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How The Magic System Works In Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Here's everything you need to know about casting spells in D&D 5E.

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Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) fifth edition (5E) is an incredible tabletop game in which you can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do. Once you start playing, however, you’ll see that everything has a rule and that also applies to the magic system.

Magic is mostly used during combat in D&D. We’ve already explained how combat works in our guide for beginners, so now we’ll focus on how to use magic and its different rules.

What You Can Do With Magic

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Magic is normally related to the character’s class. Some can use it by learning about the arcane arts or getting it from a magical source, such as Bards, Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards, while other classes can use magic by drawing it from a deity or nature, like clerics, druids, and paladins.

The way you can use magic also depends on your class. If you are a Wizard, you draw your magic from your knowledge and can learn new spells through research and from other wizards, for example. If you are playing as a Warlock, however, you didn’t learn about magic from a book, you received it as part of a pact with an otherworldly being.

Each class has its own way of approaching magic, but they all depend on casting spells. Every spell falls into one of eight schools of magic: Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, Enchantment Evocation, Illusion, Necromancy, and Transmutation.

Here are the definitions of each school of magic in D&D 5E:

  • Abjuration: Protective spells which can create magical barriers, cancel other spells, and even banish creatures.
  • Conjuration: Spells that can transport objects and creatures from one place to another, summon them, and create objects and effects.
  • Divination: These spells can reveal information, be it a secret from the past, a glimpse of the future, or the location of something hidden.
  • Enchantment: Spells which control the mind of others, either controlling or just influencing their behavior.
  • Evocation: Spells that manipulate magical energy like fire, lighting and healing. These are the most-used spells.
  • Illusion: Spells that can deceive the senses of others, such as their sight, smell or hearing.
  • Necromancy: Spells that manipulate the energy of life and death. Only evil casters use this school.
  • Transmutation: Spells that change the characteristics of objects and enviroments, such as making an inanimate object move.

Image via Wizards of the Coast

How The Magic System Works

Image via Wizards of the Coast

During combat, you have a few options for what to do in your turn. Casting a spell is one of the things you can do as an action. Some spells can be used as a bonus action or as a reaction. Magic is different from using a weapon as it has some requirements in order to work and uses different mechanics to work or deal damage.

There are two types of spells, ones you can use however many times you want but are somewhat weak, and ones you have to spend a Spell Slot to use, meaning that they are limited to use but much stronger than cantrips.

Spell Slots

Spell Slots are the number of times you can cast a leveled spell. If you have two Spell Slots, you can only cast one spell to fill each slot, independent of whether it’s the same spell or not. It doesn’t matter how many spells your character knows or has prepared, they can only have two Spell Slots to use.

Your character will gain more Spell Slots as they level up. There are also levels for the Spell Slots themselves, so a third-level wizard can have four first-level Spell Slots and two second-level slots.

As your character gains higher-leveled spells, they will need higher Spell Slots to be able to cast them. A first-level spell can fit in any Spell Slot, but a fifth-level spell won’t fit in a first-level Spell Slot, only in fifth or above level Spell Slots.

After you’ve used your Spell Slots, don’t worry, you can restore them by finishing a long rest, which is at least eight hours long. Some classes have special abilities that let them cast spells without using Spell Slots, like a monk who follows the Way of the Four Elements.

Some spells also have a Ritual tag on them. This means that it will take 10 minutes longer to cast, but it won’t use a Spell Slot. The character must have a feature that allows them to cast rituals and they need to have the spell prepared beforehand unless the ritual specifies otherwise.

Understanding A Spell

When you look at the list of spells you can use while creating your character, you’ll notice that every spell has a description explaining what the spell does. It will tell you what school of magic it falls into, if it’s a cantrip or a leveled spell, casting time, range, components, duration, and will also have a brief description of the effects.

We’ll use the Ray of Frost spell as an example to explain each part. Here’s what you will find in the Essentials Kit Rulebook:

Ray of Frost
Evocation cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous

A frigid beam of blue-white light streaks toward a creature within range. Make a ranged spell attack against the target. On a hit, it takes 1d8 cold damage, and its speed is reduced by 10 feet until the start of your next turn. The spell’s damage increases by 1d8 when you reach 5th level (2d8), 11th level (3d8), and 17th level (4d8).

Casting Time

Most spells require only one action to take effect, but some might require a bonus action, a reaction, or just more time to cast. If a spell needs more than an action to be cast, your character will have to cast the same spell on the number of turns required, but they will have to maintain concentration.


Some spells require you to maintain concentration to keep the magic active and if you lose concentration, the spell’s effect ends. You break concentration when you cast another spell that also requires concentration, if you take damage, if you fall unconscious, or die.


Every spell has a range of effect. Ray of Frost has a creature as the target, for example, while Fireball targets every creature within the ball of fire in a 3D sense. Other spells can have the range described as “self,” which means it will only affect your character.

There are five different areas of effect that a spell can normally have: cone, cube, cylinder, line, and sphere. You’ll take into consideration the 3D form to see how many targets the spell will affect and if it won’t include any party members.

You’ll also need to have a clear sight of the target to be able to cast any spell. You can’t cast a spell behind a wall or if there’s any obstruction in the way.


There are physical conditions a character must complete to cast a spell: verbal (V), somatic (S), and material (M). The description will specify what each spell requires.

The verbal component is self-explanatory: your character will need to chant words in order to cast the spell. If they are gagged or in a place of complete silence, however, they won’t be able to cast the spell.

The somatic condition requires a gesture or a set of gestures to be made, so the caster must have at least one of their hands free to perform the hand movements.

The material component means your character will have to offer particular objects to cast the spell. Ray of Frost doesn’t require materials, but Chromatic Orb, a first-level spell that launches an energy sphere of acid, cold, fire, lightning poison, or thunder at a target, requires a diamond worth at least 50 pieces of gold.

A character can use a component pouch to a spellcasting focus in place of the material, but if the description specifies a cost, the character must have that item for each casting of the spell.


The duration of how much time the spell persists can be in rounds, minutes, hours, or even years. For comparison, 10 turns in combat are equivalent to one minute in the game. Instantaneous means that the spell’s effect will happen in the moment that it’s cast, so it can’t be dispelled.

How To Use Magic During Combat

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Casting spells works differently than attacking with a melee or ranged weapon. Instead of throwing a D20 to determine whether you hit or miss, enemies have to make a saving throw determined by the spell description to avoid some or all of the spell’s effect.

Most ranged spells might ask for an attack roll to know if the character hit the right target and you can combine effects of different spells with overlapping durations. You can’t intensify the effect by casting the same spell more than once, however.

If there’s any doubt about how a D&D spell works, its description should provide clarification since each spell is unique.

About the author

Nádia Linhares