Originally Written February 2002
Spells & Spellcraft is a magic sourcebook produced for the d20 system by Fantasy Flight Games (as part of their Legends and Lairs series). Like many sourcebooks of this kind released for Dungeons and Dragons, there is a mix of good and bad material. All in all, however, this book contains much more of the former than the latter — though the exact ratio will ultimately depend on the style of campaign you play.
Introduction — Physical Overview
Spells and Spellcraft is a hardcover, 176-page book that retails for $24.95. Looking at comparable hardcovers from other publishers, this falls well into the expected price range. The cover design is similar to other titles in the Legends and Lairs series, following the lead established by the core rulebooks from Wizards of the Coast — resembling a medieval tome (of sorts). The binding appears solid, and overall the book looks as though it won’t fall apart under regular use.
Inside, the book is laid out with a clean, two-column layout. The text is a little bit larger than that found in the D&D Player’s Handbook, and the margins, line spacing, and related layout dimensions result in less material per page when compared to some other sourcebooks. On the other hand, this does result in a cleaner, less cluttered feel when compared to those same books.
There are few typographical errors that I found, so the editing appears sound. There is, however, one major error that really should have been caught. I will address the specifics of the error later, in the appropriate chapter.
The artwork is generally good, with pieces that usually relate in some way to the material in the nearby text. There is a good balance between art and text.
Overall, the presentation is eye-pleasing and makes for an easy read. What about the more important part — the material presented?
Chapter 1 — Spells
The first chapter is a 45-page collection of new spells. In all, 120 different spells are provided for all the spellcasting classes. The chapter starts with a class-by-class breakdown of new spells by level, and then gives the game statistics for each spell alphabetically (just like the PHB).
A few of the spells are of questionable or limited usefulness. Shelve, for example, is a level 0 spell that returns a book to its proper place on a shelf. This spell makes a lot of sense for a librarian wizard (or even a cleric). But bards and sorcerers (who also get this spell), with the limited number of spells they can know, will likely be better served with another choice. There are a few other spells along similar lines that are good ideas, but are of limited use to the adventuring spell caster.
A few of the spells seem overpowered for their level. Pulsing Fireball, for example, is a 6th-level Fireball variant that does 10d6 damage on the first round, and then explodes again each of the next four rounds, doing two fewer dice of damage with each burst (a total of 30d6 to anyone unfortunate to be caught in the full blast). Sure, targets can move out of the area of effect to avoid further damage, but the potential damage range is far beyond any equivalent spell in the core D&D rules.
Another spell that seems far overpowered is actually a series of spells, Felonious Friend. The first two versions of this spell summon an invisible force creature like Unseen Servant. The servant can use certain rogue skills at a bonus of caster level +3. Felonious Friend I can use Pick Pockets, while Friend II adds Disable Device and Open Lock to the repetoire. These aren’t too bad, though the duration seems a little bit excessive (half an hour per caster level).
The third stage of this spell, however, goes too far when it allows the servant to attack as a rogue of the caster’s level, including the ability to use a sneak attack. Not only is the force invisible (so it usually strikes from surprise and would gain the sneak attack bonus), it is also incorporeal, so it ignores many kinds of armor the target may be wearing. It also lasts for 30 minutes per caster level, so at minimum it’s around for five and a half hours. Sure, its base damage is only 1d4, but a sneak attack at that power level adds 6d6 to the damage. Even looking at the creatures available under Summon Monster VI (an equivalently-leveled spell), there is nothing that even comes close to this — especially when you consider the durations (rounds vs. hours).
It’s not a bad idea, but it’s way out of sync, power-wise. I think that removing its incorporeal quality is the first step toward balancing the spell’s power, though the duration issue still bothers me.
That’s not to say there aren’t good spells in the book — there are many useful and interesting spells for all spellcasting classes — including several that are spell-based extensions of bardic music.
A couple of standouts in the spell lists are Finger of Life, a 5th-level cleric/druid spell that can duplicate any healing spell of 3rd-level or less, but at range. A 7th-level version, Greater Finger of Life, does the same thing for healing spells of 5th-level or less.
One of the bardic-music spells worth mentioning is Dirge of the Walking Dead, a spell that allows the target to continue acting even if they drop below 0 hit points — provided the bard keeps singing. If the bard stops for any reason, the target immediately suffers the effects of their condition, including unconsciousness or death.
Overall, there is the typical mix of new spells. Some are overpowered, some will have you scratching your head, and some are interesting, useful, and balanced. As with any additional material, it is important for a GM to consider all the ramifications of a spell before allowing it in his campaign.
Chapter 2 — The Craft of Magic
The next chapter covers extensions of the core d20 rules, or fills in gaps in those rules, all with the intention of adding color and diversity to magic in a campaign.
First comes a section discussing libraries and books in a typical fantasy setting, including the benefits a library can provide to research (both magical and mundane). Also discussed are the costs associated with building a personal library, an example of a legendary library, book hunters (people hired to acquire books), and a brief treatment of spellbook appearance.
I like most of the enhancements this section provides. It reminds me in some ways of Ars Magica, a game where there is usually an emphasis on books and libraries. A game that has a focus on magic and learning — arcane or divine — can benefit from the added detail and color. Even a game that tends towards the less scholarly aspects of magic can glean useful tidbits here. Magical libraries can be the source of many adventure seeds, and rare or unusual tomes can make for interesting treasure variations.
The next section deals with magical research — directed specifically towards analyzing unusual magic substances, or creating new magical techniques (in the form of new spells, metamagic feats, etc.).
Much of what this section does is provide an in-game framework (in terms of time and money) for developing new stuff for your spellcaster to play with. It addresses (in a limited fashion) magical laboratories, but more of the section seems to be more focused on how you build up the bonuses to the skill checks that will allow you to develop new ‘toys’.
This section raises the concern of game balance once again. There is no discussion of how to keep new items, spells, or feats balanced. Magic — perhaps more than any other single piece of your typical D&D game — can rip a game apart if improperly handled. In general, this book offers little advice on how to keep magic from doing just that.
On the positive side, there are a smattering of interesting magical lab tools that are provided here, any of which can be used to add color to a wizard’s home or laboratory. My favorite is the Portable Forge, which can be shrunk down to be easily transported in a sack, but provides a small but functional forge at full size (including fire, water, tools, etc.).
The next section is called Taint & Tune, and it deals with the more uniquely styled, “improvisational” magic of bards and sorcerers. Rules and suggestions are provided that can enhance the style and role of these characters.
Some different bardic performance styles are addressed, and the benefits (and penalties) associated with them. The default style is, naturally, musical, but a bard whose magical focus is dance, for example, determines the effect of Enchantment spells as if they were one level higher. The cost for this advantage is a +5% to their arcane failure rolls (though if they have no chance of arcane failure, they still don’t), and the inability to use the still spell feat (because they must move to cast their spells).
None of these variations (three are presented — dance, juggling, and storytelling) seems to be overpowered or out of balance in any way. While I may never use the rules themselves, I may incorporate these variations to customize bardic magic to one degree or another in my campaign.
More space is given to sorcerers, addressing the issue of where they get their innate magical ability, and how society might react to their capabilities. Just as with bards, a few variations are provided. The default, according to the rules here, is “faintblood” — the magical infusion happened long ago, and is not strong enough to provide an enhancement beyond the standard sorcerous powers.
Four variants are given however; dragon, fey, giant, and demon-blood characters all get various bonus abilities. Dragon-bloods, for example, get a +2 racial bonus to bluff and intimidate checks. There are also associated penalties. Demon-blooded sorcerers suffer a -2 to their saves against good and/or evil-aligned spells (depending on the character’s alignment), and receive 1 less point of healing from healing spells, potions, and the like.
Again, like the bard, these variations don’t seem to be too out of balance, and can provide some interesting enhancements or variations in a campaign.
The brief discussion on sorcerers and society more or less covers a couple of examples — sorcerers are feared or reviled because of the “unnatural” associations they may have (accurate or not). Also presented is the other extreme — wizards are looked down upon because they must study extensively to achieve what sorcerers do naturally.
This non-rules related discussion in the book falls short of what some players (or GMs) might be looking for, though it can provoke an interesting line of thought. Connected with some of the stylistic variations provided, a good GM can add depth and verisimilitude to his campaign.
The section is rounded out with a handful of sorcerous (and bardic) feats, some of which present interesting ideas on their own. Bloodburn, for instance, allows a spontaneous caster to add up to his charisma modifier in effective spell level (allowing a 3rd-level caster to cast a spell he knows as if he were 5th-level for the purposes effect, duration, etc.) at a cost of 1d6 damage per effective level added. Another feat allows a bard to select a favored instrument. All spells cast where the bard uses the instrument as part of the vocal component gain a +2 to their save difficulties.
In all, the feats don’t seem to be too out of balance. I have some worries about Bloodburn, only because the cost — while prohibitive for lower level casters — starts to become less of an issue once the sorcerer (or bard) gets a few levels under his belt. Of course, many spells cap out on their effects at a certain point — a 10th-level sorcerer, for example, can’t get more than 10 dice of damage from a fireball, no matter how high his “effective” level may be.
Finally, an interesting ritual is presented — Cleanse the Taint. It is a costly, time-consuming ritual that, in effect, removes the ability of a spontaneous caster to use their magical abilities — a kind of magical castration, if you will.
I’m actually going to skip ahead slightly, because this last item ties very well into the last section of the chapter, Ceremonies & Rituals. This section focuses mostly on the divine end of magic, giving suggestions on how rituals can enhance the flavor of this magical style in a game. The various purposes of rituals are briefly discussed in an abstract sense — acquiring and recovering spells to marriage, birth, and death, as well as indoctrination into various orders or organizations.
Then ritual design itself is addressed. Rituals are given a level, just like spells are, and a table gives the general guidelines of what each level is capable of, and what (in general terms) is required in terms of the number of participants, components, time, and so forth.
The meat of this section is made up of several example rituals — in all, eleven are given. The examples cover the more common rituals — planting a druid’s sacred grove, for example, or a paladin’s atonement ceremony.
Without extensive use in an active campaign, it is difficult to say whether these rules and suggestions are balanced, but the time, participants, and elements required for even the lower-powered rituals will certainly keep them from being freely tossed about by wanton player characters. The rules can even be easily expanded to cover arcane rituals (like the aforementioned Cleansing the Taint). Much of this material, in my opinion, serves the purposes of story, rather than game — but at the same time it gives game rule guidelines for these commonly appearing story elements (at least in the realm of fantasy fiction).
Stepping back, the chapter also includes a few “new uses for old skills”. Most of these are different synergy bonuses that certain skills may provide to spell effects. For example, a caster with 5 or more ranks in the balance skill may be granted a +2 bonus to the save difficulty of the spell Grease, to reflect his understanding of balance, and how it affects different creatures. Nothing here seems particularly overpowered — certainly not for most spellcasters, for whom most of the examples are not class skills. Multi-classed spellcasters, on the other hand (particularly rogue multiclass), may find this section of the chapter interesting (and inspiring).
Chapter 3 — New Types of Magic
This chapter deals — not surprisingly — with new types of magic. The five sections address some new magical techniques and styles. These additions tend to be a bit more fundamental to a setting, and are less easily added to an existing campaign — especially the section dealing with religion and the relation of a pantheon to its clergy. The arcane variations are a bit more easily added, as they can be the latest developments of magical technology, or they could be rediscovered after long ages of obscurity. In general, however, the effect these different styles and approaches can have on a campaign should be more carefully considered than the options presented in the previous chapter.
First comes Ward Magic, site-based magic that allows certain spells to be cast by authorized users. In a sense, the ward is a magical battery, holding a number of charges that can be used much like a staff or wand, but the magic can be accessed by may people at once. The spells are generally limited to divination and abjuration effects, detecting threats and protecting people from those threats.
Wards are keyed to ward tokens, an item that allows the wielder to access the spells in the ward. There are two types — keystones and master keystones. The former can be used by anybody, but only allows access to the lower level spells the ward holds. The latter requires someone with the appropriate type of magic (arcane or divine) and allows the use of any spells contained in the ward. A ward can (and usually does) have multiple tokens.
Creation of a ward is handled much like a magic item — it requires a specific feat, as well as the expenditure of raw materials and experience points. It creates a ward with 50 charges, and a number of spells that can be cast (a charge powers one use of any spell). The ward can be recharged at a fractional cost related to the number of charges being restored. Intelligent wards can be created as well, in the same way that other intelligent magical items are created.
Five sample wards are given for various purposes — a bank vault, two city gates, a ward on a king’s throne room, and an intelligent ward created to guard the primary access to an orc fortress. (This last is particularly interesting, and I may add it almost verbatim to my own campaign.)
Because of their fixed location, ward magic seems like it wouldn’t be out of balance in a campaign. It provides for an interesting type of magical protection that can be used by mundane guards, and is something I will likely add to appropriate adventure or scenario designs in the future.
The next section deals with the somewhat ubiquitous Chaos Magic. Since the conversion to 3rd edition D&D, many publishers have created some version of the popular “Wild Magic” from the Forgotten Realms. I was never personally fond of the style, so I can’t really address how it compares to the version here. I can however, address how this version works, and what I think of it.
An arcane caster can take the Chaos Magic feat, which allows him to cast chaos spells (not to be confused with spells that have the “chaotic” quality). At any point after that, he can learn a chaos spell (for sorcerers, this is a “spell known”, for wizards, a spell available in his spellbook).
Each chaos spell has a focus. This focus can be a specific purpose (aid, transformation, summoning), an element (fire, ice), or some other common quality. In addition, each spell is classified as helpful, harmful, or neutral (neutral spells are those that are neither directly helpful or harmful, like Alarm).
A chaos spell has six “manifestations.” Each manifestation is a specific spell, and must share the same qualities (all six are harmful fire spells, for example). The chaos spell level is determined by the manifestations included — the average spell level of the manifestations, or one less than the highest level manifestation, whichever is higher (so a chaos spell with six 3rd-level manifestations would be a 3rd-level spell, while one with a 6th-level and five 1st-level manifestations would be a 5th-level spell).
When the chaos spell is cast, the player rolls a d20, which determines the spell that goes off. On a 1, the spell flat-out fails. On a 20, the spell succeeds, but doesn’t use up the slot (the player then rerolls to see which spell it was). The other 18 slots are evenly distributed between the six manifestations, each of the spells having a positive or negative side effect, as well as no “mutation” (as the side effects are called).
The GM rolls to determine the effects of any mutation, with six of each type being given. Mutations affect spell range, area of effect, save difficulty, or some other game mechanical aspect of the spell. Using these, there is no chance of a completely random, harmless effect taking place (“target pelted with rose petals”, for instance).
The spell caster has a limited amount of control over the positive and negative mutations of a given spell in the form of control points. When the chaos magic feat is first taken, the caster gains a number of control points equal to his wisdom modifier. One point (and only one) can be spent on a particular spell to shift it up the table (changing a negative effect into no mutation, and no mutation into a positive one). The spell that takes effect cannot be changed with these points, and the player must decide before the actual effect (positive or negative) is determined.
Another feat gives a spell caster additional control points, but the only way to consistently gain more control points is to be a chaos mage, which is another magical specialty. These wizards can only cast chaos spells, but they get two additional control points every time they gain a level (to reflect their experience and understanding of this unpredictable magic).
As I said before, I’ve never been crazy about wild magic, but this version of it seems as though it will keep the worst excesses of its relative in check. When used, you know what kind of spell you’re going to get, but the exact effects are anybody’s guess — you’re just as likely to get Meteor Swarm as Flaming Sphere, for instance (if those particular manifestations are in the spell, of course). The side effects add an interesting random, and potentially dangerous flavor to chaos magic, but there isn’t anything that pushes it into the realm of the outright silly. Control points give some control, but only over the side effects, not the spell itself.
I will probably never add this particular style to my game, but I don’t see that it would cause too much trouble, or throw magic out of balance.
The next section covers Cooperative Magic. This is handled rather simply — the Cooperative Magic feat allows two casters (who must both have the feat and the particular spell available to be cast) to cast the spell together. The net effect of this is the spell being cast once, with a single metamagic feat applied to it (the casters don’t necessarily need to know the metamagic feat in question to have it applied).
The casting takes a full round, so it can be disrupted (if the casting time is longer than a full round, it takes that time). It also requires a concentration check for both casters — if either fails, the entire casting fizzles, and both casters lose the spell being cast. If successful, the casters can choose a metamagic feat to apply to the final effect.
My concern is that metamagic feats are not all created equal; the spell slot normally required to use them is a clear indication of this, in my mind. While I can see a situation where a pair of wizards might want to extend a spell, I can see this particular use of magic typically applied to maximizing direct-damage spells. This end-around of a game balance mechanic is troublesome, and I advise caution if you decide to include it in your game. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem to be too powerful.
The next section addresses Religion, and discusses (in a rather limited fashion) different approaches to divine cosmology and how it is likely to affect the religions and religious interactions of a setting. It also provides a couple of alternate worship styles for divine spellcasters.
I was somewhat disappointed by the first part, as it gave a wide variety of different terms and theistic styles, but didn’t really give any examples of how different styles might interact in a setting. (How would a dualistic theology react and deal with nature-based animism, for example?) I understand that there are a huge number of different possible interactions and reactions, and the various discussions could fill hundreds of pages on their own, but I feel that one or two examples would have been helpful. As it stands, this first part reads more like a glossary of terms (ancestor worship typically has these qualities, monotheism is usually structured this way).
The second part — the new divine styles — are interesting. The most space is devoted to worshipers of so-called “small gods”, and how they fit into the typical D&D setting. These small gods aren’t actually gods themselves (in the typical sense, anyhow), but outsiders (or extra-planar beings) that have the ability to grant some limited divine powers.
Aside from the limits placed on the level the disciples (i.e. clerics) of a small god can reach, they are handled like standard clerics, except they do not gain any access to domains. Instead, they can periodically pray for direct intercession by their patron who is more likely to personally get involved (because they have fewer worshipers to draw their attention).
There aren’t any mechanics in place for a small god to actually increase in power (through converts, additional worshipers, etc.), but it doesn’t seem like it would be too difficult to incorporate some sort of progression using the table in this section.
The next new style is the Theurgist, which doesn’t follow any specific deity, but is a representative of them all. He is handled just like a regular cleric, except he can choose domain spells from any domain. He must make a Knowledge (Religion) check in order to successfully gain the spell (or he inadvertently has offended the deity in question). He also does not get any actual domain abilities — only access to the spells.
Finally, there is the Animist, which is aware of, and deals with the spirits of a place. These clerics lose all access to domains (and domain powers) but gain “spiritual awareness” points, which, in conjunction with the new Spirit Friend feat, allow the cleric to call local spirits to his aid. A druid can take this style as well, but loses one use of the Wild Shape ability per day.
These three divine styles are all interesting, and can provide interesting color to a campaign. I tend to think that the Small Gods Disciple will likely be used mostly by NPCs, but a particular cosmological configuration could make that style (or the Animist) the dominant one in a given campaign setting. The Theurgist is an interesting approach as well, particularly for more cosmopolitan settings where the gods are acknowledged, but don’t have any major active religions supporting them. None of them seem to be out of balance.
The last section of this chapter addresses Place Magic, which deals with the inherent magical qualities of an arcane or divine nexus (the latter is referred to as a shrine). There are no hard and fast rules presented here, merely some examples and guidelines that could provide some interesting flavor to locations in a campaign.
As an example, an arcane nexus might allow all magic cast within its boundaries the Empower Magic feat for free, but any divinations attempted from within the nexus fail. The guidelines recommend that only one or two benefits be provided within a given nexus, and a penalty (or two) should be associated with the nexus as well.
Arcane nexuses tend to be unusual magical phenomena, while shrines tend to be flavored along the lines of their connected deity or power. The book gives examples of different effects (positive and negative), and a couple of examples of each nexus type are given, but as I mentioned before, there really aren’t any hard and fast rules for “constructing” a nexus.
I don’t think there need to be, however. These magical places will fall under the purview of a GM, who should create them to suit the needs of a particular adventure or story. With a little bit of forethought, a GM can ensure that the benefits of a particular nexus will not be abused by overzealous player characters. They can be found, but not created.
Chapter 4 — The Mundane Made Magical
This chapter deals with applications of magic to regular, everyday stuff.
It starts off with about ten pages devoted to alchemy. There is some discussion of alchemical laboratories, and the costs and benefits associated with them. (Much of this is similar to the rules for magical labs and research from Chapter 2, so I won’t address that aspect here.) Most of the section, however, is devoted to specific alchemical items that can be made (or purchased) by player characters
Most of the new items presented here are interesting, and none of them are too powerful. Some notable examples are Gelatinous Breath, a short term water-breathing goo, the Rust Orb, a one-use thrown weapon that destroys metal armor or weapons, and Stormbane Iron, a magical alloy that provides armor with 15 points of electrical resistance.
All of these items require some kind of rare or unusual component, and tracking those down can form the basis for adventures. In general, these rules enhance the use of the alchemy skill, but don’t provide it with anything that rivals the potential of full-blown magic item creation.
The next section deals with the building and enchanting magical constructs and golems (a golem in this case is a more powerful construct). The process is rather involved, requiring a significant investment of time, magic, and experience. The end results, however, can be impressive.
The rules are accompanied by an example of a wizard who creates a rope construct, and provides game statistics for the animated rope, as well as a golem built of the same material. Unfortunately, this is where the one major error in the book appears. The stat blocks for the construct and golem are identical (and they shouldn’t be), and neither matches the numbers I came up with following their example. In fact, they appear to be constructs of an entirely different nature. Errata for this (and a few other minor errors) was issued, but this major mistake should really have been caught in editing. It results in some major negative points for the book.
Without significant playtesting and various material builds, it is difficult to say how balanced these rules are. They do, however, appear to be generally based on the existing D&D rules for golem creation (which are provided with the golem descriptions in the Monster Manual). The time and resources required to craft these items is also significant, and will likely discourage the power-hungry player.
Next up in the chapter is a section on Magical Materials. These naturally occurring substances can be used to enhance magic item production, or may even be required for the production of more powerful magical trinkets. There is some advice on using these substances in a campaign, and it suggests that careful consideration be given before using them in an existing game — both for verisimilitude and game balance.
There are general rules on identifying and locating these materials, and then the book goes on to present several examples, and the effects they might have when used. Wraithspoor, for example, may be left behind as the remains of a slain wraith or other incorporeal undead. When enough is mixed with the steel of a weapon, it grants the weapon the ghost touch ability, though with no other bonuses.
As a general rule, the materials presented seem to be relatively well balanced — any that grant some sort of significant boost are rare, and consequently valuable. They can also provide a degree of variety, and adventure hooks for a group. When used in conjunction with some of the other parts of this book (construct creation or magical rituals, for example), the depth and variety of a setting can be enhanced.
Finally, the chapter covers Familiars. Different kinds of familiars are discussed, along with the benefits and drawbacks of each. General rules for NPC reactions to different kinds of familiars is given, as well as rules for giving your familiar powers and abilities beyond those normally granted by the D&D rules.
In order to give his familiar additional powers, the wizard (or sorcerer) must give some experience points to the familiar during a special ceremony. The points are then used to buy powers off of a table given in the chapter. A wide variety of typical powers is given, including different kinds of sensing or vision abilities, magical flight, damage resistance, and others.
The section also gives several new possible familiars that fit the categories given earlier — extra-planar familiars are the most common, but examples of undead, construct, and parasitic familiars are also present.
Like many other sections of this book, it is difficult to tell how balanced these rules are without extensive playtesting. The XP cost for new powers doesn’t seem too far out of line, none of the new familiars seem too powerful when compared to the default familiars available in the PHB, and the rules for NPC reactions provide a role-playing balance for some of the more powerful (and unusual) familiars that might be developed during play. In general, this section seems to add a useful enhancement to existing rules.
Chapter 5 — Magic Items
This last chapter covers magic items. It gives three new types of magic item, as well as a list of general magic items suitable for any campaign.
Glyph Eggs are a kind of one-use magical grenade. Created (like any other magic item) with the appropriate feat, time, and resources, a fragile shell can hold an area-effect spell which is released when the shell is broken. The basic glyph egg holds spells up to level 3, while the greater glyph egg (actually missing from the text, but available in the errata) can hold spells up to level 9.
I like these items, and will probably incorporate them into future games I run. Their one-use limit (like spell scrolls or potions) is a built in game balance mechanic. The greater glyph eggs require two feats for construction, another useful bit of game balance.
Next comes a discussion of personal growth items, magical items that become more powerful as the character advances in his career. This reminds me in many ways of magical items from Earthdawn, which get more powerful as the character learns about the item, and bonds it to himself.
Personal growth items start out as minor magical (or even non-magical) items, and over time a character can uncover powers hidden in the item. These powers can be uncovered through research (reflected in time and gold spending), bonding (XP spending), or a combination of the two. The amount spent is based off of the cost for the item’s new power — as listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or calculated using the item creation rules.
I’ve always been a fan of the way magic items are handled in Earthdawn, and this is a pretty good adaptation of those rules to the D20 system. Since the cost is based off the items in the core rules, the system for advancement seems to be pretty well balanced, and the GM can develop or change the powers of an item as suits the campaign.
A couple of examples are given, as a starting point and example of the possibilities this system provides.
The last new magical item presented is the Relic. These items are basically a new style of artifact, imbued with a purpose and powers that help achieve that purpose. Relics are difficult to control, and can be as dangerous to the wielder as the target.
General guidelines are given to gauge the power level of a relic, and various powers and side effects are given. In the end, these items (like artifacts) would likely be the focus of a campaign in one way or another, and the suitability and power of these powerful items falls heavily under GM control. Indeed, I have a hard time figuring out what the difference between a relic and an artifact is — at that power level, story, rather than game mechanics, it what I am personally guided by.
Still, the advice and discussion here about how relics come to be, and the examples given, provide a good starting point for creating these powerful items.
Finally, the chapter has your ubiquitous list of new magic items for a campaign. Nothing here particularly stands out, except perhaps the Facestealer, a mask that steals a subject’s face (generally resulting in their death), allowing the next wearer to change their appearance to the stolen countenance. Another interesting item are the Pipes of the Beast, which cast Hold Monster when played, against a specific category of creature (abominations, animals, etc.).
Caster level and other item creation guidelines are given for all of these new items, and they seem to be in line with the magic items available under the core rules of D&D. As such, I imagine that they are pretty well balanced, and can be added to an existing game without too much concern. As always, though, your individual assessment may vary.
Spells & Spellcraft can add a lot of new material and interesting flavor to a D20 game. As with any sourcebook that provides new magical toys, GM discretion is recommended. Magic, perhaps more than any other piece of the D&D game, can send a campaign spiralling rapidly out of control.
If there is one flaw in the book from an overall standpoint, it’s that it doesn’t really address how to keep the magic presented from throwing a game out of balance. There seems to be an unstated assumption that the GM and players have a solid enough understanding of the game to avoid potential problems, but some of the material presented (particularly some of the new spells) doesn’t seem to have that understanding. This could cause problems with less experienced game groups.
In the end, however, this book has more good than bad, and a good GM can use the various ideas and tools presented her to greatly enhance the flavor of magic in his campaign.
For Style, this book gets a 4 out of 5. The art and layout are solid throughout, and the book looks and feels good. It’s not perfect, but the visual problems are minimal.
For Substance, I have to give it a 3 out of 5. While much of the material presented is interesting or useful, I was disappointed by what I saw as a lack of practical discussion in favor of magical toys and game rules. In addition, the need for a significant amount of GM discernment (particularly with regards to new spells), and the major error in the example of construct and golem construction knock a few points off as well. If you have a solid grasp of game balance with the D20 system, you can bump that rating up a point, but the potential pitfalls for an inexperienced GM worry me.