D&D 5e: The Many Shapes of the Druid

August 15th, 2014 by Rory

Druids get right down to business in D&D 5e, gaining Wild Shape as an ability by level 2. Wild Shape is a really awesome ability in this edition with a ton of utility both in combat and in general exploration. Here are a few of the obvious perks:

  • Turn into any beast with of a certain CR or lower. Extremely versatile ability that is useful for blending in, getting into small spaces (think wild shaping into a mouse), and bringing force to bear in combat, among other applications.
  • Unlock ability to gain a fly speed or swim speed at higher levels.
  • Whole new set of hit points while in wild shape. You switch to use the hit points of whatever you transform into. If you take more damage than you have, you transform back at your previous hit points, minus any excess damage you took. So essentially the Druid can take a lot more damage than many of the other classes, which is a little crazy and borderline overpowered.
  • Can wild shape 2 times between short rests! Considering that you can stay in wild shape form for one or more hours, this is pretty generous.

The Circle of the Moon sub-class really exemplifies this feature, gaining a number of abilities that makes their wild shaping stronger, more useful, and quite capable in combat. As they level, they can transform into higher level beasts, heal themselves by expending spell slots as a bonus action, treat their natural weapons as magical, and even transform into Elementals. They also can cast alter self at-will, but that's kind of its own thing.

As combat is a bit easier to analyze than all the crazy stuff you can do with wild shape outside of combat, I thought it could be fun to take a look at some of the obvious choices for wild shaping throughout the levels. I'm focusing on the Circle of the Moon's options since they are the obvious choice if you want to really take advantage of this feature:

Read the rest of this entry »

D&D 5e 10th Level Bard Hack

August 13th, 2014 by Rory

I'm a big fan of the Bard in D&D 5e. Recently, while playing around with different builds, I discovered a pretty silly hack to make them a very powerful (arguably overpowered) choice for ranged combat by level 10. If you already know about Bards, feel free to scroll past my general overview to see how it works.

However, for those who don't have the new PHB yet, here's a short list of some of the nice perks the Bard gets to give you a little background:

  • Full caster class: Bards get the same number of spells as Clerics and Wizards. This is nice because it gives them a core competency to build off of, something they lacked in 3.5 and previous editions, where the bard was okay at everything but not particularly good at anything.
  • Inspiration: In place of bard songs that all do wacky things and have always felt a little awkward to actually use, bards have inspiration dice. They can pass these to allies, who can use them to add the die as a bonus to attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. Sub classes allow them to be used in other ways, such as reducing an enemies attack roll, adding to AC, or adding to a damage roll.
  • Jack of all Trades: Super fun ability that gives bards half their proficiency bonus to skills they aren't proficient in. It's a great thematic ability, and it encourages Bard players to try things outside their character's normal areas of expertise.
  • Song of Rest: Grants extra healing when the Bard or allies regain hit points during a short rest.
  • Good Melee/Ranged Subclass: Bards get to choose from two options for subclasses. The College of Lore emphasizes the "jack of all trades" aspect of the bard, granting extra skills and extra cross class spells, along with some other very solid perks. However, I am more attracted to the College of Valor, which legitimately makes the Bard a solid melee or ranged combatant, granting proficiency with martial weapons, medium armor, and shields, along with a bonus attack at level 6 and a nice perk at 14 to allow casting a spell and making an attack as a bonus action. So this means by level 6, the Bard is basically on par (or close enough) with all the other melee/ranged classes, such as the Barbarian, Fighter, Ranger, Paladin, and Rogue.
  • Magical Secrets: The bard spell list is pretty focused. It has a lot of stuff you might expect from a bard: charms and enchantments, some utility spells, and good options for travel, along with a healthy mix of "fun" spells you'll certainly enjoy playing around with. It also sports healing spells, which are always going to be useful. However, at 10th level and again at 14 and 18, you get to choose two spells from ANY class to round out your list a bit. The only requirement is that the spell level is one you can cast. This is very cool. For example, you could pick up fireball (which can be cast at higher spell levels for more damage) to add a nice AOE spell to your list, since Bards don't normally have any.

The "Hack" Explained

Read the rest of this entry »

d&d worlds have orange suns

July 30th, 2014 by paul

This never comes up in D&D gameplay, but I have a theory that most D&D games take place under a sun that's dimmer and more orange than ours.

17316-3This has to do with D&D's place in the Dying Earth sci-fi genre. D&D was largely inspired by Jack Vance, especially the Dying Earth stories, in which a far-future Earth lived its last days under a dying red sun. In this world, civilizations had risen and fallen millions of times, and there were ruins everywhere you looked.

For contrast, look at our world. Spinning along merrily under a young yellow sun is our brand new civilization. We're the first Earthlings to surpass D&D's renaissance-level technology, and we've only got a few centuries of high technology under our belts. We're only a few thousand years removed from humanity's first mastery of bronze and iron.

Your average D&D world is somewhere between our living and Vance's dying Earth. It's in a Renaissance-technology dark age, and it lives among the ruins of more magically and technologically advanced empires. Lots of them. Many campaigns have their own lore about human and humanoid empires, and lots of editions have hints of aeons where other creatures ruled the world - dragons, demons, giants, yuan-ti, aboleth, the Queen of Chaos, all in turn. Archaological sites are not rare. In fact, there's an undisturbed dungeon, a relic of a past age, just outside the PCs' starting town.

Your average D&D world has been around for a while. It's possible that its best days are behind it. If you travel into its future for a few millenia, you'll get to Dark Sun's red-tinged wasteland. If you travel into the past? who knows, you might end up in d20 Modern, under a garish yellow sun.

Why you shouldn’t torture the prisoners

July 23rd, 2014 by paul

Goblins: Interrogating goblins by torture seems to be creepily prevalent in D&D games. Anyway, it's not necessary, because goblins will always tell you everything when threatened with torture, no Intimidate check necessary. They'll mix in 20% malicious lies, but they'd do that under torture as well.

Hobgoblins: Hobs will inform you of their name, rank, and serial number, and then try to escape or commit suicide as soon as possible. They can withstand torture very well, but they will enthusiastically betray their superiors if you convince them that their efforts are unappreciated.

Bugbears: Bugbears are vicious, unfeeling brutes. By "unfeeling" I mean "they don't have pain receptors." However, they are easily bribed.

Orcs: If you try to torture orcs, or even tie them up, they will get so mad that the pulsing vein in their forehead will burst and they will die.

Gnolls: Stressed gnolls undergo frenzied visions of following Yeenoghu and ripping people limb from limb. In this state, they slaver foam, snap their teeth, and giggle curses. They don't give information.

Elves: Elves enter a trance state much like the gnolls do, except theirs involve dancing in magical glades instead of running down panicked humans. Instead of slavering foam, they murmur, "More tea?" and "Sindural shall play the aulos while Mistral distributes the mystic crumb cakes." But elves will tell you anything during pillow talk.

Half elves: Half elves never have secrets worth knowing.

Dwarves: Dwarves have high pain tolerance and unending reservoirs of stubbornness and hatred. However, they love beautiful things. Instead of torturing them physically, make them watch as you hit a dwarf-made ewer with a hammer.

Halflings: Torture is unnecessary to get information out of halflings. Just engage them in friendly small talk. They will accidentally reveal 1d4 secrets per hour, from closely-guarded pie recipes to secret tunnels into the castle.

Humans: Torture might work on humans, but you probably shouldn't do it. Because torture is evil.

10th level wizard spells

July 16th, 2014 by paul

I've talked before about why 10th level spells exist in the game world's past but not its present. Here are some appropriately overpowered 10th-level wizard spells.

851D webBecause every such spell is lost to history (most 10th-level spell users having destroyed their own civilizations), each spell must be researched based on tantalizing clues from forbidden books. An easy Wisdom check reveals that this is a bad idea.

10th-level spells are more the purview of villainous NPCs than PCs. I bet that they can be cast with lower-level spell slots, if cast in a suitably long and interruptable ritual.

10th-level spells:

Animate all dead. Area: the world.

Detect Great Old One's Thoughts. Your brain explodes. Everyone within 1000 miles is subject to a Feeblemind spell.

Disaster. Range: 5 miles. Everything is destroyed and everyone is killed within a 1 mile radius. Caster's choice of meteor strike, inferno, volcano, chasm, plague, tarrasque, etc. There may be unintended lingering side effects (deadly ash, tarrasque, plague, etc)

Erase person. Range: 400 feet. Kill one person and destroy their body and gear, no save. Everyone except for the caster instantly forgets the person ever existed. Their deeds are re-ascribed to others. People with close relationships to the erased person get a saving throw after 1 week of being confused by inconsistent memories.

Immortality. The spell all the liches are searching for. Warning: may attract liches.

Mordenkainen's dimensional domain. Warps space so that an area of up to a 20-mile radius is moved into a pocket dimension, accessible only by rules set by the caster (only through a specific wardrobe, appears one day every 100 years, etc). Don't bring a bag of holding into this domain.

Planar blink. Duration: one hour. Every turn, you may teleport anywhere you've scried or visited on any plane, or you can teleport to a random location on a plane you've heard of but never visited, or you can teleport to a random location on a random plane. Besides the classic planes, you can visit alternate timelines, other D&D campaigns and game systems, and the theoretical dimension where game-players control your actions, so you can kill the guy controlling you.

Power word: damn. The target dies and goes to hell. They get a saving throw after a year. Even if they return, they'll be pretty traumatized.

Soul swap. Touch someone. You permanently swap bodies, no save. You each keep your game stats but trade appearance and age.

Trans-galactic jaunt. The caster and 10 friends can survive comfortably in space and fly at 1 light-year per hour. They can finally explore the vast seas between stars and discover that, however a big deal they might be on their planet, they're level 1 in cosmic terms.

And finally, the real reason level-10 spell research is a bad idea:

Detect 10th level spell research. The one wizard in the multiverse who knows this spell also knows Planar blink and Erase person.

The Mike Mearls “Gen Con Challenge”

July 10th, 2014 by Rory

On Monday, Wizards of the Coast posted an article by Mike Mearls about building adventures. You can read it HERE.

At the end of the article, he wrote the following: "Now, let's see if anyone manages to use this article and the material in the Starter Set to hit 20th level by GenCon . . ."

Sounds like a challenge to me!

To put things in perspective, let's calculate how many Young Green Dragons (by far the highest XP monster in the Starter Set) a party of 4 Adventurers would need to slay between when the article came out and the start of Gen Con to get their party to 20th level and win the Gen Con Challenge!

  • Gen Con begins on August 14th. That gives a party who started the Gen Con Challenge when the article was released 37 days to complete the challenge.
  • We can assume an industrious group had already finished the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, before this article came out. That should put the PCs at level 5.
  • That means each PC needs about 348,500 more XP to get to level 20.
  • A Young Green Dragon is 3,900 XP.
  • Thus the party needs to kill roughly 89 Young Green Dragons for each PC. With 4 PCs, they need to kill about 356 dragons (357 if you round up the fractions, but let's not split hairs) to get to level 20.
  • That's about 9-10 Young Green Dragons a day, assuming they meet up every day!
  • Of course, they could decide to go the other route and kill as many goblins as possible instead. Then they'd be looking at a whopping 27,840 goblins to get to 20th level, or roughly 752 goblins a day!!!

Are you on your way to completing the Mike Mearls Gen Con Challenge? If you do, what boon will your party request from Mike Mearls when you meet him at Gen Con? Perhaps a spell named after your group's 20th level wizard? Or maybe you'll request that a full-scale model of your party's fighter replace the life-sized Regdar that sits in the WotC offices?

Image courtesy of this post on EnWorld: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?316074-Bet-you-wish-your-workplace-looked-like-WotC

Image borrowed from this post by Gaming Tonic on EnWorld: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?316074-Bet-you-wish-your-workplace-looked-like-WotC

Light Crossbow: Still the Weapon of Choice for Low Level Wizards in 5e

July 7th, 2014 by Rory

One of the nice things about D&D 4e was that wizards and other spellcasters got to step back from the old routine from previous editions of relying on the crossbow during easy fights or after they expended their paltry assortment of spells at low levels. They had at least 2 powers they could use over and over again to do solid damage equivalent to a basic melee strike (often with very cool added bonuses).

Alas, in 5e the crossbow comes to the forefront again. A layperson may be forgiven for assuming that a low level wizard doesn't really need a crossbow; after all, they have plenty of cantrips they can fall back on to do a wide variety of elemental damage. My response is that unless they are fighting monsters with vulnerability to fire, cold, or electricity, the crossbow is almost always a better bet until level 5.

My reasoning is simple:

  • Damage: A wizard using point buy is often going to have a 14 or 16 Dexterity, depending on their race. With a 16 Dexterity, a wizard does 1d8+3 damage with a crossbow, blowing the 1d10 firebolt out of the water. That's an average of 2 extra damage, which may not sound like much until you consider that it's a 36% increase in damage that has less variance, making it much more likely to make the difference between an injury and a kill. Obviously, the effect is less potent for a 14 Dexterity Wizard, but 1 damage is still significant when the damage values are so low.
  • Spell Effects: Fire Bolt, Ray of Frost, and Shocking Grasp have relatively minor spell effects. In short, the effects of these spells are very situational. Fire Bolt is good for environmental effects, like setting an oil slick on fire or lighting a torch, but has no direct effect when used against a target. Ray of Frost has some use in the first round of combat or when an enemy if fleeing, interfering with their ability to approach and escape effectively, but its utility is limited during the bulk of combat when significant movement across the battlefield tends to become less important. Shocking Grasp is arguably the most useful, but it's melee only; it's really best as a way to do some damage and still withdraw (presumably to pull out your trusty crossbow). And of course, both Ray of Frost and Shocking Grasp only do 1d8 damage, which puts them even further behind the crossbow in the damage department.
  • Crossbow is better than ever!: The light crossbow has the loading quality, which is no surprise. What is surprising is that all the loading quality does is restrict you to one attack per action, bonus action, or reaction. Since wizards almost never get more than one attack per action, this tag is no real impediment. In contrast, in 3.5, a light crossbow required a move action to load, which could be a real pain.

Read the rest of this entry »

Lifestyle and Downtime in 5e Basic

July 6th, 2014 by Rory

D&D 5e Basic was released a few days ago, and it is packed with 110 pages of great information, including full line ups of the common races and classes. What I am most excited about, however, are the rules for lifestyle and downtime! Some version of these types of rules probably existed in earlier editions, but as someone who primarily played 3.5 and 4e, I really missed not having them. I love subsystems that give a little structure to life outside of adventures and give rewards and consequences to taking time off to pursue other goals (or just wait for the next adventure to roll around). Also, for a certain style of campaign it is very fun to put financial pressure on the PCs so they are always wondering how they are going to scratch together enough money to pay their rent and feed themselves (or suffer the consequences of the new rules for starving!).

Let's explore our options to see what we have to work with:

Read the rest of this entry »

the “implied setting” of the 5e basic spell list

July 2nd, 2014 by paul

Looking at fifth edition Basic's pared-down, classic-heavy spell list, I thought, "What if these were all the widely known spells in the whole campaign world? What kind of game world is implied by the missing spells?"

Let's say that, when PCs level up, they can automatically learn spells only from the Basic list. Everything in the Players Handbook, and in all future splatbooks, exists somewhere in the world, but it's hidden in some way. Wish is scribed in a moldering book in the dungeons of an empire past; Rary's Mnemonic Enhancer is known only by the lich that was once Rary; the one guy who knows Wall of Fire lives inside a fiery labyrinth; and no one knows Explosive Runes at all, and a PC wizard will have to invest research time to learn it. Capturing a wizard's spellbook is an exciting opportunity to find an otherwise unobtainable spell. Rare cleric spells are taught in hidden monasteries or granted in dreams by angels.

To me, this sounds good in theory, and it will work or not depending on the completeness of the Basic spell list. What's the implied setting of this "Fifth Age" D&D world? Is its evocation- and healing-heavy spell list robust enough to outfit the majority of NPCs?

I'll compare the spell list, rather arbitrarily, with magic-user and cleric spell lists in the 1e PHB. What spells are missing from the Fifth Age that existed in the influential implied setting of 1e Greyhawk?

I've organized the missing spells into a few categories:

Mechanical spells: I'm going to ignore 1e spells that operate on the game rules. Some missing 1e spells rely on on game mechanics that have changed: Read Magic and Write aren't needed in 5e because the spellcasting rules have changed. Some spells add numbers to other numbers: 1e Strength makes people stronger, but it doesn't change the possibilities open to characters. The NPCs can live without these just fine.

Marginal spells: Many of the 1e-only spells were never really very popular: Ventriloquism, Shatter, and Feign Death, for instance, were not really central to most people's D&D experience, and their absence or rarity doesn't make much of a dent on the implied setting. Others are variations or upgrades of more famous spells: while D&D needs Charm Person, it doesn't rely on the existence of Charm Person AND Friends. There are dozens of spells like this that are quite appropriate as rare spells. Their existence is a rich source of exciting, or in some cases, puzzling treasure for spellcasters. "I'm the only person in the world who knows Feign Death! Now what do I do with it?"

Combat spells: 5e Basic has Magic Missile, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, and lots more classic direct-damage spells. Missing 1e combat spells include Flame Arrow, Enlarge, Otiluke's Freezing Sphere, Fear, Cloudkill, and others. At some point, it doesn't matter whether you blow up guys with a fireball or an iceball. The 5e Basic combat spell selection is more than adequate.

Construction spells: A surprising number of high-level 1e spells allow you to modify contructions, make temporary shelters, or trick out/trap out your castle: for instance, magic mouth, continual light, rope trick, Leomund's tiny hut, dig, explosive runes, wall of fire, wall of ice, transmute rock to mud, wall of force, wall of iron, symbol, move earth. This tells us that 1e wizards had really nice fortresses and so did the monarchs they favored. For construction, 5e Basic has Wall of Stone. What does that tell us about the Fifth Age? Wizards may be able to summon curtain walls, but anything more complicated than that and they need to hire dwarven engineers. Wizards have no access to comfy extra-dimensional spaces (except Maze and Banishment, which are rarely comfy). As for furnishing lairs: no Continual Light, no traps, and no defenses except for Arcane Lock and Antimagic Field. Wizard towers are filled with guttering torches and patrolled by living guards, just like everyone else's towers.

Summoning spells: 1e has Find Familiar, the Monster Summoning spells, Conjure Animal, Conjure Elemental, and Gate. Basic has Gate. None of my groups have made a big deal about summoning so I honestly don't know if this matters to me.

Divination spells: There are some pretty powerful divination spells in 5e Basic (Arcane Eye, Locate Person, Divination, Commune) and the only defense is the high-level Antimagic Field. In this world, spying is easy and the only defense is counterspying. On the other hand, there's no Know Alignment or Detect Lie. Scheming grand viziers can rest easy. Doppelgangers and succubi, however, might have to watch out for True Seeing.

No Water Breathing: It's hard to explore the ocean. If you manage to research a Water Breathing spell, or find Kwalish's Surprisingly Roomy Submarine, you'll be able to loot underwater dungeons with no rivals except for monsters and merpeople. Barring that, no one knows what's in the depths. Godzilla? Dreaming Chthulhu?

No Polymorph or Disguise Self: The abilities to magically change form, or even to disguise your form, are unknown to the arcane disciplines of 5e Basic. The thief reigns supreme as con artist. The best the wizard can do is turn invisible and cast Major Image.

No Animate Dead: For some reason, no one will teach you the Animate Dead spell. It's like they don't trust you or something. This one is a bit of a problem for the implied setting, because while PCs don't really need access to Animate Dead, it's hard to imagine a campaign world without a bunch of active necromancers stirring up bones.

High level spells: High level spells are rare in any campaign setting because high-level casters are rare. Still, the following absences are interesting: no one in the kingdom can necessarily control weather and guarantee good crops. Maybe some legendary druid can, if you can find her. (And no one can cast Create Food and Drink if the crops fail). Enchant Item and Permanency aren't taught at wizard college; you'll have to do your own magic-item research or find treasure in dungeons. You can't make a backup of yourself with Clone: you might find this cool but peculiar spell as a strange relic of ancient technology in a dungeon. And high-level wizards can't necessarily cast Wish once per day. They'll need to find rings, lamps, and other relics, and hoard their wishes carefully.

What's there: This description makes 5e Basic sound like a low-magic game, but plenty of spells are still being thrown around. What magical abilities are common? All sorts of ailments can be cured, including death. Clerics (but not wizards) can speak with the dead and conduct tours to the Ethereal and Astral Plane. Apart from their propensities to set everything on fire, wizards might be most feared for their ability to Charm, Suggest, and Dominate all and sundry. Long-distance teleportation is difficult (you need to be 15th level) but the air is thick with Flying fifth-level wizards.

3e’s level 8 and 9 cleric spells

June 29th, 2014 by paul

In the transition from second edition D&D to third edition, lots of rules were re-examined. For instance, why do clerics only have seven spell levels while wizards get nine?

In older versions of D&D, clerics were half-casters, half-fighters. In OD&D, for instance, clerics didn't get a spell till second level, and they topped out with fifth-level spells and 15 total spell slots, while wizards had twice as many spell slots and sixth-level spells.

The 3e designers decided that clerics were full casters and should get level 9 spells. In the long run, that would lead to complaints that clerics were now as overpowered as wizards: maybe both should have been capped at 7th level spells! In the short term, it meant that the 3e designers had to write a bunch of new level 8 and 9 cleric spells. That was a tall order, considering that the level 7 spells let you spawn natural disasters, resurrect people, and summon Asmodeus. Where do you go from there?

The designers used a couple of strategies: 1) promote 7th level spells to higher levels; 2) move spells over from the wizard spell list; 3) create super-powered versions of existing spells; and 4) actually make up new spells. Let's go over all the new spells.

SPELLS PROMOTED FROM LEVEL 7:

Earthquake and Firestorm moved to level 8: These spells indiscriminately kill lots of people in a huge area. Don't worry, the mass-slaughter gap in the level 7 spell list was replaced with a new spell, Mass Inflict Serious Wounds.
Symbol of Death and Symbol of Insanity moved to level 8: Actually, 2nd edition has one tidy wizard spell, Symbol, with lots of options, and a more limited clerical version. 3e divided the wizard spell up into 8 spells from levels 5 to 8 and made it available to both classes. I prefer a single spell to spell list bloat, but fine.
Astral Projection and Gate moved to level 9: These ultimate planar travel spells let you go visit Zeus if you want, or make Zeus come to you, and deserve to be bumped up to level 9.
Energy Drain moved to level 9: In 2e, this was actually the reverse of the level 7 spell Restoration. In 3e, Restoration was left at 7 but the reverse was moved to 9 (because people hate energy drain).

SPELLS COPIED FROM THE WIZARD LIST

Antimagic Field copied from wizard 8 to cleric 8: Because both magical disciplines should be able to build annoying trick dungeons. It would be cool if the wizard version only cancelled divine spells and the cleric version only cancelled arcane spells, but alas, I was not consulted.
Summon Monster VIII, Summon Monster IX: The 2e Monster Summoning spell chain, seven spells, was expanded to 9 spells and copied to the cleric list. This whole series has always felt to me like spell bloat, never more than in 3e.

"GREATER" VERSIONS OF EXISTING SPELLS

Create Greater Undead, level 8: Skeletons and zombies? Peh! This spell lets you raise shadows, wraiths, spectres, and devourers. How often has your 2e cleric lamented, "Oh for a devourer to call my own!" Prayers answered!
Cure/Inflict Critical Wounds, Mass, level 8, and Heal, Mass, level 9: In 3e, the traditional Cure Wounds spells were given out earlier, and the high-level gaps were filled by "Mass" versions of each spell that let you cure the whole party at once.
Dimensional Lock, level 8: This is a puzzler. 2e and 3e both have the sixth-level spell Forbiddance. As far as I can tell, Dimensional Lock is a less powerful version of this lower level spell - smaller area, more limited duration, and it doesn't damage your enemies. It seems like it should be a 4th-level spell.
Planar Ally, Greater and Spell Immunity, Greater, level 8: You get more hit dice on your yugoloth and more spell levels in your /ignore list.
True Resurrection, level 9: First there was Raise Dead. Then Raise Dead Fully in the Greyhawk supplement, renamed Resurrection in AD&D. 3e added True Resurrection, which you can cast on some random guy you never met who died ten years ago. So right now I could cast it on Richard Pryor or Pat Morita, if I had a spare diamond worth 25,000 GP.

ACTUALLY NEW SPELLS

OK, here it is, the meat of the matter: the all-original 3e cleric spells! Was it worth the addition of two extra spell levels? Let's find out!

Level 8: 2 new spells!
Cloak of Chaos/Shield of Law/Holy Aura/Unholy Aura: I'm counting this as a single spell, though it's listed four times, one for each cardinal alignment. This gives you buffs against attackers of the opposite alignment: mostly boring stat boosts to AC and saves and stuff, but attackers also get one cute themed debuff: confusion for Cloak of Chaos, for instance. This isn't a very exciting spell, but considering all the save or die spells in 3e, the bonus to saving throws might be important in some bizarre theoretical metagame.
Discern Location: This lets you find a guy, like, "Where did Pat Morita go after I resurrected him?"

Verdict: New level 8 spells: not that great.

Level 9: 5 new spells!
Etherealness: Previous editions let you travel to the Astral Plane but there was no spell that took you to the Ethereal Plane. How did players of previous editions steal all the Leomund's Secret Chests?
Implosion: This spell lets you kill a guy every six seconds. OK, that seems like a true level 9 spell!
Miracle: The divine version of Wish is cool because you're humbly asking your god for something, not casting a spell and feeling entitled to it. It's arguably the only religious spell in the entire cleric spell list. I can imagine a cleric variant who got this spell at level 1, and no other spells.
Soul Bind: This permutation of the earlier-edition Trap the Soul is necessary to counter the new True Resurrection spell. It makes True Resurrection impossible on a specific dead guy. So you could cast it on Pat Morita if you'd really prefer I spent my 25k diamond resurrecting Richard Pryor.
Storm of Vengeance: You'd think this would be an upgrade of the level 8 Fire Storm, but like Dimensional Lock, it's something of a downgrade. Fire Storm does 17d6 or more damage to everyone in one round. Storm of Vengeance has a big list of fiddly effects over the course of 10 rounds, some of which are situationally useful (like deafening people, creating concealment) but the damage output is lower. What Storm of Vengeance really has going for it is area. It covers something like 16,000 5-foot squares. So if your enemies are standing really far away from each other, you can probably still deafen them.

Verdict: New 9th level spells: Some are decent! Implosion and Miracle seem appropriately hefty.