If you have been running Dungeons and Dragons for any real length of time, I am sure you have encountered situations where a certain player seems to continually use or abuse a spell to either circumnavigate much of your efforts, or to somehow manipulate or alter the game play in such a way that it is having a negative impact on the game. This topic is going to help you address this issue, and give you several options and suggestions in how to combat broken spells, or how to prevent spells being abused.
Firstly lets look at what we are talking about when we say “broken spells”. These are spells that for one reason or another are overly powerful, or allow a player to somehow “cheat” the game. There are many spells that I consider broken in one way or another. This can be either due to their effects at their assigned spell level, the fact that they offer no saving throw, the overly long duration, the wording of the spell text and many more reasons.
One example of this in 3.5 Edition would be:
Level: Sor/Wiz 2 Components: V, S, M Casting Time: 1 standard action Range: Touch Target: One touched piece of rope from 5 ft. to 30 ft. long Duration: 1 hour/level (D) Saving Throw: None Spell Resistance: No
When this spell is cast upon a piece of rope from 5 to 30 feet long, one end of the rope rises into the air until the whole rope hangs perpendicular to the ground, as if affixed at the upper end. The upper end is, in fact, fastened to an extradimensional space that is outside the multiverse of extradimensional spaces (“planes”). Creatures in the extradimensional space are hidden, beyond the reach of spells (including divinations), unless those spells work across planes. The space holds as many as eight creatures (of any size). Creatures in the space can pull the rope up into the space, making the rope “disappear.” In that case, the rope counts as one of the eight creatures that can fit in the space. The rope can support up to 16,000 pounds. A weight greater than that can pull the rope free.
Spells cannot be cast across the extradimensional interface, nor can area effects cross it. Those in the extradimensional space can see out of it as if a 3-foot by 5-foot window were centered on the rope. The window is present on the Material Plane, but it’s invisible, and even creatures that can see the window can’t see through it. Anything inside the extradimensional space drops out when the spell ends. The rope can be climbed by only one person at a time. The rope trick spell enables climbers to reach a normal place if they do not climb all the way to the extradimensional space.
Note: It is hazardous to create an extradimensional space within an existing extradimensional space or to take an extradimensional space into an existing one.
Powdered corn extract and a twisted loop of parchment.
Why is this potentially Broken? well lets examine it for a moment.
Firstly it is a level 2 spell, which means players have access to it very early on. Secondly it allows up to eight creatures (or characters) to be almost untouchable. You can not locate people in a rope trick, short of a Discern location or gate spell, and by the time the players reach level eight, they have eight hours of totally safe sleep, and being all but impervious to random encounters, or being found. They can use it in a dungeon to continually rest between encounters and at such a low level this is just too powerful. It can also be abused in many other ways but you get the point.
An example in 5e would be Contagion.
This is a 5th-level spell that allows you to stun-lock any target (including a legendary monster) for three rounds minimum if you manage to hit it with a touch attack and do at least a point of damage each round. in contrast, power word: stun is an 8th-level spell that stuns a target and gives them a chance to save every round.
Now I am not going to go into a list of all the spells that I think are broken or why here (its for you to decide what you think are broken in your game), but I will focus on how to deal with them.
There are several approaches for this. The first one is to simply remove them from your game or self Nerf them. If you choose this option you should consult your players BEFORE play and explain to them what you have done and why. Never do this without informing them and explaining your reasoning (unless you want to create malcontent within your players). If you decide to Nerf a spell be sure to have the altered spell description on hand for the players so that they know exactly how you changed the spell and why. Weather it be a level increase, a duration reduction or the addition of a chance to save against the effects etc. Should you realize that a spell is broken or is being abused DURING game play, you should discuss it with your players at the end of the session and explain why you see a problem. Then you can alter it for the next session but will be doing so with the players understanding and awareness.
The second method is to restrict the spell from play or limit its availability. In other words, do not make it a spell that is easily acquired by a wizard, or make it a spell that a deity simply will not grant a player the ability to cast, unless under necessary circumstances. Alternatively if you use spell components, change the component or add one that is difficult to acquire and is expended upon casting. This method does not out right rob the players of the spell but limits its use.
The third method is what I call the “Bad DM method”. This is where a Dungeon Master tries to punish the players for using the spell. For example. Having the players attacked each time while in the extradimensional rope trick space, by extradimensional creatures. While this could happen (once in a blue moon), its unlikely, and doing it will piss the players off and they will see it as a “dick move” on your part. Or lets say they are using Wind Walk to essentially get free and safe long distance travel, constantly bypassing content and are abusing the crap out of it. You could have them attacked by a very limited and rare type of monster that can actually attack gaseous form AND fly, AND keep up with it. Once again they will call BS and see it as you being a dick. And to be honest if you take this approach, you are!
In my experience (other than the third option) how you deal with it is less important than how you explain your alterations or restrictions to your players. Decent players will understand how and why you may feel that a certain spell needs to be changed, or have its effects limited. Some spells may be fine in one campaign, but not in another. You should also do this PRIOR to character creation, as some people may decide NOT to play a certain class if they are aware you are altering some of the spell choices or making changes to them.
My personal preference is to limit or Nerf a spell rather than remove it from the game. All of the spells can be handled in such a way that you can keep the general feel and effect of the spell, and yet give it some alterations to make it more balanced.
Some spells are not broken as such, but can be used in abusive ways. One example of this would be using a low level spell to render an adversary helpless so that you can perform a Coup de Grace. In these cases I will often point out to players that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. In other words If we are going to allow this to happen in game, it can happen TOO you as well as be performed by you.
Once again it is important to remember that it is not all about you. You need to be sure that your players understand and are on board with any changes you make. Remembering that you are there to serve the players and not the other way around is important here, but also remember that serving them does not mean giving them everything they want. Delivering them a great story and a fun game is your responsibility as a Dungeon Master, and sometimes to do that you have to make some changes for the good of the game…………..