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D&D 3E/3.5 Thoughts about Arcane Spell Failure

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
So, this just jumped to my mind and I'm writing this on my laptop, in the subway.

I suddenly remember the Arcane Spell Failure rules of 3E. Now, 3E is how I was introduced to D&D, but it was a damn long time ago and my memories of it are not always reliable.

So, I remember very clearly toying with this statistic and it being the element that limited spellcasters to wear thick armors. I also remember tense moments of a spell failing being a big deal in an encounter.

However, I have absolutely no recollection if it was a fun mechanic or if it was just annoying. At first glance, it seems like an interesting choice; a trade-off. Being more protected but having a chance for your spells to fail. But I think the unfun part of it is the spell just failing. So, I thought maybe something a bit more progressive and less punitive could be interesting. Maybe even extend it to other areas in addition to armor penalty?

What if instead of having a percentage chance for your spell to just outright fail, wearing a large armor reduced the DC or/and the attack bonus of your spells? You still have a trade-off, but it's something that's easier to understand the impact of, and it's not as punitive. You understand what you're giving away, where with something random you have no idea what will happen and when. And again, what if we extended this to other areas?

Anyway, I'm curious to see what others recall of the Arcane Spell Failure mechanic, why it was dropped, what was good about it and if there would be design space for something similar in a 5E product.
 

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nomotog

Explorer
I think it was dropped because people didn't like it and because it was always a little weird. Like other classes couldn't wear armor, but they didn't have a customized stat for it.

I remember kind of liking that you had another facet of armor to customize with different types and materials. It would have been better if it affected a casting differently though. Randomly losing a spell is a bad feeling.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The way I saw it, arcane spell failure acted more as a deterrent than anything else. Just knowing that they'd have a chance that their spells would fail at all tended to be enough to make my arcane spellcasting players avoid armor in the first place. It helped that most of them weren't proficient with armor to begin with. (I think we had one person who was an exception, but only for a buckler with a 5% failure chance.)

What was interesting was how Pathfinder did put out one type of armor with no ASF chance, along with no max Dex bonus and no armor check penalty. It only got you a +1 armor bonus, but it effectively had no penalties for being worn (i.e. being non-proficient didn't do anything) unless you had class features that required you not to wear armor. So it allowed arcane spellcasters to wear armor, which was mostly attractive for its ability to be enchanted. Even then, that was an unusual option, since a lot of arcane spellcasters found mage armor to be a better bet unless they wanted to gain some particular magic armor abilities.
 

cbwjm

Hero
I was fine with arcane spell failure, I think they mostly got rid of it due to the changes in gameplay between 3e and 4e or maybe it was just natural progression from no chance to cast a spell, some chance to cast a spell, to what we have in 5e where as long as you're proficient, you can cast (interestingly this affects all spellcasters so even a cleric would be affected if they tried wearing heavy armour without proficiency).

I thought arcane spell failure back in 3e was fine as a mechanic, though I always felt that it should have applied to all spellcasters but that would have changed the heavily armoured cleric tradition too much. There were also exceptions to the rules, bards could cast their spells in light armour, or prestige classes, items, and feats (I might be thinking of pathfinder for the feats) that reduced the penalty so that you could reduce the arcane spell failure chance.

In 5e, you could possibly bring it back but I'm not sure it is worth it to add back in the 3e version, I think what 5e does is sufficient.
 

So, this just jumped to my mind and I'm writing this on my laptop, in the subway.

I suddenly remember the Arcane Spell Failure rules of 3E. Now, 3E is how I was introduced to D&D, but it was a damn long time ago and my memories of it are not always reliable.

So, I remember very clearly toying with this statistic and it being the element that limited spellcasters to wear thick armors. I also remember tense moments of a spell failing being a big deal in an encounter.

However, I have absolutely no recollection if it was a fun mechanic or if it was just annoying. At first glance, it seems like an interesting choice; a trade-off. Being more protected but having a chance for your spells to fail. But I think the unfun part of it is the spell just failing. So, I thought maybe something a bit more progressive and less punitive could be interesting. Maybe even extend it to other areas in addition to armor penalty?

What if instead of having a percentage chance for your spell to just outright fail, wearing a large armor reduced the DC or/and the attack bonus of your spells? You still have a trade-off, but it's something that's easier to understand the impact of, and it's not as punitive. You understand what you're giving away, where with something random you have no idea what will happen and when. And again, what if we extended this to other areas?

Anyway, I'm curious to see what others recall of the Arcane Spell Failure mechanic, why it was dropped, what was good about it and if there would be design space for something similar in a 5E product.
in ad&d2e casters were just incapable of casting at all in certain kinds of armor. ASF wasn't so much introduced as a new thing as evolved as granularity from that. 2e had the elven chain shirt as what I think was the lone exception
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In 3.5 there were numerous ways to reduce asf (useful thread showing many) through choices in equipment class/PrC, & feat choices. Like many others I was fine with & liked ASF even as someone who frequently played arcane casters.

I agree with @cbwjm that it should have applied to all casters & just removed the somatic component from a wide range of spells that were blessed for armored casting. That sort of split in spell lists would have solved a lot of the CoDzilla problem by splitting some of the spells supporting it from the heavy armor & shield it needed to go from a solid choice to so insane it was summarized with a reference to godzilla. It also would have allowed a fourth tier of armor within each light/medium/heavy that was strictly off limits to casters trying to fill certain roles & give martials a bump as a result. You can see that kind of fourth tier in a lot of games & fiction in the form of stuff like power armor.
 

Teemu

Adventurer
It’s interesting how arcane spell failure from armor has essentially gone full circle. Impossible to cast in armor (sans elven chain) in 2e; percentile failure in 3e; -2 to spell rolls/“DC” (translated to other editions) in non-proficient armor in 4e; and now impossible to cast in 5e—except if you’re proficient.
 

auburn2

Adventurer
It’s interesting how arcane spell failure from armor has essentially gone full circle. Impossible to cast in armor (sans elven chain) in 2e; percentile failure in 3e; -2 to spell rolls/“DC” (translated to other editions) in non-proficient armor in 4e; and now impossible to cast in 5e—except if you’re proficient.
When I started in 1E characters who did not have a class that could get armor simply could not wear it, if you did you could.

Back then the only races that could be multiclass wizards were elves, Gnomes and half elves and they got to wear whatever armor their other class (fighter, Thief) gave.

The rules in 2e made a lot more sense to me as an elven F/M was much more powerful than a magic-user just because of the armor. They were typically 1-level behind their single class counterpart and had 8 better AC. The weapons and attacks were a boon too, but not really a big one. They sucked as fighters compared to real fighters.
 

Ace

Adventurer
I always though it was a dumb and arbitrary rule myself and was glad it went away.

Truth is a lot of older D&D rules are legacy cruft , for example thieves skills and especially armor and come from a time in which basically no one understood how armor worked or had every worn it. When D&D came out in 1974 , even police didn't have body armor and unless someone had worn a flak jacket in the military or some such (riot gear, bunker coat, that sort of thing) most armor they'd even worn was a helmet.

As the SCA and reenactment got bigger, more and more people wore authentic medieval armor and came to understand its actually pretty easy to put on save for some kinds of plate of course.

Learning to wear say a mail shirt takes a couple of minutes and is not much harder than putting on a sweater and a belt.

Now the current system is seriously dated but does pay respect to the old ways which is fine as its better than the needless complexity or extreme arbitrariness of previous editions.

As an aside, a rule saying spells can't be cast in any thickness of clothing that would grant an armor class would have been fine with me. It would have ended up with magic users stripping armor off foes when spells were gone but that was fine. D4 HP is stil a D4 HP.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
in ad&d2e casters were just incapable of casting at all in certain kinds of armor. ASF wasn't so much introduced as a new thing as evolved as granularity from that. 2e had the elven chain shirt as what I think was the lone exception View attachment 131762

In 3.5 there were numerous ways to reduce asf (useful thread showing many) through choices in equipment class/PrC, & feat choices. Like many others I was fine with & liked ASF even as someone who frequently played arcane casters.

I agree with @cbwjm that it should have applied to all casters & just removed the somatic component from a wide range of spells that were blessed for armored casting. That sort of split in spell lists would have solved a lot of the CoDzilla problem by splitting some of the spells supporting it from the heavy armor & shield it needed to go from a solid choice to so insane it was summarized with a reference to godzilla. It also would have allowed a fourth tier of armor within each light/medium/heavy that was strictly off limits to casters trying to fill certain roles & give martials a bump as a result. You can see that kind of fourth tier in a lot of games & fiction in the form of stuff like power armor.

Very interesting! Thank you for the trip down history lane. I've only just began digging a bit in 2E and previous editions. This is very interesting!
 

Stormonu

Legend
I have an old computer game called Silent Service II. It is a WW2 submarine simulator. One of the settings in the game is for "realistic torpedoes" - about 1 in 4 torpedoes will actually explode on hitting a target, the other 3 or so have dud detonators.

I can see someone looking for a challenge or wanting to as closely simulate the real experience turning it on. Probably the rest of 90% or more of the population wouldn't - which was probably why it was removed from later versions (and why the Navy went ballistic getting it fixed!).

Spell failure, as a DM, always sounded like something interesting to throw into the game because of its simulationist qualities. However, just about everybody on the player's side of the table will absolutely hate it the first time it actually happens to them and will want to drop it like a hot potato. Getting sidelined for possibly multiple turns, watching spell after spell fizzle away because of a bad dice roll, isn't fun and there are very few people that would find it fun.
 

The way I saw it, arcane spell failure acted more as a deterrent than anything else. Just knowing that they'd have a chance that their spells would fail at all tended to be enough to make my arcane spellcasting players avoid armor in the first place.

This was my experience as well. If there was even the minimum 5% chance of failure, casters effectively played as if they were completely non-proficient with the armor. Some partial casters could avoid using any spells with a somatic component. And there were a handful of options from splat books to lower ASF, but they only mattered if it could be lowered down to 0%. Also, keeping track of spells that had a somatic component and doing an extra roll for every spell was an annoying process when ASF came into play.

That being said, I really liked the idea of a scale of efficiency for casting in armor rather than a hard yes/no option. I would like to see something like it in 5e. But the implementation of it 3.x leaves a lot of room for improvement.
 

I was...not a fan of ASF. It became a de facto yes/no, in that even a 1% chance to just lose your spells was Unacceptable, and it was riddled with exceptions and ways to work around it.

I've actually found ways for a Bard to wear heavy armor and carry a shield, while having 0% ASF. It's a franken-build to be sure, but you can do it...and you really don't pay much of anything for going for it. (I mean, other than extra gold to get fancy-crafted armor and shields.)
 

jeffh

Adventurer
I'm surprised to see people talking about arcane spell failure as something they actually experienced regularly. My experience was mostly that a spell failure chance was read as "don't wear this type of armour". It's not like arcane casters didn't have other ways to raise their AC, or otherwise keep from getting squashed.
 

Horwath

Hero
I'm surprised to see people talking about arcane spell failure as something they actually experienced regularly. My experience was mostly that a spell failure chance was read as "don't wear this type of armour". It's not like arcane casters didn't have other ways to raise their AC, or otherwise keep from getting squashed.
+1 twilight mithral chain shirt was always a fan favorite.
5100GP for +5AC for any arcane spellcaster.
 

cbwjm

Hero
I'm surprised to see people talking about arcane spell failure as something they actually experienced regularly. My experience was mostly that a spell failure chance was read as "don't wear this type of armour". It's not like arcane casters didn't have other ways to raise their AC, or otherwise keep from getting squashed.
That is normally how I read it. Particularly when low-level, I didn't have the spell slots spare to risk even a 10% chance of spell failure.
 

I'm surprised to see people talking about arcane spell failure as something they actually experienced regularly. My experience was mostly that a spell failure chance was read as "don't wear this type of armour". It's not like arcane casters didn't have other ways to raise their AC, or otherwise keep from getting squashed.
It depended on what had the penalty & how big it was, 5 or even 10% on a chunk of armor with nice enough enchantments was acceptable, especially for PrCs that lowered ASF
 


It would have ended up with magic users stripping armor off foes when spells were gone but that was fine.
First thing that came to mind when I read your post was the "Rob Ray Rule", see the below link. In 2E as soon as some enterprising PC found a way for their mage to don cobbled together piecemeal armor in mere seconds immediately after exhausting their spells I can see the DM crying foul.

Rob Ray - Wikipedia
 

I still play a lot of 3E/3.5, and I've always seen arcane spell failure as a deterrent; a rule that discourages certain spellcasters from wearing heavy armor, and encourages them to rely on spells for protection instead. It forms the basis for precasting spells, and makes classes that CAN wear armor (such as clerics) an interesting alternative.

In essence, it forces variety in gameplay. It is a good rule though? I'm not sure. I think there are a lot of rules regarding spellcasting in 3E that make it needlessly complicated. Spell components and spell failure chief among them.

I use a different in-universe reason for why certain spell casters don't wear armor. In my setting, magic is like a current that can be very dangerous to the caster if he/she is not properly shielded from it. Thus wizards wear light clothing of special layers of fabric, to isolate the caster from any run away magic, and prevent magical mishaps. The magic they wield is volatile and difficult to control. A caster could just as easily blow up their own hand if they are not careful. This is why wizards wield wands and staves to get the magic some safe distance away from their own body before unleashing it. Wands and staves are fitted with magic-conductive cores to assist in controlling the flow of magic.

I did not change the rules in regards to spell failure in line with this fictional explanation, although that might be interesting to brainstorm.
 

I still play a lot of 3E/3.5, and I've always seen arcane spell failure as a deterrent; a rule that discourages certain spellcasters from wearing heavy armor, and encourages them to rely on spells for protection instead. It forms the basis for precasting spells, and makes classes that CAN wear armor (such as clerics) an interesting alternative.

In essence, it forces variety in gameplay. It is a good rule though? I'm not sure. I think there are a lot of rules regarding spellcasting in 3E that make it needlessly complicated. Spell components and spell failure chief among them.

I use a different in-universe reason for why certain spell casters don't wear armor. In my setting, magic is like a current that can be very dangerous to the caster if he/she is not properly shielded from it. Thus wizards wear light clothing of special layers of fabric, to isolate the caster from any run away magic, and prevent magical mishaps. The magic they wield is volatile and difficult to control. A caster could just as easily blow up their own hand if they are not careful. This is why wizards wield wands and staves to get the magic some safe distance away from their own body before unleashing it. Wands and staves are fitted with magic-conductive cores to assist in controlling the flow of magic.

I did not change the rules in regards to spell failure in line with this fictional explanation, although that might be interesting to brainstorm.
Twilight, armor enhancement, Book of Exalted Deeds, -10%
Thistledown, armor add-on, Races of the Wild, -5%
Leafweave, armor add-on, Races of the Wild, -5%
Feycraft, armor template, DMG2, -5%
Githcraft, armor template, DMG2, -5%
Hellforged, armor template, DMG2, +5%
Blue Ice, component, Frostburn, cast [Cold] spells without ASF
It depended on when and what books you used. Those don't even include PrC specific stuff
 

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