campaign splat.
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