Spellcasting Sameness

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for June 25th, 2014. Today’s article is a Wednesday Rave; the topic is spell diversity.

A few weeks ago I mentioned in one of my articles that I would be talking about the topic of spell diversity in the near future. Well folks that time has come today! Let’s talk about spell diversity.

What is Spell Diversity?

Spell diversity is exactly what it sounds like: the idea that spells should encompass a diverse range of effects. For the most part, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game’s spells handedly succeed at diversity. There are hundreds of spells in the game, most of which possess unique effects. There are exceptions, such as the alignment-series spells, which all possess the same effects tailored to one specific alignment (chaos, evil, good, or law) but those spells are outliers rather than the norm for spellcasting.

Yes, life as a spellcaster is good. There are plenty of spells for you to choose from and plenty more for you to master. But as you might have guessed, this wouldn’t be an interesting article to read if everything was peachy-keen down in spellsville. So, what’s the problem with the spellcasting system? Why, diversity of course.

A Perplexing Conundrum

That’s right. The very thing that I just praised the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game for is also a problem that the game’s spellcasting system has. But before we can codify the spellcasting system’s flaws, we need to understand where it comes from and what it represents.

The “modern” spellcasting system that is used in Pathfinder and all Dungeons & Dragons products is based off of the literary works of author Jack Vance, who made the concept of magicians as spell guns famous. When I say spell guns, I mean spellcasters who “load” their brains with magic with ritualistic preparation and then “fire” that bullet of magic with a quick process that causes the spells to take effect, expending the bullet in the process. This concept of magic is also dubbed “fire and forget” magic by some and stands in stark contrast to other magic systems, which include Final Fantasy’s point-based system (which is similar to the 3.5/Dreamscarred Press psionics) and Harry Potter’s “I learn the spell once and can use it at will as long as I’m powerful enough” system. The reason game systems favor Jack Vance’s style of magic is one of simple logistics: it is easier to balance powerful spell effects against nonmagical attacks if those magical attacks have some form of drawback. In this case, the drawback is limited uses. It makes game balance much easier while allowing for a wide array of effects. That is, in theory.

The Power of a Spell

Since the Core Rulebook was published, we’ve seen a lot of different spells. But when you’re selecting your spells, where do you look for the majority of your spells? Likely, the answer is the Core Rulebook. Why is that? Well, most of the spells in sources outside of the Core Rulebook are balanced against Core Rulebook spells. Now, let’s look for the most versatile spells we can find. Wall of iron is a great example. So are the summon monster spells. Most polymorph spells are likewise versatile. Now let’s look for spells that break usual casting conventions, such as magic missiles (no hit / save) or acid armor (no spell resistance). Now let’s look at spells outside of the Core Rulebook. Notice anything?

With the exception of the ranger and paladin spell lists, spells generated outside of the Core Rulebook have one common theme: the functionality of said spells becomes significantly tighter. For example, there is a spell in Ultimate Combat that causes firearms to immediately malfunction. That’s all well and good and it makes sense when you’re playing against opponents who love to use firearms, but is this a worthwhile spell for players to memorize? The answer is no, and the reason is Vancian spellcasting. Because a spell’s power is expended the moment it is cast and because spellcasters are limited in the number of spells that they can memorize, spellcaster gameplay is designed around maximizing one’s opportunity for using his or her spells. A wizard must prepare the spells that he believes will be most useful in whatever situations he happens across while a sorcerer must learn the spells that she believes will be useful in most situations. A sorcerer’s limited, unchanging list of available spells means that her spell selection must be appropriate for the largest number of possible situations. Likewise, a wizard can only leave so many spells unprepared and preparing spells takes an awful long amount of time, so he can’t afford to leave many spells vacant for flexibility. He also needs spells that will provide results in many situations as possible. As a result, spellcasters often prepare or learn identical spells because they are the best spells available for a given level. Adding to this problem is the Golden Rule of Pathfinder Spell Design. What’s the Golden Rule, you say? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The Golden Rule of Spell Design

Well-studied Pathfinder players will be pressed to remember that Ultimate Magic included a chapter on spell design. The book talked about many facets of spell design, but one point that it hammered home is that the Core Rulebook spells are the standard by which all other spells should be judged, implying that spells should be wary of overshadowing Core Rulebook options. This is the Golden Rule of Spell Design: “Thou shall keep holy thine Core Rulebook invocations, for thine are the standard by which the heavenly golem judges all others.”

So, is this a good rule or a bad rule?

As a result, flexible spells are the best spells, yet the farther outside of the Core Rulebook you go, the less flexible spells become. Spells become hyperspecialized for specific situations and because the Core Rulebook is supposed to act as the glass ceiling for spells, most spells never come close to the level of power that Core Rulebook spells possess. Because of this, expect every single spellcaster PC in the game to possess those “big hitter” spells.

This leads to an interesting comparison to martial characters. Martial characters, especially melee builds, can be vastly different because the number of essential feats is low (typically, its just Power Attack). On the other hand, there are such a large number of essential spells with no close rivals that most spellcasters feel like they need those spells in order to be proficient in the game. So while magic is “more versatile” than martial combat, in practice martial characters are more versatile than spellcasters because they can pick weird, interesting abilities without feeling punished for it the way that a spellcaster (especially a spontaneous spellcaster like the sorcerer or oracle) would feel.

Spellcasting Choice as an Illusion

So let’s stop and talk about why spell selection is actually an illusion. There are a number of very good reasons, and most of them draw from the inherent flaws of the system itself. Let’s look at the problems:

  • Saving Throw DCs: The save DC mechanic for spellcasting poses a huge problem in and of itself. Spells are designed with an inherent save DC formula: 10 + half the spell’s level + the spellcaster’s key ability score modifier. I have never liked this rule, personally, because it implies that a 20th level wizard and a 3rd level wizard basically cast their fireball spells with the same power. As much as we might hope for the opposite to be true, ability scores do not change much throughout the game and when they do change, it is usually by 3 to 5 points assuming that all of your level advancement points and gold goes into improving them. This means that a fireball (a 3rd level spell with a starting DC of 13) is not going to scale well against a high-level opponent. Part of the key aspects of spell design is that your lower-level spells become less effective as your career marches onward.
  • Spell Caps: Another problem with the spellcasting system is the concept of spell caps. A large number of spells have variable caps attached to them, most of which are met at a fairly low level. For example, fireball caps at 10d6 at 10th level while magic missile caps at 5d4+5 at 9th level. Once those hurdles are met, then the spell becomes less and less useful as opponents gain more hit points and better energy resistances.
  • Effect Monopoly: In order to account for both of the aforementioned facts, spells in Pathfinder often set up a monopoly upon their effects. For example, no area spell hits an area as large as fireball’s until its “upgrade” rolls along at 6th level, delayed fireball, which is king until its final upgrade is introduced, meteor swarm. Many spells are designed to invalidate lower-level spells and if they don’t, that spell gains sole proprietorship over its abilities. As a result, newer spells have to be made to add on new effects (see monstrous physique and vermin shape) or feats need to be made to alter existing options (see the Summon Neutral Monster feat from Champions of Balance).

Ultimately, the game invalidates your choices for you unless you take measures to choose spells that “never go out of style.” Many of the most commonly selected spells have this quality, where they are just as useful at end game as when they are acquired. This includes haste, heroism, acid arrow (one of the only damaging spells in the game that doesn’t allow spell resistance), and magic missile (the only damaging spell in the game that requires no attack roll and allows no saving throw).

Because of this, spellcasting choice is an illusion. If you are looking for a specific effect, there is only one spell that gets the job done. There are no alternate choices or playstyles to choose from; if you want an area burst spell, you need to choose fireball or one of its high-level replacements. No questions asked. This also goes along with many spells having extremely narrow uses or having all-or-nothing save mechanics in order to justify an extremely powerful debuff. For example, pup shape is one of the most debilitating effects in the game, so as a “balancing” measure it can only affect animals and a successful save negates its effects. As a result, no one takes pup shape until they’ve picked the “core use” spells and when someone does take pup shape, its either a wizard looking to make a scroll or two or a sorcerer who is either too new at the game to realize how situational the spell or is looking for a gag spell effect.

Though nothing forces you to choose the powerhouse spells for your build, there is a social stigma, especially in Pathfinder Society, that follows players who ignore the “must-have” spells. Players expect their spellcasters to be able to solve problems and when spellcasters are missing essential “problem-solving spells,” there is sometimes an irritated reaction. Every wizard or cleric player has had to hang her head low and mumble, “I didn’t prepare that spell today,” when the party rogue asks if she can just give them all spider climb and as a sorcerer player I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had to say, “I don’t know how to cast that spell,” to my fellows. How many times have you been in the party caught with its pants down against a swarm because no one took an area effect spell?

This isn’t so much of a flaw with the Vancian spellcasting as it is with spell design; there are very clearly “best spells” in the game and you naturally want to select those “best spells” so you don’t become a burden to the party. Every new spellcaster learns what his party wants him to cast and thusly the illusion of choice is born.

Changing the Way We Design Spells

Luckily for us, this is a problem that isn’t very difficult to solve. It simply involves adding more choice in the way we choose spells. Let’s talk about some different ways we can do that.

  • More Elemental Representation. One of the core things worth noting about the current system is the distinct lack of “orb of” spells. In 3.5, Wizards of the Coast made alternate spells for EVERY occasion. I specifically reference the “orb of” spells because they were a series of five spells, each of which was identical except for the fact that each spell used a different element. And honestly, that’s an okay way to design spells. Adding more diversity in elemental effect is a great way to add choice. As crazy as it sounds, but having few differences means that you can pick spells that suit your needs while changing things up. Looking at 3rd-level spells and lower, acid arrow, fireball, and lightning bolt are all commonly chosen because they each fulfill a specific need (acid arrow ignores spell resistance, fireball has a huge burst effect, and lightning bolt strikes in a line). Many spellcasters end up choosing all three of these spells. But now, what if we could pick from acid arrow or burning arrow, fireball or frostball, and lightning bolt or flame bolt? You would see people choosing between these variant in different combinations because the spells are effectively the same except for one small detail because energy damage type is often used as personal flavor or flair, such as the ice magic or lightning mage. In the current game, fire dominates the evocation spell list without good reason to.
  • More Spells with Similar Effects: Along the same thought process as noted above, the game needs a wider variety of spells that fill specific roles. For example, magic missile is the only spell in the game that does damage without needing an attack roll or saving throw, which is one of the reasons that it is widely considered to be a strong spell choice. More spells like magic missile need to be in the game, even if they don’t have the draw of being a force spell. For example, sonic missile would be an excellent example even if it was identical to magic missile in all other ways (it doesn’t need to be).
  • Spell Condensation and Expansion: There are spells out there that have effects that are far too general. An example is pup shape, which can specifically transform animals into cute, inexperienced kits. Despite awesome roleplaying implications, pup shape isn’t commonly chosen because it comes in at a point in the game where animals become less commonly encountered foes. But if pup shape could target more opponents (let’s say humanoids, vermin, and magical beasts), the spell would probably see more use as a unique, effective debuff mechanic. Now that said, pup shape is a spell that could very well be too powerful for a 3rd level spell if it could be used often, but that’s one of the problems with post-Core Rulebook spell design; many spells justify unreasonable power with restrictive usefulness and restricting one’s opportunity to use a spell makes one unlikely to select it because of the limitations of the Vancian spellcasting system. Good spells have a variety of uses.

More Things to Try

If I was adamant about changing around the spellcasting system to make choice matter more, here are some things I would consider:

  • Spell DCs That Scale. An important step in making spell selection matter is to make spells powerful by merit of the spell’s caster. To this end, changing the DC to 10 + half of the caster’s level + the caster’s key ability modifier would go a long way to keeping spells useful. That way, a 20th level wizard’s fireball is powerful because a 20th-level wizard is casting it, not because fireball is an inherently powerful spell. This would completely invalidate the Heighten Spell feat, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.
  • More Opportunities to Switch Spells for Spontaneous Casters. Allowing players more opportunities to switch spells allows them to experiment more with a higher feeling of safety. Some players pick the classic spells because they know those spells are tried and true. Giving players more forgiveness for picking poor spells for their needs makes those players feel safer about trying new things.
  • Feats that Enhance Spells. I’m sorry, but rain of frogs and mad monkeys do not need to be their own spells. What if feats were added that provide new options for existing spells much in the same manor as Summon Neutral Monster? And I’m not talking about Metamagic feats, I’m talking about constant benefits? For example, what if the Mad Monkeys feat added the option to summon a monkey swarm to the summon swarm spell? That could be another awesome way to keep spells relevant for a long period of time. This idea goes along with the mythic spellcasting system from Mythic Adventures, which I believe was an excellent step in making spell selection matter for mythic characters. Let’s think about how we could extend that to non-mythic characters too.

And that about wraps up my thoughts on spell variety for this installment of the Wednesday Rave. What do you think? Do you think that spellcasters suffer from a degree of sameness or does the phenomena that I described not happen in your games? If it does happen to you, how do you combat spell sameness? If it doesn’t, why do you think that your experiences differ from my own? Am I just a rampant optimizer with no sense for character creativity? Leave your answers and comments below, and I’ll see you next time for another exciting Gibbering Mouth!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune crossblooded sorcerer. At least, for now it is.

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4 thoughts on “Spellcasting Sameness

  1. Obviously, you’re just a no good optimizing munchkin power gamer 😛

    But no, I totally agree and I even mentioned this very topic in a previous comment on here. It’s even worse because, often times those ‘must-have-spells’ are must have for a reason, they are needed. There was a sorcerer in our Legacy of Fire Group that tried picking all spells on a theme of “I’m a wind mage!”. So he picked up spells like Gust of Wind, Shocking Grasp, Vanish (because the wind can’t be seen), etc. The problem was, his most useful ability in combat, was simply casting Vanish on the party Rogue repeatedly so he could get Sneak Attack. His out of Combat utility was awful as he had none of the common problem solvers.

    It didn’t help the player often had conflicting work schedule. We ended up solving this with me playing two characters, my Monk and a Wizard build I’d had laying around. The Wizard was well received by the party (except one player whom she accidentally insulted), because she could contribute far more often, be it in battle (as a Mistress of Fireballs) or out (lots of utility).

    I always feel that casters, *especially* arcane casters, are always the same. Divine casters have more flexibility in them depending on their class, but Sorcerers, Wizards and Witches have most of the same spells and play very similarly (Hex being the notable exception). Amongst Divine Casters though, playing an Oracle, a Cleric and a Druid can have very different feels to them.

    Martials, on the other hand, are very, very different. Granted, certain things are common amongst nearly all martials (like Power Attack), but I see a huge variety in builds and feat selections amongst martials. With in the same class, they are more similar, but when you compare a Fighter, to a Barbarian, to a Cavalier to a Ranger, you get can get 4 totally different builds that are all equally viable.

    Casters might have wildly different feats, but they’re spell selections are almost identical unless they have a very specific theme going for them.

    Hell, even on the BBEG side this is the same, just in a different way. BBEG casters tend to have bunch of very similar spells, though the spell selection is often very different from PC casters. A BBEG Wizard might be a super necromancer, while the PC Wizard might have Necromancy as an opposed school.

    I think this comment is getting long enough, so I’ll get off my little box here 😛

    • I don’t, but after reading the new Oracle Mysteries that Kobold Press came out with, I might have to change that sooner than I expected. As a designer, I prefer to purchase products that I can use to fuel my own creativity, and sadly a lot of Deep Magic isn’t OGL.

  2. A yes I remember the discussion about it on paizo. That they don’t put their stuff completelty in the OGL is a pity imho.

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