D&D General What is a "spell"? What isn't?

In-world I treat Spells as only things that arcane casters know, use and cast. Any other magic might be given the nomenclature of "spells" in the rulebooks for the ease of game clarification, but I don't consider them "Spells" in-game.

For instance... a High Elf's cantrip they get for free I just consider to be a magical effect they get for being highly magical creatures. It might have the name of an official "cantrip" in the rulebooks... but I find it kinda lame from a world-building perspective to consider that all High Elves have had to "learn" how to "cast one cantrip spell" (and that's all!) at one point in their lives... rather than just having some innate magical ability to do X. To me... they are magical, they can do X magical effect, and we only just USE the concept of cantrips and spells from the game rules perspective to make it easier for players to run and understand it as they play.

Likewise... the Path of the Totem Warrior can "cast" the beast sense and speak with animals "spells" but only as "rituals". But to me... thinking of them doing the exact same things that Wizards do is like really, really lame. That these barbarians "cast spells" just like Wizards. So I don't treat them like that at all. To me... these are both just natural abilities that barbarians have that produce the effects of what you would get from beast sense and speak with animals spells. But I don't see them as spells and don't treat them as spells. I basically treat them like their own individual class features that the rule book could have written out fully (like they do for other barbarian features like Rage or Unarmored Defense) but chose to just say "it's these two spells" because it saved space and explanation time in the rules.

And it's also the way I get around the whole "All Rangers are magical spellcasters" debate too. If having a Ranger that does not cast spells is important to someone... the easiest way to do it is just select those Ranger "spells" that can essentially be considered non-magical and treat their effects as if they were not spells and just Ranger class features. A Ranger can move an extra 10 feet a round? Sounds completely plausible. So let's just wipe away the fact that those 10 feet come from the Ranger "casting" the longstrider spell... and just say that this particular Ranger is particularly fast. Or that when the Ranger heals someone, they are using their knowledge of herbs and natural remedies to do so rather than "casting" cure wounds.

The Spells section is what it is just for ease-of-use. So I don't get hung up on it.
I really like this idea. The only problem with it is you have to adjucate between spell and not-spell on a case by case basis, which can be tedious.

Oh well. I have a 300+ book of house rules, so tedious obviously isn't a problem for me!
 

log in or register to remove this ad


Reynard

Legend
In the like of what @FitzTheRuke said, a spell is an conscious effort to use magic in order to produce a predictable effect. Conscious intention and predictable effect(s) are keyword here, regardless whether words, gestures, ingredients, or even casting time/duration are used or not.
By this logic, most of the non-berserker barbarian rages are spells and for no good reason that just doesn't feel right.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
By this logic, most of the non-berserker barbarian rages are spells and for no good reason that just doesn't feel right.
You could argue that rage voluntarily induces a state, but that this state in turns provoke involuntary magical effects. Note here that « involuntary » does not necessarily means unwanted or even unexpected, a bit like a character slipping on a cloak of invisibility.

I don’t have my books, but can non-berserker barbarians choose to have a « regular rage » without additional effects, or are the effects always there regardless whether they make use of the said effects or not?
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
My own head canon is that all all non divine spells are rituals that. For casters like Wizards, Warlocks and Sorcerers they are rituals that act as templates to shape magic that are held by the caster in their magic aura and released by words and gestures. So for example, with regards to counterspell, I would not allow a counter spell to a subtle spell. The caster counterspelling is relying on familiarity with magic to interrupt the other casters spell release.
Thus, the new spells, are not counterspelling because those npc casters have made the effort to make those specific magical spell impossible to counter spell.
If a pc caster wanted to do something similarly I would let them make a deception check to pull it off.
Clerics I regard as using prayer and the spell effect is the divine response, the player is acting as the god by picking the spell.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
My own head canon is that all all non divine spells are rituals that. For casters like Wizards, Warlocks and Sorcerers they are rituals that act as templates to shape magic that are held by the caster in their magic aura and released by words and gestures. So for example, with regards to counterspell, I would not allow a counter spell to a subtle spell. The caster counterspelling is relying on familiarity with magic to interrupt the other casters spell release.
Thus, the new spells, are not counterspelling because those npc casters have made the effort to make those specific magical spell impossible to counter spell.
If a pc caster wanted to do something similarly I would let them make a deception check to pull it off.
Clerics I regard as using prayer and the spell effect is the divine response, the player is acting as the god by picking the spell.
This works well in a vancian setting.
 

Reynard

Legend
You could argue that rage voluntarily induces a state, but that this state in turns provoke involuntary magical effects. Note here that « involuntary » does not necessarily means unwanted or even unexpected, a bit like a character slipping on a cloak of invisibility.

I don’t have my books, but can non-berserker barbarians choose to have a « regular rage » without additional effects, or are the effects always there regardless whether they make use of the said effects or not?
I'm not sure that's relevant. You can't cast fireball but restrict the are to 5'radius (barring some other feature). A storm barbarian (whatever they are called) does a thing with intention that creates an effect. That is a spell by the (I think) overly broad definition you cited.
 


bloodtide

Adventurer
I think the important part about a spell is that it is a set formula for making an EXACT magical effect. A person that knows how can take some magic and shape it into a very specific effect. A spell can be written down and taught to anyone that can use magic. In theory a spell can do anything, you just need to figure out the correct way to shape and cast the magic.

And a single spell is exactly the same across the Multiverse. Every single person in all of Infinity cast the EXACT SAME fireball spell....or any other spell. Sure there are variations and custom spells....but those are very clearly other spells. Travel to the other side of the world....or reality....and buy a scroll of Fireball and it will be the EXACT same spell you could have just bought right down the road at Alo's Scroll Emporium.
 

I tried to ask this question from the opposite direction. The results weren't particularly enlightening.

For me, a spell is a pre-defined, packaged unit of magic with a formal or semi-formal structure, at specific power levels which are interchangeable (e.g. you have "level 1 spells.") Wizards, Clerics, Bards, Warlocks, and (maybe) Druids cast spells. Personally, I'd prefer Sorcerers didn't cast spells and instead approached magic in a fundamentally different way, but I could have tolerated the D&D Next "spell point" mechanic being the Sorcerer way of doing things.

Other classes have other ways of doing magical things. Paladins have Litanies. Shamans might have "spirit calls." Etc.
 

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
What is a spell in the fiction of the game, and what isn't?

This specifically came up in context of spellcasting NPCs having not-spell spell attacks and how to square that in the fiction. But it extends beyond that, to spell like abilities and psionics and magical talents and so on.
Reynard, is this question motivated more by concerns about gameplay ("Borg has resistance against spell attacks, but not abilities, so what happens in this circumstance?") or more by the theoretical question of where the principled line between spells and non-spell magic sits? For example, suppose some PC or NPC can "cast" the equivalent of Fire Bolt as an innate ability. That's clearly a magical attack, but is it a spell attack? Is that the sort of question you're concerned with?

On the theoretical question I'm skeptical there is a coherent line for us to draw, so I'll likely just shrug my shoulders. On the former, though, I imagine there should be some way of fairly adjudicating the dilemmas raised.
 

Another way to look at the question: when a wizard casts detect magic and a cleric casts detect magic, are they doing fundamentally the same thing? That is, aside for slight variations in skill and/or style, are they making the same important gestures and saying essentially the same magic words? Can a wizard hear the start of the clerics casting and guess what the outcome it will be because they already know the opening words? Are all spellcasting classes doing the same thing with different teachers?

The "no" would mean they are doing two different things (reciting a formula vs praying to a deity for aid), saying different words (likely in different languages) and making different movements, for two effects that are distinct in-universe but modeled the same mechanically because the player gets the same information (even if the pc's don't- ie the wizard sees and the cleric feels, but the players both know there's an enchantment on the door). Are the two "spells" totally different tools for the same job?

5e can support both lines of thinking, since it's so vague about how magic works.

In the first case, aside from a few edge cases the mechanical term "spell" and the in-universe understanding of what a "spell" is will be the same or at least very close, although the wizard pc will have a deeper understanding than the players ever will. In the latter case, "spell" wouldn't be a meaningful in-universe concept unless you're talking to someone of the same class (or another class of the same tradition, like a wizard and an eldritch knight.)
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
Another way to look at the question: when a wizard casts detect magic and a cleric casts detect magic, are they doing fundamentally the same thing? That is, aside for slight variations in skill and/or style, are they making the same important gestures and saying essentially the same magic words? Can a wizard hear the start of the clerics casting and guess what the outcome it will be because they already know the opening words? Are all spellcasting classes doing the same thing with different teachers?
Not to me.
The "no" would mean they are doing two different things (reciting a formula vs praying to a deity for aid), saying different words (likely in different languages) and making different movements, for two effects that are distinct in-universe but modeled the same mechanically because the player gets the same information (even if the pc's don't- ie the wizard sees and the cleric feels, but the players both know there's an enchantment on the door). Are the two "spells" totally different tools for the same job?
To me the wizard is running a diagnostic and relying on training for interpretation but the cleric is given information by their god but mechanically it is the same because the cleric needs to interpret the signs.
5e can support both lines of thinking, since it's so vague about how magic works.

In the first case, aside from a few edge cases the mechanical term "spell" and the in-universe understanding of what a "spell" is will be the same or at least very close, although the wizard pc will have a deeper understanding than the players ever will. In the latter case, "spell" wouldn't be a meaningful in-universe concept unless you're talking to someone of the same class (or another class of the same tradition, like a wizard and an eldritch knight.)
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
I really like this idea. The only problem with it is you have to adjudicate between spell and not-spell on a case by case basis, which can be tedious.

Oh well. I have a 300+ book of house rules, so tedious obviously isn't a problem for me!
It rarely comes up that I have to worry about it. It's not like there are casters out there (PC or NPC) that are going around trying to counterspell the barbarian's use of beast sense after all, LOL.

Anti-magic zones and counterspells are the two things in D&D that seem to me to have the largest disparity between people getting all verklempt over them and them actually ever coming up in-game. The way people go on and on and on about them and how to adjudicate them to me seems wildly disproportionate to the number of times they actually get used. The way some people talk you'd think they are running into anti-magic zones every single session and 2 out of every 3 spells is at risk of being countered. And I do not believe that is even close to being the case. :)
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
It rarely comes up that I have to worry about it. It's not like there are casters out there (PC or NPC) that are going around trying to counterspell the barbarian's use of beast sense after all, LOL.

Anti-magic zones and counterspells are the two things in D&D that seem to me to have the largest disparity between people getting all verklempt over them and them actually ever coming up in-game. The way people go on and on and on about them and how to adjudicate them to me seems wildly disproportionate to the number of times they actually get used. The way some people talk you'd think they are running into anti-magic zones every single session and 2 out of every 3 spells is at risk of being countered. And I do not believe that is even close to being the case. :)
It's more of a "it's a DM tool so players have to be mindful of it"

Sort of like lycanthropy.
 

It rarely comes up that I have to worry about it. It's not like there are casters out there (PC or NPC) that are going around trying to counterspell the barbarian's use of beast sense after all, LOL.

Anti-magic zones and counterspells are the two things in D&D that seem to me to have the largest disparity between people getting all verklempt over them and them actually ever coming up in-game. The way people go on and on and on about them and how to adjudicate them to me seems wildly disproportionate to the number of times they actually get used. The way some people talk you'd think they are running into anti-magic zones every single session and 2 out of every 3 spells is at risk of being countered. And I do not believe that is even close to being the case. :)
I expect anti-magic zones are used more by DMs deeply concerned over caster-martial disparity (as are several members of this board). Under normal circumstances I expect you're right.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Another way to look at the question: when a wizard casts detect magic and a cleric casts detect magic, are they doing fundamentally the same thing? That is, aside for slight variations in skill and/or style, are they making the same important gestures and saying essentially the same magic words? Can a wizard hear the start of the clerics casting and guess what the outcome it will be because they already know the opening words? Are all spellcasting classes doing the same thing with different teachers?

The "no" would mean they are doing two different things (reciting a formula vs praying to a deity for aid), saying different words (likely in different languages) and making different movements, for two effects that are distinct in-universe but modeled the same mechanically because the player gets the same information (even if the pc's don't- ie the wizard sees and the cleric feels, but the players both know there's an enchantment on the door). Are the two "spells" totally different tools for the same job?

5e can support both lines of thinking, since it's so vague about how magic works.

In the first case, aside from a few edge cases the mechanical term "spell" and the in-universe understanding of what a "spell" is will be the same or at least very close, although the wizard pc will have a deeper understanding than the players ever will. In the latter case, "spell" wouldn't be a meaningful in-universe concept unless you're talking to someone of the same class (or another class of the same tradition, like a wizard and an eldritch knight.)
There is a third option.

The wizard and cleric and doing different gestures and vocalizations but producing the same exact effect.

That the Weave/Aether/Web/Force/GodOfMagic allows for different formulas to activate a specific spell.
And for not-spells there is no tap into the Weave/Aether/Web/Force/GodOfMagic nor activation.


This works well with D&D as most casters get magic from someone else or discovering the same spells. There's no Iceball or Smell Invisible. The only spells that exist are the ones in the Weave/Aether/Web/Force/GodOfMagic and only those able to alter that or find the gaps can discover new spells. Wizards are less inventing new spells and more discovering the activations and formula for spells Weave/Aether/Web/Force and naming it after themselves.
 

Reynard

Legend
Reynard, is this question motivated more by concerns about gameplay ("Borg has resistance against spell attacks, but not abilities, so what happens in this circumstance?") or more by the theoretical question of where the principled line between spells and non-spell magic sits? For example, suppose some PC or NPC can "cast" the equivalent of Fire Bolt as an innate ability. That's clearly a magical attack, but is it a spell attack? Is that the sort of question you're concerned with?

On the theoretical question I'm skeptical there is a coherent line for us to draw, so I'll likely just shrug my shoulders. On the former, though, I imagine there should be some way of fairly adjudicating the dilemmas raised.
Well I started this thread explicitly to talk about the in fiction definition because I don't want to have a circular argument about counterspell.
 

Reynard

Legend
A mildly thorny thing is the magical abilities that casters may have that aren't spells but produce effects that are very much like those of spells. The easiest example is nearly any use of channel divinity. If we concede that cleric spell casting is manipulating divine energy granted to them by their deity, how is channel divinity different (again, rom an in-fiction perspective).
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
A mildly thorny thing is the magical abilities that casters may have that aren't spells but produce effects that are very much like those of spells. The easiest example is nearly any use of channel divinity. If we concede that cleric spell casting is manipulating divine energy granted to them by their deity, how is channel divinity different (again, rom an in-fiction perspective).
Channel Divinty lacks a formula.

It's a near raw emission of the divine sources power.
CD: Turn Undead is just spewing anti-undead energy
CD: Preserve Life is shooting out raw healing magic.

It's sorta like with cartoon and comic wizards shoot volleys of magic energy balls. There's no spell. Just pew pew of raw magic.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top