D&D General How does magic work in D&D (In-Universe/Lorewise)?

M_Natas

Hero
I'm struggling a little bit with how magic in D&D 5e functions in-universe. While the Player Handbook has a lot Information about casting spells and magic classes, the explanation, what magic is inside the game world, is one short text in chapter 11 about the weave of magic.

The magic of the world section in the DMG is even less helpful.

Is there any other source about how magic works In-Universe in D&D?

I know as a DM if you create a homebrew world you are supposed to make up your own, but without any frame of reference that is hard.

So far the Information on what magic is and how it works In-Universe in general (so setting agnostic) is this:

Raw magic is in everything. From the rocks, to the trees to the air. Mortals can't tap the raw magic. They need an "interface" to connect with the raw magic.

The fabric of magic. In the forgotten realms lore that is called the weave.

The fabric of magic can be manipulated directly by arcane magic or indirectly through divine magic (so a god or god like creature or force works as an intermediary).

Spells or magical effects manipulate the fabric of magic and so shape the raw magic.

Spells like identify and detect magic let you glimpse the fabric of magic and how it is manipulated.

Dispel magic smoothes the fabric and an animation field redirects the fabric of magic.

We also know that there are different forms of energy, that can be created by spells (radiant, fire, necrotic, force and so on) and that are universal.
There are also schools of magic, that are universal (Necromancy, Evocation, Illusion ...).

We know the ability of mortals to shape the fabric of magic is limited (but not why it is limited).
We know for some effects they need to concentrate to keep the spell going, so the Caster is still connected to the fabric of magic while concentrating.

Did I miss a universal in-universe rule?

------------------------------------

So, what is my problem with the lack of information about how ingame magic works?

It leads to some ... lets say interesting design decisions in D&D.
For example because they don't have ingame explanation of magic, they need to add to every effect, creature, object, thing ... that it is magical or it is not considered magic.
Dragons are not magic in D&D because in their statblock or description it is not written, that these are magical creatures. So a detect magic spell sees nothing when looking at a dragon.
Or a familiar. Because of the wording of the spell, it wouldn't show up as magical with the detect magic spell, according to RAW.
While an animated armor would show up as magical (because it is described as magically animated). So it could be effected by dispel magic.
A scarecrow would not show up on detect magic, because it is animated by a spirit (like the familiar) and nowhere it is written that spirits are magical (as far as I could find). Elementals can be bound by magic but themselves are not magical.

So whenever a player uses detect magic and looks around, because of the lack of general rules on how magic works in the game, I have to look up any creature, object and so on that the Character is looking at to see, if in the description it is described as magical.
And what is considered magical and what not seems a little inconsistent.

How did you folks solved this problem at your tables?
And would you, like me, prefer it, if WotC would give some more Lore on such stuff so we can adjudicate stuff better as DMs?
 
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WyrmworksDale

InclusiveRPG.com
It's a mix of lore and how game rules affect that lore, like a lot of things are "spell attacks" that aren't really spells. A bit like "Levels," "Magic" has different meanings. "The Weave" in D&D lore is a bit like the Force in Star Wars. It's all around and creates life, but Jedi can specifically harness it for various effects. So a dragon is given life and its powers by the weave. Same with a familiar—which is a fey (or other) creature that has been summoned. The summoning would be detected at the time, but once it's there, it's just another creature. But animated armor is essentially a spell effect — someone cast a spell to animate that armor.

I guess it's the difference between a river and a squirt gun. A river just flows. That's its nature. With a squirt gun, you need to pull the trigger.

But both are moving water.
 

Raiztt

Adventurer
Not to be dismissive but I think you're over thinking this. While I'm sympathetic to the desire to have a completely coherent and explained system for magic... the answer just is that as far as detect magic is concerned its 1.) does the thing in question specifically say that it is magical and 2.) up to you/your judgement.

BUT... to help you out... in the case of the dragon and the elemental: having magical powers (the dragon) or being summoned or created by magic (the elemental) does not mean the thing in itself IS magical. Detect magic does literally just that - it detects the presence of magical effects.
 


fuindordm

Adventurer
You're right that the rules are intentionally agnostic regarding the source and nature of magic. This makes it possible for individual DMs to impose their own cosmology, and if they so desire to modify details of the magic system to match the story. For example, if you are trying to emulate a historical Earth culture's view of magic (e.g. Norse or Celtic) then you can ban the Evocation school, or even the whole Sorcerer class, for the sake of consistent world-building. With considerably more work, you can curate the spell list of each class to reflect in-world differences in how they cast and what source of power provides the magic.

However, as written, the magic rules do reveal some assumptions about the in-world explanation. For example:
  • All spells have some combination of VSM components and most have verbal components. This can be taken as evidence that the in-world explanation for magic relies on a primordial language and/or the names of entities being manipulated--although on occasion these names can be expressed by means other than vocal.
  • All spells have the same effect for all classes who can cast them (barring metamagic). This can be taken as evidence that the spells represent certain fundamental modes of the weave (like the harmonic vibrations of a string or metal plate). Spellcasters can trigger these modes but they can't easily modify them. Alternatively, perhaps spells always have the same effect because every spell invokes an antediluvean contract with some magical, extraplanar entity, who fulfils the contract to the letter even though modern spellcasters have forgotten the details.
  • Most spells don't work on anyone more than 60 feet away (OK, I don't have a clever explanation for this one)
So have fun with worldbuilding and adjust the way players can access and use magic according to taste! You're not going to break anything by replacing VSM with potion-brewing, by restricting spell lists, or by letting all spellcasters apply metamagic to spells more freely at the expense of damage.
 

Voadam

Legend
Detect magic and dispel magic have traditionally through the editions been a bit more technical in what they detect and dispel, mostly focusing on spells and magic items and not creatures so a sorcerer would not typically show up under detect magic but a fighter with a haste spell going would.

5e RAW is a bit ambiguously written in comparison to a bunch of D&D versions.

PH page 201 Chapter 10 intro:

"MAGIC PERMEATES THE WORLDS OF D&D AND most often appears in the form of a spell."

DETECT MAGIC
1st-level divination (ritual)
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes
For the duration, you sense the presence of magic within 30 feet of you. If you sense magic in this way, you can use your action to see a faint aura around any visible creature or object in the area that bears magic, and you learn its school of magic, if any.
The spell can penetrate most barriers, but it is blocked by 1 foot of stone, 1 inch of common metal, a thin sheet of lead, or 3 feet of wood or dirt.

So detect magic presence withing 30 feet yes/no. If yes then see auras about creatures and objects that bear magic.

What counts as magic here and what counts as bearing magic are a 5e ruling not rules type of situation. Does a bard bear magic? Just when actively casting? Does a fighter (as a creature separate from his sword) bear magic when bearing a magic sword? How does an object bear magic? Just when subject to a spell? How about magic items, are they an item bearing magic?

An easy ruling is spells and magic items. Does not detect creatures without a spell on them. This is the ruling I go with at my table as DM.

Another is it does detect creatures described explicitly as magical, or ones that can cast spells and/or have magical abilities/properties.

PH page 205

"The worlds within the D&D multiverse are magical places. All existence is suffused with magical power, and potential energy lies untapped in every rock, stream, and living creature, and even in the air itself. Raw magic is the stuff of creation, the mute and mindless will of existence, permeating every bit of matter and present in every manifestation of energy throughout the multiverse."

So another RAW ruling could be detect magic always detects the presence of magic. Or always does except in anti magic or null magic or dead magic zones. Or perhaps not in the void massless vacuum of space, although energy could arguably be there.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Is there any other source about how magic works In-Universe in D&D?

D&D does not assume one single universe - the game is intentionally built to be applied to many different settings, so the underlying metaphysics are not stipulated. Anything that is largely consistent with the game results is fine.

So, the real question is - How do you want it to work?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
So, what is my problem with the lack of information about how ingame magic works?

It leads to some ... lets say interesting design decisions in D&D.
For example because they don't have ingame explanation of magic, they need to add to every effect, creature, object, thing ... that it is magical or it is not considered magic.

Well, you get the issue that when everything is magical, then nothing is magical. The spell isn't terribly useful if it simply lights up the entire planet because it is suffused with magical energy, right?

"Detect Magic" is really more like, "Detect magic that the PCs might, in theory, be able to impact or manipulate." Like, you can't Dispel a dragon into not being able to breathe fire on you, so that doesn't show up as "magic".
 

the Jester

Legend
If you are edition-agnostic, the 1e DMG goes into some detail.

1e DMG said:
All magic and cleric spells are similar in that the word sounds, when combined into whatever patterns are available, are charged with energy from the Positive or Negative Material Plane. When uttered, these sounds cause the release of this energy, which in turn triggers a set reaction. The release of this energy contained in these words is what causes the spell to be forgotten or the writing to disappear from the surface on which it is written.

The triggering action draws power from some plane of the multiverse. Whether the spell is an abjuration, conjuration ... [etc], or whatever, there is a flow of energy- first from the spell caster, then from some plane to the area magicked or enspelled by the caster. The energy flow is not from the caster per se, it is from the utterance of the sounds, each of which is charged with energy which is loosed when the proper formula and/or ritual is completed with their utterance. This power then taps the desired plane... to cause the spell to function. It is much like plugging in a heater; the electrical outlet does not hold all of the electrical energy to cause the heater to function, but the wires leading from it ultimately to the power station, bring to electricity to the desired location.

Many spells ... require somatic motions in conjunctions with words. The spoken words trigger the release of the magical energy, and the hand movements are usually required in order to control and specify the direction, target, area, etc.... When the spell energy is released, it usually flows to the Prime Material from the Positive or Negative Material Plane. To replace it, something must flow back in reverse. The dissolution and destruction of material components provides the energy that balances out this flow, through the principle of similarity.... Those spells without apparent material components are actually using the air exhaled by the magic-user in the utterance of the spell.

For reference, the above is on page 40, under "Spell Casting". Slightly truncated to avoid typing excess Gygaxian prose.
 

M_Natas

Hero
D&D does not assume one single universe - the game is intentionally built to be applied to many different settings, so the underlying metaphysics are not stipulated. Anything that is largely consistent with the game results is fine.

So, the real question is - How do you want it to work?
That's a good question. What I would like is an example. Like a more detailed guide on how magic works in the forgotten realms that explains the mechanical game rules. And from that it would be easier for me, to adjust it for my table needs.
 

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