Restricting Spell Selections

*Warning* This is a bit more “Let me tell you about my character” than a discussion of mechanics. I think that limiting available spells is usually thought of as more of a DM/worldbuilding tool, but there’s nothing stopping players from doing it too.

There are numerous D&D character archetypes and I have no problem playing up the old stereotypes for one-shot games. There’s nothing wrong with the old, familiar standards, but when it comes to the longer campaigns, I prefer to play with expectations.

Three tricks I’ve pick up over the years have helped me create more interesting PCs to play.

  • Never play the same class twice within an edition.
  • Make a short list of 3-5 sentences to outline the character’s morality and goals.
  • Artificially limit potential actions, perhaps based upon the character’s morality/goals.

When it comes to limiting actions, I think that there is no more blatant method than self-limiting what spells your character would cast. I don’t think played a PC with Magic Missile in my life, though they have cast it from a found wand. I don’t feel any poorer for the choice.

‘Taker Grace (D&D 3.0)

I once was drafted into a game and the players begged me to play a cleric. I was feeling resentful towards the groups for some reason and I didn’t want to play a healer, so I created a cleric that venerated death and mortality as sacred.

Undertaker Grace hailed from a small cult that taught how to catch a glimpse of a god’s realm when faithful soul crossed over. Their charge was to seek out the faithful (regardless of deity) and shepherd their transition into the hereafter and to learn wisdom int that brief instant. Grace could memorize some healing spells for the wounded, but she would not aid the dying because that interrupts their sacred journey. Likewise, anything that returned a soul from death (resurrection) or captured the soul (creation of intelligent undead) was abhorrent to the Undertaker and vehemently opposed.

Grace’s spell list was dominated by Necromancy and Divination spells. Her domains were Death and Travel (where can you hide from death?). While she didn’t look the part, she kinda had that grim reaper vibe. When death came for you, Grace was inevitably nearby to minister.

I really liked playing Grace and she is one of the first characters that I seriously considered playing again. I learned that a few short sentences on a character’s beliefs could be wonderfully efficient guides for role play at the table and I loved challenging other player’s expectations of what a cleric should be within the party.

Kraten (D&D 3.5)

Kraten (and his familiar, Dago) was my first character with one of my current gaming groups. I came in after the game started and the party had already agreed to play an all-dwarf party. The adventure took place in the Underdark. I don’t think that we ever saw the light of day!

I played a sorcerer who focused upon touch attacks. The main advantage to touch attacks is that they trade saving throws for attack rolls. Spellcasting under 3.x is all to often thwarted by saving throws, in my opinion. Even for an arcane spell-slinger, it is easier to build or arrange for attack bonuses than to improve your chances of an enemy failing a saving throw.

What amazed me the most is how lucky Kraten was. He gleefully entered into melee time and time again with no armor and survived to tell about it. Tactically, I had plenty to do before closing into melee, but in the final rounds of combat Kraten joined the other front-line fighters with Ghoul Touch/Shocking Grasp/Vampiric Touch/Touch of Idiocy and hit pretty consistently. My fellow dungeoneers are forgiven for thinking that he secretly multi-classed as a monk. No, he was just lucky 😀

With Kraten, I did compromise more on my spell restrictions than I had with ‘Taker Grace. I was fine with that because my reasons for the restrictions were not based on role-playing. I wanted to minimize the mechanical disadvantages of spells with saving throws and the experiment worked quite well. There aren’t enough useful touch attacks to fill out even a Sorcerer’s limited selection, so I filled in with party buffs and a few area attacks.

Grim Steely (Pathfinder)

Grim was my first Pathfinder character and I was thrilled to see all the options for specialist wizards. I immediately set out to play an Enchanter because, to the best of my knowledge, nobody does that.

My wizard used his natural and arcane charms to insinuate himself with anyone who could further his goals. He began with petty aims such as punishing those who made his early years a living hell. But a few close brushes with Chelaxian authorities led him to flee the area and wonder the world in pursuit of the power to prevent anyone from bullying him again.

Early in his adventures though, the party encountered a necromancer and the enchanter “inherited” the spellbook after a climactic battle. While much of it was beyond the him, as Grim’s powers grew he studied the foul lore.

At first, Grim was all about making enchantments effective in combat, but it doesn’t really work out so well… although there was a great moment when Hideous Laughter felled on a juvie dragon, allowing us to dispatch it relatively easy. I found that I needed a little evocation to stay relevent in combat, so I picked up Lightning Bolt and Shocking Grasp. In higher levels, when I had a story reason to do it, Grim delved deep into necromancy.

So far as restricting spell selections goes, I didn’t take much away from this character except that enchantment is not a terribly effective spell school to focus upon. The best part was the free aura of despair at 8th level, which had nothing to do with it spell selection. However, I had a blast playing a lawful selfish (evil) character.

Around level 14, Grim succeeded in becoming a lich and retreated from the world to further his studies.


~ by Hunter Rose on November 18, 2011.

2 Responses to “Restricting Spell Selections”

  1. I really like the idea of limiting spell options for the sake of good character design. It’s really cool that you took that challenge on yourself to create something more than just an optimized blaster cannon.

    I tried doing something relatively simliar in a 4e game I’m playing in. (here comes the part where I talk about MY character)

    I play an eladrin bladesinger wizard, but in our game world the eladrin race has been conquered by demons and warped by their magics so he has a real infernal vibe going. So I intentionally have been taking mostly fire based spells. I didn’t even really think of it as limiting myself, but it just made sense for my guy to be kicking flames around instead of psychic or lightning attacks. A twist has been that since he started adventuring he has had some weird bond formed with the God of Winter from this world and so I’ve had his alternating spellbook options for daily powers go back and forth between fire and cold. I like the disparity and it really illustrates the division within my character. Is he really as demon touched as he thinks or is this new influence cracking through and cooling him down? Makes it interesting when I’m choosing spells after the extended rest each day.

    And always feel comfortable sharing about your characters. It helps me to frame my storytelling better when I see how other people are doing it. 🙂

    • We all get out of it what we put into it. I tend to make choices that are fun to play or that make logical sense in the progression of the character’s experience.

      4E threw me for a loop when i first came out. The first thing I tried to do was model old characters in the new system to see how the game had changed. I really didn’t see how ‘Taker Grace would work with her back story until someone suggested that I really wanted was a star-pact warlock re-skinned as a divine character.

      I think I fell into the same trap as a lot of players since 3E came out: If the option doesn’t explicitly exist in a book, that character concept/archetype isn’t possible or allowed. Obviously, I don’t agree with that–as a player or as a DM–but having so many player options presented to you can become a crutch. I think players are more likely to fall into stereotypical roles than they would in an older edition.

      Getting back into AD&D/2E via OSRIC has been a great exercise in how to enjoy D&D without relying on predefined player’s options to point the way. I’m looking forward to fleshing out my thief more as the story goes.

      And then I’m finally going to be giving my grapple-focused dwarf monk a run starting next month! (Pathfinder. The pre- Ultimate Combat post is here: He’s crap for range attacks but, gods above, don’t let him lay a hand on you or your finished.

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