Spellcasting 101 – Low Level Spells (1st – 4th)

I created this a while back because one of my friends was playing a caster for the first time for my Tomb of Horrors 3.5 game. Not knowing exactly what to take, he went directly for the flashy spells, but then asked my opinion to fill up the remaining spell slots. Having played a lot of casters before, I had a good handle on the do’s and don’ts of casting, so I freely offered my advice. He gave me some screwy looks when I told him to replace See Invisibility with Glitterdust, but after explaining some of the tips and tricks, he settled on a good blend of spells that were not only utilitarian but useful. (I still didn’t get him to get rid of Knock, despite the abundance of thieves in the party, meaning he wasted a spell slot or two every game as the trappers managed to unlock everything the tomb through at them. He has yet to cast it.)

Playing a caster requires a lot of reading the rules and a good deal of playing. As an arcane caster, your job in the party is controlling the battlefield, by offing specific enemies, de-buffing opponents and buffing allies, and generally locking things down so that your side gains the edge. Everybody and their cousin knows that Expeditious Retreat and Feather Fall are requirements for all levels of play, but not every starting player realizes that Grease denies enemies their Dex bonus to AC and makes them perfect sneak attack targets, or that Protection from Evil negates mental control attempts and summoned monsters. Remember—you don’t have a lot of spell slots, so choose wisely. And note, just because I say Grease is a useful spell doesn’t mean you have to have it; if you want to be more of an offensive caster, or a summoner, or what have you, then battlefield control will fall to the wayside.

So, without further ado, here is a quick guide to spells for the starting wizard of sorcerer, namely some tips, tricks, and useful choices. I decided to cut this in half for sizing purposes, and to spread it out over a period of time.

First Level:
Color Spray: For the low-level caster, this is a requirement. With one spell, a veritable horde of goblins and kobolds will fall unconscious, blinded and stunned, for an inordinate number of rounds. Granted, Color Spray becomes negligible pretty quick because of its lack of affecting things with 5 or more HD, but for the first few levels of spellcasting it is invaluable in clearing out masses of enemies.
Grease: Most people ignore the actual benefits of this spell, instead going after the logical house-rule that, since grease burns, it makes for a perfect pre-Fireball spell. After all, the required Reflex save is pretty useless, right? Wrong. Grease is a powerful yet overlooked control spell. Don’t forget, any creature that is balancing—e.g., moving through the spell’s affected area—are denied their Dex bonus to AC, making them sneak attack fodder.
Magic Missile: If you don’t take this spell at first level, something’s wrong here. It’s the offensive staple; it always hits, and it almost always deals damage. Don’t forget, though: you’re only dealing d4’s in damage, so don’t split the missiles unless you’re 100% sure you can off one target. I’d rather hit something with a few missiles of overkill than split the missiles too much and roll a bunch of 1’s.
Protection from Evil: After a few levels, the minor stat boosts from this spell become meaningless. The spell’s real power comes from a simple, overlooked sentence: “the barrier blocks any attempt…to exercise mental control over the target.” Since the party’s fighters and barbarians have squat for Will saves at all levels, this can mean life over death against mind flayers and other mental attackers. Also: note that it blocks all damage from summoned creatures, yet another useful secondary ability, especially when you’re going up against wizards.
Ray of Enfeeblement: The granddaddy of all de-buffs, the ray remains powerful at all levels. If you can get one of these shot off first on the big bad before he can activate, you’ve just swayed the course of combat much more in your favor. Any combat character hit by this will immediately feel the pain, and to make things better the spell has no saving throw!
Summon Monster I: It may be nerfed from 2nd Edition’s several HD worth of randomly generated critters, but the Summon Monster train of spells is always a good choice for the arcane caster working on the defensive offense. Getting more bodies in between you and the enemy is never a bad thing, and with the Augment Summoning feat, all critters you summon suddenly become tanks with +4 to both Str and Con. Just don’t forget, if your opponents cast Protection from X spells beforehand, you’re sunk.

Second Level:
Glitterdust: This is another overlooked spell, even though it’s got very two powerful effects—countering invisibility, or blinding enemies who fail a Will save in a 10’ area. Two things. First, the invisibility works for everybody, unlike the spell See Invisibility. Second, who has bad Will saves? The enemy’s front line, meaning you can easily blind two or four warriors.
Knock: I feel that I should note here that not only is Knock a highly useful and very utilitarian spell, I’ve never actually seen it used because the party, almost always, has a Rogue available. Same for the clerical Detect Traps. For a party without a Rogue, taking these spells is a requirement, even though it’ll make your dungeon delving move even slower than its normal crawling speed.
Mirror Image: This has got to be the most useful defensive spell for a high-level caster, beating out the various armors and Stoneskin by miles. With its lengthy 1 minute/level duration, you can cast it a short bit before combat starts, and continue to have its effects through the mopping up period.
Web: Despite its similarities to other spells, this one has major benefits. Web is useful no matter what: if it doesn’t stop enemies outright, it grinds their advance to a halt… an even slower halt than Entangle or Slow. Dollars to donuts, there’ll always be some poor mook who gets moving at 5 ft per round, while your party is dancing circles around them with ranged weapons and area of effect spells. (Webs burn, right? Ask your GM how Web reacts to Fireball sometime!)

Third Level:
Dispel Magic: By the time you get this spell, you might have noticed that the GM’s NPCs and enemies have enough spell slots to cast a number of awesome buff spells on themselves before they enter combat to toss you around. There’s a way around that: Dispel Magic.
Haste: Spellcasters don’t just de-buff, they also have the most powerful buff spell in their inventory: Haste. Drop this on your melee folks early in an encounter to enhance your offense.
Hold Person: Yet another excellent way of stalling the enemy frontline; don’t forget that Thog the Half-Orc Barbarian doesn’t look too bright, and will probably fail his Will save.
Magic Circle Against Evil: See Protection from Evil, only expand the duration of the spell and expand it to everyone in a 10 ft radius of you.
Stinking Cloud: Yeah, I know. Giant Fart. But look at it this way. As a area effect spell, Stinking Cloud is one of the most potent spells for third-level. While you may be tempted to go for the flashy Fireball, the cloud is much better as a battlefield control spell. Not only will it remove a large group of lower-level enemies for several rounds, it also doesn’t damage any of the surroundings in the way a Fireball does. Plus, it blocks line of sight, so you can use it for a variety of uses—it makes for a good retreat cover, as well as blocking the line of the enemy’s advance. Start thinking of it not as Flatulence but as Mustard Gas.

Fourth Level:
Dimension Door: Ever fall down a pit trap and wish you hadn’t? Walk into an ambush your Ranger forgot to tell you about? Ever get grappled by something big, mean, and ugly? Well, with Dimension Door, you no longer will be limited by your surroundings! Dimension Door, bringing back freedom of mobility one encounter at a time.
Greater Invisibility: Another of the powerful buffs that spellcasters receive, in this case useful in a number of situations. This spell can guarantee the Rogue gets some deadly sneak attacks in; doubles the fighter’s defense through it’s 50% miss chance; and makes sure nobody’s going to go after the caster while the meat shields are busy.
Ice Storm: Four words: 5d6. No. Saving. Throw.

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