Posted by : David Guyll December 31, 2014
|In D&D gods don't intervene on your behalf,|
you tell them what you want, when you
want, and x times per day they'll always listen.
Is it an old guy with a robe and wizard hat? A teenager that waves a wand about while spouting faux-Latin? I'm a Dresden Files fan myself, so wands and words are there, along with exhaustion and limitations that come from not being a dragon or anthropomorphic manifestation of summer or winter.
If your first answer was “a person who casts one spell, then has to sleep before re-memorizing it out of a book no matter how many times he's previously cast it”, then you're almost certainly someone that plays Dungeons & Dragons, and for one reason or another never bothered to question why magic works the way it does.
Which given the "discussions" I've had, or rather tried to have with people in my genuine search for even a halfway decent explanation, wouldn't be terribly surprising.
Magic in Dungeons & Dragons has puttered along, advancing in small increments with each edition. I'm not sure if it was on the verge of possibly making some goddamn sense before 5th Edition—like so many other parts of the game—hauled it kicking and screaming back, and at this point I seriously doubt it's ever going to change.
So, here are five not-necessarily-comprehensive problems with "magic" in Dungeons & Dragons, that if addressed could make it at least halfway decent:
1. Only Some Spells Have An Arbitrary Daily LimitEarly editions of D&D put a hard limit on the number of spells you could cast in a given day. In 2nd Edition your 1st-level wizard could cast one 1st-level spell, which could range in efficacy from a tiny bolt of force that inflicted a pitiful amount of damage, to putting a bunch of creatures to sleep so as to allow for easier murdering.
3rd Edition increased the amount of spells you could cast in a day: you started with a number of 0-level spell slots, in addition to a 1st-level one, and having a high ability score could give you bonus spells (something that was for some reason formerly only afforded to the cleric). So now instead of one tiny bolt of force per day, you could throw out like, two!
Why the daily limit that imposes no penalties or drawbacks? No fucking clue. A commonly misused term for D&D magic is "Vancian magic", because it is purportedly based off of magic from Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, but if you actually read his books that's not at all how it worked: there're no spell levels or spell slots by the level, there's no daily limit, and spell preparation times were a lot quicker (plus, spells could also be cast right out of the book).
Others are content to sacrifice any kind of fictional explanation and logic for an easily circumvented "resource management system". Like, you have to be careful how you use your magic, otherwise you'll have to take a nap, which in nearly 30 years of gaming has virtually never been an issue (no, not even in "official" adventures).
Anyway, 4th Edition introduced spells that could be used whenever you wanted, spells that could be recharged with a bit of rest, and spells that could be cast whenever you wanted, it just took some time and usually had a cost. While it adds some much needed flexibility to spellcasters, it's somehow more unintelligible: why can some spells be cast all day long; why can some be recharged with rest; why can some be cast whenever, it just takes more time?
5th Edition further muddied the waters by keeping spells that could be cast whenever (either on a whim or with some preparation), and re-introducing spell slots, limiting other spells to x times per day. Of course it wouldn't be D&D if they weren't arbitrarily sorted: wizards can use fire bolt to shoot fire all damn day, no problem, but burning hands requires a spell slot. Detect magic can go either way: you can burn a spell slot to cast it right away, or spend time and cast it for free.
It's all so blatantly fucking arbitrary. Why isn't there an at-will version of shield that lets you, say, use a reaction to add even +1 to AC? How come you can't burn a 9th-level spell slot to even make it a +6 bonus? And what about rituals: why can I use comprehend languages whenever I want (given enough time), but not lightning bolt? I can't gradually gather up magical energy to unleash one, even over a 10 minute span?
I'm guessing either "tradition" and/or splatbook-moolah: WotC has an extensive history of shoving out books brimming with spells (because only spellcasters need nice things), which will work out nicely given that like Paizo they're more than happy to sell you content you already purchased back in 2000 and/or 2008.
Over five or so editions I have to ask: why (kind of) keep the daily limit at all? If all you're looking for is an easily circumvented resource management system, why not give the wizard something like spell points that she can spend on spells, spend more to beef them up, or spend to "fast cast" rituals? Yeah, I know, other games use points, but I'd rather use a system that is at least somewhat explainable "in-game", as opposed to something that only exists because of tradition.
Honestly that's the only conclusion I can make for it's continued existence: Gary Gygax for some reason took Jack Vance's magic system and discarded everything about it that gave it fictional coherence, and some people just don't like change. Or, at least very much of it/are totally fine if it's part of the "right" edition. It certainly explains how 5th Edition happened.
2. Everything To Do With Spell SlotsIn most editions wizards have a number of spell slots, each with their own level. It used to be that when you memorized/prepared a spell, it filled up a slot that corresponded with its level. For example, magic missile is a (terrible) 1st-level spell, so when you memorize/prep it, it goes into a 1st-level slot. Once you cast it, you forget/complete the spell and have to memorize/prepare it again the next day.
Simple and straightforward. Granted it's not the simplest or most elegant way to go about it, but it's still pretty simple. The drawback is that there's no narrative logic behind it, which makes the designers come across as spectacularly lazy and uninspired, as there are systems that are simple, possess narrative logic, and still deliver the whole "resource management" feelz.
But, instead of going with any of them, they of course decided to just jumble the whole nonsense model about with 5th Edition.
Your spellcaster level now determines partially how many spells you can ready, as well as the number of slots you have available for a given level: at 1st-level you have two 1st-level slots, at 2nd-level you have three 1st-level slots, at 3rd-level you have four 1st-level slots and two 2nd-level slots, etc). When you cast a spell, you burn a slot of the corresponding level or higher: magic missile is a 1st-level spell, so requires a 1st-level slot.
Like 3rd Edition it's simple. Also, like 3rd Edition, it makes no goddamn sense.
See, some spells can still be cast whenever you want on a whim. There's no penalty, no drawback. In fact no matter what you start with at-will spells, and for some reason gain them automatically as you level up (though why you can only ever have five is anyone's guess). Others can be cast as rituals, which is still at will, it just takes a while. Finally, some spells get boosted when you use a higher level slot to cast them.
So what the fuck is a "spell slot"? What does it represent in the game's fiction, flavor, fluff, narrative, or whatever the hell you want to call it? I'd initially looked at it like a packet of energy, but then how are you powering your at-wills? How come no matter what you can't use lower level slots to cast a higher level spell, and if you use a higher level slot to cast a lower level spell you retain nothing?
For example I can't use all four of my 1st-level slots to cast a 2nd-level spell, and if I use a 9th-level slot to cast a 1st-level spell, it's completely gone, just as if I'd used it for a 9th-level spell. And this is before you get into rigidly acquired class features like Arcane Recovery, Spell Mastery, and Signature Spells, which let you do stuff like turn a 1st- and 2nd-level spell into an at-will spell, and cast a few 3rd-level spells for free.
And that's just for the wizards: clerics can "channel divinity" x times per encount—, er, I mean "short rest". There's no limit, so long as they take a break in between. How does channeling divine energy into this differ from channeling it into other spells? No idea. As a sidenote, why are all clerics capable of turning undead regardless of what their god is about? Also no idea, but that's okay because tradition.
Again, a spell point system would deliver the exact same "feels". The only "drawback" is that whole narrative coherence thing.
3. Different Flavor, Same MechanicsWhether you are spouting indecipherable words and waving your hands around, petitioning a god for intervention, or trying to convince spirits to do you a solid, you always get to prep the spells you want, use them when you want, and they always works as advertised.
For wizards this makes as much sense as it can, what with the whole arbitrary limits and spell slots, but what about clerics? They get their powers from the gods, but operate using the exact same spellcasting mechanic, which means that they prep the spells they want, and cast them when they want. There's no impression of your god saving you, or having the backing of a higher power when you really need it: everything happens on your terms.
Even the Divine Intervention class feature is bullshit: every cleric gets it at 10th-level, you still have to decide to use it, at 20th-level it jumps from working less than a fifth of the time to every time, can only be used every seven days (but you can try every day in the likelihood you fail), and it's actual effect is very ambiguous (it states that any cleric spell is appropriate, so for all you know you're getting one more spell every seven or so days).
Druids "draw upon the essence of nature itself", which to me sounds like they should also use the exact same magic system, right? Oh, and in keeping with the theme, they also have the ability to magically change their shape into animals, but it's not at all tied to their spells per day. Make sense? Of course not, but that's okay because, you guessed it, tradition!
4. Contrary to What the Book Says, it's Safe, Orderly, And ExplicitA common trope with magic is that it is dangerous, mysterious, and/or unpredictable. Magic in D&D? None of that. This isn't inherently a bad thing, but it's misleading that the 5th Edition's Player's Handbook tries to claim that magic is "wild and enigmatic", that "manipulating the fabric of magic and channeling its energy into even a simple spell is physically and mentally taxing", when it's obviously none of those things.
In fact it's very tame and reliable: your spells will never backfire (unless you specifically choose Wild Magic as a sorcerer), and perfectly functional magic items can be found in abundance (despite spellcasters kind of sort of maybe not being commonplace).
Each time you level you get a new sepll, and despite no practice or experimentation it will work just as well as the rest in your repertoire. You can even burn through all of your spell slots in a day, every day, and suffer no consequences: no exhaustion, premature aging, nausea, back pain, insomnia, magical cancer, nothing.
The sorcerer is likewise misleading: unexplained powers? Draconic Bloodline is at the least pretty damn explicit that it comes from draconic magic in your blood. Also, what's with this part:
"A sorcerer's magic wants to be wielded, and it has a tendency to spill out in unpredictable ways if it isn't called on."
I know D&D has a poor track record for stating something in the game's fiction/flavor content, and then constructing mechanics that actually back it up, but...how? The only part of the sorcerer that is in any way unpredictable is the Wild Magic origin due to rolling on the Wild Magic table, which isn't all that bad, but does require you to first either cast an arbitrarily slot-eating spell or use a specific class feature.
In other words you have to actually choose this one specific class feature, and even then you'll know what parameters might force you to make a roll, to see if you have to make another roll on a table that features both good and bad results (like coming back to life if you die within a minute).
Wish is really the only spell that comes to mind that has a drawback, to the tune of 5,000 XP in 2nd and 3rd Edition. That's...kind of heavy, but not anything you couldn't recoup with some adventuring (which had the added bonus of netting you more loot). In 5th Edition you instead take damage after using it when you cast spells until you take a nap, and your Strength gets knocked down to 3 for a week or so (but if it's already 3 or lower nothing happens...I guess the spell just knocks everyone to an arbitrary minimum).
The only real risk is that if you use it for anything aside from duplicating a spell, you have a 1 in 3 chance of never being able to cast wish ever again. No in-game reason; I guess when wizards got together to write the spell out they decided to put that in there to fuck with people. But, again, you'll know exactly what will require you to make the roll, so if you play it safe everything's fine.
5. It Is Everywhere And AssumedThe default assumption is not only that magic is in the game, but that there will be one or more people in your party capable of using it. Check out page 8, under The Wonders of Magic:
"Few D&D adventures end without something magical happening."
"For adventurers, though, magic is key to their survival. Without the healing magic of clerics and paladins, adventurers would quickly succumb to their wounds. Without the uplifting magical support of bards and clerics, warriors might be overwhelmed by powerful foes. Without the sheer magical power and versatility of wizards and druids, every threat would be magnified tenfold."
In other words we're back to 3rd Edition, where the muggles can only hope to get by thanks to the mandatory, predictable, reliable, frequent use of what D&D considers to be magic (something like, a game effect in which someone else makes a roll to see if they avoid it).
Just to be clear, I don't have anything against magic being a major part of the game or setting. I really dug Eberron, especially after yet another stack of uninspired Forgotten Realms drivel. What I have a problem with is it being essentially required just to get by.
4th Edition made it so that if you wanted to strip out magical healing—you know, like all the non-D&D specific fiction that doesn't feature priests spamming cure x wounds spells to keep the fighters on their feet—you could, without having to change any other part of the game.
But I guess that's too much for traditionalists. Gotta have complex wizards, with their massive lists of spells, and magical healing, because that's how it worked before, back when it was "done right".