How Dungeons and Dragons magic works is an integral part of the world. I have played D&D for most of my life and I love the magic system.
How Dungeons and Dragons magic works can be split into arcane and divine. It is based on spell levels and the accumulation of experience.
In 5th edition, D&D Dungeons and Dragons magic is a little hard to define. But as someone who first wanted to play a wizard and has ever since, I might be able to adequately describe the system to you.
The magic system
Since time immemorial there has always been 1 system for how Dungeons and Dragons magic works. The spell slot system.
There are 9 spell levels in total. How you unlock these spell levels is by leveling a magic-using class. Not everyone who can use magic can get to 9th level spells. There are hybrids that only reach 6th level magic. Those classes generally have some sort of focus on more martial applications than a pure spellcaster would.
In order to use these spells you need to gain spell slots. Spell slots are gained by leveling in the magic-using class of your choice. The more levels you have with that character the more they should be able to cast. If you were leveling a magic user that is.
There are cross classing mechanics but we will come to those later.
For a pure spellcaster you will gain a new spell slot every level. This may be 2 of the next highest level or you might just gain a few extra slots to already existing levels. Every level gives you more spell slots.
To find out when you get new magic, every spell caster will gain spell slots for a new spell level at odd character levels. This is sort of confusing when put into words so let me simplify it.
Every odd level (1, 3, 5, 7, 9 etc) you will gain access to a new spell level by gaining spell slots for the next highest level of magic.
For characters who can cast spells but are not pure spellcasters, you will gain access to spells at 2nd level. The next time you will gain a higher spell level is at 5th, and every 4th level after that. So 2nd, 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th totaling up to 5th level spells.
For those who are martial but gained spellcasting through archetypes you gain spells at 3rd, 7th, 13th, and 19th totaling up to 4th level spells.
Once you gain these new spell levels you only have limited use of them. If you have 3 spell slots you can only use 3 spells of that level. You only get them back after a long rest unless you are a warlock or have an ability like the wizard’s arcane recovery.
Spells get better as they get higher in level so pure spell casters will have better spells than a hybrid or martial class that gains spellcasting through an archetype. They can do other stuff while pure spellcasters really cannot.
But how do you prepare spells?
Spell preparation is pretty straight forward.
You either only know a certain number of spells and thus have all of them prepared or you have to prepare them normally.
How a normal spellcaster prepares spells is by adding their level + their spellcasting modifier. So if a wizard has 16 intelligence and is a level 2 they can have 5 spells prepared of any level 1-9th that they can cast. The problem is that they are only 2nd level so they can only have 5 1st level spells prepared. If a wizard is 3rd level with 16 intelligence they are able to have 3 1st and 3 2nd level spells prepared, 5 1st and 1 2nd level spell prepared, however, you want to do it as long as 6 spells are prepared.
As a side note, if a spell is a ritual spell you do need to have it prepared to cast it as a ritual. You cannot cast it as an action or normal amount of non ritual time if it is not prepared as well. Ritual spells add 10 minutes to the casting time.
Now that you understand the base system that affects all players, let’s look at the different types of magic.
Arcane vs Divine magic
How Dungeons and Dragons magic works is by either going into arcane or divine. Arcane magic is dealing with the pure raw essence of magic and manipulating it to your will. Divine magic is when some higher power grants you power. Generally, this is a god or some other entity with a divine essence.
The definitions are a bit muddied with warlocks but they are arcane casters. Warlocks may gain power from another entity but that entity does not have any divine essence so it is arcane in nature.
Arcane magic is very versatile and most times more offensive and manipulative. You are manipulating magic to your will. You, therefore, are able to manipulate the world a bit more than a divine spellcaster.
Divine magic is given by a holy being so they are able to grant healing magic. Divine magic can also be used to renew or fortify already existing things. This is why Divine magic has great enhancing abilities and can even be used for necromancy/resurrection.
The only exception to this is bards. Bards can heal and bards break the rules because they are weird.
How you gain your magic is also important and completely changes your view on magic.
How arcane users gain magic
Dungeons and Dragons magic is essentially the same for each class, but how they acquire magic differs a lot.
Wizards gain magic through the intense study of magical arts. They are the closest thing to a scholar in the setting of D&D and view magic just like how we view science. They come up with different classifications, try to figure out how the world/magic works and why. Wizards do all of this to bend reality to their will with their understanding of the world.
On the opposite end, you have bards and sorcerers. They gain their arcane magic through their bloodlines.
Once upon a time, the granddaddy of our bard slept with a dragon and somehow produced that offspring. This offspring led eventually to you. You now have some dragon blood, celestial blood, something supernatural that makes you be able to cast spells. Sort of fitting for a charming bard who seduces everyone.
The same thing applies to sorcerers for draconic heritage but they can also be created by accident. Magic isn’t completely stable and that is why we get wild mages. Magic around these sorcerers might go awry and harm themselves, everyone, or make something beneficial/neutral happen instead of the intended spell.
Warlocks gain their power through bargaining with an entity that is very powerful. This entity is not divine in nature and usually, a bargain of some sort is struck. It is a mutually beneficial relationship and that means that the warlock might have to do unsavory things to keep their power. Most become warlocks through desperation or moments of weakness.
However, you gain your magical powers affects how you see magic. Wizards see magic as a scientific marvel that can be studied. Warlocks could be terrified of magic but like their new abilities. Bards can either know a bit about it or just joke about not knowing anything. Sorcerers generally know nothing about magic. One day it just happened.
For those who know nothing about magic, you can have even more fun with it. A warlock doesn’t necessarily know that his eldritch blast is called that and a sorcerer wouldn’t likely know the name ‘magic missile.’ Instead, the warlock can say their eldritch blast is a laser. A sorcerer can call magic missiles ‘blue balls.’
You can have fun with how your character views magic based on how the attained their powers. There is nothing funnier than a party who knows magical spells by ‘blue balls’ ‘big boom’ and ‘vanish.’
There is another way to gain magical power.
How divine users gain magic
How Dungeons and Dragons magic works for divine magic users is the same as arcane, but they gain it through a pleasant relationship.
Every cleric has a high opinion of their god. They may fear that god and wish to serve them, admire the great deeds that their god has done, whatever has caused this relationship it is based on respect. Clerics respect their patrons and always at first have a pleasant relationship with their gods. This may change as time goes on, but clerics gain all of their power from their chosen god.
Paladins also most of the time serve a god. Each world varies but how it has always been until 5th edition is that a paladin needs a god and has to be lawful good. Since too many people have played lawful stupid over the years paladins are able to be any alignment and get their powers from a variety of sources.
Paladins gain their powers most of the time from a god and serve as that god’s warrior. They go forth and cleanse evil or now in 5th desecrate good all in service to their god. Paladins can also in 5th edition gain power from the earth itself. The world has always been a source of divine energy so paladins can tap into that.
Speaking of divine energy, there are druids. Druids can worship a god and gain power from it but most druids just worship the land. Worship does not mean to revere and have ceremonies all the time. Worship can be an intense sense of respect and reverence.
Druids protect the land and the land, in turn, protects druids. It is a symbiotic relationship. This also applies to Rangers but in a lesser extent.
Rangers almost never have a diety and while revering the land rever the hunt more than the land itself. This reverence grants them a little bit of insight into natural magic but not nearly as much as druids who are fully devoted to the natural order of things and maintaining a balance.
Divine spellcasters are usually able to incorporate a lot of roleplay. How they gained their power was from something else. There is a relationship that the dungeon master can work with. If you want to give the dungeon master something to work with and possibly make your character more interesting divine magic is a great way to do so.
Magic has been powerful in previous editions and has been limited in some ways for 5th edition DD&D.
How Dungeons and Dragons magic works is tricky. has always been hard to balance. There has always been a power curve where wizards were terrible at level 1 and offensive gods at level 20.
Clerics have always and will always be overpowered since that is how the designers show love to those who heal.
Druids are always interesting and get more powerful as they level.
Bards are either amazingly good or amazingly bad. There is no real in-between.
The warlock and sorcerer are newer editions that use arcane magic in interesting ways.
With wizards eventually becoming gods and other casters also getting more powerful the martial classes wanted to be useful at higher levels. Eventually, it got ridiculous.
A wizard could duel wield like a fighter, hit like a fighter, have as much AC as a fighter, and cast spell while only losing two spellcasting levels.
Wizards also were able to be anti yes. Wizards and other spell casters would be the deciding factor in most situations and be able to ward themselves with over 20 spells. This made them hard to manage, overpowered, and everyone else was there to watch the caster win.
This is why they added a mechanic and changed how spells scale.
Concentration and spell scaling
Concentration is the product of designers asking ‘how can we let others be involved as more than spectators at higher levels?’
The answer they came up with was concentration.
Now how Dungeons and Dragons magic works is much more limited. You cannot have a wizard with fly, protection from projectiles, stoneskin, protection from energy, levitate, and more. Spellcasters now can only concentrate on one spell that uses concentration.
Not every spell uses concentration. Casting magic missile or other instantaneous spells are not concentration based and can be cast even when maintaining concentration on another spell. Spells that do not have an instantaneous effect and last for an extended period of time might have a concentration requirement.
You can only concentrate on one concentration spell. If two are used the first concentration spell is instantly dropped.
This limits spellcasters from becoming gods at higher levels. The designers, however, thought this wasn’t enough because there was a separate problem. Spell scaling. As a spellcaster, your level increased the damage your spells did.
In 1st edition, a 15th level wizard would shoot 8 magic missiles (8d4+8) as a first level spell. In 3rd edition, there was a maximum so that a wizard could only shoot 5 magic missiles (5d4+5). This still wasn’t enough and so they implemented a new spell scaling system to make magic-users more useful at lower levels and not as overpowering at higher levels.
Spells now deal more initial damage and can be scaled with higher spell slots but give minor returns.
For example, A magic missile in 5th edition dead 3d4+3 as a level 1 caster instead of 1d4+1 as it did in 3rd and 1st edition. If you cast the spell at 1st level as a level 15 wizard magic missile will only deal 3d4+3 and not 5d4+5 or 8d4+8.
You can still make the first level spell more powerful, but it is most of the time not worth it. Most damaging spells can be scaled up by using a higher-level spell slot. So a 15th level wizard can use an 8th level spell slot to deal 10d4+10. This is much higher than the previous editions but it takes an 8th level spell slot and not a 1st level spell slot.
The change to spell scaling has made spellcasters more useful in the early game, more versatility in how they use their spells, and overall weaker scaling on spells.
Now the difference between spellcasters is lessened by a great deal and a 15th level fighter could kill a 15th level wizard. On the opposite end of leveling, a 1st level wizard could take out a 1st level fighter.
How Dungeons and Dragons magic works is a complex topic that is sometimes hard to understand.
Here I hope that I have given you a good guide on how magic works and how to approach it in-game. I did not cover the schools of magic and might do so later.
I once again hope that you enjoyed this article and if you need spellcasting tables and if you want to learn about how to use potions in your game then check out our affiliate at Dungeon Vault for ways to make potion creation in your games more fun.
Just in case your DM does something different check with them about the world and how they did their worldbuilding.
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