In the past in my campaign, magic-users have not been a popular class choice. I’m OK with this actually, as I do like the idea that magic-users are a rare breed. On the other hand, I don’t want to give the magic-user such a raw deal that nobody ever plays one. Now that I’m watching some players play them I want to double check my rulings, especially as concerns learning new spells upon leveling. To do so, I will start by looking at what’s in the books, and then comparing that to what I’ve been doing.

OD&D

In OD&D I see little mention of how magic-users obtain spells.  It almost seems to me that the expectation is that every magic-user has every spell on the list in his books, and interestingly it appears that clerics also must maintain spell books.  I see rules on how many books are required to contain the spells (one book per level), the cost of replacing lost books, and the cost of inventing entirely new spells.  Scrolls appear to be used only for casting stored spells, which actually makes the spell Read Magic make much more sense.  Read Magic is essentially the ‘scroll activation spell’, used on the fly when you want to pop some spells off a scroll (it specifically mentions that the spell lasts long enough just for “one or two readings”).

B/X

In B/X magic-users start with  a book containing one first level spell only, and gain new spells automatically:

When player characters gain a level of experience, they will return to their masters and be out of play for one “game-week” while they are learning their new spells. … Magic-users and elves are limited to the number of spells they may know, and their books will contain spells equal to the number and level of spells the caster can use in a single day.  – X11

Like in OD&D, scrolls appear to be only for single-use castings.  However, read-magic has been modified to act as an “unlocking” spell for scrolls, including the text:

once a scroll or runes are looked at with a read magic spell, the magic-user becomes able to understand and read that item later without the spell.

AD&D 1e

Magic-users in AD&D start with 4 spells in their book, read magic automatically, plus one each from three categories (offensive, defensive, and misc.) They gain a single additional spell automatically upon leveling.  Found spells must be rolled to see if they are understood (using a percentage based on Intelligence).  Spells copied from scrolls destroy the scroll, though the text would seem to imply that failing to understand the spell results in not being able to copy it at all, thus preserving the scroll.  I have not found a clear description (though it may exist) if the roll to know a spell is failed — I assume it means the magic-user will never be able to learn that spell.  (DMG 39 for all of the above.)

My Campaign

My rules are a hodge-podge of the above along with some custom house rules:

  1. To learn a spell, a magic user must roll equal to or less than his intelligence on a d20.  Failure indicates he cannot understand the spell, but he may try again after gaining a level of experience.  One check per level per spell is allowed, regardless of source of the spell.
  2. Starting out magic-users roll a check for every first level spell to determine what they start with in their spell book.  This does not count as a learning attempt for first level, it is assumed to have happened during their apprenticeship.  A mulligan is allowed if all spells are failed.
  3. Read magic is required to ‘unlock’ scrolls, however once unlocked the spell is understood and further castings of read magic are not required.
  4. Scrolls can be cast from directly, which requires only the read magic to unlock, and no roll to understand the spell.  Magic-users may even thus cast spells normally above their ability to cast (eg. a 1st level magic-user could cast a 3rd level spell directly off a scroll).  This destroys the scroll.
  5. Scrolls may be copied from the scroll to the magic-user’s spell book.  The magic-user must make his roll to understand the spell, and may only do this for spells that are within his normal ability to cast.  The scroll is destroyed either way, succeed or fail.

I guess actually my system is basically straight out of AD&D, with a few tweaks here and there.  Having written it all out, I think actually I’m OK with my system.  The only minor change I think I might consider is the destruction of a scroll when the magic-user fails to copy it into his book.  Perhaps the roll should symbolize ability to understand the spell, and then only once the spell is copied does the scroll destroy itself.  I will have to ponder on this.

Curious to hear how other folks run this.  I suspect this is an area where most DMs have their own house rules that vary slightly from any written source.