D&D Starter Set: Magic

Ok, the magic section. I admit, this is the one I was most excited about. Magic has always been such a critical part of D&D’s rules that it always reveals a lot about how the game is expected to play. And this time is no different.

Like the combat section, I walked away from this one quite pleased. It made me want to try playing a wizard, which is fairly high praise.

First and foremost, we should talk about the mechanic for casting a spell. This is definitely something which has gone through a lot of permutations, and while the new model steps back from the 4e model of powers back to something with discrete spells and casting, it’s definitely not the model from the 2e or 3e days. The new idea is that you can keep a certain number of spells prepared (which you do by studying the spellbook or praying), and a certain number of spells you can cast. That sounds familiar, but the important difference is that you don’t “Use up” a prepared spell when you cast it, and by extension, there isn’t a direct connection between the number you can prepare and the number you can cast.

This is a little hard to visualize, because it lacks the relative simplicity of “using up” spells. So, consider that at first level, I can prepare 5 spells, and I can cast 3 level 1 spells. That means I could prepare Magic Missile, Mage Armor, Sleep, Charm Person and Shield. It also means I could cast magic missile 3 times. Or sleep 3 times. Or two magic missiles and a detect magic. Any combination that I see fit.

This is a fairly novel solution to the age old question of how to keep the idea of spellbook/prayer and memorization (both of which are well loved) while giving the caster a little bit more flexibility in their spells, specifically so that the caster can have utility spells on hand without depriving himself of workhorse spells like attacks and heals.

[EDITED TO ADD (for all the Van Hœts): Yes, it will totally look familiar to fans of Arcana Evolved]

There have been a LOT of attempts at solving this problem, and there’s no guarantee this one will stick. I like it on paper, but am curious to see it in action. If it has a weakness, it’s that it feels a little bit abstract in a way that “using up” spells did not. But it’s not as abstract as 4e, so perhaps it will find purchase.

And I hope it does, because there are a lot of clever twists in this, especially regarding how spells are cast.

First, a number of spells are labeled as “Rituals”, which basically means that if you take 10 minutes to cast the spell, it won’t count towards your spells cast today. These are largely utility spells (detect magic, identify and so on) and there is definitely serious metagame thinking about the application of this label. There are spells with long casting times which aren’t rituals, because the logic is more that is the spell is really something that helps move the adventure along (rather than one which provides an immediate advantage) then it shouldn’t burn a resource. As someone who has had to hoard spell slots to keep some detect magics available, I applaud this thinking (doubly so, since wizards only need to have the ritual in their spellbook, something that suggests lots of interesting stuff).

Second, and even more interestingly, they have fiddled with the idea of spell level in really interesting ways. First, spells no longer scale with the level of the caster (except in terms of how hard the saving throw is). Fireball, for example, is a 3rd level spell, which does 8d6 fire damage[1].

However, and this is where the spell prep rules get interesting, you can opt to cast fireball as a higher level spell (using a higher level spell slot), in which case it does more damage (+1d6 per additional spell level). This has several implications. First, you no longer prep spells by level, just a certain number of spells. The caster is obliged to make sure that all slots are covered, but that’s a trivial burden. Second, this allows a little more leeway in writing interesting spells because they can toss the spells that are effectively improved versions of earlier spells (like the whole “cure…” chain). Third, this supports some weird and interesting concepts. You could literally play a mage who never casts anything but magic missile if you really wanted[2].

Between these two things, you capture a lot of what was good but too fiddly in the metamagic feats of 3e, and open it up to everyone. I REALLY like that thinking.

There are also some really interesting things about the spells themselves. First, I think they hit upon a fairly elegant solution to concentration and spell disruption. In short, you can’t disrupt someone casting a spell, but if the spell requires concentration to maintain (many good ones do) then damage may cause it to be disrupted. This is a nice but ultimately secondary benefit to a more subtle trick to concentration – you can’t maintain two different concentration spells at the same time, and since most buffs are concentration spells, the “Stacking buffs” problem[3] from previous editions is greatly curtailed. They also have explicit maximum durations for most concentration spells, so that undercuts a different category of abuses. That said, they have also created a fairly obvious hook for items and abilities to sustain secondary concentrations, which could be pretty scary. Something to keep an eye on.

Second, spells aren’t typed – there are no cleric or wizard spells. There are only spells. And they all are categorized by the traditional wizardly schools of magic. That is going to simplify some bookkeeping in the future.

While spells are no longer 4e style, the cantrips totally are. You prep them all, and cast them for free. This is actually a great thing because it provides two essential things. First, it gives the wizards Prestidigitation, which is one of the great things for making things feel Magical. In that spirit, they gave the clerics an equivalent of Prestidigitation (Thuamaturgy) and it’s about time. Now the cleric can speak in thunderous tones and generally do cool voice of god tricks.

Second, they give a default, reusable spell which is roughly comparable to a weapon. Ray of Frost, or example, does d8 damage, and can be used as often as you like.[4]

Speaking of which, another nice thing they did was basically get rid of the concept of touch attacks. It’s an attack, just like anything else, and the caster gets stat and proficiency bonuses to it, which suggests parity with mundane attacks. I am not sure how they address the magical plus issue at higher levels (where equivalent base bonuses become a discrepancy because there’s no +3 hand) but I am curious to find out.

As to the spells themselves, there are a few interesting things:

  • I like the abbreviated header, but the fact that Save information is in the text is awkward. Also, the fact that nothing calls for a strength or Charisma save means I’m no closer to envisioning what those mean.
  • Most things last a minute. Which is to say 10 rounds. Which is an amusing return of “the turn”.
  • Augury is the first ritual you come across, and it’s a great example of why making it a ritual works. Good spell to have but not necessarily to always use.
  • Bless uses an unexpected mechanic, granting +1d4 to attacks and saving throws (rather than a flat bonus or advantage). Shades of Alternity. it’s subtly potent though, as it can stack with Advantage.
  • Language on Charm Person and Command both seem a bit less prone to doom as past versions, but we’ll see.
  • Comprehend Languages is actually written usefully enough (including being a ritual) that i could actually see wanting to have it.
  • Detect and dispel magic are also both very nice and clear in their use.
  • Healing Word is a nice addition to the mix, basically providing a less potent cure spell usable at range. I suspect most clerics will appreciate the flexibility.
  • Inflict Wounds is its own spell – no fiddling around with reversing Cure or anything, which is just as well, since it actually allows it to be more potent (doing 3d10 damage, vs 1d8 + stat healing)
  • Mage Armor isn’t terrible.
  • Magic Missile starts with 3 missiles, 1d4+1 damage, always hits. Feels right.
  • Misty Step gives a level 2 short range teleport, which I very much like.
  • Revivify is basically battlefield raise dead for any target who died from wounds in the last minute. Practical, and good to have it available reasonably early on.
  • Shield is a reaction spell, basically giving you a retroactive +5 to AC (and immunity to magic missile). That’s very 4e, but in a way I like.
  • Shield of Faith is a +2 bonus to AC, so flat bonuses apparently have their place.
  • Sleep affects a number of hit points of creatures, starting with the lowest hit points affected first. I actually dig that, as it makes it an effective minion clearer, but not necessarily a fight winner.
  • Spider climb explicitly leaves you hands free, and is therefor awesome
  • Spirit Guardians, a 3rd level cleric spell, is a pretty serious defense. Effectively it puts the cleric in the middle of an ongoing 3d8 AOE attack (which can selectively ignore allies). Not a fun thing to fight.

*
The book ends with a page of conditions which are largely similar to the 4e conditions. This is good – 4e’s standardization of effects reduced a lot of bookkeeping. You can always do something that’s not on the list, but the list covers most situations.

All in all, I was pretty stoked by the magic section. With the increased flexibility provided by spell slots and 0 level spells, it just looks fun. And with little caveats like the fact that you can cast spells in any armor you have proficiency in, and the presence of finesse weapons to reward dex as a secondary stat, they have opened up some badass mage possibilities.

I’m looking forward to cracking open the adventure, but I admit that at this point in time, I would be more than happy to take the game for a spin.


  1. Which seems like a LOT to me. The spell damages seem pretty high overall, which makes me all the more curious to see the underlying hit point and damage model. The numbers I’m seeing make me wonder if they did something 13th Age-ish (But don’t tell me! No Spoilers!)  ↩
  2. That sounds flip, but it’s actually really interesting. Because spell prep and recovering spell slots are now separate things, it means that wizards are less crippled by the absence of a spellbook (and clerics by the absence of prayers, but that’s always been a lesser burden). Once you’ve prepped a set of spells, that’s permanently locked in until you actively change it. You could, theoretically, lock in your spells at first level and never look at a spellbook again. You’d be pretty limited, but it’s doable. This has fascinating implications for things like Sorcerers, which could really be modeled by “more prepped spells, but it’s MUCH harder for them to change them”.  ↩
  3. That is, just pile on the buff spells (stat enhances especially, in 3e) to make the team unstoppable for a while, then rest and recover when they wear of. Curiously, the system has one more check against these. 3.5 drastically reduced the duration of most buffs, and the 5e durations seem to be in that spirit.  ↩
  4. Cantrips seem to be the exception to the “use a higher slot” rule, as they actually increase in damage as you level up. Ray of frost does 2d8 and 5th, 3d8 at 11th and 4d8 at 17th. I should add, things like this are what leave me wondering if there are 13th Age style damage scaling rules in the core (as noted above).  ↩

11 thoughts on “D&D Starter Set: Magic

    1. Cam Banks

      Here is where I see a huge amount of Monte Cook’s influence. Compare this to how Arcana Unearthed/Evolved works, including the racked spells w/spells per day, and altered spell levels. It’s really similar.

      Reply
    2. Doug

      This is exactly how my group used Sleep in the playtests: it’s both a minion-clearance spell (if used early in the fight) and a big-baddie-finisher spell (if used late in the fight). Very useful in both roles, if timed right (and boosted with a second-level slot on occasion).

      Reply
  1. Staffan

    Regarding concentration, the developers have started that they consider any ability that lets you concentrate on multiple things to be broken.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Excellent! My sense was that it would definitely be very potent, though I could see limited forms of it having some use, especially for high level play.

      That is, I fI had any idea what high level play looks like, which I admittedly do not yet. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Brian Bentley

    Coming from Pathfinder/3.5, I like that the magic seems to give many useful options and collapsing meta-magic into the actual spell system. Turning cure and inflict spells into scaling spells is quite nice and also a neat editing trick. The vibe in general for this edition has a more 13th Age feel, which I am a big fan of.

    Did you have any plans to do any reviews/critiques of the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and/or Dungeon Master Guide?

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Undecided. Really depends on the fun to work ratio of doing so. 🙂

      Though smart money says the DMG will almost certainly get a super close look.

      Reply
  3. Alex

    I really like the boost to Fireball. In O/1/2e D&D the fireball was a real ‘coming of age’ spell for the magic user, and felt like it had some serious heft to it. In 3e its damage wasn’t changed but everyones hit points got a big boost (con bonuses!) and so it was much less significant. In 4e the fireball became a joke, considerably less potent than stinking cloud in every way.

    This brings the boom back to fireball, and for that alone I’m grateful.

    Having said that, I find the flexibility of separating preparation from slots, scaling spells into different slots, and ritual magic will provide some really interesting choices for wizards right from 1st level – and I consider that a good thing.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Agreed! I’m finally into the Basic Rules PDF, and it’s pretty clear the Wizard got fewer intrinsic abilities than the other classes because spellcasting is so robust.

      Reply

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