In my last post, I described the how Dungeons & Dragons tended to break once players gathered too many magic items or certain combinations of items. Earlier editions included several rules that worked to prevent the problem, but fifth edition’s attunement rule and rarity system provide the best measures yet.
Of course not all game-breaking magic comes from magic items. Spells can create problems too. Gary Gygax invented virtually all of D&D’s familiar spells when folks played in a much narrower style: Player characters kept to the dungeon. Non-player characters attacked on sight. Plots never developed. Characters died or retired (mostly died) before they could cast spells above sixth level. As the game blossomed, many spells that seemed fun, or that only appeared on scrolls, started spoiling games.
In “Spells that ruin adventures,” I wrote about individual spells that tended to disrupt play. In “Scry and fry,” I explained how a climactic battle can become a quick ambush. And in “Designing for spells that spoil adventures,” I told D&D Next’s designers how to design around problem spells. In a future post, I will look back at my advice.
Not every problem comes from an individual spell, play can suffer when players stack spells. In third edition, higher-level parties might enter a fight blanketed with spells like Haste, Invisibility, Fly, Blur, Polymorph Self, Resist Elements, and on and on. These parties would fly to the dungeon’s treasure vault, invisible and in ghostform. Parties traveled optimized by maximized ability buffs. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while the DM struggled to create any challenge.
Combined spells did more than allow character to float past adventures, spell combos could also buy a cheap victory. Just lock down a battlefield with Evard’s Black Tentacles, and the clear it with Cloudkill. Used in one fight, this strategy makes a memorable story; repeated, the other players wonder why they showed up.
Of course, third edition could remain playable at high levels, but only when players chose not to use strategies that strained the system’s limits.
Some players argue that a dungeon master can counter these measures by pitting players against villains able to use dispel magic and a suite of magical countermeasures. While true, this approach suffers drawbacks:
- DMs can no longer challenge parties with published adventures, or really any monsters other than spellcasters.
- DMs will know the players’ magical tricks, so the villains’ countermeasures will invite the players to suspect that the DM used privileged information to thwart them.
- Mainly though, D&D stops feeling like D&D and starts to resemble a superhero game, with characters flying around, ignoring walls, untouched by mundane threats. Most folks who want the feel of a superhero game, play a superhero game.
To avoid the problem, fourth edition either rewrote or dropped the spells that caused problems. This worked. Even at epic levels, the game never mutates into a chess match between the Sinister Spellcasters and the Legion of Fantasy Heroes. However, 4E’s lack of familiar spells fueled the accusations that 4E no longer resembled D&D.
When fifth edition’s designers faced the problem of overlapping magical effects, they knew that earlier solutions had proven flawed. They returned familiar spells and they adopted an ingenious new fix: concentration.
Many spells now require their caster to maintain concentration to keep their magic going. Critically, a spellcaster can only concentrate on one spell at a time. Now rather than layering Haste, Invisibility, Fly, Blur, Resistance, and a few others, a caster must pick one. Wizards who really want to be blurry and invisible, need a second spellcaster’s help. To combine black tentacles and a poison cloud, parties need two spellcasters, and neither will cast while flying invisible over the battle. To the design team, this counts as teamwork rather than, “I beat another encounter for you. You’re welcome!”
Concentration limits the power of high-level spellcasters. In earlier editions of the game, the Vancian magic system awarded advancing wizards far more power than characters in other classes. They gained more spells per day, of greater power, plus even their lower-level spells increased in power. Concentration stands as one way fifth edition keeps wizards in line with their peers.