One of the toughest things for me in any game is getting the right feel for magic. In my mind, in that generic setting expectation we all formulate in our heads, cantrips and the like (lighting candles, casting shadows, creating a phantom breeze, fireworks) should be common. The higher-level stuff (turning people into stone, creating seams in the universe, causing lightning strikes), should be rare, and not just due to component cost.
I’ve often thought of just giving mages several basic, cantrip powers, along with the power to use ancient places of power, activate ritual circles, and decipher arcane runes. Mages would seek out those instances or places of power to be able to cast those spells—they’d be the only ones with the hope of doing so, or deciphering the runes on ancient weapons, or knowing the seven reagents needed to form the Elixir of Undeath. It’s definitely a great adventuring hook, if nothing else.
For example: The mage in your party is not the all-powerful wizard of old. He seems to possess a minor healing touch, due as much to his encyclopedic knowledge or herbs and salves as anything. A few minor potions and odd passes in the air results in a thunderclap or minor pyrotechnics. It is said he can talk to the birds, and understand their language. He somehow knew the old king died a week before news came from the capital.
When the goodly warrior in your party was mortally wounded, the wizard knew he could not resurrect him with his powers. Oh, perhaps he had a few herbs to slow death and prolong his weak pulse, but the secrets of resurrection were not know to this age. However, he knew that in the Mountains of Eshem, there lay an altar with a strange incantation. On Midsummer’s Eve, he said, one could stand there—and if the required ritual was performed, one person could be brought back, no matter how close to Death’s Door they lay. So that, said the aged wizard, is where they must journey…
Castles & Crusades follows the path of Vancian Magic; I’m glad it does, because Vancian Magic is a great meeting ground and reference point at the center of the hobby. But every now and then, I get the feeling I’d like to try a lower-magic game again. I believe the niche is still there for the low-magic wizard class; it just relies on a player using more smoke and mirrors and research, rather than the raw offensive capability that has come to represent the majority of wizard play. Of a scale with Gandalf the Gray on one end and Tim the Enchanter and Elminster on the other, I think I'd like to scoot my chair a little bit closer away from Greenwood's wish-fulfillment fantasy.