Saturday, October 3, 2020

My Problem with D&D's Magic

First of all, let me inform you that this article will be reposted both on my blog and on the reddit, plus the reddit will be linked on several discord servers I’m a member of. The reason why is because I need as many opinions as possible, and I want to get a discussion going. I would prefer the most if your responses were on the reddit post, due to the ability to directly reply to other replies while keeping things organized and easier to read. If you can’t reply here for some reason, you can reply on the blog, or ping me on the Discord on which you saw this with your reply. Thank you.

Core Problem

Admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing the problem. I’ve been burned out for about three months, unable to DM my D&D campaigns. It’s for multiple reasons, some of which include the slow erosion of my group’s enthusiasm for the games, their need to overthink the problems at hand, and the worldwide situation these days. But none of those can compare to my biggest problem. I don’t have enough suspension of disbelief in my own worlds anymore. I can’t seem to run high hard magic worlds, and I don’t know how to move on, how to solve this problem, which is why I’m writing all of this. I need help.

In order to clear some things up, let’s start with some definitions.

Magic Alignment

Who here loves alignment charts? Love or hate them, there’s one for magic systems and I need to talk about it in order to properly address my issue. I’ll try to avoid getting too wordy with these, since this essay is already gonna be very long, so I apologize ahead of time if there will be any oversimplifications.

On one axis, there’s the hardness of magic. Hard magic has defined rules, soft magic barely has any. A neat way to think of the purposes of these is that hard magic is a solution, and soft magic is a problem, very generally speaking.

On the other axis, you have high and low magic. I have written in the past about various types of low magic, so I know this is not a good thing to turn into a one dimensional spectrum. For now, let’s just put forward some types of low magic, and assume there are opposite types of high magic:

  • low power: magic that’s not that powerful (throwing firebolts / throwing fireballs / casting meteors from the sky)
  • low frequency: magic that’s not so frequent (a single wizard in a tower / a wizard school / a city where anyone can cast magic to some extent)
  • low possibility: magic that can do very few things (one school of magic / some schools of magic / all schools of magic)
  • low reliability: magic that’s prone to not doing what you expect it to (think wild magic sorcerer compared to most other spellcasters)

Statement: D&D’s magic system is assumed to be mostly hard, and either medium or high on all of the types described above. Proof:

  • With relatively few exceptions, such as wild magic surges or the wish spell used for something that’s not a spell nor on its list, magic is very predictable, and assumed to be a tool to be used by the players to solve their problems. Therefore, it’s mostly hard and in the majority of the cases medium or high reliability magic.
  • Wish exists, therefore high power magic. Okay, jokes aside, the D&D’s magic is capable of so many powerful things, that it would be ridiculous to say it’s not high power, RAW. Casting meteors, cancelling magic in areas, becoming immune to all damage temporarily, imprisoning things potentially forever, and literally making your wishes come true… Keep in mind that the fact that the game has you start with cantrips and low level spells doesn’t mean that this magic doesn’t exist in the world. Therefore, it’s high power magic.
  • The only thing I can think of that D&D’s magic can’t do is time travel. And even that is something that some homebrews try to fix, as well as one monster in the Monster Manual. Oh wait, it can in theory be done with a wish, assuming the DM is benevolent enough to let it. Even then, there’s very little that magic can’t do. Therefore, it's a high possibility magic.
  • Now the frequency is the hardest one to prove, because it depends on the world your players are in. Dark Sun has less magic than Eberron (though it has psionics, but I’m not gonna bother with that). Best I can get regarding the intended frequency is Creating a Bard section, which suggests you could be an apprentice to someone else, or have attended a college (or something else). Let’s just agree it’s medium frequency for now and move on.

Reasons for My Issue

To keep this segment short, it’s a culmination of history, options, exploits, information spreading, and believably. Most of the worlds are hundreds if not thousands of years old, and have all the magic in the PHB, possibly XGE, allowed (possibly with few exceptions like a common ban on the wish I see here and there). Some people however like to be optimal and invent new ways of using spells, which could mean that they’d figure out all sorts of exploits, for the better or worse. This information could spread to other settlements, whether by merchants, adventurers, or other people who travel often for one reason or another. Which, in my opinion, means that the more common a spell is, the more likely someone is to know of it, and thus of some commonly known ways of countering it. After all, in real life we iterated over the course of hundreds of years on all aspects of real life, patching flaws up with new ways constantly in an ongoing arms race. It’s not something I see done often though. Let’s do three example scenarios to demonstrate what I mean.

  • Shop. You are a person who buys and sells goods. But how can you make sure that you’re not buying something cursed? How do you protect against mind-influencing magics of 2nd level that would force you to give people anything they want for free? What if they’ll just fireball your shop? Or turn the thing they want invisible, and bring it out?
  • Prison. Imagine you’re put in a completely average nonmagical prison. What’s the easiest way to get out using magic? Misty step. Alright, you improve the prison by removing windows or any openings one could see through. You cast a different spell. Okay, how about we put a gag in the caster’s mouth and tie their hands behind their back? Well, they can eventually untie them and ungag themselves with a free hand. Even if they couldn’t, they could still cast their spells if they were a sorcerer with Subtle spell metamagic option, assuming the spell doesn’t need a Material component. Dimension door would require you to build your prisons either 500ft underground or 500ft up in the air, and even then… someone else could just use a different teleportation spell to port in, grab the person, and port out. So you say screw it, cast the Mordenkainen’s private sanctum, and prevent all teleportation. Except what if they are a druid? They just turn into a tiny beast, escaping any constraints you put on them and getting out without really being seen (if they are a spider or a flea or a fly or whatever tiny). Even better if after loosening the gag, they cast invisibility on themselves, and then escape. I guess you could poke out their eyes and cut off their hands and tongue, but… is that an okay thing to do in a game of D&D? What if your table isn’t fine with it? Long story short, you either have to put them in an antimagic field (which is an 8th level spell, so the question is whether every prison can afford it), or put magic-suppressing manacles on them. Maybe you could also keep them at 0 hit points by regularly delivering punches and casts of spare the dying, but you’d need a lot of spellcasters for that if you had a lot of prisoners.
  • Audience with You. So you’re a king, huh? Good job, good job! Except… how close to you are you willing to let that group of adventurers? I mean, it’s kind of hard to tell what everything they are capable of, so they could be hiding their powers in order to surprise you. If they’re within your reach, they could cast bestow curse on you. From 30 feet away, you’re still vulnerable to suggestion or charm person. From 60 feet, you can still be dominated, disintegrated, turned to stone, or affected by the heat metal spell. I could still go on and on, increasing the distances furthermore, but let’s just say that an eldritch blast could have a reach of 600 feet by picking the right invocation and spell sniper, and then there are spells that don’t even really have a range, such as dream. You could be killed in your sleep without anyone knowing. You could be killed by a sorcerer who subtly utters the power word: kill without moving their lips. An adventurer can teleport into your room while you’re asleep, disintegrate you, and teleport out. Enjoy being a king.

And all of that is just three areas that would be everyday matters (kings meet new people every day, right?). Long story short, the words of how magic works would spread, and people would figure out over the hundreds of years of history (or life in some cases) commonplace solutions to some of these problems. Which in turn would be a headache to do. There’s 485 spells in the game already, and with Tasha’s Cauldron, I’m pretty sure we’ll get 15 more. And that’s just assuming people protecting themselves from magic, instead of involving the magic in worldbuilding itself to make the world a better place. I mean, how many of you guys reading this know how to make your own fridge and computer/phone? I assume most of you use these on a daily basis despite not knowing how to create them from the ground up, including all the components inside of them. People who are benevolent would share their magical creations with the public to make the world a better place and be remembered by history for something good they did. But that’s a secondary problem to me, since it relies heavily on the frequency at which magic exists.

With all that said,… what are some of the solution suggestions I’ve received?


  • Limit the Maximum Spell Level. Yes, I plan to do that one actually. I feel like character level 10 is good enough capstone to limit the power of players and anyone else in the world. However, that alone is not a full solution, because that would eliminate about 120 spells from our soon to be 500. Honestly, if it were up to me, I would limit the world’s magic all the way down to cantrips, eliminating nine classes, some subclasses, and some races. But I doubt players would enjoy that being each campaign they are in from now on. I also received a suggestion of “you should try a different system” as a reply to that so many times, that I’m including it in this list.
  • Limit the Availability. Okay, so how common is your world’s magic then? One in one thousand? That means there’s still ten magic users in your settlement of 10,000. And even if you did limit it, that doesn’t mean that since the magic is rarer, less people know about even the roughest things that it’s capable of. Information would still spread, and people would still seek ways of protecting themselves.
  • Eberron. Some people tell me that this is what Eberron is about, and while I like the world for what it is, I still don’t think it addresses the questions of dealing with magic. Just as an example, I went through all the mentions of “prison” in the Exploring Eberron book. While it does have a Grieving Tree eldritch machine that’s a prison and a couple of other things, it doesn’t address stuff like druid wildshaping to escape the grasp of the tree, teleportation, or what would much smaller cities and towns do in order to keep themselves safe. Then again, who knows, maybe it’s mentioned in the other Eberron books that I didn’t go through fully before writing any of this.
  • Different System. I’ve been looking for one, and I have yet to find it. However, I’m doing this because my players are clear about preferring 5e since they’re already familiar with this and we all are busy. I am also working on my own system, but that’s too much to elaborate on here and now.

I need help. I want to entertain myself and my players, but I am too frustrated with 5e’s magic being too… good at doing stuff. A world that’s too familiar with the magic would look very different and have all sorts of preventive measures that would take away from the players’ fun, while a world that’s too unfamiliar with the magic would be too easy to exploit by the players, making them and me as a DM ask “Why haven’t they thought of this yet?”

I hope this starts a discussion. Sorry if it’s too long, but I needed to collect all of my thoughts in one place on this topic. Thank you for reading, and have a nice day!

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