Spell points is a variant magic system in which casting a spell consumes a numeric resource. It is an optional alternative to the standard Vancian magic system traditionally used in Dungeons & Dragons.

Spell points are also known as spell-points, mana points, mana, or MP. A similar system used with psionics is referred to as power points.

Mechanics[edit | edit source]

A spell points system replaces the traditional "spell slots" for spellcasters. Instead, spellcasters have a numeric value of "spell points", similar to hit points, which deplete when they cast spells. Higher-level spells consume more spell points.

This differs from the traditional "fire-and-forget" Vancian magic system used by Dungeons & Dragons, in which a character memorizes or prepares their spells ahead of time and may cast each only once.

The exact point cost of spells, and amount of spell points, varies considerably between implementations, though it often relates to approximately the same number of spells per day as a normal caster. For example:

  • In AD&D 2nd edition's Player's Option: Spells & Magic (1996), a wizard begins with four spell points at 1st level, enough to cast one 1st level spell, and by 20th level has 800 spell points, which might cast thirteen 9th-level spells. Spells cost 4 points at 1st level and 60 with 9th level spells. There are special considerations for specialist wizards and spontaneously-cast "free magicks", which cost double points.
  • In D&D 3.5's Unearthed Arcana (3e) (2004), a wizard starts with two spell points at 1st level, enough to cast two 1st-level spells, and by level 20 has 232 spell points, enough for twelve 0th-level spells. A spell costs a number of points to cast equal to the minimum caster level normally required for a wizard to cast it; e.g. 9th level spells cost 17 points. There are special considerations for bonus spell points for high ability score, metamagic, and becoming recovering spell points.
  • In D&D 5e's Dungeon Master's Guide (5e) (2014), p.288-289, characters begin with 4 spell points at 1st level, enough to cast two 1st level spells, and by level 20 have 133 spell points, with 9th level spells costing 13 points. You are limited to one spell of 6th level or higher per long rest, which prevents the most common misuse of forgoing low-level spells in favor of casting a small number of very high-level spells.

History[edit | edit source]

Origins[edit | edit source]

According to RPG history book Playing at the World (2012), spell points were first invented as house rules by early players of Dungeons & Dragons.[1]

Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) limited the first-level Magic-User to memorizing and casting only one spell per day, a system inspired by Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. However, ambiguously defined rules, reluctance among players to accept a limit of one spell per day, and a lack of familiarity with Vance's works led many players to incorrectly assume that one memorized spell could be cast an unlimited number of times per day.

Lee Gold, a D&D player familiar with these rules ambiguities, developed a system to limit the number of spells which could be cast per day. In Los Angeles newsletter APA-L #521, Ted Johnstone described discussing this system with Gold, but suggested a mechanic to allow for the recovery over time.

"Suppose a Magic-User with 14 points of goetic energy used 5 in a major encounter—say he could restore one point in each full turn of rest or two turns of movement (no spell-casting)."

Under OD&D rules, one turn lasted ten combat rounds, or ten minutes out of combat. In a later issue of APA-L, a player named Hilda Hannifen suggested reducing this to one point per hour.

In APA-L #522, the same issue which introduced a system for critical hits, gamer John Hertz used the term spell-points. This name for the concept would see wider use in the D&D community,[2] eventually appearing in Player's Option: Spells & Magic (1996) as "Spell Points".

The Strategic Review #2 (Summer 1975) published a rules clarification, asserting that each memorized spell can be cast only once. Many players rejected this clarification. In APA-L #523, Mark Swanson criticized Gary Gygax's game design sense, particularly the official limit of casting each memorized spell once.

In Dragon #212 (Dec 1994), p.8, Timothy Brown describes playing D&D circa 1976 and inventing spell-point rules.

Reception and influence[edit | edit source]

Gygax's rejection of spell points[edit | edit source]

Gary Gygax opposed the inclusion of spell points in D&D.

In Role-Playing: Realism vs Game Logic, Dragon #16 (Jul 1978), Gygax complained:

"Spell point systems are currently in vogue amongst the fringe group which haunt the pages of "Amateur Press Association" publications. Now APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere." [...]
"This "Vancian" magic system works splendidly in the game. If it has any fault, it is towards making characters who are magic-users too powerful. This sort of fault is better corrected within the existing framework of the game — by requiring more time to cast spells, by making magic users progress more slowly in experience levels. Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game."

In Books Are Books, and Games are Games, Dragon #31 (Nov 1979), Gygax argued:

If a spell point system which allowed magic-users to use any spell on the lists (frequently, for what spell point system doesn't allow for rapid restoration of points?!), these characters become highly dominant, and again most participants will naturally opt for this role.

In AD&D's Magic System: How and Why it Works, Dragon #33 (Jan 1980), Gygax defended his design decision to use the "Vancian" magic system:

"The internal power, or manna, system where each spell-caster uses energy from within to effect magic, requires assigning a total point value to each character's manna, and a cost in points to each spell. It is tedious to keep track of, difficult to police, and allows Magic-Users far too much freedom where a broad range of spells are given. If spell points were to be used, it would require that either selection be limited or all other characters and monsters be strengthened."

These three articles were included in Best of Dragon 2 (Nov 1981).

Criticism[edit | edit source]

Spell point systems are primarily criticized as poorly balanced. The primary issue is that they may allow a spellcaster to concentrate a larger portion of his daily magic use into a small number of high level spells.

In The Game Wizards, Dragon #130 (Feb 1988), Jon Pickens reveals that AD&D 2nd edition would not include a spell-point system, despite high demand:

"Spell-point systems are more complex than the current system, and trying to balance them is a pain. For example, in a very simple system in which a spell costs one point per spell level, a typical high-level cleric will seldom run out of cures, which creates severe balance problems in play."

Balance issues can still appear even in more current version of the spell points rules. For example, using the standard D&D 5th edition rules, a 10th level wizard can cast only 2 fifth level spells, 3 each of second through fourth level, and 4 first level. Under the spell points system presented in the Dungeon Master's Guide, a 10th level wizard has 64 spell points, sufficient to cast 9 fifth level spells.

Use in video games[edit | edit source]

Spell points are perhaps best known for theire use in video game RPGs inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Early examples include Dragon Quest (1986), NetHack (1987) and Final Fantasy II (1988), which in turn inspired influential genre titles like Final Fantasy V (1992) and Diablo II (2000).

Video games which use a spell points often allow them to be restored using an item such as a mana potion or ether. In Diablo II, this meant a character's magical resources were limited only by inventory space for mana potions, consumed rapidly during combat. This may allow spellcasters to cast more often per combat than expected by the game's designers.

Perhaps influenced by this, many more recent computer RPGs have abandoned the spell points system in favor of more innovative systems. In World of Warcraft, released by the same publisher in 2004, spells work on a cooldown timer system, where the ability to use each spell is tied to time, making balance easier and removing the need for inventories full of mana potions. This in turn appears to have influenced Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, which abandoned the Vancian magic system in favor of making spells recharge at-will, per-encounter, or per-day.

Publication history[edit | edit source]

AD&D 2nd edition[edit | edit source]

The spell weaver, appearing in Dragon #163 (Nov 1990) and Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume One (1994), uses a spell points system.

A variant titled The Spell Point System appeared in Player's Option: Spells & Magic (1996), p.77-80.

D&D 3rd edition[edit | edit source]

Spell points variant rules appear in Unearthed Arcana (3e) (2004), p.153-157.

The psionic character classes appearing in the Psionics Handbook (2001) and Expanded Psionics Handbook (2004) use power points, which are functionally similar to spell points.

D&D 4th edition[edit | edit source]

The spell points system did not appear in D&D 4th edition, which instead divided class powers into at-will, per-encounter, and per-day abilities.

D&D 5th edition[edit | edit source]

Spell points rules appear as an optional variant in the Dungeon Master's Guide (5e) (2014), p.288-289.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Playing at the World (2012), chapter 5.6, Alarming Excursions.
  2. The Forum, Dragon #100 (Aug 1985), p.98.
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