Design Diary 6

Dr. Spock Eats a Hindu Hamburger

Or, "Logic vs. the Sacred Cow"

(Disclaimer: The title is not intended as a slight against Hinduism - or any other religion - it's just a catchy title I came up with.)

I've been working on the spells for about a month now. My time is a bit curtailed since I have a full-time job, and summer's hit, so the heat kind of saps my enthusiasm a bit (plus wading through 600+ spells is mind-numbing). But I'm down to the S file in the SRD, and I've got enough for a design diary entry.

Those of you who know me from the ENWorld forums might know that I've had a rather amusing quote in my sig for some time now: "Their [WotC's] process of building each edition atop the previous ones has resulted in 3.5 being the Michael Jackson of RPGs, desperately improving itself to ward off obsolescence but attaining only a kind of perverse lichlike state as a mockery of healthier games." (Agamemnon)

The importance (and truth) of that quote never really hit me until I started working on the spells. Back when Gygax developed D&D from a wargame, elven units had been given immunity to ghoul paralysis to beef them up (or something along that line; I forget the exact details). So for 30 years, we've had elves who were immune to ghoul paralysis for no reason than that one. And monks… oh boy, monks. The 1E monk was a smorgasbord of oddball abilities that had absolutely nothing to do with monks in general (wuxia or otherwise). When they were brought back in 3E, the designers didn't bother to have them make sense - they just adapted the abilities for the new system. So now we have monks who are immune to normal diseases, all poisons, are resistant to magic, can speak to all living beings at will, and can dimension door 1/day. It doesn't make a damn bit of sense, but who cares, right?

The spells, perhaps more than anything, are the largest reflection of all the legacy crap that's come before. The guys who made 3E bear a smaller part of the blame here; some of the more broken spells (gate, wish, disjunction) should've come up in playtesting. The ones who did 3.5, however, knew those spells were broken and completely ignored them in favor of changing things that didn't need changed (like darkness). Of course, the 3E designers aren't off the hook, either - there are spells that were copied verbatim from 2E. Rope trick, for example; it has a caveat at the end about combining extradimensional spaces. Never mind the fact that the line made no sense in 2E - there were never any rules for it beyond bags of holding and portable holes - but apparently someone didn't read the spell description when they ported it over, and the line remained. And we still don't know what it means. Normally, something stupid like that, I'd just delete and not think twice about it… but this gets my creative juices flowing. What happens if you try to cast rope trick inside a magnificent mansion? Does it simply fail? Does it open a rift to the Astral Plane and suck everyone through? Does it actually work as described? Who knows? I intend to find out, though.

And then we've got things like the death spells. The following is a list of all the death spells from the PHB - name, level, range, and a summary of target/effects.

  • Circle of death: L6, Medium, 1d4 HD/level in 40-ft. rad. (max 20d4, 9 HD cap).
  • Destruction: L7, Close, single target, destroys utterly, 10d6 on save
  • FoD: L7, Close, single target, kills or 3d6+1/level (+25)
  • Implosion: L9, Close, 1 creature/round for 4 rounds
  • Phantasmal Killer: L4, Medium, two saves, 3d6 on save.
  • Power word, kill: L9, Close, single target 100 hp or less, no save.
  • Slay living: L5, Touch, single target, 3d6+1/level (no cap)
  • Symbol of death: L8, 60 ft., scribed rune affects up to 150 hp total
  • Wail: L9, Close, 1 creature/level in 40 ft. rad.
  • Weird: L9 greater phantasmal killer, Medium (no 2 can be >30 ft. apart), no limit on # of targets, 3d6 damage + stunned 1 rd + 1d4 Str damage on save.

As you can see, the only real constant (besides the "fail a save and die" part) is that most of them are Close-range spells. We've got several spells that deal damage on a successful save (FoD, destruction, PK, slay living, weird), but even then, they don't follow any kind of pattern - FoD and slay living are +1/level, and the others are a flat amount. Symbol of death and power word kill work off hit point totals, while circle of death uses HD - the only three spells that have any kind of limit (to be fair, though, all the power word and symbol spells have hit point limits). Phantasmal killer and weird// have TWO saves - if you die to one of those spells, you're probably either a rogue (low Fort/Will) or you're just plain having a really bad day.

My point: Where's the logic here? We have 10 spells that do basically the same thing (kill one or more targets) that have no cohesiveness. FoD, slay living, destruction - those all did damage on a successful save in 2E. Why? Who knows? They were brought forward with the additional damage in place, though. Implosion and wail of the banshee are new spells, and perhaps the oddest of the lot - implosion is an evocation, which means it works against everything, and death ward won't help you. Wail of the banshee will kill 1 creature/level in a 40-foot radius, no matter how many HD it has. This is, pound for pound, one of the most powerful spells in the book (disregarding the fact that death ward negates it). Not to mention the levels are all over the place - we've got PK at L4, slay living at 5, CoD at 6, and then everything else from 7-9.

So, I had to come up with a cohesive system for all these things. Basically, death spells start at L6 (so PK and slay living got a boost), and their effects are based on their level - instead of insta-killing the target, it drops him to negative hit points (the total depends on the spell level), and he can't recover on his own. For spells with HD caps (circle of death), the cap is also based on spell level (interestingly, this was already in place - spells like cloudkill and circle of death use it).

And of course, to compensate, I had to change the "life" spells - raise dead, reincarnate, resurrection, and true res. These all got bumped up a level or three; raise dead is L6, resurrection is now L9, and true res is gone (it'll make an appearance as a legendary spell). They also got made into rituals (more on that in the next diary entry).

Speaking of HD caps… Enchantment spells. God, those things made me tear my hair out. We've got some spells that affect creatures up to a certain HD (daze, e.g.) and some that affect up to a certain number of HD (sleep). Which would be all well and good… if they actually followed the same rules. And were effective beyond the level you gained them. This fix, at least, was fairly easy - just scale the HD caps a bit, and increase the base HD in some cases.

So, yeah… it's been an interesting journey through the spell archives, and it's not even done. I'll certainly be happy when it is, though.

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