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I often see people list grease as good go-to 1st level spell. Why is this?

The spell description lists 3 of its uses: forcing saves and slows movement of enemies, disarming enemies, and preventing grabs. To me these seem pretty situational.

My group often does not contain a wizard and when it does he never casts grease, so I have not witnessed or experienced it in live combat.

Is there some other use of the spell that I am forgetting or not aware of? Does the fact that it has 3 situational uses make more than just a situational spell?

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Wizards are situational. Their usual role as mere artillery platform is like using a precision ratchet set as a hammer. Grease is always going to be situational, like every great wizard's spell. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 12 '12 at 15:06

5 Answers 5

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Grease is a phenomenal spell for its spell slot, especially once you get a few Caster Levels under your belt so that it lasts. For many, grease is the go-to 1st-level combat spell after the first few levels.1

There are a number of reasons for this.

Area Effect

Grease has a goodly-sized area, that simultaneously isn’t so large that it’s impossible to avoid your allies with it.

SR: No

This eliminates one of the more annoying defenses a Wizard may have to worry about, especially later. This means that grease remains good long after you have higher-level spell slots available, unlike color spray and sleep.

Conjuration

Conjuration is widely regarded as the best arcane spell school in the game. It’s got the most or second-most spells of any school2 – and an enormous number of them are very powerful. It’s also fantastically flexible, with a very broad range of effects available to it (battlefield control, like grease, teleportation, summoning and calling effects, even great blasting spells like orb of force from Spell Compendium). This makes it a very good school to specialize in – either literally, as a Conjurer, or simply through feats, prestige classes, and the like. And if you do, grease can benefit from this specialization.

Double-threat

When grease is cast under you, you have to pass your Reflex save to avoid falling in the first place, and then you have to pass your Balance check to move (and in the process once again risk falling!). For such a low-level spell, that’s rather reliable. There are a lot of monsters with pitiful Balance checks out there.

Reliability in the Face of Defenses

Grease hurts your enemies even if they pass both save and check. They can only move at half speed, and more importantly, the Balance skill has this rule:

You are considered flat-footed while balancing, since you can’t move to avoid a blow, and thus you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC (if any). If you have 5 or more ranks in Balance, you aren’t considered flat-footed while balancing. If you take damage while balancing, you must make another Balance check against the same DC to remain standing.

Two things here. One, every attack forces a Balance check versus falling down. Even the Wizard can sit there and hit enemies with ray of frost to force those checks. A ranged touch attack against a flat-footed opponent is very easy – against a lot of foes, it’s AC 10. A Wizard 4 with Dex 14 has a 70% chance of hitting that. A Wizard’s allies can have even better chances, and get more attacks.

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Version

And then there’s the fact that Sneak Attack applies against enemies that are flat-footed. That means, no matter how well you do on your Balance check, if you don’t have 5 ranks, you are now very, very scared of the Rogue. You’ve taken a penalty to AC, he’s going to attack you twice, and he’s getting +2d6 or more bonus damage on both attacks. For a 3rd to 4th level character, that is very dangerous. So dangerous that I consider 5 ranks of Balance a high priority for just about every character.

And then you have to make a check against falling down. Twice.

Pathfinder Version

In Pathfinder, only creatures who move through grease are flat-footed. How this works is unclear: the strictest interpretation I can find is that they are flat-footed only for Attacks of Opportunity made during their motion. I cannot find a solid answer on whether a creature who moves through grease is still flat-footed once they stopped (e.g. on other creatures’ turns).

That said, teamwork can take advantage of this. If one player casts grease, another uses bull rush or other effects to move enemies through it, and the Rogue takes Attacks of Opportunity, this can rack up some nice “free” damage. If they remain flat-footed after this motion, the Rogue can really go to town, since Pathfinder does not have the rule about 5 ranks in Balance protecting you the way 3.5 does.

And having a creature stay stock-still in the middle of grease to avoid these penalties is still a great form of area denial.

Conclusion

Grease hits an area with a very reliable form of suck. There are a lot of creatures and characters that are going to be seriously inconvenienced by grease even if they never fall down.

Which means that enemies are going to try to get out of it, and stay out of it. Welcome to area-denial: you can now tell your enemies where they can, and can’t, go. Battlefield control is one of the most powerful tactics in 3.5, and grease is very, very good at it for its level.

Footnotes

1 Before you start hitting their HD caps, color spray and sleep are usually preferred over grease, and after a while the fact that grease is on the ground makes it much less useful because so many things are flying – at that point, though, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many good combat uses for any 1st-level spell.

2 Which school has the most spells depends on books in play; for example, there are more Transmutations in the Player’s Handbook than Conjurations. Not coincidentally, for those who don’t think Conjuration is the best school, Transmutation is usually the school that’s taking that title.

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+1. Our Pathfinder group uses Grease all the time for these reasons. We just got attacked by a stone golem on a stairwell last session. Immune to spells and hellacious DR... But one Grease, and it's on its ass. Battlefield control is the real superpower of wizards, direct damage or the like is for chumps. Of course, it's not great for a solo wizard as much as for a wizard with a group of people with Sneak Attack, Bull Rush, etc. in play too. –  mxyzplk Oct 12 '12 at 17:03
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+1 for mentioning no SR. That makes it a useful spell at high level. I've seen it used effectively against tough golems. –  psr Oct 12 '12 at 17:59
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+1 for great summation of strategic and tactical area denial maneuvers. Love them, hate them (and the Russians loved them in Afghanistan), mines are area denial weapons. –  javafueled Oct 12 '12 at 18:54
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One of the occasionally-overlooked advantages of grease is that it lasts. It lasts long enough that combat will be over by the time it ends - an opponent disarmed by grease stays disarmed. –  GMJoe Oct 16 '12 at 3:09
    
@GMJoe: I didn't list that because 1 round/level is the shortest of the "standard" durations (barring Instantaneous, of course); not a whole lot of spells have durations measured in a static number of rounds or a scaling number of rounds that's less than 1 round/level. Of course, if grease did not last, it would not be nearly as good a spell -- which is why I indicated that most of what I said only applies after you have a few levels. –  KRyan Oct 16 '12 at 3:34

Strategic Area Denial

Grease is a way to deny an area to an enemy. The area is remarkably large and, at low levels, the denial is sufficient that it will alter the enemy's tactics. Therefore, by casting this in a corridor, the wizard can shape the nature of a fight, or, if the enemy chooses to ignore the spell, grant a significant edge to her team.

It's one of the favourite spells because it's one of the best "save-or-suck" spells of early level, comparable only to sleep or colour spray.

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I think it might be worthwhile to delineate what makes grease so dangerous to be in -- after all, enemies aren't going to stay out of it if it's no big deal -- but ultimately, yes, this is the answer. +1 –  KRyan Oct 12 '12 at 16:58

I have heard tale of great adventurers that would coast down long hallways of flame in a boat, casting down foes by sword, bow and fire!

No, seriously, "back in the day" I knew two players that once, possibly twice, used a one-two combo employing Grease. Some of this may have been GM liberties granted the players, so no "you can't do that" because I sat at a table where this was done in T1-4. However, that said, I think it's fair to "rules lawyer" this use of Grease.

The wizard would cast Grease on the hall and someone would produce fire (a torch or flint). The hall would alight in flame (grease is flammable in most common uses or expectations), often to capture goblins and other beasties enmasse. Then a boat (I recall a flat bottom row boat) was pulled from a Large Bag of Holding, the party jumped in the boat, and pushed their way down the greased hallway.

This apparently was a common trick (some say to have become something of a gaming "urban" legend). Something similar was recounted on the podcast Fear the Boot in context of another gaming group (in that anecdote I recall a force spell of some kind being employed to propel the party in the boat).

And yet, I experienced this actually taking place. I remember being somewhat aghast at the liberties bestowed by the GM as I didn't think it should work (how did the boat get forced in the Bag of Holding, etc). I did not protest then, if only because we were having a good time and a lot of laughter was had. I don't think I would protest today either, though I would want the PCs to have their ducks in a row in employing the combo.

This had to be after high school, so 1987-88. AD&D (1e).

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There is no particular reason to suspect that the substance created by grease is flammable: the spell could have easily been named because the substance was slippery like real grease, rather than because it creates actual grease. Anyway, grease hardly needs this to be an excellent spell. –  KRyan Oct 12 '12 at 16:41
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@KRyan AD&D does give particular reason: "A grease spell creates an area covered by a slippery substance of a fatty, greasy nature." So does 3.0 & 3.5: "A grease spell covers a solid surface with a layer of slippery grease." Normal English definitions of words not otherwise specified apply to the effects of spells. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 12 '12 at 18:06
    
@SevenSidedDie: Aha, you're right, I'd missed the way that wording works. OK, I'll buy this. Most DMs I've played this haven't allowed this just because grease was already plenty good enough. –  KRyan Oct 12 '12 at 18:24
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@KRyan I can see why! Though I still think that disallowing it would be a shame. Creative applications of spells can be one of the most satisfying parts of the game, and the last thing I want to discourage in my players is creative problem-solving. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 12 '12 at 18:27
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I'm pretty sure Grease is not supposed to be flammable because next level up is Incendiary Slime, which is pretty much summarized as "Grease but flammable". –  Cobalt Mar 10 at 1:24

A simple answer is that Grease is a rare spell that has many different uses. You can use it for battlefield control (effectively even at higher levels). You can use it for a ranged combat maneuver (disarm) which is again useful even into higher levels. And you can use it to help yourself OR allies avoid one of the most damaging maneuvers - being grappled. Either in advance or as a boost to Escape Artist checks while grappled (easier to cast on an ally but as a 1st level spell it isn't all that hard to make the concentration check to cast it on yourself while grappled)

This means that Grease is a spell that has a lot of utility - making it great for spontaneous casters with limited spell lists (i.e. Sorcerers in Pathfinder) and making it a good option for prepared spellcasters since it has so many uses it will likely come up at least once on most adventuring days.

In Pathfinder in particular there aren't a lot of spells that have so many different utilities - being both useful in combat as well as defensively.

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+1 for mentioning limited-spells-known casters a la Sorcerer; that's an excellent point. That said, I've never personally used the disarming or grapple-escaping features of grease, and I use the spell a lot. They're definitely good features, but grease would be a far more situational spell if those were all it did. –  KRyan Oct 16 '12 at 19:43
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Disarm is an underused tactic but can really help against a wide range of enemies and a party can't have too many ways to help key members get out of grapples - for many low-bab characters being grappled can be extremely deadly (say when there is water nearby for example) –  Shannon John Clark Oct 16 '12 at 21:35

You get TONS of use out of grease. It can be especially useful in conjunction with other effects. For example, if one character has the ability to create pits, well placed grease combined with pits is quite excellent. If you have a foe that loves to use charges, well-placed grease is excellent at stopping them. Defending a fortified structure and you have forces trying to scale the walls? Grease is an excellent way to slow them down. It's one of many first level "utility spells" that can be a gift that keeps on giving.

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