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.