Spell Casting Rules: Traditions, Spell Knowledge, and Racial Magic

I had initially aimed to create a unified casting system where all casters follow the same rules and cast the same spells in the same way, then use talents to control spell access, secondary powers, and alternate casting methods.

I realized while examining Knowledge skills that there is probably a better way, at least as far as creating a casting system that can model casting from the Revised System Reference Document and make a bunch of minor casters easier to implement.

Spell casting was originally modelled as two primary talents (one cornerstone and one common) that provided a Caster Training Bonus.  The cornerstone talent provided +1 Caster Training Bonus per tier and was expected (I hadn’t written it in full yet) to provide some powers ‘generic to casters’, and knowledge of spells ‘all casters would know’.  The common talent did much the same.  Together they provided a Caster Training Bonus equal to (at most) one-half the character’s level, rounded up, and a selection of “common spells”.  The spells castable were limited based on the Caster Training Bonus, and the Caster Training Bonus was added to the Level Bonus (half-level, rounded down) to find the caster level.  Further common talents such as Eldritch Threads and Domains added spells known and powers related to those spells.

Between the two talents you could easily model ‘full casters’ (caster level equal to character level) and ‘half casters’ (spell access of a caster of half the level, but caster level roughly 3/4 of the full caster, something like the Pathfinder paladin).

I notice, though, that this means spending a couple of talents, including an expensive cornerstone, on ‘numbers’ (Caster Training Bonus) and ‘common’ or ‘generic’ stuff.  That’s not so good. Instead, I’m changing things so there are more interesting options for both that add up to a good Caster Training Bonus (and thus castable spell levels and caster level) and provide less generic spell access, without leading to a stacking nightmare of power.

Spell Knowledge Talents

Spell Knowledge talents provide knowledge of spells, just as it says on the box.  They most often also provide powers and abilities related to the type of magic.

Spell Knowledge talents give you a Caster Knowledge Bonus equal to the tier.  Caster Knowledge Bonuses do not stack with each other; no matter how many Spell Knowledge talents you have you use only the biggest bonus.  The biggest Caster Knowledge Bonus will be added to the biggest Caster Tradition Bonus to find the Caster Training Bonus.  Remember that Training Bonuses are limited to a maximum of one-half the character’s level, rounded up.

There are several kinds of Spell Knowledge talents. Eldritch Threads and Domains are obviously Spell Knowledge talents.  However, some races are noted for having some minor ability to cast spells (such as RSRD gnomes and dark elves).  The cornerstone talents for these races may act as Spell Knowledge talents, granting knowledge of ‘racial spells’ and a Caster Knowledge Bonus to let them be cast.

Tradition Cornerstone Talents and Capstone Talents

A common fantasy trope is of ‘magical traditions’, where practitioners of magic work in ways common to each other.

In Echelon this can be modelled with Tradition cornerstone and capstone talents.

Casting Tradition Cornerstone Talents

Tradition Cornerstones provide several things.

First, Tradition cornerstones provide a Caster Tradition Bonus equal to the tier of the cornerstone.  Caster Tradition Bonuses do not stack with each other; no matter how many Tradition talents you have you use only the biggest bonus.  The biggest Caster Tradition Bonus will be added to the biggest Caster Knowledge Bonus to find the Caster Training Bonus.  Remember that Training Bonuses are limited to a maximum of one-half the character’s level, rounded up.

Second, Tradition cornerstones provide knowledge of spells common to the Tradition.

Third, Tradition cornerstones provide powers and abilities common to members of the Tradition.

Traditions are associated with several Spell Knowledge talents, and the Tradition powers and abilities often work to complement or improve the use of these talents and spells.  For instance, the “Albrian Tradition” practiced by Followers of Saint Albry is associated with the Healing, Plant, Protection, and Strength domains.  For the purpose of conversation, the Albrian Tradition at the Heroic tier allows a caster to Empower or Maximize “Albrian spells” (spells from the Albrian Tradition or the Healing, Plant, Protection, or Strength domains) when casting in a farmer’s field, ‘working’ barn, or other place associated with farmers.

Casting Tradition Capstone Talents

Various magical traditions may have capstones for those that epitomize practitioners of that tradition.  In fact, it is possible for a Tradition to have several capstones, each emphasizing a different aspect of the tradition.  These capstones will have prerequisites, often including talents or conditions not associated with the Tradition cornerstone.  For instance, the Academy of Ter Liatri (wizards’ guild Tradition cornerstone) is associated with, say, six Spell Knowledge talents.  There could be an ‘Academy Artificer’ Heroic capstone that requires a Spell Knowledge Bonus of +3 and a suitable Craft skill, and a ‘College of War Magic’ Heroic capstone that requires Heroic Thread of Destruction, Heroic Thread of the Warrior, and Heroic Martial Training.

Note that in both cases here the character might not even have the Tradition cornerstone! I expect that would be uncommon in practice.

These capstones would likely not give any kind of direct bonus to casting (no Caster Knowledge Bonus or Caster Tradition Bonus), in part because the character is unlikely to actually benefit from them.  Instead, the capstone is likely to provide benefits that make the character better at fitting the archetype.  The artificer might find that he can craft magic items faster or at lower expense, while the battle mage may find that he is better at casting spells in armor or can cast spells reflexively to defend himself better.  The capstones may provide knowledge of more spells.

Example: Ferral the Albrian

Saint Albry was a farmer in life, famed for his stamina and the lengths he would go to healing and protecting others.  He is the patron of farmers, healers, and guardians.  In RSRD terms, Albry provides access to the Plant, Healing, Protection, and Strength domains.

Ferral is a Heroic character (level 10, level 6 in RSRD terms) with three Heroic talents, four Expert talents, and two Basic talents.  He also has Heroic, Expert, and Basic cornerstones, and Expert and Basic capstones.

He takes:

  • Heroic Albrian Tradition (cornerstone).  This is associated with the Plant, Healing, and Protection domain talents.  He gains a +3 Caster Tradition Bonus, and the powers and common spells associated with the Albrian Tradition.  For the sake of conversation, let’s say this tradition allows him to cast Tradition spells (those from the cornerstone itself, or the associated domains) Empowered or Maximized when casting in a farmer’s field, ‘working’ barn, or other place strongly associated with farming, or hospice or other place associated with Healing.
  • Heroic Healing Domain (common), gaining the powers and spells from the Heroic tier of the Healing domain: Quick Healer and Life from Death (harvest energy from defeated undead to apply as healing to others), plus knowledge of cure light woundscure moderate woundscure serious woundscure critical wounds.
  • Heroic Protection Domain (common), gaining the powers and spells from the Heroic tier of the Protection domain: Aura of Protection and Quick Aid, plus knowledge of sanctuaryshield otherprotection from energyspell immunity.
  • Heroic Iron Will (common) to improve his Will save and gain more magic points.
  • Expert Green Hand of Albry (capstone)
  • Expert Plant domain (common), gaining the powers and spells from the Expert tier of the Plant domain: Nurturing Hand, plus knowledge of entanglebarkskin.
  • Expert Great Fortitude (common) to improve endurance and gain more hit points.
  • Expert Profession(Farmer)
  • Expert (something, based on Knowledge (Nature))
  • Expert Scholar (cornerstone)
  • Basic (capstone)
  • Basic (common)
  • Basic (common)
  • Basic (cornerstone)

I don’t have good choices handy for the Basic talents, ah well.

He has a Caster Tradition Bonus of +3, and a Caster Knowledge Bonus of +3.  This would give him a Caster Training Bonus of +6, but his maximum Training Bonus at this level is only +5.  Added to his +5 Level Bonus he has a Caster Level of 10.

He can cast spells allowed to characters with Caster Training Bonus of +5 (which is to say RSRD third-level spells… I’m still working on this discrepancy), to a limit of the talents taken. His spell lists consists of:

  1. cure serious woundsprotection from energy
  2. cure moderate wounds, barkskin, shield other
  3. cure light woundsentangle, sanctuary

Plus the spells from the Albrian Tradition cornerstone.

Note to self: domains should have more spells, perhaps 3 per level on average?  This seems really light.

Ferral also has the domain powers mentioned above, and the Tradition cornerstone abilities.

I don’t know what the “Green Hand of Albry” capstone does, presumably something to do with natural healing.

Incidentally, numerically he has:

  • Level Bonus: +5
  • Base Attack Bonus: +5 (no martial training, so just Level Bonus)
  • Armor Class: 15 without armor
  • Caster Training Bonus: +5
  • Caster Level: 10
  • Base Fortitude Save: +9
  • Base Will Save: +11
  • Base Reflex Save: +5
  • Hit Points: (10+0+4)*3 = 42 hit points
  • Magic Points: (10 + 5 + 6)*3 = 63 magic points

Other Options and Notes

I mentioned that races that are known to be ‘magical’ or have some common spell casting ability might act as Spell Knowledge talents, at least in part.  Even if a character with one of these racial cornerstones is not a ‘trained spell caster’ they may have a Caster Knowledge Bonus that lets them cast their racial spells.  They are likely to not have much capacity, and the ability may only come up at a higher tier (Expert tier has a +2 Caster Knowledge Bonus, which is enough to cast cantrips; Heroic has a +3 bonus, enough to cast RSRD first-level spells), but is is there.  A nice thing here is that such characters who do gain a Tradition cornerstone are not directly more powerful than a character without this race.  The dark elf will know his racial spells and others may not, but he will not be casting higher level spells than anyone else his level can.

Similarly, ‘paladins’, ‘rangers’, and other ‘partial casters’ might have only their Spell Knowledge talents.  They have limited capacity for casting and limited spell levels, but they can do it (to a maximum of RSRD fourth-level spells at the Legendary tier — just like paladins and rangers in the RSRD… imagine that).

Races that are ‘even more magical’, such as the fey gnomes from Dawnforge, might actually provide the equivalent of a racial Tradition cornerstone as part of their racial cornerstone.  All gnomes are somewhat fey, and this could be represented by a natural propensity for spell casting, associated with various druidic or nature-based spells.

The Tradition and Knowledge bonuses apply to all spells, whether they are associated or not.  That is, Ferral above could take Heroic Thread of Destruction with his next free talent slot and cast the spells there normally.  He can’t use the Albrian Tradition abilities with these spells, but he will have access to RSRD fourth-level spells appropriate for his level.

If you really like complicating things you could limit the bonuses to the applicable talents.  That is, Ferral is limited to a Caster Training Bonus of +3 with Thread of Destruction (Albrian Tradition doesn’t apply to that Thread) and Caster Training Bonus of +5 for the Plant Domain (he is now allowed a Caster Training Bonus of +6 for the Heroic domains because he is now at least eleventh level).  I would not do that myself, it seems like too much work, but it’s a possibility.

Closing Comments

All in all I like how this looks like it will work.  The structured flexibility possible and the interactions between the talents appear to offer a lot of character options while still providing a framework to work in.  They also provide many places to hang character-specific (or campaign-element-specific) abilities and the like.  The previous approach did not have such constraints or places to attach things, and I think that actually inhibited it.

Let’s see how this does.

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