14 July 2023

The Unmagical Magic of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

Time for another “airing of grievances” with respect to 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons!

I previously complained about the way resting and healing work in 5e – as well as noting some options for ‘fixing’ these problems, including options from the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Into the Unknown 5e variant. (I suspect that 99% of 5e players either ignore or are ignorant of these options in the DMG. But it’s only fair to note that they are indeed there; the designers of 5e were not oblivious to the possibility that some groups might not like the default “cartoon superhero” mode of the 5e rules.)

My other big complaint about 5e D&D concerns the magic system. Magic, and spellcasting in particular, is laughably common and easy. Spellcasters can cast cantrips without end, as well as the “ritual” versions of spells, including ones like “Identify,” “Detect Magic,” and “Alarm.” Moreover, magic-users … er, wizards, recover a number of spells following a short rest (one hour in the standard 5e rules) thanks to their “Arcane Recovery” ability.

The upshot of this is a game in which spells are ridiculously common. In my experience, no magic item goes unidentified for more than a few minutes, characters communicate via magical iPhones (the “Message” cantrip), campsites are surrounded with “Alarm” spells (making it almost impossible for the party to ever be surprised, except for attacks from the air or from below), and so forth. I certainly don’t blame my players for using their characters’ spells in these ways – they’re making intelligent use of the resources available to them! I applaud their excellent playing of the game – it’s the game itself that annoys me.

Hence its spell system is another reason why 5e D&D does not resemble at all “old school” D&D or AD&D, wherein spells were a precious commodity (at least until characters were of very high level) and “short rests” did not exist. 

If I were to “fix” 5e D&D so that it had more of a classic feel, I would: 
  • Either eliminate cantrips altogether or allow them to be cast only a limited number of times per day (perhaps equal to the character’s proficiency bonus).
  • Require that spells with the “ritual tag” be cast as “rituals” (i.e., take 10 minutes to cast) and take up spell “slots” (so no endless casting of Alarm, Identify, etc.). 
I note (yet again) my positive experience with the Adventures in Middle-earth roleplaying game based upon 5e D&D (the second edition of which is called The Lord of the Rings RPG). That experience led me to have a high opinion of the 5e core mechanics. And I do think that the core of 5e can make for an excellent game. But the way in which 5e D&D handles rest, recovery, and spells – all elements entirely reworked by AiME/LotR – has made me conclude that I never want to run 5e D&D RAW again.

[Trampier's classic "Emirikol" picture from the 1e AD&D DMG]

[2023-08-01: Edited to add the reference to wizards’ “Arcane Recovery” ability in the third paragraph.]


  1. Ah yes, Emirikol the Chaotic, serving as a terrible example of his alignment for almost half a century now.

    The facing page is far more entertaining, what with the impressive variety of different "Harlot" sub-types on the NPC town encounters chart. "We're not leaving the red light district till I get a Saucy Tart result!"

    The fact that the only result on that chart that has more subtypes is "Drunk" says something unpleasant about Gygax's mindset.

    1. I love those crazy DMG tables! I only regret that I usually forgot to consult them when in the midst of running my games.

  2. I wish to point out that in 5E, wizards and sorcerers only get their spells back after a LONG rest, not a short rest. Meaning they cannot spam all their spells with impunity. If your players are telling you otherwise, they are hoodwinking you. Warlocks get theirs back after a short rest, but may only cast two spells from a very limited list.

    1. Actually, Wizards *can* recover some of their spells after a SHORT rest. From the PHB:
      “Arcane Recovery:
      You have learned to regain some of your magical energy by studying your spellbook. Once per day when you finish a short rest, you can choose expended spell slots to recover. The spell slots can have a combined level that is equal to or less than half your wizard level (rounded up), and none of the slots can be 6th level or higher.
      For example, if you’re a 4th-level wizard, you can recover up to two levels worth of spell slots. You can recover either a 2nd-level spell slot or two 1st-level spell slots.“

    2. The “Arcane Recovery” ability quoted above is available to *all* Wizards at 1st level.
      (BTW, these “Anonymous” comments are from Akrasia, the author of the blog — for some reason I can’t sign in right now!)

    3. I’ve edited the post to specify the “Arcane Recovery” ability in the 3rd paragraph. (For some reason, I can sign in to edit posts but not when commenting on those posts.)


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).