Alternate Magic System: Low Magic

Contributed by: "One Whose Name Shall Not Be Revealed"... This is an alternate magic system that can be appropriate to Hyborian Age campaigns if the DM wants to more accurately simulate the feel of sorcery as written in the Conan books.

Following is an excerpt from my campaign rules and setting (in early revision), that includes new house rules for a lower magic system. This hasn't been playtested yet and I expect that I'll be going through several revisions before starting this campaign. I'd appreciate any recommendations for improvement that people are willing to offer.

As a heads up, the only two classes in this campaign that have access to magic are two homebrew classes, the Mystic and Sorcerer (slightly modified from PHB). The other available classes are fighter, rogue, barbarian, a less fantastical monk (high-end supernatural abilities replaced with additional martial arts feats from Oriental Adventures), a non-magical ranger variant, and champion (a non-magical paladin/samurai replacement).

The altered rules make magic a primarily non-combat component of the game. I'm looking to design a campaign setting where the threat that a sorcerer poses usually occurs before the heroes encounter him via political influence, evil summonings in the night, mind control, cursing his enemies from afar, etc. Given the rarity of magic in the campaign, I think that many out-of-combat spells will be more powerful than in most campaigns as almost no NPCs are expecting or prepared to counter them. Given magic's non-combat and mostly evil nature, I don't really anticipate any single-class spellcaster PCs.

Magic

Magic in this campaign is more rare, subtle, risky, ritualistic and evil than the magic of the "Forgotten Realms" and "Greyhawk" settings. Spellcasters, while wielding almost universally unknown weird powers, lack the flashy, combat-oriented firepower common in standard D&D campaigns.

A number of magic system design goals are provided within this gray box. These campaign rules are immature and changes will be made over time to refine the design goals or improve the campaign rules to better meet these goals. Players are more than welcome to provide recommendations in this regard.

The intent of this magic system is to leverage as much as possible from published D&D and other D20 products, while altering the feel of magic to be more aligned with that of the "Sword and Sorcery"Ē texts from which this campaign world is derived. Examples of influential series or collections of short stories include:

  • Robert E. Howard, Conan and Kull collections
  • Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser collection
  • Tad Williams, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series
  • George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire series

Following are the magic system design goals:

1. Magic should be costly for all casters and extremely dangerous for the novice. The cost of magic must remain tangible for even high level characters casting low level spells, but must be surmountable. In this setting, even capable mages would rather use their herbalism and healing skills to aid lightly wounded comrades. Attempting to call upon magical powers to heal a comrade should be costly enough that the spellcaster reserves it for only the very seriously injured.

2. The cost and danger of magic should be greater when attempting to cast a new, unknown spell. Attempting to do so in unfavorable circumstances or when unprepared should be dangerous enough that spellcasters can risk death.

3. The cost and danger of magic ought to be formulaic rather than random. For example, specifying that every time a spell is cast there is a chance of the caster becoming overwhelmed by otherworldly forces and going insane or being killed makes it difficult for there to be a spell casting PC that lasts more than a handfull of sessions. The cost associated with casting a spell should increase in a known manner in relation to the level of the spell, such that a PC wouldn't kill themselves by attempting to cast a spell unless they consciously choose to risk martyring themselves (as in attempting to cast a new, unknown spell in imperfect conditions).

4. In this setting most sorcerers are power-mad, misanthropic and ruthless (in a word, evil). Something intrinsic in the magic system should either favor evil or should lead to the corruption of its practitioners. Spellcasters are feared and reviled.

5. The magic system ought not to be all-corrupting. While the evil sorcerers should be more powerful and more common, it should be possible for the PC team to have some level of magic support without being corrupted.

6. The magic system should justify, through requirement or advantage, the performance of the complex rituals used as plot devices in so many fantasy novels. Examples include such ritual components as casting a spell only when the stars are in a particular alignment or when the moon is full, requiring the ritual performance in a special location, requiring rare or even unique objects, or the performance of various types of sacrifices.

7. In this setting magic is mysterious, almost never seen. This suggests that there should be very little in the way of flashy offensive magic. If the magic system favored "walking arsenal" wizards, repeated confirmations of fireball launching wizards would have spread among the population like wildfire. To maintain a mysterious feel, magic in this setting needs to favor spells that can be cast while locked away in a wizard's inner sanctum. Types of spells that the magic system should particularly favor include spells of influence, control, scrying, communication, summoning, transmutation, cursing, weather control, etc.

The rules of magic for this campaign are as follows:

1. This campaignís magic system extends the standard D&D magic system and spells. D&D spell and magic system rules and requirements are in effect unless explicitly overwritten by any of the campaign-specific magic rules.

2. Beyond the sight and ken of mortal man, lay the realms of the Spirit World and the teeming darkness known as the Swarmlands. Through blood and sweat, a secretive and powerful few have learned to breach the boundaries of our physical world and commune with the unnatural forces of these other realms.

Standard D&D divine magic is recognized in this campaign as spirit magic. Practitioners of spirit magic rend a path into the Spirit World to beseech or, through force of will, command spirits to take action in our mortal realm. The rituals of spirit magic often use herbalism, mind altering drugs and natural spell components, such as bone, blood, clay and wood. Spirit magic spells with a target typically involve painting a pattern of complex runes on the target with strange pastes or ashes to aid the spirits in finding their target. Religions in this campaign describe ideological frameworks and shared, but not universal, belief in their deities and cosmology. Religions do not bestow magic powers or abilities. The Mystic (as described in the Class section of the campaign rules) is the only base class that performs spirit magic.

Standard D&D arcane magic is recognized in this campaign as demonic magic. Practitioners of demonic magic send their consciousness into the nearly unfathomable strangeness of the Swarmlands. This extension of their consciousness leaves the practitioner disoriented, much more so than with spirit magic. Within these murky gulfs, the sorcerer bargains with or forces demons to extend their twisted power into our mortal realm. The rituals of demonic magic are strictly formulaic but nonsensical to the mortal mind, incorporating numerology, astrology, ancient artifacts, sacrifices and lengthy incantations. The Sorcerer (as described in the Class section of the campaign rulesÖnot the Sorcerer from the PHB) is the only base class that performs demonic magic.

There are no other types of magic currently available to player characters.

3. As with the standard D&D magic system, the complexities of powerful magic can shatter the mind or tear apart the bodies of unprepared casters. Casters can only perform magic of a level that they have prepared themselves to handle without destroying themselves. This is realized as a minimum caster level necessary to cast each spell level. These minimum caster levels are identical to those specified in the D&D 3E Playerís Handbook.

Spell Level   Minimum Caster Level
------------- --------------------
0             1
1             1
2             3
3             5
4             7
5             9
6             11
7             13
8             15
9             17

4. As with the standard D&D magic system, casters must have an INT or WIS (as specified by class) of at least 10 + the spellís level to be able to learn or cast a spell.

5. Casting time for spells in this campaign are much longer than specified in published D20 materials. The amount of time required to cast a spell increases with the complexity and power of the spell. This time, used to prepare for and perform progressively more complex rituals, is realized as a minimum casting time of ten minutes per spell level. If an individual spell specifies a longer casting time, that longer time overrides the minimum casting time. 0-level spells use standard D&D casting times, as specified in published reference materials.

The Permanency spell (and other spells that must follow and extend previously cast spells) use standard casting times.

6. Demonic casters are only partially aware of the physical world while casting a spell. They lose their DEX bonus to AC and can take no more than a 5-foot step per action.

7. There is no maximum number of castable spells per day.

8. Performing the rituals of magic demands a life-cost to break through the boundaries of the physical world and command otherworldly forces, leaving the caster drained and weak. Casters take 2 CON of temporary ability damage per spell level cast. Casters take 1 CON of temporary ability damage when casting a 0-level spell.

Casters are unable to cure their own spell-casting related CON damage with Restoration spells.

9. As some casters expand their knowledge, they learn to grow their power by drawing in life-force from others. This is realized through such feats as Sacrifice, Greater Sacrifice and Communal Magic. It is also rumored that there are ancient artifacts imbued with latent magical energy waiting to be consumed.

10. The boundaries between the physical world and the spirit and demon worlds are weakened in times of astrological power. The cost of spirit magic is halved on the Summer and Winter Solstices. The cost of demonic magic is halved on the Autumnal and Vernal Equinoxes. The cost of both spirit and demonic magic is reduced by 2 CON when performed in the light of a full moon. All spells always have a minimum cost of 1 CON.

11. There are locations where the boundaries between the physical world and spirit or demon worlds are weaker. The Spirit World is sometimes easier to reach in locations where many people died or are buried, particularly in those locations associated with traumatic histories. It is not clear why the Swarmlands are more easily accessed in some ancient places, perhaps they are areas used in the past for major spells, sacrifices or summonings. Spellcasters can sense these locations with a Spellcraft check of DC 15 - 1 per CON reduction + 1 per mile from the location.

12. No caster classes have to memorize specific spells. All casters can cast any known spell at whim, in a similar manner as the standard D&D Sorcerer class.

13. For all classes, spells must be acquired, deciphered and mastered. No class automatically learns all spells within their spell levels.

14. There is no maximum number of known spells per level. Casters can learn as many spells as they are able to acquire, decipher and master.

15. Caster classes are assumed to perform a certain amount of spell research between adventures. Each time a caster achieves a new level, she gains two spells of her choice from the appropriate class spell list to add to her spellbook. The two free spells must be of a level the character can cast.

16. The written magical language, such as is found in sorcererís grimoires, is not a complete language unto its own. Magical writings are composed of both standard modern or ancient languages and magical runes. To understand the writing, a character must be able to read the magic runes and the base language.

17. Learning a new spell from another caster or a spellbook requires 2 days of dedicated study per spell level and a Spellcraft check with a DC of 15 + 2 per spell level. Spellcraft checks will be modified by the quality and comprehensiveness of the casterís notes and/or instruction. The DM will inform players of any modifiers prior to the characterís attempt to cast the spell.

Whether the spell is correctly and fully understood is not known until the caster first attempts to cast it. Failing to master the otherworldly forces of magic exacts a heavy toll from the caster. The caster takes 3 CON of temporary ability damage per spell level of the failed spell. Casters take 2 CON of temporary ability damage when failing to correctly cast a 0-level spell. A character cannot retry to learn the spell until he improves his Spellcraft skill.

18. Demonic spellcasters who are not Chaotic Evil have a Corruption statistic. Every time a demonic spell is cast the spellcaster must make a Will saving throw at a DC of 11 + spell level. If the spellcaster fails the saving throw, his Corruption statistic is increased by 1 point. This represents that the spellcaster did not fully master the demons he encountered in drawing arcane might and was corrupted by the mad cruelty of the Teeming Swarmlands. When the spellcasterís Corruption statistic reaches a multiple of 25, his alignment moves one step toward Chaotic Evil. The axis that is furthest from Chaotic Evil will change. If both axes are the same distance from Chaotic Evil, the character may choose which axis to change. For example, if a Lawful Neutral characterís Corruption statistic has just reached 25, he becomes corrupted and his alignment must change to True Neutral (because Lawful is two steps from Chaotic, whereas Neutral is only step from Evil). If the characterís Corruption statistic reaches 50, he becomes further corrupted and the character may choose whether to become Neutral Evil or Chaotic Neutral.

Spells

Spells are available for selection from the Playerís Handbook, Oriental Adventures, The Book of Eldritch Might, and Relics & Rituals, contingent upon DM approval.

Given the campaignís lengthier casting times, players should carefully consider the efficacy of the spells they choose. For example, players might look for spells that have:

  • 1 action casting times (0-level spell or 1st-level spell with Quickened Spell Feat)
  • Long or permanent durations
  • Long or unlimited ranges
  • The ability to be cast through the Hex Object Feat (offensive touch range spell)
  • A non-combat use

Feats

Standard D&D feats, as provided in the Playerís Handbook, are available unless explicitly overwritten by campaign-specific feats.

Note that for all metamagic feats, the increased spell slot levels associated with the feat have two implications in this campaign. First, the increased spell level dictates a higher minimum necessary caster level, as per the Minimum Caster Level chart. Additionally, for each metamagic spell slot level increase, the life-cost of casting the spell increases by 2 CON.

Communal Magic [Special]

You can join with other magical practitioners to share the burden of breaching the boundaries of the mortal realm.

Prerequisite: Spellcaster level 5th+

Benefit: To cast a communal spell, multiple participants join their strength to harness the powers of magic. Participants must be collocated with no intervening barriers and must be within 5 feet of adjacent participants. All participants must be conscious, must be of the same caster class, must have the Communal Magic feat and must participate of their own free will. Controlled or commanded spellcasters lack the will to offer the necessary strength for communal magic.

In casting a communal magic spell, one individual must be specified as the caster. The caster must be the individual with the highest Spellcraft skill. If more than one participant share the highest Spellcraft skill, the caster can be selected. The caster is responsible for all Spellcraft, damage and other spell-related rolls. For each five caster levels of the caster, one additional participant can join the spell (i.e. a communal spell lead by a caster of 5th level can have only one additional participant, one lead by a caster of 10th level can have two additional participants, etc.)

The caster gains +1 to his Spellcraft check for each additional participant. The CON life-cost of the spell is divided evenly among the caster and all additional participants. If the life-cost is not evenly divisible among the participants, the caster takes the remaining CON damage. All participants take a minimum of 1 CON damage.

Hex Object [Item Creation]

You can curse an object to carry and eventually discharge one Touch Range offensive spell.

Prerequisite: Spellcaster level 3rd+

Benefit: You can imbue an object with any single Touch Range offensive spell that you know. Hexing an object takes 1 day for each 1,000 gp in its base price. The base price of a hexed object is its spell level multiplied by its caster level multiplied by 100 gp. To hex an object, you must spend 1/25 of this base price in XP, use up raw materials costing half of this base price and cast the spell, paying any additional CON, XP and material costs associated with the spell.

The caster must set a triggering condition for discharging the spell when the object is hexed. The triggering event must include physical contact with the victim to conduct the Touch Range spell. The event that triggers the spell can be as general or as specific as desired but must be based on an audible, tactile, olfactory or visual trigger. The trigger cannot be based on some quality not normally obvious to the senses, such as alignment or victimís name. See the Magic Mouth spell in the PHB for more details on triggering events.

The object to hex must be a non-magical item of a non-perishable nature (metal, stone, gem, ivory, etc). Once hexed, the object detects as a magic item. After the spell is discharged, the object loses its magical nature, but will still resonate as a magic item for one week per spell level. The caster of the hex may choose to terminate the power placed in the object at any time prior to spell discharge.

Example spells that might be cast through this feat include Bestow Curse, Contagion, Imprisonment and Temporal Stasis.

Demonic Pact [Special]

You enter a pact with a specific demonic denizen, gaining easier access to the demonic realm and control over the demonís minions. The character allies himself with the demon, serving as its agent in the mortal world.

Prerequisite: Demonic caster level 8th+

Benefit: The character allies himself with a specific demon, driven by mutual self-interest. The character gains easier access to the powers of the teeming Swarmlands. All demonic spells are cast with a life-cost of 2 CON less than normal. All spells always have a minimum cost of 1 CON. In entering the pact, the sorcerer is marked with overwhelming evil energy, becoming physically twisted and partially crippled. The character permanently loses 6 CHA and 2 STR points. Motivated by self-interest, the character and demon negotiate services.

Dream Walking [Special]

You can enter a drug-induced dream state allowing easier entry into the Spirit World.

Prerequisite: Spirit caster level 6th+

Benefit: Through mental conditioning and consuming mind-altering herbs, the caster enters a dream state. Within this dream state the character may easily communicate with the Spirit World. The character may cast one spirit spell while dream walking. The spirit spell will be cast with a life-cost of 4 CON less than normal. All spells always have a minimum cost of 1 CON. The character is prone and in a sleep-like state for the duration of the spell plus 4 hours.

Greater Sacrifice [Special]

You can sacrifice a human being at the culmination of a spell, consuming the victimís life-force in order to power your magic.

Prerequisite: Sacrifice, Spellcaster level 9th+

Benefit: Casters must kill the victim while casting the spell. Because casters must concentrate on the spell, the victim must be unconscious, bound or otherwise immobile. By taking this feat, the caster is allowed to take a full-round Coup de Grace attack against one helpless foe while casting a spell.

If the sacrifice is completed, the caster can draw in the victimís entire CON (maximum of 12 CON) to power his spell. All spells always cost the caster a minimum of 1 CON. The CON gained through the sacrifice can only be used in powering the life-cost of the spell being cast. Any unused life-force is lost, not transferred to the caster. Some demons and spirits may demand a specific type of sacrificial victim, particularly when attempting to cast a high-level spell.

Note: The DM is in no way endorsing the use of murderous characters. This feat is intended for use by despicably evil NPCs.

Quicken Spell [Metamagic]

You can cast a spell more quickly than normal.

Benefit: Casting a quickened spell allows the spell as though it were one spell level lower on the Minimum Casting Time chart. Quickened 0-level spells are cast as a free action. You can only cast one quickened spell per round.

A quickened spell uses up a spell slot two levels higher than the spellís actual level.

Sacrifice [Special]

You can sacrifice an animal or other insentient living being at the culmination of a spell, consuming its life-force in order to power your magic.

Prerequisite: Spellcaster level 5th+

Benefit: Casters must kill the animal while casting the spell. Because casters must concentrate on the spell, the victim must be unconscious, bound or otherwise immobile. By taking this feat, the caster is allowed to take a full-round Coup de Grace attack against one helpless foe while casting a spell.

If the sacrifice is completed, the caster can consume and use up to 2 CON per HD (maximum of 6 CON) of the victim in powering his spell. All spells always cost the caster a minimum of 1 CON. The CON gained through the sacrifice can only be used in powering the life-cost of the spell being cast. Any unused life-force is lost, not transferred to the caster. Some demons and spirits may demand a specific type of sacrificial victim, particularly when attempting to cast a high-level spell.

Note: The DM is in no way endorsing cruel, animal slaughtering characters. While PCs are allowed to take this feat and use it in times of need, it is expected that PCs will appreciate life and use this feat sparingly and with respect. This feat is primarily intended for use by evil NPCs.

Scribe Scroll [Item Creation]

There are no items in this campaign that act as typical D&D scrolls. This feat is not available.

Bind Object [Item Creation]

You can create magic items by binding spirits or demons into crafted objects.

Prerequisite: Spellcaster level 9th+

Benefit: Permanent magic items (those other than potions and hexed objects) are created through binding spirits or demons into objects. The object into which the being is to be bound must first be crafted. Crafting the object takes 1 day for each 1,000 gp in its base price and uses raw materials costing half of its base price. The extraplanar being must then be called and trapped in the normal fashion (lesser planar binding, lesser spirit binding from OA, planar binding, spirit binding, greater planar binding, greater spirit binding, gate, magic circle, and dimensional anchor). Binding the being into the object requires three hours for each HD of the being and the caster must spend 1/25 of the magic itemís base price in XP. The spirit or demon may attempt to escape during this duration, following the standard rules as provided within the spell descriptions. If the being escapes, the binding fails. In this event, the crafted object is still available for a future binding without any additional gp expenditure, however the XP are expended on a failed binding.

Maximum base price of a magic item that can be created is 150 times the square of the summoned creatures HD. For example, if a demon with 8 HD is to be bound into a sword, the base price of the weapon created can not exceed 9600 gp (8*8*150).

Items created should be in keeping with the tone of the campaign and need to be approved by the DM.

Some items incur extra costs in material components or XP as noted in their descriptions. These costs are in addition to those derived from the itemís base price.

Craft Magic Arms and Armor [Item Creation]

Permanent magic items are created through the Bind Object feat. This feat is not available.

Craft Staff [Item Creation]

Permanent magic items are created through the Bind Object feat. This feat is not available.

Craft Wand [Item Creation]

Permanent magic items are created through the Bind Object feat. This feat is not available.

Craft Rod [Item Creation]

Permanent magic items are created through the Bind Object feat. This feat is not available.

Craft Wondrous Item [Item Creation]

Permanent magic items are created through the Bind Object feat. This feat is not available.

Forge Ring [Item Creation]

There are no items in this campaign that act as typical D&D scrolls. This feat is not available.

House Rules

Potions

Potion effects activate ten minutes after consumption.

As a heads up, there is an upcoming D20 product on Alchemy and Herbalism that I'm going to pick up for additional ideas, so hopefully we'll have some extended alchemy and herbalism skills.