I realize there’s virtually no demand on this blog for system hacks for pre-4e D&D, but I didn’t let that stop me before, so I don’t see why not to proceed now. Plus I still see people talking about this on enworld when I go there, since they are basically permanently stuck in a 4e-vs-3.5e turf war, so I’m still thinking about it. Right, then.
One of the main things that strikes me about magic in Conan (and other sword & sorcery properties like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) that isn’t represented well in most role-playing games is how physical it all is.
Like, the archetypal d&d spell is magic missile — a spell that creates bolts of insubstantial “energy” that pass through all armor and unerringly strike their target. You’d never see this in a Howard story, precisely because Conan has no way to deal with it. So instead you get hurled fireballs, choking mist, demonic servitors, gas that slowly chokes you unless you can break out of the container, etc.
It seems like you could probably bulk-recategorize a lot of the d&d spells to make them fit this model better. Like, say any area-effect elemental-damage spell can be resisted with evasion or an equivalent block effect with a shield. Ray spells can be deflected (maybe against another specific target if you’re skilled enough). Touch spells incur an automatic response attack which occurs first, and cancels the touch attack attempt for the round if it hits. Ranged targeted attack spells (like charm person or something) require the caster to obtain a lock on the target first, so the target can dodge that to cancel or delay the spell.
The main thing that doesn’t fit on this list are self-buff kind of things, both offensive boosts like haste and bull’s strength and defensive boosts like flight or invisibility. I think probably the only way to do a bulk fix for this kind of thing is to say that for each spellcaster, there’s some relatively straightforward way to cancel their buffs — like, they get cancelled when the target is hit with cold iron or out of contact with the ground or something.
I’m not sure exactly how you balance all this. It’s potentially expensive but probably fair to charge a standard action for these (since the fighter does the response during the wizard’s turn, I guess they’d be giving up their next standard action) — the fighter wins if they cancel out the wizard’s action, because they’ve still got a move action to advance towards them, and presumably when they get into melee range, the fighters have the advantage. You could even charge something else, like maybe fighters could pick up these different resistance techniques as they gain levels instead of starting with them all and/or they have to spend from a limited pool of points to do a resistance technique.
If you get it all right, then your classic fighter/wizard combat becomes the fighter striding forward as the wizard blasts spells, the fighter hoping to get through them all and close and the wizard hoping to knock down the fighter before that happens. Which is cool, because that is pretty much what I would expect to see in a Conan book.