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

Celtavian

Dragon Lord
The reason? I'll tell you why I believe they did it. It was boring playing a straight caster in older editions of the game. You had very little you could do until you were able to cast one of your six daily spells or picked up a potent magic item capable of being used multiple times per day.

Ubiquitous magic has become the standard to give players more to do with their tools. Potter was hardly the first world to have ubiquitous magic. In Lord of the Rings magic was being used all the time and was considered to some races like elves in the same way we look at technology at one point in the history of Middle Earth. In the time of Sauron prior to becoming a shade, the creation of magic weapons was as common handguns in America today. You'll note that there were a total of 20 rings of power created and the mention of many other minor magical rings. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel wielding the three rings could do magic at will as could Sauron and Saruman. Even Aragorn knew of magical healing remedies he could use at will combined with elven chants.

The nature of magic depends on the world. Original D&D was a magic light world as far as spellcasting went at low levels. I think now it is more a magic as technology world, which is more common for users of magic. The way created worlds usually limit magic is to limit the number of people with the ability to use it. Unless you're a jerk DM, you generally don't do that to your players. But you could if you wanted to limit magic.

Then again PCs are considered extraordinary people. Though magic is common with PCs, it isn't common with NPCs. The vast majority of the world can't cast spells. PCs are a lower percentage of the population than 1%. Probably 1 out of every 10,000 or even 100,000 people even have the potential to be a PC.

I don't see it as a big deal. Magic was probably too rare in AD&D. It may be too ubiquitous now, at least the flashy magic. I think it gives casters more to do and makes them more interesting to play. I think that is the main reason for the changes.
 

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Hussar

Legend
Then it's a good thing that DMs who feel that way can simply ban whatever magical options they wish to. It's not like a DM has to allow magical subclasses to be chosen by those who take non-magical classes (i.e. a DM doesn't have to allow the fighter's EK option if she doesn't want to).

Rarity of magic in the world is something that is inherently in the hands of the DM running the game, regardless of whether that's disallowing certain class/subclass options, or refraining from handing out so many magic items.

Fair enough. And, that's precisely what I'm doing in my Thule game.

OTOH, doing so has greatly reduced the number of classes available. As was mentioned about, there's only 7 classes, and that's subclasses to be technical, out of 20 that don't have spells. I've allowed paladins and rangers in as well, since they don't have cantrips, but, we're still only talking about 10 classes total for the game. That's a pretty short list of options, many of which are very much variations on the same song. There really isn't that much of a difference between a Champion and a Battlemaster or a Thief and an Assassin. They're pretty darn close.

It would be nice if we could play D&D with the magic dialled back a bit, not all the way down to zero, but, again, back to about a 3 or a 4 without having to eject 3/4 of the PHB.
 

Whirlingdervish

First Post
It would be nice if we could play D&D with the magic dialled back a bit, not all the way down to zero, but, again, back to about a 3 or a 4 without having to eject 3/4 of the PHB.

perhaps you would best be served by not allowing short rests to regain spells and limiting cantrips to to say casting stat bonus times 2 per day or no longer allowing cantrips at all.
 

The point is that many (if not most) people do not play a wizard so that they can swing a staff (even competently). If you want to make your enemy's face intimately familiar with whatever you're swinging, they have other classes that are designed to do that. It's not unreasonable to assume that if you choose to play a Magic-User, you will spend a fair portion of your play time using magic.
That raises the question of how much specialization should actually matter. Fighter types are supposed to be the best at fighting, but if they're the only ones who ever make an attack, then their superiority doesn't matter at all - it's only specialists fighting other specialists, and that's the new baseline competency for fighting. Spellcasters don't need to worry about fighting at all, because they can spend 100% of the time doing the thing that they're specialized in.

It was something that was immediately apparent in 4E, and only somewhat obscured in 5E, that each character needs exactly one stat in order to power (almost) everything important that they care about. Personally, I think it makes for pretty boring characters (speaking solely on a mechanical level here) if the Strength score of the Wizard or the Rogue doesn't matter at all, because they never need to make a Strength-based check.

And it's also kind of depressing, on a philosophical level, if magic-using people forget that they're still people like the rest of us Muggles, and they never have to rely on mundane methods for anything. But again, that's just a matter of taste.
 

ccs

41st lv DM
Fair enough. And, that's precisely what I'm doing in my Thule game.

OTOH, doing so has greatly reduced the number of classes available. As was mentioned about, there's only 7 classes, and that's subclasses to be technical, out of 20 that don't have spells. I've allowed paladins and rangers in as well, since they don't have cantrips, but, we're still only talking about 10 classes total for the game. That's a pretty short list of options, many of which are very much variations on the same song. There really isn't that much of a difference between a Champion and a Battlemaster or a Thief and an Assassin. They're pretty darn close.

It would be nice if we could play D&D with the magic dialled back a bit, not all the way down to zero, but, again, back to about a 3 or a 4 without having to eject 3/4 of the PHB.

So dial it back.
Disallow a few classes/sub-classes.
Change when/how spells recharge.
Shift the levels where various classes get spells.
Eliminate at-will cantrips. Especially damage causing ones.
 

Horwath

Legend
Because having your wizard cast a spell is more fun than shooting a crossbow, for most people.

This!

Also the main reason that the most wizards in 3.x were elves as shooting longbows is 14 categories less demeaning than shooting a crossbows.
 

pemerton

Legend
Traditionally, magic is impressive at least partially because it's rare. When it's not rare, it stops being impressive on that merit, and so you're left to judge it by its utility function.
It's hard to be cool and magical, when magic isn't cool anymore because it's so commonplace. At-will magic would have been incredibly impressive in AD&D, in the context of powerful spellcasters who could only prepare a handful of spells each day. At-will magic isn't impressive at all in the context of 4E or 5E

<snip>

A similar issue occurred with healing. One of the goals of 4E was to kill the heal-bot archetype, which was widely considered to be unpopular but mandatory. A healer in 4E was supposed to be more versatile, because basic healing was a swift action and everyone had healing surges to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, due to the change in context, the actual healing spells stopped being impressive at all - the basic implementation was only allowed the potency of a swift action, and the actual spend-an-action Cure spells couldn't fix anything that wouldn't heal naturally overnight anyway.)

It's all because players thought they knew what they wanted, but failed to account for the required changes to context that would bring them about.
I think your claim that most players don't want what they have is doubtful. I've also never found magic to be impressive because of its rarity - in my experience it was not actually all that rare in AD&D play. Whether magic is cast every round, or every encounter, or most encounters, isn't a very significant difference in rarity when the typical unit of play and of recollection is the session. To the extent that magic has been impressive in D&D, its because of the effects that it enables. And I don't feel that those have changed all that radically over the editions, although some of the details of implementation have.

(I'm also doubtful about your analysis of 4e healing - in my experience minor action heals are very effective, unlocking healing surges without destroying action economy; and the daily surge-restorers can also be very helpful.)

Because when you do get to use that power, you own the scene. The wizard, casting its one spell for the day, is the most powerful person in the room, and commands the respect and admiration of everyone there.
I've played a wizard in 5e and there were definitely scenes that I owned

<snip>

It's fair to say that there's more scene sharing in 5e than AD&D, but that isn't to say that you can't still have your moments in the spotlight.
What Fanaelialae says seems right to me. A deliberate effect of the asymmetric balance in 5e is that spell-casters have more, and more reliable, access to "spike" effects (damage, disintegrating walls, charming monsters, etc) than to other PCs.

Even in 4e, which is far more symmetrical than 5e, there are elements of this, because spell-casters have access to a better range of conditions, and of AoE condition infliction, than do fighters and other non-casters.

These are the stand-out effects that make magic seem impressive, and hence desirable to players.

*************************************

You could also make food and money seem more special, if you greatly restricted access to that in the game
In my current BW campaign money is precious because the PCs are all broke and getting broker. In that respect, money can be made like hit points - a precious resource that is not as easily restored as it is lost. But D&D magic tends not to have this flavour except at low levels in the classic editions.

I think you and I might agree that only getting one little pouch of coins after doing a dozen quests might make monetary rewards more impressive, but the trade-off is likely not worth it as the characters (and very possibly the players) will get sick of risk with little chance of any reward.
It's a bit of a tangent, but I think there are ways to motivate the players to engage the game via their PC other than via the promise of wealth. If wealth is nevertheless necessary for doing the stuff the PCs (and their players) want to do, then even small gains of money can be quite exciting to the players (and their PCs).

But I don't think this provides a very good model for D&D magic, which is not an especially precious resource most of the time. (A contrast here might be RQ, where spells are in one sense more ubiquitous, but also harder to acquire - requiring ingame steps to be taken to acquire them, and in some cases a permanent stat sacrifice.)
 

pemerton

Legend
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.

<snip>

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.
if it's magic you don't have to explain it. Much easier for WotC to give out magic to fighters and rogues than give them supernatural abilities to do cool stuff, since people bitch a lot if you can do stuff 4E style.
Because you can make any effect you want without needing to figure out why.
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
I think there is a lot of truth to these posts, especially the last one. Consider, for instance:

Monk <snippage> This class has always had access to mystic powers (death attacks, impossible immunities, magic punches)
What is mystical about a death attack? There are plenty of warriors in the real world, now and in the past, who can deliver killing attacks without using mystic powers!

But I think the point can be developed further.

There are a lot of ways to contribute to success in a FRPG besides degrading enemies in combat (whether that's via hit point attrition or something else). But for various reasons - some historical, to do with the design paths taken; some "cultural", and I think related to the preference for "it's magic" - they are hard to implement in D&D. For instance, Gandalf or Merlin exercise a lot of power by being counsellors and advisors. But D&D has relatively weak mechanics for counselling or persuading. And class "lore" abilities tend to be relatively confined and boutique (eg the bard's classic Legend Lore) rather than allowing loremaster PCs to have a big impact on the game in virtue of their lore: mostly they are just conduits for the GM's information. In LotR, for instance, Gandalf's knowledge of the ring, of the path through Moria, of the Balrog, etc, all have a dramatic impact on the story; but in D&D this would all be the relatively passive receipt of information from the GM.

At the moment I am GMing a Burning Wheel game as well as 4e D&D. One of the most prominent PCs in the former game is a mage. He has cast fewer spells in the course of the game then we have played sessions (In the past four sessions the only spells he has cast are a Light spell, when exploring some caverns, and an Armour-type spell, when fighting in a trial by combat). But he is nevertheless very much at the forefront of play, using social skills, knowledge skills, his understanding of Astrology, his Second Sight (which is not a spell but more like a D&D feat), etc.

In D&D, you're playing your mage all the time. The scene doesn't cut to another character for all those rounds and hours and days when your mage isn't casting spells. So in order to feel like you're playing a mage, you've got to be casting spells all the time.
While I think there is truth to this, I think there are other ways of getting the feel of playing a powerful wizard than just using spells. Drawing upon your lore mastery in other ways is one of them.

One of the flashiest fictional mages around is Doctor Strange. But even he doesn't cast spells for everything; he draws upon his lore to help himself and his allies. D&D doesn't really have very much of this.

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.

<snip>

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.
I think this is a good point. I also feel that the urge to turn everything mystical or supernatural into a spell helps cause some of the "Potterverse" flavour that [MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION] points to. Gandalf, for instance, is mystically potent and has a big impact on events (which is what players in FRPGs tend to want to achieve) but casts relatively few spells.

as D&D has progressed, particularly from 3e onward, magic has become so ubiquitous in play that it might as well just be swinging a sword. Every scenario gets resolved by the application of magic. We've gone from a time when you might see an encounter with no magic used at all to a time when it would be rare to see a single round where magic isn't used.

<snip>

Surely there might be something of a middle road here. Instead of having enough magic in the game to see several magical effects being used every single round of every single encounter, isn't there a design space for, say, encounter level magic?
I think you need to look at other ways, then, for players to impact the fiction.

If the player of a wizard PC, for instance, succeeds on a Demon Lore check, what bonus are you going to grant to the combat with the demon? (And not just knowledge of its MM stats, but an actual bonus, mechanically comparable perhaps to a 4e-style tactical warlord.)

If the only reliable, impactful mechanics are straightforward combat mechanics, then players of wizards are pretty naturally going to want attack spells, rather than darts, or those new-fangled crossbows.
 

I think your claim that most players don't want what they have is doubtful. I've also never found magic to be impressive because of its rarity - in my experience it was not actually all that rare in AD&D play.
If anything can be said to be universally true of AD&D, it's probably that actual play experience varied wildly from table to table. In the campaigns I played, the PC wizard would prepare about half a dozen spells per day, and maybe two or three of those might actually be cast at some point, but every single time it made everyone take notice (aside from Mage Armor, which was pretty much always boring).
 
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