8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell

1. Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax introduced the Magic Missile spell in the original game’s first supplement, Greyhawk (1975). “This is a conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage (2-7 points) to any creature it strikes.” After that sentence, the description tells how higher-level magic users shoot extra missiles.

2. Gary took the idea for Magic Missile from the 1963 movie The Raven. The movie ends with a wizard duel between Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Karloff flings bolts of energy at Price, who brushes them aside with a flick of his hand.

3. The exchange that inspired Magic Missile also led to the Shield spell, so the original Player’s Handbook (1978) explains, “This shield will totally negate magic missile attacks.” This property remains in fifth-edition D&D.

4. The original description of Magic Missile led players to dispute whether casters needed to make a to-hit roll. J. Eric Holmes, the editor of the 1977 Basic Set, opted for yes. His rules explain that casters must roll the same missile attack as a longbow. TSR editor Tim Kask helped Gary plan Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “The only thing that I won was that Magic Missile always hits for 1 to 3 points of damage,” Tim said. “It took me two-and-a-half weeks of arguing. I kept telling him that that’s the only thing the little guy gets and if it’s hit or miss, then he’s dead.”

Magic missiles always hit without allowing a saving throw, even though in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979) Gary stresses the importance of saves. Player characters “must always have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction.”

5. D&D’s fourth-edition designers seemed uncomfortable with a spell that always hit without a save, so the edition’s original version required an attack roll. When D&D fans griped that fourth veered too far from the game’s roots, the designers appealed to nostalgia by again making the missiles always hit. The 2010 rules update announces the change.

6. In fifth edition, wizards can add missiles by casting Magic Missile with a higher-level spell slot. In earlier editions, higher-level casters gain extra missiles for free. Back then, magic users started as weak characters who only launched one missile when they cast their day’s only 1st-level spell. But wizards steadily gained more spells, and higher-level spells, and even their first-level spells like Magic Missile gained strength. At higher levels, wizards boasted much more power than any other class. Gary Gygax felt comfortable with dominant, high-level wizards so long as they suffered through lower levels as feeble magic users. Today’s designers strive to match the power of every class at every level. Part of that balance comes from attaching a price to extra missiles.

7. In fifth edition, the missiles strike simultaneously. This means the strikes count as a single source of damage for things like resistance and that 3 magic missiles striking a character at 0 HP does not count as 3 failed death saves. A concentrating spellcaster hit by multiple missiles makes one Constitution save against a difficulty class set by the volley’s total damage. See 9 More Fifth-Edition D&D Rules Questions Answered by the Designers.

Update: In a newer answer to the same question, lead-designer Jeremy Crawford reversed the answer given at the convention Q&A. He now says the make separate concentration rolls for each missile. This makes Magic Missile an efficient way to break concentration.

8. Strictly by the fifth-edition rules, when you cast Magic Missile, you roll 1d4 and use the result to set the same damage for every missile. This stems from a rule on page 196 of the Player’s Handbook. “If a spell or other effect deals damage to more than one target at the same time, roll the damage once for all of them.” The interpretation comes from lead-designer Jeremy Crawford. In practice, Jeremy allows players to roll separate damage for every missile, just like Gary did in 1975.

10 thoughts on “8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell

    1. Marco Gutierrez

      Roll separately for each source of damage. The source for the three missiles is still the one magic missile spell. Per the rules, it works thusly. Otherwise, it would be dramatically OP because you could force 3 concentration checks for a 1st level spell slot. Even at a DC 10, the odds get better with three checks that they just roll low and fail for such a cheap price.

  1. Fractalbat

    Were there editions that specified what the Magic Missile looks like? If I remember correctly the Mentzer Basic book says they manifest as glowing arrows, and there was an illustration of Bargle shooting one at Aleena (and we still hate him for it). Any idea if there were other editions that specified how the bolts appear?

  2. Dan

    I would actually argue that the magic missile and shield spells were inspired by a different spell a bit earlier in that scene from The Raven, whereby Karloff produces magical knives and an ax and sends them toward Price, who blocks them with magic barriers.

    The small exploding balls at the beginning of your embedded video are much more likely to have been what inspired Melf’s Minute Meteors.

  3. Steve Blunden

    Seeing both these clips, and of course the Wizard duels in Harry Potter inspired me to see if the rather colourless Counterspell could be dramatically improved. This is my draft idea – what do you think?

    Counterspell – Homebrew

    Spell – the Spell being countered
    Spellcaster – the one casting the spell
    Counterspell – the Counterspell
    Counterspell caster – the caster of the Counterspell

    Casting Counterspell is still a reaction, however a Counterspell Caster may react to any spell cast that turn. A spellcaster can use Counterspell until they run out of enough spell slots (of level 3 or above) to cast it. More than one person may attempt to Counterspell a Spell.

    A Counterspell does not automatically work. Instead, a contest of magic is fought against the Spell Caster:

    To Counter a Spell, the Counterspell Caster must make a successful Spell Attack Roll:

    DC to Counterspell:
    Spellcaster’s Spell Save DC + Level the Spell was cast at

    Counterspell Attack Roll modifier:
    Counterspell Caster’ s Spell Attack Modifier + Level the Counterspell is cast at:

    Once a Spell has been cast successfully, it can no longer be Counterspelled. Dispel Magic, or some over means to break the spell must be used instead.

    When a Player Character tries to cast Counterspell, the Player should be encouraged to describe what this might look like. E.g. if Counterspell is used against Fireball, the Player can describe the Counterspell as a jet of water leaping out of their hand to douse the fire. If used against Sprit Guardians then the player can instead describe the shape and form of the powers used to counter those spirits summoned by the spellcaster.

    1. Justin Machado

      I think there’s too many mechanics involved to make it feasible. What you’ll end up with is something akin to how 3.5 handled counterspells which was clunky and inefficient. If trying to counter a first level spell with a third level spell slot is still a fight then why risk it? It would be more prudent to just save that spell slot for a fireball for the next round. I appreciate the flavor that you’re trying to bring to counter spell but you have to be careful when trying to adjust mechanics that might just better be handled with flavor and RP.

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  5. Thuenor

    I disagree with your last point of ‘strict interpretation’ . If the attacks all strike the same target (forcing only one resistance check et al.), it by definition doesn’t affect multiple targets. This makes the lead designer’s interpretation a house rule; perhaps intended, but not implemented. The rule as stated makes lots of sense for e.g. a fireball (where it could be argued to require a roll for each individual affected, potentially many dozens).

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