How to Understand a Spell Description in Dungeons & Dragons V3.5

Possibly the most difficult part of playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is understanding how magic works. This article will help you make sense of the spell descriptions in the Player's Handbook (PHB).


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    Find the "Magic" chapter of the Player's Handbook. The more you read of this chapter the more you will understand about magic in D&D. However, most people do not care to read the entire chapter and fortunately that is not required to play D&D. What follows is a list of the information found in a spell entry. You will need to understand each of these parts to understand a spell in D&D:
    • Name: The first part of any spell is the name of the spell. This is simply what the spell is called, functionally it has no impact on the game.
    • School and sub-school: This is type and subtype of magic. Each school of magic has a specific purpose:
      • Abjuration: These are the spells that protect. They create a barrier or possibly injure intruders/attackers.
      • Conjuration: This school includes the sub-schools; calling, creation, healing, summoning, and teleportation. These spells create or move objects or energy.
      • Divination: These spells help the caster learn information, including spells that spy on others.
      • Enchantment: These spells influence the minds of others. All of these spells are mind-affecting.
      • Evocation: These spells manipulate energy and force. These spells are often spectacular to see and deal large amounts of damage.
      • Illusion: These spells come from the sub-schools; figment, gamer, pattern, phantasm, and shadow. Each sub-school has different characteristics.
      • Necromancy: These spells deal with life, death, and life force. Contrary to the common first impression, not all of these spells are evil.
      • Transmutation: These spells change the properties of the target, sometimes even changing its physical type and shape.
    • Descriptor: This is found on the same line as the school and sub-school. This is a further classification of the spell. This may be an energy type, such as fire, or an alignment type, such as chaotic, or other similar classifications.
    • Level: This is the spell's level, a number from 0 to 9. This is how we know the spell's relative power. This line includes what level the spell is for any class that can cast it. The abbreviations are Bard, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Rogue, Sorcerer, and Wizard. One spell may be a different level for different classes; for example "Antipathy" is Druid 9 Sorcerer/Wizard 8. This means that the spell is level 8 for sorcerers and wizards but level 9 for druids. The other spell casting classes cannot cast this spell.
    • Components: These are the things that must be present to cast the spell. You must do or have these actions and items with you when you cast the spell.
      • (V) Verbal: This means that you must speak to cast the spell. This means speaking in a loud strong voice.
      • (S) Somatic: This means that you must make gestures with your hand to cast the spell. If you cannot move at least one hand, then you cannot cast the spell.
      • (M) Material: This is some item that you must have on hand to cast the spell. If there is no cost listed for the item then it is contained in a spell component pouch.
      • (F) Focus: A focus is a material object needed to cast the spell that is not consumed in the casting and therefore can be reused. Again, if no cost is listed, then it is in the spell component pouch.
      • (DF) Divine Focus: This is a spiritually significant focal object. For Clerics and Paladins this is the holy symbol.
      • (XP) Experience Point Cost: Some extremely powerful spells will drain some experience points from the caster whenever they are used. You cannot spend so much XP that you lose a level, so if you cannot cast the spell without losing a level then you cannot cast the spell.
    • Casting Time: This is how long it takes to cast the spell. Almost every spell takes one standard action, however some spells take more or less time. Spells with a one round casting time take a full-round action to cast. You begin at the start of one turn and spell comes into effect just before the start of your next turn. You must maintain concentration during the casting of any spell that takes one round or longer. A spell that is a free action to cast may be cast on your turn but does not take away from your turn, you may only cast one of these spells a turn. Spells that take one immediate action may be cast as a free action even when it is not your turn, you still may only cast one per turn. You make all decisions regarding a spell, such as its target, when the spell comes into effect not when you start casting it.
    • Range: This is how far you can reach with the spell.
      • Personal: You can only cast these spells on yourself.
      • Touch: You must touch whatever is to be affected with the spell. If the target does not want to receive the spell you must make a touch attack. Touch attack spells threaten a critical hit on a roll of 20 and deal double damage on a successful critical hit.
      • Close: These spells have a range of 25 feet (7.6 m) + 5ft/2 levels. So, 30 feet (9.1 m) at level 2, 35ft at level 4, and so on.
      • Medium: These spells have a range of 100 feet (30.5 m) + 10ft/level. So, 110 feet (33.5 m) at level 1, 120ft at level 2, and so on.
      • Long: These spells have a range of 400 feet (121.9 m) + 40ft/level. So, 440 feet (134.1 m) at level 1, 480ft at level 2, and so on.
      • Unlimited: These spells can target anything that can be located.
      • Specified: Some spells have a maximum range specified in feet. These spells have the same maximum range no matter the level of the caster.
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    Aiming a Spell: Different spells are targeted in a different way, this section of the chapter "Magic" teaches you what each type of aiming is.
    • Target(s): You need to specify a target or targets within range.
    • Effect: This means a summoned object or creature, a ray which is targeted with a ranged touch attack, or a spread which has a designated point of origin.
    • Area: Area spells fall into one of the following categories; burst/emanation spells which need a point of origin and affect everything within the radius, cone/cylinder/line/sphere spells affect everything inside the designated shape. If the area/effect entry has an (S) it means the spell is shapeable. Shaped spells have no part smaller than a 10 feet (3.0 m) cube.
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    Duration: This section shows how long the spell will last.
    • Timed: These spells have a set duration, often based on the caster's level, and the spell ends when the duration expires.
    • Instantaneous: These spells come and go in an instant, but the consequences are often long lasting.
    • Permanent: This spell remains in effect for ever, however since the duration continues, the spell is vulnerable to dispelling unlike instantaneous spells.
    • Concentration: These spells last as long as the caster concentrates on the spell, which requires a standard action each round.
    • Subjects, Effects, and Areas: These spells remain in effect on the targeted point, creature, or object.
    • Discharge: Some spells last until the duration expires or until the caster discharges it.
    • (D) Dismissible: These spells can be ended before the set duration ends. Doing so is a standard action on the part of the caster.
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    Saving Throw: Spells may or may not allow a saving throw and the results of making one may vary as well. This section explains which applies to this spell.
    • Negates: If the target makes the saving throw then there is no effect.
    • Partial: Making a saving throw causes a less serious effect.
    • Half: The spell deals half damage to anyone who makes their saving throw.
    • None: There is no save allowed.
    • Disbelief: If the target succeeds on a saving throw then it ignores the effect.
    • (Harmless): These spells are beneficial.
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    Spell Resistance: Spell resistance (SR) is like armor against magic. Some spells are subject to it, and some are not. If the entry says yes then the spell is subject to SR, if the entry says no then it is not subject to SR. The entry may contain other details as well. A caster must roll a caster level check (caster level + 1d20) to meet or exceed the target's SR.
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    Keep in mind that this article does not contain all the information needed to play well. This is essentially a "quick and dirty" guide to magic, just to get you started. Ideally, you will want to read the full details for each of these characteristics of a spell after you've gotten a taste for playing D&D. You do not need to understand everything about all spells, but you should understand the ideas that apply to spells that your character can cast.


  • You may need to read the information a few times. Keep a copy close-by while playing––use a portable digital device to make this easiest.
  • Use Index cards to write out descriptions of spells you use often, to save on the time used to research spells. If you use a digital device, make a notepad or other plain text file to help with this.
  • Talk over spell choices with your DM; that's what they are there to do!


  • If you are not willing to take the time to understand magic then you should play a class that cannot cast magic. You can still have fun without playing a spell caster.
  • Trying to use logic to understand magic can result in frustration.
  • Be sure to read the full description of the spell, not just the teasers at the start of the spell chapters of the book; While those one or two line sentences give a simple description, there are often additional requirements or limitations that are not mentioned anywhere but the actual description.

Things You'll Need

  • D&D Manual
  • Portable digital device, for reading this article when playing (optional)

Article Info

Categories: Role Playing Games