Spells that ruin adventures, revisited

Have you ever had an adventure spoiled by a spell? Through the history of Dungeons & Dragons, a variety of spells carried the potential to short circuit or spoil whole categories of adventures—at least without significant planning to avoid the spells’ potential.

Many of the adventure-spoiling spells existed in the early days, but given the play styles of the times, they posed few problems.

Drow_costumeOnce upon a time, D&D games took place in huge sprawling dungeons like the one under Castle Greyhawk, where monsters wandered and players balanced their own encounters by deciding how deep they dared to go.

Adventures never featured intrigue. You never needed to find the real killer from among a group of suspects. Detect Lie probably started as a way to determine if the captive Kobold was lying about the treasure behind the “untrapped” door ahead. It also deterred the thief from stealing your stuff. Know Alignment simply existed so the cleric could tell the paladin who to kill first.

Just a few years after D&D reached gamers, players discovered adventures with plot and roleplaying. But spells that served as just another resource in the Tomb of Horrors suddenly prevented entire styles of play.

Spells like Detect Lie (later Discern Lies), Detect Thoughts, and Zone of Truth threatened to eliminate intrigue.

With spells like Commune and Speak with Dead in the game, you can forget whodunits.

The Prince of Murder’s army of assassins cannot keep him safe in his mountain aerie if the characters can scry and fry.

Fourth edition defied D&D tradition by eliminating spells that broke adventures. Too many players felt 4E remade too much of the game. So fifth edition works to balance nostalgia for classic spells with changes that make them less troublesome.

Next: Which spells have proven troublesome, and how does fifth edition deal with them?

4 thoughts on “Spells that ruin adventures, revisited

  1. Geoffrey Greer

    Definitely have had spells or special powers that break adventures, but I think this is all part of being a good DM. You need to know how to anticipate problems like that and prevent them by writing prophylactic elements into the script, and when they come up unexpectedly, if they’re way out of whack, that’s when your ad-libbing skills come into play. And of course, every now and then, the players get to have a win. 🙂

    1. The Iron Realm RPG Podcast

      That’s right. A smart DM keeps copies of the PC character sheets for recreational reading. If a PC has certain powers or spells, the DM needs to account for that. A spell such as Silence 15′ radius is just as good in a pinch as a Helm of Anti-Telepathy.

  2. GDS

    After some simple buffs (including a second-level “Calm emotions” to prevent fear), a party of 3rd level characters using all their remaining second level spell slots to repeatedly cast Phantasmal Force could reliably lure a tarrasqe to fall over a precipice. If there were lava at the bottom or some other means of killing the monstrosity, the PCs would advance from 3rd to 8-9th level immediately.

  3. Simon Newman

    I’ve been running a Classic (Mentzer) D&D game recently, and although it’s heavy on cloak & dagger I’ve not experienced any issues with spells ruining adventures. At least the Mentzer versions are well balanced and tend to generate rather than eliminate plots. A Speak With Dead did reveal a murderer, but that just led to a (failed) attempt to storm the murderer’s lair. If the murderer (a PC!) had killed target in his sleep SWD would not have helped.
    Spells do ruin things in 3e/PF, but 3e/PF dismantles all the checks and balances of earlier editions. It’s the real outlier IMO, not 4e. 5e runs pretty similar to Classic in practice.


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