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D&D Basic: The Rules of Magic

When last we left our intrepid blogger, I discussed Combat and Conditions in D&D Basic, focusing particularly on how the rules had changed between the playtest packet and the final. This time, it's Part Three, the Rules of Magic. In June of last year, I wrote about the spells of the then-current playtest packet in detail; the spell list is much shorter in Basic (though there are some all-new spells as well), and that does interesting things to the game (especially as discussed in the Blog of Holding.)

Spellcasting itself starts us off. This section as a whole is minimally changed from the playtest packet, and on the whole these rules have been stable throughout. Most of what we see here are minor clarifications, but there's at least one big honking OMG change: Concentration. Previously, taking damage didn't force Concentration checks in itself. An attack had to specify that it disrupted Concentration - the default state was that it did not. It's hard to overstate how big of an effect this has on spell use. Even a DC 10 Constitution save (the minimum, for taking even one point of damage) is a tough time when the relevant classes don't get to apply proficiency. This makes it a good idea, perhaps an excessively good idea, to class-dip into fighter or some other class that grants a proficiency bonus to Con saves.

There is nearly no point in a cleric buffing herself and wading into combat, with maybe the sole exception of shield of faith - if you can price your AC out of the enemy's hit range, then all right. The wizard's Concentration-duration spells are a bit more useful out of combat, and the class is built on the assumption that wizards will stay as far from harm as possible. That's not much help when it comes to enemy spellcasters and ranged attackers - if they have any ability to recognize Concentration-duration spells, they'll focus fire on the wizard and that will be that. The same is true for PCs attacking NPC spellcasters, because we can assume that PCs will think to target casters with the temerity to use Concentration-duration effects.

Is this a problem, or is it just something you've got to look out for if you're going to play a spellcaster? Well, 42 of 121 spells (34.7%) in the Basic rules have a Concentration duration. That's a serious chunk. If the game is going to make you run at best a 25% chance of losing a spell, and is going to make the overwhelming majority of buffs cost your action to cast (only six spells are cast with a bonus action), the Concentration rule is a bad problem.

A few other factors interact with Concentration as well: spells cast with the Ready action, and spells with casting times longer than one action. I think it will prove to be a mistake to have all of these things competing for the single Concentration slot, as these spells rapidly restrict other options: forget about using the Ready action to cast, casting rituals (7 of 121), or spells with a long casting time (14).

Don't get me wrong. At its fundamental level, Concentration is a work of excellence. In 3.x, the buff metagame went to a bad place; I don't think it goes to far to say that dynamics of buffs are the key to many of the two editions' problems. Scry-Buff-Teleport? Still potentially dangerous in 5e thanks to the advantage of surprise (presuming that scrying returns in the PH in roughly the form shown in the playtest packet). Complicated tracking of bonuses and durations? Mostly gone - there are still a few buffs that aren't Concentration-based, and all the more important for it, such as aid, death ward, freedom of movement, and heroes' feast. Even so, we're looking at a massive reduction. The other side of that same problem is reduced in scope as well: getting dispelled no longer means a few minutes of recalculating (unless the target is only using those non-Concentration buffs). Though it does not begin to solve the problem of the 15-minute adventuring day, by reducing reliance on buffs overall and giving some of the non-Concentration buffs quite long durations, it takes some of the edge off of that problem. It does mean DMs have to keep track of which NPC caster is running which effects, so that those effects end correctly as NPCs start dying.

One more oddity: judging by the magic items in the D&D Starter Set, potions can include effects that would otherwise have a Concentration duration. Except that, since there's no "caster," there is no one to disrupt - which means the invisibility found in a potion of same is objectively more powerful than an invisibility cast by your third-level wizard buddy. This bothers me on the principle of Same Name, Same Effect - a much more important design law in LARPs than tabletop games, but still useful here. That's a major wrinkle in magic item creation rules - if I can get a superior effect and conserve a spell slot by spending cash on this item... well, the whole use of Concentration to control buff usage just died in a fire.

The important fix is easy: use the playtest document's rule for interrupting Concentration, so that disrupting Concentration is a special trait of some kinds of attacks and effects, rather than having anything to do with damage. For that to work, of course, you'll have to give PCs some form of disruption, and there's no universal mechanic for per-encounter attacks. One alternative that might work is adding disruption as a feature of crits - I think that once the other fighter archetypes come out, the Champion is going to lose much of its luster, and this might help. It would make disruption unreliable, but a side effect of a "correct" approach to the encounter in the first place. A solution that I don't really like, but that should at least be on the table, is making disruption a carrier effect that you can attach to any other damaging effect once per short rest, for the cost of a feat. I can't help but note the newest Legends & Lore post mentions a feat called Mage Slayer...

I think I have beat this drum more than enough. Let's move on to Components. In a thread on Facebook following up from my post, a reader asked whether, by the rules-as-written, a wizard could cast spells with Somatic components while wielding both a wand and a longsword. (Rules-as-written are important to the question because of intended Organized Play use.) The answer is ambiguous: under Somatic (S), the rules state: "If a spell requires a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures." However, under Material (M), the rules state: "A character can use a component pouch or spellcasting focus (found in chapter 5) in place of the components specified for a spell." The question thus amounts to, "Does the phrase 'in place of the components' apply to verbal and somatic components as well as all material components?"

The answer I gave him - and he knows I am not The Sage (also not this guy) - is that yes, it seems to be intended that a wizard could use a weapon in one hand and a wand in the other. To arrive at this interpretation, I checked the Arcane Foci and Holy Symbols in the Equipment chapter. Specifically, clerics and paladins are expected to bear holy symbols on their shields, among other options. There's not even the faintest implication that the cleric or paladin needs to sheathe, drop, or otherwise remove a wielded weapon to cast a spell. Nor do the rules suggest that clerics and paladins interact with the spell component requirements any differently from wizards. Through this (potentially specious) logic, I concluded that yes, spellcasting foci are intended to replace not only Material components, but Somatic as well. (This is particularly easy to accept for a wand, rod, scepter, or staff - things with which gesticulating is quite natural.) I'd like to see some official clarification on this point, though.

One last surprise: D&D Basic presents the Weave of Magic from Forgotten Realms as multiversal canon. It's not important - nothing could be easier than not engaging with that content - but it's still a weird way to go in Basic rules. I think it's the only hardcore FR canon in the whole document.

Before I move on to Spells, I want to make one last point about the high-level design of spells and spellcasting. There are a lot of mechanical hooks and levers to play with here. The kind of action or amount of time required to cast, the duration (Concentration or otherwise), rituals, cast range (self-only, touch, or longer), the variety of benefits that might come from using a higher-level slot (more damage, longer duration, more targets, and so on), and all of the possibilities around components... that's just the start. I'm really interested in the change to spell preparation in 5e - it combines with the option to use higher-level slots to radically increase flexibility while getting rid of some nearly-redundant spells. I think there's still some interesting ground to be staked out there. For example, what if you had a spell that could be prepared in more than one way - either with a creature's True Name, for additional effect against that one being, or without, for general utility against a wide variety of targets?

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