Travel with me back to the days of yesteryear. Specifically, to the mid-90s. The 2nd edition of D&D is at its height, and a college student by the name of Ari Marmell is devoting far more of his time and energy to running his campaign than he is to less important things such as homework and studying.
I still remember a lot of that campaign fondly, but one of the particular incidents that sticks in my mind would be the first time I ever saw the feather fall spell used offensively.
The party’s engaged in combat with a flock of gargoyles, in an large underground cavern. It’s toward the end of the battle, the wizard is running low on spells. It just so happens that I’d described one of the gargoyles as hovering only a few feet below the cavern’s ceiling.
And the wizard’s player says something to the effect of, "I want to try to time this right and cast feather fall on that gargoyle just as his wings are at their highest."
Now, for those of you who didn’t play, or don’t remember, 2E, here’s that edition’s feather fall:
So, as the player saw it, if timed properly during the flapping of the wings, the sudden decrease in mass would drive the gargoyle hard into the ceiling, doing at least a bit of damage and possibly stunning the creature, if only briefly.
And you know what? I saw no reason not to allow it.
(The same player later used feather fall, in conjunction with the existing wind and a ship-board catapult to transport the party behind the lines of an enemy nation; and used a fireball to extinguish a fire, in much the same way modern oil well firefighters use explosions.)
But the point is, this would be absolutely impossible in either 3E or 4E. The 3E version explicitly effects only free-falling creatures/objects, and also doesn’t address mass; it just makes them fall more slowly. Same is true of the 4E version, which in fact can only be triggered–that is, cast–when a creature falls.
And you know what? I want to go back.
The 3E and 4E versions may be more mechanically balanced. They may not require any last-minute DM adjudication (or "DM fiat," as it’s often called). But frankly, to me, these don’t outweigh the loss.
DM fiat is not inherently a bad thing. The fact that there’s a living, breathing human judging the rules, rather than a program, is one of the strengths of tabletop RPGs. I want the game to take advantage of that fact, not try to minimize it.
And I love, love, love seeing spells used in ways for which they were never intended. I love seeing that sort of player creativity–not in an effort to maximize the math, but just to do something cool.
We’ve lost that in the prior two editions. Spells are designed to absolutely minimize the ability to use them outside their one stated, specific purpose. And again, I understand why. But I’m tired of that being the pinnacle of spell design.
I’m not suggesting that spells should be open-ended or infinitely abusable. But there’s a middle ground, and I want to get back to it.
Don’t just say "This spell makes you fall slower." Go ahead and say "It briefly lessens the creature’s mass," and see what ideas that inspires in creative players. Give the DM a bit of advice for how to judge such things. And let creative players play creative spellcasters.
Let magic be magic.
Edit to add: Note that I’m not saying, in any way, that creative spell use is impossible in 3E or 4E. Of course it’s not. Lots of you have done it. I’ve done it.
But said creative use is certainly less viable, less frequent, and certainly less encouraged, by the rules of later editions than it was in the former.