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I often hear arguments along these lines:

Because X is higher level than Y, and X cannot do this, Y must not be able to do it either.

In other words, X must, because it is higher-level, be strictly superior to Y and Y cannot have any advantage over X.

Common extreme examples include:

  • Because minor image cannot produce intelligible speech, ghost sound also cannot, as ghost speech is a lower-level spell.

  • Because vocal alteration can't do anything but produce a certain kind of intelligible speech, ghost sound cannot produce intelligible speech, since ghost sound is a lower level.

  • Because minor creation cannot create non-magical objects (i.e. the effect disappears if it gets dispelled), create water also cannot create non-magical water, since create water is a lower-level spell.

Such beliefs seem to be in direct contradiction with the stated rules of the spells in question. A more pervasively problematic consequence is that low-level spells (especially level 0 and 1st) seem to suffer from extremely critical examination when compared to higher level spells.

  • Grease doesn't specify that it is flammable, so it's not.

  • Produce Flame isn't a damage dealing spell, because Dazing Produce Flame is too good of a spell for fourth level, but Mage's Sword is because it's a higher level.

etc.

My question isn't whether these spells work this way. My question is whether this kind of argument has some basis in the rules.

Is there a rule somewhere that I've missed that says that higher level spells have to be strictly better than lower level ones, or something to that effect?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Even if there were such a rule, specific spell effect descriptions trump general rules, right? So you can't use any such principle to come with results "in direct contradiction with the stated rules of the spells in question", but no doubt anyone making these interpretations does so in case they believe are not in direct contradiction with the stated spell rules. Rather, they're using comparisons with other spells to interpret possibly-ambiguous spell descriptions. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Mar 1 '15 at 0:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SteveJessop actually, I hadn't considered that. That pretty much puts the nail in the coffin on this one. Awesome. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Mar 1 '15 at 1:59
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The only officially stated case where a spell is explicitly required to be strictly inferior to all spells of higher level (or even other spells of the same level) is prestidigitation. It has the following unique line:

Finally, prestidigitation lacks the power to duplicate any other spell effects.

This is because prestidigitation’s capability is left open-ended; this clause effectively says “if some other, specific/specialized spell can do something, that thing must be too much for prestidigitation to accomplish.”

This line does not apply to any other spell

All other spells are not subject to prestidigitation’s spell description, of course, and no line exists which replicates it. The line of argumentation that you describe is inaccurate according to the rules.

It may be a relevant argument to make for how a spell should behave. On its own, it’s not good enough really – your examples demonstrate that quite well. But as part of an overall argument, it can, in some cases, be fairly compelling circumstantial evidence that a given spell has an editing mistake or otherwise shouldn’t behave as written. But that’s the most it can ever be.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What about rules for custom spell design? Is there really nothing in there which would be useful for this analysis? \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Feb 28 '15 at 5:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BESW would you mind posting an answer using the rules in those links as support? \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Feb 28 '15 at 5:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer I'm not that guy: I don't have the theorycrafting background to do a proper analysis, I just know what I think a good analysis would include: at least it'd compare and contrast the spell design rules from the 3.0 ELH, the 3.5 DMG, and various PF sources. The conclusion, I think, is inevitably "nobody thought about codifying that sort of rule until well after the horse was out of the barn." But I lack the skills to formulate convincing support as to why that's so. KRyan has that ability. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Feb 28 '15 at 5:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BESW I think you misunderstand my answer. It’s not true that a higher-level spell has to be strictly superior in all ways to lower-level spells. In some particular case you could try an argument along those lines as motivation for houseruling some particular spell, though I have tried and failed to come up with an example as thedarkwanderer requested. The custom-spell guidelines are just that, guidelines, and don’t apply to published spells anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Feb 28 '15 at 19:56
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Well, higher level spells should fare better than low level ones because, else, one would just memorize the lower level spell in the higher level slot and call it a day. In other words:

If a higher level spell was worse than a lower level one, nobody would need it.

Of course, worse spells at higher levels can happen because of bad design, unintended interactions with obscure rules, nerfs or buffs to spells that don't take that other spell into consideration.

More often than not, it's someone not taking into consideration that a low level spell might do things better than a higher level one in a specific field. You can't fill a pool with black lotus extract with create water, you can't create visible illusions with ghost sound.

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Well, I know that Pathfinder is fairly remote from AD&D, but this item from the original DMG might illuminate the underlying philosophy of the spell-level system:

After analysis of the [newly researched] spell and adjustment of its parameters, you will be in a position to assign it a level. If the spell is a variation of an existing spell, with only minor differences, improvements, or extended effects, it will probably be only one level higher. If it is superior in two categories, place it two levels higher, and so forth. — Gary Gygax

Not that designers are perfect, so there will be examples where this has not quite been stuck to.

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This line if thinking is flawed and too mechanical. It would only apply (obviously) to directly related spells; Minor Creation and Major Creation for instance, where one is the directly enhanced, "better" version.

Other than those kinds of examples, a spell will do what the description says, and that's the extend of it.

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