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

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
If DnD's magic was truly Vancian (from "The Dying Earth" and "The Eyes of the Overworld" that were published before 1e) would the answer be that all the modern wizards - who are all pale shadows of those from the further past, and possibly of themselves - have forgotten and lost the records and it's a mystery?
 

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DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
But in order to come up with an explanation in my setting it would be easier of WotC would have provided a good example on how it works in their setting so I could work from there instead of beginning from scratch.
Unfortunately for you 5E specifically does not have what you are looking for. Which means you either have to go searching / buying other products that might have something that gives you the example you are looking for... or you just indeed start from scratch and make up your own.

But even if you do that... you don't actually need to get that far into the weeds and have all these huge amounts of detail worked out from the beginning. Because quite frankly none of your players are probably ever going to care. So the only person you have to satisfy is yourself. And in that regard... you only need to do just enough detailing that you can then make up anything else you need in the moment that a question just happens to come up in game.

In my opinion, newer DMs should not try and design hugely detailed anything. Always start small, and learn on the job how to add detail in the middle of play-- rather than have everything detailed up front and then trying to remember what it is you came up with. Learning how to rule and play on your feet is one of the most important skills a DM can learn, so don't hamstring yourself by taking those opportunities away by over-planning.
 

Retros_x

Explorer
In a game where you have proficiency spellcasters, you need a hard magic system a la Sanderstead, because the rules give you a hard magic system.
YOU need it, but that is not a general requirements as tons of DMs, myself included, do not need it.
Expecially 5e, where every spell works 100% of the time. Magic in 5e is like science. Reliable, repeatable, learn learnable.
Proficiency does just mean that a caster is proficient with something. A Barbardian getting more proficient at athletics doesn't mean they took a scientific, academic approach to it. Same with casters. While wizards might study spellcraft, sorceres have innate powers that just awake, clerics getting their power by the gods, warlocks via a pact with a patron etc. There is nothing academic, scientific about a warlock getting their powers, its literally a higher being just granting them in exchange for something. But even in case of wizards: Are you really need to explain the exact narrative workings of magic? Isn't it enough to have wizards study the manipulation of the weave and thats it? Why the need to have exact rules? Do you think it was beneficial to the narrative of Star Wars to introduce midichlorians? Do you understand quantum physics after watching Oppenheimer? If not, does that make the movie miss something?

Spellslots and the other game mechanics around magic are an abstraction, the same has hitpoints, hit bonuses etc. Treat it as an abstraction and don't overthink it.

On a side note science is not 100% reliable as experiments can fail, old theorems are getting contradicted, hypothesis fail to prove right etc. And humans used the power of fire or other things long before they knew the scientific explanations behind it. Before science could explain it, humans thought of thunderstorms as the machinations of gods. If you could show man from 15th century a smartphone he would call it magic. You can easily treat magic the same in your fantasy game. When you have a explanation behind magic, it is not magic anymore, because magic is literally supernatural.
 
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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Spellslots and the other game mechanics around magic are an abstraction, the same has hitpoints, hit bonuses etc. Treat it as an abstraction and don't overthink it.
Hi, you must be new here. Overthinking things in TTRPG's is kind of what this forum is all about. You get threads talking about how unrealistic it is for halflings to use medium-sized weapons and how humans in D&D must be exactly like, and bound to the limitations of humans on our Earth, and even debates about the quantum state of where the caster is when the explosion of Thunder Step occurs. Many people who post here do not accept "it's all an abstraction" and want things to make sense in their fantasy game about fantastic events in a fantasy world. :)
 

Retros_x

Explorer
Hi, you must be new here. Overthinking things in TTRPG's is kind of what this forum is all about. You get threads talking about how unrealistic it is for halflings to use medium-sized weapons and how humans in D&D must be exactly like, and bound to the limitations of humans on our Earth, and even debates about the quantum state of where the caster is when the explosion of Thunder Step occurs. Many people who post here do not accept "it's all an abstraction" and want things to make sense in their fantasy game about fantastic events in a fantasy world. :)
I am relatively new here, but I am quite old to nerdy discussions, so please don't assume too much about my persona. Also you took one sentence out of my post, I wrote much more why I think it is not useful to try to find exact explanations for magic and I edited another paragraph why I think magic is unexplainable by nature.

Also OP seems to asked because he thinks they need it for their game. While your examples of "overthinking" discussions are quite fun, they are usually just for fun and not for actual game advice. When you actually run and/or design a game, there is definitely a point of overthinking that is not useful and I think it can be an helpful advice to stick with the abstraction that the game provides.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I am relatively new here, but I am quite old to nerdy discussions, so please don't assume too much about my persona. Also you took one sentence out of my post, I wrote much more why I think it is not useful to try to find exact explanations for magic and I edited another paragraph why I think magic is unexplainable by nature.

Also OP seems to asked because he thinks they need it for their game. While your examples of "overthinking" discussions are quite fun, they are usually just for fun and not for actual game advice. When you actually run and/or design a game, there is definitely a point of overthinking that is not useful and I think it can be an helpful advice to stick with the abstraction that the game provides.
I think the point is, the line where thinking becomes overthinking is not the same for everyone, and the place you put it is not objectively the best place, just the best place for you.
 

Voadam

Legend
In a game where you have proficient spellcasters, you need a hard magic system a la Sanders, because the rules give you a hard magic system. Expecially 5e, where every spell works 100% of the time. Magic in 5e is like science. Reliable, repeatable, learnable.
And I know that the mechanics of the game are setting agnostic. But in order to come up with an explanation in my setting it would be easier of WotC would have provided a good example on how it works in their setting so I could work from there instead of beginning from scratch.
Here is some narrative explanation from D&D's past, page 40 of the 1e DMG by Gygax:

SPELL CASTING
All magic and cleric spells are similar in that the word sounds, when combined into whatever patterns are applicable, 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 the energy contained in these words is what causes the spell to be forgotten or the writing to disappear from the surface upon which it is written.
The triggering action draws power from some plane of the multiverse. Whether the spell is an abjuration, conjuration, alteration, enchantment, 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 (whether or not the spell user has any idea of what or where it is) 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 the electricity to the desired location.
Many spells also require somatic motions in conjunction 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., of the spell effects. When 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. Sometimes this destruction is very slow, as is the case with druids’ mistletoe. Those spells without apparent material components are actually utilizing the air exhaled by the magic-user in the utterance of the spell.
Release of word/sound-stored energy is not particularly debilitating to the spell caster, as he or she has gathered this energy over a course of time prior to the loosing of the power. It comes from outside the spell caster, not from his or her own vital essence. The power to activate even a first level spell would leave a spell caster weak and shaking if it were drawn from his or her personal energy, and a third level spell would most certainly totally drain the caster’s body of life!
Because spells tap power from other planes, any improper casting is likely to cause the spell not to function (the heater is turned on, but you haven’t plugged it in, or you’ve plugged it in but not turned it on) or to malfunction (you held onto the prongs of the plug when you tapped the current, or you accidently dropped the heater as you were plugging it in, or perhaps you plugged in some other appliance or device by mistake). Such happenings are covered in the various chances for spell malfunction. If your players inquire as to how spells work, or fail to do so, you can explain, without difficulty, the precepts of the AD&D magic spell systems. (For background reading you can direct campaign participants to Vance’s THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD and THE DYING EARTH as well as to Bellairs’ THE FACE IN THE FROST.)
 

Voadam

Legend
Here is from page B15 of Moldvay B/X Basic set D&D:

A spell is a formula for collecting and using magical energies. A magic-user or cleric controls these energies with a memorized set of words and hand motions: the spell. Each spell has its own special set of words and gestures. Only magic-users, elves and clerics can learn these formulas, and thus only they may cast spells.
Spells must be memorized before an adventure begins. The character will remember the spell for any length of time until it is used. When a magic-user, elf, or cleric memorizes a spell, the words and gestures are printed on his or her mind, much in the same way that writing is put on a blackboard. When the spell is cast, the writing is "erased", and he or she may not cast that particular spell again. A spell caster may, however, memorize the same spell twice if he or she is of a high enough experience level to do so. If so, only one is "erased" when the spell is cast; the other remains and may be used later. As characters increase in level the number and type of spells they may memorize increases (their space on the blackboard increases).
Most adventures should not take more than a few hours of game time. If, however, an adventure lasts longer than a day, a character may re-memorize "erased" spells (spells already cast) once a day. First the character must be well-rested, usually an uninterrupted full night's sleep. Then by spending an hour of "character time" undisturbed, a spell caster of levels 1-3 may memorize all of his or her "erased" spells.
A character who cannot talk or use hand motions for any reason (such as being bound or gagged) cannot use a spell. Similarly, because the words and gestures must be repeated exactly, spells cannot be cast while performing any other action (such as walking or fighting).
 

Voadam

Legend
Even 5e has a little.

5e PH page 201:

WHAT IS A SPELL?
A spell is a discrete magical effect, a single shaping of the magical energies that suffuse the multiverse into a specific, limited expression. In casting a spell, a character carefully plucks at the invisible strands of raw magic suffusing the world, pins them in place in a particular pattern, sets them vibrating in a specific way, and then releases them to unleash the desired effect-in most cases, all in the span of seconds.
Spells can be versatile tools, weapons, or protective wards. They can deal damage or undo it, impose or remove conditions (see appendix A), drain life energy away, and restore life to the dead.
Uncounted thousands of spells have been created over the course of the multiverse's history, and many of them are long forgotten. Some might yet lie recorded in crumbling spellbooks hidden in ancient ruins or trapped in the minds of dead gods. Or they might someday be reinvented by a character who has amassed enough power and wisdom to do so.
 

M_Natas

Hero
I am relatively new here, but I am quite old to nerdy discussions, so please don't assume too much about my persona. Also you took one sentence out of my post, I wrote much more why I think it is not useful to try to find exact explanations for magic and I edited another paragraph why I think magic is unexplainable by nature.

Also OP seems to asked because he thinks they need it for their game. While your examples of "overthinking" discussions are quite fun, they are usually just for fun and not for actual game advice. When you actually run and/or design a game, there is definitely a point of overthinking that is not useful and I think it can be an helpful advice to stick with the abstraction that the game provides.
But the game doesn't even offer an abstraction.
Like, there is overthinking and than there is what the game provides (close to Nothing for Ingame explanation). I want something in between, a little more, a starting point to get going.

Like, I noticed that problem of D&D 5e having no real Magic system explanation when I read the Druids Call Novel, which is a D&D Novel which has a Druid school and the main character goes there to learn to be a Druid.
An the Magic learning is literally "They showed us how to do it, I did it" with no magical explanation at all.

And than I first was like the Author must be bad. But than I read up and was like: she just put in the book what was in then rule books: nothing but the effects of the magic. None of the whys.
 
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