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Four Things Your Spellcaster Can Do When Out of Spells: A Primer

John William Waterhouse - The Crystal BallWe all have times when we are knee deep in orcs and the mage sputters. A cleric swings a mean hammer, and the druid can maul somebody when they go fuzzy, but the mage and the sorcerer are often left holding the bag (of holding). But wait a second! You can do some things, you spell-shuckers, when the tap runs dry.

Just sit back with your favorite grimoire and heed some hard-earned advice.

1. Did you buy scrolls or a wand?

As a GM, this is the question you might ask the party. As a spellcasting player, this is a question you should ask yourself. A player roleplaying a spellcaster might have a few favorite spells, but there might be a lot of spells the character doesn’t know, which means limited flexibility in unexpected situations. Naturally, a caster will try to apply favorite spells to every situation he or she can and then often dismiss the rest.

The limited spell selection means that players frequently have fewer spell choices than they might find optimal in any given situation that their characters might face. An easy way to correct this is to buy favorite spells as scrolls so that the spellcaster in question is never without them. That way, the most utilitarian spells are available.

2. Drop book, heft crossbow.

Often, a wizard is thought of as the sum of his or her spells—an artillery piece. This is partly true, since it takes a very lucky wizard to survive close combat. As you might expect, a spellcaster can find ranged combat to be far more survivable. A light crossbow, or a hand crossbow, is light enough to use and can help cover an ally’s advance or retreat. It might not always hit, but it will likely hit harder than any other weapon a mage can have. Another good weapon is any that has a reach mechanic involved, such as a spear. This allows you to work around an ally.

Another action a spellcaster can do in combat is to flank an opponent, which allows fellow party members to hone in on enemies. Thrown weapons are also useful. The goal here is to allow your caster to start swinging at the enemy (or begin sending plenty of missiles its way) while keeping his or her head down and making sure that his or her body remains out of easy reach.

3. Run, rabbit, run!

Sometimes characters are caught in an ambush or other sudden situation, and they don’t have their gear out. If the spellcaster is out of spells, he or she might not know quite what to do when allies start requiring assistance. When weapons, potions, and ammo are in short supply all around, enter the wizard and his or her familiar.

Pulling out an item can take an action of some sort, as can picking something up. Either can muddle things, since it can take multiple players with multiple actions to pass off items. When Brella the fighter needs to drink a potion but has her hands full of sword, shield, and angry goblin, potions may be a little hard to use. She would have to drop one item, search for another item, and then bring it out. That can take way too much time, especially if the fighter never organized her pack or is practically clanking with gear. May her chosen gods help her if she stowed the potions in her backpack and can’t reach them!

But Reskin the wizard and his familiar can help. Reskin might need only one hand to cast his favorite spell, and he because he usually likes to lurk in the back, he has time to root around for gear. Brella can ready an action to accept something, of course, but let’s take this a step further. Who says it has to be Reskin handing off the light stuff? In various rules systems, familiars can handle light items with speed and intelligence. In this case, Reskin’s weasel could run up to the fighter and administer the potion, or your own wizard could send a raven out and drop a flask of alchemist’s fire on the baddies. At least make sure your wizard has something handy that will help out in a pinch, such as a bag of caltrops to ward off flankers. Or maybe your familiar can hold the torch so everyone can see. By freeing up the hands of those in your party, you’re ensuring your own wizard’s survival.

4. Use your head.

Often, wits can be used to your team’s advantage. A mage and a sorcerer have skills beyond simple magic. In fact, it is often their skills that most wizards ignore. If your wizard Saul sees crumbling masonry over an enemy, he will likely have the knowledge of how to make that an effective weapon, given his skills. Your sorcerer Lissa, on the other hand, can make such an impression with her charisma that your group doesn’t necessarily need to fight or even use that bit of crumbling masonry that Saul would be tempted to use. Either way you can help your party achieve its goal.

Your character’s ability to use skills can also serve less direct forms of problem solving. A wizard without a spellbook can still read and can solve clues for the party. Sorcerers without sleep can still impress locals. Keep in mind, as you roleplay, that your imagination can help you apply your character’s skills and abilities to something, and that will help your spellcaster (and his or her party) brave the darkest dungeons.

5 Replies to "Four Things Your Spellcaster Can Do When Out of Spells: A Primer"

Philo Pharynx

January 31, 2013 at 11:48am

One trick I’ve often done is when you’re splitting treasure, reserve a half-share (or even a full share) for consumables of use to the party. This includes wands, scrolls, potions and ammunition. In 4e, it includes ritual components or residuum. In some parties, this fund could be used for mages to learn new spells or rituals.

This can also be a percentage taken off of everybody’s share, or an agreement to donate X amount into the party fund. I find that expressing it as a share for the party usually goes off better. While this will go up with the group, a party usually finds more expenses as they go up. Like diamond dust for resurrections…

Because everybody puts money to these items, everybody in the group gets a vote in how the money is spent. While some people will use more items than another, these items should be used for the party’s interests.

I see three main benefits:
1) Avoid the “Wizard tax” – where a significant part of their money goes into consumable items. They end up with much less in permanent items over time
2) A greater variety of items available. When you have money dedicated to this, you can look into some of the items that are very useful in specific situations.
3) Party cooperation. Because everybody knows what consumables the party has, they can suggest times when they might be of use. This helps avoid the “Drat, I wish I’d remembered I had that scroll 20 minutes ago.” syndrome.

Damian the Tiefling

January 31, 2013 at 12:46pm

I don’t know hiw most groups are, but whenever our mage just decides to run away from a fight, he doesn’t get the same amount of loot or exp. that the rest of the group got, but the siggestion of using the ranged weapon is exactly what we do when we have a player that relies on magic and a lack of armor to fight.

Those are all really good ideas, Philo, I may broach the subject of a group treasury the next time my group meets.

Gren Ardini

February 1, 2013 at 1:02pm

Chapeau! Great pieces of advice. I would add that, in the Pathfinder system, one shouldn’t underestimate the power of cantrips, seeing they are not expended upon casting. Some of them are cheap tricks that can accomplish a great deal. A well placed ghost sound makes for a great distraction. An enemy may be fooled by a helmet moving through some bushes with a mage hand, or maybe the mage had hovering longsword can be perceived as an invisible attacker.

xellos

February 2, 2013 at 11:02pm

I was also going to suggest cantrips. For Pathfinder, something like a Ray of Frost might be more likely to hit, and you can attempt all kinds of creative uses with your other cantrips. For 4E, of course, you always have your level 1 at-wills.

Kismet Rose

February 3, 2013 at 12:09pm

Know your equipment and pack for anything: Alchemical items and miscellaneous things like caltrops can come in handy when you least expect it, especially for low to mid level characters. You never know when slowing something down or gluing it to the floor (without magic, even) is going to sound like the best idea ever, and it’s usually better for party morale to attempt to do something with your turn instead of nothing. Even if it doesn’t seem likely to do much good/damage, something like a tanglefoot bag levies penalties even against those who make their saving throws (so long as you hit them with a ranged touch attack; 3.5 edition). If you remember to scan that part of your character sheet while you’re looking over your options and if you remember the finer points of what these items can do, you’ll get to put more of that gear to use.

Also, consider finding and using rules for mundane potion belts and bandoleers (a la Forgotten Realms), regardless of whichever edition you’re using. There’s no reason adventurers would only have backpacks to store their things, especially when you consider how unwieldy they are to use during combat. With all the belts and pouches shown in the artwork throughout the years, it’s easy to see why they’d have come up with simple solutions ages ago.

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