Rethinking the D&D Magic System

 Over time and especially within the last years, it has become trendy to criticize Dungeons & Dragons systems that have been part of the game since it was first published in 1974. Aside from people attacking the "confusing" (it's not) different usages of the term "level" for classes, spells, and dungeons and especially the disconnect between class level and spell level, the overall magic system that Gary Gygax introduced also gets its fair share of scoff and ridicule.

In this article I am going to try my best to a) defend it and b) explain how to rethink it so that it properly makes sense and shows why it is a great system for Dungeons & Dragons.

As the above "Wizard and Dragon" cover art by Jeff Easley (AD&D 2e DMG) perfectly illustrates (pun kind of intended), old-school D&D magic-users could become truly powerful. They bend the reality of the universe to their will. But Gygax knew that magic and its wielders needed limitations. As some, though not all, modern D&D players know, the magic system of Dungeons & Dragons is heavily inspired by (directly taken from) The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. It is very much a "hard' magic system, as Brandon Sanderson would classify it. Magic and its users have very strict rules of use and thus limits to their least initially. Magic-users are also not as commonplace in these worlds. Wizards were frail and week at the beginning of their careers and thus most never survived to the high power levels (just ask my 13-year-old son with his 1 HP magic-user in Old-School Essentials). But that is by design...brilliant design. You know that when you encounter a magic-user in these worlds they could be immensely powerful and your defenses against them are limited at times.

Many modern D&D players find the old-school system (and even the 5e system to a degree) of magic to be too rigid and limiting. It certainly is more limiting than other magic systems that are out there. I love the magic systems from Symbaroum and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The exchange of dark corruption for the ability to wield magic is a great system and allows almost any power level of character to cast most spells (or at least attempt to do so). That's not the case in old-school Dungeons & Dragons. You have a very limited amount of spells at your disposal and you better know when and how to use them. Magic in D&D since 3rd Edition has become much less restrictive and more free-form. Cantrips massively altered how magic-users worked and, I would argue, made the magic system less meaningful.

In D&D 5e, casters don't have to worry too much about planning and conserving their power, since even a level 1 wizard can use combat-, resource-, and buffing spells as cantrips. Modern D&D has made the magic system less mysterious and "magical" on the one hand and also reduced the danger & power of casters on the other hand. Players of modern d20 games blow through spells and don't worry too much about it. It's, at best, formulaic. Many spells have also become less powerful in an attempt to balance the game. Sleep is the best example of this. In modern D&D you determine the amount of HP of creatures it is effective against, whereas in old-school D&D you determine the amount of HD of creatures. Using Sleep in a game like Old-School Essentials is much more powerful than in D&D 5e, but your usage needs to be calculated.

So how should one view the D&D magic system to understand its brilliance? For one, go back to an old-school system approach of limiting the initial usage of magic. No more cantrips! You immediately think of your spell selection as a powerful resource that must cultivated, expanded, and used conservatively. If you survive and grow in levels, you can gain more powerful spells (ideally by finding them) until you are amongst the very rare elite mages of your world. Magic-user survivability must also be more limited. Therefore, I recommend going with 1d4 HD again.

"Vancian" magic also requires strategic thinking and application. A magic-user must think ahead and plan. Much like a fighter prepares their gear and weapons for what they might face in the dungeon or wilderness, the wizard must also prepare and hopefully have the right spells in their arsenal. I admit that this might sound far too restrictive and that low-level magic-users sound like weak and boring characters from a modern lens. But that viewpoint is too narrow and flawed.

To better show how you should view magic in D&D (especially in its old-school form), I have picked some excerpts from The Dying Earth by Jack Vance.

"Mazirian stroked his chin. Apparently he must capture the girl himself. Later, when black night lay across the forest, he would seek through his books for spells to guard him through unpredictable glades. They would be poignant corrosive spells, of such a nature that one would daunt the brain of an ordinary man and two render him mad. Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells."

"Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.
    Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short blue cape, tucked a blade into his belt, [...]. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application..."

Thinking of spells- and preparing yourself like Mazirian and Turjan did, almost in a Rambo like montage, is more interesting, challenging, and magically mysterious than the throw-away nature of the modern D&D magic system found in 5th Edition. If you recalibrate your mind to see magic in this manner, you will stop seeing the original D&D magic system as being overly restrictive and embrace the awesome power surrounding it and the brilliance of its design.

I would also encourage every player of Dungeons & Dragons to read The Dying Earth. It will not only help you better understand the origins of the game and Gygax's inspirations in general, but also how to think of magic in particular.


  1. I cannot agree. Although Vancian magic itself is weird and alien and cool it's implementation in old DnD is bad. In Dying Earth wizards do have only a few spells available per preparation. But these spells are powerful, there is impenetrable shield, localised laser ray, spell substituting food, water and air at the same timr for a person and others. Vancian spells are very powerful but you can only have a few at a time. Wizards are powerful, even one spell is a deal breaker.

    At the same time Magic-User is too weak on lower levels and too powerful later on. You can have basically useless spells even on level 5 if you're unlucky. Game is not fun this way and later it can break due to how immense is Magic-Users power. It is bad design.

    I like the restrictions and limitations. Not many spells, the need to choose when to cast them, to be resourceful. It is cool. But implementation in original is not genius - it is half-baked. That's why every other edition tries to fix it.

    1. I will disagree here (obviously since I wrote the article). The power of magic-users comes later on. In The Dying Earth we mainly see advanced wizards that would be much higher lever in D&D. But D&D is still a game, so Gygax wanted to scale the growth which he did really well. Subsequent editions certainly never fixed it (especially since 3e). Old-school D&D magic system design is very good, especially for D&D and what Gygax (correctly) designed to achieve what he was going for. It's very good design.

    2. I have played those Wizards. I've watched others play them. Their mortality is legendary. And that tends not to be fun if you've played it for a while and then you still swatted and killed because your D4 is unrelentingly bad.

      The pace of life was generally different in the late 1970s and 1980s. The pressures were not quite what they are now on people. You didn't take your one kid to karate, another to hockey, and still have to feed everyone or come home and have to work on your day job.

      I have found it is much harder to find reliable, timely, decent players online. It can be done, but it is really not simple and that may be the only table you get to play at.

      With many of the players much older (I've been rolling D20s for 45 years now), time is precious. I do realize that recreating a character is fast in old D&D, but it still takes you out of the current session effectively.

      Time is valuable. Nowadays, the reality is a two hour session 1/month or 1/2 weeks is something a lot of people can't exceed. So there is a sense of value to the time. And being easily killable even by the first thing that comes along (which you can't really avoid)... it just isn't helpful. And if your party is in need of another effective character, Affect Normal Fires is NOT going to do it. They'll be asking your corpse to come back in as a useful character.

      The game also feels off when the Wizard gets very powerful because he can basically be artillery and the rest of the party can sit around and be a wall around him (or her). That turns out, over the longer term (I say that from a 19 meatspace D&D campaign and others) the other characters get disengaged in the fights because the mage takes out 75% of the foes.

    3. I do want to see:
      - limited magic forcing careful thought on when to expend your magical energies
      - magic which has a cost or a depletion aspect
      - wizards that are powerful, but not dominant in the late game
      - magic spells that are not so random and uneven in their utility and that don't have any common theme

      My answer:
      - spell points which powers the frameworks (spells) and is accumulated slowly
      - a unifying source/type of magic that a given magician can use - fire/water/earth/air, necromancy, nature, etc
      - spending your strongest spells will exhaust you and two in a row could kill you
      - weaker spells you can deploy more frequently
      - the fatigue affects are highest at your highest spell level and least at your least
      - the fatigue is not just magical - you are tired, your endurance is lousy for swimming & marching or walking & climbing, and you can't shake off cold or heat as easily, etc. (all sorts of physical side effects) so you are more vulnerable if you pull out the cannon
      - counterspelling has to be easier than old D&D (but is also exhausting as if it was casting)

      The logic of a character being able to affect normal fires but not able to cast burning hands is unfathomable. If I can produce water, why can't I dry it up? And so on. Thematic magic fixes that potpourri of randomly found spells... 'Hey look, I have Otiluke's Instant Drycleaning!... '

      If you look at how I limit things I accomplish:
      - limited use of magic
      - recharge slowly
      - decisions about when to use magic and how powerful
      - theme keeps you within a general type of magic (leaving things you can't do which also can allow a second wizards some room to not overlap)
      - exhaustion tires everyone but magical exhaustion integrates with that and with that, your fatigue state becomes something to be aware of in deciding when to press a fight or open another room, etc.
      - creative ways to use your magic will be very helpful (Fire mage wants to help PCs to heat up without burning them when the boat was tipped in the cold lake...) - with the specific spell, you couldn't do that and many good uses coming from creativity aren't there to put in play

      YMMV but I like my approach better.


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