Spells Through the Ages: Spell Progression

OK, this isn’t really a normal Spells Through the Ages.  I was looking at the pre-generated characters in the A-series modules and thinking about how I might translate them into the flavor of B/X-esque D&D I usually run.  The spells are the hardest bit, especially when one of the PCs is an illusionist, and I happened to notice that he also had more 1st level spells than I expected for a 5th level caster.  I did some digging and found out that it’s not illusionist vs. magic-user here, but that AD&D has a pretty different spells per level progression than B/X for all classes.

I started plotting the numbers for magic-users against each other, and felt I needed to add OD&D as well for the comparison.  Here’s the table I generated, I’m sure someone with better spread-sheet skills could make this into some kind of fancy graphical 3D bar chart or something, but I think it’s enough to spot the differences.  To explain a little, the y-axis here is character level while the x-axis is spell level by edition (O=OD&D, B=B/X, A=AD&D).

O1 B1 A1 O2 B2 A2 O3 B3 A3 O4 B4 A4 O5 B5 A5 O6 B6 A6
1 1 1 1
2 2 2 2
3 3 2 2 1 1 1
4 4 2 3 2 2 2
5 4 2 4 2 2 2 1 1 1
6 4 2 4 2 2 2 2 2 2
7 4 3 4 3 2 3 2 2 2 1 1 1
8 4 3 4 3 3 3 3 2 3 2 2 2
9 4 3 4 3 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 2 1 1 1
10 4 3 4 4 3 4 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 2 2
11 4 4 4 4 3 4 4 3 4 3 3 3 3 2 3 1
12 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 3 4 4 3 4 4 3 4 1 2 1
13 5 4 5 5 4 5 5 4 5 4 3 4 4 3 4 2 3 2


The interesting thing to note here is that B/X is the real outlier.  All editions are the same for the first two levels, and oddly at third level OD&D grants an extra 1st level spell over the two newer editions.  AD&D quickly catches up, and then more or less agrees with OD&D all the way up to name level, while B/X regularly lags behind, especially in first level spells.  Then bizarrely at 11th level B/X jumps the gun granting a 6th level spell before AD&D and OD&D, but by 13th level B/X is one spell behind the other two for every single level.  I stopped the comparison at 13th level as AD&D grants the first 7th level spell at 14th level at which point I think it’s not really fair to compare to systems that don’t have those higher level spells.

I’m especially intrigued by the progression of 1st level spells.  While B/X pretty regularly lags by one spell per level, it’s especially slow to ramp up the first level spells.  It doesn’t grant a third spell until 7th level, 2-3 levels behind the other two, and it doesn’t hit 4 until 11th, 6-7 levels behind the others.  Why?  If anything, it seems to make more sense to me to grant plenty of first level spells early on, as at the later levels how big a difference is one more 1st level spell?  Aside from Magic Missile, most 1st level spells aren’t particularly useful to a level 7-11 Magic User.

To be honest, I’m kind of tempted to just retro-fit the OD&D chart for my own game.  I’m sure my players won’t complain about getting some extra spells.  I’d be very curious though if anyone can argue in favor of the B/X progression.

9 thoughts on “Spells Through the Ages: Spell Progression

  1. From a player’s perspective I’ve felt that the magic user progression has always been rough but the pay-off at higher levels worth the wait.

    As the party knows I debated heavily about multi-classing as a fighter just so I could contribute a bit more consistently in encounters. Smoothing out the first level spells would definitely help. Another argument ‘for’ more spells would be that you may see more of the ‘utility’ spells memorized rather than feeling forced into the combat oriented spells.

    I know that class vs. class comparisons aren’t necessarily fair but I always felt that the cleric spell progression felt a bit smoother.

    Anyways, I’m all for it!

  2. “the x-axis here is character level while the y-axis is spell level by edition”
    * Actually, you flipped the x/y axes in your description here.

    I guess if you look at Holmes he’s the one who started the slower spell progression: only dealing with MU levels 1-3, and at 3rd level he gave 2/1 spells. Maybe it felt consistent in that scope to just add 1 spell per PC level? Moldvay kept that in B, and then Cook built on that pattern in X (up through 8th level). Mentzer then tweaks that in his Expert at levels 6 and 9-14. Then it looks like Allston’s RC switches back to the Cook progression (except keeping a slowed advancement at spell level 6). Gadzooks!!

    Aside: Did you know that Aaron Allston’s written a whole shipload of Star Wars novels? Just discovered that at a bookstore last night.

  3. Good catch about the axes, fixed in original post.

    Yeah, the more I dig into spell progressions, the more I seem to find that pretty much everyone felt the need to muck with them. I wonder why that is? It’s made it pretty difficult for me to pick one that feels most correct.

    Personally, I’ve also never dug into RC stuff. I flipped through the pages of one once and never went back. The Mentzer edition of Basic already starts to feel too new-fangled to me (even Frank himself doesn’t use it), and by RC I think it really has that baroque 2nd edition AD&D feel.

  4. Good observations. I didn’t realize that every iteration of Basic D&D re-tweaked it until you brought this up. And I’m pretty much convinced that none of the original creators played what was written in their published rulebooks.

    1. @ Delta:

      I know this comment is from a long time ago (jeez…nearly a decade!) but what exactly makes you say that? I mean, sure most (if not all) probably used some house rules, but spell lists? Do you have evidence of spell number being arbitrarily assigned?

  5. Oh, and the only thing that clearly needed tweaking was where OD&D or Cook Expert got jacked up on 6th-level spells by PC level 14 (they were adding 1/level up to that point), and then you needed to iron that out to make sensible room for 7-9th level spells when they got added later. Other than that, the whole thing is a mystery.

  6. @ Paul:

    I’m sorry to necro these old posts, but I only recently discovered your blog and started reading through your stuff. In this particular instance, I’ve done a lot of spreadsheets on spell progressions over the last couple-four years, trying to find good mixes or a “Holy Grail” of what-is-best. But like saving throw progressions, it feels like every edition feels the desire to tweak every time a new rule book comes out…there’s just no consistency.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that, for the most part, changes in the game rules are tied to the “actual play” of the creators/writers/originators, and thus the development is best viewed chronologically. As the order of publication was: OD&D-Holmes-AD&D-B/X, I’ve decided to see the B/X rules as the last, best iteration of spell progression, for good or ill. Gygax’s own writing, as far back as The Strategic Review suggests that they made magic-user spell progression “too powerful,” and from informal polling I’ve made, many “old school” players feel that a dozen or so spells is around the upward limit of what’s going to get used in a game session. The B/X spell progression would seem to be about right and (along with its limitations on actual spells known…the most stringent of any edition) gives characters motivation for specializing in particular types of spells, rather than being “generalists.”

    [it also gives a good reason for PCs to expend money and time in the creation of magic items that duplicate spell effects, like wands and scrolls]

    Anyway, I know you’re playing OED these days, but I just thought I’d offer my thoughts, since it’s been a subject of intense interest to me for a while now.
    : )

    1. Not a problem commenting on old posts, the software notifies me of new comments regardless of where they are. Of course, whether I remember or even agree with what I wrote 8 years ago is another matter…

      I can see where you’re getting at with the iterative appearance of the various publications, but I think you can’t ignore the fact that there was likely a fair amount of overlap in the various development efforts. I suspect Holmes, Moldvay, Cook, Mentzer, etc. were given a fair amount of leeway when authoring their works while Gygax continued to focus on AD&D, but of course I have no substantive evidence to base that on.

      As for the spell progression, I actually much prefer the more generous OD&D version. I stand by my statements that the slow dribble of 1st level spells seems weird. We’ve all been there playing the low-level magic-user with one or two spells. You end up hoarding your spells like a miser, and after casting them you can feel pretty useless. Add in the fact that 1st level spells just aren’t that great to a level 7+ caster, and I see no reason not to give more of them early on when they’re actually really impactful.

      Of course, the added wrinkle I have these days is the rule in OED of only memorizing one copy of any given spell, so we don’t see 4th level magic-users flinging magic missiles at the drop of a hat. We see a much broader range of spells, and little more creativity on their usage, which I happen to really enjoy.

      1. I *do* like the idea of giving magic-users a bonus spell or two based on INT (similar to clerics in AD&D); gives MUs a bit more “wiggle room.”

        Like you, I’m doing the “one copy of each spell” thing (and for the reasons you cite). Thing is, with B/X’s low number of spells known, it really begs MUs to specialize in particular types of magic…I prefer this a lot to the idea of every mage being a generalist with a giant “toolbox of spells” to pull from.

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