D&D 5E Alternative magic systems for 5e? [+]


Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
I don’t like Vancian magic. Never have - it’s just not something I want a part of my fantasies. I also don’t like spell point systems that end up giving you essentially the same outcome in spells per day. And it occurs to me that I have no idea what the 5e world is like these days when it comes to alternatives.

I very much liked 4e’s AEDU framework. I liked the 3e Unearthed Arcana recharge magic framework (throwing out most of the special cases). I like Shadowdark’s version of renewable magic, where failure at casting a spell means you can’t use it again and a fumble means who have to make ends to the source of your magic. You can see the theme here: I like casters with flexibility and repeatable options comparable to other sorts of characters. I also have fun with possibilities I haven’t considered.

So: enlighten me, please! Especially if you have actual play experience to recount.

Please don’t just give a title. Have pity on me: I haven’t been following the field at all for a bunch of years. Describe the system. Thank you!

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The questions that I would ask back to you is
what are you looking for in a 'magic system'? What do you want magic to be? Do you even want magic?
I'm sure there's a fear of "no one will play D&D 5e with me if they can't be a half-giant min/max sorceror build"

I imagine you want magic of some sort. Vancian magic is 'sorcerors' that requires study...

Easy... take them out. Don't want warlocks? kick 'em to the curb.

Wanna summon creatures and put them in balls for storing to do battle with later? Make something.
Converse with spirits to learn combat moves, or things magical? converse with a spirit and roll on a table to gather random spells. 1x day.
Pull energy from the surrounding air and channel it? You could use your CON (fatigue) as a barrier to pushing yourself and improve yourself.
give your magic some drawbacks... seems like none of the D&D systems have any 'real drawbacks'... how many people really go cross with their diety? Warlocks ever end up losing their souls? Magic needs consequences, get burnt out, summon a spirit that possesses you. Maybe you can't cast on people, but only imbue weapons and items?

I've been playing with different ideas. I have a couple other ideas for a solo gaming stream I'm starting at the first of the year. the default spell lists feel dated, so renaming them or doing things like magic missile doesn't always hit... perhaps you have to throw it, requiring you to be throwing lit up missile...

make it what you like... perhaps grab something like FATE/FUDGE or a completely new RP system to see how they handle Magic...

After all that, it's more important to have fun... do what you like....


Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
There are lots of things I might like. I’m interested in what mechanics others may have already done because physical abs mental health problems have killed a lot of my available creative energy. I could just wish off and do something with Ironsworn but I have kind of a hankering for one good D&D campaign in here somewhere.

Cool Down Spells: When you cast a spell you cannot cast that spell again for X amount of time. In many ways it is similar to 4e's AEDU without having the same distinct line between spells. It would need to be retuned for table top and D&D style magic, but I don't see why it couldn't work.

Cool Down Magic: Similar to above, but the cool down affects your ability to cast any magic. Want to cast Fireball? Okay, but you better have a back up plan for the next X rounds if it fails to kill your targets. I like the feel of this style better than the previous one. However, it raises some balance questions that are much easier to solve with the individual spell cool downs.

Recharge: Like a dragon's breath weapon, after you cast a spell you must roll dice to see if you can do it again. This is probably more of a variant of Cool Down than it's own thing.

Powering Up Magic: Not sure if there is a better name for this one. If you're at all familiar with DragonBall Z then you know where I'm going with this. If you want to cast more powerful magic you must first power up. In D&D terms I could see this being done by having spells require an action or bonus action be spent powering up first. This could be a sliding scale where a 1st level character needs to use an action to power up a 1st level spell while a 3rd level wizard only needs a bonus action and a 5th level wizard didn't need to power up at all to cast 1st level spells.

Those are all simple ideas that would need a lot of tinkering to work in D&D. I haven't done that tinkering so I can't speak to it beyond the idea stage. The good news is I have one homebrew system that I've actually playtested in 5e. It worked once people got the hang of it and the beauty of it is that it mechanically works for just about anything in D&D. I originally made it as a way to track and affect Fighter resources. But it also worked with Paladins and Warlocks.

The  Stamina Magic Dice System:
You have a pool of dice. Whenever you cast a spell you must reduce a die by at least one step. The steps being d12 -> d10 -> d8 -> d6 -> d4 -> Exhausted. The number of dice as well as their maximum value increase over time. Some spells might require larger reductions. And no you can't cut corners. If a spell has a 2 step cost then you need at least one d6 in your pool because a d4 can only be reduced one step. A short rest might restore one die to its starting value while a long rest restores them all. That's the elevator pitch.

What makes the use of dice necessary in this system is that when you roll for things like damage, healing, or other effects you use your magic dice to roll. Whatever cost the spell has must be paid by a die used in the roll. This can lead to interesting trade offs when your pool starts getting smaller from use. For spells without a die roll you just choose a die to take the cost and you're done.

As an example let's say a wizard starts their day with 6d8s. They get into a fight and decide to cast Chromatic Orb. That's a 3dX spell with a cost of 1 (and a 50g component cost) so the wizard rolls 3d8s, dealing that much damage on a hit. Now the wizard has 5d8s and 1d6. After a slog of a fight the wizard is down to 1d8, 1d6, and 1d4. If they choose to cast Chromatic Orb again they roll 1d8+1d6+1d4 and deal that much damage. After casting the spell and rolling the dice the wizard must choose which die to reduce by 1. Reducing the d4 means the die is exhausted and can't be used anymore. The next casting of Chromatic Orb is now 1d8+1d6. Reducing the d8 gives us 2d6+1d4 and reducing the d6 gives us 1d8+2d4. Not to mention how you would use those dice for other spells.

That's the simplest way to use the mechanic. But you can spice it up in many ways. For instance I made Magic Missile require you to use your three smallest dice. Fireball had a cost of "spread 3" meanding it reduced three dice by one instead of the normal one die by three. Revivify required you to Exhaust a die of d6 or larger. When you upcast a spell you reduce one additional die by one for each level above the normal level. Cantrips don't have a die cost, but if all your d8s have been reduced to d4s your cantrips won't hit as hard.

Generally speaking spells of level 1-2 have a cost of one, 3-4 costs two, and levels 5+ cost three plus an additional one for every level above 5. Obviously costs of six or higher require more than one die to pay the cost since a die can only be reduced five times at most if it's a d12. But we know that all spells aren't created equally so something like Fireball has a cost higher than normal for its level.

Why do I like this system?
  • It rewards higher level spellcasters by making their spells hit harder due to their larger dice. I grew up on the Baldur's Gate games and liked that a 5th level wizard's magic missile hit harder than a lower level wizard.
  • It simulates getting tired over the course of a day.
  • It can easily interact with other resources. Just give that resource a cost and you're set.
  • Instead of 5e's exhaustion rules (imo they're bad) just make the PC exhaust a die and reduce their maximum number of dice each time.
  • You don't have to remember which size of dice a spell uses, just the number of dice it uses.
  • You can visually track how much magic you have left by just leaving your available dice in front of you and swapping them out as needed.
  • The tactics for which die gets reduced its fun (to me at least).
What were some hiccups I found?
  • You need a lot of dice on hand.
  • Choosing which die to reduce might cause decision paralysis.
  • Spells that normally use more dice than a player has have to be reworked. I changed fireball from 8d6 to 3d6+15 for instance.
  • There are a couple of sneaky limiters on the use of higher level spells, but it still has some of the same problems spell points has.
  • Some of my players thought it was more complex than spell slots.
  • Differentiating Stamina and Magic dice is needed to prevent some pretty nasty edge cases (ahem... action surge).


Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
That last one sounds interesting but not for me, alas. I love the decision paralysis adventure.

What you’re calling cooldown magic is what I’m calling recharge magic:

Just so we sync up.

The powering-up option is very appealing tome. Gotta mull that one. Thanks!

Anyone know about published 3PP variants?

Powering Up Magic: Not sure if there is a better name for this one. If you're at all familiar with DragonBall Z then you know where I'm going with this. If you want to cast more powerful magic you must first power up. In D&D terms I could see this being done by having spells require an action or bonus action be spent powering up first. This could be a sliding scale where a 1st level character needs to use an action to power up a 1st level spell while a 3rd level wizard only needs a bonus action and a 5th level wizard didn't need to power up at all to cast 1st level spells.
you could also have a variant of this where doing stuff builds up a pool to let you cast spells (sort of like building up to better moves in some fighting games). so maybe you cast a few cantrips and after some of that you eventually build up to be able to cast a 1st level spell. that sort of thing. it's like your idea, except it doesn't feel like you're wasting the actions you take to build up to your big options - you're still contributing, just not as much as your bigger spells.


I'm not aware of any 3PP that does this for 5e, but you could take a look at 13th Age for inspiration. The magic in that system works basically as you describe (some spells are daily, some encounter, and some at-will).


My Unfinished Urban Fantasy game just categorizes magic

Charms- At will but you gotta roll with a wand
Diablory: At will but you take damage the stronger the spell
Glamour- Encounter spells but you can roll to make them at will
Magery- At-will but only weak effects. Basically Cantrips
Psionics- At-will but you must roll first and lose focus or get a headache on a fail.
Ritual- At-will but long casting time.
Sorcery- Encounter spells but you forget spells to bonus spell power
Thaumaturgy- Roll that d100 and pray
Theurgy- You roll each time to see whether you keep it or have to what an encounter, day, week, or month.
Wizardry- Daily spells

When you learn a spell you choose how you cast it. You end mixing and matching.

In D&D terms, you hit level 5 and choose fireball and fly. You can choose to be able to cast each of them once per rest (Sorcery or Glamour) or be able to spend one of your 5 daily spell slots (Wizardy) or at will but you take damage (Diablo) or at will but force a roll to recast (Psionics).
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