Being a long-time fan of wizards, and casters in general, magic holds a special place in my gamer heart. But unfortunately, magic is probably the single biggest problem with pre-4e D&D, and of 3e in particular. Magic requires system mastery in spades and lots of bookkeeping; it exemplifies several aspects of game imbalance, and 3e’s overly faithful attitude toward old D&D tropes.
If you weren’t previously aware of this fact, the then-new 3.0 ruleset was play tested under old assumptions. For example, play testers assumed that blasting spells were most effective even though lots of subtle changes had turned fireball and similar spells into second-rate options at best. As a result, the play testers never considered just what’s possible with many 3e spells.
Like using save-or-lose and buff spells to guarantee victory, using instantaneous conjurations to completely break both the WBL guidelines and the game world economy, using divination spells in scry-and-die tactics to create completely one-sided fights, and using rope trick and similar spells to completely bypass the 4-encounter-per-day paradigm on which casters are supposedly balanced upon.
In a nutshell, spells cover the spectrum from redundant or nigh-useless (flaming sphere, blight, power word kill) to game-changing (rope trick, teleport, gate). And not much has changed since 3.0’s release in 2000.
On a more personal note, there are several facts about 3e spells that irritate me:
Level-Dependant Details: I’ve grown tired of all the niggly x/level details of traditional D&D spells. For example spell durations have variances that either don’t matter, or that place a spell on an entirely different tier of usefulness depending on the caster’s level.
It rarely matters whether a spell lasts for 1 minute or 20; the result is essentially ‘Duration: 1 encounter.’ Meanwhile a 1 round/level spell is hardly worth casting at 1st level, but after a few levels it becomes worthwhile because the caster can be reasonably sure it’ll last the whole encounter. And a 1 hour/level spell goes from being essentially an encounter-long effect at 1st level to an essentially day-long effect at 20th level.
Things like damage/level and HD/level matter in a good way, but range/level is a meaningless math exercise. Rarely do the extra feet/level make any difference.
Spell Schools: Spell schools aren’t consistent, if you think about ’em. Most are defined by the means which the school draws upon to achieve the caster’s ends, while abjuration is defined by its ends rather than its means — it protects by drawing upon effects that could come from several different schools.
These oddities might have resulted from some in-game quirks — perhaps shield is in the abjuration school just because the mage who first invented it was an abjurer — except that the specialist wizard rules strongly imply that individual spells belong in their respective schools because they have fundamental underlying differences. (Specialist wizards flat-out CANNOT learn spells from banned schools.) Which makes no fucking sense.
Sloppy Spell Classifications: The best example of this are inflict spells (necromancy) and cure spells (conjuration). One can argue that cure spells conjure positive energy to heal, but this makes no sense given that inflict spells don’t conjure negative energy. Given that necromancy manipulates the forces of life and death, cure spells belong there.
The Arcane/Divine Divide: Divine magic comes from a higher power, while arcane magic is the manipulation of D&D’s metaphysical laws. So why is it that every mid-level cleric and druid in the game world can cast flame strike, even those whose whose deities have nothing to do with fire? And why are wizards, those masters of magic, completely incapable of casting simple cure spells despite being able to inflict wounds to their hearts’ content?
Yeah, yeah, ‘niche protection’ and ‘because tradition’ are the answers. Problem is, they make no fucking sense within the game world, and those two ideas aren’t worth the pixels they take up on your screen.
Spells Are Individual Entities…Except Not Really: Generally it’s pretty clear what character level a spell is appropriate for, by looking at its spell level. Cure moderate wounds is appropriate for 3rd level characters because it’s a 2nd level spell. Except if you’re anything but a cleric, in which case it’s somehow not appropriate until 5th level because…SPONTANEOUS CURING ISN’T ENOUGH NICHE PROTECTION FOR CLERICS!!! Ugh, screw that shit.
Spells Follow a Pattern…Except When They Don’t: It bothers me when spell series suddenly truncate, like how single-target cure and inflict spells suddenly stop at 4th level, and then multi-target cure and inflict spells suddenly stop at 8th level. This wouldn’t bother me much, except that most DMs seem to have the “If it’s not published, it doesn’t exist…unless I homebrew it for my NPC!” attitude.
It also annoys me that there are no [non-epic] 10th level spells. Not because casters need to dominate the late game even more, but because there should be another spell level to be gained at 19th level! Yes, I’m kind of compulsive about patterns.