How to Pick Your Spells

As a player, I find it very difficult to choose which spells to take when I level up my spellcasting characters. Part of this is because I find it hard to make ANY decisions, and part of it is because it's not totally clear whether picking spells is a mechanical decision or a roleplaying decision.

What do I mean by that?

In any roleplaying game, there's a balance between mechanics and roleplaying. In Dungeons and Dragons, I would say that that balance leans a little towards mechanics. In a game like, say, Vampire: the Requiem, the balance leans more towards roleplaying. This is not to say that you can't roleplay when you play DnD - some of the most affecting scenes I've ever played were ones where my character had an AC and Hit Dice. And that's also not to say that you can't enjoy the crunch of some solid mechanics in a game like Vampire: the Requiem. It's all about what the designers emphasized when they built the game, but since roleplaying games are a highly interactive form of media, the designer can't control what the players at the table actually want to do. If Player X wants to roleplay, Player X is gonna roleplay. I often characterize a game's balance between these two elements by describing it as either a roleplaying game or a roleplaying game. Both can be fun, both are valid, but they emphasize different things.

What does this have to do with your point?

Okay, fair. My point is that each decision you make while playing the game is also either a mechanical decision or a roleplaying decision: either you are deciding, or Grumthar the Half-Orc Wizard is deciding. At least, that's how it should be. It's not totally clear whether choosing spells is a character choice or a player choice. It certainly has a mechanical effect, which would normally make it a player decision, guided by their character's actions and narrative. This would make it similar to stat boosts, which are clearly a player decision. But some players, depending on how they imagine their character's spellcasting, might think that their wizard is deciding which spells to learn, maybe by studying certain books and practicing certain techniques. This might seem pretty clear with wizards, who explicitly have areas of study that they follow, but what about sorcerers? Rangers? Bards?

I think that, like the best parts of a roleplaying game, this decision can be informed by both mechanics and roleplaying. My advice is this: start out by picking your spells purely for roleplay reasons. Maybe you decided that your character's tutor was the ancient, wizened elf who invented the Fireball spell and wants to repent for all the damage that spell has caused by protecting and teaching people. Go from there: because people never fully change, choose some fire-based spells like Fire Bolt and Burning Hands, and because they CAN change, choose some Abjuration spells, like Blade Ward and Shield.

After that, forget about it. Wizards have a decision point at second level: pick whatever interests you and what you think will be fun to play. Same goes for spells. Just choose whatever seems fun and interesting. Maybe you find that you don't like casting a lot of damage spells. Don't take them! Maybe you do, in which case you should. Follow your whims!

THEN, once you're into the thick of the campaign, check back in. I would say around level 10, look back over the spells you've taken and see what kind of spellcaster your character has turned out to be. Maybe you've gotten really into Divination spells and cast them all the time. (This is the reason each spell has a school tag, like Conjuration or Necromancy - it allows you to easily put spells into thematic groups.) You decide that your character has taken his master's teachings and extended them: he wants to protect people from stuff they don't even know about yet!

From that point on, choose your character's spells based on that roleplaying decision. As you continue to level up as a Wizard, try to choose more Divination spells and spells themed along those lines: Legend Lore and Scrying would be good choices.

How about a less wizard-centric example?

Alright, buddy. Let's say you're playing a ranger. You decide that your character is a wilderness survival expert out of necessity - her family was enchanted away by fey when she was young and she needed to make it on her own. Because of this, she particularly relished when the enemy she defeated happened to be fey, like a sprite that she swatted out of the air like a birdie in badminton, or a satyr that she grabbed by the horns and threw into a bog. Obviously, this means that she chose "fey" as her Favored Enemy creature type.

She ended up getting a bit of a reputation about her vindictive violence in the fey community, so when the time came for you to pick spells at second level, you start by picking your spells purely for roleplay reasons: you decide that the tricks she's picked up are ones that will help defend her against the Fair Folk. She takes Alarm, since most fey don't tend to announce themselves like dragons or elementals and it's good to have a little advanced warning; and Detect Magic, to have an easy way to know if someone's trying to enchant her.

After that, forget about it. When you level up again, you decide to pick up Hunter's Mark because you think it sounds cool, and you want to be doing a little more damage in combat. From then on, you grab Barkskin, Silence, and Conjure Barrage (wow, Rangers really don't get that many spells).

Once you're in the thick of the campaign, check back in. What kind of person is this Ranger? She uses a bow, so she has a high dexterity, so she's very stealthy. She can see magic in the air like the rest of us can see thick pollen or dust kicked up by a passing horse. She can cloak herself in the skin of the forest and attack out of pure silence. She's honestly kind of a scary person - she's become what she wanted to destroy. She's almost fey herself. You decide that she has a moment of clarity about all this, and starts to wonder if hunting down the fey and recovering her family were all an unconscious smokescreen for a violent, fey nature that she wasn't previously aware of. You decide that this will be a tension in how you play the character going forward, and resolve to pick spells that reflect that.

From that point on, choose your character's spells based on that roleplaying decision. Maybe for her next 3rd level spell you take Conjure Animals - if she is allied with fey creatures that disguise themselves as beasts of this realm, isn't it possible that she is one herself? As this tension grows within her, she learns how to magically escape from restraints (Freedom of Movement) and turn her skin to stone (Stoneskin) to reflect her desire to be free from judgement and violence. Finally, as she accepts this aspect of herself and recognizes that she is part of nature, not destined to rage fruitlessly against it, she learns how to step through the trees that so terrified her as a child (Tree Stride) and how to reach out her senses and hear what the forest is whispering to her (Commune with Nature).

As you can see, both of these examples lead to well-rounded, complex characters that are reflected in the mechanics that represent them. Both have been shaped by their pasts - in some cases, indelibly. This method isn't foolproof, but it's a good guideline to follow if you're at a loss when picking your spells.

The Takeaway

  • If you're having trouble picking your spells, don't panic: there's a better way.
  • Start by picking your spells purely for roleplay reasons.
  • After that, forget about it.
  • Once you're in the thick of the campaign, check back in and make some roleplaying decisions about what kind of person your spellcaster is.
  • From that point on, choose their spells based on those decisions.