Sunday, August 10, 2014

Spell-slinging in 5e

During the playtesting for 5e, I never DMed and I never played a spell-slinging class. Most of my play was with a low-level monk, a class I don’t think I’d ever played before. It was neat, and did a good job of introducing me to the basics of 5e as they evolved through the playtest. However, I completely missed what they’d been doing with spellcasting in the game.

The writing of the rules is subtle but the changes are dramatic, and if you’re as guilty as I am about treating all later editions of D&D as just extra options and monsters to bolt on to the BX/BECMI rules, then these changes may come across as jarring at first. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

The 5e rulebook describes spell slots as “a grove of a certain size--small for a 1st-level slot, larger for a spell of higher level.” This sounds just like the spell slots we’ve always known and (sometimes) loved, but that’s absolutely not how they actually work.

A better metaphor for spell slots would be capacitors. A 1st-level spell slot holds enough magical juice to power a single 1st-level spell. A 3rd-level spell slot holds enough juice to power a single 3rd-level spell.

Yes, magic-users and clerics still prepare spells, but the number of spells and their levels are NOT based on your spell slots. Wizards prep a number of spells (that they have in their book) of any levels they know equal to their Intelligence modifier + their Wizard level. Clerics can pick from their whole list, but it’s about the same: Wisdom modifier + cleric level = number of spells you can prepare.

Now, why would you prepare spells in a ratio of levels that doesn’t match your spells slots? Because, while a 1st level slot doesn’t have the juice to power a 3rd level spell, you can use any higher level slot to power a single lower level spell. So if you really need to fire off another Jump spell (1st level transmutation), you can burn a 3rd level slot for it. (And yes, it uses the entire slot; you can’t cast three Jump spells from a single 3rd level slot.)

But wait, it get’s even weirder, because casting a spell doesn’t end its preparation. By that I mean, if your wizard has prepared Jump and they cast it, it’s still prepared! From a single preparation, your wizard could go on to burn every single spell slot of every level to keep casting the Jump spell over and over and over again.

So, the number of spells you can prepare (appropriate stat modifier + class level) is the breadth of your spellcasting ability. It defines your character’s magical flexibility. Your character’s spell slots define the depth of their magical ability; how many spells they can sling before needing to rest and recharge their magical capacitors.

This gives those classes unprecedented flexibility in spell-casting. You’re going to be seeing a lot more unusual spells prepared and actually used. (I expect we’ll also see a lot less angst and time spent in picking just the right spell list, too.)

But wait, there’s more! Because that’s just the cleric and magic-us- er, I mean, wizard.

Sorcerers work from a much more limited selection of spells known, based on their level. But there’s nothing in their description that mentions preparing spells. If you played any 3.x D&D this won’t be surprise to you. Bards handle spell-casting in an identical way (but do not get “sorcery points” that allow a sorcerer to use 3.x-style metamagic abilities to modify their spells).

The warlock, on the other hand, gets a set number of spell slots and each of those slots is at the same level. Combined with their Eldritch Invocations (largely power-boosts to particular spells), most warlocks are going to have a very limited number of magical tricks they’re very good at which they’re going to use repeatedly. Sorcerers are going to have a wider variety of spells, but still not as wide as most wizards and never as wide as clerics. However, the sorcerer is going to be able to do more with the spells they have in ways that will surprise people who think they know how those spells are “supposed” to work.

The changes are subtle in how they’re explained in the rules, but have dramatic effects on play, so you’ll want to take a closer look at those classes before you either play them or DM for them. The end result is greatly expanded flexibility across the board for every spell-slinging class while simultaneously removing the need for agonizing over every spell slot in advance for fear of not having just the right spell when it’s needed. While the changes were jarring at first (literally causing me to sit up and say, “What, what the fuck did I just read?!?”) I’m cautiously optimistic about how these will play at the table.

And now you know, and knowing is half the battle!


Scott Anderson said...

That's a good recap. Having dreaded 5e all along, I have not read it closely. This helps.

Holly Oats said...

That sounds more like Arcana Unearthed/Evolved's method of readying spells, rather than preparing them

I'm pretty sure 3E allowed you to use higher-level slots to cast lower-level spells, but maybe that was an unintentional house rule on my part

The description of spell slots differing in size is interesting. I'd always imagined spells as taking up differing amounts of head space, with more complex spells larger, but the difference is very small — think semitones — which is why you can't use a 2nd-level spell to power two 1st-level spells

5E's system is certainly interesting, and may work as a game mechanic, but it doesn't really jive with how I imagine spell preparation working (not that previous editions quite did either, but those are simpler to fix)

trollsmyth said...

Scott Anderson: Thanks!

ProfessorOats: the Arcana Unearthed connection wouldn't surprise me, considering Monte Cook was involved with both.

Not sure about 3.x myself. It's been a common houserule in Texas, so I know I've seen it before, but yeah, can't remember if it's ever been official before.

How do you imagine spell prep actually working?

Holly Oats said...

I imagine it pretty similar to how 3E explained it: when magic-users prepare their spells, they're actually casting them, but not to completion. Spell slots represent the ability to store these magical energies in your mental space until triggered, at which point they are unleashed onto the world

The crucial difference is that one cannot maintain multiple copies of a spell at one time. So, if you want to cast Fireball twice in one day, you would have to prepare it, cast that copy, and then prepare it again

I also imagine that one could cast a spell without interruption, obviating the need to expend a spell slot, though this can be quite time-consuming and thus impractical for most uses