Using Spell Research

"One of the most overlooked assets the wizard or priest has is the ability to research new spells." This is how my beloved AD&D 2e books lead into the topic of spell research. There is much in this sentence as it both highlights an oft unused feature in classic D&D, as well as being prophetic regarding it being dropped from future editions of the game ("most overlooked"). I decided to look back at spell research in Dungeons & Dragons, how it was presented, possibly why it was rarely used and make a few suggestions on how to use it in OSR games today.

Spell research has been a part of D&D from the very beginning. The original game from 1974 had very simple rules laid out for players to follow. As with every subsequent edition, it came down to the player and referee discussing a proposed new spell and the referee (later DM) determining its level (and permissiveness), which would dictate cost and time. Naturally, the PC would need to be of a high enough level to even cast the spell being researched.

There was no formula for cost like one would see later, but rather a set base amount by level (e.g., level 3 spell = 8,000 gp). For each investment of this base amount, the PC would get a +20% chance that the research would be successful. The time needed for the research was very simply 1 week per level. After the research period, there would be a roll to see if the research succeeded. That's it. A very simple system.

Naturally, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e would pick up spell research and go to significantly greater details on this topic (as with all aspects of the game). There were prerequisites for Intelligence to even be allowed to research a spell of a certain level. Gary Gygax also introduced a detailed, complex formula for calculating costs based on whether or not the PC had a research facility (library or laboratory) at their disposal. The costs then tied into the chance of success, which was rolled with a d100 (as it was in every edition). The time needed stayed the same (min. 1 week per spell level). What was explicitly stated in AD&D 1e was that spell research could be a new spell or an existing spell from the game's spell list but that the PC hadn't learned yet (more on this later). There were also rules for modifying existing spells and how to determine the level based on those modifications. 

The 1981 B/X edition only briefly mentioned spell research and that it costs 1,000 gp per spell level and takes 2 weeks per spell level to research. That's basically it. Not much guidance for player or DM.

BECMI then took the previously detailed concepts and gave it its own spin. The base cost was 1,000 gp per spell level and the time spent was 1 week + 1 day per 1,000 gp spent. This made spell research a much shorter endeavor than in the previous editions. Example: A level 5 spell in OD&D and AD&D 1e would take 5 weeks to research and in B/X 10 weeks. In BECMI, however, it took just 12 days (1 week + 5 days for the 5,000 gp minimum spent). 

This version of the "basic" game also used a formula to calculate success chances and, like in AD&D 1e, warns the DM of the dangers of spell research and game-breaking spells. It also stated that spell research can include listed spells the PC hadn't learned yet. A new, and unique, wrinkle that BECMI added was the need for monster components for the research process. The PC needed to gather/harvest ingredients from a monster whose HD was equal to the spell level of the researched spell. I really like this mechanic, as it puts an entirely emergent adventure quest in front of the players that is a direct result of their actions and PC goals.

The final edition of Dungeons & Dragons to feature spell research was AD&D 2e. It went back to the B/X time investment of 2 weeks per spell level, but left the costs up to the DM with only very vague guidelines (100-1,000 gp per spell level). It also streamlined the success chance to make it equal to the wizard's Intelligence based % chance to learn a spell or a simple Wisdom check for a priest. I feel that the team behind AD&D 2e saw that not many players were utilizing spell research anymore and attempted to make it as simple to remember as possible. Even though I believe they achieved that by eliminating the need for remembering overly complex formulas, the guidance was a bit too nebulous for my tastes.

When Wizards of the Coast then brought out 3rd Edition D&D, spell research had been axed. The DMG had guidelines for creating spells (so does 5e), but that was more geared towards the DM who wants to create their own spells for the game and not for PCs.

This all begs the question as to why did spell research fall out of favor and why was it underutilized? Now this is all just conjecture and based on my experiences at my own tables over the decades, but players were often put off by the overly complex formulas, high costs, and out-of-adventuring time investment for their character. But there is another reason here and that comes down to creativity. Players often didn't feel the need or want to come up with entirely new spells, when they could just wait to learn one of the many already included in the game. I feel that AD&D 1e (and BECMI) got it right by calling out that spell research included researching already listed spells from the game. Players then didn't need to come up with their own spells. However, these options still weren't enough to make the system survive into the WotC editions era we have found ourselves in since 2000.

I personally believe that spell research is a fantastic aspect of D&D. It makes gold matter a lot to a spell caster and helps progress time in a meaningful and "realistic" way.

How would (do) I implement spell research now into my D&D campaigns? I run both Old-School Essentials and AD&D (1e/2e combo) and I split the difference in many regards. I feel that 2 weeks per spell level is fine for time investment. Financially, I also keep it simple with 1,000 gp per spell level. To then keep it fair between magic-users and clerics, I require an Intelligence or Wisdom check after the required research time and modify it by the spell level. Investing more money then helps them. I give a +1 per extra 1,000 gp spent. 

Example: A magic-user with INT 14 researched a level 3 spell, they need to roll equal/under an 11. They spent an extra 2,000 gp and thus need to roll equal/under a 13. 

Should a PC fail, they need to spend at least another week researching, plus another 1,000 gp, after which they then get to repeat the check. I also then give +1 for each failed check (BECMI did something similar). The PC learned through failure so I think the bonus is only fair.

I know that AD&D has a % chance tied to the Intelligence of a magic-user to learn a new spell. You can certainly use that for research (as is written in 2e), but I prefer to keep it consistent across classes and use the ability score check for research instead. I see the INT based % more about the magic-user's ability to understand something they discovered on the spot versus the methodical process of spell research.

But that's only the mechanical aspect of spell research. What about the actual research? Here is where my decades of investment into D&D books comes in handy. First off, I take a page from GAZ 1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and limit the spells magic-users can even learn through institutional instruction.

By limiting what they can learn in a school, magic-users are naturally pushed to either quest for new spells or research them. And these new spells can be from the core book's spell lists or I hand the player any other classic D&D magic source book I have that includes spells. That's right...I make them actually research for spell research. I have the advantage of having many classic D&D books that include "non-core" spells. Examples of books I use are Greyhawk Adventures, Tome of Magic, Pages from the Mages, and Prayers from the Faithful

I will gladly implement these spells into both my OSE and AD&D campaigns. If you don't have copies of these books, you can find decently priced copies on eBay or very inexpensive PDF copies on the Dungeon Masters Guild website. You might even ask for the player to buy the PDF (usually costing $9.99 or less). BTW: If you have players not willing to invest $10 or less into the campaign then you might have other issues.

I will always been advocate of classic D&D procedures and systems that I feel enhance both the play experience and player investment into a campaign. Therefore, I strongly encourage the use of spell research in my games and at other tables as well. It might open new paths to great adventures for your campaign.


  1. Great article! I loved the aspect where having a library or lab was part of the process. This ALSO makes gold mean something AND can push higher level characters into domain play.

  2. If I remember correctly, there was never any charts for this stuff. I think what might have been the best thing for them to do was to break down the spell formulas to their basic attributes, and power levels (aks spell levels). There could have been charts to show spell attributes and power levels. The wizard players can pick and chose what they want to create a new spell (or maybe recreate a spell). There would be time and coin costs on each of the traits of the spell (and bonuses or penalties to learn it). Does this make sense?

    Now, I know it's a very GURPS (or my preferred version of GURPS today: Savage Worlds) thing to do, but to have a list of things to show what is possible would help me a whole lot, and I would be more inspired to do research and spell creation.

    Also being able to have more of a chance to survive might help make it worth going through all this too (lol)


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