Sunday, August 18, 2013

That'll buff right out

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 really matters.

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.


  1. Those are some points I can agree with. Reading through the spells or encountering them in the game there are quite a few that have stood out as useless but I hadn't so far articulated an opinion.

    Though I like the spell slot system as a whole maybe it's partially a failing of a system that's not fine-grain enough to accommodate marginal spells and give them an appropriate cost. A slot has a level-assignment so a first-level slot is less than third-level one, but that's still not fine enough when you can say a bless or whatever is about 1/5 as useful as another spell of that same level.

    I might also be interested in seeing attempts to make them fit the title, so a bless spell that actually did something awesome, etc. Especially the low-level spells.

  2. House rule for bless - weapons used by characters who are 'blessed' may be treated as magical for the duration of the blessing. This would actually be a huge boon if your party has some low-level mooks as henchmen, who otherwise would be screwed the second any sort of low level aetherial undead or monster with normal weapon resistance showed up. Wraiths are pretty popular low level undead, but will wreck any party without magical weapons.

  3. I think that is a perfect modification of Bless, cirsova!