why you don’t want to learn 10th level spells

One of the coolest spells implemented in a video game was Armageddon, in Ultima 6. The description: “Once it is cast, it destroys all life on the world, with exception of the spellcaster, leaving only a barren wasteland behind, devoid of any life.” If you cast it, every creature in the world would, indeed, die. You could wander around and pick up all the treasure you wanted. Obviously, at this point, the game was unwinnable and, indeed, pointless.*

I suspect that the spell was in there as a sort of nuclear-holocaust cautionary fable. But such fables have a place in post-apocalyptic games like D&D. Something happened to all those dungeon-building civilizations. Maybe they cast Armageddon.

D&D’s 9 spell levels have always called out to be rounded up to an even 10. The problem is, with wish a 9th-level spell, what is there left to wish for? Let’s slot Armageddon, and other big, dangerous, world-altering spells in here: spells that fuse the Prime Material with another plane of your choice, spells that sink continents, spells of apotheosis, spells that scry on Cthulhu, scrolls of genocide.

Extrapolating from the wizard spell chart, you’d get access to 10th level spells at level 19 (pretty close to the level cap in some editions). In D&D campaign worlds, there are no existing 10th level spells to learn: they’ve been expunged from every ancient library. (If any hints of their existence exist, they are in incomplete and obscure form, like the scientific learning in A Canticle for Leibowitz.) Generally, a civilization can’t research such powerful spells until they have a greater academic understanding of magic than exists in standard D&D campaigns. Peaceful golden ages lead to such academic advancements. Academic advancements lead to 10th level spells. 10th level spells lead to Armageddon.

Given that this cycle has probably happened multiple times in the campaign world’s history, there’s probably a conservative, anti-intellectual secret cult that seeks to save the world by spreading chaos, toppling golden ages, and assassinating saints and sages, and they’re right about everything.

* Ultima 6 also has a big in-game library, in the Lycaeum. If someone develops an eyeglasses mod, we can re-create episode 8 of the Twilight Zone.

8 Responses to “why you don’t want to learn 10th level spells”

  1. Pandora Caitiff says:

    “Peaceful golden ages lead to such academic advancements.”
    I thought it was war that drove advancements? Tenth level spells seem more likely during great world (dimension/plane/crystal sphere?) spanning conflicts. Magister Strangelove and Oppen the Heimer secreted in a warded bunker trying to engineer a thaumic solution to the orc/demon/Giff invasion, and so on.

  2. Robert says:

    This is awesome. It should totally be a campaign setting.

  3. Pfooti says:

    Excellent points, and strangely on a vibe with where I am going in my own campaign.

    In my campaign, there *is* a secret society of anti-intellectual magic-quashing assassins. They happen to also be plane-travelers, and have seen the results of rampant magic-use and golden ages in many other planets. They’re also halflings, because nobody suspects halflings of being a secret society of anti-magical assassins. But they all are.

  4. Klaus says:

    Sounds much like the Ritual of Desecration in the Thomas Covenant series. Technically this was a bit less than continent-level destruction and not a full apocalypse, but I think having some scattered survivors around to witness the damage and spend centuries dealing with the aftermath while cursing/lamenting the caster adds to the dramatic impact.

    The issues raised by such levels of power being potentially available is a major plot point in the first trilogy. The Sunbane in the second trilogy has even larger impact, but technically that’s not human-scale magic.

  5. Deadleg says:

    Sounds like the Deplorable Word from C.S. Lewis. I shared this post with some of the guys in the group I DM, and they’re very, very excited (secret cults and Spells of Mass Destruction would fit in perfectly with my game).

  6. Rhenium says:

    I think this might be better as part of the game hook, particularly for high level characters. Something akin to the mythical nuclear explosive “Red Mercury (see wikipedia), not a real thing, but something to pull the characters into an epic level adventure to (what else) save the world…

  7. Doc Schott says:

    Something like this is a major theme in The Slayers, a (pretty awesome) Japanese animated comedy/adventure series. The main character is the reincarnation of Albertus Magnus, and knows a spell that can literally unmake the world if you lose control (it only unmakes your target if you can keep it focused enough..).

    In the original novels, she’s been hunting down anyone who knows or is researching part of the spell and murdering them, while destroying any traces of the old work on it she can find. And she’s been doing it since she was 15. One of the dozen most powerful demons in the plane is helping her hunt them because he wants to keep playing in the plane. Even in the TV series, she never reveals it around another Black Mage (functionally sorta Warlocks, who are the only ones who could cast it), and >no-one< wants to touch it with a hundred-foot pole.

    They downplay the spell for most of the first two seasons, but it becomes a major plot point at the end of the second.

  8. MCAD says:

    Bit late to the party, bit oh well….Cherryh’s Chronicles of Morgaine series (4 books I know of) fit this theme. Always thought it would make a good campaign setting…..

    BTW, Paul, kudos for your random Dungeon Map for 1e. Very inspiring. Im a case of an old dog been taught new tricks…
    Ever thought of doing somehting similar for the Underdark, using the D series WM charts as a base? It’s basically a sandbox setting as is.

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