Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted unravel esoteric arcane mysteries from Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount and discuss new spells for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons in the latest book. Powerful magic energy called dunamis manipulates fundamental forces of the multiverse to alter time, potential and gravity. Dunamancers study this ancient magic and gain the ability to control those forces through deeper understanding of cosmic mysteries. The collection of new 5E D&D spells in the book represent a handful of known dunamis spells, and they are powerful. A terrific sidebar offers suggestions for introducing dunamis spells into your campaign so if we’re looking for collaborative worldbuilding for Dungeon Masters and players, the rubber meets the road here. Crunchy spell effects notwithstanding, introducing new spells presents a great opportunity for DMs and players to collaborate, explore and expand on a campaign setting together.
Worldbuilding with spells in 5E D&D
Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount presents the new spells with worldbuilding in mind, starting off strong in the aforementioned sidebar explaining their rarity and well guarded nature. There’s an element of espionage involved, treating these spells as a sort of military secret. Knowledge of the obscure magical practices is a commodity unscrupulous individuals and organizations can exploit. Fortunately magic and spellcasting is prevalent throughout 5E D&D and we can apply the same qualities to other spells and magic to create dynamic situations in our games — and players can help!
“Perhaps the characters uncover a cache of magical contraband, among which is a couple of spell scrolls, or a traveling acolyte takes some downtime with a friendly cleric character and opens their mind to some of the stranger secrets of the universe, unlocking a spell or two. There are many unique ways to bring these spells into your game without requiring any specific dunamis-wielding subclasses to be present in the adventuring party.”
This excerpt from EGtW suggests several methods for introducing new spells into a campaign. The book does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to dunamis spells but I’m curious about expanding this view. Regardless of the level of magic in your campaign, it undoubtedly exists and players can access quite a bit of it through their characters. We know dunamis is a powerful force and the spells derived from it are a closely guarded secret. This creates an interesting creative space for DMs and players to collaborate. Individual character stories can develop and far reaching setting impact can occur that’ll drive narratives forward, present adventure hooks and give players more agency in worldbuilding. So let’s get into it and look at a couple of ways spells can provide worldbuilding opportunities.
Are there any wizards in the party, or characters with a penchant for a particular school of magic when it comes to their spells? This is a terrific way to shape perspectives on magic in your campaign setting. We joke around at Nerdarchy about necromancy and how creating undead creatures is evil by default. Whenever these discussions arise, enchantment magic comes up as a counterpoint. Manipulating and controlling thoughts and actions of other creatures is insidious too.
You can apply these notions to any school of magic. Perhaps conjuring creatures into the Material Plane is considered a breach of planar etiquette or a threat because it weakens the barriers between planes. Divination or abjuration might be seen as obscene magical interference. Evocation clearly represents imminent destructive threat, illusion a distortion of truth and transmutation a violation of natural order.
Consider the characters in the party and how they feel about their magic being seen as a danger to life as people know it. Perhaps a player likes the idea that their character practices a secret form of magic. This adds a wonderful wrinkle to their character’s place in the world. Do they cast such spells out of spite, or ignorance? Are they an advocate for changing hearts and minds when it comes to this sort of magic? Casting these spells under watchful eyes could land them in trouble with authorities, while putting them in the good graces of others who wield similar power.
Acquiring and disseminating new spells can turn into entire adventures. Characters who really specialize in a certain school of magic can become incredibly motivated to discover new spells, risking much to find and add them to their repertoire. In this sort of scenario it’s important to agree on a clear situation for players because there’s essentially a restriction on their class feature in terms of simply choosing new spells when appropriate.
Spellcasting characters acquire spells from a variety of methods. By adding worldbuilding elements to spell selection the dynamics among classes gets shaken up. Literally every single class in 5E D&D has access to spells in one way or another — even barbarians! With magic so readily available to adventuring types, it’s fair to assume those in power might grow concerned. Handling magic and perceptions about it in a campaign setting in a lot of ways can become the defining factor of a world. Spells offer a path to incredible power. Where adventurers fall into this perspective can have a huge effect on a campaign.
If players like the notion of dealing with strong opinions about spells and who can cast them, this could develop into a side quest throughout their adventuring career. Maintaining a low profile to avoid raising alarm becomes important, and knowing who they can trust adds an intriguing twist to social interactions. Characters may find themselves with unusual allies who may be unduly persecuted to varying degrees, experiencing these prejudices themselves.
Here’s a list of all the 5E D&D classes along with how they receive spells and how worldbuilding might be affected.
- Artificer. You prepare the list of artificer spells that are available for you to cast, choosing from the artificer spell list. Worldbuilding: Casting spells by infusing magic into objects with tools is viewed as extremely dangerous to society at large. Artificers must learn to limit their exposure!
- Barbarian. Paths of the Ancertral Guardian, Totem Warrior and Wild Soul (Unearthed Arcana) all have features allowing these characters to cast various divination spells. Worldbuilding: Barbarians viewed as remote wise folk with powerful connections to the spirit world.
- Bard. You know four 1st-level spells of your choice from the bard spell list. Additionally, when you gain a level in this class, you can choose one of the bard spells you know and replace it with another spell from the bard spell list, which also must be of a level for which you have spell slots. Worldbuilding: Bards can’t be trusted. They disregard norms and employ magic usually under the purview of other classes. Get your own spells, bards!
- Cleric. You prepare the list of cleric spells that are available for you to cast, choosing from the cleric spell list. Worldbuilding: The gods bestow incredible power to their faithful. So anyone can pledge allegiance to a deity and start throwing around spells? Religion is tightly monitored and worship of certain gods is forbidden.
- Druid. You prepare the list of druid spells that are available for you to cast, choosing from the druid spell list. Worldbuilding: The untamed wilds beyond civilization are dangerous enough. Individuals who bend the forces of nature to their will are a threat to progress and natural elements and creatures are viewed with suspicion or superstition. The squirrel outside the window could be a spy, and the thunderstorm in the bay might be a calculated attack from an enemy nation.
- Fighter. You know three 1st-level wizard spells of your choice, two of which you must choose from the abjuration and evocation spells on the wizard spell list. Worldbuilding: Eldritch Knights are seen as champions of the common folk, warriors who employ spells to fight fire with fire, so to speak.
- Monk. You can use your ki to duplicate the effects of certain spells. Worldbuilding: The secret of how monks cast spells flies in the face of all known magic and spellcasting, making them instantly suspect by those who practice magic the right way.
- Paladin. You prepare the list of paladin spells that are available for you to cast, choosing from the paladin spell list. Worldbuilding: Paladins are viewed with a mixture of awe and fear, able to manifest magic spells through the strength of their conviction alone.
- Ranger. You know two 1st-level spells of your choice from the ranger spell list. Worldbuilding: Spending so much time surviving in the wilds using guile and magic makes civilized folk distrustful. I’m getting Rambo vibes here. “We don’t want people like you in this town.”
- Rogue. You know three 1st-level wizard spells of your choice, two of which you must choose from the enchantment and illusion spells on the wizard spell list. Worldbuilding: It’s not hard to imagine a rogue being mistrusted and casting these sorts of spells ramps up the distrust to the Nth degree. A goal of tricking others is right there in the name!
- Sorcerer. You know two 1st-level spells of your choice from the sorcerer spell list. Additionally, when you gain a level in this class, you can choose one of the sorcerer spells you know and replace it with another spell from the sorcerer spell list, which also must be of a level for which you have spell slots. Worldbuilding: Perhaps the most dangerous of all spellcasters, sorcerers can simply wield magic with no oversight.
- Warlock. Your arcane research and the magic bestowed on you by your patron have given you facility with spells. Worldbuilding: Making deals with otherworldly entities and using powers they grant you to change the world around you is a powerful thing. On the flip side perhaps warlocks are ubiquitous and it’s very common for all sorts of people to strike bargains for varying degrees of magical might.
- Wizard. At 1st level, you have a spellbook containing six 1st-level wizard spells of your choice. Worldbuilding: These spellcasters lend themselves to gathering for common goals like research, study and experimentation. This could be a Harry Potteresque scenario with mundane folk unaware of the magical world around them, magocracies or hidden covens of wizards who practice in secret after a magical calamity caused trouble for the world and sent them into hiding.
Free content for 5E D&D
Before you go I want to let you know about some free content out there. While everyone does their best to follow guidelines and regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the tabletop roleplaying game community advocates more online gaming together with friends and family via the internet. Nerdarchy could not agree more! We made some free related content over on the website, and in case you missed it we created a special coupon to get more free stuff from our store — no strings attached! More about it here.
The Critical Role team also made a portion of Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount free too! The adventure Frozen Sick from the book is available online for free.
“Something is killing people in Palebank Village, and if the characters don’t stop it, they might be next. “Frozen Sick” is an adventure that takes characters from 1st to 3rd level and introduces them to the continent’s Biting North region—the bleak arctic realms of the Greying Wildlands and Eiselcross.”
During the course of the adventure, spellcasters in the party may encounter new magic or access to new spells as treasure, rewards and certainly as a benefit of leveling up. You can find Frozen Sick over on D&D Beyond here. In addition, Critical Role and Wizards of the Coast teamed up with Roll20 to offer Frozen Sick through the virtual tabletop as part of their Stay at Home, Play at Home initiative. You can find the adventure including four maps with monsters already placed for free in the Roll20 marketplace here.
Whether your adventurers take place in Wildemount, Forgotten Realms or any other campaign setting including your own world, collaborative worldbuilding between DMs and players enriches your games and gives all the participants fresh ideas and concepts to work with plus adds new dimensions and details to the setting. Collaborate and find out how, and of course, stay nerdy!