How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D

In my last post, I described the how Dungeons & Dragons tended to break once players gathered too many magic items or certain combinations of items. Earlier editions included several rules that worked to prevent the problem, but fifth edition’s attunement rule and rarity system provide the best measures yet.

Of course not all game-breaking magic comes from magic items. Spells can create problems too. Gary Gygax invented virtually all of D&D’s familiar spells when folks played in a much narrower style: Player characters kept to the dungeon. Non-player characters attacked on sight. Plots never developed. Characters died or retired (mostly died) before they could cast spells above sixth level. As the game blossomed, many spells that seemed fun, or that only appeared on scrolls, started spoiling games.

In “Spells that ruin adventures,” I wrote about individual spells that tended to disrupt play. In “Scry and fry,” I explained how a climactic battle can become a quick ambush. And in “Designing for spells that spoil adventures,” I told D&D Next’s designers how to design around problem spells. In a future post, I will look back at my advice.

Spell combos

Not every problem comes from an individual spell, play can suffer when players stack spells. In third edition, higher-level parties might enter a fight blanketed with spells like Haste, Invisibility, Fly, Blur, Polymorph Self, Resist Elements, and on and on. These parties would fly to the dungeon’s treasure vault, invisible and in ghostform. Parties traveled optimized by maximized ability buffs. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while the DM struggled to create any challenge.

Combined spells did more than allow character to float past adventures, spell combos could also buy a cheap victory. Just lock down a battlefield with Evard’s Black Tentacles, and the clear it with Cloudkill. Used in one fight, this strategy makes a memorable story; repeated, the other players wonder why they showed up.

Of course, third edition could remain playable at high levels, but only when players chose not to use strategies that strained the system’s limits.

Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme Annual Vol 1 2Some players argue that a dungeon master can counter these measures by pitting players against villains able to use dispel magic and a suite of magical countermeasures. While true, this approach suffers drawbacks:

  • DMs can no longer challenge parties with published adventures, or really any monsters other than spellcasters.
  • DMs will know the players’ magical tricks, so the villains’ countermeasures will invite the players to suspect that the DM used privileged information to thwart them.
  • Mainly though, D&D stops feeling like D&D and starts to resemble a superhero game, with characters flying around, ignoring walls, untouched by mundane threats. Most folks who want the feel of a superhero game, play a superhero game.

To avoid the problem, fourth edition either rewrote or dropped the spells that caused problems. This worked. Even at epic levels, the game never mutates into a chess match between the Sinister Spellcasters and the Legion of Fantasy Heroes. However, 4E’s lack of familiar spells fueled the accusations that 4E no longer resembled D&D.

When fifth edition’s designers faced the problem of overlapping magical effects, they knew that earlier solutions had proven flawed. They returned familiar spells and they adopted an ingenious new fix: concentration.


Many spells now require their caster to maintain concentration to keep their magic going. Critically, a spellcaster can only concentrate on one spell at a time. Now rather than layering Haste, Invisibility, Fly, Blur, Resistance, and a few others, a caster must pick one. Wizards who really want to be blurry and invisible, need a second spellcaster’s help. To combine black tentacles and a poison cloud, parties need two spellcasters, and neither will cast while flying invisible over the battle. To the design team, this counts as teamwork rather than, “I beat another encounter for you. You’re welcome!”

Concentration limits the power of high-level spellcasters. In earlier editions of the game, the Vancian magic system awarded advancing wizards far more power than characters in other classes. They gained more spells per day, of greater power, plus even their lower-level spells increased in power. Concentration stands as one way fifth edition keeps wizards in line with their peers.

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15 Responses to How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D

  1. Mark says:

    Great stuff DMDave! Can’t get enough of this stuff!

  2. Al says:

    Of course other games have the idea as well, but in a strictly DnD sense, concentration is really the 4e concept of sustaining carried over to 5e.

  3. Cynidician says:

    I love your posts so much! I check you blog almost daily, just so you know.

    I am still playing 2nd edition but I love reading about 5th. I like to hear about the technology, see what others are up to, and keep an eye open for things I can apply in my games. Your insights are a great focal point of all these.

    I am going to attempt to implement something along the lines of Concentration as you have outlined it (as well as Attunement, thanks to your earlier post). So does this apply to priests as well? Does it apply only to spells with a duration? Could a mage cast magic missile without losing the effects of blur or does the blur spell end immediately upon attempting to cast any other spell?

    I shall definitely buy and read 5th edition materials eventually thanks to you and others. However, as I am just getting back into DMing after many years away, for now I am investing my time and money on other things. Thanks for your wonderful blog!

    • DM David says:

      Hi Cynidician,
      Thanks for the kind words!

      Concentration applies to most, but not all, spells with durations, priest spells included. A caster can maintain concentration while casting another spell. If they could not cast and concentrate, the game would suffer in two ways:

      • Spellcasters would lose too much power.
      • Wizards would rely on crossbows, costing the game some flavor and fun. In earlier editions, especially at low levels, wizards saved spells by attacking with darts or crossbows. This lost some of the fun of playing a wizard. No one plays a wizard to throw darts! The at-will spells in 5E solve this conflict. However, If wizards could not cast while concentrating, we would be back to the darts.


  4. Don Holt says:

    Wow I wish someone had come up with these clever solutions to the problems magic imposed on the game 40 years ago. Oh wait, they did. But catering to the superhero mentality won out.

    Everything old is new again.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Don,
      Glad to see you back in the comments! Can you fill me in on some places where these solutions first appeared? I’m interested.


      • Don Holt says:

        The construction of magic items in C&S reminds me somewhat of the attunement ideas. A device was limited in it’s power depending on the materials used to construct the item. Further, if a device is used by someone other than a mage, the device had to devote some of it’s capacity to sensing the welder’s intent.

        Also the system was a fatigue based system, and this mechanism was used for magic as well as melee. Each spell cast cost fatigue and more importantly time. Devices also had limited fatigue. The very nature of the game, proportional costs for effects and reduced access, held the arcane in check.

        There was also the philosophical aspect of magic as well, why would any but the most novice arcane users place themselves in peril without reason, i.e. there are never any wandering mages. When a magic user is about, there is a purpose.

        • DM David says:

          Hi Don,
          Thanks for filling me in. I should have expected that Chivalry & Sorcery would come up with ideas like the ones you describe. The game went to such lengths to simulate imaginary magic that it gains the feel of something real.


          • Don Holt says:

            I hate to say it, but in a way, I feel the declining popularity of the game may be a blessing in disguise.

            The loss of commercial interest in the game is a very a good thing in my opinion. The game can go back to one of its roots, being a story generating game. The lovers of the superhero style play have other venues that cater to their tastes. With that large segment missing, the Wizards book of the month club business model doesn’t hold up. I’m glad that 5 made it out. It can at least steer people in the right direction.

  5. Ulrich says:

    I really love the information you post. I started playing in 1980 1st ed. This 5th edition really has that feel but more refined.

    Your site here is really amazing. I just discovered it yesterday and its been open in my browser since then. Really insightful and very informative. I will continue to read and will continue to be impressed.

    • DM David says:

      I agree that 5E matches the feel of the early editions with more elegant rules. Thanks for the positive feedback. Comments like yours keep me writing.


  6. Pingback: Concentration Frustrates D&D’s Rangers More than Paladins and Hexblades, but Unearthed Arcana Helps | DMDavid

  7. Vikshade says:

    GURPS magic system used concentration back in 3e and 3e revised. That was when I was playing in the 90s. But it had an over complicated skill system just like d20 ended up with.

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