Legends & Lore: Managing Magic & Complexity

Magic is one aspect of Dungeons & Dragons I have never fully enjoyed, so when I hear Mearls make references to "fighting with tools designed for previous wars", and that they are kind of, but not really changing magic, I just apathetically sigh.

The added flexibility is all well and good, but I feel like they are not really making the most of this playtest by giving us numerous spellcasting systems to play with, and/or some optional rules to really spice things up. At this point I would settle for a mechanics that, if a wizard tried to explain it to someone, would make sense, or at the least some interesting flavor.

As it stands the mechanics are boring, predictable, and safe, things that I would not normally associate with magic. Let us see the variant magic systems we keep hearing about. Bring back the sorcerer and warlock, and maybe some other classes while you are at it. Throw some optional rules like exhaustion, sacrifices, or other variables at us and see what sticks (3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana has a lot of this stuff, by the way). This is a playtest, so let us try something out besides pseudo-Vancian.

While I am less than thrilled about the current state (and the future) of magic, I am more optimistic about giving the players the choice to enhance existing abilities or pick up new ones. Assuming everything goes to plan, this could allow players that want complex characters to branch out, or just stick to a handful of stuff if they do not want to bog themselves down with too many options. The problem is if they design abilities that are too good to simply not pass up, such as an accuracy or damage boosting option, particularly one without a cost.

I think that this--as well as flexible NPC stat blocks--would be a great way to avoid a kind of entry bar, without saddling the new player with a simple and ineffective class like the fighter. 4th Edition's Essentials line made classes even simpler, but did not sacrifice efficacy. I am running a 3rd Edition Age of Worms campaign at work, and while I wanted to introduce a new player by having her roll a fighter so as to avoid overwhelming her, I instead opted for a warblade because despite it being slightly more complicated it would be effective for a much longer period of time.

Really if you want to make it easy to teach new people to play the game, make sure that you create a kind of cheap, "red box" product to go with it from the start. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire made it very easy for both the players and game master to learn as they go, and there is no reason why you could not do the same and allow players to ease themselves in. In fact, you could do something like this for each mode of play as people become more familiar with the system.


  1. Maybe you've covered this elsewhere, but what magic systems (not DND) have you liked. I don't get a lot of time to game and end up buying more systems than playing them. I really liked the construction of BW's Art Magic, where there are only send or eight Effects in Sorcery, but you can combine them and shift their flavor and breadth on the fly. Neat stuff, but I never actually played it. I'm currently playing the Next Wizard in ~monthly game and I found him really underwhelming at level 1.

  2. Sigh... magic is the coolest part of the genre. To see it reduced to this boring fire-and-forget nonsense is a disgrace. They NEED to come up with a new explanation.

    BTW, have you actually posted this material as genuine playtest feedback?

  3. I'd be interested in reading a blog post (or series) on an aesthetic of magic that would interest you more. I absolutely agree that the current spell list feels very ho-hum. I have my own preferences, and eventually I'll get them together in a useful document - so I want to hear what you, and even other D&D Next bloggers, are hoping they'll do.

  4. @Ethan: For games, I really like how magic works in The Dresden Files. You start out knowing a few aspects of magic, can learn more over time, and can exert yourself (spending "shifts") to amp it up.

    There is also some room for creativity, and its version of ritual magic is something that I would love to see D&D emulate; magic is not all-powerful, but in the right circumstances and with enough preparation you can do some pretty cool things (they helped compensate mundanes with stunts, similar to exploits from 4th).

    The system for implements was a great addition to 4th Edition, and hopefully they include it in 5th.

    Mage: The Ascension is also good, but could get pretty powerful if you tried to mix and mage mages and mundane mortals. Creative players could also squeeze out a good deal more based on how they interpreted what rank a sphere of magic was capable of.

    I have not played Shadowrun in a good while, but I recall enjoying that one as well. You made a spellcasting check, and could hurt yourself doing it if you rolled poorly.

    Finally, though I have not played Dungeon Crawl Classics, I do own the book and making spellcasting checks to determine what the spell does adds an element of risk, though maybe too much risk for my taste.

  5. @Anon: I post this feedback every time I send out a survey, asking them to include a magic system that at the least makes sense, but ideally more interesting and unpredictable. A good step in the right direction, for me, would be to take a lot of the variant rules out of Unearthed Arcana, and combine and refine them.

  6. @Brandes: I have written at length about what I like and want out of a magic system several times before, but I could not find them to link in this article (likely due to forgetting to label something correctly), but I could stand to vent about it some more in the near future. :-)

  7. I won't lie, your 937-post backlog is a little intimidating. Also, enviable!

  8. I may be misunderstanding, but he has 957posts, not 937.

  9. A friend and I are developing our own magic system from scratch to go with our own system, and it can be described (at a stretch) as Vancian meets Dresden Files (at a stretch) meets Dungeon Crawl Classics. Not giving away details right now to protect copyright, but I think that you will like it.

  10. Honestly I kind of liked the psionics in 4e. Basically you get a bunch of standard stuff but can expend energy to jazz it up.

    I find the whole Vancian-style of magic kind of bland, and once you're out of spells you're effectively just done for the day. I'd be like a fighter swinging his sword a couple times then being forced to wield a butter knife.


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