The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players

Dungeons & Dragons first supplement, Greyhawk, raised the game’s highest level spells from 6th level to 9th. None of Gary Gygax’s players had reached the level required to cast the new spells.

Tim Kask remembers that as he and Gary worked on the Blackmoor supplement, they figured players faced little chance of even reaching level 9 or 10. “This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was level 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave’s.”

Doctor_Strange_AstralGreyhawk’s high-level spells served non-player characters and indulged Gary’s love of systematic cataloging—the same inclination that drove him to create a plane of existence for every alignment.

At level 9, Gary stashed outrageous effects from fantasy. Shape Change duplicated a scene from the movie Sword in the Stone. Wish, Time Stop, and Gate came from popular imagination. Astral Spell came from the Doctor Strange comic.

Most of the level 9 spells boasted game-breaking effects. Shape Change let casters gain the shape and abilities of any creature at will, over a duration of hours. Gate could summon a god. Wish seemed to allow anything. Astral Spell helped in ways I still fail to understand, but I’m sure are awesome.

To Gary, these spells stood above the players’ reach, reserved for scrolls, liches, and legends.

Greyhawk’s description of Meteor Swarm interjects “(Jim!)” whenever it mentions the spell’s fireballs. Before Meteor Swarm reached print, Greyhawk campaigner Jim Ward’s PC acquired the spell on scrolls. He argued that Meteor Swarm should create flying rocks and overcome fire immunity. His dungeon master, Greyhawk co-author Rob Kuntz, put his final ruling in print. Years later, Jim prevailed. The spell now produces fiery rocks that deal both fire and bludgeoning damage.

Gamers played D&D with more passion—and less disciple—than Gary ever expected. Player characters raced past level 17 and gained those once-legendary spells. Now the spells marked either (a) where D&D stopped playing like D&D or (b) where players rolled new characters. All of Gary’s players retired their characters at levels in the mid-teens.

Gary wrote that he designed original D&D to challenge characters between 1st and 16th level, and not 17th-level characters with their level-9 spells. Eventually, the 9th-level spells prompted the fifth-edition designers to mark a new tier for 17th-level PCs. See “The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.”

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When heroes oppose the lich queen, what does she wish for?

By the time Gary designed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he knew that 17-plus-level PCs bedeviled DMs everywhere, but he kept spells like Wish and Shape Change. Gary aimed to keep the elements of his original game. Instead of eliminating troublesome spells, he imposed limits. Shape Change now consumed a 5,000 g.p. jade circlet. The description for Wish now warned, “The discretionary power of the referee is necessary in order to maintain game balance.” I wish I had known that before my players wished for level-infinity PCs. Astral Spell added some baggage about silver cords and continued to discourage casting through obfuscation.

Third edition coped with the legendary spells by adding limitations. Wish stopped granting Wishes and now offered a page-long menu of magical boons. Shapechange lost a space and added hit die limits. Deities and unique beings could now ignore the Gate spell’s summons. As for Astral Spell, I must have missed the issue of Doctor Strange that explained its value.

Fifth edition continues the strategy of containing overpowered spells with long, limiting descriptions. Wish once appeared in 4 lines, now it spans a half page. Shapechange grows almost as much.

Why do these spells remain in the game, even though Gary Gygax never expected players to enjoy free access to them? In part, I blame tradition. Fourth edition eliminated Wish and its kin, but players rebelled against a game that cut so many familiar ingredients.

Designers struggle to capture a sense of wonder appropriate for the game’s most powerful spells while keeping spells playable. Meteor Swarm never aggravated any DMs, but a cluster of fireballs just feels like more of something from level 3. Of Gary’s legendary spells, Time Stop ranks as the best. It combines an epic feel with a manageable effect. In some future revision of the game, I hope to see Wish and Shapechange retired to legendary status and replaced by more spells in the mold of Time Stop.

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7 Responses to The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players

  1. Thanks for another fascinating article, David. I wonder where you get all this insight into the history of the game…? It’s great!

    This piece is particularly relevant to me right now, as I am working on a design for a “scaled down” RPG–something of a hybrid between a full-fledged RPG and an “adventure module” game like Hero Quest or something like that. One of the goals is to cut away all the fat that has become (unfortunately) a hallmark of games like D&D, and pare the game down to a very streamlined system that still pushes all those same buttons for the players. I think I’m somewhat glad to know that even Gary Gygax thinks D&D is ridiculously bloated in places.

  2. Fireinthedust says:

    let’s not forget the lower level game-breakers, like teleporting or fly spells that allow players to skip adventures or even nuke monsters from orbit. 5e having players choose from their own list rather than finding spells along the way means GMs have to stop things like this in a clumsy fashion rather than making it part of the setting design.

  3. Erik says:

    Eh…5e has pretty well neutered most ninth level spells. Some are just (sometimes slightly) juiced up versions of lower level spells (True Resurrection, Mass Heal, True Polymorph, Weird). Others are so loaded up with restrictions and drawbacks that they are not always a great idea to cast (Timestop, Wish, Gate, etc.). Still others are more flavor than anything (Astral Projection, Imprisonment). That leaves Foresight (very useful), Meteor Swarm (dramatic, but still simple damage), Shapechange (still limited by type, hit die, “must have seen before”), Power Word Kill (must be sure target has less than 100 hp), and Prismatic Wall (10 minute duration seems somewhat harsh and arbitrary).

    Granted, Timestop is largely limited by the Concentration mechanic, you can no longer load up on buffs/Delayed Blast Fireballs or other powerful effects, unless you want to lace the area with Grease spells.

  4. Amen. The Wish spell has no business in the modern version of the game.

  5. Gary Gygax says:

    Coincidentally, I hope to see you retired to empty-headed hack blogger status and replaced by more writers in the mold of 12-year-olds on the internet.

  6. timothypark says:

    Two factors mitigated much of the problems with these spells in 1E and previous, and also point to the reason for their inclusion, and continued presence. Apologies as I’ve mentioned them before.

    1) The Referee (DM) was to be *in control*.
    2) Spells were not automatically available to a character.

    In play of early editions we never had problems with these spells except Wish, and Wish didn’t turn up as a spell, but usually as an item. (Somewhat infamously we found and identified a ring of Three Wishes, then immediately put the main adventure on hold to take a long side trip to a part of the sea that the captain we had hired assured us was the deepest part of the sea. We threw the ring in, then returned to the main adventure. Why? DMs were notorious for warping even reasonable uses of a Wish, taking the wording very literally or using alternate meanings of words, *anything* to twist the intent so that the consequences were, essentially punitive. In response to the DM’s “Why did you do that with a magic item?” we laconically replied “It’s the most dangerous magic item in the game.”)

    The shift over the editions so that D&D is more like a computer game where the agency of the players overrides so much, means that the custom at most tables is “If it’s in the book, you can have it.” And even if it’s not in the book. (The only disagreements at the table that have been consequential since 5E came out, have been when I have not allowed UA or Homebrew things.)

    When you had to *find* scrolls or research spells, or “pray” to receive spells — all controlled by the DM, and that was the rules and the custom of most groups, the spells that were troublesome did not enter play.

    Where players ran away with the game resulting in extremely high levels, ridiculous quantities of wealth and magic, and the like we had a name for that sort of referee: Monty Haul. (Younger folk will not recall “Monty Hall” a game show host who gave away much money and many prizes.)

    The reason the spells were included was more than just OCD on Gygax’s part. We took them as positives, once we reached college and had some maturity with the game, because they were, in essence, *examples* of mechanics for managing certain things. Not necessarily things we would use directly, but a tool or mechanic or an idea on *how* something could be done within the framework of the game.

    No one in 5E takes Magic Mouth, or Illusory Script. (OK, I had one player take the later. I still don’t understand why.) No one much complains about those spells. Granted they’re low level. I’m not even sure if “Guards and Wards” still exists but that’s another “useless spell”. They exist because the spell lists weren’t just to provide characters with options, but also to provide the DM with options. While I’ve never used the spells I just mentioned as a player, I have often used them as a DM.

    When you’re designing a game that intends to provide a mechanism to accommodate *fantasy* it’s good to provide examples of how odd things can be accomplished. The creators of the game rather assumed players and referees would use a mixture of creativity, native wit, and good judgement in play.

    There’s no reason such spells “shouldn’t be included”. The real problem is that the current play of the game is a culture that is, in a word, “permissive”. The game has in many regards suffered for that. Spells which used to be useful are either diluted, or have so many caveats that they are next to useless for how situational they have become.

    I used to check with the DM for “new spells” depending on my class. Now, if I have the audacity to suggest that a player check with me before they add new spells or prepare spells, I’m often criticized. Then criticized again because “All my spells are useless in this adventure.”

    When I played 1E I may have had to trust the DM to provide spells and played within limits in that regard. At the same time, there was an expectation that spells were “negotiable” to a degree that doesn’t happen anymore. It was approved of to come up with creative uses for spells. We enjoyed that. And the game which then had strong limits on how you came by spells and could use them, managed to still work because of the flexibility. Stuck with nothing but Light, I remember another player “casting light on the eyeballs of the ogre”. Effectively flash-blinding the creature. Light is a cantrip now and doesn’t work like that. There’s no question. And much less creativity.

    In short (because I always rattle on) I wouldn’t blame the spells, I’d blame the culture.

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