My Rise of the Runelords campaign has marked the first time I’ve actually run a game for a high level party in the 10 years or so since 3.0 came out. Somehow, most of my previous games ended around 12th level. What I learned is that magic starts to get disgusting pretty quickly past mid level. I’m not talking about the symbols and the other save-or-die effects that are constantly quoted. I’m talking about the lower levels spells (primarily buffs) that have been gradually overpowered to the point that you really start to notice them when your casters have enough slots to be running a bunch of them all the time. As a GM, you don’t ever really have as much time for mastering the interactions of spells as any player, and it’s rather depressing to see something you’d intended to be a major challenge to the party shut down by a handful of long-duration buffs the caster runs as a matter of course. Thus, the observations below:
Spells, particularly lower level spells, should probably never provide a blanket immunity to core capabilities of higher level casters/spells. Unless it’s something of very marginal use that’s only annoying, not actively harmful, it’s a big problem when a spell specifies “immune.”
I started down this path when I noticed that Freedom of Movement completely invalidated the core shtick of my group’s monk: Grappling. It didn’t make casters much harder to grapple, it made them immune, no matter how good his grappling ability got (and it got very good indeed). In its original conception, any cleric that expected to fight the party and had heard about their monk would be a fool not to cast this spell, and then the player would never get to do his favorite thing.
In general, I figure that any spell that creates an immunity should probably either be retooled to a very high resistance (that scales with caster level, possibly to a max for the spell level as the Cure spells do) or offer a contested caster level roll (say, attacker’s CL + Spell Level vs. defender’s CL + Spell Level + 20). This should create a chance, even if it’s a small one, for a higher level character/spell to punch through defenses that are easy to erect.
- Create Water: This one is a Pathfinder problem because they let casters use unlimited level 0 spells per day. A GM is advised to declare that this pulls water vapor out of the air, and is thus far less effective in dry environments and/or when cast in rapid succession, if he or she ever intends to run a desert campaign.
- Protection from Alignment: At some point, this fairly long-duration, first level buff became a blanket immunity to most of the Enchantment school and a large chunk of Conjuration (Summoning) in addition to being a fairly decent defensive buff against evil creatures. A world with this spell is a world where it’s foolish to be an Enchanter unless you’re true neutral, and it’s not worthwhile to summon any kind of outsider to assist you unless they happen to wield weapons. For future uses, I’d probably roll the non-domination Enchantment immunities back into the the standard +2 save bonus, give summoned creatures a Will save against the spell DC to attack, and run the domination immunity as discussed above (with a contested caster + spell level check to punch through).
- Magic Missile: I know it’s iconic. I know it’s little changed from its original wording. But at some point, a first level damage spell shouldn’t be the go-to fallback for high level casters. An interesting side effect of the spell is that it also eats through Mirror Image at high levels. Really, I think the key problem with this spell is that it deals unresistable damage. If it did the caster’s choice of fire, cold, or electricity damage (even determined at time of casting) it would at least be somewhat balanced at higher levels.
- Disguise Self: This spell isn’t so much overpowered as it is annoying, particularly in how inexpensive it makes a Hat of Disguise for being 1st level. A character with access to this spell becomes an infiltrator unparalleled. I’m not sure what one could do to fix it without making it useless, however.
- Resist Energy: 10 energy resistance is always good. This spell already scales to be a very long duration buff at high levels. It probably doesn’t also need to scale to 30 energy resistance. Did you know that there aren’t a lot of energy spells that can consistently do more than 30 damage that aren’t subjected to multiple reductions by this spell? 30 Fire Resistance declaws Meteor Swarm.
- Glitterdust: I hope you didn’t plan on ever using a monster that was invisible again after third level. This spell should probably use the Dispel Magic mechanics and just be a targeted Dispel to suppress Invisibility-related effects, rather than automatically making them pointless.
- Scorching Ray: Like Magic Missile, this spell may simply scale too well, and is another go-to attack spell even at high level. I’ve heard that this one is particularly disgusting in the hand of Arcane Tricksters, as each ray can get a sneak attack. It’s probably fine, and faster to deal with at the table, if it becomes a single-target Fireball: 1d6 damage per level to one target as a ranged touch, capping at 10d6.
- Knock: This spell has the twin effects of potentially invalidating the rogue and becoming a required spell in modules to open anything magically locked. It should probably require the caster to make some kind of level check as an automatic attempt to open the lock at the lock’s normal DC. Conversely, magically locked devices should probably have some kind of DC, even a very high one, for rogues to get them open, rather than relying on the characters having access to Knock.
- Delay Poison: Did you know that this spell technically makes you immune to poison for many, many hours? Sure, you’re supposed to take the effects later, but having to remember that makes a lot of extra work for the GM. And do poison-related spells, such as Cloudkill, even technically still exist later? This spell should probably just be a flat bonus to saving throws vs. poison and/or be cast to delay the effects of a single, specific application of poison.
- Silence: Apparently, Silence was originally just meant to help armor-wearers stealth. Very quickly, it became a mage-killer spell. Even though it theoretically has a save for the target, no one ever targets the caster; they target the tank or, even better, a rock that can be carried by the tank or thrown next to the caster. I’d suggest changing this to a bonus to Stealth in a radius when cast normally, with the option to target a caster specifically (and allow the save) if you want to prevent verbal spells.
- Magic Circle against Alignment: This has all the problems of of Protection from Alignment, plus it’s bigger and has a larger duration. It’s also changed a lot from 2nd edition, where it didn’t ever seem to be intended to be an aura that traveled with the caster. Even 3rd edition seemed to have intended it to be static, but accidentally used the term “emanation” to describe its radius instead of “burst.” From 3.5 onward, it became an aura. The spell is fine with the Protection from Alignment adjustments described earlier and if it’s changed from an emanation to a burst, thus staying put once it’s cast for both uses.
- Scrying: They still haven’t fixed Scry/Teleport. Pathfinder’s description of the spell is almost there, but it still lets you teleport to the target. I’d go so far as to say you only see the target against a completely indistinct background. That way, the spell serves its purpose as a spying tool without also making it a perfect weapon to insta-gank the target, wherever he or she may be.
- Greater Invisibility: It doesn’t break. It used to at least make the attacker partly visible after the first attack. Now, it’s sneak attacks, all spell long. A rogue would be crazy not to ask for this spell to be memorized and cast every day. The spell is 4th level, and invisibility has a lot of methods to disable it. But damn.
- Freedom of Movement: As mentioned above, it’s really annoying to a grapple-specialized character to be blanket immune to grappling. I changed this in my game to a + Caster Level bonus to CMD vs. grappling and to checks to escape grapples. It still had mostly the same effect, but preserved the chance that the monk would get a hold on the target. (However, as a side note, attempts to escape a grapple should really be a contested CMB check, not a check against the grappler’s CMD. Someone who’s doing a lot of grappling probably has a truly disgusting CMD, particularly if a monk, as CMD adds in Dex and all deflection and evasion bonuses to AC. Those bonuses don’t exactly explain why it’d be harder to escape the character’s grapple.)