Saturday, 17 July 2010

High Levels

High-level spells in D&D, especially AD&D, are weird and wonky.

The neat, clear progression of power from 1st-2nd-3rd starts to unravel when you consider what exactly separates a 5th from a 6th level spell and gets positively convoluted when you add on the 8th and 9th level extensions. Even 3rd edition stuck to a tradition of spell level assignments rooted in AD&D - much more conservatively than my efforts here, in spite of Wizards' mandate to remake the game.

It's clear to me that:
  • Gary Gygax, bless his soul ... kind of, um, shafted his players' characters when it came to spell research. I mean, Otto's Irresistible Dance, a touch spell for Pete's sake, taking 1 creature out of the game for a few rounds, at 8th level? Even with a -4 save? While Flesh to Stone is 6th? Pretty much any spell with a famous Greyhawk wizard's name on it sports a dubious power-to-level ratio. 
  • While I thought I'd be struggling to fit the high-level spells on a d12 table, it turns out when you take out the scaled-up versions of lower level spells, the stuff that is weak or wrecks the game, and the Greyhawk PC ego spells (see above, and hey, let's clear the field for your own PC's to invent wacky spells named after them), there's actually kind of a struggle to find appropriately awesome stuff.
  • Even Meteor Swarm, the most nitro-riffic, nuke-tastic, direct damage dealing 9th level mass effect blowout in the game, does (going by the SRD version) only about 1.5x the damage of a lowly fireball cast by the same 17th level archmage over the same roughly circular 40' diameter area, plus lesser amounts of damage in a wider area. You can tell I got no love for scaling spells.
  • And pretty much every 9th level spell pales besides wish. In fact, it's tempting to make that the only ninth-level spell, the reason for having a long climb of spell levels where often it's not clear why you're getting one effect four character levels after the other.
In general, the high-level spell lists reinforce my distrust and dislike for high-level play. I'll admit, I wish the older editions had the capacity to support the E-6 idea for 3rd edition. It's such a great idea for keeping the scary monsters scary, the challenges real, and the powers within bounds.

Few campaigns these days, I suspect, have the time and patience to come by 16 character levels honestly. I also favor a more free-form approach to what NPC's can do, and like the permanent magic effects that characters come across to not have to depend on known spells (avoiding "magic mouth syndrome"). So those reasons to have high-level spell lists go out the window.

Finally - shouldn't the highest arcana available be ultimate mysteries, shrouded in the folklore of great wizards? This one could stop the sun and moon. That one had a song that could make you dance until you dropped dead. What the real spells are, whether they exist or not, should not be so clear.

So ... the next 3 posts will cover 4th through 6th level spells. Then a list of "Great Mysteries" that referees can add to, place at spell levels, and modify as they see fit.One possibility - they are all "7th level" but you have to learn them one after the other in a strict sequence, one per character level. And quest for them.

As always, your helpful comments are welcome.


    1. I've never had a player get a 9th level spell, but you can bet I'd make Wish a 10th level spell if they were getting close.

    2. Heh - I'd rub my hands at the prospect at catching them on a wording mistake. 5 years doing rules questions and card wordings for a CCG has kind of left me with a good eye for that ...

      But yeah. Wishes from genies, rings, fountains are more manageable than a player with it in their damn spellbook.

    3. Otto’s Irresistible Dance has no save, and makes all other saving throws impossible