The Price of Magic

“To summon the demons of darkness has a price. And each time I call upon them, it consumes part of me.”

– Prince Koura, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

Something that is sometimes forgotten in discussions of the magic system of AD&D 1st edition is the fact that certain spells have consequences. Often, this is lost in the discussion of the “Vancian” fire-and-forget spell system, but I think it’s a vital element of the AD&D spellcasting system that deserves some attention.

Specifically, certain spells and a few magic items will magically age the user. For the longest time, I ignored these effects, but I’ve come to see them as not only an important facet of the magic system as a whole, but may even expand it somewhat in Adventures Dark and Deep.

On page 13 of the DMG, we are told that the following spells will magically age the caster each time they are cast.

  • alter reality – 3 years
  • gate – 5 years
  • limited wish – 1 year
  • restoration – 2 years
  • resurrection – 3 years
  • wish – 3 years

Also, using a potion of speed will age the drinker 1 year, and those upon whom a haste spell is cast will similarly age a year. (As an aside, that would make a really clever and cruel way of murdering someone; just keep casting haste on them until they die of old age.)

One observation– those spells are high enough level that demi-humans, for whom the strictures of age might not be such a detriment, cannot cast them. That gate spell takes at least a 16th level cleric to cast. You’re not going to find any elves able to do that, who can just shrug off 5 years. (Incidentally another point in favor of demi-human level limits, I might add.)

It did get me thinking, though, whether there might be other ways to inflict similar penalties, to give characters pause before casting their mightiest and most maleficent magics. Maybe some of the most powerful spells take away a hit point from the caster. Permanently.

To put it in perspective, a human mage with a maximum lifespan of 94 (average) has about 55 good years in him from the time he begins his adventuring career. Losing 3 years off that is approximately 5% of his total vital years. Playing by the rules, he’s going to start losing ability scores eventually. Hell, losing 1 hit point out of his 35 hit points (just taking the average for a 19th level mage with no constitution bonus) is a bargain by comparison. You could also do things like lower a particular statistic either permanently or for 1d6 months.

The idea is to make the casting of that single spell a real dilemma. Is it worth the casting, given what has to be paid?

And here’s something else that might bake your noodle… What if there were other spells that one could cast that would allow those penalties to be taken from someone else? Something which an evil magic-user or cleric could cast, whose material component was a human or demi-human? It would allow the caster to then cast a second spell, and have the ill effects be transferred to the victim. Maybe it has a casting time in terms of days, giving an in-game justification for setting a deadline to rescue said victim. Naturally, the very casting of such a spell would be an inherently evil act, but someone driven to desperation might be willing to pay even that price…

Or what if perhaps the spell were more specific; only someone with a charisma of 15 or greater would do? Or someone of Upper Class birth? It would certainly give some motivation for having the evil mage kidnap the princess, thus putting her in need of rescuing.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

7 thoughts on “The Price of Magic

  1. To an extent consequences are already well represented, or at least can be by a harsh/fair/imaginative DM.

    How? Material components.

    At least for the higher level spells (which your aging examples fit into), reagents can range into the thousands of gold pieces value. The cost itself may not be such an issue, but a diamond of 10,000 value might be harder to acquire than simply popping down the local jewelers.

    Quests, adventures, tasks. Something can easily enough be arbitrarily set as a location for something, even the pre-published modules can be 'borrowed' or modified as the source of the Scepter of Endless Sorrow or the Crown of Duke Berenzand IV which might be needed to cast some of the more powerful spells.

    I admit, I've never been fond of aging from spells and, like you, largely ignored it. Some day I might revisit that idea, but I think I'd be too tempted to force a test versus Con (perhaps minus the spell level) to avoid the aging.

  2. I'm thinking more of LotFP Weird right now, but maybe a table of consequences that you have to roll on for the "bad spells". It makes sense that Haste ages you. That's fine. But Wish, Gate, etc. where you're dealing with otherplanar energies and entities, maybe a roll on the Bad Mojo Table. You'd have results like "Haunted by a Ghost", or "Attracts Extraplanar Encounters (Roll Plane)", "Split Personality", "Bouts of Amnesia", "Sleep Crime", "Sex Nightmares", etc. The table gets worse as you go upward. You add +5% to the roll per spell level, minus percentage points for stabilizing effects like having high Wisdom maybe.

  3. "How? Material components."

    That's something I've been thinking about bringing into my BECMI/RC D&D games for some time. Probably with other bits of the AD&D 2e magic system – such as casting times and the like.

    As much to give 'Mystara' – a world populated by very powerful magic users around every corner (thousands of 36th level MUs!) – some level of internal consistency. I'm cool with flying ships, floating gnome cities, etc., but instant, no cost, high level magic spells ask a few questions of the 'ecology' of the world.

    It's that, or devise a mechanic to send all MUs gradually mad, until their desires and ambitions are so detached from those of other humans that the question of why they haven't done X or Y to this faux-Medieval world redundant – they're all late-stage Howard Hughes!

  4. Don't forget – in AD&D, magical aging runs a chance of outright killing the caster, as well. Any magical aging causes a system shock roll (see pg. 12 of the 1e PHB). It's cut short more than one career, and my elves never cast after that first scare…

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