This is the seventh, of a number of articles, that describe how to adopt an alternative magic system. As each article assumes that you are familiar with what has come before it, you may wish to start with “Farewell to Vancian Magic“, the first article in the series.

The kinds of changes discussed in this article aren’t practical without the benefit of a spell database. Before continuing, you may wish to look over the article on Creating Databases.


The previous posts in this series have:

  • Addressed the benefits and drawbacks of various spell systems.
  • Offered different methods for replenishing daily spells.
  • Matched spell levels to class levels.
  • Made each spell available to only one class (or group of classes).
  • Restored the original spell names.

It is now necessary to look at each spell and see if it needs to be altered, in order to take into account some of the other changes we have made. For instance, Rary’s Mnemonic Enhancer is a spell that allows you to remember a spell you had previously cast (and forgotten) earlier that day. If you have chosen to move away from the Vancian spell system, this spell no longer serves any purpose; it should be rewritten or removed.

Even if you haven’t adopted any of the changes I’ve recommended, it is still a good idea to go through the spells and make whatever changes you feel are necessary to allow them to work smoothly within your world.

Instead of making lists of what I have added and deleted, and what changes I have made to other spells, I will discuss the reasons behind some of my choices. These suggestions may not work for you and your players, but hopefully they will give you some ideas that help you decide what changes you do want to make.

When evaluating a spell, it is important to look at the spell from two perspectives:

  • How will the characters use the spell.
  • How will monsters and NPCs use the spell against the characters.

    Wish Spells

    Number one, on my list of spells to remove, is the Wish spell and any spell remotely like it (Limited Wish, Alter Reality, Miracle). These spells are the most abused spells in the game, the hardest to adjudicate, the lengthiest to deal with, and (potentially) the most game-breaking. I’m all for Genies granting wishes, and even Rings of Wishes, but allowing a spellcaster access to such a spell is a very bad idea.

    Death Spells

    There are a great many save-or-die spells, and even a number of others that don’t allow a save. It’s one thing to go up against an opponent that does a lot of damage. It’s an entirely different matter to go up against an opponent that can kill you instantly, possibly without you even getting a saving throw. It’s just too powerful.

    All such spells should either be removed or rewritten so their effects are lessened.

    Negative Levels

    Certain spells (and creatures) can drain levels of experience. This type of attack is extremely powerful, extremely devastating and demoralizing, and extremely annoying (as well as complex and time-consuming) to implement. Any spell (or creature) that drains levels should be removed or altered. Personally, I employ energy-drained HPs instead. These may not be healed by any means other than natural healing that takes place at a rate of one per day.

    Divination Spells

    There are a great many unforeseen factors that determine the future. It’s impossible to know in advance what choices the players will make down the road (or even in the next few minutes) so the results of any divination spell will be questionable at best. Given the vague types of answers a DM must give in response to these spells, or the great steps the DM must take to ensure that the prediction comes true, you have to question whether or not it is worthwhile having the spells available. Augury is the only exception that immediately comes to mind. Although its answer usually takes the form of “That action will be beneficial… if you survive”, on some occasions (such as when the characters REALLY should not open the chest), it can be a useful tool.

    I hesitate to say yank the rest of them, but I certainly lean that way.

    Ask a Friend

    There are a few spells that allow the character to seek knowledge from a higher power (Commune, Contact Other Plane, etc). I am strongly against this type of spell. It makes it difficult to keep secrets. I don’t want to have the characters go to the effort and expense of casting a high level spell only to be given less than useful information. On the other hand, I don’t want them to have such an easy way of getting the answers to questions that maybe shouldn’t be answered.

    Although I don’t like these spells, and have chosen to remove them, I understand their appeal and can see how they would be useful on occasion. One exception to this is the Speak with Dead spell. I have no qualms about this one at all. It should be removed! So many great plot hooks involve mysterious deaths and require the characters to discover who or what is behind them. How much fun would it be if all the party had to do was pull the Mystery Van over to the side of the road and have Velma speak with the dead to find out who the killer was? This spell spoils all the fun and therefore must go.

    Reconnaissance Spells

    Fly, Levitate, Air Walk, etc, similarly make things too easy. There is no point putting a castle on top of a steep cliff, with only a dangerous, winding path leading up to it, if the characters can simply fly over the walls to gain access.

    In fact, all standard defenses would be made useless if any wizard of sufficient level could fly. No one would build a fortress, let alone a city, in such a way if its defenses could be circumvented so easily. Obviously, precautions could be taken to lessen the threat (and would be anyway to defend against flying monsters), but that still doesn’t address the first point of allowing a simple spell to spoil so many story possibilities.

    Anyone who has played a pre-70 gatherer in WoW, fighting their way through monsters to harvest an herb, knows the pain of having someone zoom in on their flying mount at the last moment and steal it out from under them. They also know how much easier the game becomes once they reach 70 and have a flying mount of their own. Any form of flight eliminates too many obstacles and just takes away too much from the game.


    This is another type of reconnaissance spell. It allows the characters to easily circumvent enemy defenses. Taken to extreme, no city could stand against such invaders. While vigilant, invisibility can be detected. But no one can be vigilant 24/7. As with flying, I feel that invisibility makes it far too easy to bypass significant barriers, which imo spoils a lot of the fun.

    Removing the spell does not preclude there being a Potion of Invisibility (or Flying). The ingredients needed to brew the potion could be so rare as to be effectively non-existent. The potions could then be made in extremely rare circumstances and under full control of the DM.

    Reading Minds

    Thoughts should be private. There also should always be room for doubt. Therefore, I have removed ESP, Detect Lies, Zone of Truth, and similar spells. Granted, there are protective spells to fight off intrusion but I prefer to remove mentally invasive spells altogether. Otherwise, any protection against such spells could be circumvented simply by holding someone, for longer than the known duration of the protection spells, before attempting to read their minds.

    Alignment Spells

    In my game, only the deities (and any other creatures that reside on a divine plane) have a detectable alignment. That makes all alignment-related spells meaningless with respect to most creatures.

    In a game where characters, NPCs, and monsters all have alignments, I would remove any spell that detected alignment (or alter those spells so that they only work against deities and other residents of divine planes). The reason is similar to that given for spells that read minds. The information is private and personal; it shouldn’t be susceptible to discovery from a low-level spell. Furthermore, I don’t want members of a secret evil cult to be unmasked that easily.


    You are probably seeing a pattern by now. :)

    There are a surprising number of spells that deal with scrying and protection from scrying. I feel that scrying makes it far too easy to find someone. Lord of the Rings would be reduced to a short story if all Sauron had to do was scry for the ring or (once known) its bearer.

    However, I don’t want to remove scrying completely from the game. Instead, I’ve modified all the related spells. Locate spells may find (or show the direction of) a familiar person, place, or thing, within a very short range. Such spells are blocked by relatively small amounts of earth or stone. Other scrying spells may only target a familiar locale or show the vicinity around a previously placed sensor.

    In no case may any spell be used to track down a person or object. At best, locations may be watched in hopes that the person being sought will pass through that location. Protection spells may still be used to ward people or objects from scrying (even when passing through watched locations).

    Detect Poison

    This is still related, although a bit more obscure. Detect Poison provides information that I don’t want provided. Historically, poison has been a common means of assassination. Many heads of state have been replaced in this manner. Therefore, food tasters are employed but they are not always a reliable preventative measure. I want to maintain the threat of poison in this manner and don’t want it removed by a simple Detect Poison spell. Naturally, this also includes Purify Food & Drink as well.

    Animals vs Humanoids vs Monsters

    Many spells exist in multiple forms in order to distinguish between animals, humanoids, and monsters (charm, hold, etc). I have trouble rationalizing why these should be different spells. I prefer to have one spell affect any target.

    I could accept that such a spell would not affect undead, or plant-based creatures. That being the case, additional spells would be needed that specifically affect those creatures (and do not affect animals, humanoids, or monsters).

    Heal Mount, in particular, has always bothered me. Our group has always considered healing to be healing, regardless of the target (with the exception of undead creatures). The Heal Mount spell implies that normal healing doesn’t affect mounts (and by extension any creature other than humanoids). I prefer to allow any form of healing to affect any living creature.

    Monster Summoning

    These nine spells, along with the nine Summon Nature’s Ally spells, do one of three things (based on how you interpret/house rule their implementation):

    • They create a creature out of nothing.
    • They locate and teleport a creature from somewhere else.
    • They attract a nearby creature of the specified type.

    The first two possibilities are far too powerful for a series of spells that begin at first level. The third possibility introduces all sorts of complications (and potential problems) such as: is the creature nearby, how far away is it, how long till it arrives, how does it negotiate obstacles/barriers along its path. For these reasons, I’ve never cared for the spells and choose to exclude them.


    If a character wants something, she needs to find it or buy it. I have arbitrarily decided not to offer any crafting skill or spell that can craft items. I have found these spells to do nothing but waste inordinate amounts of time, offer potential abuse, and provide little or no real benefit. I’m sure that there are endless folks out there that feel differently about them, but I think these spells (Minor Creation, Major Creation, Fabricate) are excellent candidates for the delete button.


    No one wants to lose their character forever. Cloning is one way to prevent that. I don’t have any well thought out reason for not allowing it but I chose not to allow spells of this sort in my game.

    Hit Dice limits

    Numerous spells are limited by the number of HD of creatures the spell can affect. There are so many other ways of imposing limits on spells (that I like better) that I have altered all these spells to use one of those limits instead. For the most part, I have altered these spells to affect all creatures within the area of effect. Each creature then receives a saving throw.


    Many spells enhance the ability to make a save, reduce damage, or increase magic resistance. That’s an important aspect of the game. However, I never allow characters (or human/demi-human NPCs) to have complete immunity to anything. There is always bound to be an unforeseen situation where complete immunity to something can have extremely undesirable effects.

    The amount of resistance, damage reduction, etc, that you allow is up to each DM to determine. But I tend to err on the side of caution and keep the numbers down.

    Bonus Stacking

    Should spells and items have limits on how their bonuses all stack with one another?

    Recent editions include a type specifier on every bonus, regardless of source. Bonuses of the same type do not stack with each other. Instead, the highest bonus (of each type) is used. That is a safe method of ensuring that unforeseen combinations of spells and items won’t stack together to create insane bonuses.

    I think it is more fun to let everything stack. This method is extremely dangerous (for the reason just given) and puts considerably more load on the DM to ensure that characters don’t have access to combinations of items that will stack to ridiculous levels. To do this, characters must not be allowed to create their own magic items (or buy whatever they want) or the DM will lose that control over limits. If you allow characters to craft their own magical items, I would strongly suggest sticking to (or implementing) stacking limitations.

    It is necessary to decide how you want to handle bonus stacking before addressing spells that grant bonuses. If bonuses (of the same type) stack with each other, you may want to more tightly limit the bonuses granted by each spell.

    As I said, I think it is more fun to allow everything to stack. But that is not the only reason I don’t like using bonus types to limit stacking. Having each bonus listed with a specific bonus type makes each spell and item description sound overly rigid and somehow takes away from the mystery that I want to pervade my game. An alternative limitation to bonus types is to conceal the type (to some degree) by embedding it in the spell and item names themselves.

    For instance, items “… of protection” would not stack with each other. Similar naming techniques could be used on spells that you don’t want to stack with each other. Although the result is the same as (or at least similar to) using normal bonus types, it removes the sensation of charting bonus types and makes the whole application of limits feel less invasive.

    Damage Spells

    In my game I employ ten damage types: Acid, Cold, Fire, Force, Lightning, Necrotic, Poison, Psychic, Radiant, and Sonic. In general, there are six applications of a damage spell: touch, burst (x spaces in all directions), cone, blast (burst with the center at a ranged point), zone (persistent blast), and wall. What damage types you use in your game, (as well as what applications and what you call them) are probably different.

    I think it is important that every application of every damage type be represented (or if not, ensure that it is excluded intentionally). Therefore, I went through and identified all the existing damage spells and filled in the gaps by creating additional spells. Further, I standardized the implementation of these spells somewhat in order to provide consistency. Fire, Necrotic, and Sonic spells do 1d6 points of damage per level of the caster and start off as 1st level touch spells, with each progressively powerful application being one level higher. Cold and Lightning spells do 1d8 and start at 2nd level. Acid, Poison, and Radiant do 1d10 and start at 3rd. Force spells do 1d12 and start at 4th. There are some exceptions to that and I don’t use all of the applications listed above but that’s the general idea.

    I have also removed the level caps from these (and most other) spells. Fireball, for instance, was capped at 10d6 (in recent editions). In my game, there is no cap.


    Similarly, I added spells (where necessary) to ensure that all the conditions were accounted for (sleep, stun, charm, etc). I also gave some thought to developing alternative levels of severity for many of the conditions (for instance, there is a low level fear affect that merely unnerves the recipients, and a high level version that is harder to resist and has more severe effects).

    Adjusting Spell Levels

    As you make adjustments to spells, those adjustments often affect the relative power of the spell. Always keep an eye on whether a spell should be raised or lowered in level.

    Additionally, take a look at the level of all the spells, not just the ones you adjust. There are a great many spells that I feel are listed at a level that isn’t appropriate to the level of power of the spell.


    I really like the idea of rituals. My group has never been fond of material components but there are a number of spells that are just too powerful without some sort of limit (like the monetary expense associated with material components). I also like things to be consistent, with clear distinctions when something has to be different.

    Rituals are a nice solution. Normal spells all require a standard action to cast (with Feather Fall being the sole exception) and do not require any sort of material components. Rituals always take longer than a standard action to cast (normally measured in minutes, sometimes in hours) and always require material components.

    I’ve heard people say (repeatedly) that, in 4e, combat spells were converted to powers while utilitarian spells were converted to rituals. First off, this isn’t true. Secondly, that criteria would make a terrible dividing line. The perception obviously comes from the fact that combat spells must be cast quickly enough to be used in combat. That does not necessarily preclude a combat spell from being a ritual. There is no reason that you couldn’t have a ritual that only took a standard action to complete. Nor is there any reason a caster couldn’t perform a more lengthy ritual during combat (although it couldn’t be too lengthy or combat would be over before it was completed).

    Instead, I select spells to become rituals when I feel that the spell in question should have limits (in the form of time and/or money) placed upon it.

    Once You Are All Done

    You are never all done. Turn a critical eye back to spells (and in fact to all of the rules) from time to time. As your campaign progresses you will encounter circumstances that you hadn’t foreseen that will affect how you view certain spells. Any time you think everything is finally perfect, you can be certain you overlooked something. :)


    As you can see, the vast majority of the changes I have made revolve around keeping anyone from circumventing major obstacles (physically or by way of privileged information) too easily. Other changes were made in order to maintain balance or to reign in problematic or game-breaking spells. Keep in mind that these changes favor the characters as much, if not more than, anyone else. Any character with a keep would be pretty upset if an invisible armed force flew over the walls of that keep, slew her guards, and made off with her treasure. If the party is attempting to infiltrate a secret organization, they don’t want their plans foiled by a simple ESP spell.

    I think it is important for each DM to go through the spells and make whatever changes she feels necessary in order for the spells to reflect what kind of game she wants to run. D&D, from the very beginning, has revolved around customization of the rules to fit each individual game. The growing mindset among new DMs (and players) is that the rules are sacrosanct and must not be questioned.

    Consider that the 1st edition rules were gathered together from various notes and scribblings and assembled by one man (in his spare time) in less than a year. That hastily assembled work is largely unchanged today (compare a few of the Pathfinder spell descriptions, or even 4e rituals, to the 1st edition text).

    Gary did a wonderful job, but I don’t think he’d mind (in fact I think he’d be pleased to see us keep up the tradition) if we changed a few things to suit our needs.