One of the things I really enjoy about B/X Dungeons & Dragons is the limited spell lists.
Part of it is a sense of game balance – by keeping magic users from having a swiss army knife of spells available to them, they don’t completely overwhelm the other party members. A high level magic-user with access to all the spells in the various d20 spellcasting supplements could do just about everything, and really would have no need for other party members unless adventuring into an anti-magic field.
But the big bonus for me is that with so few spells, and with almost none of them having any descriptive text, they are very easy to reskin to make each magic-user unique, or at least to make each magic user feel like a specialist without needing new spells or abilities to do it.
In my last campaign we had a Storm Wizard. He was big into black crows, lightning, rain and wind. But all within the standard spell listings.
Just a sample of his level 1 spells were quite evocative of the feel he was going for:
- Detect Magic – magical items would be limned with electricity
- Light – the effects were always of wane lighting, as if through heavy clouds
- Magic Missile – a bolt of lightning, or a striking crow
- Shield – a flurry of crows would intercept attacks aimed at him
- Sleep – a cloud of slumber would descend on his foes
With only 12 spells per level to work through, it is pretty easy to make your magic match your character’s theme. Elementalists don’t need new spells, they really just need to look at their spells a different way. Magic Missile is the first spell to look at for most magic users, as it can be skinned a thousand different ways and in turn can set up the feel for the rest of the spells or for the spellcaster also.
The lack of armour also works in your favour when trying to make a magic user stand out. Stolen from the Scarred Lands setting, my northern spellcasters produce a lot of heat when they cast spells, so they wear heavy cloaks with very little underneath. The storm wizard looked like the guy in the illustration by Bilal above – multiple layers of clothing including a great coat and tattered cloak. And if you aren’t using rules for helmets with stats (ie: if running by the book for B/X, or using LL without the helmet rules from the AEC), then there’s nothing stopping a wizard from wearing some crazy helm (and everything in favour of it – including classic Erol Otus illustrations of such).
In our games we’ve had runecasters (all spells are cast by throwing small stone chips with runes on them), an elementalist who cast spells through his ofuda scrolls that burned as he threw them, a demon-worshiping witch with her black cat familiar who cast most of her spells by screaming at the top of her lungs (well, except for charm person – even sleep was cast with a high pitched whine), and a necromancer who’s spells were in part skinned from Diablo II (teeth instead of magic missile, wall of bone instead of wall of stone, and hold person was a cage of bones that sprung out of the earth and held his victims tight).
The trick is that the end effect of the spell remains the same, but everything about how it gets there is open to reinterpretation.
But I also break my own rules. I do occasionally craft a variant magic user class for players who want them – but even then I keep it to 12 spells or less per level (typically less, as a penalty for playing a custom class).