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


Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
I think the at-will cantrips make it seem more "Potterverse", more than anything else.

It's driven, I expect, by the McDonald's Effect.

People like to play casters (because, magic - it's a fantasy game after all), and as such they want their character to be magical, and that means being able to cast spells. As the default response to most things, from attacking monsters to locked doors to stubborn shopkeepers.

In previous editions, written in a different time with different assumptions and expectations of the real world to today, the concept of 'serving your time' as a fragile one/two shot caster with a Saturday night special crossbow as protection was acceptable, because paying your dues and then reaping rewards of your investment was worth it, and an accepted 'thing', culturally.

However, nowadays, people - especially the younger generations, but including us older folks who've got used to it, expect everything pretty much on demand - coffee just the esoteric way we like it, food fast and plentiful and ready to eat on the go in a much less formal way than before (hence the McDonald's Effect). As time has gone on we expect other things on tap too - wifi, your OS to boot in a moment, instant communications via email rather than waiting for the post, instant gratification via Likes rather than waiting to tell your mates that cracking joke you thought of the next time you see them, etc.

And so, when we play a game, having stopped by en route to grab a quick burger and fries and a cappufrappumoccachino with unicorn milk and chocolate dusting sustainably handmade by blind Gabonese virgins, and check our phone to say hi to our best friend who is shark hugging on a boat 100 miles off the coast of Vanuatu, why would we then sit down at a table and be happy to play a fantasy character who can cast one magic missile before quivering in fear for the rest of the session?

No, we want to cast spells with as little consideration as we send texts. Because the real world allows us to fulfil so many things from the get go, the fantasy world we choose to inhabit should provide the same freedom.

Before the inevitable hairshirtists declare their preference for the older way of doing things, if that's your preference, fine. But OP asked a more metaphysical why. Games reflect the culture they serve. As such, the McDonalds Effect.

I'm just off to make myself one of those cappufrappumoccachinos.

I appreciate the analysis and for the most part agree....but it's a terrible name for it. Believe it or not, McDonalds was MORE popular when AD&D 1e was at it's peak, than it is today, on a per-capita basis. McDonalds is failing right now (having peaked in the late 1990s), and it was crushing the competition in the 1980s.
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Random thought: Do cantrips mean that it would be difficult to make a 5E version of Dark Sun? Maybe it would need alternate classes.

Rod Staffwand

aka Ermlaspur Flormbator
I don't much care for editions awash in magic as a player or DM (3x, 4e and 5e). I'd hoped 5e would make it easier to run rarer magic games but when like 3/4 of the classes (or whatever) use magic, it takes too much effort to change. Much easier to just grab an OSR. We did low-magic 4e tolerably well by focusing on the martial source with the warlord for support. I find 5e works about the same, but they added way to much magic to paladins and rangers which basically negates their inclusion in a rare magic setting, leaving the choice of classes pretty slim.

Magic has always inspired players and content-creators in D&D. It's easy to wrap your head around the sub-system (cast spell once per day, spell does what's in its description). D&D spells are the epitome of player empowerment. They can trump many obstacles and enemies, give the player a choice of options, and are usually an asymmetrical resource that the PCs possess but enemies do not. In short, magic in D&D has always been the "cheat code" that allows you to "break" normal game resolution or practical constraints to great effect. The game itself is complicit in these feelings as it presents many scenarios in which magic is required (most healing/resurrection, removing curses, dispelling magic, teleportation, flight, etc.). There's even a passage at the beginning of the PHB about the "Wonders of Magic" which says you'll need magic to survive. Literally: "For adventurers, though, magic is key to their survival."

At the same time, the simple and structured format of spells make them one of the easiest things to create content for. Think of a spell effect and some parameters, assign it a spell level and you're done. There's a reason why 3x has a ton of splatbooks filled with thousands of spells. It's because someone thought: "Wouldn't it be cool if there was a spell that did this?" and went through the trivial process of writing it up.

So you have a powerful, fun and simple subsystem that has gone from helpful to preferred to essential as we progress through editions. Magic is awesome. MOAR magic is even MOAR awesome! This mirrors a change in media content where magic is far more ubiquitous (such as the aforementioned Harry Potter and games such as WoW). These have a much different tone then OSR's Inspirational Source Materials where magic is often exceptionally dangerous and mysterious--truly something that is not lightly meddled with.

I truly dislike casters having a ready supply of magic for most D&D settings. It works in an outlandish campaign like Eberron, Planescape or Spelljammer, but the levels of magic in 3x, 4e and 5e are too much for me in just about any other type of setting. Doing sword and sorcery is a non-starter in 5e without major house-ruling. That's just a shame.

I also find the desire of some caster players to always be spellcasting to be a little preposterous. Should fighters always fight everything? Should rogues always be hiding, backstabbing and stealing? Should barbarians always be getting ragey? That the rules explicitly condone this bias with at-will cantrips is one of the reasons I don't run 5e on a full-time basis. We'll dabble from time to time, but the game gets tiresome and has little of the flavor I (or my fellow players here) want. Sure we can house rule stuff, but we can do that with ANY edition so it's not much of a feature.

Rod Staffwand

aka Ermlaspur Flormbator
Given that in the previous edition every class used magic powers to do anything I think this version has less magic.

I suggest a comprehensive reading of the 4E PHB, page 54, the sidebar titled 'Power Sources'. That should clear up any confusion you have.


I appreciate the analysis and for the most part agree....but it's a terrible name for it. Believe it or not, McDonalds was MORE popular when AD&D 1e was at it's peak, than it is today, on a per-capita basis. McDonalds is failing right now (having peaked in the late 1990s), and it was crushing the competition in the 1980s.
Heh, this is certainly very true. And if I may play a touch abstract with it, I think the issues are related, if at least as distant cousins.
The ability to deliver product has evolved with the modern economy. McDonalds approach was perfect for the 70s and 80s, but today it has a lot of trouble competing with higher quality food which can now be provided as "fast food". The market of ideas and feedback between companies and players has also completely been rebuilt for RPGs. Yes, the noise to signal is huge, but the signal steadily creeps through and the games that don't adapt are the games that can't compete.

I'm A Banana

Hussar said:
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?

The DMG said:
The World Is Magical. Practitioners of magic are relatively few in number, but they leave evidence of their craft everywhere. The magic can be as innocuous and commonplace as a potion that heals wounds to something much more rare and impressive, such as a levitating tower or a stone golem guarding the gates of a city. Beyond the realms of civilization are caches of magic items guarded by magic traps, as well as magically constructed dungeons inhabited by monsters created by magic, cursed by magic, or endowed with magical abilities.

...In Dark Sun, to a find-and-replace for "magic" to "psionics." In a setting like Primeval Thule, you can maybe replace "magic" with "nature spirits and horrors from beyond the stars." These things are, at a high level, re-skins of "magic."

If I were to cogitate on the reason for this, I imagine, like most of D&D's assumptions, that it's based on the extensive market research they did in the run-up to 5e. I would not be surprised if their research showed that most players preferred a "higher magic" default, especially among D&D newbies. PHB wants to be as broadly appealing as possible, so "Magic EVERYWHERE!" is an easy sell.

I like that they've clearly thought about what it would look like to rip spellcasting out of classes that have it (as shown by the spell-less ranger variant), I just imagine they haven't had reason to publish those rules yet en mass, thanks to their current focus on FR. I WOULD be very interested in seeing a UA article talking about that in more detail, though! The very idea makes me smile - "wizards without spellcasting" sounds kind of like an exciting thing to make. :)


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?

Because it turns out that casting spells is fun.

Or a lot of people want to be Harry Potter. Either or really.


First of all, I'm a guy who plays martial characters almost exclusively. I just don't really see casters as protagonists in most cases -- Merlin supports Arthur. I know that's not the majority view for players of D&D; I'm throwing it out there as a frame of reference for what I'm about to say.

All the way back in 1E, shortly after UA was published, I started letting magic users cast cantrips at will. In 2E, they all had prestidigitation (or whatever it was called). Why? Because a wizard who can't magically light a candle without expended a measurable amount of his power is lame. I'm all fine with sub-genres where even the most basic of spells can get the attention of a great old one, hollow out the caster, or drive them insane. That's not D&D, though.

Even (especially?) in 1E, D&D wizards were kinda tools. They had to be insanely strategic to measure out their very finite power such that it didn't peter out. The setup was (probably) fine for a war game or other gamist play, where the balance was the major goal and mood wasn't a consideration. It sucks if you want to have someone who oozes power. The most feared wizard PC my group has ever seen was actually just good at standing in the back rank where no one saw that his "fire bolts" were actually just flasks of oil he carried beneath his robe. That's stupid.

I've played and enjoyed psions, a 3E sorcerer, and a 2E mage using the Spells and Powers fatigue variant (that was cool). Maybe if BECMI and AD&D wizards hadn't been so abominably devoid of actual magical flavor, I'd feel different about wizards as heroes.

I'm just happy that 5E has a lower expectation of magic items than any other edition.

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