The Logic behind Spell Levels in B/X DnD (OSE)

Hey there,

I’ve been thinking of personalizing my little world by making custom spells for it. But I don’t immediately see how to go about it. I have some ideas but I wouldn’t know immediately under which spell level they would fall, or even why. Do these things even matter? Are spell levels balanced? I am in the dark. At least Light is a level one spell, so is any of you magic users able to enlighten me? (please, not on the eyeballs!)

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I’d say spell levels are a taaaad bit arbitrary most of the time but do general follow the rule of ‘more powerful spells are higher level’. I’d go for writing up your spells a bit level agnostic at first then just choosing where they fall as per however you personally setup your level framework in game.


Hello! I think it all depends on what you mean by spell levels. Many games do not use spell levels at all. Are you thinking in terms of D&D spell levels, and are you asking why those spell levels exist?

Yes, basic and expert dnd, as portrayed in Old School Essentials.

Gygax and Arneson give only one direct clue in the original D&D rule books about the meaning of spell levels (which are distinct from levels of experience).

The number above each column is the spell level (complexity, a somewhat subjective determination on the part of your authors).

Their notion, then, is that the higher the spell level, the more complex it was. Therefore, I infer, a more experienced wizard is needed to understand the more advanced spells.

Gygax and Arneson admit that they have made a subjective judgment. They simply decided which spells were more complex than others. What is clear, though, is that the levels correspond with power.

There were six levels of magic-user spells and five levels of cleric spells. (Clerics acquire spells starting in the 2nd level.) The tables for “spells per day” reach the maximum with magic-users having 5 spells of each level per day and clerics having 3 spells of each level per day.

In Chainmail, the wargame antecedent to D&D, wizards’ most basic artillery spells were the Fireball and the Lightning Bolt. In D&D, these are third level spells, available to magic-user at fifth level. It seems that this level of power was imagined as a median. “Weaker” spells were put at lower levels and more powerful ones at higher levels.

I suspect that Gygax and Arneson started with those two spells and a few others that they devised (like the Death Spell, Reincarnation, and Disintegrate, set automatically at the highest level because these were the most powerful spells they would countenance), and built out from that framework. They’d come up with spell ideas, set some parameters for them, and fit them into that rough set of guidelines for levels.

Probably others could point out spells that were reassigned from one level to another between D&D editions as they turned out to be too powerful, or not powerful enough, for the level to which they had been assigned so far.

In short: the logic to assigning spell levels is relative to other spells, associative, and, as they said, “subjective.”