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Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Iconic Magic-Using Classes

I’m still occasionally working – well, half-working – on ways of making the magician (magic-using class) easy to modify on the fly. The way I imagine it working is that you offer players only three classes (talent, hero, magician) and when a player says “can’t I be a [more specific class concept]?” You reply “Sure! Just take one of those classes and we’ll make these changes.”

For magic-using classes, you can make superficial changes to how spells are recovered, how they are cast, and how they are dispelled and that will cover a lot of variations. But before I even go there, I think I need to start with defining iconic magical types. Not “iconic in the history of D&D”, but “iconic in literature and folklore”. I really don’t like some of the standard D&D class definitions, which seem to focus on mechanics, and I prefer to lead players away from thinking about mechanics.

My current iconic class concepts start with this simple progression from “arcanely academic” to “selfishly practical”:

  • Magicians are your standard OD&D magic-using class, with loads of spells studied from books.
  • Witches are naturally-gifted magic-users who can supplement their inborn talents with either dominance over spirits or arcane learning.
  • Warlocks are self-made magic-users who have taken their powers from others.

It’s important to note that the WotC warlock class would sometimes fall within the bounds of “warlock” as I define it, but my definition is broader. A warlock, in my mind, is the kind of magic-user seen in some fantasy lit who steals magical power from those who have acquired it through birth, blessing, or training. So, more like warlocks in “Charmed”, or what the MCU-version of Baron Mordo seems to be heading towards. Getting powers from pacts could be thought of as a variation on this.

There’s basically a two-axis concept grid hiding behind those three core iconic concepts:

  • Power Taken From Others vs. Power Developed Within Oneself (Dependency Axis)
  • Flexible Spell Options vs. Limited Power Choices (Variety Axis)

Scholarly Magicians are Low Dependency, High Flexibility. Power-Hungry Warlocks are High Dependency, Low Flexibility. Witches are dead center, with a limited set of natural powers supplemented by magical training. You can see this easier on this diagram.

Explanation of other iconic classes on the chart:

  • Sorcerers for me are not the WotC class (which probably resembles my concept of witches more than anything else.) They are instead academics who know some spells, but expand their power by using their knowledge to bind spirits and demons to their will. They may also make pacts for more power, making some WotC warlock concepts fit better in that category.
  • Necromancers get power by commanding spirits of the dead. There’s still more flexibility than warlocks, but not as much as standard magicians or sorcerers.
  • Bards are highly variable in their fantasy lit representations, but I went with a more limited range of magic (songs that influence emotions and spirits) vs. a reliance on natural gifts + training. They could easily be up in the same position as witches, though.

Gray entries are not traditionally considered magic-users in D&D, but essentially that’s what they are.

  • Psychics are basically witches who can’t learn additional spells in this schema.
  • Priests typically get all their power from gods and can lose their power at the god’s whim.
  • Godlings aren’t really a class, but represent where various beings like spirits and deities would fall: requiring some power taken from their worshippers, but being innately gifted as well and quite flexible in what they can do.

Any iconic character concepts that I missed?

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  1. I like "dabblers;" hedge wizards and hacks who don't take the practice seriously (they probably have other skills and abilities they can rely on, however). Generally an easier path, but a less powerful one.

    Still, they can read a found spellbook or scroll as well as any wizard; that's potential firepower.
    : )

    1. Hmmm. I wouldn't consider "dabbler" to be its own class, more of an approach to playing existing classes. A dabbler could be either a magic-user of any type on that chart who just doesn't use their magic much, or who doesn't try very hard to expand their repertoire. Or a dabbler could be a non-magic-user who picks up a little magic on the side as an out-of-class ability.

      There's definitely a need to make dabblers possible to play, but I don't see them as distinct from any of the types listed here.

    2. ... Though on the other hand, you could consider "dabbler" as a nebulous region in the Psychic/Bard corner of the graph, I suppose.

  2. "Dabbler" describes pretty much the Grey Mouser type, methinks.