One of the players in my group, Rob, has been a D&D fan for a long time. His first version of the game was the Holmes Basic Set from 1977, complete with that sweet cover. He also plays the only PC mage in the current party, named Damien. He tends to have useful advice, naturally. He agreed to let me quote him on his thoughts about my possible Disintegration house rules.
"I tried replying on the blog, but it doesn't seem to work, so.... here you go. (Hope this all fits...)
There are definitely some overpowered spells in D&D in general. (And this rule set in particular, due to some glaring loopholes the authors missed.) Harm and Disintegrate are right up there near the top. As you've noticed, I have avoided using it, specifically because of the over-powered nature of it. Magic Missile, as well, is insanely over-powered at higher caster levels. It's almost guaranteed death when cast at another mage of the same level, once both are over level 11.
In fact, just about any spell that has a level-based effect with no level cap, has the potential to be overpowered. Luckily, there are some simple ways to deal with it.
1) Any spell that has an instantaneous, non-dice-based effect, should have a saving throw. (IOW - Anything where you don't have to roll for damage.) So Disintegrate should get a save. Magic Missile, where the damage caused is determined by a specified number of random die rolls, doesn't. The exception is, of course, anything where the spell description specifically states that the target does, or does not, get to save. In that case, go with the description, unless it becomes an abuse problem."
This sounds perfectly fine to me. Disintegrate now allows a save, and so do other instantaneous, non-dice-based effects, unless the spell description specifically says otherwise.
"2) Any touch-based spell should require a combat to-hit roll for an unwilling target. AFAIK, that's the control on the Harm spell. It is touch-based, and should require a to-hit roll."
Also sounds good. One of my Journeyman-playing friends already agreed with this as well. Touch-based spells now require a to-hit roll to work.
"3) Institute a cap on level-based spell effects that stops at, say, 10 levels over the minimum needed to cast it. So Magic Missile would reach maximum effectiveness at caster level 11, with 11 missiles for a total of 11d4 damage. The venerable Fireball would have a max of 15d6 damage. Also removes some of the ridiculosity of Bless."
I'm okay with this. I knew the lack of a level cap on spells like Magic Missile was entirely deliberate on the part of James Raggi when he wrote the LotFP rules, and usually it's a concept I like, but I'm fine with ditching it for this campaign. Also, I want to note that Fireball is not in LotFP if you play it RAW (and no player invents it with the spell research rules), but I've mentioned before that it does exist in the Lamentations of the Fallen Lords campaign as a rare spell. Long story short, level-based spell effects cap at 10 plus the minimum character level needed to memorize the spell.
"(Also, I would consider Harm to be non-dice-based damage spell, allowing a saving throw. This means that the successful use Harm would require both a to-hit roll, and a saving throw. This instantly makes the spell nowhere near as unbalancing. If that's still not enough to prevent abuse, then institute some form of Code of Conduct that somehow prohibits PCs from using Harm, which could be appropriate for honorable warrior-cleric representatives of the empire. Maybe "Your god considers such actions to be dishonorable, and refuses to grant you this power.")"
I'm on the fence about requiring a to-hit roll and a saving throw, but considering that Harm only leaves an enemy with 1d4 HP, it might be fair. I'll have to talk it over with the group. I think a Code of Conduct would be overkill in this case, since I don't like rules that remind me of alignment crap. You know, "your paladin was imprisoned in ice for 10,000 years and couldn't tithe, so he loses his powers," and annoying garbage like that. Not that the Code of Conduct is nearly so egregious or anything, but I don't want to risk even winding up in that ballpark.
"Regarding your proposed saving throw against Disintegration for items, I think you should rule it one way or the other, and not allow player choice. Either you have to roll for items, or you don't. It doesn't make sense that, while being vaporized in a split second, you somehow get to decide whether or not the spell gets to vaporize your items, too. IMO, all non-magic items go *poof*. Each magical items gets a save, individually, with any magical pluses being applied to its individual roll. This gets rid of having to roll for hordes of generic stuff, and allows for special stuff to be saved."
I'm pretty fine with this, too. The target makes a Save vs. Magic to negate the Disintegration, and then if they fail they die and their non-magic items are gone, at which point they must make a Save vs. Magic for each of their magic items to see if they are disintegrated or not.
I could see it being kind of weird that the saving throw of the person carrying the item determines how easy it is to disintegrate the item. Would a magic item that is not being carried not get a saving throw? I should think about this a bit more.
"Regarding the problem of hordes of wand-wielding Disintegrators... Rather than put more artificial restrictions in place in more game systems, perhaps a simple approach would be the best. I would limit the effectiveness of the tactic using a simple modification of your original house rule: Put some controls over the manner in which non-mages use wands. Say, for example...
1) A max spell level that can be cast. Set it at five, and the problem disappears. Not just for Disintegrate, but for all related spells, such as Power Word Kill and the various Prismatic spells.
2) Require a saving throw every time it is used. Low-level characters have pretty poor saving throws, meaning that hordes of low-level wand-wielders would be extremely ineffective. Higher level characters with better saving throws could still take advantage of the rule with minimal risk. Failed saves could cause some random effects:
a) Simple failure means the charge is expended to no effect.
b) Botched saves could result in anything from harmlessly expending additional charges, to random discharges against random targets, having the effects target the wielder, to harmless or even catastrophic destruction of the item with accompanying explosions with a strength determined by spell level and number of charges. Make it random, so even a botched save doesn't mean that you automatically die.
In this manner, using a wand that has good effects would still be, mostly, without risk. It may take a few tries to get that Spider Climb to work right. But, you'd have to get really unlucky to botch a save, and then roll an explosion on top of it. Attempting to use harmful wands on a mass scale with non-mages, however, would have a statistically significant chance of leading to disasters like people incinerating themselves, or exploding wands tearing holes in your own lines.
I think that would strike a good balance. People could still use wands individually with minimal risk. The potential for failure from massed usage would provide some serious disincentive to using them on a strategic scale. But if you insist, good luck!"
This was a helpful line of thought. Let's keep it simple while using some of these ideas. If a mage uses a wand or staff, things proceed as normal. If a non-mage uses a wand, they must make a Save vs. Device. If they succeed, the spell is cast as if a 1st-level mage cast it. If they fail, the spell is not cast, the charge is expended anyway, and the failed caster takes HP damage equal to the spell's level minus 1. For example, if a non-mage tried to cast Disintegrate from a wand and failed the saving throw, they would take 5 points of damage because Disintegrate is a 6th-level spell. The damage would presumably come from a backlash of arcane energy as the spell fizzles.
I think scrolls can only be used by spellcasting classes, so my worry about them falling into the hands of common troops was probably unfounded.
I feel like these changes should address my major misgivings about using the spell list from LotFP in a setting with open warfare between factions controlled by numerous magic-users. Thanks again for the advice, Rob!