Project Arcana: Why the Abjuration School Makes No Sense

As part of our efforts to overhaul the magic school system in 5e (Project Arcana), I’m going to take this time to discuss Abjuration magic. Currently, Shawn is working on a similar topic of discussion involving the Illusion school, though you can read his take-down of the singularly potent spell Mirage Arcane now.

Let’s start by seeing what the PHB has to say on the subject of Abjuration magic:

Abjuration spells are protective in nature, though some of them have aggressive uses. They create magical barriers, negate harmful effects, harm trespassers, or banish creatures to other planes of existence.

Oh boy, there’s a lot there. As will become clear as we continue to work on this overhaul, my father and I are huge proponents of schools of magic which group spells in accordance with their mechanical function as opposed to their intended use by the caster. Sure, locking a door and setting a rune trap are both “ways to protect a room,” but there is a very wide gap in the mechanisms involved behind those two effects. In the one, magical force is holding a door shut, while the other is imbuing a scribbled symbol with the magic of explosions (or lightning, poison, etc.).

So, let’s try to figure out what the underlying mechanism is supposed to be for this school. Even from the first line, we have a severe conflict: “Abjuration spells are protective in nature, though some of them have aggressive uses.” Okay, what does that even mean? Are we saying that Abjuration spells are protective by their definition, but some people have figured out aggressive uses for them? This would be like a shield that a savvy melee artist can bash people with. Or, is it that Abjuration spells provide protection so that the caster can be more safely aggressive? This would be like a missile defense shield.

The problem is, even from the get go, describing Abjuration spells as “protective in nature” does not reveal anything about the logic behind grouping them into a school. After all, a fireball is protective if you’re using it against a charging swordsman. Does that make it an Abjuration spell? Certainly not.

Let’s move on to the clarifying second bit. Hopefully we can glean some knowledge there. Or…not. Here are the four things these spells are supposed to do:

  • Create magical barriers (OK, with you so far.)
  • Negate harmful effects (Alright, still protective, got it.)
  • Harm trespassers (Uh, OK, so setting a trap is akin to dispelling magic? That’s a different use of “protect,” but I guess.)
  • Banish creatures to other planes of existence (OK, what the fuck? This is way outta left field.)

Of course, this is just the school’s general description. In many cases, the spells themselves are even more all over the map. There are several categories of spell here, so let’s get into them.

Wards and Shields
Examples: Shield, Blade Ward, Antilife Shell
Mechanism: Magical filters
Okay, yeah, this is what Abjuration is supposed to be all about. These spells are protective in nature in that they use magic to prevent harm from coming near the caster. If any of the spells fall under what I would consider “quintessential Abjuration,” it is these ones and the next set. In essence, the caster is using magic to set up a filter which allows in good stuff, but disallows specific bad stuff.

Magic Nullification
Examples: Dispel Magic, Counterspell, Antimagic Field, Greater Restoration (except for the exhaustion bit)
Mechanism: Antimagic filtering, sort of like noise-cancelling headphones maybe
Yes, perfect, another example of what Abjuration should absolutely be. The mechanisms are even similar enough that a very convincing link between this and the wards/shields could be easily drawn. This also perfectly coincides with the definition of the word abjure, which is “to renounce, repudiate, or retract.” Getting rid of magic. Got it. I’m on board. What’s next?

Triggered Spells
Examples: Glyph of Warding, Symbol, Alarm
Mechanism: Mixed, but all with a triggering condition
Here is our first example of spells that are linked to one another by the wrong characteristic. That characteristic seems to be that they are triggered by a creature coming near them. Well, so is Magic Mouth, but it’s an Illusion spell. Really, there is no functional difference between Alarm and Magic Mouth except that one pings in your head while the other blabs out loud. Furthermore, these spells have nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of Abjuration except that you can use them to protect a campsite. You know what else protects campsites? A watch rotation and a picket fence, yet those are oddly absent from this list.

Examples: Resistance, Holy Aura, Beacon of Hope
Mechanism: The power of prayer?
In some cases, problems with classifying magic in accordance to schools arise because of the sheer unwieldiness of Divine magic. Gods seem to do whatever they damn well please, and their granted spells often have little regard for the schools of arcane magic. Here, we have some of that, though in other cases it’s mere semantics. For example, Resistance is only “protective” because they called it “Resistance.” It’s a straight up buff to saving throws and nothing more. Yes, I supposed one could argue that, by definition, a saving throw is in reaction to a harmful thing, and therefore buffing it is protective, but that’s a cop out. Had they called the spell “Quick-Witted” or even “Luck,” it could easily be a Transformation spell (maybe, or maybe not, that school has its own issues).

Banishment and Imprisonment
Examples: Banishment, Imprisonment, Planar Binding
Mechanism: Who can tell at this point? These spells do all kinds of shit.
Yeah, what? I know banishing things was part of the overall school description, but these spells are nonsensical in terms of Abjuration. If the Banishment spell worked by severing the magical ties a conjured creature had to this plane, which then sent it back, it would work very nicely under the “Magic Nullification” category. But then it manages to send natives to this plane off into a pocket dimension.  What the fucking what? That’s textbook Conjuration right there, but here it is besmirching my Abjuration school.

Spells That Clearly Belong to Other Schools
Examples: Death Ward, Arcane Lock, Aid, Armor of Agathys, Prismatic Wall
Mechanism: Tomfoolery
I’ll just say this: some of these spells are ballsy additions to Abjuration. Arcane Lock? Are you kidding me? That’s not a protective spell other than the door it’s locking might be protecting you. What if you used it to lock a princess in a tower? Not very protective at that point. No, it uses magical force to hold a door shut. That’s Evocation. Death Ward is obviously Necromancy, as is Aid (magically imbued life force? Necromancy). Armor of Agathys may have “armor” in the name, but it’s coating you in a layer of harmful frost, IE Evocation. Primsatic Wall is either Illusion (if you have listened to nothing we say about that school) or, more obviously, Evocation. You know, the school with Wall of FireWall of Force, and Prismatic Spray.

It’s like they didn’t even try with Abjuration, and instead made it the “potpourri” of magical schools.

Who can we blame for this atrocity? Surely it’s because of the constant dickering by later editions of the game that things have gotten so mired? Well, I have a set of AD&D 1e books on the shelf behind me, so let’s see what they have to say.

Which is nothing. Apparently Dragonlance was where the schools were actually first described. Interestingly, though, Gygax did use the words Necromancy, Illusion, etc. when describing his spells, and seems to have loosely organized them into schools, though it is patchwork at best. Here’s Dragonlance‘s take on Abjuration:

Abjuration magics are primarily concerned with the prevention and exclusion of particular magical and nonmagical effects, situations, or individuals, and include most spells of protection, avoidance, and repellence.

Ugh, even this is pretty bad. Why only “most” spells of protection, avoidance, and repellence? Again, we can see that the designers of this mess were more interested in the intended use of a particular spell rather than how it worked.

So, what’s Project Arcana’s take on the Abjuration school? Here it is:

Abjuration – The “magic of magic.” Spells in this school act on magic itself, by enhancing, diminishing, dispelling, or preventing its use, or by imbuing it into an object.

Yup, that’s it. Some of the spells that are in there are getting re-assigned while some from other schools are coming to Abjuration.