DCC Donnerstag: Advanced Studies in Spellburn

Spellburn is one of those rules that, when first read, can lead to a lot of confusion. Hell, the Metal Gods crew had been using it wrong up until +Wayne Snyder & I went to GenCon, but more on that later. Folks who play wizards (and elves, but who's counting them, amirite?) love Spellburn, while folks who don't often see it as an imbalancing feature of the classes that use it. I believe that Joe Goodman was deliberately vague when writing the rules for Spellburn so that each Judge had room to interpret how Spellburn would best fit the campaign, but that can lead to some misconceptions about the mechanic, some of which can be game-breaking. Here are my thoughts on how to best implement Spellburn into your campaign.

Spellburn First, Luck After

Time for some serious Spellburn
Your caster decides to use Spellburn before any dice are rolled to determine the success or failure of casting a particular spell. Luck may be burned afterwards, but Spellburn may not performed at that time. This allows the caster's player the opportunity to come up with a cool description of what the Spellburn is (or just roll on the d24 table) and why it affects that particular Ability Score, just like the warrior and dwarf players get to narrate Mighty Deeds of Arms. Back end Spellburn, when allowed, feels more forced and does not allow for the same opportunity; that's the job of Luck, something anyone can do and no one needs to narrate. Frontloading Spellburn like this ensures that the Spellburn is well-thought-out and planned at least as well as Deeds and leaves some room for Luck to fill in the gap on the backend, which is precisely what it is designed to do.

The Limits of Spellburn

Somewhere in the rules, there is a suggestion to place a hard cap of 10 on any Spellburn. I endorse this cap, not because I believe in limiting a player's ability to do cool things with his wizard, but because I believe that every point of Spellburn needs to count for something. Burning 10 points means an automatic success in most cases and usually a fairly spectacular one. That's pretty bad ass. That also needs to be saved for a special occasion rather than "I Spellburn 20 points on my Magic Missile at the first sign of kobolds then take a nap for a month while everyone else completes the adventure." That sort of thinking leads to the 15-minute dungeon day which is a snoozefest for everyone involved. Limiting Spellburn to 10 per burn usually means that the caster will have some Ability Score points in "reserve" that can be burned at a later time, and he continues to be useful to the group. Win-win. Go home, Mr. Powergamer, I think there's a Pathfinder game waiting for you.

Spellburned... To Death!

Some Judges like to put a floor on how far down you can burn an Ability Score. For example, some Judges don't think you should be able to burn down past 3 since that is the minimum for a character (since you can't roll less than 3 on 3d6). Given the title of this sub-heading, I'm sure you've figured out by now that I simply don't agree. I believe that, should a player truly want to drain away that last little bit of life from his wizard in order to save his companions, defeat the villain or send the charnel god back to the netherworld where he belongs, I say let him. Yes, the minimum for a character to be functional is 3 in any Ability. Less than 3 Strength and we know he's uber-weak and might need someone's help carrying his own weight. Less than 3 Agility and he's staggering around clumsily like a drunk. Less than 3 Stamina and he's having a hard time staying conscious. I may, if I'm feeling particularly generous, allow self-sacrifices like this be the one time I allow the "kick over the body rule" to be in effect, but corruption would definitely be rolled for if the cause of near death was magic overload.

Spellburn Damage And Healing

Ability Score damage such as Spellburn heals at a rate of 1 point per day; this we know. It is suggested in the DCC rule book that  his damage not be allowed to be healed by clerics like other Ability damage. Stick to that. What isn't mentioned is how clerics heal Ability damage. For Spellburn to be meaningful, it cannot be simply healed away by the clerical Lay On Hands power. Just don't do it.

However, since there is no rule for how to heal Ability damage (that I can find) with Lay On Hands, but one is implied by the very section of the rules that says it shouldn't apply to Spellburn damage, allow me to suggest one: In order for a cleric to heal ability damage, he must first Spellburn one point of the Ability Score that he intends on healing. Each die of healing granted restores one point of Ability Score damage. Bam. I know, clerics don't get Spellburn in the RAW, but hey, we can give them this one, right? Right? That brings me to my next point.

Spellburn For Clerics

Why the hell not? Realistically, the only reason that I can come up with is that they never lose their power to Lay On Hands, unlike the wizard who can lose access to his spells. However, I'd say a Judge is entirely within his right to allow clerics to Spellburn if the expressed sacrifice is important enough to move the patron deity in question to providing additional support. By, again, frontloading Spellburn, the cleric is making a choice to sacrifice some of his own capability to make his shit kick ass. Since clerics are often at least moderately good fighters, this Spellburn does mean a meaningful loss of capability (perhaps even more so than for a wizard, who rarely fights in melee at all). This is a call that every Judge should make for himself, and one that I say "yes" to, provided the player gives me reason to believe in his character's sacrifice.

Advanced Spellburn Theory

Many OSR DMs cry foul over the magic system in DCC. The fact that wizards can keep casting until they fail. The ability to regain lost spells through Spellburn. The ability to turn failure into success through Spellburn (well, not exactly, more like, "make success more likely"). The non-Vancian nature of manner of a slotless magic system. The power quotient of the DCC magic system may seem overwhelming at first, especially when compared against the power curves of other OSR-style games, but DCC ain't them. In DCC, the power bar is set a bit higher, characters are expected to be able to get more done in a day and since resources like spells are limited by randomness, they are also influenced by choice, like the choice to burn Luck after a failed dice roll or to Spellburn to gain a bonus beforehand. The ability to Spellburn is the brake that wizards apply to themselves, a trade off that enables both the craziness inherent in the DCC system and the player agency that OSR-style games thrive on.