Magic plays a central role in the D&D game. It provides an essential dose of the fantastic for any campaign. Most players and DMs agree that magic is fun; unfortunately magic also proves inscrutable or even illogical, and arguments about magic and how it works have brought many a game to a standstill. This series explores the D&D game's singular approach to magic. This week, we'll consider some of the principles underlying D&D magic and take a look a spells and spell preparation.
The rules don't include a formal definition of magic; however, when the D&D core rules (Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual) discuss magic, they refer to some force or effect that somehow transcends the natural laws that govern the real world. Magic works its wonders in D&D without any discernable physical cause and often without any rational explanation. D&D magic involves tapping into some kind of mysterious force or power source and shaping it into some kind of effect that the magic wielder finds useful. Characters most often do so through spellcasting (see the next section).
Magic in the D&D game follows its own logic, and a magical effect most often works more like a legal contract than a physical law. A magical effect in the D&D game has a description that defines exactly how it works in the game. This approach has its advantages for a roleplaying game, and perhaps the most important of these is that an effect's description limits its power and impact on the game world, which helps keep magic wielders from completely dominating the game. It also allows players and DMs to be reasonably sure how any particular magical effect functions in the context of the game, and that eliminates a lot of arguments and guesswork.
The Ins and Outs of Spells
Spells represent the form of magic most readily available to player characters in the D&D game. The rules define a spell as a one-time magical effect that usually must be carefully prepared ahead of time by studying a book of spells (the wizard's approach to spells) or petitioning a divine power (the cleric's method). Spells in the D&D game come in two varieties: arcane and divine. Arcane spells are generally more versatile and potent than divine spells, but they can prove more difficult to cast (see Part Three).
The Basics of Spell Preparation
The act of preparing a spell is the first step of gathering and shaping raw magical power into a useful effect. Earlier versions of the D&D game treated preparing a spell much like committing something to memory. Once a spell was "memorized," it was ready to cast. The act of spellcasting wiped the spell from the caster's memory. In the present version of the game, preparing a spell is the first step of casting the spell, and it is the most difficult and time-consuming part of the casting. Once a spell has been prepared, the spellcaster holds the spell's potential in her mind (or body) and needs only a moment of concentration (usually along with a few words, gestures, and materials) to complete the spell and release its effects. Once cast, a spell's potential is used up, though a spellcaster can prepare the same spell more than once.
The rules governing spell preparation are fairly straightforward. Chapter 10 in the Player's Handbook explains spell preparation in considerable detail. Here are the highlights:
We're out of time for this week. Next week, we'll finish our study of spell preparation and consider a few other aspects of spells and spellcasting.
About the Author
Skip Williams keeps busy with freelance projects for several different game companies and was the Sage of Dragon Magazine for many years. Skip is a co-designer of the D&D 3rd Edition game and the chief architect of the Monster Manual. When not devising swift and cruel deaths for player characters, Skip putters in his kitchen or garden (rabbits and deer are not Skip's friends) or works on repairing and improving the century-old farmhouse that he shares with his wife, Penny, and a growing menagerie of pets.
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