- Jun 2005 -
19235 Posts

A New Division of Magic

My most current blog series is Long Division, a theoretical reorganization of power sources, classes, archetypes, and subclasses.  In this article I suggest a new division of magic.  By magic, I mean anything that isn't accomplished simply with muscles. 

A History of Magic

In AD&D, there were essentially three types of magic: divine, arcane, and psionic.  Although druids and rangers had natural magic, that was mostly seen as a flavor of divine magic.  These types of magic were divided not only in effect, but by subsystem.  Psionics were obtainable only through a percentile die roll at character creation based on your mental abilities (Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma).  They ran off weird combat matrices and psionic points that resembled nothing else in the game.  Arcane and divine magic used a Vancian system, but also had its differences.  Arcane magic required a spellbook, and random rolls to learn a spell.  Divine magic required prayer, often came with alignment restrictions, but the character got extra spells for a good Wisdom, and automatically knew all available spells for that level.

One clear division between divine and arcane magic, however, was that only divine casters were allowed to heal people.  Wizards might be able to create zombies, but they couldn't cure disease.  This distinction also held true in second edition.  In contrast, clerics couldn't manipulate magic directly through teleports (although they could shift planes), flying, levitation, wallsof force, and the like.  Healing was left to the divine, and force was left to the arcane.

Second edition further differentiated divine and arcane magic with the introduction of domains for clerics, and specialization schools for wizards.

Third edition differentiated magic even more.  It too started out with a split between divine and arcane magic (notably spellbooks, specialization, and domains), but introduced arcane spontaneous casting for arcane sorcerers (and later for divine souls) as an alternative to spell memorization.  Later psionics was reintroduced with its own subsystem of power points (and its own sub-disciplines).  As the edition came to a close, even more subsystems were added for unusual notions such as Incarnum and the ki-casters of Asian-flavored classes.

However, third-edition also homogenized magic.  Bards, an arcane class, was given the power to heal.  The proliferation of divine domains eventually granted divine classes access to most forms of magic once reserved to the arcane.  Casters were increasingly differentiated on their mechanics, rather than on what sort of magic they could perform.

Fourth edition both consolidated and expanded the differentiation of magic.  Subsytems were, for the most part, gone.  Divine classes got Channel Divinity powers, but otherwise mechanically differed little from arcane classes.  Instead the differentiation was the description of the powers, not the mechanics of their casting.  Other power sources were introduced -- primal, shadow, and soon, elemental -- with little variation on the mechanics of magic, again relying solely on diferentiation based on the effects of each magical power.  The one exception in 4e was Psionics, which was given its own variant subsystem of power points and "augments" that enhanced basic powers. 


I personally prefer that magic not be differentiated by mechanics.  I think the psionics system gained mixed reviews, but mostly, I don't think "augmentation" captures the feel of psionics in a way that couldn't be applied to primal or elemental magic.

However, I also feel that 4e hasn't been particularly rigid in differentiating types of magic.  All casting classes have powers that heal, powers that blast foes for damage, powers that move people around the battlefield, powers that create zones, etc.  I'm not saying all classes are equal.  I am saying that differentiation based on the effects of the class' powers are not nearly as clear as they probably should be.

A more serious problem is that the developers didn't really seem to hold anything back for future power sources.  Lots of classes already had necrotic powers as shadow classes began to be released, rendering a lot of the shadow magic as pale imitations of already existing powers.  They might be fun and interesting, but they didn't have much of an identity on their own.  With elemental coming out soon, it has become abundantly clear that there is complete overlap with the arcane power source.  in fact, one of the most glaring problems with magical organization in 4e is that arcane magic doesn't appear to have a coherent definition that would distinguish it from other power sources.

Where to Go?

I think D&D needs a better organization of magical effects.  If magic was more clearly delineated, there would be better organization of spells, and classes would feel more distinct without having to resort to the metagame crutch of distinct magical subsystems.

Examing the spells and rituals of each ofthe prior editions, I've divided D&D magic into nine nonants (just like an octant is an eighth og a whole, a nonant is a ninth of a whole).  ("School" or "specialty" is too divine, "domain" is too divine, "discipline" is too psionic, and "sphere" is too White Wolf.)  Every spell or ritual would be classified into one of the nonants.  Triads of nonants can then be arranged to populate the six power sources (arcane, divine, elemental, primal, psionic, and shadow). 

The arcane, divine, and shadow power sources are arranged as a set, to describe the vertical distinction between the divine realm of potential, the arcane realm of reality, and the shadow realm of the afterlife.  In future articles, I will refer to the arcane, divine, and shadow power sources as the esoteric power sources.  In contrast, the elemental, primal, and psionic power sources divide reality into physical, mental, and spiritual forms.  I will call these the holistic power sources.

This picture may be a bit confusing at first.  Let me explain this in tabular format...


Conjuration magic restores health, life, and vitality.  It makes you stronger, faster, smarter.  It causes plants and animals to grow, and summons weather.  This magic also allows the creation of life, enabling practitioners to summon animals and other creatures.  Conjuration is restricted to the divine and primal power sources.


Vision is the magic of divination.  It allows you to detect the true nature of objects, see into the future, or far, far away.  It allows you to anticipate attacks or the weaknesses of your enemies and communicate with things that cannot even communicate.  With vision, you can read thoughts, and anticipate events.  Divination is restricted to the divine and psionic power sources.


Creative magic brings forth matter and energy from nothingness.  You can cause fire to rain from the skies, or lightning to strike down your enemies. You can summon bolts of radiant power to burn the undead and other foes. Evocation is limited to the divine and elemental power sources.



Life magic manipulates the forms of living creatures, plant and animal both.  It can rend flesh, and polymorph creatures from one form to another.  It can grant new abilities or take abilities away.  Transmutation is limited to the arcane and primal power sources.


Mind magic manipulates the minds of creatures, forcing them to act against their will.  You can also destroy a mind with blasts of psychic energy.  With mind magic, people can become your puppets.  Mind magic also places the power of mind over matter, allowing teleportation and levitation.  Enchantment is restricted to the arcane and psionic power sources.


Form magic manipulates the form of matter and energy.  This magic lets you manipulate the cosmos, transforming earth into pools of acid, and transmuting lead to gold.  You can also manipulate light, temperature and sound, causing false images and sensations.  You can even create objects of pure force.  Form magic also allows the animation of objects, and the creation of constructs.  Transformation is limited to the arcane and elemental power sources.



Death magic causes harm to any sentient being.  It can cause sickness, pain, damage, and even death.  Death magic even allows the animation of dead tissue.  It also allows the direct manipulation of shadow and spirit stuff, which allows the creation of shades and other mimicries of the living.  Necromancy is limited to the primal and shadow power courses.



Deceit magic manipulates shadow and mind to create illusions, to obscure the truth, to induce madness, amnesia, oblivion, and confusion.  Hallucinatory illusions are only one aspect of this magic, which also includes shrouds, wards, and dementia.  Illusion is limited to the psionic and shadow power sources.


Decay magic causes the degradation of matter, including disintegration, the enervation of energy, and even the undoing of magical effects or of reality itself.  Time is master of all, and decay magic cause tiem to work its horrors on the practitioner's victims.  Abjuration is limited to the elemental and shadow power sources.


I think that implementing a strict division of magic along these lines can go a long way to distinguishing the various traditional power sources, giving each class (or group of classes) a firm and distinct identity.  I think it gives plenty of design space, and yet allows enough overlap so that any magic still seems mysterious.

It also gives you some meneverability to create classes that cross power courses.  So if you want, say, a bard that can use healing, mind and vision magic, you can design one. 

Culture Shock

This new system, however, would introduce a few radical changes to the way D&D magic was traditionally handled, in ways that some may not enjoy.

Wizards, Sorcerers, and Necromancers, oh my! Traditional D&D wizards essentially had the run of the entire Arcane, Elemental, and Shadow power sources, as well as a smattering of Vision.  This is one of the problems that I'm trying to address. Severing necromancers (casters from the Shadow power source) from wizards seems to be less problematic to most D&D players in my experience.  Necromancers are, after all shadowy wizards. 

Wizards Without Fireballs?  Unfortunately, though, in this schema, wizards would lose the ability to throw fireballs and lightning bolts, two of signature spells of wizards.  Those would instead be given to sorcerers (which are what I would call casters from the elemental power source).  I think this is a necessary divide.  If you want to play the traditional lightning bolt, burning hands, magic missile, fireball wizard, what you really want to play is a sorcerer.  Still, I am fully aware that many will recoil from this drastic change to the arcane power source.  In the end, we may have to move this from Creation to Forms, or perhaps have spells like fireball and lightning bolt appear in both nonants.  I fear, however, that this will only perpetuate the "wizards do everything" meme that I was hoping to address.

How's the Weather?  The change with which I am least comfortable in my own schema, is the fact that weather alteration is actually found in the Forms Nonant, thus being something both sorcerers and wizards can do, but that druids (casters of the primal power source) cannot.  Weather magic is something that should really be a part of the druid's arsenal.  I am quite tempted to determine that weather is not a function of the elements, but rather a function of Conjuration, thus placing the weather controls in the hands of druids and clerics (casters of the divine power source).   I have since decided to move weather manipulation to the Conjuration nonant.  So clerics and druids can manipulate weather, but elemental and arcane casters cannot (though through the Forms nonant, they can probably generate lightning and thunder in other ways.)

Illusions.  Traditionally, there are three types of illusions.  In the first, the caster bends the mind of the victim, causing them to hallucinate images of the caster's choosing.  I have placed this form of illusion in Deceit, but not in Mind, thus making it available to necromancers and psions (casters of the Psionic power source).  In the second, the caster bends light, sound, and temperature, causing holograms which, when force as added to it, can even take semi-substantial form.  In prior editions, this form of illusion was known as a "glamer".  I give this to wizards and sorcerers. In the third, the caster summons the stuff of spirit and shadow and gives it form.  Traditionally, this has been called "shadow magic", and allowed for casters to create simulacra of other creatures and spell effects.  The creation of shades has been placed in the Death Nonant, thus making that also available to necromancers and druids.  Thsi makes necromancers the master of two types of illusion, which i think works well as an addition to their traditional death magics.

Wherefore Martial?

How does the martial power source fit into this scheme?  In short, it doesn't.  The martial power source, by definition, is without magic.  I would keep it that way.  However, in a future article, I do plan to explore class concepts that straddle the line between Martial and each of the other power sources, and how they interact with the Nonant system I describe above.  Stay tuned!

Read all the articles in the Long Division Series:
A New Division of Magic
A New Division of Martial 
A New Division of Gish
A New Division of Spellcasters
A New Division of Weapons

See more at Unearthed Wrecana!

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