Wargaming Tradecraft: Spell Abacus for Dungeons and Dragons


Spell Abacus for Dungeons and Dragons

Something a little off-topic today, but that I think is pretty awesome and hopefully you will too.

I present to you a Wargaming Tradecraft original idea - The Spell Abacus. This tool will allow you to easily track how many spell slots you've used while playing Dungeons and Dragons.


I've become a firm believer in gaming aids while playing copious amounts of Warmachine and decided to dream up something I could apply to the Wizard I'm playing in D&D at the moment. In D&D 5th ed, there's a set maximum number of spells that doesn't increase with your intellect. (The same applies to other spell-casting classes.)

At first I was using some of my coloured tokens to count spell slots, but recognized that as I leveled, this would become tricky to track. I then decided to build something a little grander.


It's pretty straight forward...
  • Each row represents a spell level.
    • 1st level spells are at the top with 4 beads.
    • Higher level spells are at the bottom with 1 bead.
  • Before Game
    • If you have a spell slot available, you should have a bead for it on the left side.
    • For any spell slots you don't have access to, move those beads to the right side.
  • During Game
    • As you cast spells, move beads from the left side of the abacus to the right side.
    • As you regain spells, move beads from the right side of the abacus to the left side.

The Build


  • 1 large dowel
  • 1 smaller dowel
  • String or wire
  • 22 Beads
  • Saw, wood glue, drill / pin vice and bits, ruler and pen, X-Acto knife, file.

I began with some dowels. Any size would do, but the key is you need 2 larger ones for the side of the frame and 2 smaller ones for the top of the frame. These need to be small enough to fit inside the outer dowels but still strong enough to support the frame.


Make a plan to space out the holes you need to drill and mark where they'll go. Be sure to leave enough room between each hole that sliding a bead on one row won't push around beads on another row. Also leave enough space at the top and bottom that drilling holes for the frame dowels won't crack the side dowels.

In this case, I went with 1cm spacing. You should have:

  • 11 holes total.
    • 9 levels of spells
    • + top and bottom frame.
  • This means the sides of the frame should be 12 cm long.
    • 11 cm for the holes
    • + 1 more cm for the end of the dowel.
Cutting and Preparing

After cutting the dowels, use a file to clean up the sawed edges.

Whenever I drill, I punch a smaller hole / dimple for the drill-bit to sit in. This prevents it from shifting around. So, I use my hobby knife, poke it into each mark and twist around a bit.

The holes I'll end up drilling through should be large enough for your beads, but not much more.


The beads should be smallish and you don't want to drill holes that the beads could slip through.

String / Wire

The thickness of the string should be around the size of the inside of the beads. Beads shouldn't move too easily. I settled on a wire with a plastic coating, which offered some resistance to movement.


I'm using a really small drill bit and unfortunately it's too small to fit in the "chuck" of my drill. (The chuck is the part that holds drill bits.) I tried mounting the chuck from a pin vice in the chuck of my drill, but it just wasn't happening.

In the end, I had to just use the pin vice. Slowly. Ugh.

Finally, clean up those holes - scrape and file some of the excess off.


You can use a real electric drill to make a pilot hole for the upper and lower frame dowels, then drill a larger hole just big enough for the dowels themselves. The straighter you make these holes, the more square your abacus will be. Try not to drill all the way through the dowel, but it's not the end of the world if you do.

Test-fit the dowels in the holes and see how the frame goes together.

Finish up with some wood / carpenters glue to put it all together and wipe off any excess.

OK, so it doesn't sit perfectly flat... it is, in fact, a wobbly abacus. This led to some jokes in our roleplaying group and the naming of the "Wobbly Orphanarium" in the city we're currently in.

Stringing the Beads

Starting the stringing is the easy part:

  1. String a bead and tie a knot on the outside of the first hole.
    • This acts as an anchor for the rest of the string as you run each row.
  2. Run the string across the gap with the first set of beads and through the opposite side of the frame.
  3. Run the string down, to the next hole, through the frame and back across with more beads.
  4. Repeat, stringing each row.
The number of beads for each row should be the maximum number of spells your character could possibly have. This means you should look at your class table at 20th level.

Before tying off the end, go back to the start and pull the string tight, row by row. (Just be careful not to snap your string.) The hardest part in this whole project is getting your final knot in place while adding as little slack to the string inside the frame as possible.

Once the string's pulled taut, place another bead on the outside of the frame and tie a knot to hold it in place. Try to get the knot as close to the frame and the bead as possible.

Finally, cut the excess string off each end.

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