I know in Dungeons and Dragons there are a vast amount of Adjectives that describe spells that are documented (Minor, Major, Lesser, Greater) where specific words denote progressively better effects, but I'm having an issue finding a specific list of those adjectives. Does a list exist, or if a specific list doesn't exist, is there a common link between spells and their adjectives / effectiveness?

I'm aware that the adjectives themselves originated in 2E, but the tradition seems to be carried to further editions of Dungeons and Dragons, and if there was some common link between the power of a spell and the adjective used to describe it, I'd very much like to know, as I think it would be useful to Dungeon Masters as a writing tool when designing their own spells and effects.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Heavily related, possibly a duplicate: What is the origin of “Improved”, “Lesser”, and “Greater” in spell names? \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Apr 7 at 1:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah I mentioned that in the second paragraph of my answer, but it's not quite what I'm looking for. I'm not looking for the origin (because I already know it) I'm looking more towards there being a quantifiable difference between the tiers, which adjectives are considered better than others, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Apr 7 at 1:18

The usage of these modifiers has always been ad hoc

There are patterns, but they aren’t officially defined or anything. Most of them just come naturally out of the English meanings of the words.

D&D 3.5e

The most notable usage of these adjectives are in the “X,” “Improved X,” “Greater X,” “Perfect X” series of feats—Two-Weapon Fighting being the archetypal example. Few chains actually reach four feats long, though, so the “Perfect” modifier is rare (e.g. Perfect Two-Weapon Fighting is an epic feat). When chains are shorter, you see some inconsistencies—for example, you have Weapon Focus and Greater Weapon Focus (and “Improved Weapon Focus” doesn’t exist), but then you have Precise Shot and Improved Precise Shot (and “Greater Precise Shot” doesn’t exist).

There is no commonality between different chains using the same modifiers—while a Greater X will always be a higher-level option than Improved X, neither Improved X nor Greater X has any particular relationship to an Improved Y or Greater Y. A Greater Y feat could easily be available earlier than an Improved X feat and it wouldn’t be notable. (None of these patterns are codified as rules, so it’s not like you couldn’t do Greater before Improved, but it’d be inconsistent with the pattern and therefore a poor choice. To my knowledge, Wizards of the Coast never did that.)

D&D 3.5e also had numerous other “chains” of this sort with other sets of modifiers. Cure wounds and inflict wounds came in minor, light, moderate, serious, critical variants, as well as mass versions of each of those. Least, lesser, and greater appear in numerous other spells. Again, there is no consistency in the use of these adjectives across separate families—within a family “least” would be lower-level than “lesser” but one family’s “lesser” entry could easily be higher-level than another family’s “greater.” There were also plenty of one-off modifiers of a similar sort that we don’t see repeated elsewhere—limited wish being the prime example, in my mind. “Limited” is being used in a similar way but no other spell uses that.

We also see plenty of “families” or “chains” with clear progressions, that nonetheless don’t use any adjective list like this. For example, there is a series of transmutations called bite of the were-X, where X goes rat (1st-level), wolf (3rd-level), boar (4th-level), tiger (5th-level), bear (6th-level).¹ That progression just reflects the power-level of the named creatures.

  1. Spell levels here are given for the druid class; sorcerers and wizards had access to the same spells but each was considered one spell level higher for those classes.

D&D 4e

Some D&D 4e powers were named after spells and other options from previous editions that had used such adjectives, and maintained them. Cure light wounds et al., for instance. Again, there was no cross-family consistency here. Most 4e powers also simply didn’t use adjectives like these, and tended to have more descriptive names.

D&D 5e

Feat chains aren’t a thing in D&D 5e, so you don’t have the same ordering as you did with D&D 3.5e’s feats, and thanks to up-casting, most spell “families” from previous editions of D&D simply become one spell that improves as you use higher-level spell slots (a style reminiscent of the “augmentation” of psionic powers in D&D 3.5e). Nonetheless, you do still see some of these adjectives, used in much the same way as before, as in the lesser and greater restoration spells.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think for consistency it would be good to list at least one example from 5e where you state "you do still see some of these adjectives". Lesser Restoration and Greater Restoration would be a good choice I think, since both are available in the Basic Rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Kamil Drakari Apr 7 at 21:38

Historically, spells were ranked

Up until 4th edition, spellcasters would adopt higher ranks of a given spell. These ranks could be signaled in a couple ways:

  • Summon Monster I
  • Summon Monster II
  • Summon Monster III
  • ...Etc


  • Lesser Restoration
  • Restoration
  • Greater Restoration

Each rank of the spell was more powerful than the last in some way and the ranks beyond the first would say "this spell functions exactly the same as the rank 1 version except [description of how it was more powerful]."

In 4th edition, spells worked differently. Each class had access to its own unique spell spell set and each class level would bring new spells whose effects might be similar but more powerful. In the case of clerics, for example:

  • Cure Light Wounds
  • Cure Serious Wounds

However, generally speaking spells did not have any sort of ranking system. As characters got access to higher power spells, those spells simply had new and unique names to differentiate them. These names might infer size/shape in some way using words like wave or nova but rarely magnitude of effect.

I don't believe it was until 5th edition that we saw a return to referential naming (lesser, greater) but that is only used for summoning and curing. Instead, upcasting spells is done using spell slots. As such, the pre-4th edition ranking system is somewhat preserved in that a spell is cast at a given level which corresponds to the slot used.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.