A great feature of classic 3.5 is the voluminous content – especially spells. The SRD offers a robust assortment of spells that, with proper planning and shrewd expenditure, can give a player potent abilities. And with supplements and third party publishing, the list expands significantly. But what’s the real value to the player from all these spells? What’s the difference between spells such as fireball and blast of flame? Thematically, not much but mechanically, something tactical players find very important: spell resistance.
But why do I need two different spells to get a fire effect? Add burning hands, scorching ray, flaming sphere, delayed blast fireball, fire orb, fire bug, dragon breath, summon monster 2, and on and on, and you get an uncountable number of spells all doing the same thing: fire damage. This requires a player to do extensive research or memorization to know exactly which fire spell you need from exactly which resource and exactly what slight rules differences exist between each spell. I think this creates an unnecessary burden on players, requires GMs to know too much minutiae, and opens up a distasteful risk during play: the dreaded “Arbitrary Ruling” (more on that another time).
To address this, I’ve been thinking about a prototype mechanic for magic which for the moment I’m calling “Growth Spells”. The concept is that these are spells that grow with your character and can have a specific common theme – perhaps even beyond damage type or method. I have been enamored lately by the idea of small numbers leading to big permutations. Classic 3.5 has a problem of large numbers and “rutted” combinations. I see an opportunity to open that up for interesting builds/play by reducing the numbers but increasing viable additives.
Let’s continue with the example of fire spells. What if instead of innumerable fire spells, I had just one: Fireblast!? I could expend resources to cast my Fireblast spell – at low level, I have less resources to spend so maybe I could only produce an effect that looks like burning hands a few times per day. As I grow in power, I can start to increase my damage, or the size and shape of my fireblast spell. I could expend additional resources to make it no longer subject to spell resistance. I could put in additional effort or actions to yield other additional effects. Importantly, these effects come from me, the character, not the spell I memorized or learned by planning or luck.
Acid arrow and scorching ray sure have a lot in common…both require ranged touch attacks to hit, both have no save, both do elemental damage. But don’t they also have key differences? What are they?? Crack the book or do a search, either way it’s probably taking time away from the table and you didn’t memorize one or the other anyway…and you never will. Most of us who play casters that *can* change their spells don’t really do so very often. So what seems like a big advantage ends up as little more than a seldom-used perk. If many of us have our “stock list” of spells, why do we need so many?
With the concept of growth spells, I can make magic more about my character and less about which books I own or how much SRD searching I did. One spell, Flameblast, gives me all the options of myriad fire spells. And perks or changes to those spells come from character development and uniqueness rather than spell choice. This concept can be applied broadly and readily to a wide array of effects and spells to consolidate the list into a small number. The options can be codified, standardized and balanced to yield character-specific permutations. And then finally overlaid with action mechanics to create a well-rounded experience where casters have many options resulting from a single spell. Light, Haste, Fly and many other spells are prime candidates for this type of intuitive consolidation.
Imagine a mage who knows only a few spells, one of which is Fireblast. Through feats, class abilities, and resource planning/allocation I can create a fun, interesting, and playable character. For example, on round 1 of combat, I move towards the baddies and cook them in a cone of flame. I see that some enemies have survived so I use my swift action to create a fire shield effect that lasts until my next turn. One of my foes is smart (or foolish?) enough to try to grapple me. He’s willing to take the fire shield damage to shut me down for next round. But I’ve got one more trick up my sleeve, as a reaction I use heat metal to affect his armor and now he’ll take that damage, too! Oh no, I’m out of magic resources for the day – but don’t worry, on my next round I can use an “ability burn” mechanic to dig deep and pull myself and my party out of the proverbial fire.