D&D Meta-Spells

Many spells in D&D 3.x and Pathfinder differ only in small ways from each other, to the point they are defined in terms of one of them.

For instance, Pathfinder has four cure wounds spells, one for each level from first to fourth. Plus a mass version of each. And they can be reversed to inflict wounds as well. I make this sixteen spells that only fix or cause (reversed for undead targets) hit point damage. Heal actually does other stuff too, so I’ll count that as a different spell.

Why have so many spells? Why not have a single spell that can have different effects when cast at different spell levels?

Cure Wounds Meta-Spell

Cure wounds lends itself to this form of simplification very well because there are many forms that really vary only in the amount of damage fixed and, with the mass versions, how many creatures are affected.

Cure Wounds

School: conjuration (healing)

Level: bard 1, cleric 1, druid 1, paladin 1, ranger 2

Casting Time: 1 standard action

Components: V, S

Range: touch

Target: creature touched

Duration: instantaneous

Saving Throw: Will half (harmless); see text

Spell Resistance: yes (harmless); see text

When laying your hand upon a living creature, you channel positive energy that cures 1d8 points of damage + 1 point per caster level (maximum +5). Since undead are powered by negative energy, this spell deals damage to them instead of curing their wounds. An undead creature can apply spell resistance, and can attempt a Will save to take half damage.

This spell may be cast using different  level spell slots, with the following effects:

  • Level 1: cure 1d8 + 1 point per caster level (maximum +5)
  • Level 2: cure 2d8 + 1 point per caster level (maximum +10)
  • Level 3: cure 3d8 + 1 point per caster level (maximum +15)
  • Level 4: cure 4d8 + 1 point per caster level (maximum +20)
  • +4 levels: mass cure wounds, cure one creature per level, no two of which can be more than 30 ft. apart, and maximum level-based hit point amount is increased by 20.

This spell may be reversed to inflict wounds, harming most creatures and healing undead (Will save to take half damage).

Incidentally, I’d reduce this from a Ranger 2 spell to a Ranger 1 spell. I long ago changed rangers to be ‘half-druidic casters’, and paladins to be ‘half-clerical casters’, the ranger and paladin spell lists are almost perfect subsets of the druid and cleric spell lists (core paladin has a very small number of spells not appearing on the general cleric list). This also allowed me to better multiclass between them — rangers can now multiclass nicely with druid, and paladin with cleric.

Elemental Body Meta-Spell

When I first looked at these four spells (elemental body I, elemental body II, elemental body IIIelemental body IV) I thought I would merge them into a single spell, then I realized they provide different-enough benefits based on elemental type that it is probably worth splitting them that way instead.

This also let me make it more clear what was being gained with each spell. I remember reading one of these series of creature-type body spells and discovering when I looked back at a lower-level spell that I had been missing part of the spell effect with a higher-level spell.

I find it odd that all the ability score bonuses are size bonuses, considering they happen whether the caster goes smaller or bigger. Not many things get a size bonus to Dexterity when larger than medium, or a size bonus to Strength when smaller than medium. These should probably be racial instead, and replace any existing racial modifiers.

Air Elemental Body

School: transmutation (polymorph) [Air]

Level: sorcerer/wizard 4

Casting Time: 1 standard action

Components: V, S, M (the element you plan to assume)

Range: personal

Target: you

Duration: 1 minute/level (D)

When you cast this spell, you can assume the form of an Air Elemental. Elemental abilities based on size, such as whirlwind, use the size of the elemental you transform into to determine their effect.

This spell may be cast using different  level spell slots, with the following effects:

  • Level 4: Small air elemental, +2 size bonus to your Dexterity and +2 natural armor bonus. You also gain fly 60 feet (perfect), darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to create a whirlwind.
  • Level 5: Medium air elemental, +4 size bonus to your Dexterity and a +3 natural armor bonus. You also gain fly 60 feet (perfect), darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to create a whirlwind.
  • Level 6: Large air elemental, +2 size bonus to your Strength, +4 size bonus to Dexterity, +4 natural armor bonus. You also gain fly 60 feet (perfect), darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to create a whirlwind. You are immune to bleed damage, critical hits, and sneak attacks while in elemental form.
  • Level 7: Huge air elemental, +4 size bonus to your Strength, +6 size bonus to your Dexterity, +6 natural armor bonus. You also gain fly 120 feet (perfect), darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to create a whirlwind. You are immune to bleed damage, critical hits, and sneak attacks, and have DR 5/-.
Elemental Height Weight Whirlwind Damage Whirlwind Save DC Whirlwind Height
Small 4 ft. 1 lb. 1d4 + mStr 12 10-20 ft.
Medium 8 ft. 2 lbs. 1d6 + mStr 14 10-30 ft.
Large 16 ft. 4 lbs. 1d8 + mStr 18 10-40 ft.
Huge 32 ft. 8 lbs. 2d6 + mStr 22 10-50 ft.

Earth Elemental Body

School: transmutation (polymorph) [Earth]

Level: sorcerer/wizard 4

Casting Time: 1 standard action

Components: V, S, M (the element you plan to assume)

Range: personal

Target: you

Duration: 1 minute/level (D)

When you cast this spell, you can assume the form of an Earth Elemental. Elemental abilities based on size, such as whirlwind, use the size of the elemental you transform into to determine their effect.

This spell may be cast using different  level spell slots, with the following effects:

  • Level 4: Small earth elemental, +2 size bonus to Strength and a +4 natural armor bonus. You also gain darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to earth glide.
  • Level 5: Medium earth elemental, +4 size bonus to strength and a +5 natural armor bonus. You also gain darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to earth glide.
  • Level 6: Large earth elemental, +6 size bonus to your Strength, -2 penalty on your Dexterity, a +2 size bonus to your Constitution, and a +6 natural armor bonus. You also gain darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to earth glide. You are immune to bleed damage, critical hits, and sneak attacks.
  • Level 7: Huge earth elemental, +8 size bonus to your Strength, -2 penalty on your Dexterity, a +4 size bonus to your Constitution, and a +6 natural armor bonus. You also gain darkvision 60 feet, and the ability to earth glide. You are immune to bleed damage, critical hits, and sneak attacks, and have DR 5/-.
Elemental Height Weight Slam Damage
Small 4 ft. 80 lbs. 1d6 + mStr
Medium 8 ft. 750 lbs. 1d8 + mStr
Large 16 ft. 6,000 lbs 2d6 + mStr
Huge 32 ft. 48,000 lbs. 2d8 + mStr

Fire Elemental Body

School: transmutation (polymorph) [Fire]

Level: sorcerer/wizard 4

Casting Time: 1 standard action

Components: V, S, M (the element you plan to assume)

Range: personal

Target: you

Duration: 1 minute/level (D)

When you cast this spell, you can assume the form of  a Fire Elemental. Elemental abilities based on size, such as whirlwind, use the size of the elemental you transform into to determine their effect.

This spell may be cast using different  level spell slots, with the following effects:

  • Level 4: Small fire elemental, +2 size bonus to your Dexterity and a +2 natural armor bonus. You gain darkvision 60 feet, resist fire 20, vulnerability to cold, and the burn ability.
  • Level 5: Medium fire elemental, +4 size bonus to your Dexterity and a +3 natural armor bonus. You gain darkvision 60 feet, resist fire 20, vulnerability to cold, and the burn ability.
  • Level 6: Large fire elemental, +4 size bonus to your Dexterity, +2 size bonus to your Constitution, and  a +4 natural armor bonus. You gain darkvision 60 feet, resist fire 20, vulnerability to cold, and the burn ability. You are immune to bleed damage, critical hits, and sneak attacks.
  • Level 7: Huge fire elemental, +6 size bonus to your Dexterity, +4 size bonus to your Constitution, and a +4 natural armor bonus. You gain darkvision 60 feet, resist fire 20, vulnerability to cold, and the burn ability. You are immune to bleed damage, critical hits, and sneak attacks, and have DR 5/-.
Elemental Height Weight Slam Damage Burn Damage Burn DC
Small 4 ft. 1 lb. 1d4 + mStr + burn 1d4 11
Medium 8 ft. 2 lbs. 1d6 + mStr + burn 1d6 14
Large 16 ft. 4 lbs 1d8 + mStr + burn 1d8 16
Huge 32 ft. 8 lbs. 2d6 + mStr + burn 2d6 18

Water Elemental Body

School: transmutation (polymorph) [Water]

Level: sorcerer/wizard 4

Casting Time: 1 standard action

Components: V, S, M (the element you plan to assume)

Range: personal

Target: you

Duration: 1 minute/level (D)

When you cast this spell, you can assume the form of  a Water Elemental. Elemental abilities based on size, such as whirlwind, use the size of the elemental you transform into to determine their effect.

This spell may be cast using different  level spell slots, with the following effects:

  • Level 4: Small water elemental, +2 size bonus to your Constitution and +4 natural armor bonus. You also gain swim 60 feet, darkvision 60 feet, the ability to create a vortex, and the ability to breathe water.
  • Level 5: Medium water elemental, +4 size bonus to your Constitution and +5 natural armor bonus. You also gain swim 60 feet, darkvision 60 feet, the ability to create a vortex, and the ability to breathe water.
  • Level 6: Large water elemental, +2 size bonus to your Strength, -2 penalty on your Dexterity, a +6 size bonus to your Constitution, and a +6 natural armor bonus. You also gain swim 60 feet, the ability to create a vortex, and the ability to breathe water. You are immune to bleed damage, critical hits, and sneak attacks.
  • Level 7: Huge water elemental, +2 size bonus to your Strength, -2 penalty on your Dexterity, a +8 size bonus to your Constitution, and a +6 natural armor bonus. You also gain swim 120 feet, the ability to create a vortex, and the ability to breathe water You are immune to bleed damage, critical hits, and sneak attacks, and have DR 5/-.
Elemental Height Weight Slam Damage Vortex Save DC Vortex Height
Small 4 ft. 34 lbs. 1d4 + mStr 13 10-20 ft.
Medium 8 ft. 280 lbs. 1d6 + mStr 15 10-30 ft.
Large 16 ft. 2,250 lbs. 1d8 + mStr 19 10-40 ft.
Huge 32 ft. 18,000 lbs 2d6 + mStr 22 10-50 ft.

Closing Comments

There are many other spells that lend themselves to this kind of reduction. Many of the generic summoning spells (summon monstersummon nature’s ally) are obvious candidates, but anywhere you have spells where one is a proper superset of another (such as the cure wounds series above, or air elemental form in its multiple levels of effect) you have an opportunity to reduce like this.

You can also reduce spells this way when the differences are trivial, or when there is a strong relationship between spells of different levels. The cosmic team jersey spells (detect <alignment>protection from <alignment>, and so on) are good candidates for reduction. They are the same spell, they do the same thing and just differ in what color cosmic team jersey they react to. In fact, cosmic team jersey might be a potential meta-spell itself — detect as a zero-level spell, protection from at first level, magic circle against at third level (the description of magic circle against chaos, from the Pathfinder core rules: “This spell functions like magic circle against evil, except that it is similar to protection from chaos instead of protection from evil, and it can imprison a nonlawful called creature.”). Do we really need a slew of different spells here, or could they all be made functions of one meta-spell?

Moving to a structure like this also gives the option of additional effects. I can imagine a modifier to cure wounds above, a +2 level modifier that lets you cast cure wounds as a ranged touch spell. The Arcana Unearthed rules allowed for heightened and lessened spells — you still had to be capable of casting the spell at its base level, but many spells could be cast at a lower spell level for lessened effect (shorter duration, less damage, more restricted application), or at higher level for increased effect (which might look like ‘built in’ metamagic effect — such as the ‘reach cure wounds‘ spell I just mentioned).

Many spells don’t differ all that much from each other. Why not reduce them to canonical forms and define them that way? It reduces repetition between spells and makes the difference between them more obvious (such as with the elemental body spells above), and easier to apply in play.

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16 Comments

  1. Jason

    Fairly slick way of cutting down on bookkeeping of spells-my only misgiving is that for arcane casters acquiring spells is part of the fun (some of the time) and to collapse spells this way takes away from that paradigm. A sorc and wiz need to find and learn/scribe their spells and with them collapsed that concept is at best reduced and sort of back slides into those who get their spells spontaneously by praying for them.

    I do like this concept for clerics/druids/rangers/paladins…it makes sense in my mind for them-I just give pause when it comes to arcane casters.

    :)

    • I considered that a little after posting, and have been thinking about whether there’s enough to it to warrant a follow-up post.

      This change ramps up casters, the people who honestly need it least… but I think it at least has greatest effect from weakest casters to strongest.

      • divine casters, functionally no change. They get access to all spells of their class list automatically. This adds no spell knowledge to them whatsoever, it just reduces the amount of writing needed to describe the spells. Exception: Healing domain could be merged with… Restoration domain? First level gets you cure wounds, then you’re into condition removal and the like. Honestly, I think this is an improvement. Wait, there’s a Summoning domain out there too, that would likely change somewhat as well. I’m okay with that too, a domain that consists of summon monster I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX is not an interesting domain.
      • arcane prepared casters, wizards, could be some change. It’s so easy to get spell knowledge that this gives them a little more for their buck, but it may be reasonable to require them to be treated as separate spells and this is again just a documentation exercise. Considering some spells might be rearranged (such as the elemental body spells were) this might be a wash anyway. As below you might rule that you have access to all forms of it equal to or less than the one you know, and the multiple spell levels just count as ways you can step it down if you don’t need your full power with it.
      • arcane spontaneous casters, sorcerers and bards, gain the most from this. This allows them to gain the ability to cast the spell at multiple levels of power while tying up only a single spell knowledge slot. It may be reasonable to limit the highest level usable to the level they take the spell knowledge at (taking elemental body in a fifth-level slot means you can only cast to get the first two levels of effect of the spell, despite being higher level yourself, but it still takes only one slot rather than two — net gain for the weaker primary casters).

      I don’t anticipate this having a significant, negative impact on balance.

      • Raneth

        Occult Adventures introduced an “undercasting” mechanic that implemented the third. As written, it is far less flexible than your meta-spell mechanic. However, it is quite easy to expand the rule to work like your meta-spell system.

        “Some psychic spells can be undercast. This means that the spellcaster can cast the spell at the level that he knows, or as any lower level version of that spell, using the appropriate spell slot. When undercasting a spell, it is treated exactly like the lower level version, including when determining its effect, saving throw, and other variables…Whenever a spontaneous spellcaster adds a spell to his list of spells known that can be undercast, he can immediately learn a spell in place of any lower level versions of that spell. In essence he “loses” the earlier version and can replace it with another spell of the same level that is on his spell list.”

        • Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed had a similar concept of being able to cast a spell using a lower-level slot for more limited effect (rounds of effect instead of minutes, reduced range, limited target selection, or something else).

          “Heightened” and “Lessened” (plus “Laden”, cast using two spell slots). I mention it in the post itself.

          I really need to review my blog just to see what I’ve already written…

  2. For casual readers, the only spells Paladins have which Clerics don’t are: bless weapon, heal mount, and holy sword. All of these are, in fact, only available to Paladins; in fact, heal mount is so Paladin-specific that it would be practically useless for anybody else!

    The Hierophant’s Blast Infidel ability is a precedent for having a single ability that works appropriately for users of differing alignments. (un)holy aura, holy smite (etc), and word of $alignment could also have their descriptions merged. I mean, it would also be nice to keep them separate and just give them more interesting effects, but if not then at least you can cut down on page count!

    I was going to bring up the 18 different summon foo spells but I see you already mentioned them. summon nature’s ally should obviously be kept as a separate spell from summon monster, but I am sure there’s a way to take advantage of the fact that the descriptions of the two would be near-identical apart from the creature lists.

      • I’d like to see the spells work differently. For example, extraplanar summoning spells have the option of *bamf*ing in the summoned creatures, but I think I’d like to replace summon nature’s ally with call nature’s ally. They actually have to travel there (which can take time) but are actually there and can hang around for a while. Tarzan with his jungle call, sort of thing.

        If the only difference is what gets called, then I agree, there is no real difference.

        It occurs to me, something I considered long ago could be made to work here. You might have a more or less generic summon monster spell, but it hangs off Knowledge skills. Druids have Knowledge: Nature; they can call animals. Wizards (might) have Knowledge: Arcane and Knowledge: The Planes; they can call up dragons and outsiders. Clerics have Knowledge: Religion, and I’d expand that from just Undead to also include related outsiders (just on principle; a cleric should recognize the major servants of his god, yeah?).

    • To be honest, I’m not sure how much this will really cut down on page count. The spells being reduced are mostly (Name, new level, “like that spell but…”), which doesn’t take up much room. In fact, because I have a habit of spelling out everything explicitly (see the modified elemental body spells above) it is possible this will make some spells take up more space.

      I think the primary space-saving benefits here are in mind space — fewer discrete pieces to remember. I don’t need to remember four different cure wounds spells, I just need to remember

      (level)d6 + 1/caster level (max (level)*5), +4 levels for mass (caster level creatures in 15′ radius, +20 higher max from caster level)

      Done!

      The cosmic team jersey spells annoy me, to be honest. They often differ pretty much only by orientation (what it targets) rather than effect. I’d really rather see them all be qualitatively different. When that happens, I can see breaking them apart again, but for now I agree that they can be merged pretty safely. When they become qualitatively different I can see them being split along much the same lines as the elemental body spells.

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      • Picom

        Well, at the time AD&D spells were fewer and with far less omogeneity, so this kind of approach was not needed, but now it is an extremely efficient way of reducing bookkeeping. Useful solution to problems of the same kind tend to follow similar patterns.
        I would also add that for Sorcerers (and wizards, if one likes the concept) could also make thematically sense that the spells they are able to cast are similar, since they are more and more powerful ways of accessing to the same inner power.
        For wizards, if one considers them as scientists studying magic, it makes only sense that they keep studying a limited numer of subjects until they become extremely knowlegeable. That is obtained with schools, but it could be done also with families of spells, like mind reading spells or ice spells or force spells, etc.
        In the last case I am not sure it would be very useful with respect to page count and simplification, but could be thematically relevant.

  4. Ars Magica essentially does just this, and then takes it a step further by grouping spells by action + target (elements, body, mind etc) in order to allow spontaneous improvisation of similar spells – want to speak with animals, plants, rocks? the template’s there for speak spells, and while you’re at it why not speak with fire, minds (telepathy) or the body (diagnose or corpses recounting their crimes/manner of death).
    4th ed is available for free download.

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