As a start to our first magical week back in the Mage College in 2018, let’s address one major problem with magic: Magic sucks in Dungeons and Dragons. Not because it is a bad mechanic, per se, but the best you can do is hope you have a unique spell on your spell list, in D&D 5e. When you have a unique spell, everyone else will complain that its not on their spell list and vice versa. Congratulations, that’s magic at its pinnacle of achievement for you. Sure, Timmy, you may be a sorcerer and cast arcane magic but aside from that stick you are waving around, you are almost no different than that cleric over there furiously swinging around that holy symbol. However, because of the rules, if you trade your stick for the bumper sticker he’s holding, your spells won’t work. Gee, isn’t that grand? Wait! Before you get your pitch forks and torches, hold on a minute. What I am trying to tell you is that you are forgetting the most important component to spellcasting- you!
I am the type of player that loves to know how and why magics work in a setting. As convoluted as it was, Positive and Negative energy in 3.5 was kind of fun because it accounted for the existence and “physics” of two different types of energies. Life=positive, unlife=negative. Simple “science”. Though some GMs and players can be lazy with their magic. In my personal experience, the least satisfying response I ever heard was “Magic is complicated.” I was briefly in a campaign in which the DM used that reasoning. If that works for the group, fine, but at the same time, a player like me may think its a crappy reason. If I know why a spell works, I know how to unwork it, and it does you, potential Dungeon Master, more favors. If I want to try to break, or ward myself from a spell, you have a lead into an adventure! You have more material to work with. However, more material does require thought.
If you insist on magic being interesting in your campaign setting, you have a long journey ahead of you. In its base form in Dungeons and Dragons, lore and reasoning behind magic is scant in 5e. Once upon a time, they weren’t as such, but frankly, I don’t quite have the time to look into 1st and 2nd edition at length. What happens when two eldritch blasts hit each other? Well, by the rules, nothing because you can’t fire an eldritch blast at the same time as someone else. Did you expect some sort of Harry Potter priori incantatum? Besides, Eldritch Blast only targets creatures, that’s what the rules say. That’s part of the issue that’s essentially a non-issue. In order for Dungeons and Dragons to have a functioning magic system, you need to have rules that are simple for the sake of 5e and its elegance. Which to some degree, it can’t account for everything because according to AD&D, Illusion magic is horrifically powerful, and the short answer is, yes, that’s correct because the most powerful illusion magic are the spells where the wording tends to run dry. Did you know, you can effectively grant yourself cover with only silent image? Your Dungeon Master may have a small conniption, but it’s true. Heaven forbid we get to the immense untapped power of major image. However, illusory self, despite being a 7th-level spell, it lacks the same “oomph” that major image does despite being a 7th-level spell. Why? Because there are strict limitations on it. It’s you but an illusion. Sure, the range is fantastic, and you can be an illisory you all day, but it’s just an illusion of you. If the illusory you takes any damage, the spell ends. You can be your own emissary, 500 miles away, but a dart in the tush, and it’s over. Major image, at 3rd-level is still more powerful because it is left to the imagination and descretion of the players (DM included).
Ultimately, the magic in Dungeons and Dragons should depend purely on the players (largely on the GM). I’m not blaming any of you, please consider this as me empowering you. If everyone at the table agrees, especially the GM, that you have worked out the mechanics of a particular spell, say for instance, your group decides that because Burning Hands does 3d6 damage, it has the same kinetic energy as a 30 foot fall, 3d6 damage, that for whatever reason, if you wanted to fire a burning hands spell straight at the ground you would muster the lift for 30 feet of lift, or even half that for the brief time it takes to cast that, go ahead. Congratulations, you just got an alternative use for a spell. Granted, I’m no physicist. I withdrew from highschool physics, and never looked back. I’m a linguist. If my terrible concept of abstracted physics offends you, I’d like to remind you, you’re invested in a game where it’s possible to turn into a potted plant. Why doesn’t fireball have any knockback? Well, probably for balancing reasons, but if you guys as a table feel that it’s appropriate to move some guys away from the epicenter of the explosion, be my guest, but make it consistent, or at least make it rational. Of course, magic itself isn’t rational but when you apply reason to it, then it needs to become rational. It isn’t rational as to why magic missile targets only creatures. You can’t say it’s because of the “something, something life force”, because that doesn’t include undead or constructs. That doesn’t make sense, because they’re still valid targets. Then tell me, powerful spellcaster, can you really not target objects? Are you marking targets, are you honing in on an energy signature, what is it? If there’s a why, tell your players; if there’s a why not, tell your players. Open the discussion. It builds lore, and fleshes out your setting and that is, especially in an age where the love of narrative is popular, a good thing. Now go make some magic.
Later this week we’ll look at:
Making spellcasters more unique
A Fey origin sorcerer
A “shapeless” warlock
Fun components, wands, and other magical potpourri
‘Til then, happy gaming, and Happy New Year!
Art is owned by Wizards of the Coast