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Spell Design: Depletable Statistics

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

We're just about ready to send Ultimate Magic off to the printer! The last chapter is a big collection of spells, and Chapter 2 includes a 12-page section about spell design, complete with an analysis of what goes in the spell stat block and benchmarks of good, typical, and poor spells for each spell level. One of the topics discussed in that section is the idea of "depletable statistics"—numbers in a creature's stat block that kill or incapacitate the creature when the number reaches 0. Examples of depletable statistics are hit points, ability scores, or even levels or Hit Dice—knock those down to 0, such as with fireball, poison, or enervation, and the creature is out of the fight. The primary depletable statistic is hit points, of course, and the advantage of attacking hit points is all characters are able to deal hit point damage, so blasting an opponent with a direct damage spell allows the party fighter and rogue to work toward eliminating that opponent.

By comparison, a creature's stat block has many numbers that are not depletable statistics—not that you can't penalize those numbers, but reducing them may not have an adverse effect on the target and won't eventually kill them. For example, a spell that gives a target a –10 attack penalty has little effect on a sorcerer casting fireball, as would a spell that gave her a –10 penalty on her Will saving throw; despite her poor attack rolls and miserable Will saves, she is still quite capable of blasting her opponents to bits, whether these penalties are –10 or –100. Similarly, a fighter with a –10 penalty on Fortitude saving throws can still swing a sword, as can one with a –10 penalty to Armor Class; the fighter is still viable despite these penalties. These enemies may be vulnerable to other attacks because of these penalties (the sorcerer with a –10 Will save is a sucker for charm person, and the fighter with a –10 penalty on Fort saves is wary of poisons) but the penalties themselves won't kill them. Attack bonuses, saving throw bonuses, Armor Class, CMD, CMB, initiative, speed, skill modifiers, and most other game statistics aren't depletable statistics. This is not to say that targeting these numbers is a bad idea—a brute monster with a –20 penalty on its attack roll is no longer a threat and easy to dispatch—but doing so doesn't have a reachable goal of disabling that opponent with these penalties. Furthermore, spells that penalize these statistics generally don't stack with themselves; multiple castings of bane don't result in greater attack penalties, multiple castings of slow don't make enemies immobile or unable to take actions, and so on.

The idea of a game stat being a depletable statistic or not is a helpful concept when you're comparing the power levels of two spells. Because balancing spells lacks the formulae of pricing magic items, comparison is the only way to judge whether or not a new spell is at the appropriate spell level, and in most cases it comes down to which spell is more effective at disabling an opponent, often by targeting depletable statistics.

Sean K Reynolds
Developer

More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Design Tuesdays Pathfinder Roleplaying Game

Congratulations Sean. You just sold me a book.

I might post something about the actual topic of the blog-post later (when I'm not half-asleep).

Sczarni RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

1 person marked this as a favorite.
SKR wrote:
Chapter 2 includes a 12-page section about spell design, complete with an analysis of what goes in the spell stat block and benchmarks of good, typical, and poor spells for each spell level.

Soon to be my favorite chapter of the book. I always like when players create their own spells. I think it makes a game more memorable, even when I didn't catch the loophole soon enough...


I enjoyed this short post and appreciate the insight. In future posts like this I would like to see and example of good design and poor design. Of course this analysis would be strictly the authors opinion but considering the vast amount of experience all the Paizo developers have with every incarnation of the game it would be interesting to see what they think of current or past design decisions.

For instance, with this post, it would have been interesting to hear the discussion around and existing or upcoming spell and how the designers decided on the appropriate level for it. Then to hear how, according to the author, an existing spell was placed at an inappropriate level and why.

Osirion

Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Cards, Companion, Maps, Modules, Roleplaying Game Subscriber

<sets up a deckchair, in anticipation of the 'Evocation is for Suckers' crowd...>


It just amazaes me that in just three paragraphs Sean K Reynolds has jsut given me the best reason to puchaes Ultimate Magic. Best of all he is just talking about only 12 pages in this book. I wonder what the other 200+ are going to look like.

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Adventure Path, Maps, Tales Subscriber
LMPjr007 wrote:
It just amazaes me that in just three paragraphs Sean K Reynolds has jsut given me the best reason to puchaes Ultimate Magic. Best of all he is just talking about only 12 pages in this book. I wonder what the other 200+ are going to look like.

Those were my exact thoughts. I really wasn't planning on getting this right away, but I'm sold now.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Modules, Roleplaying Game Subscriber

They sold it to me with just the name of the book, "Ultimate magic".


I must actually disagree with SKR. Take a look at what spells people complain about. It isn't fireball. It is the Save or Suck's. Spells like Hold Person, Glitterdust, and Feeblemind are the quality spells are each level. Combat is ultimately about action economy and those spells produce action economy. Have a party of 4 against a party of 8? Glitterdust is going to be brutal if it hits 2 or more creatures as you just spent 1 action nullifying at least 2. Also 1 round/level is still the duration of an entire combat by level 5. A lot of stuff should probably be put at 1 round / 2 levels if duration is going to be a relevant factor, probably even 3 because acid arrow feels about right.

Taldor

Time to throw down my cash at the FLGS and get myself a pre-order for this!

We have been needing more in-depth spell creation rules for some time...


erik542 wrote:
I must actually disagree with SKR. Take a look at what spells people complain about. It isn't fireball. It is the Save or Suck's. Spells like Hold Person, Glitterdust, and Feeblemind are the quality spells are each level. Combat is ultimately about action economy and those spells produce action economy. Have a party of 4 against a party of 8? Glitterdust is going to be brutal if it hits 2 or more creatures as you just spent 1 action nullifying at least 2. Also 1 round/level is still the duration of an entire combat by level 5. A lot of stuff should probably be put at 1 round / 2 levels if duration is going to be a relevant factor, probably even 3 because acid arrow feels about right.

I agree with you in all, but the fact SKR says otherwise.

I am not sure he says that existing damage spells are better than existing debuff spells.

I myself am intrigued by the concept, but I 'll have to see how it's actually implemented to decide wether I like it or not.

Designer, RPG Superstar Judge

If you reread what I said above, you'll see that I'm not discounting the effectiveness of spells that just give penalties. But I'm saying that you can't kill someone with those spells. If you cast glitterdust on your enemies for 4 rounds, yes, you've forced them to make 4 saves, but they're not any worse off than if they had just failed 1 save. Failing 4 saves doesn't make them quadruple-blinded. Failing 4 saves against hold person doesn't make them quadruple-held. Failing 4 saves against feeblemind doesn't make them quadruple-feebleminded. And each round that you've cast one of those spells and the target makes the save is a round that your caster has had zero effect on the battle.

Casting fireball four times has a cumulative effect because hit point damage stacks. Casting poison four times has a cumulative effect because ability damage stacks. But the penalties from most penalty-inducing spells don't stack, so you can't win a battle just by using penalty-inducing spells--doing so pushes the damage burden entirely onto the nonmagical characters. If all you're doing is fighting one or two powerful monsters, yes, tactically it's smart to go for the save-or-out-of-the-combat spells, but a smart GM will give you other encounters with multiple weaker opponents to give you a reason to use fireball and such--because fights that are always the same get really boring, and it's cool for the party mage to obliterate 10 weak enemies with one spell, leaving only one creature for the fighter and rogue to beat up.

As with many things, a mix of tactics (giving penalties and using spells that attack incrementals) is generally better than just using one type of attack over and over.

Also, the section you're reading above doesn't talk about the analysis of other types of spells. At the top of the hierarchy are spells that turn enemies into allies, and below that are spells that instantly kill or disable enemies, and below that are spells that target depletable statistics. But talking about depletables vs. non-depletables is a more interesting blog topic than "dominate person owns LOL!"

Cheliax Bella Sara Charter Superscriber

Interesting. Where do summon spells fall in that hierarchy?

Designer, RPG Superstar Judge

Sebastian wrote:
Interesting. Where do summon spells fall in that hierarchy?

It depends on why you're summoning them. You can use a summoned creature for direct damage, or to penalize a target, or to convert an enemy to an ally (with a charm from the summoner, frex), or to negate an advantage of the target (like summoning a bat with blindsight to locate an invisible foe).

Taldor

verdigris wrote:
LMPjr007 wrote:
It just amazaes me that in just three paragraphs Sean K Reynolds has jsut given me the best reason to puchaes Ultimate Magic. Best of all he is just talking about only 12 pages in this book. I wonder what the other 200+ are going to look like.
Those were my exact thoughts. I really wasn't planning on getting this right away, but I'm sold now.

Me too. It's the "under the hood" design elements that I'm really interested in. I look forward to the book!


Sean K Reynolds wrote:
Interesting tstuff about spells.

I love the way you think. Mathematically, it may not be the optimal way to play, but it's more fun to blow stuff up than to SoS them to death, IMHO. Is it safe to say that y'all design your games with that playstyle in mind?

As for favorite spells, my answer is whatever gets the job done. Sorcerers, with their limited spell selection, are obviously a bit different, but to me the great challenge (and fun) of playing casters is the guessing game that is spell selection. Good adventures, IMHO, require, or at least encourage, varying tactics (and spells) to succeed. Succeeding by spamming your best one or two spells over and over again in all encounters is boring.

Conversely, I love it when a humble spell like Zone of Truth is key to a major success, as it was last night for a group I was GMing for.

Designer, RPG Superstar Judge

Brian Bachman wrote:
I love the way you think. Mathematically, it may not be the optimal way to play, but it's more fun to blow stuff up than to SoS them to death, IMHO. Is it safe to say that y'all design your games with that playstyle in mind?

We try to keep all playstyles in mind. Ultimate Magic has direct-damage spells, penalty spells, and some save-or-disabled spells, and even some "I'd never use this in combat but I can see the utility of it in a mystery or exploration game" spells.


Sean K Reynolds wrote:

If you reread what I said above, you'll see that I'm not discounting the effectiveness of spells that just give penalties. But I'm saying that you can't kill someone with those spells. If you cast glitterdust on your enemies for 4 rounds, yes, you've forced them to make 4 saves, but they're not any worse off than if they had just failed 1 save. Failing 4 saves doesn't make them quadruple-blinded. Failing 4 saves against hold person doesn't make them quadruple-held. Failing 4 saves against feeblemind doesn't make them quadruple-feebleminded. And each round that you've cast one of those spells and the target makes the save is a round that your caster has had zero effect on the battle.

Actually, failing 4 saves versus 4 held persons mean the target is held 4 timea and must dispel/get rid off it 4 times as well. Each spell effect overlaps, but still exists if the others dissipate.

Yes, you aren't double blind in sense that penalties stay the same but you are double for dispelling the effect (and when duration runs out).

But overall, I get what you mean.
But the point of "save or lose" spells is you don't have to waste additional spells to kill them as the other party members should be able to kick their butts easier now. Blind targets treat everyone as having 50% miss and all.


Sean K Reynolds wrote:

If you reread what I said above, you'll see that I'm not discounting the effectiveness of spells that just give penalties. But I'm saying that you can't kill someone with those spells. If you cast glitterdust on your enemies for 4 rounds, yes, you've forced them to make 4 saves, but they're not any worse off than if they had just failed 1 save. Failing 4 saves doesn't make them quadruple-blinded. Failing 4 saves against hold person doesn't make them quadruple-held. Failing 4 saves against feeblemind doesn't make them quadruple-feebleminded. And each round that you've cast one of those spells and the target makes the save is a round that your caster has had zero effect on the battle.

Casting fireball four times has a cumulative effect because hit point damage stacks. Casting poison four times has a cumulative effect because ability damage stacks. But the penalties from most penalty-inducing spells don't stack, so you can't win a battle just by using penalty-inducing spells--doing so pushes the damage burden entirely onto the nonmagical characters. If all you're doing is fighting one or two powerful monsters, yes, tactically it's smart to go for the save-or-out-of-the-combat spells, but a smart GM will give you other encounters with multiple weaker opponents to give you a reason to use fireball and such--because fights that are always the same get really boring, and it's cool for the party mage to obliterate 10 weak enemies with one spell, leaving only one creature for the fighter and rogue to beat up.

As with many things, a mix of tactics (giving penalties and using spells that attack incrementals) is generally better than just using one type of attack over and over.

Also, the section you're reading above doesn't talk about the analysis of other types of spells. At the top of the hierarchy are spells that turn enemies into allies, and below that are spells that instantly kill or disable enemies, and below that are spells that target depletable statistics....

I understand your point that some things can get very dangerous when they stack up. My point is that the most powerful things are the ones that typically don't stack. While casting 4 glitterdusts isn't going to do much more than casting 1, casting 1 glitterdust by itself is very potent. These are the kind of spells that need to serve as the benchmark at each spell level; if a player makes a spell that's more powerful than them it shouldn't be allowed. I am quite honestly surprised that create pit was made when you compare it to web and glitterdust.

Also if we look holistically, we see that effects like glitterdust can "stack" to devastating effect (for those familiar I'm drawing analogy to virtual card advantage in MtG). Things that produce action economy do stack in a non-straightforward manner. Let us suppose that a particular combat is a 4v4 combat being slugged out would last 8 rounds (for simplicity assume participants get knocked out on round 5,6,7,8). This means that each side gets 26 actions. On one side the party sorceror casts hold person at the beginning of combat and the victim gets out in 4 rounds. Party A now has 25 actions remaining while party B has 22 actions. When quantified like this, we can see that actions are indeed depletable statistics. When a party runs out of actions, they'll lose. While I have greatly simplified things in order to produce hard numbers, the idea remains in a more realistic combat. This is why dominate person is indeed devastating if it goes off. You spend one action to make them lose all the actions of one character while your side gains all the actions of that character.

I feel this concept is too important to be omitted from a section about balancing spells.

Designer, RPG Superstar Judge

In most cases, an impaired creature (like a glitterdust target or a blinded creature) doesn't have the opportunity to dispel or negate that condition, it just has to suffer through it until the PCs kill it... or it runs away, waits out the duration, and appears in a later battle.

If a combatant is still alive after 4 rounds of being held, that combatant's opponents are doing something wrong.

And, as I said above, the actual section of the book says that enemy-into-ally spells (like dominate person) are better than kill spells, depletable-targeting spells, and non-depletable-targeting spells.

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