“This duel has weakened me. I’m almost out of power. Since I can’t even manage a fireball, I will use the last of my strength to… call down meteors from the heavens!”
— A D&D wizard, apparently
Spell slots in Fifth Edition make absolutely no sense. Whatever the developers were trying to achieve, the end result was a confusing mess of legacy mechanics stitched into a Frankensteinian monstrosity that has made many a new and veteran player want to bang their head against the wall—the new players for want of reconciling the difference between spell level and slot level, and veteran players for wondering why in Mystra’s name the band-aid of Vancian magic wasn’t just ripped off entirely instead of left to dangle in everyone’s way.
Fortunately, the Dungeon Master’s Guide has a system that can offer a quick and (very) dirty solution: spell points.
What Even Are Spell Slots?
Before we can get into why spell points are immeasurably better than spell slots, we should at least try to explain what spell slots are.
As a mechanic, spell slots are an impractical vestige from previous editions where the rules of magic were drastically different. In Second and Third editions, when you wanted to prepare a spell, you prepared it to a specific slot, which involved completing all but the final piece of the spell, leaving that as a trigger for when you wanted to cast the spell. Once cast, that spell was no longer prepared, and if you wanted to cast it again you needed to have prepared it a second time to a separate spell slot. For example, if you wanted to cast fireball three times in a day, you would have to have prepared fireball three separate times, each to a specific spell slot of 3rd level or higher.
Even back then it didn’t make sense—spells didn’t get more powerful when cast using a higher level slot (unless they had a Metamagic feature applied), so preparing fireball at a higher level was a waste of a higher-level slot. However, you also couldn’t split a 4th-level slot into, say, a 3rd-level slot and a 1st-level slot to get something out not preparing a higher-level spell. No, you had to use more power to hold the same spell… because reasons. (For a more complete history of Vancian magic, check out the preface to our own Dynamic Spellcasting variant.)
With Fifth Edition, this system makes even less sense, because spells are no longer tied to a specific spell slot. If you have one unexpended 3rd-level spell slot and you are capable of casting a number of 3rd-level spells, you can pick any one of those slots to cast whatever 3rd-level spell you know or have prepared. In this way, a spell slot is simply just an inflexible mechanism, the sole purpose of which is to let you cast a spell.
So why not replace it with a flexible mechanism? Well, that’s where spell points come in.
What Are Spell Points?
Chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide has many tools that players and DMs can use to add to their game. Some of them, such as the Creating a Monster section, merely reverse engineer the math behind the game (though the developers jealously guard their secret CR calculator that incorporates other mechanics not included in the core books), while others are in varying stages of completeness. It is, in many ways, the cutting room floor of the design workshop, collected and edited into tools you can adapt for your game. This article focuses on one of the tools offered by this section: spell points.
The variant is introduced as replacing spell slots with spell points, which “give a caster more flexibility, at the cost of greater complexity”.1 Using this variant, you don’t gain an arbitrary collection of differently levelled spell slots, but rather gain a pool of spell points. Each spell point counts for just as much as another spell point, and each level of spell has a specific spell point cost. For example, it costs 2 spell points to cast a 1st-level spell, but 10 spell points to cast a 7th-level spell.
These vague words have a few potential meanings. If we’re to consider that they mean ‘the system is more complex’, this is likely a reference to the fact that you’re now keeping track of a pool of points that might be just as large (or larger) than your pool of hit points. It is our opinion that the developers actually overestimate the challenge this presents, especially for DMs, as keeping track of various levels of spell slots for monsters was far more tedious compared to a single pool of spell points.
The alternative interpretation of these words is in reference to how the spell point system limits higher-level spells cast using spell points to only one of each level of 6th or higher. This is to ensure that a 15th-level wizard with 94 spell points can’t just cast a higher level spell like chain lightning 10 times in a day. Our considered opinion is that this is a fair exchange to not having to, say, cast counterspell at 4th level when you’re out of 3rd-level slots but want to deny the enemy from throwing a fireball.
Not Quite Complete
In spite of our repeated entreaties to Wizards of the Coast, this variant remains incomplete. For instance, the variant only replaces spell slots for characters with the Spellcasting feature, meaning that spell slots are still used by warlocks (who have Pact Magic). Likewise, various class features rely on spell slots, such as the paladin’s Divine Smite and the Circle of the Moon druid’s Wild Shape,2 along with numerous mechanics attached to magic items. While house rules to resolve these issues are not too difficult for an experienced player to draft, that house rules must even be involved indicates that this system is not finished, and if you wish to include this variant you will need to resolve this yourself.
Not Valid for Organized Play
A major obstacle to the general acceptance of spell points as superior to spell slots is that, unlike variants presented in the Player’s Handbook (such as feats and variant humans), spell points are not officially considered to be a player option (being from the Dungeon Master’s Guide) and therefore aren’t permitted for use in official organized play campaigns such as D&D Adventurers League. We think this is stupid and when we finally overthrow the regime that has been steadily ruining AL since season 7, we will commit to resolving this oversight as we work to undo the damage that has been inflicted on that campaign.
Putting It All Together
Spell slots are, by this point, multiple editions overdue for elimination from the rules. They are confusing, illogical, and increasingly detrimental to all efforts to make D&D’s magic easier to understand and use. If the developers had done the wise thing and made spell points the default and spell slots the variant, nobody would have ever bothered to try incorporating the latter into the game and we wouldn’t constantly be seeing annoying questions like whether a multiclassed wizard/cleric can cast wish (they can’t unless they have at least 17 levels of wizard, no matter what spell slots their combined spellcaster levels grant them).
By switching to spell points in your campaign, you will save yourself a headache and no longer have to worry about keeping track of impractical and illogical mechanics. It’s the smart choice.
Do you have experience with the spell points variant? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!