A Quick D&D 5e Spellcasting Primer

Wizard_PHB5eIn honor of both the new Elemental Evil Player’s Companion book releasing in a free PDF (which is full of new spells), and rolling up my first character for a 5e campaign (a Warlock), here are some of the big things you need to know about playing a spellcaster in 5e if you’re familiar with previous editions.

Almost Everybody Has the Option to Cast Spells Now

Not just the classics like Clerics and Wizards, even Fighters and Rogues can get a spell list if they pick the option to do so at the appropriate levels. There are even feats to pick up cantrips and rituals if you want just a touch of spellcasting to your character.

Likewise, even if you don’t go down a path with a spell list, other character options get abilities that work like spells. That may be a part of your racial abilities (like the Forest Gnome) or part of the character class (the Way of the Four Elements Monk.)

The Major Spellcasting Classes All Work A Bit Differently, But Similarly Enough to Trip You Up

Preparing and casting spells has been streamlined overall, but the complexity has been pushed to the individual classes and how they cast. The feel of each class has been preserved, and sleeping is still how classes tend to get spells back. The way key spellcasting numbers are calculated is similar. From there, the classes begin to diverge.

  • Wizards have a limited number of spells in their spellbook, from which they prepare which spells they have access to for the day, and they have a certain number of slots per level to cast them.
  • Clerics have all the cleric spells to choose from to decide what to prepare, plus their domain spells they always have prepared, with a limited number of spell slots per level to cast them.
  • Druids operate similarly to Clerics, but use their circles instead of domains.
  • Sorcerers have a limited number of spells, which are all always prepared, and they have a certain number of slots per level to cast them. They also have spell points to regain spells or use other abilities, and they can burn spell slots to gain more spell points.
  • Warlocks have an extremely limited number of spells, which are all always prepared, and a very limited number of slots (all used at their highest level) to cast them. However, they regain their spell slots during either a short or long rest. They also are likely to get a number of other spells from their pacts, invocations, and so on.
  • Paladins cast spells like a Cleric.
  • Rangers cast spells like Druids.
  • Bards, Rogue Arcane Tricksters, and Fighter Eldritch Knights work like Sorcerers, without the spell points.
  • Barbarians don’t cast spells. You’ll just have to settle for raging.

It’s Not Quite Vancian as We Remember It, And That’s a Good Thing

Between the preparation system and rituals, the days of needing to determine just how many utility spells were needed for a day is largely over. A wizard can have feather fall prepared, and never cast it, but not have it feel like a waste if it doesn’t come up, since that spell slot can just be used for something else. Likewise niche utility spells like Comprehend Languages can come out to play more often, without being too overpowering. I’m glad I no longer have to decide exactly how many Magic Missiles I’ll need for a day: I know I’ll have it as a backup, and it still presents me with hard choices about what to cast and when.

Concentration is Important

It’s important to note in the spell descriptions if a spell requires concentration. You can only be concentrating on one spell at a time (which prevents some of the worst multiple buff spell abuses of previous editions), and so it’s important to note when in that critical fight if you have to give something up in order to put up a new spell. You also have to roll to maintain concentration when taking damage.

Spell Attack vs. Spell Saving Throw

Spell attack rolls are rolled by you, the caster, using your spell attack bonus, against the target’s AC. Like other attacks, that means you can benefit from things like Advantage to get double the rolls.

Saving throws are rolled by the target, trying to beat your saving throw difficulty class number. It’s not a roll by you, so you can’t benefit from advantage on it (unless the GM allows it). However, a lot of saving throw damage spells have an effect even if the target saves.

Some Abilities Are Now Spells

Especially if you’re used to 4e D&D, you’ll find that some of the class abilities there have been folded into spells, and they’re not automatic for the class. For example, Ranger’s Hunters Quarry is now a spell called Hunter’s Mark, and the Warlock’s Curse power is now a spell called Hex.

Any other tips you have for 5e spellcasters?

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Dixon Trimline says:

    This is a nice, cut-to-the-quick primer, and I grinned like an idiot about the “Similarly enough to trip you up” line. That sure has happened to me.

    The only other note I’d make is about Ranged Spell Attacks *not* provoking an opportunity attack, but rather hitting the caster with disadvantage. So if you happen to be surrounded by enemies, stick to the spells that require a Saving Throw and you’ll be just fine.

    • That’s a very important one as well, especially if you play a Warlock who already has gotten into a fight surrounded by Azer Warriors…

  2. msvujnovic says:

    I like those abilities folded into spells very much, the Paladin’s Smite in particular. A side benefit of those fold-ins is that the Paladin and Ranger get spells much earlier than in previous editions – as soon as level 2, which is awesome (caveat: I’m speaking from a 3.5->PF perspective, haven’t played 4e at all so I don’t know if that was already the case there).

    While I haven’t played or DM’d past level 8 or so yet, what I and the rest of my group strongly dislike is the significantly lower number of spell slots that in previous editions, even though the new preparation mechanic alleviated the biggest problem with old Vancian magic. We end up over-relying on cantrips and save most of our spells only for boss fights.

    Also, for now the Sorcerer seems noticeably inferior to Wizard for us, his various abilities not compensating for the Wizard’s much larger spell repertoire. On the flip side, from what I’ve read of the official published material so far (Ghosts of Dragonspear, Phandelvar and HotDQ), it seems that the designers haven’t really intended for Wizards to have more than a couple spells extra in their spellbooks compared to what Sorcerers get to know. That’s not how we play though and it’s creating a noticeable divide in capability.

  3. Spellcasting and Armor now mix like chocolate and peanutbutter. There’s no penalty for wearing armor and casting a spell, as long as you are proficient with the armor. Your class and/or feats determines what kind of armor you are proficient in. So fighters who pick up spells don’t have to worry about their platemail. And sorcerers and wizards can spend feats to pick up armor proficiencies.

    Mind you the Mage Armor and Shield spells are more efficient for the wizard, but there’s always RP reasons to do things a more interesting. An armor smith who goes wizard, for example…

    Also anyone can use scrolls, if they have a high enough Intelligence (Arcana) roll. Spellcasters can use a scroll with an auto-success if they have the spell on their spell list. Otherwise its a Int (Arcana) vs DC 10+Spell Level for your barbarian to cast fireball at its lowest level.

  4. caduceusiv says:

    I apologize for coming in and slapping a big “wrong” in the comments, but rangers don’t cast like druids. They have a limited number of spells known, like sorcerers, bards, and spellcasting fighters and rogues do.

    • This is the direct quote from the book I used for that: “By the time you reach 2nd level, you have learned to use the magical essence of nature to cast spells, much as a druid does.” Mechanically it’s slightly different, yes.

  5. Brian Suskind says:

    Thank Jeebus for you! I was looking for something like this to give a guide to the difference with 5e casters. Props to you for another wonderful article!