Warlocks, Bards, and Mystic magic

Warlocks, Bards, and Mystic magic

· Caio Lente · #d&d  #system  #worldbuilding 

In One D&D’s first Unearthed Arcana, the developers tried to split spells into three distinct categories: Arcane, Divine and Primal. In this model, instead of each class having its own spell list, classes would pull spells directly from these categories, with some restrictions based on schools. Bards, for instance, could access any Arcane spell from the following schools: Divination, Enchantment, Illusion, or Transmutation.

This is an interesting proposition because it could allow new classes to access spells from any book published prior to their release. Think about how Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has to list every single spell that the Artificer can cast from the PHB because that book was published before the Artificer was released.

The opposite is also true: when WotC releases a new book with spells, they don’t have to list what classes can cast each individual spell, even classes from sources other than the PHB. In The Book of Many Things, for example, they wouldn’t have to say that Antagonize counts as a Bard spell because they could simply list it as an Arcane Enchantment.

This kind of design would allow them to create new classes that are compatible with every conceivable 5e product: old and new, core and optional, first and third-party. They could bring back the Shaman and simply say that it gets every Primal Evocation and Conjuration spells (or something like that); instantly, everything in your Mary Poppins’ Guide to Spells is instantly compatible with the Shaman.

I know I’m dwelling on this point, but I just want to make sure you understand what we could have had. By One D&D’s seventh UA, the team went back to class spell lists and this compatibility dream went out the window.

I’m not saying that the category system was perfect, just that it would foster the creation of more (and more specialized) classes1. Wouldn’t it be fun if the Swordmage was a class instead of the Wizard’s most broken subclass? Wouldn’t it be nice if fans could design new classes with an expected lifespan of more than a year?

In an interview on D&D’s YouTube channel, Jeremy Crawford claimed that spell categories were dropped because they:

  1. Dampened class identity. A big part of the Wizard’s class identity is having the biggest spell list in the game, and having other classes access most of the Arcane spell list made the Wizard feel less special.

  2. Didn’t work for Warlocks. Because of Pact Magic, some Arcane spells become too powerful in the hands of Warlocks, so their spell list has to be more curated.

The goal of the rest of this post is to explain why I think spell categories created the problems Crawford mentioned, and to offer a simple solution to this issue that only involves rethinking how most classes work in the game :D

The problem

When WotC tried to divide the casters into three categories, one of them had way more classes than the others. Can you guess which one it was? Take a look:

The situation gets even worse if you take into account “third-casters”, i.e., classes with subclasses that can access the Wizard spell list. Looking at this table you can instantly tell how everyone wants to be an Arcane class:

Arcane Divine Primal
Full caster Wizard, Sorcerer, Bard, Warlock2 Cleric Druid
Half-caster Artificer Paladin Ranger
Third-caster Fighter, Rogue

To me, this is the actual reason why spell categories ruined class identity. The Wizard didn’t feel special because everyone is looking over their shoulders trying to copy some of those sweet Arcane spells! And, in the same vein, the problem with Warlocks is that there are already too many Arcane classes and, if WotC dropped Pact Magic like they tried to in One D&D’s fifth UA, then there really isn’t a good way to distinguish it from the other Arcane ones.

My solution

My solution to this problem is actually based on Kobold Press’ solution in Tales of the Valiant: create a new spell category! Just to be clear, I’m not a TotV backer, but I did check out the public playtests and watched a few videos of the backer playtests. To summarize what I was able to understand, they kept One D&D’s original categories and added a new one called Wyrd (meaning “fate” or “destiny”) just for the Warlock.

In my opinion, however, we’re wasting so much potential by having only Warlocks dip into Wyrd magic! Why not use this opportunity to bring back a little bit of 4e’s Power Sources and redistribute all those Arcane classes into other categories?

If I were to fork D&D, this is what I would do:

Arcane Divine Primal Mystic
Full caster Wizard Cleric Druid Warlock
Half-caster Artificer Paladin Ranger Bard
Third-caster Fighter Monk Barbarian Rogue

In my system, every spell would have a category, a school and a level of access (full, half, or third). In the Ranger section of the PHB, for example, it would say something like “you have access to every Primal spell for half-casters”, in the Eldritch Knight section it would say “you have access to every Arcane spell for third-casters”, you get it.

In this framework, spells may have two or more categories (Wall of Fire: Arcane and Primal), classes may have access to only some schools (Shaman: Primal half-caster limited to Evocation and Conjuration), and spells may have specific exceptions (Cure Wounds: Divine, Primal, and Artificer).

Now I should probably explain where the Sorcerer went, how the Monk and the Barbarian showed up in the table, and what the heck Mystic magic even is. Let me go through my vision for each magic category one by one.


Arcane spells are learned, practiced, and perfected. Wizards, Artificers, and some Fighters can master this discipline thorough meticulous study of the Weave and the science of how to harness it.

This category is basically unchanged, except for the Sorcerer which is now missing. I’m gonna be honest: I was never a fan of the Sorcerer as a limited Wizard with Metamagic… So I shifted its features to the Warlock, because I can.

Additionally, if you’re not a fan of Artificers in medieval fantasy, we could have the Swordmage as a cool Arcane half-caster in its place. I’d personally go this route, but many people love the Artificer, so I kept it as the default.


Divine spells are granted by heavenly beings. Clerics, Paladins, and some Monks earn the ability to use these powers through prayer, strict devotion to a god, or adherence to a higher purpose.

This category gains a new member: the Monk as a third-caster. Since monks in real life are religious people, I think it’s ok to have a subclass or two gain access to Divine spells. Can’t Way of Mercy Monks get Cure Wounds or something? Come on…


Primal spells are manifested through Nature. Druids, Rangers, and some Barbarians are in such attunement with the wilderness that they can employ its magical powers as a tool and a weapon.

Just as the Divine category, I added the Barbarian as a third-caster to the Primal classes. In fact, the Barbarian was a Primal class in 4e! Path of the Beast Barbarians already have some sweet beast forms, why not have a subclass that is also able to cast a little Spike Growth while raging?


Mystic spells are folk traditions that hold power. Witchcraft, chanting rituals, shadow magic, and cerimonial dances are kinds of Mystic magic. Warlocks, Bards, and some Rogues can perform powerful spells by forging a pact with an otherworldly being, impressing a Muse, or performing forbidden rites.

This is where a lot has changed.

In this framework, the Warlock becomes a full caster whose powers fill the same niche as Pathfinder’s Witch class. They can keep their Patron, Eldritch Blast, Eldritch Invocations, and I’d even give them something akin to Metamagic to really hammer home how they’re basically concocting an incantation every time they cast a spell; add an eye of newt to have the spell last longer, some snake fangs to have it deal more damage, etc. Very Laudna.

The Bard, on the other hand, gets downgraded to a half-caster because, honestly, I think they’re a bit overpowered. I’m of the opinion that they’re much better served by a more swashbuckler-y archetype: charismatic sword fighters that can distract their opponents with illusions, help their allies with encouraging words, and play a few tunes when they need to Dispel Magic.

Can we make a single spell list that works for both Warlocks and Bards? Given that my Bards only get at most 5th level spells and that witchcraft in the real world is often associated with song and dance, I think there’s a chance. If we wanted to make Bards even more like Warlocks, their subclasses could be their Muses instead of their Colleges! Give them more Enchantment and Illusion spells, less Conjuration and Evocation, and Bob’s your uncle.

As for Rogues, I think the “shadow magic” component of the Mystic classes serves very well the Arcane Trickster archetype. A majority of the Arcane Trickster’s spell list can already be learned by Bards, so it’s not even that much of a stretch.

And that’s it! TL;DR: Throw away the Sorcerer, and rework Warlocks and Bards to fit into a new Mystic category along with the Arcane Trickster. Optionally, for some added spice, also give Monks and Barbarians each a third-caster subclass because they deserve it.

What do you think of my solution? Is it too much work? Is making room for new, more focussed classes even worth it? Please let me know, I’m going insane…

  1. Sure, what if WotC released a book with a spell that completely broke your favorite third-party class? That could reasonably happen. But since WotC has a reputation for breaking their own classes with their own spells (I’m looking at you, Silvery Barbs), I think the benefits outweigh the risks. ↩︎

  2. I know the Warlock is not a full caster, don’t @ me. What I’m saying is that most Warlock subclasses depend exclusively on casting to do their thing. ↩︎