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D&D 5E Why Has D&D, and 5e in Particular, Gone Down the Road of Ubiquitous Magic?


Ok, I'm trying not to make this a rant, but, as the title says, why have we continuously seen this very upward spiral in the amount of magic that is used at the table? While 5e reduces the need for magic items, it has ramped up significantly the amount of magic that is used on a round by round basis. I'm going to provide a bit of historical context to my argument then I'm going to try to show how 5e has continued this trend. My basic question though, is why? Why has DnD gone from a system where magic was used in maybe an encounter by encounter basis to a round by round and often several times per round by round basis?

[sblock=Historical Background]
D&D has always had magic. That's true. But, in AD&D 1e, you were more or less limited to clerics and wizards (and subclasses thereof) for most of your spells. A 5th level party with a 5th level cleric and 5th level wizard didn't actually have that many spells per day to cast. The cleric spells were very limited in scope and rarely applied broadly. Wizard spells had a much broader application, but since wizards had so few spells (our 5th level wizard only has 6 spells/day TOTAL), you could easily go entire encounters without seeing a single spell. Many encounters might see healing afterwards, and maybe a single spell from the wizard, and that was about it.

Something to remember here is that the adventuring day in 1e and 2e was assumed to be considerably longer. You could have multiple encounters and not spend any significant resources (no major HP loss, that sort of thing). For example, if you look at the old Keep on the Borderlands module, each of those lairs were pretty obviously meant to be resolved in a single game day - 7 or 8 encounters wasn't unusual. So, if you have 7 or 8 encounters per day and you only have 6 spells, there's a pretty signicant limit on the number of spells that can be cast.

2e changed things slightly here in that they allowed for specialist casters, so, they had some more spells, but, again, by and large, the difference isn't that significant.

3e, OTOH, makes two very, very big changes. First, casters get a LOT more spells per day. Between straight up ability bonuses and class spell bonuses (domain spells, specialist caster bonuses), you also had easily craftable magic items like scrolls (available to any 1st level party) and wands. Casters could, with a minimal expense, craft enough scrolls and wands to hold most of their utility spells and save their slots for in-combat or in-encounter effects. The second big change was the idea of the 4 encounter day. While there is obvious variation from table to table, saying that 3e generally plays out with 2-6 encounters per day isn't much of a stretch. So, you have casters with significantly more spells per day, the ability to easily increase that number AND the fact that you typically only have half as many encounters.

This, of course, ignores later additions like at-will spells from things like Complete Arcane and the like.

4e simply continues this trend. Now all casters have at-will spells and encounter spells. It would be unusual for a caster to not cast a spell every single round of every single encounter.

5e takes this trend and then adds to this the fact that almost all classes have access to spells. There are very few classes that don't have at-will spells and, what, 5 classes total that have no spells at all. It's not unusual, IMO, to have groups where all or almost all the PC's have spells from one source or another.


Why is this? Why has the game become Potterverse? Not in the sense of Casters and Caddies. This most certainly isn't a balance issue. The non-casters in 5e can and do stand on a pretty level plane with the casters. But, Potterverse in the sense that everybody and their brother is dropping spells all the time. We've gone from a game where you might see one or two spells in a single encounter to a game where you will likely see one or two spells (or more) every single round of every single encounter, all day long. Is it just a shift in the genre as a whole? I don't think so, because you have things like A Song of Fire and Ice where the level of magic in the setting would be far closer to AD&D than 5e. So, what is it?

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Its adding things like at wills to the game. Its not like they are actually much of an improvement over AD&D with the hit point bloat that has occured with 5E. IN fact with AD&D throwing darts (3d3 damage/rnd) is more effective than casting cantrips against stuff with double to triple AD&Ds hit points. The designers also chucked magic spells on most of the subclasses.


First Post
Partly it's because new entirely supernatural classes were created since the beginning, like the Druid, the Sorcerer and the Warlock, which either cast spells or had significantly spell like mechanics.

Partly it was to increase survivability of characters. More spells for more people means that more characters tend to survive longer, a shift in design philosophy away from the earliest editions attitudes of 'bring backup characters in as NPCs, you're going to need them.'

The biggest part, I'd say, is the re-balancing of classes relative to each other. Adding resource based abilities that are pretty much the same or exactly the same really helps keep the classes on roughly the same level of capability when balanced around a resource draining game system. It ain't perfect, and there's stuff I want to change about it, but it's easier to balance than the 3.x 'just some guy' Fighter and 'I AM GOD NOW!' Wizard.


I think it at least partly has to do with the fact that the later versions of D&D have moved towards giving PCs more abilities on the whole than earlier versions. That is a good thing from my perspective, because I found non-casters less interesting in 2nd and 3rd edition due to their lack of options.

The reality is that you have a lot more room to design varied and interesting abilities when magic is in the mix. Just look at what happened with the 4e fighter ability Come And Get It or the 4e Warlord powers. Heck, I'm pretty sure I've seen criticisms on this board about the 5e fighter's second wind ability, because it recovers hit points rather than just granting temps. A lot of people don't like these abilities because they feel that they are too close to being magical, rather than the extraordinarily mundane.

It's unlikely anyone would have complained about those abilities had they been instead assigned to the Swordmage or the Bard, since those classes are inherently magical.

As for at-will spells, that's just for the contingent that wants their wizards to feel magical. Not everyone wants to play the crossbow toting mage, which is largely a D&Dism unto itself (or at least I've never come across it in fiction). If you're going to embrace magic in your design, you may as well double-down and make wizards feel magical.

I don't think it has much, if anything, to do with Harry Potter. If you want to give players a lot of varied abilities, it's a lot easier to do so using magic than without it.
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Oh this is where the title goes?
Because having your wizard cast a spell is more fun than shooting a crossbow, for most people.

Its adding things like at wills to the game. Its not like they are actually much of an improvement over AD&D with the hit point bloat that has occured with 5E. IN fact with AD&D throwing darts (3d3 damage/rnd) is more effective than casting cantrips against stuff with double to triple AD&Ds hit points. The designers also chucked magic spells on most of the subclasses.

Because the magic system is D&D's biggest brand differentiator. When playing GURPS: Dungeon Fantasy, the single biggest thing I missed was the D&D magic system including huge Fireball nukes. In basically every other way except magic, GURPS' combat system is superior. If you were playing a campaign where 95% of all characters were champion fighters, and loving it, you'd soon discover that you'd be loving it twice as much if you were playing martial arts fighters in GURPS instead.

Magic and monsters and level-based play are the things that D&D does well.

(That being said, I think 5E overdid it a bit. It wouldn't hurt to run a campaign where you have to roll explicitly for magic talent, say 5% for NPCs or 50% for PCs, as part of character creation. Could have separate rolls for arcane vs. clerical/druidic vs. warlock potential.)

It's in part because a lot of people--nearly all of them, IME, but of course that's anecdotal--have no interest in playing a spellcaster who can only cast two spells a day. If they're playing a wizard, they want to do wizardy things most of the time. That doesn't require magic become more powerful, but it does require it become more frequently usable.

As far as rolling for magical talent... Urgh. No thanks. I have no interest in a game that has a random chance of preventing people from playing what they want. A DM who wants a low-magic game should get player buy-in to avoid choosing spellcasting classes.


I think that there is the realization that in game play people want to do more than just hit point attrition and the least controversial way of doing that is "spells", because "magic".

Other methods exist in other games, but this is simply how 5e handles it


First Post
I was thinking about this the other day, and I'm not sure 5th Ed is quite as magical as it's made out to be, relative to its predecessors. Let's look at it class by class.

Barbarian: Not much magic here. Totem gets a couple rituals and some powers that might be considered mystical.

Bard: Originally a crazy multiclass with a bunch of Druid in it, always at least a half caster, now a full caster. Well, that's an upgrade.

Cleric: Full caster as always, and I'm not sure going from 7 spell levels to 9 makes much difference, given this class used to get about twice as many spell slots. Yikes. Arguably, the cleric actually has less magic than previous editions.

Druid: Same as above.

Fighter: Not a lot of magic. One subclass is a 1/3 caster. Given that Rangers and Paladins are the original fighter subclasses that were 1/3 casters, and that Eldritch Knight is trying to evoke the fighter/mages of yore, I don't think this quite qualifies as adding magic.

Monk: Okay, two of these subclasses can cast effects that look a lot like spells, but that's more for the mechanical convenience than an expansion of magic, IMO. This class has always had access to mystic powers (death attacks, impossible immunities, magic punches), and I think the goal of shadow and element monks is to expend that mysticism in new directions, not really add more of it.

Paladin: Goes from 1/3 caster to 1/2 caster, and perhaps more importantly, the magic shows up a lot earlier than it used to, being balanced across the class rather than back-loaded. But as usual, there's more magic to the paladin than just spells, with lay on hands, detection and other powers.

Ranger: Same as paladin, except with less non-spell magic.

Rogue: Same as fighter.

Sorcerer: Well, when this guy showed up, he had more casts per day than wizard and some more flexibility in what he cast while the wizard had access to more spells. These days, everybody's flexible and the sorcerer has just as many casts as a wizard. Arguably less magic.

Wizard: Again used to enjoy a lot more spell slots. Arcane recovery makes up for a pitiful few of them.

Warlock: This guy's pretty new, so let's take it easy on him.

So far, not seeing a bunch of new magic. The 1/2 and 1/3 casters of yore got more magic, but the full casters got less. Sorcerer and Warlock are new full casters, but Barbarian is here as a new martial class.

Let's look at a few other factors.

Multiclassing: These days, if you add a level of wizard, you get one wizard level worth of magic, no more and no less. But it didn't use to be that way. It used to be that you could be a mage/cleric (plus thief or fighter), and enjoy spellcasting prowess in both classes only one step behind the pure classes, at least until you hit the wall of XP around level 10 that few campaigns went beyond, anyway. So, less magic in the multiclassing now.

Cantrips: Here's a big one in favour of your "potterverse" gripe. They a powerful and they are spammable, but the half casters don't get them. More magic.

Concentration: On the other hand, a fighter/mage/cleric can't preload Prayer, Fly, Improved Invisibility, Haste, conjure a Wall of Force to seperate the BBEG from his horde, then start tearing up with his longsword. Less magic.

Levels: Honestly, I think this is the big one. Advancement in the old editions was slow, hitting a brick wall around 10. My sorcerer feels like he wakes up with new spells every morning. More levels, more magic.


Because having your wizard cast a spell is more fun than shooting a crossbow, for most people.
And for some, it isn't even exactly that it is "more fun" - just that there are two options available, and it seems like there is no reason not to go with the second option.

For clarity, these are the options I speak of:
1) Make characters that focus on magic use (i.e. wizards) use non-magical means more often than they use magical means.
2) Make characters that focus on magic use (i.e. wizards) use magical means more often than they use non-magical means.

Assuming, of course, that the two options result in mechanically similar game impact (which, oddly enough, isn't actually quite the case given that old versions of the game expected the caster characters not only to not use spells as their go-to method of action, but to use weapon attacks when your choice of weapon and chance of being successful are both signifcantly lower than any other character's - meaning the old style isn't just "magic doesn't happen so often" but "characters that primarily focus on magic spend a lot of time with terrible chances of successful contribution to a significant portion of the typical game experience." And with that being the case, it's really a "no brainer" that people would prefer the modern "my character actually gets to do something" style).

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