5e PHB – Uh oh, it’s Magic

As I’ve noted before, I like the spell slot system, at least on paper. I really look forward to testing it out more, since I think it’s hard to fully judge until I’ve played some at higher levels, but it looks super sweet.

Shorthand for those of use just joining us: A caster may cast a number of spells of a given level per day. A level 5 wizard can, for example, cast 4 level one spells, 3 level two spells and 2 level three spells. The cast also has a certain number of spells prepared. What those spells are and how they’re prepared varies by class, but the bottom line is that every caster has a list of available spells.

Where this gets weird for traditionalists is that they can use those daily casts to cast any spell they have prepared, so long as the slot if high enough level (so you can use a level 5 casting to cast magic missile, but you can’t use a level 1 casting to cast fireball). Because of this versatility, the daily spell castings are referred to as “slots”, because you slot the spell into the space. If you come out of 3e think of it this way: every class has different ways to prepare spells (prayer, study, or intrinsic knowledge) but everyone casts spells like a sorcerer. With a few caveats.

One important result of this is that spell level is a more fluid concept. Spells have a minimum level, but they can be cast at any level above that. And many spells get more potent if you cast them at higher levels. This is how the system handles spells which used to scale with your level. Consider the classic fireball, which did 1d6 damage per level. When you got it, it did 5d6, but in the hands of a 20th level caster, it did 20d6. That’s some crazy scaling.

In 5e, fireball is a 3rd level spell, and it does 8d6 damage. If you use a 4th level spell slot to cast it, it does 9d6. A 5th level spell slot does 10d6 and so on. You get more punch up front, but less massively swingy scaling.

An important upshot of this is that this greatly expands the range of spells you can prepare, so there are no dead zones. Consider that level 5 wizard. With an 18 intelligence, he can prepare 9 spells. Any 9 spells. They could all be the highest level he can cast (though that would be dumb) or they could all be first level, and that would be rock solid. For reference, the sorcerer of the same level knows only 6 spells, but has some other tricks to make up for it. The 18 wisdom, level 5 cleric can also prepare 9, but also has 6 more spells pre-prepared based on his deity.[1]

“But what about utility spells?” you might ask. If my wizard has only 9 slots, do I really want to use one on identify or detect magic? This is where the ritual magic rules come into play. If you know ritual magic (Bards, Clerics, Druids and Wizards do, Rangers, Paladins, Warlocks & Sorcerers do not, though there’s a feat that allows it) then spells marked as “ritual” can be cast by taking an additional 10 minutes. If you do this, it does not use up the slot. However, unless you’re a wizard, you need to have the spell prepared to ritually cast it. If you’re a wizard, you need only have it in your spellbook, and have the book on hand. I suspect that, in practice, this will offer a subtle and potent bonus to wizards which is not reflected in their raw numbers.

The other thing worth noting is that cantrips are pretty sweet. They’re only available to some casters (Bard[2], Cleric, Druid, Sorcer, Warlock and Wizard) and you basically know a small number of them, but the ones you know, you can always cast, without using up spell slots. This is neat in two big ways. First, some light utility has moved into the Cantrips, and every class has a “do minor magic stuff” cantrip, effectively granting all casters their equivalent of prestidigitation. A lot of colorful spells that were fun but never worth spending a slot on are now cantrips.

Second, there are combat cantrips. They’re not hugely powerful, usually doing weapon-equivalent damage with no stat modifier but some other effect. Notably, their base damage does scale up a little with levels, adding a die at every tier, so they always remain useful. The net result is that your caster always can do something magical, and there is no trying to melee with a dagger because you’re our of spells. As a caster, I find this a relief.

Actually casting spells is pretty straightforward, with the one qualifier that this is the one area where proficiency works differently than you might expect. Casters get proficiency with a spell focus (staff, holy symbol, whatever) and they add a proficiency bonus to their spell attacks, but that bonus is entirely unrelated to the focus, at least as written. Proficiency with a focus means you can use the focus un lieu of trivial material components.

Other stuff is familiar – saving throws, attack shapes, stuff like that. But it’s notably to call out the rules for concentration. Lots of spells are sustained by concentration, and taking damage can break concentration, and that’s all well and good, but it’s important to note that you can only concentrate on one spell at a time. This matters a lot because almost every spell with a duration is based on concentration, so stacking buffs is MUCH harder now.

The spells themselves are interesting. Casting time is often in actions and duration is usually in real units of time (noting that a round is about 6 seconds). Spells have intrinsic levels and types (2nd level transmutation, for example) and the choice to include level is curious, because it means that it will always be the same level for all classes. That is, no spell is a level 1 druid spell but a level 3 ranger spell. This is probably the right choice the way they’ve structured the spell tables, but it’s curious.

The master list of spells is by class – all the bard spells by level, cleric spells by level and so on. I do wish they had the table that inverted this (spells by level, with casters) but I suspect the internet will provide it in time. When it does, I think that’s going to offer some very interesting insights, because I think decisions about who can cast what spells was a very big part of class design.

Highlights as I flip through the spells:

  • Aid, curiously, increases hit points. it does not grant temporary hit points. Fun distinction, and notably its 8 hour duration doesn’t depend on concentration.
  • Alter Self is a transmutation, not an illusion, and it can grant cool effects like aquatic adaptation or body weaponry. That is super stylish.
  • Animal Shapes! This is a level 8 spell that basically lets you transform as many willing targets as you can see as if they were druids using wild shape, including the hit point recovery. Not only is this mechanically badass (instant army of bear), it means you can literally turn a (willing) troop of soldiers into ravens, all fly into the enemy stronghold, and THEN turn into bears. And then sharks. And then wolves.
  • Kind of sad Arcane Gate is not a ritual
  • Aura of Life is what I always wished protection from energy drain was
  • Banishing Smite has an interesting mechanic. Bonus damage, and if it reduced HP below 50, banish the target (if native to this plane, it shunts them off for a while). That’s a nice threshold, and like other fight-ending spells, they’ve done a nice job of making it more valuable later in the fight.
  • Man, I just want to say – the abjurations seem consistently badass. The next DW character I try to convert will be Urv, our wizard, and he’s totally goign to be an abjurer.
  • Nice language with barkskin – “Target’s AC can’t be less than 16” – that instantly clears up a huge number of combination questions.
  • Bestow Curse is delightfully unpleasant
  • A single Bigby’s hand spell with multiple uses. Love it.
  • Blink is a little weird – I’m not 100% clear on its utility
  • Branding Smite! This spell is awesome, but also it is notably only a Paladin thing (as I suspect may largely be true of the smiting spells, which is fantastic)
  • Clone! Super useful.
  • Conjure Barrage and Conjure Volley first seemed liek they were just there to look awesome (which they do) but then I got to Cordon of Arrows and realized that these were actually ranger signature spells (like the smites are for Paladins) and I admit I really dig that. The Ranger has gained a few points in my eyes.
  • The various creature conjuration spells make me REALLY want to read up on CRs because they seem low, but I know they’re not.
  • Continual Flame is still a nice improvement on continual light.
  • Counterspell is actually made nicely useful by the spell slot system, and mechanical easy with reactions.
  • Death Ward is pretty badass and nicely multipurpose
  • Demiplane is pretty slick, specifically in the way it can open doors into new places or known places. Lots of fun implications to that for a paranoid wizard.
  • Disguise self is the illusionary counterpart to alter self, and it’s nice to see them divided.
  • Druidcraft is prestidigitation for Druids, and I’m glad they have it
  • Enhance Ability folds all the various stat buffs that were such a pain in 3e and puts them under one spell. All the effects are useful, but none of them (excepting the temporary HP from Bear’s Endurance) are directly combat applicable, which is nice.
  • Expeditious retreat is handy, but since it uses a bonus action, it’s not quite the uber-powerhouse it once was, which is nice.
  • Faerie Fire is a rogue’s best friend
  • I am delighted that Find Familiar has actually incorporated the reality that the familiar can literally not be there until you remember you have one. Similar for the Paladin’s steed[3]
  • I know some people feel like Gate is abusable, but, man, its a level 9 spell. Anyone you’re summoning with it is either no threat to begin with, or is going to have a name you cannot easily acquire
  • Folding explosive runes into glyph of warding makes a lot of sense to me
  • I have always likes Guards and Wards, so its presence delights me
  • Haste having one round of downtime when it ends is a nice touch.
  • Heroism is nicely potent, like, enough so that i would actually cast it. Immune to fear is nice, but “gains temporary HP equal to your casting modifier each round” is awesome. They don’t stack, but the fact that they constant replenish is pretty sweet.
  • Man, you can really spot the Warlock spells when you hit them. Looking at you, Hunger of Hadar.
  • Hunter’s mark is now a spell? FASCINATING
  • Magic Circle is another great spell that I am sad is not a ritual
  • Nystul’s Magic Aura is now a bit more multipurpose
  • Phantasmal force kind of lays out the underlying model for illusions. The visible component can be spotted as false with an investigation check, or simply by interacting with it. If there’s a mental component, that calls for an intelligence save, and subjects the target to potential damage. Notably, the maximum damage the illusion can do directly is pretty constrained, which is nice – no illusionary decaptiations.
  • Polymorph uses similar mechanics to the druid, and I support that. it also seems to fold “self” and “other” into one spell
  • Rary’s telepathic bond is basically the team communicator spell, so it’s a shame it’s so high level.
  • Shapechange is similarly druidic in its mechanics, but since the CR cap is your level, that seems terrifying.
  • Oh, I LOVE Shillelagh. It’s a cantrip, and lets you use your casting stat rather than strength for attack with it (which are magic, and do d8). Not super potent, but fun, and appropriate for a cantrip.
  • Sleep, as noted, affects a number of hit points of creatures, which makes it much more interesting to apply tactically (rather than just open with it)
  • I was a little puzzled by True Polymorph until i realized it does not actually have a CR cap. So far as I can tell, this means that Tarrasques are on the table.
  • Vicious Mockery is a great cantrip as long as i don’t think about Kender.
  • Oh, man, Wish. Nice mechanical boundaries, but room for leeway.
  • Witch Bolt. Yeah, that’s Warlocky (though not exclusive to Warlocks)

The appendices are cool enough to merit their own post (along with some layout thoughts) so that’s probably enough for today.

  1. Notably, this also makes spell cards viable as a product. Historically, they worked poorly because most casters prepared spells multiple times, and that would require a second deck of cards. Now you only need cards fro your prepared spells (and possibly your spellbook) and there will be no duplication. And more, because there’s very little scaling or variability to spells, you don’t get the 4e problem with power cards where the cards required too much cross-referencing to be as efficient as one might hope.  ↩

  2. The bard is a curious presence on this list of what are otherwise the “pure” spellcasting classes. I had not really thought about it, but they seem to have gone all-in on the Bard as a caster this edition, allowing spells as high as 9th level. The class is definitely constrained by their spell list, with precious few attack spells, but it’s important to remember that they are still a magcal powerhouse.  ↩

  3. And I do like the grace of making something that’s historically a class ability into a spell. The ranger and paladin spells have surprised me with their quality and flavor, improving both classes in my mind.  ↩

20 thoughts on “5e PHB – Uh oh, it’s Magic

  1. Phil

    I do think there’s some immediate house ruling that can be done around rituals, perhaps along the lines that the spells with [ritual] designation are the 10 minute EasyRitual utility spells, but that any level appropriate spell can be cast as a ritual given sufficient time, resources and/or class-based distasteful sacrifice.

  2. Terry O'Carroll

    The walking mind wrote: “The net result is that your caster always can do something magical, and there is no trying to melee with a dagger because you’re our of spells. As a caster, I find this a relief.”

    I have found that the lack of a stat bonus to damage for wizard cantrips makes them feel a bit wimpy at low levels. You use your action, hit, and do a lousy 1 point of damage if you roll badly. If you’re an elf wizard, you can easily have 16 dex at first level, and you have longbow proficiency. That’s 1d8+3 damage at +5 to-hit, which is very nice – +3 better damage than Ray of Frost, for example. Using a bow is also very “elfy”, so it doesn’t feel that you’re playing against your character archetype.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      You’re definitely counting on the secondary effects to make up for the damage loss, but you raise a good point that they’re certainly not needed for *every* wizard concept. The elf is a good example, but it also applies to all the armored dwarf wizards with warhammers.

    2. Wayne

      One possible house rule that had occurred to me was that you could use the casting stat bonus as a floor for damage (a minimum for your damage roll). This has the advantage of giving some benefit for high stats without increasing the damage range and also plays into this being a spell you know incredibly well and can get consistent results from.

      So say you are rolling damage for a Fire Bolt, so 1d10. You roll terrible and get a 1. But your stat bonus is +3 so you do 3 damage instead of 1.

      1. Robert

        Yeah, that’s what we need. Rules to make casters more powerful.

        My own biased perspective: you want to be a caster and enjoy the fruits of being a quadratic wizard, live with the fact that you suck at the early levels with limited hp, AC, and combat options. If it’s not hard for a caster at the early levels, when is it hard?

        Count your blessing that you have some at-will options. When I was a young man, it was a 1d4 for hp, a single spell per day, and abilities were 3d6 in order! Uphill to school both ways! And we liked it, dammit!

  3. Jeb

    Lightning Arrow is now the Ranger’s fireball.

    I also have some questions about how the Ranger will play. I suspect, though, that the Ranger’s increased spell casting might strengthen play. If so, I’ll be looking forward to an archetype focused on spell casting.

      1. Robert

        That was my reaction to the half-elf, who has been bland and underpowered in every edition to date. “+4 to stats and two extra skills? Hmmmmmmm.”

  4. David

    Personally I am most confused by the Teleportation Circle spell – how does a permanent circle work? Does it mean that I don’t need to use the spell at all? That’s essentially how I’m reading it, that you can bamf from one permanent circle to another without using a spell – but I wish it had been a bit clearer. But overall, as a guy who essentially skipped 2E and totally skipped 3E and 4E I’m pretty happy with how 5E handles magic.


    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      My read is that you always need the spell, but if you cast it *from* a permanent circle, you don’t need to draw a circle (which makes sense). It’s kind of videe-gamey in its logic, but it let’s a GM put one of these circles halfway down a deep dungeon and it allows the party to ‘port back to the circle at the local cathedral, rest and re-equip, and then ‘port back and proceed.

      1. David

        LOL! That makes sense. Campaign-wise, I like the idea of easy transport systems for the “right people” but that’s an easy bit of handwavium assuming some sort of rule doesn’t appear in the DMG. Then again, 1E sort that I am, I’m quite used to using handwavium to explain all sorts of things.


        1. Rob Donoghue Post author

          They could easily have a lower level spell that lets you ONLY use existing circles, but I’d be leery of introducing that in the core PHB, because it suggests that long range teleportation is reasonably common, and thats a BIG setting assumption. But I wouldn’t be shocked if, say, the Eberron book includes such a spell.

  5. Dar Dronet

    “True Polymorph” isn’t without CR limits. “Object to Creature” is limited to CR 9 or lower. “Creature to Creature” is limited to target creature’s CR or lower – or – if the target creature has no CR rating (such as a fellow PC) then to its level. Early previews of the Tarrasque (from the upcoming Monster Manual) place its Challenge Rating at 30. So it isn’t really on the table unless you’re targeting another creature with a CR of 30 or above.

  6. Pingback: 5e PHB Roundup | The Walking Mind

  7. Nick Pilon

    Having almost finished my own reading pass through the spells section, I was kind of surprised to not see a comment on the various “make a thing of magical force” spells – Forcecage, etc. They seem to come from a really weird place, in that they’re completely immune to any mundane assault and to dispel magic, don’t offer a save against being trapped by them, and at higher levels even impede attempts to magically escape VIA teleportation… But a single casting of Disintegrate blows them to bits. Doubly weirdly, they start showing up with 5th level spells, while Disintegrate is 6th.

    Also, Rangers seem tragically dependent on their spell selection and do Sorcerer/Bard-style picks-by-level, meaning a bad spell pick can hobble you for a couple of sessions.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I probably reveal a bias in that I dig force effects, but they do seem nasty.

      I really need to see a Ranger in play at this point. Class looks flat. Spells look cool. Not sure how it shakes out.

      That said, this reminds me that I’m put off by the lack of clear “change known spells” language.

      1. Nick Pilon

        Changing known spells is buried in the spell selection text for the classes that do Known Spells. Whenever they get a new spell they can also replace a known spell with a spell from their list that they have slots for.

        So when a Sorcerer hits 3rd level and gets their level 2 spell slots, they can learn a 1st or 2nd level spell as their new spell and swap a previously known 1st level spell for a 1st or 2nd level spell. As far as I can find, the only Known Spells-style mechanic that isn’t completely flexible in this regard is the Bard’s Magical Secrets / Additional Magical Secrets, which don’t say whether you can use a replacement to change which spells count as Bard spells.

  8. Robert

    A few questions:

    1) Has anyone located “Destructive Smite,” a 5th level Paladin spell according to the tables?

    There’s no spell description. I then went looking for in the Next rules, but it’s not there either, although there is a similar P5 called “Disintegrating Smite.”

    2) Alter Self says very explicitly that the attack with the natural weapons it grants you is an unarmed strike. That would seem to me to imply that natural weapons are unarmed strikes for the purposes of other abilities. (I haven’t seen anything else in the rules specifically addressing this.) Does this strike anyone as an unreasonable reading?

    3) I like Shillelagh too. It would seem that anyone with that cantrip could cast it on two clubs (say, tonfa, or the weapons used in stick fighting) and then could enjoy a 1d8/1d8 dual weapon attack?

    Obviously you wouldn’t want to take two rounds at the outset of combat to cast those spells, but it could be quite helpful if you had time to prepare for a fight. Since you can move and act each round now, presumably in a dangerous area you could mutter the spells under your breath a couple of times a minute?


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