Designing for spells that spoil adventures

In my last two posts, starting with Spells that can ruin adventures, I discussed the various spells with the potential to spoil Dungeons & Dragons adventures, turning hours of fun into a quick ambush. You may say, “Why worry? Just rule that these spells don’t exist in your campaign.” Clearly, you have enough foresight to carefully examine the spell lists, establishing a list of dangerous spells and magic items that might ruin your campaign plans. Of course, you could also rule that Zone of Truth doesn’t exist in your game the minute it becomes a problem. But your players will hate that.

The D&D system’s spells and magic contribute to an implied setting that most D&D players and DMs share. As a DM, you can ban spells, but that offers no help for authors of adventures for organized play or for publication. Authors writing D&D fiction also must work around these spells, or ignore them and hope the readers fail to notice.

The fourth edition attempted to eliminate every last adventure ruining effect. Fly effects really just let you jump. The ethereal plane is gone, or at least inaccessible. Linked portals replace the long-range teleport spell. While I favor this approach over keeping all the problem spells in in the system, I concede that the purge might have been heavy handed.

So that brings us to today. Seeing Zone of Truth in the D&D Next spell list inspired me to write these posts. These spells and effects need careful weighing of the benefits they offer to the game, and more thought to how they effect adventures and the implied game setting.

For the designers of D&D, I have the following suggestions:

  • Spells that compel honesty or discern lies do not add enough to the game to earn a place in the game. These spells could exist as a optional elements.
  • Spells that detect evil should only detect the supernatural evil of undead, outsiders and the like.
  • Divination spells must provide hints and clues rather than unequivocal answers, and should discourage players from seeking answers too often.
  • Scry spells must be subject to magical and mundane counters such as the metal sheeting that blocked Clairvoyance and Clairaudience in the first edition.
  • Scry spells should never target creatures, like Scrying, but only known locations, like Clairvoyance and Clairaudience.
  • Ethereal travel must be subject to barriers such as gorgon’s blood mortar, permanent ethereal objects, and perhaps even vines, as mentioned in the original Manual of the Planes.
  • The game should offer some magical countermeasures to teleportation, such as Anticipate Teleport, and the ability to make these spells permanent.
  • The Dungeon Master’s Guide needs a chapter on magical effects that the DM should plan for in campaign and adventure design, starting with fly and divination.

Next: But how do you win?

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  1. Pingback: Scry and fry | DMDavid

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