I was reading this question, and it occurred to me:

I don't know why the designers of 5e chose this magic system. There are a lot of spellcasting systems out there, and I want to know why they choose this one.

In 3.Xe you had spells levels, and a caster had a certain number of spells per spell level per day, plus your character seemed to only know a limited number of spells (because of being a sorcerer or having a limited spell-book). This system was a little complicated, but navigable.

In 4e, you had simply "at-will," "encounter," and "daily" spells. This system was wonderful for spells, because your rarely had any question as to if your spells were available or not. (Unless your DM was bad at saying when fights ended or began.) It made the spellcaster better at lower levels, despite the observation that "pretty much everyone feels like a spellcaster" in 4e.

Now, in 5e, it seems you have a certain number of casts per level per day, but spells of particular spell levels can be cast at their level or higher. Seems like a pretty simple system. I'm all for simplicity, especially when it makes magic more approachable and less... arcane.

Anyways, my question is: barring any surprises, and assuming the 5e basics and playtest are indicative of how magic will work in 5e, why is the 5e Magic System the way it is?

I'd also accept an answer to: why did the designers choose to make the magic system of 5e this way?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this a rant disguised as a question? \$\endgroup\$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 20:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @corsiKa Nope. I genuinely want to know what choices they made, and how they ended up with the current system. I list the other information as background so answerers understand some background information. \$\endgroup\$
    – PipperChip
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 21:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @corsiKa Just a ususal "how did designer think" questions. Normally it should be directed towards their twitter accounts. However, looking at the answers, and having answered some other similiar questions myself, I think perhaps we are answering them too good! \$\endgroup\$
    – Sheepy
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 7:07

2 Answers 2


In these three Legend Lore articles Mike Mearls talks about the fact a major design goal of D&D 5e is to Unite the editions.Specifically allowing the core game to be modified to play similarly to one of the past editions of D&D.

Uniting the Editions

While not all mechanics were carried forward from past editions, vancian magic was one of them. Vancian magic in a modified form with at-will cantrips, prepared spells, and rituals. The most direct answer to your question magic is what it is because that how it was presented in OD&D, AD&D 1st, AD&D 2nd, and D&D 3rd. It was modified in light of the experience with D&D 3e and D&D 4e and for reasons outlined in this article.

I could leave the answer like this but I feel it not complete. Some will wonder why Vancian magic in the first place?

It started, like in many mechanics in OD&D, with Chainmail. By the 2nd edition of Chainmail, wizards of varying power were introduced in the fantasy supplement. The four levels were Magician, Warlock, Sorceror, and the most powerful the Wizard. The difference between the different levels was not only in the power of their spells but the number of times per day they could cast spells.

When Gygax developed his Greyhawk Campaign he decided not to use Dave Arneson's system of magic reagents but rather was inspired by Jack Vance's Dying Earth series to create the familiar mechanics of spells in a spell book and the magic-users memorizing a limited selection of spells from the book.

This is corroborated in both Jon Peterson's Playing at the World and Kent David Kelly's Hawk & Moor series.

The mechanics are designed in 5e to reflect the spell memorization of classic editions of D&D which were inspired by the literature that Gary Gygax read most importantly Jack Vance's Dying Earth which were adapted from the Fantasy supplement of Chainmail which was used by Dave Arneson in his Blackmoor campaign.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A lot of these links are now broken. Does anyone have alternative sources for each of these broken links' original targets? \$\endgroup\$
    – Axoren
    Commented May 22, 2016 at 3:11

There's an interesting game design choice 5E does different than previous editions as far as spellcasting goes. There's three significant gameplay effects that come from what they've done compared to previous Vancian magic systems:

Low Level Spell Power

In older editions, there were some low level spells that would grow in power - Magic Missle, for example. You'd do a lot more damage with it at higher caster levels, but it was still a 1st level spell slot to use. So a 1st level spell became deadlier with your character leveling up, stacked on top of all the other magic power you were getting.

In 5E, what happens is a 1st level spell only gets more powerful if you use a higher spell slot to cast it - it's not automatically more powerful, but you DO get the flexibility to make it powerful - at the cost of being able to cast a higher level spell.

Prepared Spell Planning

Previously, preparing spells was pretty much the difference between useful or useless as a character.

Let's say you can cast 3 spells of 1st level power. And you prepare Magic Missle as one of them. You cast the spell. Later on, you really need to cast Magic Missle again - too bad! You used up the one and only memorized casting of it you had. You had to plan how many multiples of a spell to prep if you thought you might need more than one. If you guessed wrong, you basically had a useless character for that game day.

In 5E, you prep a list of spells you can cast, but you can assign the number of spell slots to cast them in any way you want, provided you meet the level limits. So, if you need 3 Magic Missles that day, you can spend all of your castings on that. If you need 3 Sleep spells, you can do that, instead.

You plan ahead the general load out, but the specifics within that loadout, you make the call as you go.

Low Level vs. High Level Spell Competition

Finally, because of that set up, you have to make some interesting choices about your prepared spell load outs - you will have to decide how many spells to prepare of what kind of level - do you have more flexibility with lower levels spells, or higher level spells?

Lower level spells can often also be cast at higher levels, so there's a flexibility in power, to that. On the other hand higher level spells give you access to certain effects you can't get any other way. If you've only got 1 or 2 high level spell slots, maybe you want some flexibility in prepared spell options so you can use them the best way possible.

All in all, the new system still rewards strategically considering which spells to prepare, but isn't overly punishing or forces mages into a binary of useful/useless. There's some mild effects that look like they're aimed at somewhat curbing the "quadratic wizard" effect, though I'm guessing we'll have to wait until the full rules drop to say much of anything about the whether that actually happens.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Part of your first paragraph is actually inaccurate - there are STILL some spells that become more effective at higher caster levels with the same spell slot level. Shocking Grasp for instance, and there are likely others. \$\endgroup\$
    – YogoZuno
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 3:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @YogoZuno It is primarily cantrips that still scale with level. This seems to be true in order to ensure that a caster still has something they can do every round, and they never feel like they are unable to contribute. That was a huge problem for casters in previous editions (particularly Magic-Users/Wizards). The damage scaling is to keep them up (to a limited degree) to other characters that are doing far more with non-expendable resources later. (i.e. 5/6 attacks per round with a lvl 20 Fighter) It's not as good as those characters, but helps avoid feeling completely useless. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aviose
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 15:20

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