Posted by : David Guyll January 30, 2015

Since someone took the time to make a post responding to my article 5 Problems With "Magic" in Dungeons & Dragons, I figure I should make my own response post (because if I just leave a comment I'm likely to forget about it in case they want to keep the dialogue rolling).

Here we go:

"I should start by saying that while D&D magic may have started out influenced by Jack Vance's work, it has become something completely separate that stands on its own.  It is... D&D magic."

However it might have been influenced by The Dying Earth before the actual release of Dungeons & Dragons, I'd say that the end result has always just been D&D "magic".

Bizarre, lazy, nonsense D&D magic.

I think it would have worked out much, much better if Gary had just used Vancian magic. This is not to say that he should have only used it: there are plenty of other magic systems out there that are not Vancian and still make sense. You could have removed levels, had spells take x turns to re-prep, it would've avoided the 15-minute adventuring day, and ideally there would have been less reliance on magical healing to get by.

"As such, unlike the poster in the article linked above, I see a direct correlation between the game mechanic and the in-game explanation of how magic works."

That's the crux of my problem: there is no in-game explanation. I've asked proponents of pseudo-Vancian magic to come up with one, and they never do (when they even bother to try: plenty just parrot "it's magic, doesn't need to make sense").

You can cast some spells whenever you want without any problem (and all wizards start with the same amount, and learn more at the same rate), you can cast some spells whenever you want with enough time (only certain spells, for some reason), and other spells can only be cast x times per day using whatever the hell a spell slot is.

Is it magical energy? Then how come you can't use a bunch of lower level slots to cast a higher level spell? How come, when you use a higher level slot to cast a lower level spell, that it only sometimes gives it any extra punch and/or there isn't any energy left over?

Is it "mind space"? Well, then how come I can't just opt to not bother with lower level slots once I get to a higher level, and instead use that space for higher-level slots?

Then there's mention in the Player's Handbook of magic being wild, enigmatic, and both mentally and physically taxing, but there's nothing in the rules that supports any of that. It, like most of 5th Edition, comes across as very half-assed.

"In fact, the wizard's only true power is in knowing how to lock a spell's inherent magical energy into his or her mind, so that it can be unlocked later."

Note that in 5th Edition you don't to memorize/prepare a specific number of spells. You I guess "ready" a number of spells (the spell's level doesn't matter), and spend spell slots to cast them. So, instead of memorizing/preparing 2 magic missile spells, you just ready it, and each time you cast it you use up a 1st-level spell slot.

Going with previous editions, then why can't you use your "mind space" to just hold onto larger spells? Why do you have to stick with the lower level stuff? Why does a 1st-level spell completely occupy the "mind space" of a 9th-level spell slot?

"Now, granted, in the game a wizard has no idea of a spell's level.  Not in the sense of the game mechanic, at least."

Why not? A wizard player should be able to tell people that she can only cast x combination of y spells in a given day. She should also know that by using a higher level spell slot, the spell will (sometimes) have an increased effect.

"Certainly they would have a hierarchy and know that some spells are easier to "memorize" than others, and they would probably have some idea of their own capabilities and how they relate to that hierarchy."

In 2nd and 3rd Edition yes, in 5th Edition no: wizards ready a number of spells without any regard to their level.

On the note of lapsed editions, I would have to ask why a wizard cannot memorize/prepare, say, another 3rd-level spell instead of any 1st- and 2nd-level spells. And, again, if I use a 9th-level slot to memorize/prepare a 1st-level spell, why isn't there any, I dunno, "mind space" and/or magic energy left over?

"Cantrips, then, are the minor magics taught to apprentice wizards which teach the fundamentals of capturing a spells energy in one's mind.  They themselves require very little arcane energy to be locked into the wizard's mind."

Again, in 5th Edition you don't memorize or prepare individual spells based on your number of slots: you ready a number based on your Intelligence mod and wizard level, then use spell slots to cast them.

Personally I look at cantrips as more akin to rotes from The Dresden Files, though it still doesn't make any sense that a wizard can only ever learn a set number, and that all wizards know the exact same amount. I could see a wizard wanting to learn more, or less, in exchange for more or less spell slots.

"Divine magic, well, honestly I'm with the linked article's poster: I think divine magic should not use the same mechanical system and should be a bit more fickle based upon the cleric's patron at the time of the casting.  I'm not real happy with the cleric kneeling down with a holy symbol every morning and praying for the god to grant spells.  Seems like a... magic drive-thru to me:"

Precisely. I think that people seeing clerics channeling power from their gods should be viewed as more miraculous, and less...predictable and expected. It should be at least somewhat unreliable. A cleric shouldn't have absolute knowledge of how and how often their god will respond to their whims.

But, nope. We get the same lazy, nonsense system that we've always had. Coming up with something fresh and explainable would have taken time and involved actual game design. Why should WotC go through all that trouble when they know people will just buy the same game all over again?

{ 12 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. So... in one of my earliest comments on the other post, I mentioned that there has never been an official TSR/WotC explanation as to what the magic system actually represents. When you quote me as saying "I see a direct correlation between the game mechanic and the in-game explanation of how magic works" to which you respond "That's the crux of my problem: there is no in-game explanation", I can only say, yes, that's right, and I'm responding from my own, personal interpretation on how the magic system works.

    "...in 5th Edition you don't memorize or prepare individual spells based on your number of slots: you ready a number based on your Intelligence mod and wizard level, then use spell slots to cast them."

    Yes, you're correct. I hadn't come to that understanding when I was making my earlier comments. Even so, I don't think it changes my interpretation much; the 5th Edition system just gives them a bit more freedom than previous editions.

    All this said, it doesn't seem like you're interested in an individual interpretation which justifies the mechanics. I could keep quoting your posts and explaining how it makes sense to me, but I get the sense I'd be wasting my time. It seems like you want an official explanation, or a magic system which lives up to your expectations. It doesn't sound like you're going to get either. :)

    Just out of curiosity, did you know that the 5th Edition Dungeon Masters Guide has a spell point variation? Check it out on page 288.

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    1. @Tim: "All this said, it doesn't seem like you're interested in an individual interpretation which justifies the mechanics."

      A big question is just what IS a spell slot? Is it magical energy, mind space, or something else?

      You mention energy, so if a spell slot is energy, then you'd need to answer the following:

      Why can't I use numerous lower-level slots to cast a higher level spell?
      Why does using a higher-level slot to cast a lower level spell us up the entire thing?

      Related:

      Why can't you learn more cantrips than what the book says?
      Why do all wizards know the same amount, all the time?
      Why can only some spells be cantrips or rituals?

      I'm not looking for an "official" explanation. I seriously doubt Mike Mearls could crank out a satisfactory one, or has spend much if any time thinking about it, because everything about the D&D magic system seems to be designed to cleave as closely to lapsed editions as possible, while simultaneously required you to repurchase the books.

      I'm aware of the spell point system. It's a start, I suppose, but still a shame that it doesn't live up to the book's own fiction (unpredictable, exhausting, etc).

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    2. So, again, I don't think that there can be any outcome in this discussion other than you telling me I'm wrong and that the system sucks, but I'm going to answer your questions as best I can, heh. I'm also updating my interpretation to better support 5E mechanics.

      "A big question is just what IS a spell slot?"

      I think a "spell slot" is a meta-game term to describe a chunk of magical energy that the wizard learns to lock inside his or her mind and later release to create a spell effect.

      "Why can't I use numerous lower-level slots to cast a higher level spell?"

      Spells require a solid chunk of energy to be powered properly. The energy locked in three 1st level spell slots is not the same as that contained in one 3rd level slot because it is not one 3rd level slot, it's three 1st level slots. Again, think in the abstract here, much like to-hit and damage rolls are abstract.

      "Why does using a higher-level slot to cast a lower level spell us up the entire thing?"

      Because, again, it's a solid chunk of magical energy. If you try to cast a 3rd level spell with three 1st level spell slots, the spell would peter out when the 1st chunk of energy stops and the second begins. If you try to cast a 3rd level spell with 1 4th level spell slot, the spell completes and the leftover energy from that chunk is wasted. And again, abstract.

      (As mentioned in a previous comment, I agree that it should be designed to allow multiple lower level slots to power a higher level spell, and to have leftovers after you use a higher level slot for a lower level spell, but it's not designed that way. And while I once advocated how easy it would be to make those changes, I'd now just recommend you use the spell point variant. I just don't have the same problems interpreting the magic system as you do. It really seems to me that trying to find realism, or a realistic justification for a magic system in a fantasy role-playing game is... well, kinda silly. It's magic, after all, and fantasy. If you don't like the way it's setup, there are... so many other games with different systems and to me, it really sounds like you should be using one of those.)

      The rest of your questions, well, again, they're all based on my interpretations and I highly doubt that you'll read my responses with a hearty, "hey, wow, yeah, OK!" It's all just one way of abstracting something that we can't model more definitely because there is no actual definition of how magic works. It's all based on what the author feels works or sounds cool at the time. Because, again... magic. Fantasy.

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  3. @Tim:

    "So, again, I don't think that there can be any outcome in this discussion other than you telling me I'm wrong and that the system sucks, but I'm going to answer your questions as best I can, heh. I'm also updating my interpretation to better support 5E mechanics."

    Nope. If someone comes up with an explanation, great. To date no one has. I'm sure many just assume that I'm not going to accept one "no matter what", but that's really just their inability to accept the fact that it HAS no sustainable explanation beyond WotC needlessly adhering to tradition.

    "I think a "spell slot" is a meta-game term to describe a chunk of magical energy that the wizard learns to lock inside his or her mind and later release to create a spell effect."

    So, spell energy. Gotcha.

    "Why can't I use numerous lower-level slots to cast a higher level spell?

    "Spells require a solid chunk of energy to be powered properly. The energy locked in three 1st level spell slots is not the same as that contained in one 3rd level slot because it is not one 3rd level slot, it's three 1st level slots. Again, think in the abstract here, much like to-hit and damage rolls are abstract."

    That leads me to my next question:

    Presumably this spell energy takes up...something. Mind space, or the like.

    So, why bother with lower level slots at all?

    At the start I could see their use, but as you get higher level their usefulness runs out.

    In other words, why can't I just not have all of my 1st-level spells, and in their absence have another 2nd-level energy packet?

    "Why does using a higher-level slot to cast a lower level spell us up the entire thing?

    Because, again, it's a solid chunk of magical energy. If you try to cast a 3rd level spell with three 1st level spell slots, the spell would peter out when the 1st chunk of energy stops and the second begins. If you try to cast a 3rd level spell with 1 4th level spell slot, the spell completes and the leftover energy from that chunk is wasted. And again, abstract."

    And, again, why even bother with lower level packets after a point?

    "(As mentioned in a previous comment, I agree that it should be designed to allow multiple lower level slots to power a higher level spell, and to have leftovers after you use a higher level slot for a lower level spell, but it's not designed that way. And while I once advocated how easy it would be to make those changes, I'd now just recommend you use the spell point variant. I just don't have the same problems interpreting the magic system as you do. It really seems to me that trying to find realism, or a realistic justification for a magic system in a fantasy role-playing game is... well, kinda silly. It's magic, after all, and fantasy. If you don't like the way it's setup, there are... so many other games with different systems and to me, it really sounds like you should be using one of those.)"

    I'm not looking for realisim, just consistency.

    Declaring that a magic system is magic and fantasy, and that it needs no explanation is silly, especially because there are magic systems that have consistent explanations and rules. Mage: the Ascension and The Dresden Files come to mind. Name of the Wind and A Wise Man's Fear, though novels, also features a magic system that is explained and consistent.

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  4. "The rest of your questions, well, again, they're all based on my interpretations and I highly doubt that you'll read my responses with a hearty, "hey, wow, yeah, OK!" It's all just one way of abstracting something that we can't model more definitely because there is no actual definition of how magic works. It's all based on what the author feels works or sounds cool at the time. Because, again... magic. Fantasy."

    Again, there are magic systems and fiction that is consistent and explainable "in character". This isn't a particularly high or outrageous benchmark.

    I'm not reading your explanations and having a "wow, yeah, OK" reaction, not because I just don't want to accept anything, but because it doesn't hold up to basic scrutiny. Note that it doesn't address the monolithic number of cantrips, what benefits from higher level slots, what can be a ritual, and other wizard class features.

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    1. "...it HAS no sustainable explanation beyond WotC needlessly adhering to tradition..."

      Which, to address one of my earliest comments, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Love it or loathe it, it is what it is: D&D magic. It's... part of D&D.

      Anyway, the more I read your responses, the more I'm convinced that even though you say you're open to an explanation you're going to toss out every one that's given to you unless it provides some real-world consistency for a decidedly not real-world concept.

      "In other words, why can't I just not have all of my 1st-level spells, and in their absence have another 2nd-level energy packet?"

      I've already stated that in my interpretation, spell slots are abstracts representing the knowledge and ability to capture and store "chunks" of arcane energy, which is not natural for the wizard. I've also stated that as a beginning wizard you can only capture and store small "chunks", but as you get more experienced you can capture and store larger "chunks". I've explained why you can't use multiple, small "chunks" to power a spell which requires a single, larger "chunk", and how you can use a larger "chunk" to power a spell which only needs a smaller "chunk".

      If you can't discern the answer to that question from what I've already told you, then my only answer to you is, "You can. Just use the spell point variant from the DMG."

      "there are magic systems that have consistent explanations and rules."

      So...? That has NO bearing on D&D magic. That only has bearing on your preferences, and you've made it clear that D&D magic is not one of yours.

      "Again, there are magic systems and fiction that is consistent and explainable 'in character'."

      And this one is as well. You just don't like the explanation. I get it, I don't like GURPS magic. There's not enough... wonder or excitement for me, and I find M:tA magic to be utterly ludicrous. I did like Sorcerer Revised, however.

      "monolithic number of cantrips"

      That's funny. There are 16 cantrips for a wizard. Hardly monolithic by any stretch.

      "it doesn't hold up to basic scrutiny"

      Oh, but it does. You just have to be willing to accept that it's different from other games, that it works differently than other games, and that if you want it to be the same as other games you should play those other games.

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    2. @Tim:

      "...it HAS no sustainable explanation beyond WotC needlessly adhering to tradition...
      Which, to address one of my earliest comments, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Love it or loathe it, it is what it is: D&D magic. It's... part of D&D."

      When your only recourse is to just declare that "it's D&D", it's a bad thing. And a stupid thing. And a lazy thing.

      "Anyway, the more I read your responses, the more I'm convinced that even though you say you're open to an explanation you're going to toss out every one that's given to you unless it provides some real-world consistency for a decidedly not real-world concept."

      The more I read your responses, the more I'm convinced that you're just going to go with that route since you can't come up with a viable explanation.

      Disappointing, but not surprising, since that's what everyone ends up doing.

      "I've already stated that in my interpretation, spell slots are abstracts representing the knowledge and ability to capture and store "chunks" of arcane energy, which is not natural for the wizard. I've also stated that as a beginning wizard you can only capture and store small "chunks", but as you get more experienced you can capture and store larger "chunks". I've explained why you can't use multiple, small "chunks" to power a spell which requires a single, larger "chunk", and how you can use a larger "chunk" to power a spell which only needs a smaller "chunk". "

      You didn't answer it above, and you aren't listening now, but I'll try again:

      How come I, at higher levels, cannot opt to just not bother with the smaller magic energy chunks after a point?

      "there are magic systems that have consistent explanations and rules.
      So...? That has NO bearing on D&D magic. That only has bearing on your preferences, and you've made it clear that D&D magic is not one of yours."

      Yes it does.

      It's not even like D&D magic has some kind of benefit over other magic systems.

      Even before you add in the whole 15-minute workday issue, it's basically the worst magic system I've ever seen.

      "Again, there are magic systems and fiction that is consistent and explainable 'in character'.
      And this one is as well. You just don't like the explanation. I get it, I don't like GURPS magic. There's not enough... wonder or excitement for me, and I find M:tA magic to be utterly ludicrous. I did like Sorcerer Revised, however."

      I don't like the explanation, becuase it is full of holes and "because".

      "That's funny. There are 16 cantrips for a wizard. Hardly monolithic by any stretch.""

      Seriously? I'm not talking about the total number you can choose from. I've said several times that it makes no sense why all wizards know the exact same number. Try and stay on track.

      "Oh, but it does. You just have to be willing to accept that it's different from other games, that it works differently than other games, and that if you want it to be the same as other games you should play those other games."

      No it doesn't. I've pointed out a number of diverse magic system. The only thing that ties them together is that they make sense.

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  5. I'm thinking dnd's designers leave the explanation out because people will use it to run multiple settings (their own or wotc's), and thus they can create whatever rationale they want. Of course, different settings should mean different magic systems, each of which should generally have different mechanics, but people like one system - a lingua franca, of sorts. For good or ill, this is where it ends up. Really distinctive magic just isn't a priority for most players. Is it mechanically, reliably gamable? That's the question.

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  6. @EverKang: I'd argue that there should be at least a default explanation, with other settings adding/changing the mechanics and flavor as needed (if needed: I see no reason why other settings can't rely on the same explanation).

    My point is that there isn't a satisfactory explanation that can be had with the mechanics as written.

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    1. Oh, I agree. The game is incomplete without some kind of "why" behind the mechanics. I've enjoyed your posts on this. I found myself nodding all the way through them.

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  7. l have always considered ,with 4e especially ,the frequency of certain powers/spells a mechanic to express the opportunity to use certain abilities.ln theory, every character could use dayly and encounters powers as many times as he wants ,just like at-wills ,but the circumstances are more limited.I support this interpretation allowing a player under specific events to use a power freely or recharging a used one

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