One of the complaints I see often about 4E is that there is no more flavor: powers are just mechanics. In addition, people will say that the little flavor 4E does have is not linked at all to the mechanics. I always thought this was odd, given the fact that every single 4E power has flavor text, and it does indeed seem to match the mechanics of the power! But I always assumed that people just meant less flavor than there was in the past, and that flavor in the past was completely interwoven with the mechanics. Well, I finally got around to looking in my old books to see how much flavor spells had back then. Given the sheer number of spells, I limited by research to the first 200 spells.
First, here is what I found from 3.5:
Only 56 contained any flavor text at all. (Note: I am not counting the name as part of the flavor, because the book specifically mentions that Players are free to change the name. In fact, in the description of each Bigby's Hand spell, it mentions that Clerics call the spell after their god, such as "Pelor's Grasping Hand".) The remaining 144 spells only discussed mechanics.
Of the 56 spells with flavor text (28% of the 200):
16 have only a vague visual description. Examples: bank of fog, small orb, energy field, ray of energy, magical vibrations, swaying motions and music. No mention of color or appearance, or even what pose the caster strikes when casting the spell.
5 create invisible effects. Presumably up to the Player to decide what they look like for those who can see invible things.
1 only mentions the sound: the ringing of a handbell.
18 give a short visual description. Examples: your eyes glow blue; multicolored explosion; hand glows blue; yellowish green vapors; shimmering emerald barrier; you are surrounded by dark, wavering energy; pale blue, green, or violet glow; acorns or holly berries.
3 have a description of the caster's pose. Examples: the spell comes from your fingertips, the spell originates at your hand.
7 have both a short visual description and a description of the caster's pose (two also mention the sound the spell makes). Examples: vivid cone of clashing colors springs forth from your hand; thin, green ray springs from your pointing finger; you point your finger and release a black ray of crackling energy.
4 leave the fluff up to the player. One of these also links the fluff to the mechanics.
1 leaves the fluff up to the DM.
1 uses the default fluff for diseases listed in the DMG.
Not a lot of flavor, and for the spells that do have flavor it is surprisingly similar to that of 4E.
Next, here is what I found from 2nd edition:
Only 67 had descriptions of flavor; this is a slight improvement over 3.5 (34% compared with 28%). The remaining 133 spells only discussed mechanics.
Of the 67 spells with flavor text:
8 have a description of how you cast the spell. Examples: single gesture; gestures and droning incantation; advance threateningly; slowly turn in place; originates at caster’s hand. The description is never detailed, and sometimes leads to questions, such as in this case: “The caster must spend the time purifying the items and removing influences that would corrupt or blur their magical auras.” There is no explanation of how to purify or what sort of corrupting influences those might be (or even what effect they have if still present).
51 have descriptions of the spell’s effect. Examples: loud ringing; field of force; hand glows blue; invisible barrier; misty vapors; cloud of glittering golden particles; magical arrow; opaque sphere of any color; invisible cone (fear); faintly shimmering sphere; phantom watchdog.
A few of these are very detailed; for example, phantom steed is described as a quasi-real, horselike creature with black head and body, gray mane and tail, and smoke-colored, insubstantial hooves. Its eyes are milky-colored. Leomund’s Secret Chest is the other one, describing in detail what materials to use (for example, if the chest is made of wood it must be ebony, rosewood, sandalwood, teak, or the like…whatever “or the like” means).
One struck me as having very cool fluff: Minor and Major Creation. They are described as the caster pulling wisps of material from the Plane of Shadow and weaving them into the desired item.
8 have a description of how spell is cast plus the effect. Examples: magical energy from fingertips; point finger and release black bolt of crackling energy; magically loud shout from your mouth. Fun fact: Color Spray is described just as it was in 3.5 and 4. "vivid spray of clashing colors spring forth from your hand."
The most detailed is Burning Hands: “When the wizard casts this spell, a jet of searing flame shoots from his fingertips. His hands must be held so as to send forth a fanlike sheet of flames: The wizard’s thumbs must touch each other and the fingers must be spread.”
As with 3.5, very little flavor overall, and the flavor that is present is mostly very simple.
Comparing 2nd, 3.5, and 4th, you find the same amount of flavor within a spell. While the older editions did contain a few spells with a lot of flavor, the majority of spells had no flavor at all.
Most spells with a moderate amount of flavor in the older editions matched flavor from 4th edition. For example, compare these two sets of descriptions:
"A brilliant line of ravening green energy bursts from your pointing finger. Where the emerald beam touches, flesh and bone disappear in a puff of gray dust."
"A thin, green ray springs from your pointing finger. The target is entirely disintegrated, leaving behind only a trace of fine dust."
"The wizard causes a vivid, fan-shaped spray of clashing colors to spring forth from his hand."
"A brilliant blast of flashing colors springs from your outstretched fingers, knocking nearby enemies senseless."
"A vivid cone of clashing colors springs forth from your hand, causing creatures to become stunned, perhaps even blinded, and possibly knocking them unconscious."
"The spell creates a thin, green ray that causes physical material touched to glow and vanish, leaving traces of fine dust."
In both cases, the first description is from 4th, the second is from 3.5, and the third is from 2nd. The spells are color spray and disintegrate.
It is now possible to examine how interconnected flavor was to mechanics. Looking at both 2nd and 3.5, it is clear that there is little connection, and the connection that exists is mutable. For example, consider the following descriptions of flavor:
"The caster's hand glows blue"
"The caster's eyes glow blue"
"The spell springs from the caster's hand"
"The caster places his thumbs together and spreads his fingers apart into a fan..."
The first two give no indication as to what the spell is or what it does. In addition, the color has nothing to do with the effect. In both cases, it is clearly just an example of what it looks like when you cast the spell.
The third is just a simple description of how you cast the spell. Would having the spell come from your eyes change the mechanics at all?
The last one is the start of the decription for burning hands from 2nd edition, the spell with the most detailed flavor of the ones I reviewed. Even that one is clearly just an example. Changing it to a blast of flame that the wizard breathes out would not change the mechanics in any way.
The flavor in 2nd and 3.5 was just as fluid and changable as the flavor from 4E, and had just as little to do with the mechanics.
Lastly, take a look at some examples of flavor text from 4E. I feel that they are very evocative of what the power does, relating to the mechanics very nicely.
"You launch a ferocious attack at your enemy, allowing one of your allies to safely retreat from it." (Covering Attack, allows an ally to shift away from your target if you hit.)
"You strike at one foe, allowing your momentum to carry you forward into a second strike against another enemy." (Passing Attack, allows you to attack a second target if you hit the first.)
"You spin beneath your enemy’s guard with a slashing strike, and then sweep your leg through your foe an instant later, knocking it to the ground." (Spinning Sweep, knocks your target prone.)
I think if people actually take the time to read the flavor text, they will find that the vast majority of the time it does a good job of describing what the power does.