D&D Next Magic System – A Flexible Vancian?

By Ken Wai Lau

D&D next magic

Fly catching – Wizards do it better.
Artwork © by Mürsel

Magic has always been an integral part of D&D and having access to some form of it is pretty much a requirement for any adventuring group. Clerics, Druids and Wizards rely a lot on their ability to use magic and as they become more powerful, they can bend reality in ways that no one else can.

To prevent magic users from running away with it completely, previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons have attempted to impose a hard limit on the use of magic. The system used in D&D is a system called ‘Vancian’ which is based on spell preparation and ‘fire and forget’ mechanics. The D&D Next magic system retains the need for spell preparation, but there is also a level of flexibility that was not there before.

As I’ve never played 4e, I will be mostly comparing D&D 3.5 with D&D Next.

So what are the differences between previous editions and D&D Next when it comes to spell preparation?

  • Preparation time for spells is a lot shorter.
  • Spells can be prepared any time of the day, not just when you wake up in the morning.
  • You don’t have to prepare all your spells at once. Prepare some later in the day if needed.
  • You only need to prepare each spell once (more on this later).
  • You can skip the entire process entirely by keeping the same list of prepared spells from the previous day.

It’s common to have a handful of spells that get used over and over again, while others are sitting on the shelves gathering dust.

The D&D Next spell system would be useful in that you don’t have to prepare those largely redundant spells until you really needed them.

It also takes some of the guesswork out of the game and helps to eliminate frustrations that might occur when you discover there’s a spell you need right now, but did not prepare because you didn’t think you needed it.

So those are your preparation mechanics. What about the actual spellcasting mechanics?

  • Spellcasters in Next have a certain number of spell slots per day per spell level.
  • When you cast a prepared spell, you expend a spell slot – not the spell itself.
  • Each prepared spell can be cast as many times as required, limited by available spell slots.

The simplest way to explain this is to think ‘D&D 3.5 sorcerer’, but with the ability to chop and change your ‘spells known’ each day (limited only by what is in your spellbook).

As an example, a cleric who has prepared the 1st-level spells, Cure Wounds and Protection From Evil has three level 1 slots. He can cast Cure Wounds three times, Protection From Evil three times or any combination of Cure Wounds and protection from evil.

No Longer A Conjuror Of Cheap Tricks

Cantrips are also worth mentioning and the mechanic appears to have been carried over from 4e.

Each magic user begins life knowing three cantrips and they can be used as many times as desired, without limit.

Some cantrips become more potent as you grow in power, making them far more useful than they were in D&D 3.5.

In particular, spells such as Ray of Frost can be a great substitute for a normal ranged weapon at higher levels.

Clerics also get offensive cantrips of their own (as do druids), but since their specialty is healing, they get a nifty little spell that can stabilise a dying character with a swift action.

In short, cantrips take on a greater importance now and it’s worth taking the time to choose your cantrips carefully when you create your character.

Opportunity Missed

Perhaps I’ve not gotten deep enough into the game yet, but it appears that magic users will no longer have anything to fear from disruption (losing a spell from being hit in the process of casting a spell).

I guess this was added in order to protect spellcasters, but given how lethal magic can be at low levels, it could be problematic for low level fighters trying to face off against the lowly floor-sweeping apprentice.

Again, it seems as though magic users are heavily favoured. A low level fighter still has a chance to miss an unarmoured wizard, but a wizard will score a hit all day long with his magic missile.

Magic is limited, so it still has to be used sparingly. However, the DM should have no such concerns, nor would he have a reason to hold back. I’ve come across scenarios in Vault of the Dracolich where I am faced by several level 1 adepts, each armed with up to two inflict spells that do 3d8 damage each, the only defence being a saving throw.

That said, nothing is more frustrating to a player than losing a spell when hit by an attack of opportunity – or failing the concentration check to avoid the attack in the first place.

Some spells will also require material components and there’s no getting around that by using a feat, which I think is a shame.

The Good News

It’s not all bad, though – I think this magic system is great. There’s more freedom in being able to cast whatever is needed at the time (as long as you have it prepared), rather than being restricted to X number of prepared Magic Missiles and that’s it.

I like how some of the cantrips scale with level now and how they continue to be useful over a longer period of time during a spellcaster’s career. The downside is that the at will mechanics might result in imbalance between the martial oriented classes and the magic users, though I have yet to truly test this out.

If you have played with the magic system in D&D Next, how did you find it? How much do you think the D&D Next magic system has improved over the Vancian casting of previous editions? Let me know below.

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