The fire-and-forget style of spellcasting is one of the hallmarks of the Pathfinder role-playing game (spontaneous spellcasters being a minor variation of this same formula). It’s also one of the biggest points of divergence from most fantasy fiction – unless you’re a fan of the works of Jack Vance – wherein wizards are generally able to toss around magic with no appreciable limit. Now, while we have been seeing some attempts to recapture this in Pathfinder, such as the unlimited nature of cantrips now or warlock-style classes who can toss around a very small set of effects without limit, but none of those really call to mind the wizards from our favorite novels.
And then Glen Taylor Games published DragonCyclopedia: The Mage, and much to my surprised created a class that allowed for an unlimited number of arcane spells to be known, and let you cast them on the fly without preparation…or at least, without much preparation. Let’s take a look at the book and see how it does this, and if it’s balanced.
A twenty-one page PDF, The Mage is nothing spectacular from a technical standpoint. There are no bookmarks, something I feel every PDF should have. Beyond its front and back covers – which contain wavy full-color images that seem almost like watercolors – there are two interior illustrations in the same style. While the cover illustration is credited, there’s no mention of who did the other pictures, though I presume it was the same person. Moreover, while the book does declare Open Game Content, it fails to reproduce the proper citations under the Section 15 of its Open Game License, both for Pathfinder and for itself.
Graphically, the book is fairly spartan. The aforementioned illustrations notwithstanding, every page is given a tan background that has a sort of crumpled look to it, like parchment that’s been in the bottom of a cramped sack before being retrieved. This doesn’t distract from the text, but said text frequently left large open spaces on pages when it didn’t want to break up sections of the book. More illustrations, or perhaps some sidebars expounding on some aspect of the class, would have helped make the book seem less empty in those cases.
But enough about how it’s presented, you want to hear about the class itself! The book opens with a one-page introduction that takes the form of FAQ which covers why this class was designed, how it’s balanced, and how to use it. It’s after this that we dive into the new class itself.
The mage is like a wizard in many regards. It has the same Hit Dice, BAB, and save progressions. It has the same skill points per level and class skills (save for adding Use Magic Device). It suffers arcane spell failure chances in armor. There are some minor differences (weapon proficiencies being one of them), but the big one is the “how” of the mage’s method of spellcasting.
The mage has no spellbook that it records spells in, nor does it have a spells known list. When a mage learns a spell, it’s learned forever, without external record. Casting a spell, however, requires that the mage do something that I like to call “preparing on the fly.” If a mage wants to cast a spell, it must first spend an action preparing it – this will be a full-round action for its highest-level spells, but as the mage gains levels its lower-level spells can be prepared faster. Once prepared, the spell can then be cast normally at any time. But the mage can only have a single spell prepared at a time.
In other words, the mage needs to keep spending an action preparing a spell before it can cast it. So in a fight, he’ll spend a round preparing a spell, and cast it on the next round, then prepare another spell on the following round, and cast it on the round after that, then prepare a spell on the next round, etc. It’s this limit which acts as the major balancing factor to the class. It’s not the only one though, as the mage gains less spells at both character creation and leveling up than the wizard – it can learn new spells from spellbooks and scrolls, but this comes with a significant cost in both time and gold pieces, which also act as limits. In theory, it all balances out.
In practice, however, I’m less certain. I haven’t had a chance to play-test this class at all, so I couldn’t tell you if it was overpowered, or if the increased casting time (which is really what the preparation time is) and drain on gold to learn new spells really balances the class or not. As the mage levels up, it takes less and less time to prepare spells of lower level – as early as thirteenth level, a mage can prepare a 1st-level spell as a swift action, a 3rd-level spell as a move action, and a 5th-level spell as a standard action, all in a single round. Of course, it can still only cast one at a time.
Beyond that, the class gains a mage talent at every even-numbered level. These are special class features that expand on the mage’s capability in some regard. It’s here that I thought there needed to be some serious double-checking on balance concerns, since some of these were far-and-away too strong. A mage talent that lets the mage substitute half his class level instead of spell level for calculating a save DC is much too powerful, for example. Still, there’s some good versatility here. The best of which is that some talents belong to mage colleges – themed collections of mage talents that you can access only if you take a mage talent to join the relevant association (of which there are seven).
The book then discusses various flavors of mages (e.g. explorer, war mage), and how various player races tend to approach being mages, but each of these gets only a paragraph of exposition, so there’s little here that goes beyond common sense and stereotypes. Two new magic items round out the book, a wand and a staff that seem to do almost the exact same thing, save that the wand is slightly more limited than the staff.
Dishearteningly, there were some grammatical and typographical errors in the book. For example, the standard mage way to determine the save DC for a mage’s spells is the same way every other spellcasting class determines them (10 + spell level + key ability modifier). However, the text from the mage talent that lets you use half your class level instead of the spell level had been erroneously cut-and-pasted into the class’s main listing for spells, which made me cringe. Things like that gave me some serious pause about this class.
Ultimately, I came away from the mage with some real concerns about its balance. A mage with the right combination of mage talents can prepare multiple spells, boost the save DCs, and even gain not-insignificant bonuses to spells that require attack rolls. I don’t know if that’d make it more powerful than a wizard or sorcerer, but I’m betting it would. Between that and the technical shortcomings of the book, I seriously considered giving this product a lower rating.
However, when push came to shove, I found that I couldn’t do so, simply because of how intriguing the core mechanic for this book was. The basic spellcasting for the mage is brilliant, and on the surface doesn’t seem overpowered (at least when coupled with the reduced spells gain from leveling, and increased cost of learning new spells). It’s the auxiliary aspects of the book – the mage talents and the PDF’s own technical details – that soured my appetite for what was here. Fix those, and you’ve got something (even more) wondrous and new for your Pathfinder game.
I don’t know if the mage is a class that’s balanced compared to the standard Pathfinder wizard…but I really want to play one and find out.