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The bard, the sorcerer, and other classes like the spellthief (Complete Adventurer 13-20) and the favored soul (Complete Divine 6-10) cast spells without preparation.

A cleric that channels negative energy or positive energy can, respectively, spontaneously cast either spells with cure in the name or spells with inflict in the name. Likewise, a druid can spontaneously cast spell-level-appropriate summon nature's ally spells.

Somewhere along the line (perhaps even at the start) these two seemingly different ideas became somewhat synonymous, especially in feats' prerequisites and descriptions. Examples:

  • The general feat Accelerate Metamagic (Races of the Dragon 98), while seemingly intended for sorcerers, has as one Prerequisite the ability to spontaneously cast 1st-level spells.
  • The general feat Arcane Focus (Dragon #351 88) has as part of its Benefit the mandate that a caster must have at least one arcane spell slot available (either a prepared arcane spell or the ability to cast an arcane spell spontaneously). Although it can be achieved through feats and class features, this latter ability is at least uncommon.
  • The untyped feat Arcane Focus Item (Dragon #358 86) says as part of its Benefit that If you spontaneously cast spells (as a sorcerer does), three times per day the focus allows you to apply a metamagic feat to a spell without increasing its casting time.
  • The general feat Ascetic Mage (Complete Adventurer 105-6) has as one of its Prerequisites ability to spontaneously cast 2nd-level arcane spells. See the feat Arcane Focus, above.
  • The exalted feat Blessed of the Seven Sisters (Player's Guide to Faerûn 176) has as part of its Benefit If you cast spells spontaneously in the manner of a sorcerer or bard, you may... swap any one spell that you know for a spell of the same level from the above list.

Some feats, however, seem to hew to the without preparation/spontaneous divide. Examples:

  • The bloodline feat Air Bloodline (Dragon Compendium Volume 1 91-2) has as its Prerequisite the ability to cast arcane spells without preparation.
  • The general feats Ashbound and Child of Winter (Eberron Campaign Setting 50 and 51, respectively) are, based on lore, apparently intended for druids and have as their Prerequisite the Ability to spontaneously cast summon nature’s ally.
  • The general feat Elemental Adept (Complete Mage 42), apparently intended for the base class wu jen, allows a caster to spontaneously cast one picked spell by sacrificing a prepared spell of the same or lower level, like, for example, a cleric spontaneously casting cure light wounds.

So it's not as though editors and writers were unaware of this jargon but, instead, that either some were more careful or at some point these two terms became synonymous.

I tend to overread, so here's the question at its most basic:

  • Are able to cast spells without preparation and able to spontaneously cast spells synonymous?
    • If the answer is Yes, they are synonymous, have they always been synonymous?
      • If they have always been synonymous, why does the Player's Handbook and some feats make the distinction anyway?
      • If they haven't always been synonymous yet became synonymous after the Player's Handbook, at what point was the choice made to make them synonymous? (That is, in what magazine, book, Web article, or whatever was that change announced, detailed, or implied?)
    • If the answer is No, they aren't synonymous, what text started this confusion?

Context: In compiling a database of feats and attempting to organize feats by prerequisite, I'm struggling to classify feats that seem to, according to a strict reading, unreasonably or impossibly demand bards, sorcerers, and all the other folks who can cast spells without preparation also be able to cast spells spontaneously. I'd like to be wrong in my hair-splitting and have cast spontaneously and cast without preparation be synonymous, but the two seem so different that making such a leap without asking this question seems ill-advised.

I'm specifically looking for texts (rather than, for example, an estimated time period of a cultural shift) because that would useful to note on feats that use the two terms interchangeably.

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The two terms are not synonymous, but from a rules perspective, they are very near it. At least a few rules citations - some from your examples, and a few more I've cited below - indicates that "casting spells without preparation" qualifies as "casting spells spontaneously", but casting spontaneously isn't the same as casting spells without preparing them.

First, to clear up the part I feel is most importent: Sorcerer and bard spellcasting is "spontaneous" for the purposes of feats like in your examples. Please see the Quicken Spell feat description on page 98 of the Player's Handbook:

Special: This feat can’t be applied to any spell cast spontaneously (including sorcerer spells, bard spells, and cleric or druid spells cast spontaneously)

While the only mention of "spontaneous" in the actual Sorcerer's entry is in a lore section regarding how they start learning magic, it's pretty clear that the rules were written where "casting a spell you haven't prepared" qualifies as "casting a spell spontaneously". Other mentions include:

  • The introduction to magic, page 169
  • The introduction to the bard, page 26.

This section contains speculation: It's weak, but it's there. I find it very likely that when 3.0 was first being developed, they didn't have a name for it yet (and wrote up the sorcerer's class entry before coming up with a name for their casting style) - and then that wording stuck, especially to the feats and definitions when they were ported to 3.5 with little context. I find it especially telling that while Quicken Spell definitely refers to sorcerer casting as spontaneous, the glossary specifies that spontaneous casting is a cleric and druid ability. It's a recurring problem in OGL d20 games, as there is a LOT of copy-pasta to swallow - the language evolved, but the text did not, even when "updated".

I will try to get some more detail when I can get my hands on a 3.0 corebook, but as far as 3.5 is concerned: The wording has been spotty, but at least one rules reference starting with the core PHB has always suggested that a sorcerer or bard's spellcasting has always been considered spontaneous.

However, it should be noted that the terms are not transparent in the other direction. Clerics and druids do not cast spells without preparation; they must have prepared spells in order to have spells to sacrifice to power their spontaneous casting of three letter abbreviations. While this primarily only affects corner cases, this does mean the terms are not synonymous. For example, a wizard who has taken the Elemental Adept feat (and thus is capable of casting spontaneously) still doesn't qualify for the Air Bloodline feat, which requires the ability to cast without preparation.

So to conclude, while the terms can be used interchangeably to refer to sorcerer and bard spellcasting, there is a divide when referring to divine casters (as well as casters like wizards who've taken the Elemental Adept feat) that can matter in some cases. It is probably best to think of "casting without preparation" as a subset of "casting spontaneously": if you can cast a spell using a slot you didn't prepare that spell in, whether or not you prepared any spell in that slot, then you can cast spontaneously; but you have to be able to cast a spell using a slot you didn't prepare any spell in to be able to cast without preparation. So no, the terms are not synonymous, although sorcerer spellcasting is spontaneous. Casting without preparation is always casting spontaneously, but there are many cases in which casting spontaneously is not casting without preparation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Answer updated. This was a very thought-provoking question, I've never stopped to think about the exact differences in wording before. I still think in most cases where the wording differs, this is a case of too many cooks compounded by an old cookbook, but there are enough places where it makes sense for it to matter (such as the bloodline feats, which are clearly not intended for a wizard who just so happens to be able to cast one spell spontaneously due to an elemental trick feat he picked up). \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Aug 3 '15 at 10:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan I get waiting a day or two to accept an answer, but if you decide to wait to accept this one, I would appreciate if you let me know if this answer now meets your criteria for your question. I wasn't trying to challenge the frame of the question the first time around, I just honestly only looked at it from the sorcerer's perspective and didn't consider the prepared casters with a spontaneous ability, which made a slight-but-serious difference. \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Aug 3 '15 at 10:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a solid answer and makes a lot of good points. And, although I'd like a better citation for the terms being semi-synonymous than a lone PH feat and some fluff, it wouldn't surprise me were this muddling to originate with the 3.5 revision, which makes tracing the muddling's origin a bit more difficult. I appreciate your time. Thank you. (And I always wait a while before accepting any answer.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 3 '15 at 10:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Thank you. Had you not indicated that I hadn't really answered your question, I wouldn't have dug deeper and found that your hair-splitting was actually valid, you were just splitting the hairs the wrong direction. (I hope that analogy makes sense :P) Per "one feat and some fluff": your specific answer requirements focused a lot on when the term came to apply, so I only used stuff from the earliest source I could find, which just happened to be the first source. When I can access more 3.5 books, I'll at least scan them and if I find anything more concrete, I'll update. \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Aug 3 '15 at 10:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Feel free to edit it. The Rules Compendium is one of the very few books I neither own nor plan to own for the 3.5 era - I feel like yet another ruleset will just make it harder for me to remember which rules I'm supposed to using, and I get 3.0 and 3.5 rules into my Pathfinder too often anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Oct 7 '15 at 19:15

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