D&D: Variant Magic Rules

There’s a joke about D&D magic that needs to be told:  the reason wizards/clerics/druids are so powerful in comparison to fighters is because spell-casting classes are a pain in the ass to play.  Imagine a gun that can only be reloaded once per day, and the ammo being loaded has to be carefully monitored.  If the wrong bullet is loaded, it can’t taken out and replaced for another in-game hour at best or day at worst.  That’s core rules D&D magic.  Prepare a spell, cast it and forget about it until the next day.

This is anathema to how magic is presented in other media.  Most video games, for instance, give a player character magic points/mana/force points/whatever.  Each time a spell/power is used, the meter depletes.  A rules variant was released, replacing Vancian magic with this “spell points” rules.  The text can be viewed here.

While spell points is preferred by many (if not, everyone I’ve ever played D&D with), one of my players has voiced his complaints about it being a hassle too.  So, because I have too much time on my hands, I thought of two other variants.  Magic should not be limited by spell slots and preparations, but it needs a restriction to preserve game balance.  The limitation I thought of should be the character itself.  Magic should take a toll on the body, the only question I’m raising is whether it should be a physical or mental one.

Variant #1:  Physical

Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG used this rule.  Every spell has a “weariness DC.”  Roll a die, add your stamina bonus and if the roll is higher than the DC, the spell is cast.  If not, the spell fails and the character loses a weariness level (which makes it harder to cast another spell, as well as accomplish other stamina-related tasks).  Unlike D&D Vancian magic, a character can try and cast magic to their heart’s content.  Their only limitation is their own body.  Since wizards are always frail and/or weak, game balance is preserved.

The only problem with this variant is that there are no d20 rules.  Decipher’s game is based off CODA rules, which use a d6.  A mass conversion would be in order, which isn’t appealing no matter how much time I have to spend.  I’d also have to figure out where to set weariness DCs.  Too low and there’s nothing to stop high-level casters from abusing magic.  Too high and there’s no reason to play as a caster.

Variant #2:  Mental

One word:  sanity.  Magic is unnatural and breaking several laws of nature (via creating something out of nothing) would surely damage the mind.  The Call of Cthulhu games are built around “sanity”, a separate stat that measures a character’s capacity to function mentally.  Sanity depletes when experiencing all manner of horrors and when casting magic (as well as in other instances).  Sanity also compliments the “dark horror” theme I’ve been tossing around.  It also has been incorporated into d20 rules, which can be read here.

While sanity makes sense, it won’t be popular among spellcasters.  Some players might not be keen on the “dark horror” theme…or the constant, looming threat of going insane.  Worse yet, aren’t spellcasters supposed to be able to deal with magic without going insane?  I’d have to make a couple of convincing arguments to implement this rule, especially when it starts getting carried out in practice during games.

The things I do for love…