Spells Through The Ages – Ranges

Starting our "Spells Through the Ages" marathon: Today, a longitudinal study of the core D&D spell ranges, and how they were first birthed, changed, and evolved over time. Below you'll see a table for these core spells across Chainmail Fantasy, Original D&D (LBBs & Sup-I), Basic/Expert D&D Rules (Cook & Moldvay), AD&D 1st Edition, AD&D 2nd Edition, and D&D 3rd Edition (PDF version: link).


N/S = Not Specified.
Close = 25 ft + 5 ft/2 levels (3E only)
Medium = 100 ft + 10 ft/level (3E only)
Long = 400 ft + 40 ft/level (3E only)
- = Spell does not exist in this edition.


One of the things you'll see above is that most spells in Chainmail, and many in OD&D, didn't think to specify any range in the first place ("N/S", not specified). At that point in the books, the presence of "standard spell stat blocks" hadn't been invented yet, so it was pretty haphazard about which spells had those aspects defined (although in OD&D you can see a pattern beginning to emerge, with range & duration more often listed at the end of a spell... and more so the deeper into the book you get). The entries in the table above that say "Personal" for these editions are interpretations by myself based on the narrative spell text.

I'd also say that it's frequently the case that right near the beginning of the OD&D spell list, you tend to see a few novelties before Gygax settled down into a more rational series of design decisions. Like: Detect magic, the very first spell in OD&D, just says "It has a limited range and short duration" (this was updated in Sup-I to [Range 6". Duration: 2 turns.], although read languages and read magic were similarly vague, and not so errata'd). Hold portal, the second spell, has a duration of 2d6 turns, which makes it the only spell whose magical duration is a raw dice-roll (transmute rock to mud lasts 3-18 days, but that's due to natural evaporation, not ending the magic; although I should leave that for a later blog). Charm person, the first spell in the Sup-I list of modifications, gets its unique and complicated table for recurring saves based on Intelligence. None of those oddball mechanics get used again in other spells.

OD&D has only two spells whose range is a variable based on level: detect invisible (1"/level) and locate object (6"+1"/level). You'd say the exact same thing about the B/X line, except that while detect invisible is in Moldvay's list of 2nd-level basic magic-user spells, it's actually missing from the text descriptions (and so no range is visible).

Obviously, Chainmail and OD&D show their wargaming roots by listing ranges in tabletop inches. Cook & Moldvay (and Holmes if you look there) convert almost all of these inches to multiples of 10 feet (as asserted for dungeon exploring, first in OD&D Vol-3). Gygax's AD&D 1E keeps the inches but converts most of those fixed ranges to more variable ranges based on level (something which I don't appreciate, as it needlessly complicates things) -- and then Cook in AD&D 2E makes a different choice thereafter, generally converting all the 1E inches to multiples of 10 yards for 2E (as asserted for wilderness adventures, again first mentioned in OD&D Vol-3). Then 3E goes in yet another direction, back to feet for its units, but generally (although not always) establishing fixed categories of Close, Medium, or Long range -- again variable by level (see the Key above).

A very rough correlation between the editions would be:
  • OD&D 6" → 1E ½"/level → 2E 5 yards/level → 3E Close.
  • OD&D 12" → 1E 1"/level → 2E 10 yards/level → 3E Medium.
  • OD&D 24" → 1E 2"/level → 2E 20 yards/level → 3E Long.
Note that 1E AD&D generates the same values as OD&D if we assume a basis of a Wizard 12th level (one step over name level), as Gygax commonly does in examples within the text of various spells.

Some of the terms that we're accustomed to now weren't invented until fairly deep in the edition cycle. For example, the phrase "Touch" range doesn't appear until AD&D 1E in the list above; the only real equivalent in OD&D, remove curse, is listed as "Range: Adjacent to the object" to be de-cursed. In B/X, equivalent spells are usually listed as just range "0" (zero). And on the same line of thought, note that quite a few spells in OD&D which only refer to use by the caster (which could be N/S in OD&D, "0" in BX-1-2E, or "Personal" in 3E) were transitioned in 1E to being castable on another touched subject, greatly increasing their utility and flexibility (reasonable, because while Chainmail-type wizards were all monstrously robust figures on the battlefield, the new low-level D&D magic-users could be paper-frail and would want to avoid contact with the enemy). The spells altered in this way would include: protection from evil, levitate, fly, protection from evil 10' radius, teleport, etc.

A little funky thing with the low-level door-locking spells: note that in OD&D Gygax did not specify any range for hold portal (1st level) or wizard lock (2nd). But in 1E, he gave hold portal the "long" range category of 2"/level, while the supposedly more powerful wizard lock that refers back to it only gets "touch" range (and this tradition stuck in later editions). Meanwhile, the anti-lock spell knock at the same level had a consistent range of 6" throughout 0-1-2E.

On the subject of D&D 3E range classes (Close, Medium, Long, et. al.): there are just a very few places in the list above where 3E breaks out of keyword-style for these categories. For example: the 1st-2nd level detections, detect magic, detect evil, and detect thoughts (formerly ESP), each having a rule-breaking fixed range of 60' (not dependent on level). Which interestingly seems to be a throwback to original D&D -- two of these spells have ranges of "0" or "1/2 inch/level" in 1E-2E, whereas if you look back at OD&D they indeed started out at 6". The only other 3E rule-breakers like that in our population are at 6th level (anti-magic shell at a fixed 10 ft, repulsion at 10 ft/level, and control weather at 2 miles).

Edit: In the comments below, Zenopus Archives makes the excellent point that you can possibly treat Gygax's Swords & Spells fantasy miniature rules as mid-way between OD&D and the Basic sets (esp. Holmes). It contains a pretty complete "Spell Chart" (p. 12-15) listing Range, Area Effect, and Turn Duration for most of the spells in the game -- filling in many of the OD&D N/S entries, and introducing several common terms for the first time ("touch" range, "personal" area effect... but not "permanent", for which it still uses the wordy "until dispelled"). Holmes uses those updated ranges. Interesting tidbit: the Control Weather spell (which I'm currently wrestling with in my game) has a unique range and area listing of "table" (i.e., the game table itself; druidic predict weather and weather summoning similarly have an effect of "game area"). Thanks to Z.A.!

So, at this time I've edited the table above to include a column for the late-OD&D ranges from Swords & Spells (again, thanks to Zenopus Archives for pointing out how useful that is). Probably the weirdest thing I notice in those rules is the large number of spells which list "Range: touch, Area Effect: personal" (which in later editions would be considered contradictory ranges). This area effect entry of "personal" gets used both in cases where the original spell text indicated it's only usable on the caster him or herself (polymorph self, contact higher plane, shape change, etc.), as well as cases where the spell is only effective when cast on others (strength, suggestion, geas, reincarnation, etc.). Therefore it's unfortunately unclear if there's a deliberate change in S&S to some spells that were originally caster-only but later permitted on other subjects (fly, levitate, teleport, etc.). Note also the oddball listing necessary for the Sup-I extension spells (the entries are literally "matches extended spell....").

Are there any other patterns you can see in the list above that seem interesting?


  1. Wow. That is crazy useful. I spent most of last night pouring over spells. Thanks!

    1. Once you get into it, I agree it's kind of fascinating. :-)

  2. Some OD&D spells listed as 'N/S' above are given a range in the Spell Chart in Swords & Spells, and then this range was used by Holmes. The range of 'touch' also first appears in the Swords & Spells chart.

    1. That's a great point. I'll edit the post above to highlight that. Thanks a bunch!

  3. Excellent post! Just a little tidbit about Magic Mouth, not the spell range per se, but the "trigger range," how far away something can be to set the thing off talking. In Holmes, the command range is "N/S" (examples are 10 feet). In 1e it is 1/2" per level. In PF it is 15 ft per level

    1. You're right, and a few other you could make that distinction for: magic jar, dimension door.

  4. Lightning bolt is a somewhat interesting case for range; in the table above it appears to be sequentially reduced in each edition, but that's offset by how the area is interpreted.

    In CM/OD&D/S&S the range is 24", but that's for the head of the missile, which extends 6" further back (toward the caster). In BX the range is effectively 18", but now that's indicating the end of the missile, which extends 6" further forward. In AD&D it's 16" range for the nominal 12th-level wizard, but now it extends forward by 8" for the standard missile. In each of those cases the head of the missile remains a maximum 24" for the example caster. (Only in 3E did it truly get downgraded to a lesser range and lose the partial-stroke area.)

  5. Wish they kept "until dispelled" as their are clearly some spells that magic effect is once, like a cure, and others, that the magic lasts till dispelled (polymorph) but many corner cases inbetween.

    1. I do think that the late terminology of "Instant" vs. "Permanent" does an adequate job of making that distinction.