Monday, September 19, 2011

Abjure This: Spell categories revisited

So the new guy in my group--who's also new to D&D (we're playing a mishmash of AD&D, Castles & Crusades and a bunch of house rules mostly poached from folks like you)--has been asking a lot of questions and poking a bit of fun at many of the oddities of the game that have, over the years, become invisible to me.  One topic he's getting mileage out of is all those parenthetical spell categories that are listed next to spell names in the Players Handbook, 1978 ed. (PHB).

Having long ignored these spell categories, the pejoratives of my new player have actually inspired me to go through the entire spell list for each class--clerics, druids, magic-users and illusionists--and count each occurrence of the 10 or so spell types (cue soundtrack).   Bear in mind that no explanation of the significance of these terms was given in the text of the PHB that I've found and, clearly, none is needed to play the game.  But, for my own sanity, I had to create some sense out of this stuff, and what follows is a summary of my analysis.  Any definitions or suggested re-categorizations provided are based on my own halfhearted research and should not be assumed to be sanctioned by any person or body affiliated with AD&D in any official capacity. 
  1. Alteration: These spells cause a  change in something that already exists.  Probably every spell could fall under the domain of "alteration" if you think too much about it.  But there are couple of obvious types of alteration such as Polymorph spells and Transmute Rock to Mud, which alter a person or object's physical form.  Then there are those Alterations that alter one's capacity to perform some action--Haste, Infravision, Fly, etc.  But after that, alteration devolves into the kitchen sink category including spells that involve moving things--like Levitate and Teleport--altering by relocation?--and such oddballs as Rope Trick, Magic Mouth and many, many, many more.  As if this scene weren't crowded enough, a bunch of spells that seem quite clearly to be evocations or conjurations are also lumped into the alteration group: Dancing Lights--which creates a fire or something that looks like one, making it either a phantasm or an evocation--and Create Food and Water--it's not called Alter Food and Water, right?--are prime examples.  As one might guess by the inclusiveness of this domain, this is by far the largest, representing 34% of all spells.
  2.  Conjuration/Summoning: These spells bring forth a being, object or force of some sort to do the bidding of the spell caster.  I would take it a step further and differeatiate between Conjurations and Summonings.  In my interpretation, a Summoning brings forth a being that already exists somewhere else, has its own life, and may have its own ideas about what's going to happen next.  Indeed, these ideas may be exactly why the being is summoned.  Conjurations, on the other hand, are created beings or forces that don't exist elsewhere until they are conjured.  Though they are capable of performing certain basic actions, they tend not to have much in the way of free will, instead requiring  direction from the spellcaster in order to take action, they're automatons.  Unseen Servant is a great example.  Conjurations might also be programmable objects which then require some third party input in order to take effect; the various Glyphs and Magic Mouth could be categorized as conjurations of this sort.  Spells which I believe are mislabeled as conjurations include Flame Arrow--neither flame nor arrows are actually conjured, rather, arrows touched by the spellcaster actually burst into flames--and Bless which gives your friends a to-hit bonus.
  3. Evocation: Like conjurations, these spells call stuff into being.  They differ from conjurations in that whatever is called forth generally gets told where to do its job and then does it without any further instruction.  These are either of the point-and-shoot instantaneous effect spells, or things that, once evoked, are relatively inert, such as the various Wall of- spells. The vast bulk of evocations are magic user spells and many of the classics fall into this category: fireball, lightning bolt, magic missile, web...  Druids and Clerics have only 4 and 3 evocation spells  respectively while Illusionists have no evocation spells at all, though we'll dwell on this matter more a bit later.  
  4. Invocation: There is only one spell--Spiritual Hammer--in this category.  It might have been an editorial oversight--the author may have decided to change the term to evocation since their meaning is nearly identical.  But there is a small difference in that, according to Webster,  an invocation often involves Holy assistance and, in support of that notion, the spell write-up for Spiritual Hammer specifically states that "by calling on his or her deity" the cleric creates a hammer-shaped head-bashing force.  If you go with this, it could be argued that all clerical evocations could be classified as  invocations.  Likewise druidic evocations also invoke the assistance of whatever nature spirits those tree-huggers worship.  Most/all of these evocations could even be recast as invocations with little harm done, which would then leave evocations as the purview of MUs.
  5. Illusion/Phantasm: You make stuff that isn't really there seem like it is.  Basically, you're conjuring sensory experiences.  The bread and butter of the illusionist class, 48% of spells available to illusionists are illusion/phantasms.  Significantly, Illusionists have no evocation spells.  I'm guessing this was by design to differentiate them from Magic users.  I think, given the many spells that  seem much closer, mechanically speaking, to evocations but have been labeled alterations, that the effort was a bit disingenuous. Such spells as Light and Darkness, I think, would be much more comfortable in the evocation camp than crammed into that boisterous beer garden over at alterations. Most incriminatingly, Wall of Fog, a first level illusionist spell, is classified as an alteration even though all the other Wall of- spells which are castable by non-illusionists fall under the evocation banner.  We need to accept that some of the spells available to Illusionists are evocations and get on with life.
  6. Abjuration: The word is defined as a renunciation or recanting, and spells of this sort are generally those that provide protection from something or that exorcise or purge things.  Dispel Magic and Protection from evil/good/insipid, etc. are abjurations as are some cure spells: Cure Blindness and Cure Disease, for instance: "Disease, I renounce thee!"  I would be inclined to include spells which provide resistance to certain things as partial abjurations though they're generally considered alterations in the PHB.  
  7. Divination: These spells are all about divining knowledge which one's senses are otherwise not privy to.  All detection, location,  and augury spells fall in this category.
  8. Enchantment/Charm: These are spells that screw with people's heads.  Charm Person, Command, and Hold Person, but also Sleep, Feeblemind, and, inexplicably, Pass without Trace are of this sort. 
  9. Necromantic: Usually associated with speaking with or raising the dead and other ghoulish black magix, this category is broadened to include spells which cause any revivification or restoration of bodily health, such as cure light wounds and heal, but also spells such as slow poison and feign death.  I've got no beef with lumping these spell into the same category, though it seems a little creepy to have your beneficial cure spells hanging in the baleful realm  of necromancy.
  10. Possession: Again we have a one-spell category; Magic Jar is the sole occupant. It is an exceptional spell, you're not just taking control of someone else's being--which would perhaps fall under enchantement--but your also stashing your own soul in a jar somewhere, an act which seems vaguely necromantic.  I see no need for one-spell categories, so I'd prefer to put it in one or the other and move on. 

    So these are the 10 existing spell categories as classified in the PHB.  As you've probably guessed, I'm not entirely satisfied with it.  In particular, Alterations are needlessly bloated covering a wide variety of spells that are not at all related, including many spells which are clearly evocations but that have been classified as Alterations solely to satisfy the unstated rule that Illusionists cannot cast Evocations.  I propose 2 Alteration subcategories:
    • Transmogrification: For a very long time I thought Calvin and/or Hobbes made up this word, and it's the perfect word to describe the Polymorph and Transmute type spells that alter the physical state or properties of an object or being.  
    • Augmentation/Diminution: When I first started out on this line of inquiry, I was absolutely certain that this already was one of the spell category names.  I was shocked to find out otherwise; it should have been. Was it in Unearthed Arcana maybe?  Anyway, augmentations are performance enhancing/diminishing spells, either improving ones capacity or granting one an ability to perform an action that is normally outside their realm.    Haste, Fly, Write, and others would fall in this category.  As the dual-name implies, they can diminish performance as well, such as in the case of Slow and its ilk.
    We also need a couple of new categories to cover those spells that involve moving people around instantaneously, screwing with time, and those that allow the spellcaster to exert control over some object or non-sentient force; enchantments for the inanimate, if you will.  So here, I propose two new classifications:
    • Peregrinations:  Please, please, please find me a better name!  These are spells that allow the spellcaster to transport him/herself and/or others instantaneously from one place to another via means of some kind of discontinuity in the space-time continuum.  It also includes spells which allow the caster to move through things which normally preclude such ambulation; those weird plant-traveling druid spells.  In the PHB, spells of this nature are, of course, generally considered Alterations.
    • Agitations:  Again, not a great name, I am accepting nominations for another.  This spell group encompasses spells that garner control over forces or inanimate objects.  Heat Metal, Trip, and Dig are all examples.  I might be open to moving this whole group to Enchantments since they do seem, essentially, to be enchantments that influence inanimate objects and non-sentient forces.  Some of these already do fall in the enchantment category in the PHB.
    Which concludes  this exercise in spell nomenclature and categorization.  In summary, I've ditched 2 one-spell categories, divided Alterations into two sub-categories, determined that Conjurations are mechanically more similar to Evocations than they are to Summonings, uncovered some Evocation obfuscation regarding Illusionist spells, and added 2 brand new categories.  That's enough tinkering for one day, eh?

    Now I know you're thinking, "Wow, this entirely objective, practical, non-tedious post is going to radically alter not only the way I play, but also the way I live life for the rest of eternity!  Thanks Dice-chucker."  So let me just say, you're welcome.


    David said...

    Personally, I'd say that "agitations" are much more "alterations" than some of the spells so described.

    And instead of "peregrinations" I would call them "translocations", which is a spiritualism/parapsychology term, or "transvections", which is the technical term for a witch's ability to fly.

    Anonymous said...

    I have no problem with Peregrinations.

    Your Agitations seem a lot like psionic Kinetic stuff. Animations?

    Gavin said...

    One of the AD&D 2e books suggested a sub-school named 'apportation', for what you're calling peregrination.

    grodog said...

    FWIW, the DMG does provide a minimal explanation about the use of schools of magic in the MU spell notes for Detect Magic.

    IIRC, there was a few good articles in Dragon and Polyhedron about the various spell schools, including one that rounded out the Possession school (in "Dominion Spells" by Jon Pickens in Polyhedron #27 ) and Charles Olsen's "The Many Types Of Magic" in Dragon #89. Might be worth checking out.

    Timrod said...

    @ David: Who knew there was a technical term for how witches fly!?

    On hindsight, heat metal, I'd agree is an alteration; you're altering cool metal into hot metal. I think I threw it in here because, IIRC, the way it's described in the PHB is more like you are affecting forces that then heat the metal. And Dig might be a conjuration, as you're conjuring a force that then digs a hole. There's obviously a lot of gray area in the classification business.

    Timrod said...

    @1d30; I'm glad you like it. It at first appealed to me for it's understetedness, but then it just seemed too far out. Animation is not bad; imbuing something with spirit/locomotion.

    Timrod said...

    Hey Grodog, Which printing of the DMG? My "Revised edition--December, 1979" only mentions that "the type (abjuration, alteration, etc.)can be found" p.44.