Friday, May 7, 2010

Spells Through the Ages -- Levels

Over at Grognardia, when James M. kindly gave a shout-out to our "Spells Through the Ages" series, a commentator named Telecanter made a suggestion that caught my fancy: "a poster that shows the history of spells through time-- when they are introduced, how they move level, or get renamed etc." I found that I really wanted to see something like that myself. What follows isn't a complete illustration of every detail of all D&D spells; it's just a starting point, focusing on spell levels alone. Hopefully this will serve as a road map, suggesting particular points of interest for future articles in this series.

To make the overall project manageable, I'm identifying a body of work that I'll call D&D's "core wizard spells", defined here as the level 1-6 magic-user spells, as found in OD&D Sup-I (Greyhawk). Some of the reasons for this restriction: (1) It's generally a convenient size to work with; (2) priority is given to things relevant in my own game, which uses the 6 spell levels as in the original LBBs; and (3) the whole thing fits elegantly on one sheet of paper (front & back). One might consider sticking to just the LBB lists themselves, but so many idiomatic D&D spells appear first in Sup-I (magic missile, shield, darkness, mirror image, web, etc.) that I couldn't bring myself to do so.

This picture (links to full PDF) tracks the levels of these spells along the progression of Chainmail, Original D&D, AD&D 1st Edition, AD&D 2nd Edition, D&D 3rd Edition, and the D&D 3.5 Revision. Highlights indicate changed spell levels. Name changes are not tracked (names presented here in the most common form, usually as per 1E.) Spells are overall categorized by the most common level they appeared in (usually as OD&D, sole exception: rope trick). Comments proceed afterwards:

Now, the first thing that stands out here is the enormous amount of continuity in the first four editions of the game. Only three of these spells ever changed levels in the entire 20-year progression from Chainmail, to OD&D, 1E, and 2E. (These being darkness, phantasmal force, and rope trick; one of these being my already-scheduled next posting in the series.) And that's emblematic of the fairly small changes that otherwise occurred for spells (and other rules) throughout this whole era of the game. Tradition was strong and easily communicable here.

With WOTC's 3E, we see the beginning of a break with this tradition. There are nineteen changes among these core spells, just for this edition alone. "We are fundamentally willing to change potentially anything about this game," they seem to be saying. Some spells are just outright eliminated (extension, massmorph). Several are redacted from the wizard's list, being reserved for other classes (detect evil, growth of plants, reincarnation). Many have their effects assimilated into other spells (conjure elemental & invisible stalker sucked into the summon monster series; lower water & part water combined into control water). Several others merely have their level tinkered with (including the classic 1st-level spells light, detect magic, and read magic being downgraded to 0-level "cantrips").

In the 3.5 revision, we see five level changes as compared to the 3.0 rules. These are all tweaks to spells in the higher-level categories of 4th-6th. (In particular, the polymorph spells took on radical alterations.) My impression here is that it's not quite representational of the overall number of changes in the 3.5 spell list, which is renowned for having made hundreds of small, fiddly, hard-to-remember changes throughout the whole spell catalog.


  1. Interesting! I'd note that the elimination of the Extension series of spells is likely due to the introduction of the Extend Spell metamagic feat.

    To me, the introduction of feats probably represents the greatest change going from TSR D&D to WotC D&D.

  2. Thanks for that. It's interesting.

    I know you've cut clerics from your game but your readers might be interested in a similar examination I did on my blog of cleric spells and how they changed over time.