5th edition Basic Review: Spells and magic
Spells and magic are a huge part of what makes a fantasy RPG a fantasy RPG and magic systems gives spell casters quite a lot of bang for the buck in 5th Edition Basic D&D.
The wizard class and the cleric class both use a versatile spell preparation and at-will spell system. Both of the spell casting classes start play with three cantrips and two 1st level spell slots. Cantrips are always on and ready to be cast at-will, again and again all day long. Other spells must be prepared in advance at a rate of 1 minute per spell level for each spell in total number equal to your spell caster level plus the relevant ability modifier. Spells are cast using the unused slots and spell slots are regained after a long rest. The method of spell prep used by both spell casting classes reigns in the total number of different spells a caster is going to be casting spells in during a day while allowing access to the entire list of prepared spells as long as spell slots hold out while casting. Some spells require material components and others are defined as rituals you are allowed to cast without advanced preparation if you have access to a spellbook but still require use of a spell slot to cast.
This spell slot system allows a caster to use a spell slot to cast any prepared spell of that level or to cast a lower level spell with greater impact by casting it as a higher level spell. Example: You are a 3rd level Wizard with an Intelligence of 16 you can prepare 6 spells as such (3 for level and 3 for Intelligence bonus) you are able to use your 4 1st level slots and 2 2nd level slots to cast those prepared spells as you wish and nay 1st level spell could instead be cast with a 2nd level spell slot if wished and it may have greater impact. Spell casters do not lose prepared spells as they cast them, the spell slots are used up in casting.
Cantrips may be cast as many times per day as a player wishes as cantrips are at at-will magical power. This is a major separation from how spells function in D&D prior to 3.x and would not be much of an issue were it not for the fact that while cantrips are the weaker end of spells in the game they are still quite potent and the nature and use of cantrips will result in a game having a very different play experience from earlier versions of the game. One cleric cantrip “Sacred Flame” allows a magical attack on a single foe up to 60’ay for 1d8 damage if they fail a save (The damage boosts t4d8 by 17th level). Wizards have three damage using cantrips (one for 1d10 damage at 1st level) of similar scale that require hit rolls at various ranges. Cantrips seemingly eliminate the need to arm Wizards and question why one would bother arming a cleric. This is too much constant damage dealing potential for me to emulate a play style of earlier editions of the game and the clerical damage dealing cantrip blurs the line between wizard and cleric to such an extent one wonders why there isn’t just one spell-casting class.
A feature of the 5th edition basic D&D spell casting I think some folks are going to love or hate is caster level has been divorced from the math of spell effects; All spells have a fixed range, duration, and ara of effect as appropriate without variation by caster level. It is possible to boost the effect of many spells by casting them with a higher level spell slot; Magic Missile that ever popular spell creates 3 darts of 1d4+1 damage if cast as a 1st level spell, if cast with higher level spell slots it gains an extra missile for each spell level used similarly fireballs all do 8d6 damage unless cast with a higher level slot and then 1d6 damage is added for each spell slot level over 3 used. I myself like the general concept it reigns in higher level spell-casters by a small amount because they aren’t getting 16d6 damage out of a 3rd level spell simply by being 16th level. Some folks are surely going to dislike this as it changes the nature of some classical spells.
Many spells have brief durations of a minute, 18 hours, or concentration if not an instantaneous effect with the occasional spell lasting 1 hour. Charm person lasts for but an hour compelling the target to act as the casters friend while so charmed and to know they were charmed when the spell wears off, this shifts the spell from a resource boosting tactic of enduring impact to let’s get this chump to off himself helping us before he turns on us. Sleep puts 5d8 hitpoints worth of targets to sleep… for a whole minute, yes seems this eliminates the 1st level death spell some claimed it to be but it really changes the sleep spell into nothing but a combat spell as it can’t be used to peacefully put folks out of action for hours and keep them out of action. Concentration spells are only limited in that a spell caster may only have one spell requiring concentration going at a time other actions may be taken and spells may be cats as long as it isn’t another concentration spell.
Spells that used to add a bonus or inflict a penalty now often take advantage of the advantage/disadvantage mechanic to good effect. Blur causes opponents attacking you to be disadvantaged, Beacon of Hope has selected allies make their wisdom save at an advantage. The spell descriptions embracing the advantage/disadvantage system cuts down on the need to constantly keep track of a multitude of transient modifiers there is a record keeping simplicity the spell system is working in favor of. Among those spells that do offer a numerical boost they do it as a simple 1d4 bonus to a single roll keeping the numbers a mystery until needed.
A curious feature to me is level/hitdice of target has been removed as a feature to define targets and hitpoints are instead used to define targets that may or may not be impacted by a spell. This causes the interesting situation of targets starting a fight immune to spell but being worn down and now being valid targets for a spell, this is a tactics enhancing mechanic of merit.
There are a number of healing and death defying spells in 5th edtion : Aid, Cure Wounds, Death Ward, Greater Restoration, Heal, Healing Word, Heroe’s Feast, Lesser Restoration, Mass Cure Wounds, Mass Heal, Mass Healing Word, Prayer of Healing, Raise Dead, Regenerate, Resurrection, Revivify, and Spare the Dying. Contrary to some hype to the contrary it sure looks like clerics are going to spend a lot of time answering the cry of “medic” during combat; certainly so if they have the Spare the Dying cantrip as it will be a life saver, again, and again, and again…
Overall spells are clearly defined and limited; it looks like there would be few if any rules-lawyering going on with spell casting in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons if spell descriptions stay as clean as they are in the Basic pdf.
Really looking at the spell casting system and the spell given D&D 5e Basic pdf it looks to be easier on the record keeping, less fiddly math needed in play, generally lower key impact of specific spells but spell casters have a lot of constant capability and power. The nature of the cantrips in the game seriously changes the experience of being a D&D spell caster compared to earlier editions and this will result in a different play experience in classical adventures no matter the hype.