Or Why I Don’t Play Casters
(Guest post by Dan Kifer)
He lay there on the broken bricks of the temple, clutching his arm to his side, hoping his goddess would send enough love to attach it back before his life force spilled onto the ground. He prayed that his friends, this strange group no one of his people had ever seen or imagined, would beat this monster dog of stone. He felt the slowing beat of his heart and felt the world drifting...
“I WOULD KNOW THIS SPELL!
I WOULD INTUITIVELY KNOW THIS SPELL!”
Let’s set the stage…
It is the last few years of the millennia. The game is Dungeons and Dragons, AD&D 2nd Edition. The location is somebody’s living room in San Francisco, although this is certainly the least important tidbit so far. And I’m playing a cleric from a peninsula named Three Seas, from an isolated tribe that has been cut off from the rest of the world for time immemorial, and he cannot count past three—honestly, it’s “1, 2, many.”
He’s also dumb, and I kept trying to play melee priests. I may also be dumb. But he had just run at the stone beast to hit it with his big stick, fumbled his roll, and my DM said my shamanic cleric’s arm slipped into the beast’s mouth, which closed down and shook him ragdoll-style and then tossed him aside to deal with the real threats.
And so I’m lying there, waiting to die or for the other cleric in the party (long story) to find time to patch me up. I’m sure there was a reason I couldn’t cast the heal myself, but I can’t remember it. And so I’m reading the “Big Book of Cleric Spells” or some such, and found the spell, “Flesh to Stone (Reversible),” which is when I suddenly yelled to the entire group, “I WOULD KNOW THIS SPELL! I WOULD INTUITIVELY KNOW THIS SPELL!”
At that point in D&D, wizards were the powerful casters, but the trade-off was that they had to know and prep their spells for tomorrow. Clerics/priests were absolutely lesser casters, but—and this is the point—they were calling on their deity, and as such, could improvise. I didn’t know that spell existed for me to prepare, but sitting there in desperation, I could imagine that spell existed and ask my goddess to spare me. I even had the material components: blood and sand or dirt. My DM said, “Make a wisdom roll,” which I did, and so he said, “OK.” We also played with “special effects,” so I all but screamed, “SPECIAL EFFECT—I take some of the blood that’s dripping from my arm and rub it in my other hand with dirt from the broken floor where it falls, and a line of flesh runs from that point through the cracks, maze-like, until it finds the stone dog, making him flesh. And then I pass out.”
Years pass, real time, and I finally have time to play D&D again. Priests/clerics now have to memorize spells—they have to prep their spells. Granted, some of their spells can nearly shame the wizards, but they have to prep. I hate it. I go melee and never look back.
Then… I get invited to play test this new game, and I’m resistant.
Then, I get invited to play test this new game, and I’m resistant. I’ve played World of Warcraft for years and what this group needs is a healer. And I hate healers, because… BORING! But, I love my friend KB, and she’s been persistently bugging me to join this group for over a year. So, I create my crotchety, bitter old man, Jon Calvin.
In the creation process for Tattered Magicks, there’s a “first contact” moment, and knowing only enough of Lovecraft to get into trouble, I write a backstory. It’s about a fallen priest who ends up in a cult in Gunnison, Colorado, where he is touched by the dark, or the Void. Brian helps me design a character who has two pools of magic: light and dark. At lower levels, this was seriously problematic, because spells are expensive, failures are nasty, and even with my large magic pool, some of that pool was practically off-limits. Plus… There were dangers to the dark. I had escaped the Void at the cult, and the Void was not happy about this. I knew there were risks to using the dark pool.
And, the dice. The thrice-damned dice. Everything starts out as a Disadvantage roll (roll two dice, the worst one counts). Magic doesn’t work easily in this world. So, if it was in your sphere of magic (for Jon, it was Education), you could add a die, making it a single roll (or as I insisted on calling it, naked). If you knew the spell, you got another die, giving you Advantage (roll two dice, the BEST one counts).
I had three spells, I think, at the start: heal, smite, and shield. So, I could protect my compatriots, and if I had enough energy in my pool, could try to strike enemies down. Originally, I also had a stick to hit them with… fortunately, when Jon announced he was from Texas, it made more sense for him to have a gun, so I wouldn’t end up with yet one more melee priest.
But, do you see where this gets fun again? If you’re casting a spell you know, and you know it well, you have a pretty good chance to make it work. If you don’t, it’s harder and won’t always succeed. But you always have this chance to create. And it makes sense.
We’re chasing fey goblins, and I’d been reading Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin, and so I try to cast entangling roots with the rebar in the decrepit warehouse we’re in. I roll one die— Disadvantage plus my sphere (I would find Bible quotes that were apropos) and no bonus for known spell—and succeed beyond my wildest imaginings, surrounding the fey with iron rebar. It’s the best part of the game for me: this freedom to create spells on the fly (entangling roots would become part of my repertoire, as would “touch of the void” and “darkness”).
Watching Kae create the “Fingerguns of Literality” was amazing, as was Shannon’s “Energy Drink,” or when she made Jon a quiche that made him be in a good mood for an entire day. KB’s Jacob turning into raven was just the best, and then meeting Vikki’s tattoo-loving girl who plastered herself with temporary tattoos was brilliant!
I think games are the best when they encourage invention and creativity. The quiche was not at all important in terms of progression of the plot or helping us figure out the mystery of Plunket, Wyoming—at all. And it was the best part of this game, because Shannon’s lovely Ryder had had a bad day with Jon. Instead of cursing him, she made him a quiche and poured spell points into it so that he would have a good day and maybe, for once, be nice. Shannon created a storyline with this action. She developed her character and impacted Brian… and me, dammit, because she had the freedom to imagine.
If D&D had this kind of freedom, I would be playing casters again. As it is, I’ll continue to bash my way through enemies until I can one day enter the world of Tattered Magicks and find someone else’s story.
Brian “Fitz” here and I want to thank Dan for this beautiful piece. His Jon Calvin pushed the limits of what I had even conceived for our new game Tattered Magicks, and it’s a better game for it. Though Dan has had to step away from our game table, he will always be a part of our story and is welcome back any time real life will allow it.
If you want to listen to some of our games with Dan , I encourage you to give our podcast a listen: The Loop. Season 1, Episodes 0 thru 12 feature his character Jon and the rest of the gang as they do their best to stop madness in the fictional town of Plunkett, Wyoming. We miss him, but the story must go on — and you’ll note that we mention him darned near every session since he left us.
We’re hoping to release Tattered Magicks before the end of 2020, so stay tuned!
And thanks for the amazing post, Dan! We miss ya!