Recently, as a pet project, I tried to calculate just how many individual, unique spells would exist in a “standard” d20 game world. Using some of the population tables and a lot of guesswork, I determined that such a world would have almost thirty thousand spells. The idea was simple, that the PHB had the most common spells, with others being fleshed out in various sourcebooks. However, those numbers are just overviews, without getting into the question of who invented those most common of spells, and why. Further, what variations did they (or other people) come up with, what alternate formulas or differing effects were out there? I never dealt with such questions, because the Behind the Spells: Compendium, from Tricky Owlbear Publishing did it for me.
A compilation of the first thirty-six works in the series of the same name, Behind the Spells: Compendium deals with the in-game history and creation of some of the most familiar spells in the game. Usually each entry is for just a single spell, but several deal with more than one, such as the entry for “wish & limited wish” or “the walls.” The book gives roughly three pages for each spell entry, making it over one hundred pages long. There are no page borders to be found, and only sporadic instances of black and white artwork (save for the cover), making the book very printer-friendly. Bookmarks to each section are present, and the table of contents is hyperlinked, making this PDF easy to navigate.
The majority of each entry is fluff text, as the in-character author, Maxolt (a gold dragon) records the history of the spell. Usually, he gives considerable space to the individual who created the spell, and what circumstances brought him or her to do so. Space is also given to any “spell secrets” (variations on the spell that aren’t enough to constitute different spells) and related research (similar-but-different spells and/or magic items). Any new crunch is contained in sidebars, making them easy to distinguish. For those who have some of the original PDFs in this series, there is a smattering of new material, though this seems to be limited to the introduction (which covers things like counterspelling a spell that uses a spell secret, or how creatures with spell-like abilities can use spell secrets). There’s also a date on each spell entry regarding when it was first released, and a few notes from the (real) author with his thoughts on each entry.
The book has a number of subtle nods to fans of D&D, which are sure to be enjoyable easter eggs for those who pick up on them. For example, the entry for “acid arrow” has several paragraphs about how the spell usually has a guy’s name in front of it; Maxolt explains how this is a sham, and most named spells aren’t really created by the pretentious blowhards who add their names to them. Things like this really make the book a joy to read.
The only problem I had with the book was that I personally found the premise to be a tad unbelievable. That is, I found it hard to believe that anyone remembered who invented the thing that is both ancient and ubiquitous. To me, it’s like trying to find a biography of the person who invented the hammer, or the sword. Some things just seem like they’ve been around so long and are so widespread that it’s ridiculous to assume we know anything at all about who made them. However, that’s my personal take on it; perhaps in your game world, these spells aren’t that ancient, and/or all magical research is recorded (after all, we know, basically, who is responsible for making the computer). If you want that information, it’s available here. New insights into old favorites are the reason to look Behind the Spells.