5th Edition,  D&D,  DMXP,  Other Games,  RPG,  World Building

From the Ground Up – Innate Magic

While I’ve focused on the Interaction between people and magic, as well as where magic comes from, there is another interaction with magic that must be looked at: That of Innate spell casters. While speaking about how biological and chemical magic happens , Innate magic is a different topic all together. 

Innate Magic

When I speak of innate magic, I want to make myself pretty clear, as my topic has a pretty specif point of reference. I am not talking about Dragons Breath, or a Rust Monsters touch or even the death stare of a catopblepas. What I am speaking of, specifically, are the innate spellcastings of a certain branch of creature in many fantasy worlds that can cast spells but still don’t count as any of the classes of spellcasters in the game. There is a clear distinction between spell casters, and these creatures. 

There are a number of complications with how these creatures are presented. Both to and by the storyteller, and I think its worth visiting how these abilities come about and what that might entail in a player interaction. What I think the most interesting part is that there are multiple ways that one can attain innate spellcasting, and they seem to originate differently, but they treated equally in terms of game mechanics. That seems strange to me. 

Innate Spellcasting as a Learned Skill

Innate spellcasting is clearly presented in at least two forms in the D&D players handbook, for a frame of reference. Wizards, at high enough levels and in certain instances, gain the ability to simply cast spells. This implies that with enough study, enough training, and enough will, creatures can attain the proper mastery over the spell to cast it whenever they want. 

This seems like it would be different for Arcane and Divine abilities. Arcane, I suppose, would indicate that the caster has mastery over the spell, like I mentioned, and that they have made it such a rote part of their life that it is now instinctive. That makes sense as a class based ability, but there are also races that seem to fit this mold. Drow, for instance, stand out as the epitome of a race that has this type of training. 

These abilities I have a very easy time treating equally to a typical spell. They are cast, they can be countered, and they can be dispelled. each one is the same manipulation of the basic magical substance that exists the world over. These casters, however, have trained enough that they are simply able to create the effects with little effort on their part. Thankfully, this creates an extremely easy interaction with the players and with the rules. Training is training, and spells are spells, no matter what. 

Innate Casting as an Inherent Ability

This, this is where it gets interesting, at least to me. 

The genies ability to grant wishes, the gnomes ability to speak with animals, the solars ability to resurrect the dead and the hags ability to create illusions are all intrinsic parts of the monsters they are, their abilities to cast these spells seem to come as part and parcel of their existence. Creatures like these, that abound in fantasy worlds, are a special dilemma to the storyteller in many games, as are classes like the sorcerer, who seem to be born with innate spellcasting that they simply have to tap into. 

What is intriguing is that these creatures clearly are creating the effect of a spell, but they do so without using any material components, and they clearly aren’t part of a spellcaster class. Creatures like Hags and Arcanaloths, for instance, have both a spellcasting class and innate spells. These make the spellcasting particularly difficult to adjudicate because they feel like they should be treated differently, but I don’t see how they can be, within the confines of the rules of the world. 

In my mind, it feels weird to have a genie have their wish counterspelled, or to have a steam mephits blur dispelled. These things, innate to the challenge and being of a creature, feel like they should be a part of the creature that simply mimics the effect except for the bookkeeping aspect of creating new abilities for each and every monster. 3.5/Pathfinder has a great category for that, the Supernatural abilities, but that isn’t as clear in other game systems, including my most common, 5e. 

However, there are certain abilities that do feel like they should interact with the normal world while also being innate to the creature. An Illithids Levitate (but not Dominate) or an Oni’s darkness ( but not invisibility) are both examples of abilities that seem lumped into the innate spellcasting category with little real reason. Where do you separate one from the other? 

I find this incresigly difficult with at will abilities. Innate spells that can only be cast once, twice or even three times a day are easier to justify being close to a standard spell. They require enough effort that the caster cannot replicate the ability more than a few times a day, meaning that the affect is likely to be a result of some manipulation of the substance of magic. at will abilities, though. Boy do they make my head spin. They are often abilities that make sense when looking at the creature and its role in the world. This can be expressed via their intended niche, like a Fairies druidcraft, or their innate magicality like a slaads ability to Detect Thoughts. These abilities feel like part of a creature that you would want always on simply to make the creature what it is.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, I think that there are a lot of variables in play here. Many creatures have mixed abilities in the same listing, combining innate abilities with trained abilities, and that complicates the matter. I do feel that there is a significant enough difference between Innate and Trained abilities to make a strong argument for their separation. Often, though, that is going to rely on the ability to make consistent rulings on the fly, addressing not how you want the combat to flow, but creating a ruling that will stand through a number of encounters. 

I would strongly consider making at will abilities from Monsters a subset of innate actions, as they are often the foundation of a creatures nature and will simply be reactivated. The rest of the abilities, I would argue that they are putting forth a serious enough effort that there could be disturbances to that ability or advantages taken from it, if possible. I think making that change to the world will be a simple, flavorful and, here is the kicker for me, realistic adaptation of the rules to make everything work well.


Let me know what you think!