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Unless a caster uses mage's disjunction, a Pathfinder caster must employ 7 different and specific spells to bring down a prismatic wall. These really are specific spells like cone of cold for the first layer and gust of wind for the second instead of general effects, and some spells are just about exclusively arcane, so divine casters have little hope of dropping a wall.

And it's my understanding that the prismatic wall and prismatic sphere spells are legacy spells that have always had specific spells destroy certain layers.

Has a game's designer ever mentioned why one spell was picked to destroy a layer of a prismatic sphere or wall instead of another spell? Further, has a designer ever mentioned why specific spells drop a layer instead of a more general effect? (For example, the spell cone of cold negates the first red layer when instead it could have been deal the layer 20 points of cold damage or something.) Is there something in gaming lore or fiction that mandates a prismatic wall only be dropped by specific spells?

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    \$\begingroup\$ May I suggest turning this into a history of gaming question? The prismatic line or spells have been around quite a while, and the reason for the specificity of layer removal may be rooted deep in the misty past. (Okay, maybe only 40 or so years, but still.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Dec 18 '16 at 17:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didnt think of the history, only the effects \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Dec 18 '16 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @khaoliang You should try to find references for that and write it as an answer. Comments are a bad place for partial answers, as they are transient and will eventually be removed. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Dec 20 '16 at 21:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Adding the [dungeons-and-dragons] tag, since this definitely exists in D&D and so its history will go there. I’m honestly not sure if the Pathfinder tag is relevant in that case, but I left it. Maybe Pathfinder introduced some new details that are worth exploring in an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 20 '16 at 21:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Im currently only playing Pathfinder so thats more of what I am interested in, but a more general history is also a good start \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Dec 21 '16 at 2:24
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I could find no developer commentary explaining why the spells needed to drop a prismatic sphere's or prismatic wall's layers were picked for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons that preceded Pathfinder, and Dungeons and Dragons 3.5e is whence Pathfinder takes its prismatic sphere, spray, and wall.

The prismatic spray originates with Vance…

Vance's short story "Mazirian the Magician" (1950) is the prismatic spray spell's source:

Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch.…

[Much later] Mazirian shook off the [foe's] spell, if such it were, and uttered a spell of his own, and all the valley was lit by streaming darts of fire, lashing in from all directions to split Thrang's blundering body in a thousand places. This was the Excellent Prismatic Spray—many-colored stabbing lines. Thrang was dead almost at once, purple blood flowing from countless holes where the radiant rain had pierced him.

As can be seen from the description, Vance's the Excellent Prismatic Spray spell doesn't much resemble the effects of the D&D spell prismatic spray (from which Pathfinder drew its spell of the same name). Further, I've found nothing to indicate that the prismatic spray spell's effect was changed to distance it from Vance's creation, or, instead, that the spell was named as an homage to Vance's invention, or, really, anything much about the spell's development at all. But it's an almost inconceivable coincidence that the name's accidental, given Gygax's affection for Vance's works.

…But the prismatic wall and prismatic sphere don't seem to

While in the same story Mazirian uses the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere, the D&D spell prismatic sphere doesn't seem to owe Vance's spell anything:

He called his charm, the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. A film of force formed around his body, expanding to push aside all that resisted. When the marble ruins had been thrust back, he destroyed the sphere, regained his feet, and glared about for the woman.

To this reader, that sounds closer to (but still different from) Otiluke's resilient sphere or something.

Thus it's my understanding and the understanding of others far more well-informed than I that the spells prismatic sphere and prismatic wall were created created wholecloth for Dungeons and Dragons, with no fiction serving as inspiration. Some things are just new, I guess.


Research notes

Originally—that is, in the Player's Handbook (1977) for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which is as originally as I can muster—the necessary spells were, in order of layers dropped, cone of cold, gust of wind, disintegrate, passwall, magic missile, continual light, and dispel magic.

However, in order of spell level for magic-userAD&D's wizard—, these are as follows: 1st—magic missile; 2nd—continual light; 3rd—dispel magic, gust of wind; 5th—cone of cold, passwall; and 6th—disintegrate. This comes really close to a magic-user needing to devote one spell per spell levels 1st through 6th to drop a prismatic wall or sphere. (The last layer's being dropped by dispel magic remains an outlier but a reasonable one.) It'd be great if I could find a version of passwall or cone of cold that was, instead, a 4th-level spell, but, alas, I can't. (Even the 1974 Dungeons and Dragons puts its spell pass-wall as a 5th-level spell and lacks the spell cone of cold entirely!)

Were the spells needed to bring down a prismatic sphere or wall to equal one spell per spell level, this would be a predictable and interesting design choice, but there appears to be no point in mandating two 5th-level spells and one 6th-level spell: A level 10 magic-user can cast two 5th-level spells but no 6th-level spells, yet a level 12 magic-user can cast four 5th-level spells and one 6th-level spell, more than enough to drop a prismatic sphere or wall and have spells remaining!

Thinking this might be campaign-dependent, I looked for AD&D liches. While liches are (thankfully!) rare, encounters with level 17 magic-users in AD&D are rarer, and I thought perhaps an early adventure module might be geared toward level 12 or higher PCs encountering foes who could cast prismatic sphere or wall. But, for example, Asberdies, the infamous lich from Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978) that's for levels 9–14, doesn't memorize prismatic sphere or wall, nor do the two liches (and, incidentally, the ki-rin) from the Rogue's Gallery (1980) (which includes PCs from Gygax's campaign). The spells needed to drop prismatic layers appear oddly—but, perhaps, appropriately—random. (I mean, seriously, what magic-user memorizes continual light instead of stinking cloud?)

In Dungeons and Dragons, Third Edition makes some changes, but keeps the same weird non-pattern. The spells, in order of layers dropped, become cone of cold, gust of wind, disintegrate, passwall, magic missile, daylight, and dispel magic. While some names changed, spell levels didn't, so that, in order of wizard spell level, this is as follows: 1st—magic missile; 2nd—daylight; 3rd—gust of wind; dispel magic; 5th—cone of cold, passwall; 6th—disintegrate. The Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 revision swaps the spell levels of daylight and gust of wind, keeping intact the same non-pattern.

Spell level isn't the connection. Spell school isn't the connection (a spell from each school would've been just as convenient!). Expected character level seems to have no impact. It doesn't appear to be a puzzle, either, as there's no reasonable acronym or initialism or apparent code. Some stuff we may just never know unless a designer deigns to reveal his secrets.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your knowledge of the history in Dnd has always impressed me when I come across other answers of yours. Thanks for taking the time to give such a rich answer and some insight. I had thought that there was a reason why these spells were listed which might have come from something early, but never thought of an old book series. \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Dec 21 '16 at 2:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fering Thank you, and you're welcome. I only wish I had a better answer than, essentially, I don't know because now I'd really like to know the real answer, too! \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Dec 21 '16 at 7:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ I always assumed it was from an earlier era when there just weren’t that many spells around and they just chose an iconic spell for each layer when there weren’t that many to choose from. It might therefore be worth adding something about the lack of similar/related spells as a partial explanation for the specificity (or maybe how this isn’t the case, since I’d guess I’m not alone with this speculation). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 28 '17 at 15:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I'd struggle to define iconic spell, though. I mean, I consider neither continual light nor gust of wind particularly iconic. Also, it was—as per the AD&D RAW, anyway, and I'm not making this up—entirely at the DM's discretion what magic-user spells a PC had access to and up to sheer random chance if the magic-user were capable of adding to his spellbook those spells he did have access to! So almost no AD&D magic-user would ever be able to penetrate a prismatic barrier, and like Dallman's answer says, maybe no magic-user was supposed to! \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 28 '17 at 16:16
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The original version of Prismatic Sphere in the Greyhawk supplement for OD&D is somewhat different from the later versions.

In order of layers, the spells to take it down are: Ice Storm, Lightning Bolt, Magic Missile, Passwall, Disintegrate, Dispel Magic and Continual Light.

There's also a very revealing note at the end of the spell description:

(Note: Referees may wish to change the order, negating spell, and/or use & effect of the various colors in order to make it more difficult for their players to break through a Prismatic Wall.)

So I think it's just a "puzzle" without much in the way of clues. Experienced characters might well create scrolls of the spells needed to open a prismatic sphere or wall, if they encounter them regularly.

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Prismatic Wall and Sphere are holdovers from AD&D 1e, whose spellcasting was (at least largely) based on the Dying Earth series by Jack Vance.

Apparently there were a lot of good inputs for the original magic system (spell levels, spellbook operation, and spells per day were all based on the series in some way) but with it came some of the zany spells that made more sense in a novel than in RPG play.

The function of the layers was, as far as I can tell, based on its function in the Dying Earth books.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't answer the question about the spells prismatic sphere and prismatic wall and why the decision was made for each of them to require specific spells to get through the various layers. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Dec 20 '16 at 21:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ I thought it was clear from the wording, that's (apparently) how the spells functioned in the Dying Earth books. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Dec 20 '16 at 21:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure if the answer is any better after the edit. Are there any sources that can corroborate your answer? Maybe a quote from Gygax or Arneson? \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Dec 20 '16 at 21:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LegendaryDude A quote from the Dying Earth books would probably be even more definitive. \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Dec 20 '16 at 22:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree but don't have them on hand, nor do I know which book its actually in to locate a copy. If someone has that, I would agree that answer is better, but I don't have the resources myself. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Dec 21 '16 at 16:28

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