How Does Magic Work in Dungeons and Dragons? (D&D Magic in a Nutshell)
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been exploring some of the basics of D&D for the purpose of a couple of campaigns my old man and I are running this winter. So far we have explored Combat, Core Statistics/Abilities and Ability Modifiers, and the basics of Proficiencies. Today, we are going to look at one of the trickier aspects of Dungeons and Dragons. Yes. Today we are going to talk about MAGIC.
Magic is a core part of Dungeons and Dragons. Wizards have always been one of the main classes of the game, ever since Gary Gygax first thought it up, and since then almost every class has some form of magic or other. There are 12 base classes in the game, of which 9 can use magic either innately or later on depending on their upgrade options. The three classes that can’t (in the base rules) are Barbarian, Monk and Rogue for those who are interested.
The issue is – magic is actually fairly complex in the world of D&D, whilst also remaining relatively simple. It is both perfect and perplexing at the same time – and so today we are going to try and unravel some of the mystery surrounding spells and casting in the greatest game ever made.
As a note, beside each section, I have added the main page reference in the Player Handbook (shortened to PHB) so you can always read more information yourself if you so wish. There are also some brilliant resources online, like the Roll20.net explanation of Magic that goes through everything you need in one page (more or less). You can read that there here.
Magic in D&D – Spell Levels (PHB pg. 201)
Okay, so let’s jump right in. In Dungeons and Dragons characters have levels. This much you probably know – you can have a Level 1 Bard or a Level 5 Warlock or a Level 10 Wizard – that’s not a problem. Your Level is a representation of your prowess and skill as a character. It is a representation of you getting better with time…like a fine cheese.
Spell Levels and character Levels are two completely different things. A character’s Spell Level denotes the skill the character has with magic, as well as how they access their Spells.
If, for instance, you are Level 1 Wizard in D&D, you usually have access to Level 1 Spells (there are exceptions, and possibilities for exceptions – like with magic items – but let’s keep it simple for now). If you are a Level 2 Wizard in D&D then you still only have access to Level 1 Spells, but you have the ability to cast more of them per day. If you are a Level 3 Wizard, then you unlock Level 2 spells.
Yes. Yes, it is confusing, but one way of looking at it is you should always have access to spells that are half your character Level rounded up…although again, there are exceptions.
Preparing Spells and Spell Slots (PHB pg. 201)
Depending on the class you are playing as, you can prepare magic. Now, most of the pure magical classes have a set number of spells they can prepare. You will have your full list of spells you can have at Level 1. How many you can prepare depends on what you are – so a Wizard can prepare their Intelligence Modifier plus their Wizard Level worth of spells. So, if the Wizard has an Intelligence of 16 then they will have a modifier of +3. At Level 1 that Wizard can thus prepare 4 spells. (PHB pg. 114)
At higher levels, the spells the Wizard can prepare can come from any list they have available – so a Level 3 Wizard can prepare 6 spells from either the Level 1 list or the Level 2 list.
That is just the number of spells the Wizard has prepared however. Casting is different – a Wizard can cast spells equal to the spell slots they have available. This means that a Wizard can prepare Magic Missile, which is a Level 1 Spell, and they can also prepare Burning Hands (another Level 1 Spell). At Level 1 a Wizard has 2x 1st Level Spell Slots, meaning said Wizard can cast Magic Missile twice, Burning Hands twice, or each once.
At higher levels, when Level 2 and Level 3 spell slots start getting unlocked, lower level spells can be cast using higher level spell slots if no lower ones are available. Some spells can amplify this way, like with Magic Missile, making them have a larger effect.
Cantrips (PHB pg 201)
Cantrips are the exception to this rule. Cantrips are spells you always know and can fire off as and when you want. They tend to be quite weak or more useful from a practical perspective than actually dealing loads of damage. There are a few exceptions again, and a few are really worth hunting out.
How Do You Cast Spells in D&D? (PHB pg 205)
Casting spells is again a fairly complex thing in D&D and can be broken down into the meta and the literal. First, let’s talk about the practicality – for some spells all you need to do is say you are casting them. Spells like Light can just be cast assuming they are not being cast onto a living thing. More aggressive spells are cast using a D20. To this, the ability modifier is added, along with the proficiency bonus, to give a total. The ability modifier varies per class – so for a Wizard it is the Intelligence ability modifier. For a Bard it is Charisma. For a Druid it is Wisdom, etc.
That determines if your spell hits. The damage depends on the spell, and we will come onto this later.
So, that is one aspect to casting a spell. The other is a bit more nuanced – and that is the Verbal, Material, and Somatic components. Namely – do you say something, spend something, or wave around to cast the spell?
Now, a lot of Dungeon Masters have their own opinions on this. Personally, I am not a fan of the Material components and so tend to be a bit lax on those rules. If the spell is a ritual then sure – you need what it says. If it is an “on the fly” spell then you don’t necessarily need it.
So, why are these important? Well, firstly, they add flavour to the game. Secondly, they are important, from a DM perspective, because they give ways of limiting a player with super abilities. If a character is muted then they can’t cast verbal spells. If they are tied up then they can’t use spells with somatic components. You get the idea. It gets the player to think outside of the box.
Spell Casting Nuances
Just in case there aren’t enough nuances with Spell Casting in D&D 5E already, there are a few additional points to take into account. The first of these is area of affect. The second is spell casting time, and the third is dealing damage.
Area of Effect (PHB pg 204)
So, when you cast a spell in D&D, the spell being cast with have an area of affect. A lot of the time, like with a spell like Eldritch Blast, you only target one creature. That is nice and simple – you roll your damage against one creature in a straight line.
On occasion, however, there are special keywords in the spell that determine more than just a straight line when casting a spell. These determine an area of affect, and that area of affect depends on the keyword. In alphabetical, those options are cone, cube, cylinder, and sphere.
Okay, so that sounds like there are a lot of options, and there are, but they are fairly self explanatory. Imagine a 3D version that shape and that shape is what protrudes from the Spell Caster for an area of affect. A cone, for instance, is exactly what it sounds like – it is a cone shape stretching from the Spell Caster’s hands and branching outwards. Note that it doesn’t have to be the hands, but just a general point (could be a wand or your nose or whatever) that acts as a focus for the spell. This is called the point of origin. Points of origin are probably an article in their own right, but for now they are just where the shape starts.
A cylinder is a bit unusual. It follows the same concept as the cone…but it creates a cylinder. Cylinders have a circle at either end, and the point of origin must be within that circle. It makes sense so far.
Where it gets tricky is the point of origin circle must be on the floor of at the height of the spell. This means the point of origin is within the cylinder.
A cube can be around something, or it can be next to something based on where the Spell Caster decides the point of origin to be. So, a cube can have a point of origin inside the spell effect, or outside. It is up to the Spell Caster.
The one that is really a bit different is the sphere. For the sphere the spell starts off at the point and branches out in all directions. The point of origin of the spell is within the sphere.
Casting Time (PHB pg 202)
Some spells are instantaneous and can be cast in the middle of battle. Some have a casting time and that can range from minutes to hours, making those spells fairly useless for casting in the middle of a fight.
If you have a spell with a casting time and you get interrupted then that will affect the spell – namely it won’t necessarily cast. Thus, casting a spell with a 5 minute casting time would be around 50 rounds of combat. A lot can happen in 50 rounds.
Dealing Damage (PHB Chapter 11)
Finally, we come to the last nuance we are going to cover (there are a few other nuances, but those are in the Player’s Handbook) in this article – and that is damage.
Damage is determined and specified fairly clearly on each spell – whether you are using the Player Handbook or spell cards (personally, I really like the latter), the damage is there. Unlike with melee and missile attacks (ie. bow and arrow), there aren’t any attack modifiers added to the damage on a spell. Once again – you do not add you ability score to the damage roll of a spell.
Magic in a Nutshell
Magic is a really interesting part of Dungeons and Dragons; however, it is also fairly complex. Once you get your head around how it works however, it is all fairly intuitive.
This is one of the things that makes magical characters fun to play in D&D – magic is so different to everything else, and that can make a character feel incredibly unique.
So, there we have it – one article (I was going to say “quick”, but actually, it’s pretty long) covering the basics of the rules around magic in D&D. This was the last requested D&D article I was asked to write so, there will undoubtedly be more; however, they aren’t necessarily planned at the moment.
Let me know your thoughts, and if you have any requests, in the comments below.
Enjoyable series of articles; they bring back lots of fun memories.
Back in the late-70’s, after playing D&D for a few years, I ran across a very enjoyable fantasy author, who had spells that were so complex, etc. etc. that once you cast them they were wiped from your mind and you had to re-learn them from scratch again. I thought, “Huh, the author must play D&D.” Several years went past and I mentioned to mention it to some “old guy” (he was probably in his late-30’s, lol) and he asked, “Who was the author?” “Jack Vance,” said I. “Other way around, dear,” said he. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said me.
The “old guy” laughed and walked away. I went home a couple of days later and took a look at the copyright dates of my books. Some things have gotten better, I think, and some worse over the years, but I sure wish they’d had the internet back then. Would have saved me no end of feeling foolish.
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Thanks for sharing your story! I wonder if Jack Vance was some of the inspiration behind the magic system in D&D? Maybe he was a player as well? Who knows 🙂
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I later found out that apparently he was an inspiration for the original game. I say apparently because I don’t know for sure but that is what I have read and heard since.
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It wouldn’t surprise me. Gygax used all sorts of sources.
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Yes, indeed. It seemed like Mr. Gygax and I had similar tastes in books at the time.
I certainly ripped off a lot of tropes and plots from books I was reading when I was DMing a lot as a teenager and my friends thought I was “just so creative!” 🙂