A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Review: Wonder & Wickedness

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 11, 2015

Tagged: osr odnd

Wonder and Wickedness Cover

Wonder & Wickedness was released at the end of 2014, within a week of Zak releasing A Red and Pleasant Land and James publishing his new zine The Excellent Travelling Volume. December was an action packed month for gaming. I had been following along on Brendan’s blog as he published early versions of his “Spells Without Levels”, and read an early draft of what would ultimately become Wonder & Wickedness. What was finally published is much grander in its scope and vision.

Wonder & Wickedness re-imagines magic for Dungeons and Dragons (and its ilk). The primary conceit of the whole supplement is that spells are not subdivided into levels of progressively more powerful spells. Spells are broken down into schools of magic, arguably a more evocative arrangement. Each spell is designed to be used from first level onwards. They either scale in power, or posses a utility that goes beyond hit points. We have 7 schools of magic—Diabolism, Elementalism, Necromancy, Psychomancy, Spiritualism, Translocation, and Vivimancy—each with 8 spells, for 56 spells total. The book begins with the original magic spells from OD&D’s Men & Magic booklet as its primary influence, and recreates them in novel ways. This initial list of spells is then expanded upon so that each school of magic has an equal number of spells.

For some spells, their original inspiration is clearly visible, though I find the re-writes more fantastic. In Men & Magic we have Read Languages:

The means by which directions and the like are read, particularly on treasure maps.

This becomes Comprehension in Wonder & Wickedness:

The meaning of obscured or indecipherable communications is laid bare. This spell may be used to understand the words of any language or read the true intent of a cyphered missive. Even spirit or animal speech, such as the groaning of clouds or the howling of wolves, may sometimes disclose their secrets.

The reworking of Light, which becomes the Diabolism spell Gleam, is great. Ones natural inclination is to assume Light would be some sort of holy spell, not the result of demon worship.

Conjure a hovering magical spirit of radiance that does not shed heat, does not require air, and is not doused by water. A gleam per level may be summoned and the illumination of each is similar to torchlight.

Gleams may be directed to bedevil enemies, which will cause temporary blindness if a saving throw is failed as long as the spirit remains engaged.

I find the magic presented in Wonder & Wickedness is flavourful in a way much of the magic in most editions of D&D is not. The edges around each spell are looser than they are in later editions of D&D, in this way staying true to their roots. Spells here aren’t simply cheat codes for various game mechanics. Brendan remarks on his philosophy in designing the spells in the books foreword:

I attempted to be suggestive rather than comprehensive. This is in the spirit of the original game, and means that the text cannot foresee every possible outcome. The Referee will be required to make rulings. Can poltergeists be damaged by magic? How are they permanently banished? I prefer to think of the spells here as a point of departure, not a voice of authority.

Following the spell descriptions are magical catastrophes. Each school has 12 corresponding catastrophes, giving us 84 catastrophes total. These are all over the place when it comes to their effects and severity. They are one of my favourite parts of the book.

Several lesser air elementals are imprisoned within the sorcerer’s body. Each time the sorcerer casts another spell, one is released and must be dealt with (standard reaction procedure applies, and there is a 1 in 6 chance that any such elemental released will be the last). These elementals may steal any words the sorcerer attempts to speak, and the sorcerer will naturally float atop water as long as any such elementals are contained.

I was hard pressed to pick an example catastrophe. There isn’t any one that serves as a good example of what the others are like. They are each quite unique.

The book ends with a listing of 50 magic items. Like the spells presented earlier in the book, these magic items are far more interesting than what you find in a typical D&D book. There is an implied world suggested by these items, and the spells, that is lovely and creepy. I won’t spoil any of them by reprinting one here. They all manage to convey a lot of ‘magic’ without a lot of needless verbiage—something I have noticed in a lot of the magic items I see shared on G+.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the entire book was illustrated by Russ Nicholson. Perhaps i’ve buried the lede by mentioning that here? Anyway, hells yes. His new drawings for the book are straight-up amazing.

The books layout and design is beautiful. The book is A5 in size, with single columns of large text on each page. It’s nice to read on my iPad mini. I’m sure it’ll be twice as nice as a physical book. As noted, most everything in the book is prefixed with a number, making it easy to randomly roll for magic items, spells, or catastrophes as needed.

Wonder & Wickedness was one of my favourite books from 2014—and there were lots of great books in 2014. If I ran a fantasy D&D game i’d definitely use this book as the basis for how spell casting works: it’s better than the original. What!