I'm currently playing around with basing a D&D campaign off the idea that arcane magic is fading from the world.

I'm curious if the rule books have discussed the nature of arcane magic: Where does it come from? Is there a specific source, or is it simply an energy that exists (similar to the Force in Star Wars), that those with the correct blood line or knowledge are able to tap into?

I know a similar question was deemed off-topic some time ago, and Appendix N was quoted as being the answer in that question.

Where this question differs is that I'm not looking for the history of magic, I'm looking for a written description of the nature of the arcane.

I'm willing to accept answers from any edition, but would preferably like resources from 5th edition.


2 Answers 2


It varies by setting. For D&D5E, PHB (p205) describes it in general terms, then goes on to provide additional detail for the Realms - the Weave.

While the PHB implies the Weave exists in all settings, that particular term is specific to the Realms. It also glosses over material from previous editions, where it is more than the "essence" of Mystra, it actually is Mystra, the goddess of magic. Her death at the hands of Cyric and Shar, two other deities, is the cause of the Spellplague that altered magic to the system present in 4E, and her restoration during the Second Sundering is the reason it switched back in 5E.

In other settings, magic works differently (in Dragonlance, for instance, it's tied to Krynn's moons), but there is no official/dedicated 5E material for other settings.

  • \$\begingroup\$ A minor quibble: I don't think there's a distinction between “essence of X” and “is X” like this post makes, because the definition of essence is that it is the stuff that makes it be that thing. So “essence of Mystra” already = “actually is Mystra”. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 16:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I disagree... ground beef is the essence of cow, but it is not a cow. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 17:02
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If ground beef were the essence of cow that would be an effective counter-example, but that is in fact a joke which is funny in part specifically because it is misusing the word "essence" for humorous effect (by the hyperbole-is-funny principle). So it's an especially poor counter-example for the correct definition of "essence". \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 17:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Your link, definition 3. Yeah, there's some physical labor involved, but without a cow, there is no beef, and all beef is made from cow. The real point is that it's not some touch-feely ephemeral thing. It's physical reality - if Mystra dies, magic dies with her. You can't distill the magic out of the entity. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 17:08

Note: The question's author says that 5e is preferred but that explanations from any edition are welcome.

In AD&D spell energy comes from other planes

The Dungeon Master's Guide (1979) on Spell Casting says

All magic and cleric spells are similar in that the word sounds, when combined into whatever patterns are applicable, are charged with energy from the Positive or Negative Material Plane. When uttered, these sounds cause the release of this energy, which in turn triggers a set reaction. The release of the energy contained in these words is what causes the spell to be forgotten or the writing to disappear from the surface upon which it is written.

The triggering action draws power from some plane of the multiverse. Whether the spell is an abjuration conjuration, alteration, enchantment, or whatever, there is a flow of energy - first from the spell caster, then from some plane to the area magicked or enspelled by the caster. The energy flow is not from the caster per se, it is from the utterance of the sounds, each of which is charged with energy which is loosed when the proper formula and/or ritual is completed with their utterance. This power then taps the desired plane (whether or not the spell user has any idea of what or where it is) to cause the spell to function. It is much like plugging in o heater; the electrical outlet does not hold all of the electrical energy to cause the heater to function, but the wires leading from it, ultimately to the power station, bring the electricity to the desired location. (40)

In short, the gods put the knowledge of how to cast spells into the minds of their clerics et al. so those dudes don't have to study but pray. However, magic-users et al. must study their spellbooks to memorize their spells formulas. Nonetheless, both end up just casting spells that draw from the same source: the Negative Material Plane and the Positive Material Plane.

So using this source-of-magic idea it's kind of impossible to say that arcane magic is fading unless the DM's going to rule that both arcane and divine magic is fading. And if using this explanation as the campaign's source-of-magic idea and divine magic is not fading and arcane magic is, then, I guess, there's the plot. (Hint: Jhkdad the Unfathomable is draining the energy from both planes and using it build his own universe—it's only a matter of time before the gods expend the last of their power and divine magic starts fading, too! Better hurry, heroes!)

However, were this DM to attempt to concoct a plot around fading arcane magic in a setting using this source-of-magic idea, this DM would make the plot much more conspiratorial: clerics have been sabotaging wizards' spells for a long time—a stray symbol here, an extra syllable there—so as to weaken arcane magic deliberately. Ancient stories talk of apprentice wizards casting prismatic sprays but, over time and through subtle manipulation these clerics have turned what was once the low-level spell prismatic spray into what modern wizards recognize as color spray and made the spell prismatic spray hideously complex… far more complex than it actually needs to be! But, recently, the clerics—for whatever reason—have moved too quickly and too boldly and even apprentices recognize their spells aren't as powerful as they remember their mentors' spells being. How did these clerics manage to alter the spellbooks of some of the settings' most powerful wizards? Why would they? The heroes are in a race against time—soon, the only wizard spell anyone can master will be read magic… and that'll be a 9th-level spell.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Suggestions for improvement welcome. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 18:44

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