Monday, June 30, 2014

Spells Through The Ages – Spell Lists in B/X

Additions and Subtractions Over Time; Whence the OD&D Sup-I Spells?

While I personally got into D&D initially with the 1979 Holmes Basic D&D Set, I had a somewhat more well-resourced friend who later got the 1981 Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert Rules sets, and actually handed them off to me, so as to DM him and other friends through higher levels of play. (I was always the DM in our community since day zero, so this just seemed like the thing to do.) We played a lot with those rules for a bunch of years, and every time I go back to them I'm really impressed by the level of reflection and tasteful editing that Moldvay & Cook put into those rules. While Holmes was very connected-at-the-hip to AD&D (with the Holmes text being edited & altered by Gygax himself before printing), the Moldvay-Cook B/X intentionally set its own traditions (like race-as-class), a separately-evolving game through the 1980's. Let's take a comprehensive look at their magic-user spell lists here.

Moldvay Basic Rules

One thing that Moldvay does here is to set a tradition of exactly 12 spells in each level of magic-user spells. That's a little bit nice, since you know you can always roll a d12 for a random spell in any level (as a scroll, spellbook, or maybe an NPC wizard's memory); although it may be a bit of a handcuff in the design space. Recall that the OD&D had no such organizing principle, different levels had different numbers (and in distinction to AD&D, there were actually more at higher levels, not less).

In the LBB's, at there were only 8 spells at 1st level, and 10 at 2nd level. Therefore, to fill out his list, Moldvay had to include some of the canonical D&D spells which first appeared in D&D Supplement-I, Greyhawk -- at 1st level, magic missile, shield, and ventriloquism; at 2nd level, mirror image and web. Now, at first level, that still doesn't fill out his d12 roster, so Moldvay also had to go to AD&D and take the floating disc spell (a.k.a. Tenser's floating disc in those rules). Note that this is the only spell in the entire B/X line that didn't appear in either the LBBs or Sup-I. On the other hand, there was an overflow of OD&D Sup-I spells that didn't make it into Moldvay at second level: namely darkness, strength, magic mouth, and pyrotechnics (several of these being pretty canonical for D&D -- I recently saw fellow players quite surprised that strength and darkness were not available playing by these rules).

Now before I go on, let's compare this to the Holmes Basic D&D list. Holmes' original manuscript had lists that were identical to Sup-I (although alphabetized and unnumbered -- 11 spells at 1st level, 16 at 2nd level). However, Gygax got in after him and added several spells that otherwise only appear in AD&D -- dancing lights, enlargement, Tenser's floating disc (by its full name), audible glamer, and ray of enfeeblement. This then brought the total number in the published Holmes work to 14 at 1st level, 18 at 2nd level (more than in the later Moldvay rules). If you want to see a complete look at that development from Holmes' unpublished manuscript, see the recent Zenopus Archives Blog (spell levels one, two).

Cook Expert Rules

In Expert D&D Rules, Cook starts by repeating the Moldvay list, and then adds the spells you see above for levels 3-6. (Asterisks represent reversible spells, also added as appropriate to the 1-2 level lists). He continues with the design pattern of exactly 12 spells at each level. But here's a wrinkle: since the OD&D LBB's already had that many spells or more at each of these levels (14 at 3rd, 12 at 4th, 14 at 5th, 12 at 6th), he didn't need to copy any Sup-I spells into the Expert rules, and in fact even a number of spells in the original LBB's got cut out (clairaudience, slow at 3rd level; growth of animals, wall of iron at 5th level). All the higher-level Sup-I spells went entirely missing from these rules; and that's probably for the best, because they tend to be wonky, confusing, or under-powered anyway.

Later Editions

The soon-revised 1983 Frank Mentzer Basic/Expert Rules keep almost the same lists as Moldvay-Cook -- except that Mentzer cuts the spells at 5th & 6th levels down to just 8 (other levels have the same 12 as in B/X); maybe for space purposes in the book?

On the other hand,the 1991 Aaron Allston D&D Rules Cyclopedia makes the very strange choice of adding one spell per level to B/X, and thereby having a uniform 13 spells at each level (and thus not immediately rollable on any Platonic die). The spells he adds are, respectively by level 1-6: analyze, entangle, create air, clothform, dissolve, and stoneform. (He also has level 7-9 spells based on the Mentzer Companion/Master Sets, which I won't go into here, but likewise have 13 spells in each list).

Was there perhaps some intermediary product in the late 80's that add these "thirteenth" spells to Basic D&D along the way?


  1. If I remember correctly, many of the additional ("13th") spells came from other published BECMI supplements, specifically the Gazeteers, and even more specifically the Gaz for the Principalities of Glantri. I know the Rule Cyclopedia's mechanical system for enchanting large objects comes from the Glantri Gaz rules.

    Personally, I feel that setting limits on spell lists (as Moldvay/Cook did) is a great way to discipline one's design...when I wrote Five Ancient Kingdoms, I took the same approach (hell, I did with The B/X Companion and the new spell-caster classes in The Complete B/X Adventurer) forces you to really consider what spells you want in your game (and at what level they become available!) and what you leave on the cutting room floor. I really have no problem with it...after all, it gives players a reason to dump gold into "spell research," right? Leave something to the imagination, fellas!

    1. Oh, great info about the Glantri Gazeteer origins, I didn't know that and I kind of like that fact.

      I totally agree that limiting the lists concentrates the creative juices; sort of like what I've heard about poetry in meter, the restriction forces you in directions you normally wouldn't explore. In my custom Book of Spells I've got 10-16 spells per level, which already forced some cuts, and there are times those 12-item lists look really attractive (as usual for Moldvay/Cook, they did really good work). Totally agreed that the core rules should be pretty concise and let the players expand from that.

    2. Entangle is from Tall Tales of the Wee Folk.

      Create Air is from Hollow World.

      Dissolve is weird - in the Companion set, Transmute Rock to Mud was renamed dissolve, but Elves of Alfheim had both Transmute Rock to Mud and Dissolve as available spells, with different effects.

    3. Super, thanks so much for those references. Weirdly I just had my hand on Tall Tales of the Wee Folk this weekend when I visited my out-of-state storage facility (i.e., my folks' place).

  2. The number 13 is odd, isn't it? I'd almost approach it from the angle that there's one spell for each level that a given DM might dislike or want to disallow for a particular setting, thus bringing the list back to a dozen and a happy die roll, once more.

    1. Hmmm, well that's an interesting take on it. Personally I'd err on the side presenting the more "core" spells in isolation so new DM's aren't guessing what's tried-and-true versus johnny-come-lately.

  3. Late to the game here but I always thought it was a big missing to not have an "Identify" (as per AD&D)-type spell so PCs would have a shot at knowing what their magic items were. The RC corrected this by adding Identify and guess they didn't want to remove Floating Disc or any other spell at 1st level. So they just made all the levels have 13 spells. My $0.02.