Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Old School Game Review: The Compleat Spell Caster Fantasy Role-Playing Game Supplement by S. Michael Sechi and V. Taylor

The Compleat Spell Caster is a fantasy roleplaying game supplement written by Stephen Michael Sechi and Vernie Taylor, published through Bard Games in 1983.

This book is somewhat rare; it appears that it is unavailable through PDF download at this time. A limited number of copies are in circulation on used books sites and those in decent condition command a fair price, from thirty to forty dollars before shipping.

It was a companion volume to two other books by the same authors, The Compleat Alchemist and The Compleat Adventurer. The Complete Alchemist is, like the Spellcaster companion, a book that has limited availability, although the Adventurer companion (which dealt with rogue and fighter classes) is somewhat more common.

These books were intended to be used as supplemental works to other full game systems, most notably 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. As such, they provide new classes, magic spells, and magic items to an AD&D campaign, among other things.

The Compleat Spell Caster is broken down into six basic sections and I will deal with these individually. 

The Compleat Spell Caster Introduction

This section of the book details how to plug the supplement into the existing fantasy campaign of the DM. It assumes three basic types of R.P.G.'s the DM might be running but being unfamiliar with two of them, I will simply discuss the 1st Edition AD&D conversion.

In a nutshell, the six spellcaster classes in The Compleat Spellcaster are to be treated as sub-classes of 1st AD&D classes or sub-classes. Experience point progression and spell acquisition are the same for each new class presented here as it is for the "kindred" AD&D class. The witch and warlock class, for example, use the AD&D Druid class XP and spells known table per level table, but have their own unique magic spells and abilities as detailed in the supplement.

This section also sets up an armor class conversion system for the supplement's bestiary monsters (all summoned beings or familiars), as well as a table for the turning or controlling undead abilities of newly presented classes. It also suggests a novel savings throw modification rule which takes into account the levels of spell casters in magical combat. Basically with this rule, the difference in levels between mages in magical combat create a bonus or penalty to savings throws against spells by a defending mage. So if a fifth level sorcerer was casting a spell at a seventh level sorcerer, the seventh level sorcerer would receive a +2 to saves against his opponents spells that have a saving throw, while the lower level mage would save at -2.

I give this section a total thumbs up for clarity and ease of adaptation. 

The Spellcasters

This section of the Compleat Spellcaster outlines the new spellcasting classes and their spells and class abilities. You will likely have a LOT of fun including these in any D&D game you are running, particularly 1st Ed AD&D but certainly Original D&D and older or retroclone Basic and Expert systems as well. I will deal briefly with each one.

Witch/Warlock: This book assumes that witches and warlocks derive their powers from Nature and may be of any alignment. Class abilities are that they can identify plants, pass through wooded areas without leaving a trace, and, at seventh level, read magical inscriptions. Like the AD&D classes, witches can, at middle levels, attract followers and, in their own unique case, form a coven. As the leader of the coven, the PC witch can hold a special full moon gathering monthly where his or her followers can join together to enable the head witch/warlock to cast a spell at much higher levels than the caster's actual level. Witch spells conform in some respects to Magic User type spells from AD&D but there are many notable differences that give the class a unique flavor. Most of their spells reflect the powers of witches in traditional fantasy literature and occult terms. They can, for example, cast a psychic shield spell which lasts 24 hours and makes them nearly impervious to any mind altering spell.

Mystic: A mystic is considered a clerical subclass but uses the clerical XP progression and spell acquisition. The difference is that a Mystic is completely pacifistic and cannot, without serious penalties, inflict harm upon another living being. This prohibition does not apply to demons and the undead. However, the mystic is given very strong defensive powers. Their nonviolence code does not mean they cannot cast certain offensive spells. They are experts in runes and magical inscriptions and can create a runic staff which can hold certain enemies completely at bay. At a certain level, they may create runic or symbolic powered scrolls, as well as receive a personal spirit Guardian to defend them. At middle levels they can build a shrine and attract a group of followers, and although they cannot personally use violence, no such prohibitions are upon any warrior who becomes a follower and pledges his or her self to the mystic's cause. They have many interesting spells, some very clerical in nature, others unique, such as the upper level spell, Mystic Flame, a magical fire which can be set to burn in a brazier or other area and can never be extinguished except by the mystic or his or her Deity. It can also be set upon a staff and used a perpetual light as well as deter undead. Mystics are able to turn the Undead, in cleric fashion, but are subject to the same alignment and faith requirements as a cleric to retain their powers.

Necromancer: This one is perhaps the Jewel of the book's treasure chest. It could not only be a PC class in a campaign with evil characters but a Necromancer as presented in the Compleat Spellcaster would be a most formidable and colorful NPC villain in any campaign. Treated for all intents and purposes as an anti-cleric, the Necromancer uses the same XP and spell acquisition rules as their holy counterpart. Necromancers have powerful class abilities: beginning from level one, they can communicate with any undead. Because they are of evil alignment and serve infernal powers, this can make for some interesting exchanges and situations if agreements can be reached.  Obviously, as per evil clerics, they can gain control over undead entities. They can see in darkness, even without infra-vision, but suffer very poor eyesight during the day. At upper levels, they can construct golems. At middle levels, as most AD&D classes, they can attract followers and construct a base, but in this case the followers attracted are undead servants and the base is an "accursed temple", created in a crypt, catacomb or ruin! Perhaps the most interesting class ability of a Necromancer is that if he or she is killed, they comin' back! They will return as an undead being the 13th day after death. The only thing that can prevent this is a successful exorcism of the body immediately after death by a cleric or mystic.

Here is one place I will offer a suggested change to the rulebook: a table is provided for rolling a d10 to randomly determine what sort of Undead being that the Necromancer comes back as--a 1 being a Skeleton and a 10 being a lich, lesser undead beings being represented by lower numbers on the table. I think it should be based on level of the Necromancer upon his or her demise--a level 1 Necromancer comes back as skeleton, while a level 10 character or higher returns as a lich. The interesting thing about this class ability is that even if the Necromancer only comes back as a skeleton or zombie, they still retain their former intellect as well as all of their spells, experience and abilities! The caveat is they cannot progress further in levels until they kill the agent of their death. 

So many possibilities with your game with this sort of character. Imagine your players killing him or her only to face them again in undead form and having to seek out the knowledge and means to fully destroy the Necromancer's spirit! Or a PC who returns as an undead being...

Necromancer spells are very much like reversed cleric spells but chock full to the brim of unique spells related to summoning, conjuration and cursing.One favorite of mine is the Curse of the Living Death--the target who fails it's saving throw will begin to waste away into a rotted form resembling an undead creature but still have full memory and intellect intact. Gross!

Sorcerer: The Sorcerer class is a nod to the scientific and alchemical dispositions of the medieval wizard. Think Issac Newton, Roger Bacon, and company. They are a kindred class to the Illusionist of 1st Ed AD&D insofar as XP and numbers of spells, and in fact, they are able to use many Illusionist spells. The Sorcerer believes the arcane forces to be wholly natural forces which will one day be mapped out by learning, and he learns spells in a progressive manner, i.e., the principles leading to levitation must be mastered before one can understand flight. Alchemy, lab and tome research, these are the mana and the meat and drink of sorcerers. One should assume they are of upper class as such research is not cheap! Sorcerers have, as a class ability, the knowledge of reading magical inscriptions, any and all languages but the most obscure, and all manner of arcane texts and magical writings. If not very obscure, this ability is automatic and a reflection of the Sorcerer's intensive studies. If any such writ is significantly ancient and/or obscure, the Sorcerer still may roll a "save vs. Intelligence" to be able to decipher. The spells listed for a Sorcerer are highly unique, a mixture of spells related to magic users, illusionists, enchantment of of magical items (including scrolls) and the manufacture of potions and alchemical elixirs, and conjuration and summoning. At middle levels, they can construct a major lab/learning center and group of followers interested in such. They tend to be of neutral alignment as they do not highly regard the neat classifications of "good" and "evil" common to most beings.

Sage: I have no idea whatsoever how a Sage character would play out in a fantasy campaign. I think with patient and thoughtful players, if a DM used the guidleines for Sages in the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, a sage could indeed be an interesting character choice, certainly a formidable and useful NPC. The Sage as presented in the Compleat Spellcaster can basically treat the magical spell lists of the foregoing classes (or those in the AD&D Player's handbook) as "fields of study", and as such, he can learn magical spells in the manner of a sorcerer from such studies, alignment being a major qualifying factor in what the Sage can acquire as to magical powers. Only a Sage of evil alignment will be interested in Necromancy, for example. Combinations of magical fields of study are open to him or her, but the sage can learn only up to seven levels of spells and while learning a particular field fo study they are subject to the XP requirements of that class. So a Sage can learn spells from any casting class. Sages can learn higher levels from class spell lists when they are higher level with the caveat that these higher level spells may only be created as scrolls. The only class ability a Sage possesses is very good skill at reading magical inscriptions and languages. They can never gain any class abilities of the classes whose spells they learn through intensive magical study but neither do they have the restrictions of these classes. For example they can cast clerical or mystical spells without serving a Deity. Make your own assumptions as to what this says about where divine magic comes from as to the minds of the authors of The Compleat Spellcaster!

Magical Inscriptions

In the hands of a clever DM, this section can provide hours of campaign material. It deals with three matters: runes, magic symbols, and circles of power. All three are accompanied by illustrations, and while you may simply assume that gaining levels in a spell casting class unlocks access to them (it does), you can just as easily decide the knowledge must be found "in-game", that is, a certain rune, symbol or power circle must be discovered in a tome or scroll or be taught by a higher level spellcaster. Runes and Magic Symbols are primarily the domain of the Mystic Class and the source of much of the Mystic's power. Power circles are used in summoning rituals and WOE unto the spell caster who constructs or draws one improperly.
This to me is one of the greatest gems of this book--it adds a depth to magic-using or clerical classes that D&D lacks. Games like Harn went there, the how and the why and the study of magic, the classes and orders built upon the traditions, but D&D went for a simpler path. And that path is good, but there is certainly more to add with this book. 

The player who is controlling a spell casting character can feel that their character really is learning and acquiring magical and arcane knowledge, not simply getting access to new spells. It could certainly add a very fresh and long lived element to any campaign when the game is not simply about getting new "Bang" powers but the quest being the process in actually gaining such powers.

In a nutshell, this section provides runes and symbols that represent various defensive and protective magical effects and details what sort of circles are used to protect a spell caster when communicating with or summoning beings from the planes of existence.



 This short section of the book deals with rules for summoning and controlling familiars. In most respects, it resembles the first level magic user spell "Find Familiar" in 1st Edition AD&D. There is a table for finding a familiar from among animal kind or from among three classes of minor demons. In fact, this book assumes that an animal familiar is possessed with a demon that is so low on the pecking chain in the demon hierarchy that it will gladly choose service to a mortal mage over the torments it endures in the nether world. It will even gladly conform to the commands of a caster whose alignment is diametrically opposed! As with AD&D, the familiar confers not only service but shared sensory perceptions with it's master. If seriously wronged by it's master, however, a familiar can break it's bond pact and seek revenge! To make matters more interesting, the spell caster can have a familiar who inhabits an object or space rather than an animal or demon body. A cauldron, for example. A disembodied familiar is subject to going insane, however. Chances are low, but still....

Summoned Creatures

This section of the Compleat Spellcaster is both a bestiary and a magic tome.Again, in the hands of a creative DM, it can add a TON of campaign material for him or her as well as a depth and color for spell casting classes...and any companions foolish enough to be involved with them.

The DM using this supplement will include in his game the assumption among spell casters and persons acquainted with magical lore that there is an "Ancient Pact of Summoning", and the book states that "While the origins of this pact are lost to antiquity, the conditions have remained the same over the eons of time."

What the Pact amounts to are some common conditions for the process of summoning and conjuration that will be known to a spell caster, or, if the DM is devious, learned by them through magical research and discovery and ancient tomes.
Basically, magic circles must be properly made, as well as incense of a certain Gold piece value burned. Knowledge of the offerings demanded by summoned beings must be possessed. In the case of higher infernal powers, true names must be known. If these precautions and requirements are seen to, the summoned being is bound to one act of service to the spell caster.

Serious perils are attendant if one should fail in their magical preparations. Demonic possession, insanity, trickery and demonic deception, imprisonment on another plane are risks taken. But if a mage knows and follows all the guidelines, he or she stands  a very reasonable chance of getting what is desired.

There are three basic classes of summoned beings in the Compleat Spell Caster: Demons, Guardians, and True Elementals.

Guardians are, for lack of a better description, generic angelic beings who serve lawful good and chaotic good deities. They resemble biblical angels as winged beings with swords and are primarily included in this section because of the Mystic Class, whom they are special guardians towards. Obviously, summoning them is not as perilous as trying to do sowith their infernal counterparts, but if the Mystic is careless as to WHY he summons them and they "die" as a result, the Mystic loses the power to call upon them for as long as a year. They only appear to and serve Mystics who strictly follow alignment and faith restrictions.

True Elementals are of four types: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. They are somewhat like demigods, are True Neutral beings, and do not mind being summoned provided either the cause or the offering is good enough. For example, a Water Elemental will be more than happy to destroy a ship of profane sailors who have acted impiously in their comings and goings upon his or her sea road. True Elementals are sometimes worshiped as gods and goddesses.

The Demon hierarchy provided in the Compleat Spellcaster is very interesting. It is not meant to be used in conjunction with the 1st Edition Monster Manual Demon descriptions, but rather, to replace it. It assumes a different cosmology altogether, and is actually congruent with the setting detailed in the Bard games trilogy of Atlantis; the Lost World. There is no order of devils, and none of the named  demons of AD&D are present. A demonic being named Mephistopheles in perhaps the highest and most mysterious lord of the nether realms in this supplement. A description and stats of lesser demon types as well as all the greater demons and arch demons is given, along with the demands of each according to the Ancient Pact of Summoning. "Pleased to meet you, can you guess my name..but what's troubling you is the nature of my game..."

The Major Arcana

This section of this interesting supplement deals with several spells and artifacts that are of a special nature and could be used as the object of campaign quests. One of my favorites is the spell called Sorcerer's Gate. It is essentially an AD&D Dimension Door but is of a permanent nature and can be set in any place chosen by the caster, such as the hollow of a tree in a forest, to lead to a certain destination. 

This concludes the sections of the Compleat Spellcaster.

Overall Review

If you are able to acquire this somewhat elusive tome, it could add much to your game, either as an actual supplement or as inspiration. The writing is top notch, clear and very in line with the period of gaming from which the Compleat Spellcaster was born.
Like all Bard games books I have read, the intelligence, education, depth and dedication of the authors is evident at all times. 

Aesthetically, it is a joy to read and view. There are several full page illustrations by the same artist who drew the cover, one Joe Bouza. My initial internet searching produced no information about this artist or any other attributable works, which is a shame, because he has a special touch. There is also an abundance of very good pen and ink illustrations accompanying the bestiary done either by one Tom Doran or the author, Stephen Michael Sechi. 

The writing is done in old school game type font with occasional calligraphic embellishments.

I definitely plan to not only incorporate the Complete Spellcaster classes into my next D&D campaign, but to use it's depth of magic knowledge and it's demonology as plot structures and PC quests and goals. If you can grab a copy, I highly recommend it to you if you DM any class based rules system!

Back Cover

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

In Memoriam: Wyatt Ferris, Fellow Gamer and A Beloved Son

Wyatt Ferris

This post causes me more reflection than any other I have ever posted.

The young man pictured above is Wyatt Ferris.

I did not know Wyatt. Before this week, I had never even heard of him or seen his face. But being a member of  Facebook community which I love very much, DM Scotty's Crafts and Games, I happened across a post which gave me pause.

Rather than attempt to describe it, I will simply relay the post to you in the words of Wyatt's mother, the original poster:

Last week my 17 year old son Wyatt Ferris took his own life after suffering a traumatic brain injury. He was very active in the gaming community, both as player and GM. In order to show our endless love for Wyatt and to honor his countless hours at the gaming tables, we're asking GMs and storytellers around the world to add Wyatt as an NPC in your games. Wyatt was a paladin, cavalier, war priest, rogue, swashbuckler, investigator, Hellknight bodyguard, and more. Please see the photos here of Wyatt and use the hashtags #Play4Wyatt #WyattNPC so we can follow his continued adventures. Thank you for helping this broken hearted mother mend after this tragic loss. I love the gaming community for starting this for my son. My Twitter is @baddicebad.

I asked Wyatt's mother if I could share her posting here and she asked that I would do so.

Being a parent, I can only imagine Wyatt's family's pain, but their love of life...and his...is evident in this request and the beautiful pictures of Wyatt his mother has shared.

So if you can, please honor Julie's request and let's make Wyatt's love of adventure live on.

If you are a blogger, please, by all means, post Julie's request in your own way at your site.  

Rest in peace our fellow gamer!