I seem to have magic on the brain lately. I was thinking about writing a post on what I like in spells and what makes a spell awesome vs. merely list-filler. One thing I've noticed is that the spells I most consistently see as boring and pointless are of the sort commonly known as "buffs."
Buffs are spells that don't do anything in and of themselves, but grant a character a temporary bonus to an attribute, statistic, or category of die rolls such as attacks or saving throws. Often they smack of effect-first mechanics, as if the author's first thought was not "What does this spell do in-game?" but "How do I give a bonus to activity X?" It doesn't enable a character to do anything truly extraordinary; it only
makes things he could do anyway a little more likely to succeed. Think bless, or the AD&D strength spell. Giant strength is not a buff. Neither is ESP, regeneration, or levitation, because these all bestow fantastic abilities beyond the capabilities of normal humans.
Why am I so against buff spells? Because they expend a scarce resource on an effect which is relatively trivial, likely to have no real impact on the game, and profoundly uninteresting. A +1 bonus is for mundane, non-magical things like situational adjustments, or for permanent magic items, not for something that you actually spend a precious spell slot to cast. Magic spells shouldn't just give you a slightly better chance to do something that's possible to do anyway; they should allow you to do something awesome. Doubling your size so you can lift that portcullis with one mighty heave is awesome. Turning your fist to granite so that you can punch through an
oak door is awesome. Casting a spell that gives you +2 to Strength
checks...not so much.
Consider the bless spell. It grants +1 to morale, and +1 to attack and damage rolls for the spell duration. The former is only useful if you have NPC mercenaries or henchmen in the party, and even then only if a morale check is required and failed by one point. The attack bonus only comes into play when someone misses an attack by a single point. The damage bonus only matters when that extra point reduces the target exactly to 0 hp so it can't attack again next round. What it all boils down to is that it's possible, even likely, that this second-level spell will have negligible impact on the outcome of a battle.
Is that fun, interesting, or exciting? I think not. Does it
add anything to the game to have a caster expend a spell slot and then
the recipient fails the check and wastes the effect? Is it fun to buff
the fighter's combat accuracy by +1 or +2 and then have most of his
attack rolls succeed or fail by a margin larger than the buff? The only
time that buff is going to seem worthwhile is when rolls fail by less
than the buff bonus. If your roll would have succeeded without it, it
feels wasted. If the roll fails in spite of it, it really feels
wasted. Cast a spell and get an automatic success, and it feels like it
All of this helps me articulate what I think is my single most important Criterion of Spell Awesomeness: A spell should accomplish something extraordinary, or enable a character to. That means either something that couldn't be done at all without magic, or automatic success at a task that would be uncertain or hazardous without magic. It doesn't have to be immensely powerful or flashy, just reliably potent. Its impact, or lack thereof, shouldn't depend on the vicissitudes of the dice (except in special cases, such as attack spells that allow a saving throw to avoid the effect) but on how the caster or recipient chooses to employ its effects.