Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spell Levels

My nine year-old daughter occasionally plays in my Dwimmermount campaign when she's not distracted by other activities. Her character, Iriadessa, is a 3rd-level magic-user. She's frequently confused by the way that spell levels don't map on to character levels. I have to admit I share her frustrations. Although three decades of playing D&D has made it second nature to say "Oh, you have to be 9th level before you can cast 5th level spells," it nevertheless rubs me the wrong way.

If I had my druthers, I'd probably rework the spell list so that spell level corresponded better to character level, but I suspect it'd take a lot of work to do right and, even then, would somehow not feel right. Anti-intuitive this convention clearly is, but it's such a longstanding one that changing it would probably step over some imaginary line in my brain and push it toward the dreaded category of "not D&D." Funny how that works sometimes.


  1. A simple fix would just be a name substitution. E.g. instead of 1st level spell, 1st tier spell or 1st circle spell. It keeps all the structure, but reduces word confusion.

  2. The simplest approach would be to change the terminology while leaving the rules unchanged. "My ninth level magic-user casts a fifth order spell on the third floor of the dungeon."

    (Word verification: castring. The act of activating a ring of spell storing?)

  3. I agree that while it doesn't bother me personally, the simplest fix would be a new name. Perhaps "power" as suggested on AD&D PHB p. 8 (last paragraph).

  4. Yep. Confused me when I was a kid as well.

  5. I've got to say, I do wish Gygax had bit the bullet and gone with changing the terminology, as specified in the section Delta points out.

    In the case of magic in particular, changing the terminology is a fantastic way to "personalise" the rules for your campaign - a chance to stamp your view on the metaphysical basis of magic in the campaign setting and how magic is viewed by its practitioners.

    After all, the way magic spell works means that its practitioners can't help but be aware that spells can be split into groups of differing power. How flavourless is it to have your spellcasters talking IC about a 9th level spell, when they could be talking about a spell of the "9th order" or the "9th meditation" or the "9th force"?

  6. Consider just changing the spell levels.

    rename them first level spells, third level spells, fifth level spells, etc.

    When asked "why is there no second level spells" respond.."its magic, and magic is always odd"

  7. Old Ultima games featured a list of spells based on spell circles instead of spell levels. Just a terminology change. They have eight circles and eight spells per circle, evidently for programming reasons. In Ultima Online a spellbook would have a short string of hexadecimal to define the entire contents. Then again there were only 64 spells that could possibly be in the book.

    ZZ: The character level at which you gain access to a new spell is always at an odd level, until you hit 12th to get 6th, 14th to get 7th. 11th level is skipped in the advancement. I'm not entirely sure why they did that. It's not like 6th level spells are the bee's knees.

  8. Heh, my eight-year-old has the same problem. So far, she's just accepting that she can't cast Fly until fifth level on faith.

  9. One of the first things I did (after getting rid of clerics) when I became a GM (way back in 1978) was to change the terminology for spells from "level" to "circle". Bad enough that characters & dungeons had levels, without adding spell levels to the mix.

  10. The relationship between character level and spell level is up there with descending AC for old school, quirky charm. Neither rule makes much sense but my elderly brain would rebel if they were changed.

    I enjoy quirkiness in all walks of life.

  11. I was asked once by one of my players and my answer was along the lines of it's an unfortunate use of the same word for two different things. Level for a character is a measure of their abilities, level for a spell is a measure of the magical difficulty of the spell. They measure two different things, but much like a 2nd level child (i.e. second grader) can do certain types of addition/subtraction, a 3rd level child learns to do more things with addition/subtraction and a 4th level child learns multiplication/division.

    It worked at the time. :)

  12. In Monte Cook's Book of Experimental Might the spell levels for clerics and wizards are divided into 20 levels.

    Might not be lots of help, since it is for 3.5, but I thought it might help.

  13. In-game I have had characters and NPC's refere to spell levels as "circle" rather than level since I was a kid. Not because of the confusing terminalogy, but because I could not see "level" being used as a word for things by characters. It didn't tranlate to us gamers outside of game as "circle though".

    So many of us use "circle," we must have gotten it from a common place. Hell if I know where I got it back then. Doctor Strange comics?

  14. I had the same thought as mace-hammerhand: Monte Cook's method (and Monte Cook is cool, you once said it) But the limited spell list from OD&D will make it weak.

    The EPT method with chances of failure is another possibility.

    Bushido or MERP style spells lists, with a thematic and one spell per level, could work also (but you don't like specialists).

    Also, adjust all spells to level of the spell caster, and allow all of them (at least the level one to six) from level one. At level one, you cats a tiny fireball with one dice of damage. Maybe split in two group : small spells (1-3) and big ones (4-6). Easier to understand for your daughter and all non-geek players ;)

  15. Personally I like "order" or "magnitude" (like in astronomy!)

  16. Man, I have been pondering upon the same exact thing these days. An ancient yet quirky tradition... I figured you change the term 'level' as stated above, or make spell level run parallel to
    m-u level, and perhaps adjust the Xp table for balance. It may seem blasphemous but it just might work, given the right teaking.

  17. "One of the first things I did (after getting rid of clerics) when I became a GM (way back in 1978)..."

    Wow, I wish I'd had your foresight! Took me 30 years to get to that point.

  18. I (think) I figured out where the D&D/notD&D line is:


  19. Why would it take a lot of work? Like Zzarchov said, just rename the spell levels. 3rd level spells become 5th level, 5th level spells become 9th level, etc.

    The only work I'd be tempted to do is to take existing spells for each level and divide them up between two levels. That way, every level you go up you get access to new spells, rather than sitting on your rump every even level.

    old new
    1st 1st
    1st 2nd
    2nd 3rd
    2nd 4th
    3rd 5th
    3rd 6th
    4th 7th
    4th 8th
    5th 9th
    5th 10th

  20. I'm with Reverend Keith. Just rename 2nd level spells as 3rd level spells, 3rd at 5th, etc. Some of the "better" spells at a given level (*cough* Sleep *cough*) can be moved up to 2nd level.

    Spells memorized per level is easy. You memorize one spell of the level you are, and two spells of all the levels beneath that.


    word verification: sinadden. I'll have to remember that for my next Al-Qadim campaign.

  21. Meh. Fireball's 3rd level, Truesight is 6th. More than 9 categories of spells makes it too hard to remember where each one goes, and naming the categories "1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21" (houserules ahoy) makes learning which goes where harder.

    Now, you could go all 4e/WoW and make a 12th level character cast 12th level spells against 12th level monsters to spawn 12th level items, or go the other way and have a 12th level Wizard cast complexity 6 spells against an 8 HD foe carrying a +2 sword. But really, Fireball is a 3rd level spell, and you can't cast those yet.

  22. Because it seemed appropriate...


  23. Although I've considered calling spell levels something different (Books seems more appropriate for me,) I think I'll go the other way and drop the use of "level" for characters. Mainly, because I noticed that, with the old M-U hit die progression (a full hit die every other level,) maximum LBB spell level is equal to hit dice. Change attack bonus to hit dice and drop or fix clerics/thieves and you can just talk about gaining hit dice instead of levels.

  24. In junior high, my roleplaying group made that mistake: 3rd level magic-users who could cast Fireball (go, munchkin, go! :-)

  25. Actually, fireball would be the least of worries, as it would do only 3d6 points of damage at that time.

    --earlier word verification: vance
    how about that?

  26. Conventional wisdom seems to point toward renaming what a 'spell level' is. What if the spell casting classes had an attribute called something to the effect of 'spell caster'. So you would have a 1st level magic-user who is a 1st level spell caster, at 3rd level the magic-user is a 2nd level spell caster, etc. Spell caster is therefore a class feature which progresses as the class advances and keeps caster level in step with spell level. As added effect build some story elements around the caster level, like ordeals or rites of passage to add more color and setting-specific flavor.

  27. Although this is yet another D&D non-issue that is fun to talk about, I think a lot of these "solutions" and "fixes" are a bit like spending a quarter to pick up a dime in terms of effort.

    Why bother? Some of the confusing things about D&D are not really confusing to us. To outsiders sure, but who cares about them? Sure they should have used different terminology, but we only spend maybe two minutes to understand the difference.

    Stumbling through an explanation of it to a new player is all part of the fun.

  28. 4th edition introduced spells (aka powers) to match the spells you can cast with the level you are.