Proper-named spells must be treasure

In the first-edition DMG, magic-users choose three starting spells by rolling on “offensive spells”, “defensive spells”, and “misc. spells” tables. These tables cover every first-level spell – except two. Says the DMG: “Note that both Nystul’s Magic Aura and Tenser’s Floating Disc must be located by the character; they can never be known at the start.”

Looking at these excluded spells, two possibilities spring to my mind. The first and almost certainly the right one is that these two spells happen to be the least generally useful of the first-level spells and most likely to hamper a fledgling wizard, so they’re left out. The second is that there’s a generalizable rule at work: “proper name spells” can only be obtained as treasure. After all, the two excluded spells are the only two first-level spells with a wizard’s name attached.

A rule about spells available at character creation is minimally interesting. But in 1e as in later editions, the wizard gets to pick new spells at every character level. What if we excluded Mordenkainen’s, Bigby’s, and any other Somebody’s spells from this auto-learn list? We’d add a rule like this: Any spell that starts with a proper name and an apostrophe can’t be learned at character creation or as part of leveling up. It can only be found as treasure.

It would make some game-world sense. Spells with still-intact author attribution might be relatively new spells, jealously guarded by the original creators or their pupils. These spells would act as a sort of trademark. A giant clenched hand appears in the sky? Bigby (or your campaign’s equivalent) must be in town.

Both the 1e and 5e spell list include about 1 or 2 named spells per spell level, making them occur in about the right frequency for “rare spells”. Furthermore, the named spells tend to be somewhat odd. Many are comments on game rules. “Encumbrance stinks! Tenser’s floating disk.” “I hate ambushes! Leomund’s tiny hut.” “1e spell memorization, right? Rary’s mnemonic enhancer.” No Fireball, Charm Person or other staple spells here. These spells are all in the category of “liveable without.”

rare versions of every spells

This proposed rare-spell rule is fine as far as it goes, but I think the rare-spell idea could be expanded to the entire spell list.

Way back in 2011, during 4e, I blogged about adding rare 4e spells: that is, improved versions of common spells, like “Flame Jester’s Improved Fireball” which does extra damage something. I still think this is a good idea. I’d love to see a book full of these: say 3 variations of each common spell, each with a different proper name attached. These would be slightly more powerful than the basic version of the spell, but cast with the same spell slot. Because they’d only be obtainable as treasure (or via costly research), they need not be precisely balanced against other spells: they could be treated in power more like magic items.

Non-wizard classes could get in on the spell-collecting fun. Sure, clerics already have access to the entire Book of Common Prayers represented by the PHB cleric spell list, but there are rare versions of clerical spells only learnable from ancient prayer books, pilgrimages, and the like.

As an example, here are three rare versions of Fireball:

Flame Jester’s Explosive Fireball: For each 6 rolled on the fireball’s damage dice, the radius of the spell increases by 5 feet. This radius increase is not optional. Flame Jester was undoubtedly very amused to be killed by this spell.
Nanda’s Fireball of Death: At casting time, the caster may choose to inflict either fire or necrotic damage. The necrotic version of the spell is a silent black ball of flame that does no damage to objects.
St. Cuthbert’s Holy Fireball: This spell does no damage to anyone wearing a holy symbol of St. Cuthbert.

6 Responses to “Proper-named spells must be treasure”

  1. I love the ‘variant spells as treasure’ idea, though in my campaign I’ve made more powerful variant spells higher level to keep the balance. Also, there could be less powerful variants that were lower level: a flamethower spell that was somewhere between Burning Hands and Fireball at 2nd level (ADD), or a “Ring of Fire” that did a third the damage of a “Wall of Fire”. This would allow under-used lower spell slots to get more useful, perhaps.

  2. Baf says:

    This reminds me a lot of how Planescape: Torment has spells known only to your Githzerai companion, including a spell that’s exactly like Magic Missile except that the missiles do 1d4+2 damage each instead of the usual 1d4+1.

  3. @Loraedor says:

    Great notion. I’ve tended to give out materials that enable research of new spells as treasure, which further engages the player by allowing them to come up with the spell itself on their own. Some players would take advantage, of course, but those I tend to play with generally choose instead to make the game more fun.

    The idea of making the line those that include names is very cool—it’s a clear, and somewhat arbitrary delineation that could prove anywhere from inconsequential to soul-crushing, depending on the player and character.

  4. grodog says:


    Good ideas re: other variants of existing spells. This is how Ed Greenwood’s first two “Pages from the Mages” columns in Dragon #62 and 69 started out—spell ink forumlas for write spells, potion and homonculus recipes, and variations on existing spells. New spells were added to the later installments (nearly all named after wizards, too).

    IMCs, I’ve even taken existing, unnamed spells, and rebranded them as named spells, which made them similarly unavailable without special access. Similarly, some unnamed spells are still known to be the creations of specific wizards from the past, too, even though they’re not named per se, any longer.

    WRT the origin of the rule that the named spells are unavailable to beginning PCs, I think that you hit the nail on the head with interpretation #2. Partly because I think that Tenser’s Floating Disc is a very versatile and useful spell, but mostly because I think named spells are rare and need to be acquired from the wizards themselves or their confederates 😉


  5. Eodrid says:

    Reminds me a bit of Rare Spells in Arcana Evolved. In that game you didn’t learn spells in a spellbook, you just got access to a spell list, so rare spells were achieved through feats. I like the idea of them being treasure more.

  6. 1d30 says:

    I love giving Clerics new spells as a result of pilgrimages.

    We always treated caster-named spells as special, more desirable, rarer, etc. but the way you rule it is really great.

    I also feel like any spells that use an expensive material component should be rare. Not that you can’t take it, but how many casters choose it? I know my M-U player in the current campaign specifically chose not to take Wall of Force because of the material component.

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