Saturday, August 1, 2009

Balancing D&D Style Spells

First, sorry there hasn't been much posting lately. I just got over a nasty bout of the flu that landed me in the hospital for a few days and it sucked. On the upside, I had my laptop and did a lot of RPG reading as I had little else to do while under quarantine. I have some more creative thoughts stewing in my nugget but for now I'll stick to something more mundane.

One issue I thought about was spell balance. The DF forums have had a number of polls about most popular spells. One thing that I think is clear is that some spells are very potent and useful and others never see the light of day. Here's a thread that discusses that issue.

I want to repost the solution I developed in that thread here because I think it has some value.

FIRST STEP: Identify
How do we identify problem spells?

- Nazim's polls provide good guidelines. If 95%+ of folks think its awesome, its likely awesome. If <5% ever pick it, it likely sucks.
- Best spell in vast majority of circumstances. If a spell is effective for combat and utility, and it works in a wide variety of circumstances, it might need a look.
- "I know it when I see it." Like the Supreme Court said, sometimes you just know.

NEXT STEP: Fix OP spells
How do we reduce the power level of overly powerful spells?

- Increase Casting Time: This is dangerous as it risks making the spell useless. 1E's spell disruption rules are pretty harsh; if it weren't for the high probability of losing any long-cast spell, I'd be tempted to say that the uber spells just take two rounds to cast. But that's not viable in 1E. Next.
- Increase Level: This has a lot of merit; its an easy systematic fix. However, it removes certain essential spells from the mage's repertoire at key levels. As has been pointed out, without Sleep, a first level mage is a liability. Waiting even longer for Fireball or Ice Storm is not going to be cool. Next.
- Add Material Component. Now this one, I like. It allows the magic-user to still use their best spells, but we can prevent the Spamming of Spells by adding a material component that costs resources. Spell Level x 50 GP ought to do the trick. Or, you could require use of a special "focus gem." The gem costs 500-1000 GP -- it has to be a cost that's affordable for a low level character but meaningful for a mid or high level character. Whenever an Uber-Spell is used, the player must roll 1d10 (or 1d20, depending on how expensive you want to make these spells). If the player rolls the spell level or lower on the die, then the entire focus is kaput. Cracked, ruined, sucked into the ether, whatever. If they roll higher, then its all good and can be reused. The focus idea is kind of neat because (1) it reduces bookkeeping compared to tracking "12 pinches of powdered gem dust" and (2) it provides a springboard for cool adventures. Finding one of these Arcane Power Gems is a real treat and could be the focus of an adventure.

FINAL STEP: Fix weak spells
How do we increase the power of overly weak spells?

I think the easiest solution is to reduce them in level by one. Giving access to the weak spells a bit early isn't going to hurt anything, most likely, and you can always move it back if it does. This necessitates creating a cantrip/orison level. Or, you could let a player swap one level I spell slot for 3 or 4 "orisons" (i.e., crappy spells).

The other, more elegant, and likely better long run option is to consider each spell individually and apply fixes as needed. That, however, entails lots of work for both DMs (who must make up new house rules) and players (who must learn them). Pass!