2017/11/29

OSR: How Much Is A Spell Worth?

Everyone seems to have different answers. Here are the 3 main ones:

1. Spells are Expensive
A copy of magic missile is worth as much as a farm.

2. Spells are Cheap
A copy of magic missile is worth as much as a chicken.

3. Spells are Not for Sale
Spells are eldritch bargains or self-taught or untranslatable. They cannot be sold or transferred.

We're going to set aside option 3 and look at the first two scenarios.

Assumptions:
-Spells are transferable (from brain to book, from book to book, etc.)
-Spells cannot be copied trivially but can be copied (so you could turn one spell into two given time/expense/risk)
-Spells are not unique (so there are multiple copies of light out there.)
-Spellcasting from memory (not from a scroll or wand) requires expensive and/or time-consuming and/or dangerous training. This means spellcasters are relatively rare.

Sell a Spell
Anything that can be sold will be sold. Plan for your PCs to pawn the gear and items of their dead comrades or sell spare scrolls they loot from dungeons.

You can make spells a separate category of item, where trade in them results in favours and kickbacks rather than gold, but they become less valuable as loot and less easy to incorporate into the core loop of OSR games.
The Souls of Acheron, Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl

Data Point 1: Medieval Utility


How do the "classic" wizards described above fit into a semi-medieval setting?

Take magic missile, the iconic direct damage spell. Assume that most battle-wizards could be trained to cast it once per day. Assume also that both sides in a conflict have access to battle-wizards.

A typical army would have a few blocks of archers or crossbowmen with a specialized and well-protected group of wizards at the back. The wizards would have minders, hangers-on, and bodyguards. Starting to sound like a typical group already. I'd imagine most battle-wizards would be very low level. Anyone sufficiently powerful would be targeted first (and therefore dead) or hanging out with the commanders and other nobles or working very hard to not be near a battle.

A crossbow bolt that can't miss introduces a strange dynamic to medieval warfare. Ordinarily, as a knight, you want everyone to know who you are. Chivalry demands it. You wear a fancy hat and distinct colours and make yourself visible to both friend and foe. Does heraldry become a liability with perfectly accurate spells? 

"You can't shoot spells at a Duke, even if he is the enemy," rapidly becomes "Oh no, we're losing, shoot the Duke!" so an army would want to keep a few powerful wizards in reserve to deal with the other army's powerful wizards. "Powerful" in this case could mean "can cast fireball once per day" or something, not "destroy an entire army by sneezing or summon a legion of elementals."

And I'd imagine the Second Estate, seeing that warfare is their profession and sole reason for existence, would not look kindly on battle-wizards. They would tend to be misused, undervalued, or simply left behind before a battle. A monopoly on force is great, but it needs to be protected.

Conclusion: a single low-level wizard is valuable in battle but not disproportionately more valuable than a bunch of trained archers.

Data Point 2: The Dead Wizard Economy

Level 1 wizards in pretty much every OSR system typically start with a spellbook and a few spells. Like many level 1 characters they die a lot.

If spellbooks and spells are extremely valuable, the dead wizard economy throws all the other economies out of balance. The total cost of 1 spellbook plus starting spells cannot be disproportionately larger than the starting gear of another level 1 PC.

Here's how the other classes I'm using compare. Starting equipment in your games will vary.
Barbarian 7.5gp
Fighter 7gp
Knight 22.5gp
Monk 6.5gp
Summoner 0.5gp
Thief 3gp

Conclusion: Eyeballing it, a wizard's gear can't be more expensive than 100gp and should probably be closer to 10gp.


Data Point 3: Real Life

I'm not sure why, but a wizard's spells feel like an expensive bit of military or specialist hardware. The trained operator is more expensive, but the spell feels like a $1,000 minimum item, like an infra-red camera or a drone or a radio system. More expensive than a VCR, less expensive than a fighter jet.
Archeage, Sungryun Park

Spell Price List

Using this currency system and comparing to this price list:

A standard spellbook, with nice vellum pages and a waterproof bag, costs 30gp.

Spells from 1-6 on a wizard's spell list (low level or level 1-3 spells in another system) can be sold for ~10gp to another wizard.

Spells from 7-10 on a wizard's spell list (mid level or level 4-5 spells in another system) can be sold for ~30gp to another wizard.

Emblem spells (high level spells in another system) can easily fetch 300gp, and may require a special auction or a negotiated agreement before the sale is finalized.

Spell values should be adjusted based on the local market and the utility of the spell. "Sort and Fold Socks" isn't likely to fetch a high price. Customized spells, ancient spells, and spells that suit a particular buyer's needs will all fetch higher prices.

Chartered Wizards PCs can "sell" spells to their college to pay off their Wizard Student Loans. The rates are very good; 2x the rates listed. The wizard doesn't see any of the cash though.

Outsider Wizards PCs are expected to donate unneeded spells to members of their own school (outsiders need to stick together) but can otherwise sell spells normally, including to Chartered Wizards and colleges.

Outlaw Wizards PCs can sell spells to anyone, but owning or casting a spell from an Outlawed school is punishable by horrible death.

Buying Spells

A bargain-bin wand might cost as little as 5gp, but the quality of the spell inside and the power of the wand will be very dubious and will not be known to either the buyer or the seller.

A college might sell a Chartered Wizard a specific spell if they are in good standing with the college and have been making regular payments on their Wizard Student Loans. Wizards in general are very jealous of power; selling spells is not in their nature. Outsider or Outlaw wizards are happy to cast spells for a fee, but selling the spell itself is dangerous and risky.

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