I’ve been running a lot more D&D 5e recently, and there are always a few pieces of the Vancian style magic sub-system that rankle me. Overall it’s great, simple enough, and conforms to the tropes of D&D. Mages can cast fireball and prestidigitation, some of the cheesiness of “Shut down the situation” type spells is mitigated or gone, and the simple “grants advantage when situation matches X, Y, and Z” is a phenomenal easy bump system that prevents the +42 to skill check of Pathfinder 1e and D&D 3.5. All that being said, there are some places where the limitations in 5e’s magic system are just… dumb. A lot of it is carried through from other editions and fits tropes that work in some arenas, but not others. So, without anymore caterwauling about 5e’s magic system, here are the five changes you should make to your D&D 5e magic system RIGHT NOW!
1. The minimum range for any spell is touch
This is one of my biggest gripes about a lot of spells. As a wizard, why can’t I cast Alter Self on the rogue. They’re far better at the infiltration. Why can’t I pump the fighter with Blur or drop Comprehend Languages on our animal companion? I don’t want to Contact Other Plane to reach out to the dread demon you want to contact, but I’ll totally cast it on your character’s idiotic butt. Divine Favor? Why can’t I bless our monk before they go into one on one battle against their corrupted teacher?
The minimum range of Self cuts off a lot of narrative options, and it’s there to try to grant the illusion of balance to the situations. However, caster classes feel very limited when they can’t use their magic for other people. Removing the range of self (in 99% 0f the cases) means you can do more interesting things with the utility spells. If you feel you need to nerf it a bit, you could add the concentration requirement, but allowing these spells to affect others just feels more realistic and useful. In a world where magic is formulae and patterns (imagine it like coding with reality), someone has to have written versions of self spells that affect others, so just wave away the limitation and let your casters become more utilitarian.
2. Spell lists need to be fungible and allow some versatility
This idea won’t be super popular and breaks some of the “my class is special because we’re the only ones who can ____,” but let spell lists be fungible and malleable. A wizard or sorcerer should be able to cast cure wounds if they want to, maybe with a penalty. The Druid spell list (in my humble but not wrong opinion) sucks. There are many things I would love to do as a forest mage that a druid just can’t do. I’ll just play a wizard and pretend to be a druid. Why oh why can only wizards and bards cast magnificent mansion? That feels like a great warlock spell or druid spell – here’s an extradimensional space for you to have as your evil lair / hidey space in the woods. Sure, there are some narrative tropes you kill with this, and if those are in place in your game it’s not for you, but if your game setting can bear a little versatility, letting people get a little slippery with their spell lists is a great way to increase options for characters.
If you want to limit it, just up the levels. You can learn a druid version of Mage’s Mansion as an 8th level spell, or it costs extra spell slots. For combat spells like Fireball or Lightning Bolt, sure, more of your players may be damage dealers, but so do your NPCs, and you can prep higher-level encounters because you know your players can handle it. My favorite way to open up spell lists when I feel a need to limit things is tied into a later suggestion about spell points, but it’s easy to say yes you can learn the 3rd level Lightning Bolt as a druid, it just costs 1.5 extra to cast. You have to “hack” the spell formula a bit, and that means more energy. It’s not going to become a staple because of the off-provider spell list tax, but it becomes an option and a way for a player to not give up their chance at a cool spell while also having their shapechanging.
3. All magical classes need a way to “level up” in their magic throughout play without being fully restricted to their class
Again, breaking SOME of the narrative tropes, but all magical classes need ways to gain or learn new spells. Sure, wizards can have a million spells but only prepare 15 and sorcerers are supposed to only have a few bits of magic that they innately channel, but there should be a new way to learn more spells / gain more prepared spells / increase your knowledge as a magic user. My gripe with the sort of idea that all magic users are bound by very strict rules is that it just isn’t realistic. For my day gig I’m primarily a front end developer who makes stuff look pretty, but that doesn’t mean I don’t write some backend SQL to interface with the database. It doesn’t mean I don’t rework database schema or handle server configurations. It’s not my bread and butter and I always have to refresh on the “grammar” of coding when I get into those arenas, but I can do it and have built more than a few go-to scripts and backend options that I can pull out. Magic feels very similar to coding to me. You are writing new code into reality, channeling what’s there in the mystic realm. Maybe wizards get to just write down everything, but why can’t sorcerers pick up a few extra tricks along the way. Why can’t warlocks figure out a way to gain a few more spell slots or clerics and paladins gain some more options? Sure, some sources of magic come from external sources, but magical knowledge isn’t restricted. Are the divine deities and other power givers micromanaging everything for their followers? Forgotten Realms / D&D deity style, probably not. I see it more as setting up structures and allowing favored people to tap into them. That means there is still some arcane knowledge that could be there.
Here are a few things I like to allow that can be achieved through play / sidejobs / extra bonuses to reward cool narrative play.
- Classes with spell slots and “pull from list” style magic casting can undergo quests to learn magic outside their class, gain extra spell slots at certain levels.
- Classes that need to prepare spells each day can find ways to add spells to their spell lists and can learn how to add extra “slots” to your prepared spell list. The paladin CHA + 1/2 paladin level may be upgradeable to CHA + paladin level.
- Warlocks with their cast often and take short rests all the time can increase their number of spell slots every few levels through service to their patron or finding a way to eek more power out.
- Sorcerers can add more spells to their Spells Known list through study and learning, but it takes a lot longer than a wizard just copying a spell into the spellbook.
The crux of this suggestion is let your players spread their wings to learn new things / expand their options. You control balance in the game and if the players want to play out something, give them a reward. If it makes them too powerful, well they’re still having fun probably and enjoy not feeling like they’re about to die.
4. Use spell points, not spell slots
This one is pretty easy – use the spell point variant from the DMG. Since it’s not SRD I won’t link to an unofficial source, but the crux of it is:
- Spells get cast by using points instead of slots.
- A 1st level spell costs 1 point, a 2nd level costs, 3, a 3rd level costs … etc.
- You gain a set number of points per level (based on caster type) but can’t cast above a certain level of spell. At 10th you get 64 points and can cast 5th level spells.
What this opens up is the ability to not pick and choose between spells as much. It’s 100% D&D official and implementing it will give players the chance to “just do” the magic they find fitting rather than worrying as much about preparing beforehand. Again, breaks some narrative tropes and that may not be for your game, but mechanics-wise it feels better. The only thing that will save you from this monster is its weakness to acid. You can waste a bunch of higher-level slots, or just cast it again. If the tone of your game is more combative and dire, it may not work, but it lets utility casters not have to choose as much. You can always probably dredge up a few spell points from your reserve of mana while still saving back 5 for that fireball you just may need.
5. Casting times need to be shortened for many spells that have 10 minute casting times
Last one and it’s fairly situational, but I HATE seeing a casting time of 10 minutes on some spells. I get the idea, I see where the devs want to keep some of the spell cheesiness out of combat, but sometimes this goes way too far especially with other limitations to prevent “cheese”. I’m looking at you 5th edition fabricate. So, lower the casting times on a lot of the spells. My advice, take them each down a step.
- 10 minutes changes to 1 minute
- 1 hour changes to 10 minutes
- 8 or 12 hours changes to 1 or 2 hours
- 24 hours (only hallow) … sometimes change to 2 hours
One more thing, as I duck out of the way of the rotten tomatoes, do the same for rituals. Almost all rituals are 1 minute. Wait, what, why? Well, for me it’s about limiting the player chafing and flow of the game. Players want to preserve options and if they can cast something as a ritual, they will.
Mage: I cast detect magic as a ritual.
GM: What do the rest of you do for 10 minutes while the guards are looking for you and will likely have searched this area by then?
Other players: Uggh, no we’re not taking that much time. Fine, I sit and wait.
From a narrative perspective, a long ritual or casting time pauses everything. No one would watch a movie where the main hero charges up for a long time while everyone else sits around… except old school Dragon Ball Z fans, but even then we make fun of that malarkey. A 1 minute casting time makes most of these spells non-combat tenable but removes a lot of the friction of using them otherwise. Spells with very long casting times are all about the narrative anyways. Sure, it may be a 1 hour ritual for astral projection, but if it’s 10 minutes it feels less onerous. An 8 hour ritual for awaken makes some sense, but what are you doing the whole 8 hours? Tinkering, puttering, meditating? Sure, maybe. Those are great spell descriptions from a narrative sense, but we’re also playing a game and need to honor the players’ take on the narrative. If they want to awaken a tree to stand watch, maybe make the duration 8 hours then. If they want to do it to honor the tree as part of their druidic ceremonies and it stays awakened, make it 8 hours of meditation and chanting. The crux is to make sure that characters don’t have to just sit around while one person does everything, even if it’s the same number of real world minutes.
The whole point of these sorts of changes is narrative and fun. Again, if the narrative tone of your games is very low magic, this doesn’t work. If it’s fairly standard D&D or anything with more accessible magics, it makes the play so much smoother, the options so much more available, the personal choices so much more meaningful, and the challenge rating of creatures you can throw at your party much higher. Limitations are good sometimes, and sometimes they fit awkwardly. These changes aren’t for everyone, but for a lot of games out there they will let your players feel like their characters are far more capable and interesting. They won’t feel as cookie cutter based on the classes. Give these changes a try and let me know what other changes you make to your magic systems in your games.