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Is there anything in RAW that supports spell level as a character concept, or alternatively that supports it as solely a player concept?

On the one hand, I see nothing that explicitly states that a character knows that there are spell levels. On the other hand, I don't see how a spellcaster could manage spell slots without knowing about spell levels.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast: the problem of "how does the world work?" :) Of course as GM I can make my world work any way I want, but I'm trying to understand the default 5e world before deviating from it, and RPG SE is a pretty helpful engine for analyzing the rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Feb 25 '16 at 20:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Jack, do you want an extrapolation about how the world works based on interpreting the RAW, or do you want what the RAW says about how the world works? These are, ironically, likely to have completely opposite results. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 25 '16 at 20:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie: can I have cake AND ice cream? I don't think the RAW says explicitly that characters have the concept of spell levels, but it is entirely possible I've overlooked some place where it does. That would be helpful. I am ALSO interested in the interpretation of the RAW. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Feb 25 '16 at 20:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can, but you probably need to eat them separately here. :) Since those are very likely to have opposite answers, if you really want to know what the answers are for each, posting them as separate questions is the only way to get clear answers to them. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 25 '16 at 20:37
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It's both.

The spell level (0-9) is purely a player concert as @LegendaryDude explains, but the power of a spell is most certainly a concept characters know about. Some paragraphs in the PHB suggest that characters know about the power of the spells.

PHB 201, Spell slots. Regardless of how many spells a caster knows or prepares, he or she can cast only a limited number of spells before resting. Manipulating the fabric of magic and channeling its energy into even a simple spell is physically and mentally taxing, and higher-level spells are even more so.

Also

PHB 201, Spell Level. A spell's level is a general indicator of how powerful it is.

Another one indicates that characters have to gain power to create or cast the most powerful spells.

PHB 201, What is a spell? Uncounted thousands of spells have been created over the course of the multiverse's history [...]. Some might yet lie recorded in crumbling spellbooks, [...] or they might someday be reinvented by a character who has amassed enough power and wisdom to do so.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also of note is that copying a spell of high level into a spell book takes considerably more time and money than that of a lower spell. This suggests more complexity to casting the spell that would be as obvious to them as the difference between knowing how to skate and being an NHL star is to us. \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Feb 25 '16 at 18:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PremierBromanov Keep in mind that “in-world characters could plausibly discover the concept of discrete steps of spell power” is not the same thing as “the game explicitly says that levels are an in-character concept”. The question is about the latter, not the former. (The former is, ironically, an exercise in interpretation, not RAW.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 25 '16 at 19:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I wasn't saying they were the same thing, just adding additional info. They are certainly aware of relative power of spells, which I think is what this answer is saying \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Feb 25 '16 at 20:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ And if characters know about the power of spells, and particularly if they are studying such power meticulously as a wizard might, there's no reason at all that they wouldn't call the power levels... "levels". After all, we do exactly that for quantum energy levels in the real world — it's not like we cheated and read that in the Player's Handbook for our universe. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Feb 25 '16 at 22:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ "The spell level (0-9) is purely a player concert as @LegendaryDude explains" -- but LegendaryDude does not explain that. They explain we're not sure how it gets handled IC. Their answer includes an explicit acknowledgement that spell level may be an IC concept as well (paragraph 3) but that we just don't know for sure. This winds up inadvertently misrepresenting another person's answer; could you update this post to ensure that is not the case? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 12 '19 at 13:25
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Spell level and spell slots are really just abstractions of magic use in the Vancian style. It works mechanically because you don't have a large mana pool resource (the other way that games generally handle magic) to track, and you have a set number of spells and spell uses. Low-level magic users have access to low powered spells, and as they increase in level they have access to more powerful things. Mechanically, this system works pretty well. The trouble is how to translate that to in-character terms without making obvious meta-references.

How you handle this in your game is largely left up to you. Neither the PHB nor DMG, from my readings, really mention how to discuss magic in these terms from an IC perspective. Spell slots themselves are clearly a mechanical thing, and a wizard would need to know how much "casting power" he has available but might not think of it in terms of "slots."

My preference is to refer to spell level as the "spell circle," e.g. fireball would be a spell of the third circle. Then again, wizards in your world may very well refer to spells by their level -- a wizard of the first level (perhaps a wizard school rank?) could only cast first level wizard spells. The slot used to cast the spell, which in 5e can enhance the spell in some ways, could simply be referred to as the amount of magical power the wizard uses to get the desired effect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would change "it works great" for "it works". Traditional Vancian magic, while flavorful, is horrendous. It's not for nothing that 5e and Warcraft RPG had to tweak it a lot to make it work a bit better. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Feb 25 '16 at 19:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LegendaryDude: you say "the trouble is how to translate that to in-character terms without making obvious meta-references". Somehow this important to what I am asking. Clearly, if one player says to another, "I have five 3rd level spell slots", that's a meta-reference. But if one character says the same thing to another character, is that OOC, or is it like irl saying "I was doing 60 in a 55 when I got pulled over", or "I've fired two shots, by six-shooter has 4 left". \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Feb 25 '16 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LegendaryDude: your analysis is helpful, especially the assertion that neither the PHB or DMG really mention how to discuss magic IC in these terms. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Feb 25 '16 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ For what it's worth, I don't think there's any meaningful difference from a "oh no, that's bringing the mechanics into the game!" point of view between "circle" and "level". We just are inclined to think that "level" sounds more like a game term because it has been for so long. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Feb 25 '16 at 22:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LegendaryDude - if I could mark two answers I would. Thank you! \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Feb 26 '16 at 11:41
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A character concept

We feel spell levels are completely artificial, so a player concept, but this is only so because nothing in our lives is this non-gradual. If I can run a lap around the block 92 seconds today, it might be 90 tomorrow, but not 28.

This is not so in the game. Yesterday I could not cast Fireball or Fly, but today I can, 2 actually. A week from now, I can cast 3.
People are not willingly stupid in the game, they recognize this. This also means not only spell levels are obvious, but levels of casters too. Not so much for a Rogue, the increase of Sneak Attack or proficiency bonus is quite gradual.

If your abilities are very distinct (and some are, Wizards getting 3rd level spells on level 5, Bards getting Expertise on level 3) it is obvious.

You can say characters do not see this, but that would be unnatural for them.

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It could be both, depending on your needs. There's a power fact here, but it can be ambiguous, like a 1st level wizard that read about a spell and says "I'm not powerful enough to cast this", or magic in your world could have been so studied that there's a calification system for spells: the spells levels. Also, you can play with that, if there are 9 levels of spells, you can separate them on tiers in order to work in your world, like spells of 1st to 3rd level are "1st rank spells", etc.

But if we talk about spells slots, they are obviously a player concept, although you invent a way to bring that player concept to your world as a character concept in order to avoid the meta-game reference.

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