What I Want to See in DND: More Magic Tweaks

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Posted on March 13, 2012 at 3:23 PM
Mar 132012

Since I’ve been talking about magic a lot lately, let me continue to talk about magic. ;-)

One thing that’s long bothered me–and this is not edition-specific–is the fact that it’s almost always best for spellcasters to throw some of their most powerful magic early in any major battle. Call it “going nova,” call it “alpha strike,” call it whatever current meta-game term might be in vogue. Doesn’t matter. Fact is, sure, it’s often best, tactically, to open with the big guns–but I’d like to see things tweaked so that it’s not the best option quite so often.

I was thinking that an interesting way to accomplish that, and to give spellcasting players some more meaningful in-combat choices, would be for many spells–not all, not even most, but many–to have different riders depending on when they’re used. Here’s what I mean.

(For purposes of this exercise, assume that the next edition has something comparable to 4E’s “Bloodied” condition–that is, the creature is down half or more of its total hit points. Also, the following examples haven’t been worked out for balance or anything, so feel free to ignore the specific numbers. I’m just tossing them out there are theoretical examples.)

Disintegrate remains a single-target spell. It deals some ugly amount of damage, say 12d6. But, if the target is already bloodied, and if the spell deals damage equal to half or more of the creature’s remaining hit points, the creature turns to dust and dies instantly.

So, what’s the best use of the spell now? Break it out early, and do a chunk of damage? Or hold it in reserve, in hopes that later in the battle, it won’t only do a chunk of damage but might kill when it otherwise wouldn’t?

Fireball remains a broad area effect spell, and deals, say, 5d6. But, if the fireball actually kills one or more of its targets, those creatures burst into flame, dealing an extra 2d6 to all creatures adjacent to them.

So, it remains a no-brainer to start with if you’re dealing with a huge horde of really weak creatures, but that’s what it should be for. When it comes to stronger creatures, do you use the spell early, when they’re charging in and therefore grouped? Or do you wait until they’ve been weakened, so that the spell might kill and therefore do extra damage, at the risk of never catching as many of them together as you otherwise might?

Not only can tweaking spells like this present interesting tactical choices and cut down on “going nova,” but it can also be used to partially solve another problem people often have with spellcasters–namely, that they overshadow everyone else. This can be somewhat corrected by tweaking some of the spells so they work better in conjunction with other PCs. Again, for instance…

Finger of Death: This spell deals 10d6 damage to the target, any time the creature suffers an injury from any source, it takes an additional 1d6 damage. (Save ends, or for 1d6 rounds, or however the new edition measures variable duration.) If the target is already bloodied when the spell is cast, the damage dice (both initial and lingering) become d8s instead.

Again, use it early so you’re dealing a lot of damage up-front? Or save it, in hopes of squeezing more damage out of it, but perhaps have the spell active and helpful for less of the total combat?

Knock: For the next minute, all Thievery/Open Locks/whatever rolls to open the targeted door are at -10 DC.

So the wizard hasn’t suddenly stepped on the rogue’s toes. He’s just made the rogue’s job easier.

Again, this is all just me spitballing, and I’m not saying that any of these specific examples are necessarily the way to go. But they show off the kinds of tweaks that I think would make the spells and combats more interesting, and would cut down a little on the “overshadowing” problem.

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  10 Responses to “What I Want to See in DND: More Magic Tweaks”

  1. The problem I see with this is that it’s not abstract enough. It makes it so that the spells physically work a certain way and this raises questions about how they would work in situations beyond what is planned for. Some people dig cleverness like someone saying “So, if I pour out this bag of wounded rats before I fireball then they’ll all explode and do tons of extra damage,” but I feel like it gets around and misses the point of the spells. I know that’s just and example, but better to have it abstract and to add cool description to the outcome. If one guy in a fireball suffered a critical maybe that IS because he was too close to a hapless rat. No need to add extra, abuseable mechanics where cool description would do.

  2. A purely descriptive change wouldn’t have the effect on game-play I’m looking for.

    And as far as the “bag of rats” phenomenon… I don’t believe that game mechanics should be limited by the fact that some people deliberately seek out ways to abuse them that are blatantly against the spirit of the rules. I much prefer a note to the DM saying, “Don’t allow stupid tricks like the bag of rats,” and leave it at that.

  3. I like this idea a lot, and agree with the goals of introducing tactical choices beyond “which rocket should I fire first?”

    Over at thenexted.com we’ve been batting around the idea of giving spell casters (which function within the Vancian style casting system) the ability to cast smaller versions of their spells as long as they have them readied – basically at-will spells based on the daily spells you’ve got slots for or have prepared.

    For example, if your character has Fireball readied (either because you play a wizard that has it prepared or a sorcerer that has an open 3rd level spell slot and knows Fireball) he can attempt to cast a lesser version of Fireball with a skill check, perhaps its a 5 ft burst within 25 ft that deals 1d6+modifier fire damage instead of the 3d6+modifier that it usually does. If the caster chooses the bigger effect, and thus no longer has Fireball readied, he loses the option to use the lesser spell too.

    This introduces the choice of “have a big effect now, but lose the associated at-will abilities for the rest of the day.” It’s still a work in progress but basically it aims to correct the same issues you’ve pointed to here, along with the issue of the 15-minute work day by granting at-will style spells.

    You can see the full conversation for this and help us flesh it out at: http://thenexted.com/wiki/index.php/Talk:Spells#Vancian-Exploit_System

  4. While I agree that novaing is an issue, I’m not sure this is the best way to solve it. While it’d work well for some spells, it’d invariably create an issue early combat where the mage would feel like he wasn’t getting the full benefit of his spell, rather than feeling like he was getting a bonus for using it later.

    And if it’s not omnipresent, they’ll just get the best spells that don’t work like that and only have one or two spells that reward being used as a finisher.

    That said I AM in favor of adding riders to spells to make them more useful after a setup, but ‘bloodied’ shouldn’t be the main conditition. Some others should be things like…

    -If the target is Prone, he gets a -4 on his saving throw vs the ‘Drop a rock on his head’ spell

    -The Channeled spells, that reward you for spending extra casting time on them.

    -Spells that take advantage of a target under another status, like Entangled, or On Fire.

    Hey, there’s a good one, how about a fire spell that does extra damage if the target is already on fire?

    That said, I am 200% on board with your idea for Knock. Maybe a bit of tweaking, of course, but I really want it to make it work like a bonus to Open Lock (or a reduction of the DC) and not just “Door’s Open”

  5. I much prefer the “GM uses a fireball against the character carrying the bag of rats” solution.

    I much prefer magic that is something more than a damage dice with some fluff text; this is a step in the right direction.

  6. Wait, hold up, why is the bag of rats thing a problem? There’s a line in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality that runs something like “Cheating is how the losers describe tactics.” A bag of rats isn’t cheating. It’s tactics. In fact, it’s damn clever tactics. If a player of mine went to the effort of going out and getting a bag of rats strictly so they could let it loose in an upcoming battle specifically so that their fireball great to horrific proportions, I would probably toss them a few extra experience points for creative thinking.

    The bottom line for me is: why should we want our players to be dumb? Isn’t the game a lot more fun when they think outside the box? And if they’re thinking outside the box in a way that both takes advantage of a loophole in the rules AND makes for a brilliant, hilariously epic moment in-world, doesn’t that mean that the system works?

  7. Those are some cool ideas, and as someone else said, the conditions could also differ from Bloodied, making for less or more complex setups for the spells.
    Another good idea, that may be harder to marry with tradition though, is the way Diablo 3 has its Demon Hunter class, a 4e Assassin basically. The non-attack powers and some strategical “battle-changing” ones consume the Discipline resource, which is harder to come by, while plain attacks consume Hatred. But Hatred is even generated by some basic attacks, making you have to alternate some basics to some big ones, and at the same time use you Discipline responsibly. Now, the split into two different resources could be overkill (although some spells such as Sleep don’t strike me as something that should consume the same resource as Fireballs), but the fact that some spells create the resource that big ones consume is one of the best around.
    I’d even tie them in a logical way, such as “Fireball – requirement: two fire spells in the last two rounds.” – And then “Special: Until you have Fireball memorized, you can use Scorching Ray once per encounter and Fire Burst at-will. After you cast it, you still can use Fire Burst but only once per encounter”. And with this you solve both momentum and the illogic thing of having 5 Fireballs memorized and not a simple fire spell to light the camp fire…

  8. Oh, and the system I propose also gives very good reasons to not memorize more copies of the same spells: it would be very redundant and you’d end up with a little selection of at-wills (although maybe they would be more damaging, it could be ruled like that). Of course though, since every slot is potentially a daily, an encounter, and an at-will, slots would need to be less than the usual amount.
    Or maybe at-will could be left out of this game to avoid Wizards stepping on the toes of Sorcerers and Warlocks too much. And speaking of this, I have very different ideas for them. They should use completely different systems and their spells should feel completely different. Briefly, Sorcerers should deal with “raw magic” and Warlocks with “outsider magic”. While Wizards would be the users of true “arcane magic”, or if you want to call everything arcane, Wizard’s should have the “formal magic”, or “academic magic”. Their spells are constructed, and they work “by the book”… Sorcerers should be able instead to morph their spells from the very building blocks of magic and reality, aka raw magic, while Warlock spells should feel alien, out of control, with a life of their own, demanding things but also rewarding accordingly.

  9. Why aren’t you working on the next edition?

    I really love these ideas. Introducing more tactical thinking to spellcasting would be great. Sometimes it gets to be too easy to almost macro your spells depending on whether it is a horde of low levels or one or few tough enemies.

    I could see this becoming a bit too complex for some players (but could work as a “module” or whatever they are calling the add-ons to core). I do worry about Adam’s point that rather than looking like a bonus to wait, it is easily perceived as a penalty to use early. So it becomes just as macro’ed just in reverse with the wizard hanging back lobbing softballs until the front line softens up the enemies just enough and then WHAM! and suddenly the battle is over. But I’m not sure that’s a problem in principle or just in the details of implementation.

    Another possibility (that could even work with your idea) that does add more complexity, so I’d see it as optional, but have spells add certain conditions to targets. These conditions may do nothing on their own but other spells (or even other actions by nonspellcasters) can build off of those conditions. Casting grease adds the flammable condition. Fire spells or even torches cause increased fire damage. Finger of death might place a condition like you mention that causes the target to take extra damage from any attack (so nonspellcasters can join in the fun), but also maybe necromantic spells are harder to save against as well.

    It’s definitely more complex and I’d argue against a lot of this as default. But if the “module” format looks how it sounds like it looks, this could be a great awesome option. I know some players who would hate the increased complexity, and others that would drool over it.

  10. I like these ideas. A lot. I think it gives spells an interesting strategic component.

    It makes me wonder how it could be used outside of combat as well. Skill challenges, however they’re handled, might be really interesting when combined with this. What conditions could you put on a charm spell? If you already have a favorable reaction, might the duration be longer? Or there are fewer limitations on the actions they’ll willingly take? It gives incentive for the bard to go first to soften the mark so the wizard can maximize the efforts. However, in combat, the wizard can still get a short effect from a hostile target.

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