Saturday, December 27, 2008

From Chainmail to OD&D - Counterspells!

Remember 1984's Conan the Destroyer? Aside from the cute blonde (hey, I was 18, give me a break...) and Grace Jones, the one thing that really stood out in my head was Akiro the mage getting into a spell battle with the evil priest. That sequence always fascinated me because it implied that mages just didn't cast spells at targets, they also could direct and bend their energies, perhaps enough to overcome another's spells.

At the time, I had always wondered how I could do these sorts of things in the games I played, but I didn't put enough thought into it. I'm not familiar enough with 3.xE or 4E (or even all the variants of 2E and 1E) to know if the ability to counter an enemy's spells is given in the rules, but I was overjoyed when my reading of Chainmail revealed that Counterspells is a well described tactic in the rules for Wizards. I just couldn't figure out how to make it work for D&D.

A thread on the Original D&D forum about Chainmail spell complexity and counterspelling has led to one gentleman, dubeers, to post his proposed house rule for Counterspells for OD&D - huzzah!

It's a fantastic variant that allows a mage to "do battle" against another magic user. Now, instead of your first through third level MUs being paper thin "one shot" participants, they can match wits against opposing mages in countering spells.

If your trusty mage faces off against the vile goblin shaman, and said shaman begins to weave his spell of Sleep against your party, the mage can declare a counterspell. A duel begins where the counterspell rolls against a value based on the level difference between mages.

If the counterspell is successful, the spell is disrupted and the original caster loses the spell from memory. In addition, to spice it up, both make a saving throw. The counterspelling mage may also lose a spell from memory in the attempt, as well as the original caster may suffer additional effects, such as confusion, unconsciousness or even HP loss! Such is the way of the fickle power of Magick that we deal with!

I really like this, because it gives the mage something to do other than just be the magical equivalent of a bow and arrows. Now there can be duels, spells and counterspells crackling in the air and battles akin to what we've always dreamed of.

I know this is going to be added and playtested in my 1E/OSRIC game. I'll put it in my wife's solo game, but since the mage is an NPC, and I don't like "outshining" the players, I will probably not use it.


David Larkins said...

Ooo, very spiffy! Officially snagged for use in my own games as well. :)

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Dude! I really think we are surfing the same RPG planes of imagination. I've been thinking of spell countering, also from that scene. But these terse notes is as far as I got (nominally for C&C)

counter spelling:
burn spell, make check
Challenge = SpellLvl being countered
Bonus = SpellLvl burnt
optionally add CasterLvl or 1/2 CasterLvl to above

But I'm diggin those rules. Esp how there's a chance to forget spell, but it's not automatic. Although, I'd add: if caster doesn't have a spell when required to loose one they take hit point damage equal to the spell level countered. And on the attacking caster failed saving throw table add to the 1d4+1 hp of damage "and steam shoots out their ears" :)

Anonymous said...

Just a suggestion: counter-spelling should mostly not cost a spell slot to do, and should mostly not cost the mage being countered a spell--i.e. without a strong success the mage should be free to try to recast on subsequent rounds. It should mostly be a delaying tactic to give the other party-members (or monsters) time to take out the caster. IMO, that would make it useful enough to try, without being frustrating. What I would worry about otherwise is that a) if casting your own spells is more useful than burning them counter-spelling, nobody will do it, b) if burning your spells is more useful than casting, the mage becomes less fun to play since much of the time instead of using spells for their effects he'll just be using them countering, and c) if losing your spell is the common result of being countered, PCs will often not get to cast their spells for effect as long as there's an enemy mage facing them. In D&D, the adversaries almost never have an incentive to hold anything back for the future nor will they typically have expended much magic so far that day, so against a similar level caster the adversary will usually have an advantage in spell-slots. You might find the PCs unwilling to risk precious spells except when casting by surprise.

If you make the spell/counter-spell duel usually a stand-off without being a resource sink unless a critical success/failure is rolled or one mage is significantly more powerful, PCs will still generally expect to be able to cast their full complement of spells per day even while engaging in duels and contributing tactically by delaying adversary mages.

My two cents.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@sirlarkins - pop on over to the OD&D discussion and let dubeers know what you think when you play it.

@Norman - Good thought about what to do if the loser doesn't have a spell to lose.

@Joshua - those are all very good points. May I ask what version of D&D you're referring to?

The reason I ask is because the nature of some of your points are more about the nature of 3E/4E and how magic becomes a "resource" versus a living, breathing, cantankerous, extremely-difficult-to-control thing.

Joshua, I'm not picking on you but I would like to point out that there are clear differences in various styles of play, and the counterspelling for OD&D is not going to fit into a style of play evoked by 3E/4E resource management and tactics. At least in my experience having played some 3E/4E vs OD&D.

In an old school game, at least the old school feeling that I enjoy and try to emulate, PCs don't have expectations beyond what their skills as players can bring them. PCs don't expect to "cast/use their full complement of XYZ" as a part of the mechanic guaranteeing such, they'll do so if they use their wits and a bit of luck is with them.

Magic is never intended, in my view of old school and the background of D&D as I read it, to be used like bolts and arrows - rather it is cajoled, bargained with and used in ways that speak to the very nature of the thing you are "controlling" (although such control is a fallacy).

Counterspelling evokes a feeling of mythical mages dueling for control, casting spells and counterspells at each other while the dungeon walls shake and the rest of the party gets out of the way before they get blasted. When caught in such a duel, both mages (and if the monster is well played, he *will* hoard his magic as well, as he's intelligent and wants to live another day - he's not a boardgame piece to be expended) will seek to get the advantage of the other. If that means the mage has burned his spells to do so, then so be it. Quit the field of battle, rest, recharge and then return.

Anonymous said...

I'm primarily thinking of BECMI, L&L and the like, where you don't even get bonus spells. When you get six or fewer spells per adventure, spending one to achieve something other than its intended effect is a pretty big deal, IMO, and has the potential to really suck the variety out of what the MU actually ends up doing during the adventure. I understand the effect you're looking for, I just think it's worth being concerned over whether the actual mechanics tend on the one hand to turn MUs functionally into anti-MUs and on the other to block their handful of attempts to do what they picked the class to do.

And I disagree about whether adversaries will tend to use their full might against parties attacking them; my take is that of course they will--a group of people invades your sanctum bent on killing you, you don't hold back in case some other group later has the same idea. At most you might see if some of your lesser spells/abilities will get the job done without pulling out the big guns. But my take on "Gygaxian naturalism" is that unless the adversaries are a rival adventuring party, or the party has arranged to ambush them after a fight against some third party, you have to assume that they'll only have expended spells (or save spells in reserve) when it would have made sense for them to do so and not just to balance out their power against the PC's current available power. To me that means that most of the time, they won't have had cause to use any yet.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Joshua - thanks for the response!

I think that like any other houserule, it's in the tweaking and learning how it works that will define how it affects your campaign. The loss of a spell might be worth it to counterspell a mage, or it might not. I think it would all depend on how your campaign progresses. If you try this out, please do let dubeers/rest of us know - I know that I'll be trying it out to see how it goes.

My rules won't have an automatic loss of spell, but if they fail their saving throw after the counterspell, then they can.

I tend to go back to my Squad Leader and old wargaming days when I play NPCs/monsters, especially those that are intellgent. Always have an escape route, always be aware of your ammo and go all out only when you have a clear advantage or when your back is against the wall. So again, different campaigns and different styles. I tend to think of Tucker's Kobolds when I imagine what my monsters will do if the PCs invade their stronghold.

Anonymous said...

As I said it's just my two cents, something to consider tweaking to get the right feel and frequency.

On that topic, if you want to get the feel of spell duels causing dungeon walls to shake and people to seek cover, I think it would be a good idea to add results to the save failure table that actually cause a chance of cave-in or people to be knocked off their feet, or for bolts of magic to shoot out and daze or hurt bystanders, or even possibly polymorph them into frogs. IMO, the best way to convey the right feel for powerful, barely controlled capricious magic is for the mechanics to reflect that. Description can only carry some of the load.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Joshua - that is actually something I do with magical fumbles. One of the tables I grabbed has the possibility of the spell misfiring on a party member. It hasn't come up yet, but it could be interesting.

Spike Page said...

Oooh this article is well-timed!

Garish has a bee in his bonnet to create a fun Oe-rules scenario in which players pick a mage (or even several mages) and have a pitched magic duel. He likes having what he calls "one shot" adventures for when we're short on players or he wants to run a quickie game down at the game store.

Jeff Rients said...

Remember 1984's Conan the Destroyer? Aside from the cute blonde (hey, I was 18, give me a break...) and Grace Jones, the one thing that really stood out in my head was Akiro the mage getting into a spell battle with the evil priest. That sequence always fascinated me because it implied that mages just didn't cast spells at targets, they also could direct and bend their energies, perhaps enough to overcome another's spells.

My article on counterspelling and wizard duels in Fight On! #1 was inspired by that exact sequence.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Jeff - awesome! I just bought all 3 issues printed with my Christmas money, so I'm looking forward to reading your article.