Guest Post: Medieval Magic

I think this is the first-ever guest post on this blog. In an online discussion a few weeks back, Landon Schurtz made what I thought was a fascinating comment about the spell list he uses in his low-magic D&D campaign. A problem might arise in determining spells appropriate for that milieu. Solution: Why not use his copious literary skills to find and read up on actual medieval grimoires and see what writers of the time thought was really possible? Notice again how this links to our project of using real-life research to actually simplify the game (three weeks ago); and also to craft a set of wilderness rules to fix the blindspots from original D&D (last two weeks).

Landon Schurtz is a professor of philosophy and a roleplayer for the last thirty-plus years, not in that order. He is currently working on a never-to-be-completed project to build the "perfect" fantasy roleplaying system by cannibalizing pieces and parts from various "old-school" games.

It started with Leomund’s tiny hut.
In AD&D, Leomund’s tiny hut is a very useful spell for adventuring magic-users to learn, as it allows creation of effective shelter when traveling. I’ve played many magic-users in my day, and they all acquired the spell as soon as possible – it just made good sense for a traveling spellcaster to have it. And therein lay the problem.
Even without dealing with the longer-lasting (and thus more effective) versions available in later editions of the game, I quickly became annoyed that Leomund’s tiny hut was too effective – its existence allowed parties to sidestep certain challenges that seemed to me to be integral to the kind of game I was trying to run, which, in this case, was the kind of game where player characters, no matter how high and mighty, could never fully insulate themselves from the basic threats of a pseudo-medieval setting. I wanted travel to be arduous and chancy, food and water to be precious, and so on. In short, I wanted my games to feel more “medieval,” something closer to low fantasy than high.
So it was that several campaigns ago I began going through the spell lists and eliminating certain spells. Those that made travel a non-issue or something very close, like Leomund’s tiny hut and teleport, were the first to go; next followed spells that eliminated the need to think about rations and foraging, such as create food and water; and so on. Eventually, I even eliminated all cure...wounds spells from my game, though I “replaced” them with a different hit point mechanic that rewarded tactical retreat by allowing characters who were not below half hit points to recover fully in just a few minutes.
Though this method was getting good results in general, I still felt I could do a better job of getting a “real medieval feel” for my world, so I took a different approach: I went back to the sources. I conducted a fair bit of research on beliefs about magic in the Middle Ages, starting with scholarly works like Richard Kieckhefer’s indispensible Magic in the Middle Ages and eventually moving on to what proved to be my definitive resources, actual medieval grimoires.
Books like Liber Juratus and Sword of Moses, which date to the 13th and 10th centuries, respectively, can be found in digital format at www.esotericarchives.com, a useful resource for anyone looking to inject a little authenticity into their games. I began perusing these and other grimoires in an effort to see what a “real” medieval wizard would have been (thought) capable of, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that many spells in AD&D had “genuine” parallels – the Sword of Moses purports to hold the secrets of how to cast spells that would equate to protection from fire, silence, and blindness, and Liber Juratus describes incantations that could credibly be translated in game terms as telekinesis, phantom steed, and even Drawmij’s instant summons!
Using these, I was able to construct spells lists that I feel have a real “medieval” flavor. Magic-users still have considerable power, though they have much-reduced capacity to deal direct damage. Gone are high-fantasy staples like magic missile and fireball, but in their place, wizards gain many abilities previously restricted to illusionists, clerics, and even druids. I have divided the spells into four categories: thaumaturgy, which I take to be the “default” sort of magic employed by magic-users; elven magic, which, as the name implies, is the kind of magic employed by elven spell-casters and rarely taught to outsiders (I haven’t decided whether elves can also use thaumaturgy or are restricted to elven magic alone); black magic, which encompasses most “evil” magic; and white magic, wherein one finds the spells of binding and banishing extraplanar creatures. Except for the division between elven magic and everything else, this choice was made more for organizational purposes – I originally included white and black magic on the main thaumaturgy list, though perhaps a DM might allow for certain villains to have access to black magic only, thanks to, say, a demonic pact.
A few notes:
  • I do not use clerics or druids in my games, nor illusionists, now that I have this new spell list. The thaumaturgy list has many spells that were once the province of one of those three classes.
  • The vast majority of spells are taken from the PHB and UA, while a few (mostly in the elven magic section) come from Oriental Adventures, which has a wide selection of “elemental” spells. The various “undead production” spells come from the description of the Death Master class, in Dragon magazine; for DMs who would prefer to just use animate dead, the switch could easily be made.
  • All spells function as described in the books except cure disease – in this system, a different cure [disease] spell is needed for each ailment.


  1. This is great stuff! I have been working along very similar lines for my own perhaps-never-to-be-finished, eclectic version of Old School rules. An additional work I found very helpful is “Magicians and the Colours of Magic” on the Akratic Wizardry blog: http://akraticwizardry.blogspot.com/2009/07/magicians-and-colours-of-magic.html
    And for elven/fae magic, I am thinking of incorporating some of the “Fairy-Charms” available to fae PC races in Basic D&D book PC1 – Creature Crucible: Tall Tales of the Wee Folk (1980) by John Nephew.
    One area where I differ from Prof. Schurtz and Akrasia is the categorization of spells that rob the subject’s free will and agency, such as Charm Person and perhaps even Sleep. I feel these should be Black Magic, since they are generally used to rob the target of life, liberty, and/or the pursuit of happiness. I would be open to hearing other opinions, though.
    Thanks for making your first guest post such a great one!

    1. I agree that PC1 is a pretty good supplement, thanks for reminding us of that.

  2. Honored to be the first guest poster! I can totally see the classification of things like Charm Person and Sleep as black magic - I think that's a matter of individual campaign flavor. Obviously, my conception of black magic had to do with 'tampering with dark powers' rather than any particular effects, but a different concept could work for a different campaign world.

  3. Why the first level has fewer spells than the second level?

    I saw this before in some editions but never understood why this happen.

    1. I was concerned about this, but I was mainly focused on sticking with my theme, so if it turned out that there were fewer 1st level spells that worked in-theme than 2nd... well, I just ran with it. My fan-wank justification is that magic is hard, and that there are very few "elementary" spells, while things really open up when you start getting a little more advanced.

    2. Yeah, that's the case in OD&D as well. It makes sense to as a "tree of life" kind of thing... the further up you go the more options and variety become possible. To my now OD&D-sensitized eye, the AD&D model where more lower stuff got made seems forced.

  4. I love this post! Thanks. One place I would differ, however, is though some things I've learned over at ODD74, especially from Gronan. I kept thinking that "fantastical medieval," had an emphasis on the medieval. But really the emphasis was on the fantastical and especially on the 30s-70s pulp fiction sci-fi and fantasy. They weren't trying to game the actual middle ages. They were trying to game pulp fantasy middle ages. When you look at it that way, the spell lists are pretty near perfect. And, when you look at it that way, it means there is a different set of books to study in order to "get the spells right." These are pulp fiction books and movies, not awesome, actual, ancient medieval texts. But if that is what you want to do for your campaign, then that is the right thing to do! Fight on!

    1. Spot on. I tilted more toward "medieval" than "fantastical," which took me in a different direction, but as another commenter says below, you can do so much to establish the 'feel' of your game-world by customizing the spell lists.

    2. Thanks! Agreed. The post and the comments are all great. Fight on!

  5. This is a terrific list. I think that one of the ways that D&D can be adapted to specific settings is to alter the spell lists in this way.

  6. Great work, Mr. Schurtz!

    My own favorite source when reflecting on historical impressions of the fantastic is Odin's list of 18 charms from the Hávamál:

    Healing, spell-turning and fouling other magicians, seduction, protection from arrows and blades, putting out fires, soothing the seas, speaking with the dead, knowledge of monsters, breaking fetters. I tend to look over spell lists to see if those are things magic users can accomplish in a game, and whether they would want to, given other options they might have.

    1. Ooo! Thank you for the source! I'll put it to use not only in my AD&D game, but in my Ars Magica game!

    2. If you're interested in sources, I could provide a useful bibliography, from translations of grimoires to modern commentary. There's something of a cottage industry on the subject that has grown up in the last decade or two.

    3. That would be great, thank you!

    4. OK, here goes. This is not complete, mind, but only covers what I think of right now:

      Betz, Hans Dieter - The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells
      Butler, Elizabeth - Ritual Magic
      D'Este, Sorita and David Rankine, eds. - The Faerie Queens
      Davies, Owen - Grimoires: A History of Magic Books
      Fanger, Claire - Conjuring Spirits
      Flowers, Stephen - The Galdrabók
      Flowers, Stephen - Hermetic Magic: The Postmodern Papyrus of Abaris
      Flowers, Stephen - Icelandic Magic: Practical Secrets of the Northern Grimoires
      Gårdbäck, Johannes Björn - Trolldom
      Greer, John Michael and Christopher Warnock - The Picatrix: Liber Atratus Edition
      Harms, Daniel - The Long-Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire
      Harms, Daniel, et al. - The Book of Oberon
      Huson, Paul - Mastering Witchcraft
      Kieckhefer, Richard - Forbidden Rites
      Lecouteux, Claude - The Book of Grimoires
      Randolph, Vance - Ozark Magic and Folklore
      Rankine, David - The Book of Treasure Spirits
      Rankine, David - The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet
      Salaman, Clement, et al. - The Way of Hermes: New Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum
      Skinner, Stephen - Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic
      Skinner, Stephen - Techniques of Solomonic Magic
      Skinner, Stephen and Ioannis Marathakis - The Magical Treatise of Solomon, or Hygromanteia
      (Dr. Skinner has also edited the rest of the Sourceworks of Ceremonial Magic series)
      Smith, Christopher Alan - Icelandic Magic: Aims, Tools, and Techniques of the Icelandic Sorcerers
      Stratton-Kent, Jake - Geosophia (2 vols)
      Stratton-Kent, Jake - The Testament of Cyprian the Mage (2 vols)
      Stratton-Kent, Jake - True Grimoire
      Tyson, Donald, ed. - Three Books of Occult Philosophy and Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy

      Also, most of these authors have other books that may be of interest. I should note that Paul Huson is writing mostly in a modern context, so you may want to skip him.

    5. I almost forgot one of the most important ones, which was critical in changing the way I looked at what was called "magic" in history and antiquity:

      Couliano, Ioan - Eros and Magic in the Renaissance

    6. Thank you! I have some of these, but the additions are most welcome!

    7. I only included a couple from the Magic in History series, but all of them from that series are good.

    8. Oh wow, that's nice. Good show!

  7. Cool post! Magical systems from the real world are something I try to avoid adding into my campaigns (just as I don't add in any real-world religions), but for those who wish to do so this is an excellent place to start.

    An additional possibility is that certain of the spells excised from the normal spell lists (such as Teleport) might only function while on the Astral plane or other non-physical realms of existence; from what I've read about how other referees conduct their otherworldly adventures, there could certainly be plenty of extra ethereal hazards to offset the advantages offered by instant travel and on-demand shelter.

  8. Another excellent RPG that has magic based on real-world sources is Celtic Legends, written by Stéphane Daudier and published in 1992 by Descartes Editeur (originally in French, although I have an English copy kicking around somewhere). Every spell included a quote from a primary source such as the Mabinogion that described the effect of the spell. One I remember particularly was "Creating a Woman Out of Flowers." Good stuff.