I remember once before writing our reasoning as to why we divided magic into ‘basic magic’ and ‘advanced magic’, but now that the book is out I thought it would be good to re-visit the idea of game-changing magic and our approach to it.
It has been said that the D&D 3/3.5 tradition that Pathfinder is built on is not one game, but is in reality 4: Levels 1-5 (gritty fantasy), levels 6-10 (heroic fantasy), levels 11-15 (Wuxia), and levels 16-20 (superheroes). The principal difference between these divisions is the availability of certain magic that can completely change the way each game is actually played.
Gritty fantasy (levels 1-5) is characterized by its dangerousness and lack of magic; players need heal kits, horses, skill checks, and melee weapons to accomplish anything worthwhile, even if you’re a cleric or wizard.
Heroic fantasy (levels 6-10) is characterized by its lack of dangerousness, at least in the everyday; magical healing has replaced all need for heal kits, fireballs are a regular crowd-clearing tactic, and at the end of this gameplay style, the party can even make limited use of teleportation, planeswalking, and the raising of the dead. To gritty fantasy, heroic fantasy characters are heroes spoken of in whispers and stories.
Wuxia (levels 11-15) is a completely different game from the earlier levels: teleportation, planeswalking, and the raising of the dead are now daily occurrences. The 'scry and fry' becomes a standard combat tactic, as anything with less magic than the party cannot withstand the tactical options wuxia players have. To heroic fantasy, wuxia characters are spoken of in whispers and stories. To gritty fantasy, wuxia characters are true living legends.
Superheroes (levels 16-20) is a completely different experience from what comes before. Facing anything less than ancient demons and primordial deities is a walk in the part, and 9th level spells are the party’s bread and butter. To wuxia, superheroes are their aspiration. To heroic fantasy, superheroes are living legends. To gritty fantasy, superheroes may as well be gods.
Some people love this progression and find it keeps the game fresh. Others don’t, and get bored with the game once it advances past the variation they actually enjoy. Some just find it an inconvenience: I remember distinctly one GM’s look of horror when we told him we were high enough level to cast planeshift, something I think he literally hadn’t considered and that threw off quite a bit of the rest of the story. I also remember another GM telling the story of the time he accidentally caused a TPK because the pre-written adventure he was using assumed the party had access to a certain level of healing magic which, not having a cleric in the party, they simply didn’t have.
Spheres of Power is, at its heart, about allowing people to play the game the way they want to. Rather than forcing people to take out what they don’t want in their game, we give them the option to add in what they do. Both players and GMs can decide when game-changing magic enters the game, how much game-changing magic will be used, and what it means to the story, world, and gameplay.
Some will want a progression like that mentioned above. Others might introduce game-changing magic right at the beginning and skip that whole gritty period. Still others might want to keep the game gritty the whole time, as they find the game gets boring when players can start reshaping the world according to their desires.
I’m curious to know how other people approach this magic in their own games, both with Spheres of Power or the core system. Do you use game-changing magic? Do you discourage it? Do you always create your games assuming characters over a certain level will become virtually immortal planeswalkers?