Has magic become too ubiquitous?

I will return to the theme of disability and prosthetics next week, but for now here’s something completely different which has been brewing for a while.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I started off playing D&D in the 80s with the BECMI boxed sets and Mystara gazetteers, then had a long break, before being encouraged back when my children started asking about it in the mid 2010s. I quickly upgraded to fifth edition (which had been out for a year or two at that point), and have played in 5e ever since.

Over the years of playing 5e, there have been a few things about it which feel wrong or strange or I just don’t get. I’ve written about resting and healing before, and I struggle with money and how much things should cost. But today I want to talk about a couple of nebulous feelings which have felt odd, but have taken me five years to pin down exactly why.

It started to crystallise with a blog post I read last July saying how D&D classes are more differentiated than in other systems. Unfortunately I have lost track of what the post was, despite commenting on it and deciding then and there it deserved a response – if you can help me track it down I’ll update this post to link to it.

My reaction on reading it was “really? That’s not my experience. All classes feel the same to me [as a GM].” Thinking more about it, I think a lot of that is to do with spell-casting. So here’s my response – D&D classes in 5e have become rather homogenous, and spell-casting is a large part of this.

BECMI classes

Back when I started playing D&D with the basic (BECMI) boxed sets, there were seven classes: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Dwarf, Elf and Halfling (yes, the demi-humans were effectively classes rather than races).

  • The Fighters fought. They had more hit points (d8 per level), could wear any armour and use any weapon, including sword or battleaxe (d8 damage), and pole arm or two-handed sword (d10 damage). They needed 2000xp for level 2.
  • Clerics weren’t bad fighters. They had d6 hit points per level and could wear any armour, but could only use blunt weapons (effectively limiting them to maximum damage of d6 with mace or war hammer). They had a chance of chasing away (turning) undead, and from level 2 they got their first spell, mainly ones which helped the adventure and survival rather than damage. They increased in level fairly fast, needing 1500xp for level 2.
  • Thieves had few hit points (d4) could wear leather armour only, but could use any missile weapon and any one-handed melee weapon (so limited to a maximum of d8 damage with a normal sword), and could attempt to backstab if unnoticed for +4 to hit and double damage. They also had an array of thieving skills – Open Locks, Find Traps, Remove Traps, Climbs Walls, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, Pick Pockets, Hear Noise, although with the exception of Climb Walls (starting at 87%) and Hear Noise (1-2 on d6, i.e. double normal) these abilities had low chances of success – 10, 15 or 20% at level one. On the plus side, they moved up the levels fastest, only needing 1200xp for level 2.
  • Magic users also had few hit points (d4 per level), could not wear armour, and could only use daggers (d4 damage). They also got a (whole, single) spell at first level, which they had to memorise at the start of the adventure, increasing to two spells at level 2 and two first and one second level spells at level 3. They increased the slowest of the humans, needing 2500xp for level 2.
  • Dwarves and Halflings were effectively variant fighters with some special abilities – dwarves had Infravision and mining abilities, halflings had an AC bonus of 2 against large creatures (-2 to AC due to the way AC worked in that edition), a +1 bonus on missile attacks, and a +1 bonus on individual initiative. They also had better initial saving throws. Dwarves had d8 hit points per level like Fighters, and Halflings had d6 hit points per level. They increased at a similar rate to Fighters, Halflings needing 2000xp for level 2 and Dwarves needing 2200xp.
  • Elves were effectively variant fighter/magic-users. They had d6 hit points per level, but could use any armour and weapon like Fighters and could also cast spells like Magic-users. They also had Infravision, were better at detecting secret and hidden doors, and were immune to Ghoul Paralysis. On the downside, they went up the levels much the slowest, needing 4000xp for level 2.

Really not much magic at all. No cantrips, so magic users/elves got one spell at level one and that was it, clerics didn’t get a spell until level 2. And definitely a different feel between all the classes.

Druids appear in the Companion set for Clerics of level 9+, and the Master set introduces Weapon Mastery, increasing the melee impact for Fighters in particular, but the customisation options in general are limited. The gazetteers started to introduce skills, but they were very specific and often very profession-related.

Of course the Cleric and Magic User got more spells with every level, finishing with 9 spells of each level (up to 7th for Clerics and 9th for Magic Users) by level 36, so if they survive, Magic Users end up the most powerful.

Advanced D&D

What about Advanced D&D, which some of my friends played instead? Not actually much difference, although there the races are separate from the classes (to a degree; non-human races are restricted in which classes they can be and what level they can reach). There are some subclasses – the Druid as a subclass of Cleric, the Paladin and Ranger as subclasses of the Fighter, the Assassin as a subclass of the Thief – and there’s a Monk. Still no cantrips, though, and the Magic User gets a spell at first level, but so does the Cleric (and the Druid gets two). The Paladin doesn’t get spells or turning until level 9, and the Ranger only starts getting spells at level 8.

Fifth Edition classes

So we come to fifth edition. Twelve classes instead of four (or seven including the demi-humans), and races are definitely separate.

We get the addition of the Barbarian, Bard, Sorcerer and Warlock, plus the Druid from AD&D/Companion set and the Monk, Paladin and Ranger from AD&D, but as full-blown classes rather than variants. Thieves become Rogues and Magic Users become Wizards.

Of these, the Bard, Druid, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer and Warlock are spell-casters. We also have the Eldritch Knight bringing spell-casting to Fighters and the Arcane Trickster bringing spell-casting to Rogues. And the Cleric and Wizard retain their spell-casting, with the Cleric getting their spells from the start. So that’s eight of the twelve are spell-casters, and two of the other four can be as well.

Much more significantly, we now have cantrips which can be cast at will, and these can do as much damage as a melee weapon, if not more – think of Fire Bolt (Sorcerer + Wizard), Eldritch Blast (Warlock) and Hail of Thorns (Ranger) which all do 1d10 damage on a successful hit. Clerics get Sacred Flame and Druids get Produce Flame with 1d8 damage. (Bards with Vicious Mockery (1d4) and Paladins with no cantrips are definitely the poor relations here.)

Remember melee weapons have to go two-handed to reach 1d10, otherwise they’re capped at 1d8 at best. So suddenly, instead of being weaker at lower levels to counteract the power later, spellcasters start at least as strong in battle as weapon fighters. Why would you play a non-spell-caster?

I noticed this effect recently during my escape module. Due to various scheduling reasons and life changes, our group of six at the start lost both the Wizard and the Warlock, so we ended up with the only spell-caster being the Druid, for whom Wild Shape was the best battle option, and the Ranger who didn’t have any offensive spells. I realised I had to scale back my final encounter to make it achievable with the four remaining characters (Fighter, Druid, Ranger and Rogue) because the lack of spell-casting meant they could do less damage per round than I was used to from a 5th-level party.

So now battles are all “I cast…” from almost everyone, with the player who decided to go for a non-spell-caster doing small amounts of damage round the edges and trying not to get too badly battered while up there in the teeth of the opposition.

More options = less distinction

Another thing about fifth edition compared to BECMI is the sheer number of options at play when constructing a character, and maybe this also feeds into my feeling of homogeneity.

  • You have your class (which probably gives you spells).
  • You have your ability scores.
  • You have your skills, the set of which depends on your class.
  • Your class will probably have a set of some sort of domain or archetypes to choose between.
  • Added to that, you have your race, which gives you some sort of special abilities unless you are a human (in which case you probably get a feat unless your GM is being really stingy). See my thread comparing the different racial abilities, with conclusions here.
  • Added to that you have your background, which gives you proficiencies as well as some sort of useful contacts.

So that gives lots of different options for customisation. Surely that means each character is different?

Well, yes, but in some ways the very plethora of options reduces the distinctions.

  • Ability scores are typically either selected using a standard set or point buy, or rolled in a way that makes good scores more likely – 4d6 drop the lowest – and then placed according to choice, so each character in a given class will typically have a similar sort of ability spread.
  • Skills are chosen from a set of 18, although that is restricted to a degree by the class choice, and the skills on offer overlap significantly between classes.
  • The class domains/archetypes tend to have quite a bit of overlap, so different classes can start to pick up options shared with other classes.
  • Races are completely orthogonal to classes – you can pick any race to go with any class.
  • Likewise backgrounds.
  • If you get a feat, that may introduce some feature from a different class.
  • And, as I said above, you’ve more than likely got some form of spell-casting.

This means that what your character is like and what it can do is much less set by the class than it was in BECMI, and there are many more options for variation. This means the distinctions between characters is much more finely-grained, and so as a GM the characters all feel very similar. The bigger distinctions from my side of the screen are what Skills they are proficient in and whether they can cast spells (which in my experience is almost certainly yes, so that’s not really a distinction).


So, all classes feel similar to me as GM, and I keep getting surprised by all these options. Is that a problem? Ultimate question: would I rather go back to the BECMI character set?


The number and variety of options, and the fact that there are different character aspects which get merged into the final character means that it’s much more likely that you can create a character that fits the concept you want to play – though realistically who your character is will emerge through play, so don’t spend too much time crafting a back story you’ll never use…

(Not so keen on the plethora of playable races, particularly once the many supplements are brought in – I just don’t see a world in which there is so much intermingling to support a group consisting of a cat, an elephant, someone descended from a demon, an elf who grew up underground and can’t go out in the sun, and a speechless raven – and then the people they meet don’t blink an eye at the weird combination. In my view the different races would tend to cluster with their own. But that’s not the question here.)

The availability of cantrips for spell-casters avoids that horrible “oh, I’ve already used my one Sleep spell. I guess I try to throw a dagger, then, because I’m too fragile to get close” experience for Magic Users.

But having said that, I do feel it has swung too far the other way – particularly the cantrips. They are equivalent in power to weapons, and then spell-casters get other spells as well, so why would anyone play a class that doesn’t get offensive cantrips?

Bonus thought, the increase in magic was brought home to me again when I was creating dragon’s hoards for Treasure – realistically it’s messy. In BECMI, the dragon’s hoard had a 15% chance of having magic items. In 5e, a CR11-16 monster has an 85% chance of having magic items. Even CR0-4 monsters have a 64% chance of magic items in their hoard, and CR5-10 have a 72% chance.

Now, for an adult dragon’s hoard I’d argue it really ought to have magic items, so Fizban gets this right (though I’d have given the Wyrmling – age < 5 – maybe a 50% chance and Young dragons – ages 5-99 – still a chance of not having magic items, particularly at the younger ages). But I’m not sure about spreading that across all monster types.

Final conclusion…er…well, I don’t really have one. It doesn’t feel quite right, but I don’t want to go back to the old option either, so I guess I’ll have to live with it. Thank you for listening to my rambling.

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