I'm getting ready to start running a new D&D game, so I've been reading a lot of material and making some notes about ideas for the game. Today I've been rereading issues of the old Od&dities zine. Looking through issue 5, I was struck by something in an article comparing the Dragonquest game to D&D. One of the criticisms against DQ is about spell levels:
Another big difference was spell eligibility. The spells were never given a level of difficulty and were open to any appropriate class, regardless of the level of the spellcaster. What 1st level party wouldn't love to have its cleric packing resurrection? Or a 2nd level wizard with two lightning bolt spells?
For some reason, I thought about those rhetorical questions as actual. What if they did? Would it really break the game?
In the case of a lightning bolt, not really. Just reduce the damage accordingly.
In the case of resurrection, give the spell a chance of failure until the cleric hits the level he would normally get the spell. If you look at the B/X rules, clerics don't get access to resurrection, but they can cast raise dead as a fifth level spell. A cleric first gets access to fifth-level spells at 7th level. So just give a chance of failure if they try to cast it at a lower level. Arbitrarily, I would say a 15% chance of failure per level under 7, so a third level cleric casting raise dead would fail to cast it successfully 60% of the time.
For other spells, you could reduce the range, give saving throw bonuses to intended targets, or other balancing effects. If you want to take a more literary approach, you might cause some kind of backfire or mutation if the caster fails spectacularly or it is a particularly difficult spell. For the most part, though, scaling the damage or giving a chance of failure seems to be reasonable and simple.
Just some musings as I fiddle with ideas on a lazy Sunday...