"Chlorine gas! That was always the most wicked breath weapon," Samantha said as they waited for Eddie to show up. "Green dragons were the coolest."
"Yeah, but now it's just 'acid' damage," Michael said. "Black dragons already do acid. Green dragons don't even get their own thing anymore; they're just ripping off someone else. What's that all about? They got the SHAFT!"
"Well, if you think about it," Ally put in, "chlorine gas does cause burns to skin, eyes, lungs . . . acid damage does sort of fit."
"Again with the real-world logic," retorted Michael. "This isn't chemistry class, it's D&D! Things have arbitrary categories, like class and level and alignment. Everything isn't just some loosey-goosey describe-it-as-you-go kind of thing. You need to figure out where stuff fits."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Ally said. "You could be like Samantha and try to make up new places for things to fit. If there isn't already a rules loophole to exploit, make one! Isn't that right, Sammy?"
"Jealous of ability to creatively apply my rules knowledge, Ally?" said Samantha.
WORDS TO THE WISE
It's all about da wizard: The concept of creating new sorcerer/wizard magic fits so well with the conventions of the fantasy genre, but their magic is easy to restrict and control because the rules already provide for limited knowledge out of all possible arcane spells.
Just say no to crack: Be wary of spells that add new damage types or otherwise stray outside of how the system is designed. You should keep in mind that you want to avoid creating new rule problems around these cracks and loopholes.
Double or nothing: Check to see if a new type of spell or device duplicates some already-existing category. Avoid redundancy.
Take what you are given: Sorcerer/wizard spells are the most common kind of new magical idea in published game supplements and in D&D-based websites and newsgroups, and new magic items probably run a close second. USE THEM! Tweak, adjust, but make use of the plentiful resources available; you can almost always find a good supply of things to fit any theme, either as is or with a little massaging.
We are not alone in the universe: DMing may seem like a lonely job, but reach out and draw on the knowledge and experience of others. Use all your gifts and talents -- as much as your time and inclination allow -- but remember that all of us together are greater than any of us alone. Use the gifts and talents of others to enrich your game and enliven all that you do behind the screen.
Samantha has always liked playing arcane spellcasters, in part because she liked the creative side of things. To her, divine magic seemed kind of immutable -- you got what your god gave, and that was the end of it. Researching new cleric spells seemed literally sacrilegious. For arcane casters, though, it was almost a foregone conclusion that part of your career would be taken up in researching new spells, devising new magic trinkets, and uncovering lost lore.
Ally is reminding Samantha of her now-infamous creative effort when the group used to play with a different DM named Jim. She had this great idea for a new spell called alkaline spray. It worked just like cone of cold but inflicted its damage through the dissolving effects of super-strong alkaline fluid. The beauty of the spell, of course, was that nothing in the game was immune to alkali damage, right? Sure, some creatures were immune to "acid," but alkali isn't acid. It's at the opposite end of the pH scale, so immunity to acid wouldn't do anything for them. She would be laying waste to demons and devils left and right. It was foolproof!
Well, that rationale works fine in high-school chemistry, but it created real game-mechanical problems for Jim. It essentially created a whole new category of effect, and one that was not taken into account in the game's design. Of course no one had resistance or immunity to it as written. It was a nonissue in the game design, and Samantha was trying to exploit an apparent loophole in the rules. It would be like creating a spell that inflicted "radiation" damage or "flesh-eating bacteria" damage (or "gas" damage like the AD&D green and gold dragons). It's adding something outside of the scope of the rules. If you are not willing to retrofit the rules to incorporate the new added feature, then you're going to end up with an unbalanced mess. The campaign eventually ended and the characters were retired, but Eddie certainly took note from playing alongside Samantha and resolved that he wasn't going to let anything like that slide through on his watch.
Still, it's an interesting conundrum when you're the DM creating arcane magical stuff -- spells or items -- to go with your new theme. In some ways, the perfect thing would seem to be to create a whole new category of effect that this new culture uses, or an entirely new type of item. The obvious problem is that this leads to balancing problems like those above, much like what happens in campaigns where psionics are introduced as an appendix or add-on, like 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, or even with using the "Psionics Are Different" rules variant in the Psionics Handbook or Expanded Psionics Handbook. It definitely makes things more interesting, but there will be headaches aplenty. From much first-hand experience, Eddie came to the only conclusion he could: That way lies madness!
Creating a new category of magic items is also gilding the lily. There is really no type of magic item that can't be fit comfortably into the item types already extant. Making new item creation feats and new item types are going to end up just being a subset of something already existing (perhaps a single-use talisman that could as well be a wondrous item or potion, or a special kind of weapon that could as easily fall under arms and armor) or something that differs only in flavor text from an extant item (for example, "runesticks" that store spells identically to scrolls except for the medium on which the spells are stored). This bloats the feat lists and needlessly complicates item creation, identification, and use. Keep it simple!
Eddie's siv design made this process easy, since arcane magic was deemphasized anyway. Still, so many arcane spells were out there that it wasn't really hard to tailor spell lists without making up any special rationalizations. Divine magic allows you to get whatever the deities are dishing out, but arcane magic is both more open and more restricted at the same time. It is freer because you potentially can learn anything if you have the information at hand. It is more restricted because whatever you know, that is what you know. Period. Sorcerers and bards have the spells due to their magical natures. Wizards have what's in their spellbooks. They don't have the range of the full sorcerer/wizard list each time they need to prepare spells. If PCs find some of the sivs' arcane knowledge and makes use of it, good for them! It's an expected part of D&D -- the looting of the enemy and the seizing of their resources.
The mechanics for how PCs find and use the arcane magic of their enemies are simple and straightforward. For the sivs and their arcane allies, simply assign them the spells you want them to have. You know which spells are known commonly in the society you have devised. Also, some spells may be known by none of the sivs due to lack of exposure. You don't have to make up any complicated rules or rationalization as to why the siv arcane casters always use certain types of spells (or specific favorites) as you might with divine magic.
Arcane magic is also the easiest to beg, borrow, or steal from other places. For good or ill, the prejudice toward creating new sorcerer and wizard spells rather than new spells of other types is just as true in game design and publishing as it is in day-to-day gameplay. There are hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of new spells out there just waiting to get used. Every rulebook has a batch of new ones, and more come every month in DragonMagazine and similar publications, to say nothing of fan-made websites, newsgroups, and the like -- you can even import ideas from other game systems or older versions of D&D. If you've got an idea or three you want to try out, go for it. The suggestions for working with divine magic and scaling it relative to existing effects apply equally well here. But if you don't, nearly infinite numbers of new magic items and spells are being released every month. Browse at your leisure and pluck the tastiest-looking ones that fit the theme you're creating.
Your creativity can show in the ways you mix and match and incorporate or tweak the creations of others, just as well as it shows for things you make up from whole cloth. For that matter, feel free to share your creations with others out there when you do make up something new, so that others can mix and match or use as they wish. You may even have the amusing experience somewhere down the road (as I did once) of playing in a game where a DM has pulled something you made once upon a time and worked it into his campaign.
That is perhaps the first and best rule to learn, not just for arcane magic, but for anything you do behind the screen: You may sit back there alone, but you're not alone in your work. You have the chance to do it yourself, but that doesn't mean you have to do everything yourself. Taking a published adventure and tailoring it to your tastes, culling together spells, magic items, NPCs, and so on, from other sources and weaving them together in a way that is all your own -- that is every bit as much the mark of a good DM as creating every last detail out of nothing.
If you don't want or need to look at anyone else's ideas, whether because you have lots of time, confidence in your creative abilities, or just flat-out talent, then play any way you like! Just remember that even the brightest, most creative, and most talented DM to ever sit behind the screen may get more bang for her buck from drawing upon the ideas of other bright, creative, and talented people and weaving them together with their own. No one person can ever be as smart, creative, and talented as all of us put together, so tap into the resources all around you: professional game designers, fellow DMs, your players, or sometimes even nongamer friends who might just lend a critical eye to plot or detail.
Eddie has his great idea for a lost-city-in-the-jungle campaign, which he is just about ready to start running, but so much of his work was seeing what already existed in the system, plugging and cross-wiring things together, and seeing what he could make and how that would fit with his concept. He had to be careful about creating things that didn't fit with the game system because he didn't want to create rules problems that would poke into (or create) cracks or loopholes in the system or create needless and redundant duplication of things already handled well enough in the rules. When you've done your research into what the game system already offers, and after you have done the work of figuring out how that fits with what you want to create and what you want to add, subtract, or otherwise adjust, you will be ready to rock your players' world!
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He writes freelance D&D articles but pays the bills as a medical transcriptionist while finishing his Ph.D. in social and cultural foundations of education. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.