Spellfire of the Vanities

Once upon a time, in the ancient days, there was a setting called The Forgotten Realms – an exciting land, where heroes and their guiding spirits spent many pleasant hours consulting books of rules, rolling strangely-shaped dice, and scribbling down numbers on pieces of paper.

And then came Spellfire.

OK, actually a lot of other things came along, but Spellfire gets pointed at fairly often as a “broken mechanic”.

There’s really no arguing with this one. To the extent any game mechanic can be broken (and we have our own discussions about that, Part I, Part II, and Part III), Spellfire – at least in the way it was implemented – is.

Spellfire is a grossly potent effect. It allows the user to absorb magical energy, redirect that energy into blasts, and often power magic indefinitely. Full-on comic book superheroes have done a great deal with only a part of that power.

Even at that, the in-game version is much, much weaker than the literary version, which amounted to “yur hed asplode”. In one (poorly written power-fantasy – at least judging by some personal looks and the reviews on Amazon) trilogy of novels, a minor mageling with almost no experience turns two dracoliches into kindling with Spellfire. Trying to implement that in a d20 game – at least with the “no experience” part – really does foul up quite a lot of other rules.

You could build a character who looks like that in Eclipse of course; you’d just be spending quite a lot of points on buying massive Path of the Dragon abilities and a relative few on buying minor magical abilities. The “almost no experience” part is harder. While we made sure that you could build something that worked like Spellfire when we designed Eclipse, our version is expensive enough that – if you want to be a superheroic wielder of Spellfire – it will probably have to be a primary focus of your character and you won’t be all that good at it until you’re of fairly high level. Still, it’s no more inherently “broken” than any other power set.

The real problem with it is not that Spellfire is powerful, but that it literally has no place in the game. It amounts to a giant freebie with very little explanation, a random divine gift for no reason. It isn’t “broken” because it’s powerful; it’s broken because it squats menacingly if awkwardly on top of the normal rules – costing only cost one feat and without equivalents.

We’re fine with two thirds of that.

We’re also fine with other characters enjoying having Ares hauling them off as babies for a dip in the River Styx (rendering them migh-invulnerable to all weaponry), Cyric taking a liking to a character and personally granting them terrible powers, or Odin lending somebody Gungnir for a weapon and Sleipneir as a pet. For that matter, we’re fine with characters being the actual children of the gods or playing lesser deities themselves. If you want to run a game with a major god playing alongside the characters, that’s alright too. The deity will simply have invested lots of points in divine influence – and less in personal power. That’s why heroes can fight gods.

Basically, if one god or power – including the Game Master – can hand out gifts, so can the rest. Spellfire is either a random gift from Mystra (Forgotten Realms) or an incredibly exotic and rare inborn talent, or both. That’s fine – but either way, the characters should be free to ask for some other, comparable but different, divine gift or innate talent.

Since Spellfire was implemented as a single feat, it should have been a part of a line of feats of similar power, offered one to a customer.

As it was, there was no other single feat which did as much for you – and so there was no trade-off and no reasonable alternative. It didn’t really matter what class you chose or what kind of thing you wanted to do. If the game master was willing to let you take Spellfire, you did it – because if the game master was allowing it SOMEBODY would, and the game was almost certain to revolve around whoever DID take it. Whether you were a pure role-player or a pure mechanical optimizer or anything in between, Spellfire was your best friend. It was a guaranteed starring role for the cost of one little feat!

In Legends of High Fantasy, we put in a series of specialty feats which granted mighty blessings, terrible (but often useful) curses, and random magical artifacts. We expected that every single character could and would take one, and made each option useful. None of those were as instantly useful and always good as Spellfire, and you still only had one.

Spellfire as an idea isn’t broken. But the implementation needed a lot more work and there needed to be other options at a similar power level. It would have done nicely in a book entitled something like “Champions of the Gods”, where the presumption was that – in the face of some terrible upcoming disaster – various gods had handed out some super-powers to the destined Champions of the Realm or some such. Spellfire would have fit right into a book full of powers like that.

Every choice should have a worthwhile alternative, even if some choices are somewhat better than others. Spellfire fails that test. It doesn’t break that semi-mythical “game balance”. It breaks the character creation process.

Advertisements

4 Responses

  1. You know, the idea of alternate “feats” that did something on a similar power level to Spellfire feat is not something I had considered before. It would definitely be one way to handle the “PC’s are unique” idea if they are receiving a major power as a divine champion, especially if an entire pantheon of allied deities boosts a group of low level adventurers towards some end.

    • Oh yes. It would be fairly easy to sort out in Eclipse too; just buy Path of the Dragon abilities until you have your “spellfire” as powerful as you want it to be, add it up – and you have your point allotment for the other “champions”.

      The ECL adjustment would be more or less irrelevant though; since you’re concentrating on quick access to raw, specialist, powers rather than something like being a half-dragon (where some of the abilities will be more or less useful) such templates would be unreasonably powerful for their ECL adjustments – which also more-or-less fits in with the source material.

  2. I wrote the article above, and in fact am putting together a listing right now of suitably awesome abilities. I think everyone will enjoy them.

    • Sadly, I’m mostly posting very late these days and forgot to put in the collaboration note… In apology, here’s the original text I edited from:

      “Spellfire is broken!”

      There’s really no arguing with this one. To the extent any game mechanic can be broken (and we have our own bit about that), this is.

      Let’s review. Spellfire is a grossly potent effect. It allows the user to absorb magical energy, redirect energy into blasts, and often power magic indefinitely. Full-on comic book superheroes have done a great deal with only a part of that power. When we created Eclipse, we made sure you could effectively use Spellfire if you invested into the Path of the Dragon.

      And even at that, the in-game version is much, much weaker than the literary version, which amounted to “yur hed asplode”. In one (poorly written power-fantasy) novel, a minor mageling with almost no experience turned two dracoliches into kindling with Spellfire.

      The real problem with it is not that Spellfire is powerful, but that it literally had no place in the game. It amounted to a giant freebie with very little explanation, a random divine gift for no reason. It wasn’t “broken” because it was powerful; it was broken because it squatted menacingly if awkwardly on top of the normal rules.

      We’re fine with that.

      We’re also fine with other characters enjoying Ares hauling them off as babies for a dip in the River Styx (rendering them invulnerable to all weaponry), Cyric taking a liking to a character and personally shielding them from harm, or Odin lending somebody Gungnir for a weapon and Sleipneir as a pet. For that matter, we’re fine with characters being the actual children of the gods or playing lesser deities themselves. Heck, if you want to run a game with a major god playing alongside the characters, that’s alright too. The deity will simply have lots of other business to attend and have more disadvantages than you can shake a stick at.

      Basically, if one god – including the Game Master – can hand out gifts, so can the rest. Spellfire was either a random gift from Mystra (Forgotten Realms) or incredibly exotic and rare inborn talent, or both. And other kinds of characters should have somewhat equal bonuses to look towards.

      The real problem remains that there’s no real cost. Either you can take Spellfire, in which case do so unless you’re an idiot, or you can’t. There’s no trade-off here, no reasonable alternative. In-game, it’s rendered as a single ability, and there’s simply no other feat as worthwhile, ever. It doesn’t matter what class you chose or what kind of fun you want to do: Spellfire is your best buddy. Slightly complicating this is the fact that there was at least one Prestige Class for Spellfire use. The whole PrC might not be entirely worth the cost compared to others. But Spellfire itself is priced way too low for what it does, and critically, there are no other similar abilities.

      In Legends of High Fantasy, I put in a series of specialty feats which granted mighty blessings, terrible (but often useful) curses, and random magical artifacts. I anticipated that every single character could and would take one, and made each option useful. None of those were as instantly useful and always good as Spellfire, and you still only had one.

      To sum up, he’s right to think Spellfire is not broken. But it simply shouldn’t have been in the game unless they were prepared to do a lot more work with it, and with a lot of other kinds of options. As it is, the ability is just a meaningless freebie with no thought to it. Every choice should have a worthwhile alternative, even if some are better than others. Spellfire fails that test. It doens’t break balance, it breaks the very concept of building your character.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: