Playtest Survey 2: Iconic Magic

I was pretty surprised to see a second survey--especially before the second round of playtesting went out--though I was not expecting it to be entirely about “iconic” spells for wizards and clerics. The survey basically goes from levels 1-9, for both classes, asking you to pick the top 5-10 spells that you believe are necessary and/or define a given class.

Most of the spells were, or rather originated, from older editions, though I did see scorching burst mixed in there along with some other decidely “4th Edition” ones that I do not recall. You do not get to choose which edition’s version you prefer, which is a problem for me because frankly I liked the magic missile that required an attack roll (largely because I cannot think of any other spells that work without some kind of roll/saving throw). There was also the matter that while some cleric spells were iconic insofar as I remember clerics having those spells on the list, they did not feel “cleric-y” enough (though, again, without the survey I cannot think of any examples).

Another, larger issue, is that a lot of the spells are just variations of the same thing. You get “cone of fire that does this” and “cone of fire that does that”, and sometimes you get a spin of “cylinder of fire that does this”. You also get the mix of lesser/greater spells, and spells that two two different things, forcing you (depending on the edition) to require two separate spells (ie, light/darkness and flesh to stone/stone to flesh); I personally liked being able to reverse a spell, as it was one less thing and kind of made sense that a wizard could try to unravel something.

All of these very specific spells leads to the issue of making it difficult for a wizard to properly prepare and apply her magic, and I noticed that the further I progressed the fewer boxes I was checking. I kind of felt guilty hitting some of them, thinking that all I am doing is reinforcing the pointless tradition that is keeping D&D grounded in the realm of pseudo-Vancian magic. It makes me think of Nintendo, where all that really gets churned out are slight variations of Mario, Zelda, and Metroid.

Thankfully there were plenty of comment boxes to voice my criticisms, and since Mearls has come by here at least once before, I’ll consolidate and reiterate my feedback again:

Rather than stick with a pseudo-Vancian system, why not just go all the way? Get rid of levels, make sure that spells can have utility beyond a few levels, and put a global cap on spells that a wizard can retain (or give a wizard just general slots, and have some take up more). To me, this makes a lot more sense than having a bunch of spell levels with various spins on a similar effect, that gradually become useless as a wizard levels up.

I like that in D&D Next spell DCs are set by Intelligence rather than level, as it would allow multiclass characters (or those with Arcane Dabbler) to be able to cast magic effectively, though there is still the issue of spell slots with levels; without auto-scaling magic it seems like all you are doing is kind of delaying how useful low-level magic is.

Also, I will pitch in my vote for a wholly new magic system that borrows mechanics from spell points/spell recharge from 3rd Edition’s Unearthed Arcana.


  1. Glad someone answered that second survey. I have played several playtest sessions and answered the initial survey, but I couldn't bring myself to care enough about spell levels. I feel like most people will just provide the answers that match those espoused by the version of the game the survey respondent most used in the past.

  2. I think this one is a pretty good survey, with plenty of useful information to extract from players. I agree with some of your conclusions, in that I also found the higher level slots to have very little in the way of iconic spells, and that I dislike the many redundant options - Greater or reverse versions of other spells.

    However, I don't think your feedback of ditching the magic system for a new one (no matter how good) is too practical in the context of D&D Next. One of the stated goals of the edition is to appeal to a classic D&D feeling, and that, I'm afraid, requires that wizards and clerics have Vancian spellcasting. There should be room to tweak the system to address some of its issues (as proven by the slightly different cleric magic showcased in the playtest), as well as to introduce non-vancian magic for other classes, and perhaps for certain builds of wizards and clerics. But, at its core, the default magic for these classes needs to be recognizably Vancian, according to their design goals.

    One change to the system that does fall within the design boundaries, and which in my opinion would greatly improve the spell list, would be to reduce the number of spell levels. If going through the survey taught me anything, it is that nine spell levels (ten, if we count cantrips) are way too many. There is just no way you can have significant power differences between these levels and have interesting effects to fill each slot - particularly if you intend to have dozens of spells at each level. You are almost guaranteed to end up with a lot of chaff, highly situational effects, and unnecesary redundancy in the form of Greater-, Mass-, reverse- and other variants of the same spells.

    How many levels, then, should we have? I believe seven spell levels (plus cantrips) to be the right number. I would cut them even further if faithfulness to the classics was not a concern - as it is, we have the precedent of cleric spell lists with seven levels, so using that amount for clerics and cutting two wizard levels shouldn't be such a drastic change. After all, the current proposal involves adding two levels for clerics. Anyway, by removing two levels, we could have a wizard list that looks as follows:
    Levels 1-2: Unchanged
    Level 3: As currently, with a few effects moved upwards in level
    Levels 4-5: The current levels 4,5, and 6, plus some effects from 3.
    Levels 6-7: The current levels 7,8,9

  3. Oh I know that they will never abandon the pseudo-Vancian system, no matter the flaws. I do not agree with cleaving to tradition for tradition's sake, but the best I can hope for is either going further in the direction of true Vancian, or some kind of alternate system clearly pitched as an option (though I believe Mearls has said that it will not be for wizards).

    I wonder if enough people complain about the greater/lesser spells, spell variations, and spell levels if they will move away from them. Given that there are plenty of editions and retro-clones that stick with it, I am assuming that they will just go with that, too.


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