Up until now, we’ve been examining ways to generate in-game explanations for metagame rules regarding magic. We’ve made character-based explanations for where the energy to power a spell comes from, for example, or why it’s harder to teleport an object that someone’s holding than one that’s unattended.
This time, we’re going to take a look at spell levels, and try to judge how they’re viewed in the game world. This is trickier than it might seem at first glance, because unlike how previous metagame rules couldn’t be brought into the campaign world-view, spell levels conceivably could.
When you get right down to it, there’s little reason why character’s can’t make reference to “third-level spells” or “0-level spells” when talking to each other. After all, there’s clearly a difference in power between spells of different levels, and since there are in-game effects that differentiate between spell levels (such as how a globe of invulnerability only protects against spells of certain levels, or detect magic sees auras at different strengths depending on spell levels), why not just import the existing “level” terminology for spells into the game world?
As it turns out, there are a few reasons for not having characters talk about spell levels in the game world (beyond simply saying “it’s dry and sterile”). For one thing, the use of these metagame gradations become tautological when used in-game. Why is a 4th-level spell higher than a 3rd-level spell? Because it’s 4th-level and the other is only 3rd! It also brings up some oddities regarding things that change spell levels. Do spellcasters with metamagic feats know how much their spell level adjustment is? When your wizard is saying “I don’t recommend studying how to make your fireball wider, because that will make it from a 3rd-level spell into a 6th-level spell,” you’re halfway to speaking out of character.
“Now, hold on,” you say (interjecting for the third time in as many articles), “you already said that spells are utilizing energy, right? So aren’t they just talking about measurements of energy? People do that all the time!”
Ah, now you’re thinking along the right track! Since we laid down that magic is manipulating external energy – whether ambient or god-granted – it does make sense that someone would have invented a manner to measure that energy. After all, units of measurement exist for virtually everything, so why not magical energy too?
But let’s be clear, the system of “spell levels” isn’t actually measuring spell energy – it’s charting levels of energy without saying what it’s defining. It’s like talking about temperature using only descriptors; “0-level” is like saying “freezing cold,” “1st-level” is like saying “cold,” “2nd-level” is like saying “chilly,” etc. These terms show a clear progression, but they’re not precise and don’t actually use a unit of measurement.
Given that, since there is no existing unit of measurement for the energy used in magic, we’re going to have to invent one. Luckily, there’s a third-party supplement that can point us in the right direction.
That’s Why They Call Me Mr. Fahrenheit
The Practical Enchanter, by Distant Horizons Games, is a book which has been mentioned on this blog previously. It’s one of the best third-party supplements that was ever released for the d20 System, and it’s usefulness is very much intact for Pathfinder (and it’s free, to boot!). But in this case, we’re going to take a cue not from its rules, but from one of the in-character quotes peppered throughout the book (p. 116, to be specific):
Research costs were quite another matter. It was a fine demonstration of Lerandor’s Rule – that it takes 2 spells of level ‘N’ to equal 1 spell of level ‘N + 1′. Ergo duplicating a spell of level N with spells of level (X) will require 2 to the (N-X) power such spells.
This quote was originally given in the context of new spell research, and – overlooking that it has the character talking about spell-levels (something easily done, since the in-game characters quoted in the book regularly break the fourth wall) – lays down a guideline establishing how powerful spells of a given level are in relation to spells of other levels.
Needless to say, this is key. Lerandor’s Rule provides a numerical formula for charting the power of spells in relation to other spells, rather than a set of descriptors. Using this, we can build a system of measurement, starting with the lowest-level spells and working our way up.
0-level spells are the weakest spells it’s possible to cast; given that, we’ll say that the amount of energy needed to cast a cantrip/orison represents the base unit of measurement in our system. In other words, a 0-level spell has a value of “1.” Of course, we need a name for this base unit; since we’re working off of Lerandor’s rule, we’ll say that a single unit of magical energy is a “leran.”
So a 0-level spell is a spell with one leran of energy.
From here, it’s just a matter of applying Lerandor’s Rule. Since each spell level is twice as powerful as spells of a previous level, then we can generate the following:
- A 0-level spell uses 1 leran.
- A 1st-level spell uses 2 lerans.
- A 2nd-level spell uses 4 lerans.
- A 3rd-level spell uses 8 lerans.
- A 4th-level spell uses 16 lerans.
- A 5th-level spell uses 32 lerans.
- A 6th-level spell uses 64 lerans.
- A 7th-level spell uses 128 lerans.
- A 8th-level spell uses 256 lerans.
- A 9th-level spell uses 512 lerans.
And voila! Our in-character method for measuring different levels of spells is done!
…except, not completely. While this does present a good foundation, it’s still somewhat rough around the edges. Let’s go over some of the problems with the above system and see if we can smooth them out.
Numbering: Looking back at the above numbers, they seem somewhat off-putting, for two reasons. The first is how specific the numbers can be. A 9th-level spell, for example, isn’t 500 lerans; it’s 512. Do those last twelve really need to be there?
The other reason the above system can seem an awkward fit is that the numbers seem rigid. From a metagame perspective, there are only ten levels of spells, so having such fixed numbers seems to discard any possibility of any other measurements. If someone’s using detect magic, for example, they wouldn’t ever get a result of 100 lerans…that’d be some sort of weird spell that’s caught between 6th and 7th level.
The answer to both of these problems lies in remembering one simple fact: not all spells of a given level are equal.
It’s likely, if you have a head for spell design, that you already knew this. This is why some spells have expensive material components/foci and others don’t, or why some spells have a longer or shorter casting time than others. The salient detail is that this metagame consideration also translates into an in-game consideration as well. The specific amount of lerans a spell uses is a measurement of how much energy (that is, power) it has, and this is modified for a given level based on these other considerations for casting it.
Material components and casting time aren’t the only things that can indicate how many lerans a spell uses, of course. If the GM feels that a given spell is simply too weak or too strong, he can adjust its leran value accordingly.
For example, a 4th-level spell normally uses 16 lerans. But the stoneskin spell, with its 250 gp granite and diamond dust material component, is somewhat stronger than other spells of its level. Given that, it might be a spell with 20 lerans of power behind it. Likewise, foresight seems pretty weak for a 9th-level spell, so you might decide that it only uses 400 lerans.
Metamagic: One thing that’s interesting to consider when using the leran measurement for spells is where metamagic fits in. Since metamagic feats increase the effective level of a spell, do they also increase the number of lerans a spell uses?
On the surface, the answer to this seems like an obvious yes. After all, metamagic spells use up a spell slot of a higher level, and lerans are a way of measuring spell levels in game. However, despite how rational it seems, this answer is incorrect.
It’s important to remember that metamagic increases the effective level of a spell, not its actual level; in other words, the size of the spell slot needed to cast it. The game rules lay this down very clearly; spells modified by a metamagic feat don’t use a higher save DC, for example. Hence, this is reflected in-game as well, and spells that use metamagic feats don’t utilize more lerans than they normally do without metamagic.
The rationale here is that a spell slot is different from a spell level. While that might sound like splitting hairs, it’s why you can prepare a lower-level spell in a higher-level spell slot, but doing so doesn’t lend it any additional power. You can prepare a fireball in a 4th-level spell slot, for example, but that lesser globe of invulnerability will still stop it cold.
The in-game explanation for why this is is that metamagic adds to a spell’s complexity, but not its power. When you make a spell silent, for example, you’re changing the method of casting to compensate for the lack of verbal components. The amount of energy in the spell doesn’t change, but you’re making it do more, essentially getting more mileage out of the same amount of power. Doing so is more difficult, however, and that’s represented by the higher-level spell slot you need to use.
The sole exception to all of this is Heighten Spell. That metamagic feat specifically adds more power, and correspondingly more lerans, to a spell, increasing just how much power it uses when cast. A heightened spell uses lerans based on its adjusted level, rather than the spell’s base level.
Caster Level: Although it’s going beyond what lerans are supposed to measure, it can seem a little odd that a measurement system for the degree of power of a spell doesn’t integrate the strength of the spellcaster. After all, a 10th-level wizard’s fireball deals twice as much damage as one cast by a 5th-level wizard.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s the same one that we went over when discussing metamagic in this context. While higher-level spellcasters have more mana, and can thus absorb and utilize spells with more lerans, they also know how to increase the complexity of spells they’ve already learned. That’s how they get more out of spells with effects that are measured by caster level.
In other words, our 10th-level wizard isn’t doing so much more damage with a fireball than his 5th-level counterpart because he’s able to sink more power into the spell; he’s just better able to utilize the same amount of power. His increasing mana allows for him to use existing spells with greater complexity, as well as new spells of greater power.
It should also be noted that detect magic utilizes a magic item’s caster level to determine its aura strength, instead of spell levels. Presumably this was done for simplicity, since then you only ever need to look at the caster level to determine the aura strength. Having said that, it’s much more internally consistent to just use the highest-level spell involved in the item’s creation to determine the strength of its aura; after all, that’s how you determine the aura’s school of magic, so why not its strength too?
Practicality: So now that we’ve generated this in-game methodology for the power of spell levels, where does this ever come up in your game, besides having in-character conversations between spellcasters? Well, as it turns out, in quite a few places. Remember what we said before about how some spells and effects deal explicitly with spell levels? These are where you can insert the leran measurement system into your game more directly.
For example, lesser globe of invulnerability protects those within it from all magical effects of 10 lerans or less, whereas globe of invulnerability protects from magical effects of up to 20. Detect magic, when viewing an active spell aura, registers anything of 10 lerans or less as “faint,” of 11 through 100 lerans as “moderate,” of 101 through 999 as “strong,” and 1,000 or more lerans (which would be an epic-level spell) as “overwhelming.”
The above suggestions become even more fun when you consider corner cases where a spell with unusually low or high lerans for its level might be subject to an effect that it normally wouldn’t be.
Next Time: Barbarians might say “enough talk!” and hurl daggers, but spellcasters are all about talking! The next article in this series is a massive post about the language of magic in your Pathfinder game.