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D&D Magic

Magic Through the Editions of Dungeons and Dragons

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We recently did a video about 5E D&D spells and how they affect the game. There is a huge difference between D&D magic now and throughout the editions of Dungeons and Dragons. We were discussed different effects various 5E D&D spells have on editions of Dungeons & Dragons compared to earlier version of the game. One of the comments I saw over and over again was some version of  “that’s just a bad Dungeon Master”.

I find it to be odd people think it’s a lazy DM issue, because a DM might want to challenge players with things that are negated by spells. Couldn’t the same be said about simply overcoming random encounters during watch? What about wanting to introduce survivalist elements to the game even if only for a short time.
Sure a DM could temporarily nerf 5E D&D magic in order to do this but that seems even worse to me. I don’t find either methods pleasing and think we’ve gotta look a little deeper into D&D spells and magic.

D&D magic — does it add to the story?

The thing many seemed to miss about this video is how we used these things in the past and that was what we were trying to convey.  People probably just took it as two old guys pissing and moaning. In earlier editions of D&D there were some distinct differences from 5E D&D magic. For starters, there are several big points that really change the playstyle.

D&D Magic

Is your D&D wizard the sort who prefers to control the battlefield and debuff enemies rather than get all messy with damaging spells? You might be a pacifist spellcaster. [Art from Magic: The Gathering ‘Battle of Wits’ by Jason Chan]

  • Less  spells to cast 
  • Your spell choices were locked in
  • No ritual casting
  • Cantrips
Less magic

This is simple enough — there just wasn’t as many resources.

Locked spell choices

There wasn’t any kind of flexible casting until 3rd edition and that was only for one character class. The only flexible spellcaster was the sorcerer. In 5E D&D magic all spellcasters have flexible spellcasting. You prepared specific spells that were cast at a specific spell level. Spells would get stronger as the caster would level up.

No ritual casting

Again, self explanatory. Ritual magic came about with 4th edition D&D.


These came about in earlier editions as well. They were weaker, and also had limited number of uses per day. Again 4E added at-will cantrips. In 5E they also scale, but in 4E they didn’t until 21st level.

Even if all the editions of D&D had the same number of castings for spells 1st-9th level, the addition of at-will cantrips and ritual magic makes D&D magic far more abundant. Add the fact cantrips scale with level in 5E D&D and a spellcaster doesn’t need to conserve their resources as much as they needed to in past editions of the game.

One of the suggestions over and over again was upping the challenges to deplete the resources of the spellcasters in the party. The problem with this is it’ll also deplete and challenge the noncasters in the group. Any time you focus on one particular class or ability a character might have, you need to consider if there would be ramifications beyond your original intent.

The other suggestion is bending the rules to limit spellcasters for encounters, adventures, or even campaigns. I don’t like this because I feel like it cheapens the players’ choices.

I think there are better ways to deal with the way magic plays in 5.  I’ll get to this towards the end of the post.

Reading through the comments we found two different camps:

  1. Those who enjoyed the old school type of game and still want to play it. These folks don’t feel they can get thet same style of play with 5E D&D. Many have migrated to OSR style games and gaming. OSR stands for Old School Revival.
  2. The folks who just say it’s a bad DM issue. Aside from being rude, for one I don’t think it’s 100 percent accurate. It very well be that 5E D&D isn’t equipped to handle this style of game.

I view both of these as being both true and accurate statements. While some saw us as just bashing the new shiny edition, it was more of a comparison of old and new. While I’ve enjoyed every version of the game from the boxed sets to 1st edition to 5E and all the editions of D&D in between, I still have no desire to play those versions of the game anymore.

Ultimately the point of the video is D&D magic has changed the game with 5E. It’s not bad or good — just different. Survivalist-style games will give way to spells like create food and water. No longer will adventuring parties quest to discover what a magic sword does because they can just handle the item during a short rest or cast identify as a ritual. Maybe random encounters in the night are a thing of previous editions of D&D with the ability to ritually cast Leomund’s tiny hut. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Further discussions with Nerdarchist Dave illustrating this point more included the fact that while, yes, most of these spells are found in earlier editions of D&D, the differences in spellcasting meant they saw far less play. For example, if you memorized identify, that essentially locked in your spell slot for that spell only. If you didn’t cast it during the day, you could not use the slot to cast another magic missile.]

What do you think? Have you run into situations where character spellcasting circumvented or made easy parts of your campaign you thought would be more fun or interesting for the players to deal with? Have you come up with any solutions or methods for making survival, research or other aspects of D&D more engaging for the players beyond simply casting a spell to solve? Let us know in the comments below and as always, stay nerdy!

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david friant

My name is Dave Friant I've been gaming off and on for over 27 years. But here is the thing it's always been a part of my life I've kept secret and hidden away. I've always been ashamed of the stigma that gaming and my other nerdy and geeky pursuits summon forth. Recently I decided screw it! This is who I am the world be damned. From now on I'm gonna be a geek, nerd, or however folks want to judge me and just enjoy life. Currently one of my greatest joys is introducing my 13 yr old son to table top RPG's.

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