Maxwell's Silver Hammer: On Spells, Design, and the feeling of Sameyness in 5e

Do you think the spellcasters and spells in 5e are too "same-y?"

  • 1. Yes, they are too same-y.

    Votes: 28 28.9%
  • 2. They're really same-y, but I'm okay with it.

    Votes: 8 8.2%
  • 3. Maybe a little, but it's a good design choice.

    Votes: 43 44.3%
  • 4 No. I don't know what you're talking about.

    Votes: 12 12.4%
  • 5. I have VERY STRONG OPINIONS that cannot be captured in a poll.

    Votes: 2 2.1%
  • 6. Smash the control images, smash the control machines.

    Votes: 4 4.1%

  • Total voters
    97
  • This poll will close: .

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
There was a recent thread when the discussion of design principles in 5e was raised. I made the same comment that I had made over the past five years, which is basically that, IMO, there are too many spellcasting classes, and that the spells (especially the cantrips) had a very "same-y" feel, and that this was (IMO) largely attributable to the design principles of 5e.

Given that this opinion is linked to me in roughly the same way that Sir McStabsalot, the gnomish paladin that dual-wields rapiers, shall forever follow me, I didn't think much of it. But, to quote famous RPG Enthusiast and San Diego native, Ron Burgundy, "Boy, that escalated quickly... Brick killed a guy."

So after picking up the errant tridents, I thought I'd return to the issue of why 5e spellcasting feels same-y to me, and why this is a deliberate design decision. Let me start with my original analysis of six reason in italics, then I can expand on it:


1. Overlapping spell lists. Okay, so maybe the ye olde 1e PHB was a little overboard, by having each caster have its spells in its own section .... but maybe not! Meaningful differentiation doesn't mean, "Most spells are the same, but hey, you get a few different ribbons!" To me it means that each full caster class gets a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LIST OF SPELLS, with minimal overlap (a few utilities that they might have in common, like a fly spell- and honestly, they each could have their own).


To me, this is a big one. Yes, it saves a lot of time and designing to allow multiple classes to have the same spells. But .... looking at the core rules (PHB) ... the Bard has 3 unique spells. The Warlock has 6. The Sorcerer has .... wait for it ... ZERO UNIQUE SPELLS.

The Paladin (you knew this was coming up) has 17, meaning that the Paladin (a half-caster) has more unique spells than the three full casting classes and the Ranger ... COMBINED.


2. Too mix-n-match. Ritual spellcasting. Cantrips. Everything is available easily through either multi-class, subclass, or feat. To the extent that there is meaningful class differentiation (there isn't), you can easily get whatever you want from any other class.


Here's the thing- I have mentioned before that I am a fan on at least limited niche protection. But 5e, for better or worse, has almost none. Let's say that you're all into Bards, because of their unique vicious mockery cantrip. You know .... it does make up 33% of their unique spells! :)

But ... you don't want to play a bard. Okay, no problem! Just multiclass a level in Bard, and you get it. But maybe you really don't want to play a bard. Then take a magic initiate feat! And so on. 5e isn't a gestalt system, but it's flexibility (which is good!) also means that there is little differentiation between the multiple varieties and ways to build a spellcaster (which is bad- to me).


3. What does it even mean, Basil? What, Wizards are "versatile" and "prepared" and sorcerers are "spontaneous" and "natural." I mean, sure. Whatever. Now that we've moved to neo-Vancian spell casting, they are pretty much the same thing, with a different stat. If you ask me, here's the difference. Want to multiclass with a charisma class? Sorcerer. Don't? Wizard.


This really ties into (6), but the difference (however slight) is that for this category, I'd say that there is a lack of integration between lore and mechanics. TPTB (the powers that be) have been pretty open that Paladins and Druids "have an especially strong dose of story in their design" which means, I suppose, that the other classes have less lore (story) baked into the design. But the lack of integration between lore and mechanics, while allowing for more creative builds, also ties into the lack of differentiation for spellcasters. If the lore doesn't matter, and the spell lists largely overlap, and the mechanics aren't that different, then what does it mean?


4. All effects are measured by spells. Magic items. other class abilities, almost everything is expressed in terms of spells. So ... okay. There's a lot of it.


I'm going to expand on this later, but when you have spells as the basic unit of currency for design then they begin to feel boring. Magic items ... they are spells. Barbarian abiltities? Spells. Racial abilities? Spells. If everything is a spell, why should I care about (you guessed it) spells? To paraphrase The Incredibles, if everything is magic, nothing is.


5. Cantrips are terribly boring. Pew pew pew. You can look at them, and refluff 'em as you want. But it both makes cantrips terrible, and has the additional added effect of making higher-level damage spells terrible as well.


This is a matter of taste, I guess. Are attack cantrips more, or less, boring than a crossbow? Than darts? Than a dagger? But they all ... function ... in the exact same way. They are so tightly constrained by both the spell equivalency design, and by the desire to have them substitute in as attacks (so everyone has the same approximate, level-by-level, round-by-round, spotlight effect in combat), that there is no real differentiation. "Sure, I'll have a different damage and save type, thanks." The choice is almost never meaningful.

More importantly, by providing casters with the always-on, always damage cantrips, it effectively nerfed the utility of higher-level spell. I would much rather casters get a smaller number of much more interesting and bigger booms than the same attack cantrips over and over again.

6. Lack of mechanical differentiation. The Warlock? Short rest + invocation ... that's different. Everyone else? It's the same. Overlapping spells, overlapping casting abilities, overlapping mechanics.


And this is the big one, for me. I understand that some players put big stock in the whole, prepared or not prepared, etc. But now that we've moved to neo-Vancian, the casters almost all "feel" the same. Sure, the Wizard is a little more versatile, I guess. Kinda. But the Warlock is the only spellcaster that, to me, mechanically feels dramatically different (and, TBH, they overloaded EB so much that most players just play it as a glorified EB spammer).

Now the above list isn't meant to be exhaustive, or argumentative. People can, and do, feel differently, The question of what "feels" the same is very much a personal one. Back when all weapons did d6 damage, did they all feel the same because they did the same damage, or were they objectively different because they had different names, and therefore (by definition!) were different? I say that not to be snarky, but simply to point out that this is very much in the feelings; just like people can reasonably disagree about whether, say, niche protection is a good thing in D&D, so too can people disagree about whether design leads to sameyness, or differentiation.


But the design principle is clear ....

So I'm going to add a final note, which is the difference between 1e and 5e that I think helps illustrate what I'm thinking about. I don't have a pull quote for it handy, but I think that most people see the resource/design equivalency in 5e is largely designed around spells. That's why, for example, Rangers and Paladins are designed as half-casters, and why 1/2 of the original classes are full casters. Fun fact- 75% of the base classes in D&D 5e are either full or half casters, and the only official new class, so far, is the artificer.

The reason for the title of this post is, of course, when all you have is a hammer, every problem seems like a nail. And when you design around spells, every design issue will be solved by ... spells equivalents.

But that's not all bad. Let's contrast 5e design with 1e design (or, um, lack thereof!).

1e has a lot of awesome sauce in it. I mean, say what you like about the rules of Gygaxian D&D, Dude, at least it's an ethos.

The casters feel ... well, very different. No one would confuse the Cleric and Magic User lists. Even subclasses (like the Illusionist) are very different than the main class in terms of spellcasting.

Abilities, magic items, monster abilities- they are rarely expressed in terms of spells. Instead, they just ... are. The great advantage of this is that it is cool, differentiated, and that when it works (because the rules and abilities and items and so on grew out play and rulings more often than not) it has an organic, bespoke quality that feels right.

The disadvantage, of course, is that these various subsystems often don't work together, are incoherent, or in some cases (unarmed combat) just a confusing morass of contradictory rules that uses systems that make absolutely no sense in context with the rest of the game.

Contrast that with 5e. There may be predictability (samey-ness) but there's also ... predictability. The rules mostly fit together. The math ... mostly works.

And that's where I'm going to end this and throw it out for other people to comment on how wrong I am.

So-

Does 5e's magic feel same-y to you? The spellcasters?

And do you like the design principle (spell equivalent) of 5e?
 

Celebrim

Legend
I don't have enough experience with 5e to really comment.

I will say that what you complain about here is one of the reasons I've not bothered to acquire experience with 5e.
 

Wiseblood

Adventurer
I agree. These are all part of the reasons I fiddle around with classes as much as I do. It is also the reason for the desire to see F,T,C and M-U lineup. Because they are different from each other.

I love and hate cantrips.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker
I can see why it might feel same-y, but I kinda prefer these spell lists to the ones in 1E, where there are all these listings for the same spell with relatively minor differences; I even prefer it to 3.x where a spell might be level X for one class and level Y for another. Given that one of the core intents (principles? maybe) seems to be streamlining things, it makes sense that (to pick a spell) fly has exactly one entry in the spells list, and is always a third level (I think? away from books at the moment) spell.

I think there's enough differentiation between the full-caster classes that they don't have to feel the same. Certainly clerics and wizards don't feel much alike to me, and druids don't really feel like either; bards are supposed to be all about flexibility so I don't feel as though their lack of unique spells damages them, particularly. Warlocks don't really work like any other full-caster, and the half-casters (and less) seem as though they're pretty well-differentiated by other (non-spell) abilities and themes and stuff.

Do I like the design principle? Well, it's my favorite edition of D&D, but there may be some amount of comfort-zone-residence there. I don't think it means I agree with every design choice they made.
 

Tonguez

Adventurer
I’ve always thought DnD had too many spellcasters but agree that 5e has gone beyond that and that there is too much Magic, when even your Fighter subclasses are sparkling with magical lighting things have gone too far.
Also the magic initiate feat is a big offender that I look at and think - uh if I can get any spell then whats the point?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker
So I checked my true feelings but it was a real struggle not to vote with the Burroughs quotation. Niiiice.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
So I checked my true feelings but it was a real struggle not to vote with the Burroughs quotation. Niiiice.
It's not that he's not quotable; he most certainly is. It's just that so many of his great quotes are rarely appropriate in mixed sane company.

Luckily, sanity is vastly overrated.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Everything in the game is samey. Especially after you play it for years on end. Hell... the game was samey out of the gate because its just a new version of D&D-- the same game we've been playing for 40 years. Yeah, there are some changes here and there... but it's still D&D. There hasn't been a single edition of D&D that I've played that hasn't felt like D&D.

Yes, 4E was probably the most different... but that's just in degrees. It's not like I played 4E and thought "Wow, this feels like World of Darkness, not D&D! What happened?" Neither 4E nor any other edition has ever felt different from the totality of the Dungeons & Dragon game. Not like how playing Shadowrun, or 7th Sea, or GURPS, or Talislanta have felt totally separate from Dungeons & Dragons.

But then again... I don't play D&D so that it doesn't feel like playing D&D. And I don't select specific classes because they supposedly feel different than other classes. They don't. None of them do. When I'm playing a wizard in combat and make a spell attack roll, it feels exactly the same as playing a fighter making a melee attack roll. And a wizard spell that forces a saving throw is no different than a fighter ability that forces a saving throw. The mechanics across the entire game are practically the same both now and in generations past. And thus I don't go looking for D&D to be different.

If I want my characters to feel different... then I play them differently. I don't ask the mechanics to do it for me. It's personality, needs, desires, loves, hatreds. That's what makes characters different, not the mechanics.
 

toucanbuzz

Adventurer
Does 5e's magic feel same-y to you? The spellcasters?

Unfortunately yes, but I don't have a good solution. I prefer each class to bring something unique to the table so the player gets a chance to shine. Mixing together magic so everyone can do basically the same thing is part of why I avoided 4E, and I'm not a fan of seeing the same effect reskinned (save or take 1d8 damage, attack and do 1d10 damage on a hit). It's why I'm not a fan of the Bard. I originally liked the idea of a full-casting class, but then I saw the list (wizard spells minus the boom-boom). That's "meh." Perhaps the solution is simply a smaller, but unique, spell list that interplays with the class features, such as the Paladin got.

However, this can swing the other way. I initially wasn't a fan of anyone, not just the rogue, finding and disabling traps, though now I understand the idea: rogues used to be mandatory in a group, and we don't want to force someone into a mandatory role. So, I get it.

Cantrips: I'm not a fan of the damaging ones. Cantrips originally were nuisance spells with occasional strategic use, and now, they've morphed into unlimited primary damage abilities that eventually surpass slotted spells. While I understand the idea - let casters contribute every round in combat like the fighter does because sitting around doing nothing or using a weapon that sucks so bad you'll never hit stinks - there was a cost: blending of the classes into feeling somewhat the same.

And do you like the design principle (spell equivalent) of 5e?

As to spell-like abilities for various classes, I'm okay. Barbarians probably should be supernatural. If the only way to express this is to mimic an existing spell, so be it.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
As to spell-like abilities for various classes, I'm okay. Barbarians probably should be supernatural. If the only way to express this is to mimic an existing spell, so be it.
Slightly afield of the core topic, but the bolded part has me intrigued.

Why do you think Barbarians should be supernatural? Arguably, their origin and original "shtick" was that they were anti-supernatural (Conan, 1e Unearthed Arcana).

Tell me more!
 

ninjayeti

Explorer
You could make exactly the same argument about martial classes. The only difference between a fighter hitting with a longsword and a barbarian hitting with a battleaxe is that the fighter gets a +2 damage bonus from a fighting style whereas the barbarian gets his +2 damage bonus from rage.

I'm not saying you are wrong. But if this is an issue for you then I think you are looking for a fundamentally different game than 5E.
 

BrokenTwin

Explorer
I'd have been happy if they reduced the amount of full casters instead of increasing them.
Make the sorcerer a half caster with more sorcery points and knowing all the metamagic. Maybe give more power to their bloodlines.
Return bards to being half casters and increase their Bardic Inspiration pool and what they can do with it.
Make Rangers spell-less with a casting subclass, ala-fighter. Make them the pet class. God knows it would give them an actual mechanical niche.
Make druids half casters, and improve their Wildshape features.
Basically, make what makes the classes unique stand out more.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Does 5e's magic feel same-y to you? The spellcasters?

And do you like the design principle (spell equivalent) of 5e?
The second one first - I think it is a good design principle for D&D. If I want to explore the differences in various approaches to magic, I'd probably use a different system that is better suited for it.

Does this lead to same-y magic and casters? Maybe? Right now, I am playing an artificer in a party with a caretaker warlock (from a 3rd party supplement - it is basically a warlock, with a couple of tweaks). The two characaters have very different styles and impacts on the party, so my current data says... not really.

I suppose if you play a lot of spellcasters, after doing it several times you might end up with that feeling.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Let me think...how to approach your concerns while leaving the bulk of the game intact.

1) Dump all the spells in the game into a spreadsheet. Label each spell as either a wizard, cleric, or druid spell. No overlap. Those are the new spell lists.

2) Eliminate every damage cantrip in the game as a base choice. Cantrips become fun non-combat effects. (Cantrips earned from any higher level subclass features or other effects could still be allowed on a case-by-case basis.)

3) Wizards need a subtle boost to offset cantrips, make Arcane Recovery work every short rest to compensate.

4) Cleric domains are altered to only include cleric spells.

5) Make bards a half-caster class using the wizard spell list. Paladins use cleric, and rangers use druid. Bards need a boost here, some more inspiration points would be appropriate.

6) Sorcerers pick their spells from all spell lists. This gives them a mechanical niche different from other casters to compensate for their low spells known.

6) Warlocks only know their domain spells. Mystic Incarnum spells can come from any spell list, just have to fit the patron theme. Gain 1 invocation/level to compensate.

7) If you want deeper cuts, I'd cut spellcasting out of paladin, ranger, warlock, and bard. You'd need to build homebrew replacements, but they exist. Alternatively, just cut those 4 classes out of the game, and turn some of the more interesting abilities into new subclasses for the remaining 8 classes.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
So good, Twosix! It's almost like ...you've thought of this before.

Just one change ....

If you want deeper cuts, I'd cut {the} paladin. Alternatively, just cut those 4 classes out of the game, and turn some of the more interesting abilities into new subclasses for the remaining 8 classes.
You are preaching to the choir.

 

Saelorn

Adventurer
I've always felt that it would be better to differentiate spellcasters through their spell lists, rather than their casting mechanics. After all, a spell already represents a specific mechanical effect, which is unique to the class which can cast that spell.

Far too often, I've seen players choose their class based on the type of spell slot mechanics they want to deal with, rather than the role that the class is supposed to represent within the world. By giving everyone the user-friendly mechanics, and letting them differentiate by spell list, they could play who they want to play instead of what they're willing to deal with.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
So good, Twosix! It's almost like ...you've thought of this before.
Heh...I actually read your OP just before I had to jump in the car, so I was thinking about it while I was running some errands. The idea to have all spells be exclusive is one I've had before, I just had to think for a while if (Arcane, divine), (arcane,divine,druid), or (arcane,divine,druid,bard) made the most sense as dividing lines. Obviously, any decision comes down to a matter of taste.
 

dnd4vr

Keeper of the Seven Keys
Let me think...how to approach your concerns while leaving the bulk of the game intact.

1) Dump all the spells in the game into a spreadsheet. Label each spell as either a wizard, cleric, or druid spell. No overlap. Those are the new spell lists.

2) Eliminate every damage cantrip in the game as a base choice. Cantrips become fun non-combat effects. (Cantrips earned from any higher level subclass features or other effects could still be allowed on a case-by-case basis.)

3) Wizards need a subtle boost to offset cantrips, make Arcane Recovery work every short rest to compensate.

4) Cleric domains are altered to only include cleric spells.

5) Make bards a half-caster class using the wizard spell list. Paladins use cleric, and rangers use druid. Bards need a boost here, some more inspiration points would be appropriate.

6) Sorcerers pick their spells from all spell lists. This gives them a mechanical niche different from other casters to compensate for their low spells known.

6) Warlocks only know their domain spells. Mystic Incarnum spells can come from any spell list, just have to fit the patron theme. Gain 1 invocation/level to compensate.

7) If you want deeper cuts, I'd cut spellcasting out of paladin, ranger, warlock, and bard. You'd need to build homebrew replacements, but they exist. Alternatively, just cut those 4 classes out of the game, and turn some of the more interesting abilities into new subclasses for the remaining 8 classes.
A lot of this is good stuff TwoSix!

My only suggestions would be to make Sorcerers half-casters and give more for them, and allow Bards to choose from all the lists. This would reflect more the idea to me of a bard learning from all sources whenever he can. Sorcerers can benefit from more metamagic or something?
 

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