An Elegant Rule for Maximum Durations
At some point I suppose I should update & revise my OED Book of Spells product, based on gameplay lessons over the last 5 years or so (but it's pretty hard to know when to make the call on that). Among the things I'm getting to take a closer look at are the durations for various spells; the ones that elapse in one encounter are not so critical, but there are a number of spells that may last for a day, or months, or permanently -- and they tend to vary wildly between editions (particularly in 3E that my book was based off), so I'd really like to get those right. Recently, some have started to bother me in my games; but the table I recently made for "Spells Through the Ages: Duration Redux" (link) should help give a comprehensive assessment of the situation.
For starters, one of my great pet peeves are low-level spells with permanent duration. I totally grind my teeth at the prospect of minor wizards wandering through the campaign world and trollishly wizard lock-ing, continual light-ing, continual darkness-globing, and magic mouth-ing every site they wander through, for all eternity (for spite!). So one of the rules I implemented for Book of Spells is that no spell under 5th level can be permanent (those being the ones gained around name-level for wizards, spells that really need to be long-lasting to serve their vision in the game). And I've never regretted that.
Now, I think at this point I might be able to develop an even more general guiding principle for long-lasting spells in my game. Let's look at a list of classic D&D spells that have unusually long-lasting durations, and compare across durations:
- Charm Person (1st level) – We start with an epic outlier. Duration is "Special" (recurring save schedule based on Intelligence: maybe daily, weekly, or monthly) in Editions 0-1-2-BX. Greatly reduced to 1 hour/level in 3E.
- Continual Light (2nd) – Permanent in all editions.
- Magic Mouth (2nd) – Permanent until discharged in all editions.
- Strength (2nd) – 8 hours in 0E (Sup-I). 1 hour/level in 1-2-3. Not in BX.
- Wizard Lock (2nd) – Permanent in all editions.
- Infravision (3rd) – 1 day in 0E-BX. 2+level hours in 1-2. 1 hour/level in 3E.
- Suggestion (3rd) – 1 week in 0E (Sup-I). Approximately 1 hour/level in each of 1-2-3. Not in BX.
- Water Breathing (3rd) – Highly variable: 12 turns in 0E. 3 turns/level in 1E. 1 hour/level+4 in 2E. 2 hours/level in 3E. 1 day in BX.
- Charm Monster (4th) – "Special", similar to charm person (but with weekly chances to break based on Hit Dice) in 0-1-2. In BX, identical by reference to charm person. In 3E, reduced to 1 day/level.
- Hallucinatory Terrain (4th) – Permanent until touched in Chainmail-0-1-BX. 1 hour/level in 2E. 2 hours/level in 3E.
- Plant Growth (4th) – Permanent in all editions. Note 3E has an optional usage for "enrichment" lasting 1 year.
- Polymorph Other (4th) – Permanent in all editions.
- Polymorph Self (4th) – Not a long-term spell until 3E. 6 turns+level in 0E-BX. 2 turns/level in 1-2. Increased to 1 hour/level in 3E.
- Passwall (5th) – Another non-long term spell until 3E. 3 turns in 0E-BX. 6 turns+level in 1-2. Increased to 1 hour/level in 3E.
- Control Weather (6th) – Not specified in 0E. Concentration in BX. 4d6 hours in 1-2E. 4d12 hours in 3E.
But once you clear out those troublesome cases from the list above, a pattern starts to emerge, which I might interpolate and express along these lines for maximum possible duration:
- 1st level – 1 day.
- 2nd level – 1 week.
- 3rd level – 1 month.
- 4th level – 1 year.
- 5th-6th level – Permanent.
Now, if I iron out the spells in my game according to these guidelines, here are the changes I would make. First, that 1st-level outlier with the unique recurring save schedule, charm person, gets reduced to 1 day (about what 3E did). This seems pretty reasonable to me, as the spell commonly seems overpowered (in fact, if I do some solo play, this is usually how my PC gets taken out of the game – regardless of level); you can still get a long-term charm with the higher-level spell (below). At 2nd-level, those too-soon-permanent spells continual light, magic mouth, and wizard lock become 1 week (just as I did in Book of Spells previously); strength remains 1 day since it's so useful (approximately the same as any prior edition).
At 3rd level, I'll keep infravision and water breathing at 1 day because they're so potent (like in BX), but I think I'll actually expand suggestion to a 1 month duration because that always seems under-used, and I thereby get to exemplify each step of my general rule above. 4th level is where you get the borderline cases (traditionally permanent but not at the 5th level where I want them) – I think that capping charm monster, hallucinatory terrain, plant growth, and polymorph other at a 1 year duration has a very fairy-tale feel to it (compare: the dryad charm power in 1E has a year for its unit; and plant growth in 3E has the 1 year usage built in, too); polymorph self, of course, can be very powerful and should remain at the early-edition duration of just a number of turns. For simplicity, I'll probably make the dominating control weather at the 6th level last 1 day (as I did previously).
I think that general guideline works out very well. I'm very comfortable with the solutions that gives me to the lower-level 1st-2nd level spells, and even pretty jazzed at the flavor of the 4th level spells lasting for 1 year.
But let me conclude by asking a possibly deep question: What about those other 5th-6th level spells that I've left as Permanent – does Permanent really mean Permanent? Extrapolating our model of max-possible durations here would seem to imply that even those spells should wear off after some number of decades or centuries. Perhaps the DM should secretly interpret those spells as having limited durations as well, merely beyond the ken of a man's lifetime, such that no man or woman has ever noticed their ending? What prospects does that hold for your campaign game if there are long-lasting feebleminds, magic jars, walls of iron and stone, invisible stalkers, and armies of animated dead out there in the world whose time is ticking towards an end?