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In D&D 3rd and 5th edition, many spells have variants that begin with the words "Lesser", "Greater", or "Improved" attached to the name of the basic variant of the spell. Some other less common words are "Minor", "Major", and in Pathfinder, "Communal".

I've always thought that was cool and interesting.

But I don't think I played any other roleplaying game that used these terms; nor any such video game that predates D&D 3.0. I also didn't see these words in fantasy books or in real life.

In fact, these spell names are probably where I see the word "lesser" the most in all English.

Did the template of names like "Lesser (something)" and "Greater (something)" originate with D&D 3, or is it older?

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    \$\begingroup\$ “Mass” is another one in 3.5e, cognate with PF’s “communal,” which replaced 3e’s “legion’s.” There are also a few cases of “least,” and then there’s “minor,” “moderate,” “severe,” and “critical” from the cure and inflict spells (among others). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 28 at 21:09
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Lesser and Greater first appeared in the usage you describe in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition

While the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition) Players Handbook (1978) had spells such as Monster Summoning I to VII, the terms "Lesser" and "Greater" were not used. The Illusionist class had the spells Improved Invisibility and Improved Phantasmal Force which were, as it says, improved versions of the unimproved spells. Oriental Adventures (1985) had the spells Commune with Lesser Spirit and Commune with Greater Spirit but these were one-offs and not the systematic usage you describe.

The first usage of Lesser and Greater in a sort of systematic way is with 2nd edition supplemental material (not necessarily complete):

  • Greater Detect Undead (Van Richten's Guide to the Lich [1993])
  • Greater Malison (Tome of Magic [1991])
  • Lesser and Greater Rhabdomancy (Dragon #229 [1996])
  • Lesser and Greater Spelldream (Dragon #185 [1992])
  • Conjure Greater Elemental (Dragon Kings [1992])
  • Greater Touchsickle (Faiths & Avatars [1996])
  • Greater Shield of Lathander (The Ruins of Myth Drannor Boxed Set [1993])
  • Lesser Guardian Hammer (Dwarves Deep [1990])
  • Lesser Spellsong (The Drow of the Underdark [1992])

However, the full-blown systematic usage did not occur until Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook: Core Rulebook I in 2000. This is very much in keeping with the ethos of 3rd edition which tried to standardise and systematise many of the mechanics.

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There are examples of this usage of lesser in Advanced Dungeons&Dragons (2nd Ed) manuals: down below you may find a (surely not complete) list:

Examples of greater can be found in

  • Greater Creature of Darkness: Priest's Spell Compendium Volume Two
  • Greater Guardian Seal: ibidem
  • Greater Mantle of Mystra: ibidem
  • Greater Shield of Lathander: ibidem
  • Greater Touchsickle: ibidem
  • Greater Vision - Savant: ibidem
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They were not labeled as such, but the earliest editions of D&D had spell level variants. This can be seen with Monster Summoning I, Monster Summoning II, and similar. As KRyan alludes to in his comment as well, many of the other spells came in flavors such as Cure Light Wounds, Cure Serious Wounds and so on.

The first variant of a Lesser spell that I can find appears to come with the D&D 3.0 Players Handbook, with spells such as the Druid's 2nd level spell Lesser Restoration.

The concept was there in gradated spells, but they were not labeled as such until the later editions.

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