Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spell Presentation in Rulebooks

Traditionally, D&D had spells for Cleric and Magic-Users (and other classes that used spells in that edition) organized by level, with all spells of first level presented together alphabetically, followed by second level alphabetically, etc.

3E took the encyclopedic approach, with all spells, regardless of level or class, arranged alphabetically in one big list.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

In the old setup, it's easy for players to peruse the spells they can access early on and compare them to each other.  If all the first level spells are on one or two pages, it's easy to get a grip on them (of course when you get up to 30+ spells as in AD&D it takes a bit more space, but they're still all there together).  And as your PC gains levels, you can digest the new spells in manageable chunks.  For learning your character's options, it's very convenient to have it this way.

The newer setup, however, also has its advantages.  If spell X is listed in a monster writeup, magic item description, or a module, you can look it up easily without having to remember if it's an M-U or Cleric spell, and what level of spell it is.  Also, for spells that are on multiple spell lists, they only need to include the text once.

I'm partial to the first way, because that's what I started with, and since I mainly play Classic where there are only 8 or 12 spells per level, it's not that hard to keep track of them all in my head.  Despite having played 3E for seven or eight years I never read through every single spell description in the PHB.  I have done that with all the spells in BECM (multiple times).  I don't remember if I ever did with AD&D but I may have.


  1. I by-far prefer the level-based approach, compared to the encyclopediac one. It was a nice experiment, and it made sense, but it just wasn't as useful. When digging up a spell, you generally know what level it is, so you go straight to that level and then flip to the spell. If the levels are printed in the page headers, you've got no problem. I've had more difficulty finding spells in 3E than in 2E AD&D. Also, I've not read every 3E spell, whereas I've read EVERY spell in 2E.

  2. I feel like the 3e approach works better for me when I am looking something up. I used a similar design in Errant.

  3. I prefer putting spells into a spreadsheet so that I can sort them however I want and whenever I want on the fly.

  4. Follow up; I did this for Labyrinth Lord basic and am currently doing it for monster stats at www.digitalorc.blogspot.com

  5. Pathfinder does both, sort of. It lists spells by class and level, but the full descriptions are done in one big alphabetical encyclopaedia format.

  6. Kelvin--Actually, 3E did that, too. They had a breakdown of spells by level with a brief snippet about what they did before the big ass section of every spell in the game, alphabetically.

    Dylan--I'll check out those spreadsheets. Sound useful!

  7. I found both the 1e and 3e formats to be annoying. If I’m remembering correctly, I actually found the 2e system workable. (I think it was 1e style but with an alphabetical index.)

    These days, though... It would be pretty easy to have scripts generate both forms from the same set of spells. Then people could print the one they prefer. Or—since I’ve pretty much switched to electronic format for my RPG stuff—use both.

    Even better—like the spreadsheets already mentioned—just make the spell database itself available.

  8. Labyrinth Lord does the worst of both worlds: two alphabetical encyclopedias, by class. You open the rulebook and have to recognize whether you want this 'M', or the other 'M'.