Five Magic Mechanics That Break Their Systems

A classical painting of an alchemist working with potions.
Roleplaying mechanics can be difficult to balance, and magic can be difficult to balance, so it’s no surprise that when you combine the two, you get serious fireworks. I’m talking about powers and abilities that aren’t just overpowered; they can bring entire games to a screeching halt. Game masters struggle to construct an enjoyable scenario around such magical mayhem, and while these stories can be fun to laugh at years later, in the moment they ruin everyone’s fun. Let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders!

1. Instant Fortress, 5E D&D

Artwork for the Instant Fortress from 5E's DMG.

Dungeons & Dragons has long struggled with magic items, but 5th Edition’s version of the Instant Fortress is definitely a contender for the top spot. It takes the form of a small cube that expands into a 20 by 20 foot tower when you speak the command word. Ostensibly, the main purpose is to give your party somewhere to hole up in safety, and it does do that. So far, so good.

Then you read a little further down and discover that the fortress also inflicts 10d10 bludgeoning damage on any creatures caught in its expanding base, with a Reflex save for half damage. Suddenly, it’s one of the most overpowered items in the game.

There are very few abilities in 5th Edition that do 10d10 damage, so any character with the Instant Fortress is automatically a damage powerhouse. This is enough pain to one-shot many encounters, especially if your party isn’t super high level yet. Even better, it’s reusable! You can use another command word to shrink it back down and then unleash 10d10 damage all over again.

The only downside is that shrinking the Instant Fortress takes an action, so you can only get its amazing damage every other turn. At low to mid-level, that’s still way more damage than your character can do on their own. Even at high level, the abilities that can do more are usually limited in use. This means it can still be used as a devastating first volley or just to sweep up weaker encounters that would normally drain your resources.

The best* part about the Instant Fortress is that multiple characters can have one. It’s classified as a “rare” item, which is right in the middle of 5E’s rarity chart. For reference, other “rare” items include the Bag of Beans and Handy Haversack. Not exactly powerhouses. The Instant Fortress can cost anywhere from 501 to 5000 gold pieces, but even the maximum price is hardly going to break the bank. Unless the GM specifically prohibits the Instant Fortress, it won’t be long until the entire party is unleashing 10d10 cubes at will.

2. Rituals, Mage

Stylized ritual artwork from Mage: The Ascension

No matter the edition, Mage is a game about free-form magic. You build spells on the fly from a list of options determined by your character’s abilities, which can be super fun after using the restrictive spell lists of most systems.

Of course, that level of flexibility can also be really overpowered, so Mage compensates by making higher-level options require really difficult rolls. Sure, most PCs with Forces magic can short out a smartphone, but few can call down lighting.

These limits work fairly well – that is, until rituals barge in and turn everything upside down. Mechanically, rituals allow you to divide more-powerful spells into multiple castings. So now almost anyone can call down lightning as long as they have half a dozen rounds or so to spare. That sounds like a long time in combat, but otherwise it’s nothing, a few minutes at most.

This opens the door to game-breaking forms of magic. With the right abilities, mages can use sympathetic magic to incinerate their enemies from miles away or buff themselves up into juggernauts that would make a werewolf think twice. But combat magic is just the tip of the iceberg.

Using rituals, mages can craft powerful minions to serve them, open up portals into the distant past, or make themselves so good at social rolls that NPCs will rush to serve them. It’s extremely difficult to put limits on ritual casting, and no edition of Mage I’ve read has ever succeeded.*

The worst part is that rituals actually disincentivize players from going out and having adventures. If they’re in the field, combat might start, and then they wouldn’t be able to use rituals for ever and ever. Instead, you end up with a campaign where everyone camps out in their basement and casts magic until the GM gives up.

3. Air Magic, 4E Legend of the Five Rings

An air shugenja from Legend of the Five Rings.

In Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), magic is divided into the four classical elements of earth, water, fire, and air.* Of these four, air is by far the most powerful, but it’s not because air spells are the best. Instead, it has to do with how L5R derives its abilities.

You see, each element is represented on the character sheet by two attributes. The higher those attributes, the higher their element, and the better you are at casting spells of that element. Air’s two attributes are Awareness and Reflexes, which is where the fun starts, for a given definition of fun.

Awareness is the attribute used for nearly all social rolls, which makes it incredibly powerful for an intrigue-heavy game like L5R. It’s also really easy to convince your GM that Awareness should feature in rolls for investigation and spotting. That’s technically supposed to be Perception, but Awareness certainly sounds like it fits the bill, as it should define how aware you are, right?

Meanwhile, Reflexes is the god of combat. It determines your initiative, how hard you are to hit, and how good you are with a bow for some reason.* By putting the two together, you have a character who is really good at social rolls, can do Legolas impersonations in combat, and casts magic. As a cherry on top, Awareness and Reflexes are also two of the three attributes needed for formal dueling, so you can branch into that as well if you like.

No other character type has this kind of efficiency. Magic users who focus on a different element have to either spend their points on less-useful attributes or deal with their spells being underpowered. Most martial characters also need to invest in less-useful attributes for their special abilities to work. Meanwhile, an air caster can keep raising Awareness and Reflexes until they can succeed at nearly any roll.

Oh, and did I mention how well air spells synergize with social skills and archery? Some of them boost your social skills even further. Others let you move faster or conjure winds to protect you, exactly what an archer needs to avoid melee and return fire.

4. Faith, Burning Wheel

Clouds forming a god's face over a human silhouette.

Burning Wheel is one of those games with two kinds of magic.* The first is sorcery, and it’s plenty powerful on its own. Some of the spells can certainly unbalance a game, especially the ones that let you add dice to skill rolls, but at least this type of magic has costs. You have to spend significant resources to learn spells, casting magic drains stamina, and there are some gnarly consequences for failure.

To really break Burning Wheel, you need Faith, this game’s version of divine magic. There aren’t any spells for Faith, just a list of effects that divine casters can try for. These effects are incredibly broad, with everything from granting bonus dice to completely disabling enemies. The higher echelons include nebulously defined miracles that do basically anything.

The potential for abuse is pretty obvious, right? But it only really breaks games when you add in Burning Wheel’s leveling system. This is a learn-by-doing game, which means that the more often you use a skill or attribute, the more often it goes up. This is usually fine, since you only use your abilities when they’re applicable. But because Faith is so broad, it can be used nearly all the time for any problem.

If a priest needs to convince someone to give them lodging for the night, they can pray for bonus dice. If they’re attacked, they can pray that the enemy be smote. And of course, they can pray that injuries be cured. Worse, by default there are no penalties for failure, so there’s no reason not to use Faith all the time, and the more you use it, the higher it goes.

Once your Faith hits seven or eight, you start being able to pull off those higher-level miracles, and that really breaks the plot wide open. It’s just hard to construct a story around characters who can receive divine inspiration to instantly solve a mystery or escape any danger by praying really hard.

The only balancing factor is that if your character reaches 10 Faith, they ascend to a godly plane and are now unplayable. But to get there, you have to successfully achieve at least three top-tier miracles. Not only can you simply choose not to attempt a third one, but very few campaigns are ever going to need more than two seas parted anyway.

5. Charm Spells, 5E D&D

The Pied Piper leading children away from town.

For this last entry, we circle back to our old friend Dungeons & Dragons. One of 5th Edition’s major changes was the removal of nearly all “save or die” spells. You probably remember those: spells where your character had to make either a Fortitude or a Will save to avoid being instantly removed from the living world, no matter how many hit points they had. This was a good call, because such spells are really boring. They either do nothing, or they instantly end a combat, possibly taking out a major character from the story.

Unfortunately, 5E’s designers left charm spells intact, and they’re nearly as bad. While a character who fails a save vs charm isn’t dead, they are largely out of the fight. Sometimes they can be snapped out of their stupor by an ally, but then you get into the area of effect spells like Hypnotic Pattern. This one spell can instantly incapacitate any enemy in a 30-foot cube, ending a fight in one round if too many combatants fail their saving throws. Heaven help your GM if you have the Doss Lute, a magic item that makes charm spells even harder to resist.

Some charm spells like Dominate Person even allow you to force enemies to fight for you, which is actually even more powerful than a save or die. True, most of these spells are easier to resist once combat has started, but you can get around that if you’re the one who attacks first, making for one heck of an opening volley.

Not only is this annoying to the rest of the party, who were probably looking forward to contributing, but it leaves you in an awkward situation once the battle ends. Your charmed enemies can’t fight, so the combat is over, but they’ll be your enemies again once the spell wears off, so what are you supposed to do? Dealing any damage to them ends the charm, and even if you’re able to kill them with one hit, executing helpless enemies is a bit much for many players.

Should you try to restrain them? Make them go to sleep? Take away their weapons and spell components? The rules are notably silent on this point, which introduces an unwelcome element of uncertainty at a time when you should be celebrating your victory. Instead, now there’s a good chance you have to argue with your GM about what exactly you’re allowed to do with these leftover opponents. This is by far the worst part of charm spells, because if there’s one thing that will break a game faster than overpowered abilities, it’s antagonism between GM and player.

If you’re a player, there’s not much you can do about these game-breaking magics except ask if your GM will consider banning them. If you’re a GM, you can either perform said banning or do the work of house ruling each ability so it’s actually balanced. In the case of core mechanics like air magic, this is sometimes the best option. If you’re a designer, I hope this list has given you an idea of what to look out for in your game.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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  1. Matt

    I’m surprised the deck of many things isn’t on here.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      There’s definitely some pretty powerful stuff in the deck for sure!

      • Rose Embolism

        It was amazing how often back in the day playing AD&D people would show up with wild stuff and when asked l, were all “Oh I drew incredibly well on a. Deck of Many Things.” It’s really curious how they never got any of the bad cards.

  2. Sam

    Paradox and reality consensus it’s what limit most mages, even splitting castings using rituals the mage needs to set the stage so the magical effects fits that consensual reality. Cast a lightning bolt in a storm might be plausible while might look unbelievable in a clear sky. That’s when the paradox hits hard the offender.
    About mages going in adventures I can’t actually picture such thing in World of Darkness.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      As far as I can tell from reading the rules, in both M20 and Revised, ritual casting doesn’t generate more paradox than a standard quick-cast. If anything it often generates less paradox cause you can more easily disguise the ritual as incidental, depending on your paradigm.

      And if the mages aren’t going on adventures, which can be anything from street fights to political intrigue, I don’t think they’d be very interesting to play.

      • Rose Embolism

        The simple trick is to do any ritual in one’s sanctum. No Paradox there.

        Really one of the frustrating things about Mage rituals was how half-assed the rules for them were. Like when doing multiple roles for an effect, when did fast casting rules stop, and ritual rules begin. Rituals could have been an incredible method to let characters assist each other, to let people describe how their paradigms work, and give a time pressure element. But instead, we’ll…

        Now I kind of want to look up Witchcraft, to see how that WoD influenced game handled rituals.

  3. Greg S

    Why back in the day (being sometime in the early 80’s), my AD&D cleric got swallowed by a purple worm. I asked the DM what would happen if I commanded my folding boat to manifest at full size in the monster’s gullet. The DM said that he didn’t know for sure. So I did it.

    Then hilarity ensued.

    In another AD&D adventure, our party was attacked by a swarm of ants that, unbeknownst to us, were actually polymorphed brontosauri. Some smart guy threw a dispel or a remove enchantment or somesuch and returned the dinosaurs to their true form.

    Hundreds of them. In a 20’x30′ room.

    Old school AD&D was so vague about stuff that these kinds of situations happened often.

  4. jalrin

    2ed Mage the Awakening fixed rituals by making them reduce paradox risk and simplifying using circumstantial bonuses while eliminating the ability to split spellcasting into multiple rolls. Now, it is something you do either because the spell is near the limits of your abilities (e.g. a mid-level mage summoning a powerful entity) and you want to take the time to do it carefully. I think you would find it interesting if you looked at it.

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