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I have a broader question that is the root of this question. I thought I'd ask what I would think is a relatively simple question and see if the answers can help me answer the broader question.

As stated in PHB, some spells have additional effects when casting using a higher-level slot. What interested me was the question of why certain spells have that functionality while others don't. I mean some may be obvious or at least seemingly logical as to why or why not, but for some, the reasoning behind the design decision eludes me.

For example, fly has the ability to be cast on multiple targets using higher slots. fly to me seems like a powerful mobility/utility spell. However, spider climb, another mobility/utility spell, does not have that "additional target per higher level cast" function when, personally, it seems to be a generally a weaker spell than fly (hence it being a lower-level spell).

Are there any balance-breaking consequences of house-ruling that spider climb can also be cast at higher levels to affect additional creatures?

Criteria

Some stories of having done this or a similar experience would be helpful, but I prefer more of a logical argument as to why it would not be, or would be, balanced. Almost like a logical proof (induction, contradiction, etc) if you are familiar with what those are.

I'm asking about balance in basically two senses:

  1. In the sense of combat; I don't know if this applies, but players can get creative.
  2. In the sense of out-of-combat encounters, like puzzles or just general obstacles that would be made trivial or such because of this additional rule. Like being able to do something someone their level would otherwise be unable to do (easily).
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I consider this an excellent question, and look forward to seeing if the "broader question" also makes an appearance. Welcome to the site! \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Jul 7 at 18:44
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Not inherently but you have to pick good numbers

Climbing is weaker than flight, but spider climb is balanced against fly in the following ways:

  • It's a lower level
  • It can last up to 6 times longer
  • It grants a climb speed that matches your normal speed, which can be much greater than 60 ft.
  • When the spell ends you are much less likely to automatically fall, depending on what one is doing in terms of interpreting the problematic falling rules.

When changing spider climb to not suck past level 9, one needs to make sure the spell does not ramp up to fast or too slow and so fly remains a reasonable alternative. In particular, players are much more likely to have access to mounts or speed enhancements that push them past 60 ft at high levels than low levels. fly is stuck at 60 ft, but spider climb rubberbands, so that's something to consider. At high levels, you might want the spells to affect the same number of targets, as if they were the same level of spell, but the advantages of flight over climbing are also more necessary for melee characters so that's a consideration as well.

Note that adding level-up options to spells generally doesn't unbalance them, because the limitation of spells known is only pricipally a problem for weaker classes at present; the Sorcerer and the Warlock are significantly weaker than the Wizard and the Cleric and the Druid. Bards are pretty good, but you're still going to need to add quite a few level up trees before they would even possibly start outcompeting Wizards et. al. as spellcasters. (Adding a level-up tree is, of course, equivalent to adding a set of new, related, higher-level spells that you know/prepare for free if you take the lower-level one)

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer; I feel compelled to point out that 60ft is extremely high movement speed. Essentially, only wood elf monks will have a higher base speed, and even then, only at level 18. Yes, it's possible to get a faster climb speed with Spider Climb than the flight speed you get from Fly. But you'd have to work pretty hard for it. Also, the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line. Even if you muster up a 120ft climb speed, 60ft of flight will probably be faster anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jul 7 at 21:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman horses run fast. Or shoes of speed make them run faster. Among other magics. Yes, flying is often faster anyways. Flying is better than climbing. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Jul 7 at 23:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think I'm almost with you on what you say, but I'm a little confused on a few things. What do you mean by "Pick good numbers"? Are you referencing the movement speed argument in the first paragraph? I see how the movement speed thing could make spider climb more powerful than fly situationally, but generally I agree with Miniman and feel it doesn't necessarily make fly obsolete even if you had mounts with shoes of speed or other magics. I have questions about the second paragraph that I'll post in another comment because it's too long to fit here. \$\endgroup\$ – Dim Door Jul 8 at 14:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ The message of the second paragraph is a bit vague to me. Are you saying adding level-up options is not unbalanced because it only strongly affects the "weaker" spellcasters that rely on "spells known"? I see how the level-up option help makes "spells known" stronger, but I fail to see why it doesn't apply to "spells prepared" classes. Lastly, I don't understand the last sentence, are you talking about adding more level-up options to spells that don't have them? Or creating brand new spells? \$\endgroup\$ – Dim Door Jul 8 at 14:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DimDoor Because an additional spell prepared is much much weaker than an additional spell known-- prepared casters can swap out spells anyways, if they really needed to. I'm unsure about the confusion with the last sentence. Adding level up options to spells that don't have them is the same as making new spells? They are the same. If you do this spider climb thing and say you can cast it on 4 people with a 6th level slot, that's the same as adding a 6th level spell that does that. The difference is that you know and prepare that higher level spell for free if you know Spider climb. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Jul 8 at 16:38
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Melee Enemies might become pointless

You're correct that Spider Climb is, in almost every way, a strictly inferior version of Fly. Fly gives more freedom of 3 dimensional movement, gives (most) characters an increase in speed, and can be cast on multiple creatures with higher spell slot usage. The only ways that Spider Climb has an advantage over Fly are a longer duration and a lower spell slot cost. This later feature is important for two reasons: first, because Spider Climb can be cast by lower level characters. Second, because lower level spell slots can be used more often. It's this second feature that creates a potentially unbalancing issue with your idea.

DnD 5e is balanced around a party of four characters (see DMG, p. 274 Expected Challenge Rating for evidence of this). Fly would require the use of a 6th level spell slot or higher to get all four characters in a party out of melee range. But Spider Climb (assuming it scales similarly) would only require the use of a 5th level spell slot to do the same thing. This distinction may seem minor, but there's an important distinction between a 5th and 6th+ level spell slot.

It's much easier to replenish 5th level spell slots

Many classes have features that permit them to regain spell slots. For example, Wizards can use their Arcane Recovery, Sorcerers can use Sorcery Points to create spell slots, and Warlocks can simply take a short rest. These methods mean that characters can cast certain spells several more times every day than their initial spell slot allotment would allow. However, all three of the features mentioned above will only replenish spell slots of 5th level or lower.

Spell slots of 6th level or higher are more precious. Until you reach extremely high levels (19th +), they are each only available once a day. A strategy that requires such a spell slot would be difficult to do repeatedly, and quite expensive. So if you wanted to get your entire party out of melee range every combat it would be difficult at most levels to do so with the spell Fly.

However, if the spell Spider Climb was adjusted as you've suggested, the entire party could potentially be taken out of melee range every encounter. A warlock could get a 4 person party out of melee range for two continuous hours if they could maintain concentration. And they could do so multiple times a day taking short rests.

Of course, a warlock would also be able to get most of the party out of melee range using the Fly spell as written. But there's a difference between getting the entire party out of melee range and getting most of them out. If a single party member is still on the ground, then all of the melee enemies can focus on them at the same time, making the idea of the remaining three staying at range and chipping away at the enemies' health problematic.

Still... it's a viable change

As written, Spider Climb seems to exist to be replaced. It's a 2nd level spell that is strictly inferior to Fly in almost every way. Many classes (like Warlocks and Sorcerers) have the ability to replace spells known as they level up, and Spider Climb is a great candidate for such a replacement.

But your proposed change would make Spider Climb relevant at later levels. And there's nothing wrong with that! There are lots of scenarios where the spell Spider Climb would remain balanced with your proposed changes. For example, if you capped the maximum number of affected creatures at 3. Or if your party is has more or fewer than 4 characters in it. In these scenarios, the change would make Spider Climb a much more welcome addition to many spellcasters' collections (and might be an especially welcome change to casters who can learn it but can't learn Fly, like certain Circle of the Land Druids).

There are also a lot of scenarios where the spell Spider Climb wouldn't cause too much trouble. For example, if the ceilings in a room were 10 feet high or shorter, most enemies on the ground could still reach enemies who were walking on the ceiling or walls. Similarly, if there are no vertical surfaces available at all, Spider Climb is will not permit characters to easily stay out of melee range. If these scenarios come up often in your game, you wouldn't need to worry about the Spider Climb spell being active at all times, and could still design encounters with melee-centric enemies.

I'd advise against your proposed change in a party of 4 in environments with many high vertical surfaces. In such a scenario, your proposed change could introduce some balance issues. But outside of this very specific scenario, your proposed change is entirely viable.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You can have more than one character cast fly at 5th level to accomplish the same effect in a 4 person party, except for the duration. Also, high-level monsters fly and have ranged attacks. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Jul 7 at 18:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Thedarkwanderer Sure, but there's a considerably higher investment cost to have two characters concentrating on the same spell. That's why it's not unbalanced that it's possible for four characters to each cast Spider Climb at in its current version. Good point about the ranged options of many melee creatures though! I may edit to mention that. \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Jul 7 at 19:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like how you structured the arguments and make valid points. The part I find most impactful is the point about the 5th level spells are easier to replenish vs 6th level spell. However, I am little on the fence about this whole melee range argument. I feel 5th level spells (or even 4th if you have a party of 3) can have stronger impacts than it being used to avoid melee. Even so, I feel melee creatures at those levels can manage against Spider Climb. How big a difference of 1 lvl of a spell can make has got me thinking (ty), but not sure I'm with you on the party size and env limitation. \$\endgroup\$ – Dim Door Jul 8 at 15:03

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