D&D spells in all editions (except for 4e powers) are categorized according to "spell levels". This is something that I haven't seen in other games.

When did these spell levels first appear and where did the they come from? Did the designers of the first edition of D&D where they appeared invented them, or do spell levels (perhaps even on the scale of 1-9) appear in some fantasy story that served as inspiration?


1 Answer 1


The origin of spell levels is found in the Chainmail miniatures game, Fantasy Supplement.

There were originally six spell levels in D&D's first version. OD&D as published was related to Chainmail, and the Chainmail fantasy supplement. (See Forward to Men and Magic, E. Gary Gygax, dated 1 November 1973; Chainmail, 3rd Edition, Gygax & Perren, TSR). The spell levels expanded into nine spell levels in the first OD&D supplement, Greyhawk. (TSR, 1975)

Because there are many legendary and authored systems of magic, many questions about the system of magic used in D&D are continually raised. Magic in CHAINMAIL was fairly brief ... limited to the concept of table top miniatures battles ... a somewhat different concept of magic had to be devised to employ with the D&D campaign in order to make it all work.
(E.Gary Gygax, Strategic Review, April 1976, p. 3-4, The Dungeons and Dragons Magic System (extract)

Spell Complexity (optional rule) for spell power and difficulty

The origin of what became spell level is found in the Chainmail optional rule for spell complexity1. (p. 33, Chainmail). This was a way to add uncertainty to applying magic to a miniatures table top battle based on the power of the magic user using the spell, and the power of the spell itself.

Spell Complexity (Optional): Each listed spell has a complexity value, and this value indicates how difficult it is to use such spell. Wizards can more easily employ any value of spell than can Sorcerers, Sorcerers are more able than Warlocks, etc. In addition, there may be a delay in the effect of the spell, or it may be totally negated due to some minor error or distraction. The table below gives the scores necessary for immediate, deferred (1 turn), and negated spell effects by the various levels of magic-users.

(Note that in the quote above, "Wizard", "Sorcerer", and "Warlock" are names for different levels for the same magic-user class, rather than the separate classes we are now familiar with.)

The Spell Complexity table provided a matrix comparing complexity value (1 to 6; later spell level in D&D, see Table at the bottom) matched against the magic-user power rating (later expressed as levels in D&D).

  • Magic-user power levels go, in ascending order, from Seer to Wizard (Chainmail, p. 32 & 33).

    \begin{array}{r|ccc} \text{Magic User} & \text{# of spells} & \text{Morale Rating} & \text{Point Value} & \text{(D&D Level)}\\ \hline \text{Wizard} & 6-7 & 50 & 100 & 11 \\ \text{Sorcerer} & 5 & 40 & 90 & 9 \\ \text{Warlock} & 4 & 30 & 80 & 8 \\ \text{Magician} & 3 & 25 & 70 & 6 \\ \text{Seer} & 1 & 20 & 50 & 2 \\ \end{array}

    Note: the synonyms for "A magic using person" were not classes (as they'd become in later editions of D&D); they were descriptions of comparative power of the basic class -- magic-user -- that in time carried over into D&D.

How did Complexity(Level) work?

We'll use Cloudkill and Haste (p. 32, Chainmail) to illustrate (inches is used based on the scale for table top battles in this game).

  • A die roll (2d6) determined whether or not the spell was immediately effective(I), delayed(D), or negated(N). ("Negated" morphed into the saving throw in D&D). These were listed in the matrix as I/D/N.

    Cloudkill: A gaseous cloud of poisonous vapors which kill all men, orcs, dwarves, and the like when it contacts them. Cloud size is 3" deep by 6" wide by 3" high. It stays along the ground, moving away from the magic-user who casts it at the rate of 6" per turn. It will drift at random if he is not concentrating on it. (Complexity 5)

    The matrix showed that for a Warlock casting Cloudkill the I/D/N was 10/9/7 for a complexity 5 spell. A roll of 10 or better provided immediate effect on his target; a 9 or 8 provided a delayed effect (1 turn delay); a roll of 7 or less negated the spell. (Fizzle!) The result for a Sorcerer was 9/8/6: 7 or 8 yielded a delayed effect, a 9 or higher an immediate effect, but a 6 or less was a failure.

    1. Haste: A spell which speeds the movement of up to 20 figures by 50% for three turns. (Complexity 3)

    The Warlock's result would be 8/7/5, and the Sorcerer's 7/6/4, as above, for I/D/N.

  • Comment on the number of Spells and point values: the number of spells usable was based on a battle fought out on the table top during the game, not the "game day" (or whatever it took to prepare spells again) that it became in D&D. The power rating of the magic user determined both the number of spells he is able to use and the opportunity cost in choosing a powerful wizard (or a timid Seer) when spending from the point budget for building your whole army for the table top miniatures battle.

From Chainmail into D&D

While many things changed in the transition to the new game style (which included the use of a d20 saving throw versus spells), the level/complexity established a way to use magic while being mindful of the cost versus benefit for using more powerful magic. It also accounts for possible failure in battle based on how good your magic user was. (An early version of 3.x/5e's spell DC?) This choice was analogous to spending points on levies (cheap) versus elite (expensive) troops in that same miniatures battle.

Complexity becomes spell level

Spell complexity became spell level as D&D grew out of the Chainmail Fantasy supplement via play and play testing in the Twin Cities area and Lake Geneva in the early 1970's.

On page 21 of Men and Magic (OD&D, Book I, TSR, 1974) you find Cloudkill as a 5th level spell, and Haste as a 3rd level spell. While not everything ported over one-to-one since D&D was a new form of game, most spells did. (See Table below).

Sixth Level Max in OD&D raised to Ninth Level Max in Greyhawk (Supplement 1)

With that basis established in the original three books, complexity becoming level, the expanded spell list in Greyhawk introduced new and more powerful spells of levels 7 through 9 (many of which had no saving throw). The growth of the game and play experiences by the game's developers informed this additional material, which used and expanded upon the previous convention on how to rate spell power.

Why not spell levels beyond 9?

Based on the editorial comments in both Eldritch Wizardry and Gods, Demigods and Heroes (Supplements 3 and 4 to OD&D) and articles in Strategic Review, it is clear that the game's designers found that they didn't need to make magic more powerful. If you consider how powerful time stop and wish are as 9th level spells, I think you can see their point.

\begin{array}{r|ccc} \text{Chainmail Spell} & \text{Complexity} & \text{D&D Level} & \text{OD&D Book} \\{} & \text{} & \text{} & \text{*New Spell} \\ \hline \text{Phantasmal Forces} & 2 & 2 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{Darkness} & 1 & 2 & \text{Greyhawk} \\ \text{} & & & \text{*Darkness 5'r} \\ \text{Wizard Light} & 1 & 1 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{} & & & \text{*Light Spell} \\ \text{Detection} & 2 & 2 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{} & & & \text{*Detect Invisibility} \\ \text{Concealment} & 3 & 3 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{} & & & \text{*Invisibility} \\ \text{Conjure Elemental} & 5 & 5 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{Moving Terrain} & 6 & 6 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{} & & & \text{Move Earth*} \\ \text{Prot. from Evil: 12" rad} & 3 & 3 & \text{Men and Magic 10'r} \\ \text{Levitate 2} & 2 & 2 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{Slowness} & 3 & 3 & \text{Men and Magic (*Slow)} \\ \text{Haste} & 3 & 3 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{Polymorph} & 4 & 4 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{Confusion} & 4 & 4 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{Hallucinatory Terrain} & 4 & 4 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{Cloudkill} & 5 & 5 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \text{Anti-Magic Shell} & 6 & 6 & \text{Men and Magic} \\ \end{array}

Note: Both fireball and lightning bolt were changed from at-will missile attacks into 3rd level spells in D&D (Men and Magic p.21).

Thanks to @Scott's comment, the following is appended:
When D&D was reissued in the d20 system (D&D 3.0 and later 3.5) a feature that resembles the original Chainmail approach to magic based on complexity was included. Epic spells, like the spells used in Chainmail, had a chance of failure when cast based on complexity of spell and the spellcaster's effectiveness as measured by the games comparative power rating method.

...successfully casting an epic spell isn't assured. The caster's Spellcraft skill modified is vital for casting an epic spell ... a spell caster makes a Spellcraft check against the epic spell's spellcraft DC.

This is similar to the I/D/N die roll based on magic user power level versus spell complexity, although it is far more detailed and designed for role playing adventurers versus table top miniatures battles.

1 There seems to have been some overlap between Chainmail's editions updating, and D&D's development. According to this post at the odd74 boards, Chainmail's 3rd edition was the first to have spell complexity, and it was not in the first two editions of the game. OD&D was published in early 1974, while Chainmail edition 3 was published after that. That temporal relationship renders this answer at least partially incorrect as it is based on the printed edition of Chainmail that I own, which is 3rd edition. It is difficult to tell when the design decision was made for Chainmail, and when it was made for OD&D, and which preceded the other. It may well be that the decision to categorize spells was made for D&D and back filled into Chainmail's 3rd edition.

  • \$\begingroup\$ And then 3.0 epic spells went right back to the chainmail system, replacing levels with complexity, with spellcasters rolling a dice to determine success chance and higher level spellcasters succeeding on that check with lower numbers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Scott
    Dec 14, 2016 at 4:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Agree with the footnote at the end of this answer -- the spell-level system was definitely first found in original D&D, and then back-ported into subsequent editions of Chainmail as the Complexity system. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 24, 2023 at 15:42

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