Sunday, 27 June 2010

Fun Killers and Creativity Stiflers

So, phase one of the function triage project for the roughly 100 1st level spells in 3.5 D&D. First criterion: does it just duplicate things that players can or should be doing for themselves, with skill, thinking, or equipment? Here are the ones that don't make it by this criterion.

Alarm: This is a marginal one. On the one hand, it's really more an NPC spell to make things harder for the party. I'm all in favor of NPCs having spells from diferent books and playing by different, unpredictable rules. Players who want to set up a guarded camp or area, arguably, should just set watches or rig up contraptions. On the other hand, it can be useful in those situations, to guard a player's stuff, keep an eye on the mule you left outside, and so on. On the balance, it feels more like a cantrip-level spell. I'm leaving it out.

Hold Portal: As I said - use spikes, benches, logs, anything but magic. I don't care if this spell was featured in the Lord of the flippin' Rings. Cmon Gandalf, you're a Maia, you must know Wizard Lock?

Detect Secret Doors: Pretty much the definition of a character/player skill usurpation. Ditto Instant Search, Spontaneous Search, and the numerous spells that give a bonus to skill checks in 3.5. You want spells to do something special, not just buff along another character's specialty.

Discern Bloodline: Leaving aside the Himmleresque implications of this spell, it is a fun killer par excellence. It is normally completely useless except when the party suspects there is a doppleganger or other deceptive creature around. Then, in the true "party vs. referee" spirit, if they have this spell they get to laugh at the exposure of the plot. It's this adversarial mentality that leads to the creation of such spells that are so useful for the party. Then the DM institutes heavy-handed countermeasures. Ooh, the doppleganger is wearing a special medallion of non-detection. Hey, teleport and passwall don't work in this dungeon due to "magical energies" in the wall.

I'm giving this Nazi spell the heave-ho and that also goes for Identify, Know Protections, and Locate City. There is a place for divination magic in a way that can help and not stifle good old detective work. These spells aren't in that place.

Mount: Buy a horse. I can see maybe a "Summon Docile Creature" spell that would allow more creative applications, but as is, Mount is way too specific.

Tenser's Floating Disk: Buy a hireling. I know this has an illustrious lineage but if players want to be lazy or cheap in hauling treasure, that's what spell research is for, just like in the original Greyhawk campaign. Besides, there's a better replacement for this if we diversify one of the weak first level spells from the list. I'll explain later ...

Erase: This spell just rubs me the wrong way - so to speak. I suppose it could be used creatively, but I'm really only going to favor a spell if it also has an easily comprehended mundane use. Right now it seems only good for tomb inscription vandalism and messing up spellbooks on the sly; any other uses can be substituted for with a wet rag or broom.

Anyway, so that's roughly 18 off the list for now. I hope this clarifies what I meant by "fun murderer" spells. There are more at higher levels, of course, and plenty of medallions, counterspells, fiats and kludges to make sure players don't get to use them.

Also: I should probably restrict myself to the SRD; and probably will once at higher levels. If this exercise is convincing me of anything, it's that most of the non-SRD spells are for one reason or another not fit for the aims of rules-light, player skill driven gaming.


  1. That's an interesting take on what is baggage and can be given the heave ho. There are a few reletively newer additions to the above but Alarm, Detect Secret Doors, Erase, Hold Portal, Identify, Mount, and T's Floating Disc are all fairly well known as staples of the D&D genre. I think you might find that certain styles of play will rely on those spells more than others and, consequently, certain types of players would find the loss of particular ones from that list harder to take than others. In some cases it is a matter of utility, as seems to be your point, but insofar as you say "carry spikes" the counter would be "the spell exists so I don't have to carry spikes." Still, streamlining is not a task for the meek. Personally, I;m of a mind that numbers of spells can be better culled by combining spells and broadening their descriptions which brings more creativity to the table. Nevertheless, this is not to question the validity of your particular approach, so good luck with your continued triage project.

  2. > Personally, I;m of a mind that numbers of spells can be better culled by combining spells and broadening their descriptions which brings more creativity to the table.

    Thanks for the comment, Mark. I think you'll find that when I get down to describing the actual revised spells, and stop just wielding the axe, that's more or less my approach. To give just one specific, my idea for Tenser's is to be able to adapt Feather Fall as a generic "weightlessness" spell that allows the hauling of treasure.

  3. I don't know. I suppose Magic Missile is a creativity stifler because the MU could just throw a rock?

    Sleep is a fun killer because you might sneak up on the monster and brain it with a club?

    Jump is verboten because the MU could just take a few years out of the game to get Olympic-level high jump training?

    I don't grasp your angle at all here.

  4. Will - I guess to phrase what I am doing in a more positive way, I am focusing on making information spells more interesting to use rather than just giving away the farm on the GM's intentions; and other spells more focused on multiple uses, in particular trying to expand or eliminate spells that duplicate things the other members of the party can be expected to do.

    All those effects you mention did make it into my final list in one way or another. (Jump, for example, is an application of the weightlessness spell.)

  5. as an alternative, maybe you could make some of these spells automatic abilities for people who have a higher-level version of same? So for example Hold Portal can be done at will by a wizard who knows Wizard Lock, provided they concentrate; the same for Tenser's Floating Disc for someone who has Telekinesis, Erase for someone who has any of the Rune of... spells, and so on.

    There's a lot of dramatic tension in having a wizard sealing a door shut by concentration while the rest of the party flees; and there's a lot of comedy value in a wizard stumbling around dragging a disc loaded with treasure because their hireling got killed, but having to continually concentrate to do it.

    I think a lot of these utility-type spells make mages more interesting if they're free-use spells, especially since in D&D 3.5 mages have basically no skills. The problem for me is that no mage should have to waste their spells-a-day on something as pointless as tenser's floating disc.

  6. @faustus: You know, that would really work. I already had some ideas for cantrips, but perhaps a more radical re-leveling of all the spells is in order? It's certainly more fun to ensure the adventuring m-u starts out with one combat standby and a couple of utility spells to boot. This would also mean that some of the less desirable 2nd level spells get bumped down to first and so on. Something to consider once the first round of spell effects has been chosen, anyway.

  7. I kind of lost interest in the standard levelling process for spells a while ago, and started playing around with the idea of wizards having a few quite gut-wrenchingly powerful spells from low level, and having at-will utility spells connected to them. So a first level mage starts, for example, with something like fireball and that comes with something like produce flame automatically.

    It seems to fit more with my conception of wizards, as using real magic for the scary stuff and doing the utility stuff at will. I did this in a non-d20 system of my own (bodgy) design, but it seemed to work and it had one huge fun point for the DM - slap a guy in robes anywhere amongst your players' adversaries and the players start panicking like you've never seen. Fun times!

    (But completely non-d&d ish).

    I've also sometimes thought it could be good to re-level all the D&D spells from 0 to 20, and have wizards get more of the odd-number levels (which would be weaker). Magic Mouth, for example, really really ought to be a cantrip...

  8. @faustusnotes, 2e did something similar to what you propose with their psionics supplement. For example, a 1st level character might start with teleport (due to power activation costs relative to first level power points this was extremely limited in range and carrying capacity), plus a few related, lesser powers (dimension door was a possibility, which due to the one round incapacitation following use wasn't quite as unbalancing as one might suppose).

  9. "To give just one specific, my idea for Tenser's is to be able to adapt Feather Fall as a generic "weightlessness" spell that allows the hauling of treasure."

    I'm doing a similar thing under the broad heading of Telekinesis (which I think also brings back an old school vibe).

  10. It's like all the commenters are wizards.

    Just a note to tell you I disagree about alarm. It is the ultimate in screwing with the party while camped. The only time it is effective is when they both see something on watch and it triggers the alarm. But if they see something and it doesn't trigger the alarm, or the alarm goes off and they don't see anything, it's super fun.

    I don't think I've ever used it for NPC's. That's just nefarious.