Few things embody the popular image of Dungeons & Dragons as powerfully as a robed wizard flinging magic fireballs at hapless groups of orcs and goblins. Magic is powerful. It’s mysterious. And, to a newcomer, it’s complicated. Beginners to Dungeons & Dragons often find the systems of spell-slots unintuitive and the sheer number of available spells intimidating. Let’s break this system down. Hopefully, by the time you finish this article, you’re going to be a master of magic in Dungeons & Dragons.
Magic in Dungeons & Dragons 101: What’s a Spell?
Let’s get the basics out of the way first. Anyone who casts magic in Dungeons & Dragons does so in the form of spells. Spells all have levels, ranging from Level 0 (basic spells, called Cantrips) all the way up to Level 9, the most powerful in any caster’s arsenal. Level 0 spells are things like creating a small, temporary source of light. 9th Level spells, on the other hand, create enormously powerful effects like being invulnerable to all damage for 10 minutes or returning long-dead people to life. This is what we in the biz call “the big guns”.
If you’re into the lore of magic in Dungeons & Dragons, there are two basic types; Arcane and Divine. Arcane magic is the kind that Wizards, Sorcerers, Bards, and Warlocks use. It comes from incantations, study, and manipulating the magic that exists everywhere. In other words, magic for nerds. Divine magic comes from faith, or from a vital connection to something primal or holy. Clerics, Druids, Rangers, and Paladins all cast Divine magic.
Even if you’re not into the lore, where the magic comes from is relevant for how your character goes about learning spells. See more about that below, in the “Learning and Preparing Magic Spells” section.
Lastly, all spells higher than Level 0 (cantrips) are powered by Spell Slots. Let’s dive into that.
Spell Slots in Dungeons & Dragons: Magic Ammunition
Let’s get this out of the way: spell slots are confusing. They’re unlike magic in anything most people are familiar with. For instance, most videogames feature “mana”, a fluctuating bar of energy that fuels spells. Once it runs out, you’re dry on magic until it refills. Simple, easy, intuitive. That’s not how spell slots work. When you think about it, that’s a good thing. Imagine having to keep track of a bar of energy that is constantly drained and refueled manually. Not fun.
Think of it like this; spell slots are ammunition. Like firearm ammunition, spell slots have different calibers – different sizes. When your wizard, sorcerer, druid, cleric (etc.) wakes up in the morning, their ammo belt is full; that is, they have all of their spell slots. Throughout the day, as they cast spells, they’re pulling a slot off their belt and spending it – using their slots. Bigger spells require bigger slots, so if you blast off your high-level spells first, all you’re left with is low-caliber rounds later in the day.
Lastly, Level 0 spells (more commonly known as Cantrips) don’t use any spell slots. You can fire off Cantrips left, right and center all day long and never run out.
Spell Slots: Size Really Does Matter
The “size” of Spell Slots corresponds to Spell Levels (0-9) that we talked about, above. The number of spell slots you have, and of what sizes, varies depending on your level and class – read your class’s full description for that. For instance, a Sorceror at Level 3 has 4 1st level Slots and 2 2nd level slots. That means they can cast four spells at 1st level and two spells at 2nd level before they have to “refuel” by resting. Making sense?
One last thing. You can cast spells using a spell slot of a higher level than the spell if you need to, but not lower. For example, if you want to cast Crown of Madness, a 2nd level spell, but the only spell slot you have left is a 4th level, you can cast that spell by burning that slot. On the flip side, if you only had a 1st level slot available, you’re outta luck. Sometimes spells have additional benefits by using a higher-level spell slot (like more damage), but not all of them – read the spell’s description to be sure.
Learning and Preparing Magic Spells: Your Wizard has Homework
So, by now, hopefully, you understand that all spells your character knows are cast by using up spell slots. But what spells do you get to choose from, and how do you get more? Remember how we talked about the different sources of magic, Arcane, and Divine? Well, those also determine what spells your character knows!
Arcane spellcasters have to learn spells as they level up. Each level, you’ll get to pick some new spells to add to your list, slowly building up a repertoire of magical abilities.
Uniquely, Wizards also get to copy any spells they find in books or scrolls to add into their own spellbook. No other class gets to do this, so if you’re playing a Wizard, make sure to be on the lookout for spells to copy!
Divine spellcasters, on the other hand, get access to their class’s full spell list from the get-go. They don’t need to learn spells because they’re granted them directly by their god, their faith, or their connection to the natural world.
This access is balanced out by the fact that Arcane spellcasters (generally) get access to more versatile and powerful spells in comparison to the Divine spell list.
Preparation is Key: Preparing Magic Spells
A key thing to remember is that not all of your spells are available to you at all times. You will always have a subset of your spells available to you, known as your “Prepared” spells. The number of spells you can have prepped varies from class to class, and generally, you get to swap out what spells you have prepared each time you have a Long Rest. Familiarise yourself with your class’s number of prepared spells – for example, Clerics get a number of spells equal to their Cleric level + their Wisdom modifier.
To take advantage of this, try to anticipate what you might need. If you’re going into a dark dungeon full of undead, prepare spells that create light and damage the undead. If you’re going into a city, prep spells that allow you to charm people or traverse an urban landscape. Spellcasters are usually the most cerebral, careful members of any Dungeons & Dragons party – this plays into that!
It may seem unfair that the Fighter in your party always has access to all of her weapons and abilities, but consider this; the Fighter can’t boil someone’s eyes with their mind or twist reality like a damp washcloth. So it mostly balances out.
Components – Verbal, Material, and Somatic
You might have noticed that your spell descriptions have a listing attached to them labelled “Components”, featuring the letters “V”, “S”, “M” or a combination of the three. Components are crucial parts of the spellcasting process. If any one of the listed components are missing, you cannot cast your spell. Let’s explain.
- V – Verbal. This spell has words or incantations. You can’t cast it if you can’t speak.
- S – Somatic. This spell features gestures and movements. If you can’t move or your hands are tied, you can’t cast this spell.
- M – Material. This spell has ingredients to make it work. If you don’t have them, you can’t cast it.
Material Components vs Spellcasting Focus
The variety of material components needed for spells is huge. For example, Bless uses holy water, Comprehend Languages uses soot and salt, and Water Walking uses a piece of cork. Are you expected to carry around all of this crap with you?
NO! That would be absurd.
Every spellcasting class can replace Material Components with a Spellcasting Focus. A focus is an object you carry on your person through which you channel magical energy. For a Wizard, this could be an orb, a wand, a staff, etc. For a Cleric, this would be their Holy Symbol. You don’t need salt, cork and holy water on you to cast spells as long as you have a Focus.
It’s worth noting that the only time Foci cannot replace Material Components is if the spell specifically says that the component is used up, or has a gold value listed. For example, in the Find Familiar spell, you must have;
10 gp worth of charcoal, incense, and herbs that must be consumed by fire in a brass brazier
If you lose you Focus, you can absolutely use the listed Material Components to cast your spells.
All that said, most Dungeon Masters completely ignore all of these Material Component shenanigans as they’re pretty complex and not that fun. Check in with your DM on Material Components!
Magic Miscellany: Some Tips & Tricks for Dungeons & Dragons Spellcasters
Now you understand everything you need to know to be a master magician in D&D. That said, to be really at the top of your game, here are a few hints to really maximise the potential of your magic-user.
- Some spells are marked as “Ritual” spells. These guys can be cast as a Ritual, meaning you take 10 minutes to do it, but it doesn’t take up a spell slot. Handy for spells outside of combat when you’re looking to save some juice!
- When coming up against rival spellcasters, remember Components – deny your opponent their Verbal, Somatic or Material components to stop them from casting magic
- Pay attention to your spells’ range and their shape to avoid hitting your allies with Area of Effect spells!
- Spells that require “Concentration” (you’ll see this on their description) prevent you from casting other spells while they’re active, and you might be forced to lose the spell if you take damage.
- If you’re wearing Armor you’re not Proficient in, you cannot cast spells at all.
- You need to roll to attack with some spells, and other spells require the target to roll to resist. Take this into account when planning spells (for example – hit clumsy characters with spells that require a Dexterity saving throw to avoid).
And there you have it! Go forth and do spells, my young apprentice. Playing as a magic-user is some of the best fun in the game; coming up with creative uses of magic to thwart your enemies, manipulating the landscape, and otherwise using the laws of physics as your plaything.
Stay tuned to GamEir, and if you’re interested, chat with us on Twitter (@gam_eir), Facebook (@GamEir), and Instagram (@GamEir). Check out our videos on Twitch (GamEir) and YouTube (GamEir) and we’ll give you all the latest content.