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.

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  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.

  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.

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