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My party right now consists of a pair of incredibly optimized characters (a half-orc fighter and a ranger/scout), one fairly well optimized character (a swashbuckler who's thinking about mutliclassing into rogue), and two not very well optimized characters at all (an archivist and a druid). Importantly, the two spellcasters' players are new to the game and I don't want them to feel useless or make the lower levels a slog.

Now I'm familiar with 3.5's class tiers and everything I can tell is that in mixed parties this is kind of the preferred set up (unoptimized casters letting optimized lesser mortals compete with them), but at the low levels we're at right now (everyone's character level 3) all it's doing is emphasizing the problems on the low end of the Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards scale.

I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions for helping my spellcasters not feel quite so superfluous at these low levels. What I'm looking for are really useful 1st/2nd level spells I can suggest, handy low-powered magic items I can plop down (I've already got an Extend Spell Metamagic Rod waiting for them to find), or especially any kind scenarios or other tips & techniques I can use as a DM to help emphasize the role of the spellcasters in encounters.

Some additional info: I'm pretty strict with what I allow my Archivist to learn (he can purchase scrolls from domains for the Sovereign Host gods from Eberron, and had been stumbling across scrolls from some of the less reputable religions, but other then that is restricted to the Cleric list. I've also pretty much kept him from learning druid-only spells.) The Druid is a Greensinger (also from Eberron) so has access, at this point to Charm Person and Daze Monster in addition to her normal spell list.

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The limitation on the archivist makes sense in general (the ability to learn all the spells is one of the reasons why the archivist is so fantastically powerful), but I think here it might be a bit much. Between the Int/Wis split and the lack of Turn Undead, the archivist is looking strictly worse than cleric – which is fine, in the sense that that cleric is overpowered, but perhaps not in this guy’s hands? –  KRyan Oct 3 '13 at 17:04
    
I've waived the Int/Wis split. I've been fairly generous with scrolls (he actually still has a backlog to add to his prayerbook), and the Sovereign Host covers a pretty wide range of spells to purchase. What he's been finding in scrolls is more Dragon Below & Blood of Vol stuff. The player is super interested in the lore so I'm trying to maintain some verisimilitude on this front. He's also going into Divine Inquisitor next level probably, which is going to give him even more toys to play with. –  agradine Oct 3 '13 at 17:27
    
I guess ultimately I'm more worried about my druid than my archivist, but a lot of the really great advice I've gotten so far has druid-centered, which has been great. –  agradine Oct 3 '13 at 17:33
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They should read Harry Potter and the Natural 20. A better guide to thinking powerful as a caster I've not found. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 4 '13 at 5:13

6 Answers 6

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The easiest way to emphasize your casters in the early game, is to throw in lots of relevant skill checks, particularly knowledge or spellcraft checks. Almost any spellcaster is going to have relevant skill modifiers, and it proves their place in the party.

A related option is challenges tailored to make spells useful. A small item you need is on the far side of a chasm? Summon Nature's Ally or Mage Hand can help with that. Having ambient magic, or an arcane trail to be tracked with Detect Magic also calls out your casters.

Also, it's been my experience that Druid is one of the better low level caster classes, with cleric because of free swapping in of Summon Nature's Ally spells, reasonable combat ability (3/4 BAB, d8 HD, not terrible armor, buff spells), and their selections of durable spells, such as Produce Flame and Call Lightning.

For the Archivist play to their skills and their Dark Knowledge ability. Throw in a fair number of the types of enemies Dark Knowledge helps against, and they should feel pretty useful.

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I really like this answer, because it focuses more on what I can do as a DM as opposed to how can I encourage the players to play their characters better. Both are incredibly helpful, but this is kind of stuff I was most hoping for. I'll leave this open a little longer to encourage more answers along these lines. –  agradine Oct 3 '13 at 22:45
    
I add comment here because C.Ross already answered you completely. You can build a very, very powerful druid, almost unstoppable, with right features taken from other books beside the PH. In general Druid+Animal Companion+Evocations = another entire party, with all the benefits that comes with that. –  IssamTP Jul 18 at 6:28
    
You might also throw the new players a bone. There are some very, very broken low-level spells. My favourite to suggest to new players is "launch bolt". It specifies that it acts the same as firing the touched bolt from a light crossbow and so most people ignore it. If, however, your character has a way to carry around colossal bolts, or can afford a quiver of holding (which specifies number of bolts, but doesn't mention size) then they now can do pretty good damage with a cantrip. Add fabricate and eschew materials and they can now make up to gargantuan bolts for free. –  Perkins Aug 8 at 19:41
    
@Perkins That's not at all necessary. Those classes can contribute just fine without resulting to ridiculous game hacks. Frankly I wouldn't allow just about anything you're suggesting in my games, and I imagine many others wouldn't as well. –  C. Ross Aug 8 at 23:48
    
@C.Ross It's not actually that ridiculous in play. The fabricate trick allows them to create at most 1 gargantuan bolt per casting, and is subject to a crafting check. The damage output is quickly eclipsed by every other non-cantrip damage spell and requires an attack roll. It does, however get a level 1 caster past the "There goes my one spell that's better than throwing a rock, guess I'll just watch and eat popcorn and hope for a skill check where I'm 20% better than the fighter" phase. Especially in a game where the other players are "optimized." –  Perkins yesterday

Warriors may be linear and Casters may be quadratic, but...

In 3.5, that doesn’t mean that casters start weaker than mundanes. They don’t. In the situation that most favors mundanes, a straight-up duel at close range at low-level, an archivist or druid can have a significant statistical advantage. This is much closer in balance than higher levels (when the casters can guarantee that the mundane won’t even be able to touch them), but it’s still in the casters’ favor. And they are still far more capable in other situations.

Spell Selection

The reason for this, of course, is the judicious application of spells. At level 3, glitterdust might just be the single most effective action you can possibly take. Entangle and grease aren’t far behind.

Druid: Buff and battlefield control

The druid has the easier time. His animal companion can easily keep up with or even best a low-optimization fighter (and therefore using his effectively can reduce the gap between him and the mundanes, even if they are too optimized for the animal companion to actually be equal to them). He has powerful buffs that can be applied to the animal companion (or the fighter, for that matter), excellent battlefield control (such as the aforementioned entangle), and he’s a bit hardier than the archivist.

Archivist: much the same, try to leverage the archivist’s ability to use others’ spells

The archivist has a slightly harder time. His native spells, from the cleric list, are best used for self-buffing and then going into combat; until he gets divine power though, his chassis will hold him back there. Those buffs he can apply to others, however, are his best bets. Though, if he wants, the Zen Archery (Complete Warrior) feat can allow him to use Wisdom on attacks with a bow; combined with divine favor, later divine power, and Dark Knowledge, the “Archervist” can be a pretty solid build. He probably hasn’t taken that feat, though.

Remind (or inform) your casters that characters may work together on crafting magic items: the archivist can supply the gold, XP, and Scribe Scroll feat, while the druid supplies a spell. This allows the archivist to scribe the druid’s spells into his prayerbook, which means he has easy access to, say, the excellent entangle (no, I will not shut up about that spell). It might not be a great choice now, but once he gets divine power, grabbing shillelagh from the druid may also be a good choice.

Also remember that, as a DM, you can drop scrolls for him: if it’s divine, it can go in his prayerbook. You can even have divine scrolls of spells not normally found outside arcane spell lists (glitterdust, for instance), which are always a huge boon to archivists. Giving him spells in this manner is also an excellent way to nudge him towards more effective spells. But be careful; too much of this and the archivist becomes pretty clearly the best class in the game, having access to all the spells.

What spells to use

The biggest thing about spell selection that these two should learn, however, is that HP is not their game. They shouldn’t focus much on either reducing or increasing things’ HP totals. Direct-damage spells tend to be inefficient (especially compared to optimized martial characters), and healing spells tend to be even more so, at least in combat. Sneak a wand of lesser vigor (Spell Compendium) or cure light wounds into their loot, and either of them will be able to apply emergency healing or healing between combat without preparing spells for that purpose. This is good because neither of them gets the cleric’s spontaneous cures,1 and most of the time it is desirable to avoid these spells.

Which brings me to Spell Slots

In surprisingly few levels, spell slots will largely cease to be a major concern. For now, though, the archivist and druid will have to use their spells sparingly: their spells per day are quite limited. That’s OK though: one spell can easily turn the tide of low-level battles. They should get comfortable with the idea that they’ll cast one spell at the start of a fight, and that it should be enough even if the battle lingers thereafter. Potshots with crossbows or what have you are acceptable, just for something to do, but the first spell, most of the time, should have done the trick. Orisons can be used pretty freely, I suppose.

Luckily, both classes have other class features that are actually useful. Just attacking with the animal companion can easily be a fulfilling “turn” for the druid, and Dark Knowledge is a pretty solid buff all around. Dark Knowledge is limited, unlike the animal companion, but it adds a few more things per day he can do, which should pad out his spells nicely. I have sometimes considered a houserule that allows an archivist to apply the bonuses of Knowledge Devotion (Complete Champion) to his teammates, for a kind of knowledge-based version of Inspire Courage. I like the idea, but ultimately the archivist is so powerful that I have never actually implemented it.

And don’t forget to let the mundanes shine

Keeping up with the casters is going to get harder and harder for them. They may be heavily optimized now, but they’ll need to really push it if the casters start picking up a few tricks. At level 3, that’s do-able. By level 7, it’s hard. As the spell levels increase thereafter, it’s looking more and more impossible. That’s just the nature of the game. So don’t entirely take away this time from the mundanes.

Footnote

1 By the way, summon nature’s ally is pretty solid as a spell, but the 1 round casting time makes it difficult to use and the 3 round duration (at this level) is a big problem. Those spells will come more into their own in a few levels; for now they’re kind of dubious. Rods of Extend Spell and Rapid Spell go a very long way to fixing these problems, though.

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Yeah, both casters are enjoying their summons, but are finding the limited spell lengths a bit of a bummer. It's the main reason my first idea was to drop an Extend Metamagic Rod for them. As I've mentioned above, I've been trying to prevent the Archvisit from stealing the Druid's best toys. Of the two players, the Druid is the newest and the least optimized, so I want to keep as many things unique to her as possible. –  agradine Oct 3 '13 at 1:35
    
@agradine If they like their summons, a Rod of Rapid Spell is also something they’ll enjoy a great deal. –  KRyan Oct 3 '13 at 4:11

Druids Are Versatile

The bad news is that a level 3 unoptimized Druid is not going to feel as good as an optimized fighter. You know that, and you know that the Druid will become amazing later.

Right now, the Druid can still do quite a lot that's effective:

Flank stuff and hit it

Druids have an animal companion, and at level 3 the animal companion gains bonus strength, dexterity, hit dice, natural armor, and depending on the creature possibly a feat (from the hit dice). Barding for an animal companion doesn't have to be expensive. Mundane Leather Armor for a medium animal costs double the cost for a Humanoid (which for a level 3 is very little) and has an armor check penalty of 0 (which means even a nonproficient animal isn't being penalized, though if you got a feat from the bonus HD you could take proficiency with it if you wanted to), for a cheap bonus 2 AC

She can buff her companion with spells like Barkskin, Magic Fang, and Nature's Favor (2nd level bonus Attack/Damage, CAdv/Spell). If she takes the Companion Spellbond feat from PHB II, she can do that at 30 feat and share the Barkskin buff with herself, which is awesome.

The two of them combined with this increased armor can move in, flank enemies, and attack them. The companion can use its Magic Fang'd natural weapon, and the Druid could use something like a Quarterstaff with Shillelagh and Brambles (more bonus attack/damage - CD/Spell). For a low level caster, the two combined can do entirely respectable damage and Barkskin greatly helps survivability.

Cast some Spells Entangle is a truly excellent level 1 Battlefield Control spell. Tie up enemies so the others can bash them down (or go bash them yourself).

Fog Cloud is another Battlefield control spell that has its uses. If someone else is using it to mess up your party's attackers, Gust of Wind stops it (and causes problems for small enemies while blowing away tiny ones!)

Lesser Vigor (CDiv) is an awesome out of combat healing spell that grants fast healing and always outheals the equivalent level Cure spell.

Summons at level 3 are not great because they vanish so quickly, but if you give her the extend rod that becomes more practical. Druids are great summoners. If she's managed to already get Augment Summoning, all the better! Animal companion + Summons = a LOT of things for the enemies to contend with.

Produce Flame does unspectacular damage, but you can use it at range and you get multiple attacks per casting. Flame Sphere is another attack spell option.

There's also buff spells and spells like Lesser Restoration, but buffing the already powerful melee players probably won't make the Druid player feel particularly special. If she does want to do that, Bull's Strength and Bear's Endurance on the Half-Orc are obvious choices.

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+1 for produce flame. Never seen that spell and in low levels it could be fairly effective. Melee touch +1d6 fire dmg? Nice! –  Drunken_Guy Oct 3 '13 at 14:07
    
Good answer for the druid, but what about the archivist? –  KRyan Oct 3 '13 at 16:50

You are looking for spells that make the casters feel less useless. I'd say you're on the right track. Spell selection makes or breaks (or both, hurr hurr) every spellcaster.

Fortunately for your casters, both the Druid and the Archivist have the ability to make up for past sins in spell selection. The Druid has it as easy as memorizing new spells next morning. It takes the Archivist a bit longer in-game, but at least they can pull it off without intervention by the DM or divine.

So, let's look at some...

Spells!

Note: These are spells that I imagine would help a new player feel less useless. Whether these are actually good spells I leave to your group to decide.

Cleric spells

These benefit the Archivist.

  • Ice Slick (Frostburn). 1st level. Big area of everyone being at risk of falling down. The mundanes can't do that.
  • Sound Burst (PHB). 2nd level. Anemic damage, but a save vs. stun for everyone caught in the area.
  • Darkbolt (Book of Vile Darkness). 2nd level. Worse than Sound Burst in my opinion, being single-target, but see! It has more dice. Archivists' default fluff points to them digging up spells from naughty sources like this one anyway.
  • Divine Insight (Spell Compendium). 2nd level. Failing skill checks is for muggles.
  • Silence (PHB). 2nd level. Use when expecting to face enemy casters. Makes it very likely that no one will be casting anything.

Druid spells

Of immediate use to the Druid, obviously. Can be of use to the Archivist if you give them time and/or the spell on a scroll.

  • Splinterbolt (Spell Compendium). 2nd level. Fire a spear that deals damage. If they run the math, they'll probably find out that the mundanes are more efficient, but if they don't, well, they still get to roll 4d6 that the mundanes don't get.
  • Entangle (PHB). 1st level. @KRyan extolled its virtues.
  • Blinding Spittle (Spell Compendium). 2nd level. It blinds, no save. Now isn't that useful?
  • Master Air (Spell Compendium). 2nd level. Screw waiting for Wild Shape at level 5, your Druid can fly right now!
  • Aspect of the Wolf (Spell Compendium). 1st level. No, your Druid doesn't have to wait for level 5 to turn into a wolf either.
  • Mass Snake's Swiftness (Spell Compendium). 2nd level. Those totally overpowered melee guys are now going to be more totally overpowered thanks to the Druid. Best used when the melee lines have been established. At low levels, this is often like granting everyone an extra turn.

Magic Items

There are a few low-level items that are of more use on spellcasters. I can remember:

  • Empowered Spellshard (Magic Item Compendium). The cheap version of a rod of Empower Spell, these are keyed to a specific spell. That Splinterbolt I mentioned earlier? Wheeeee!
  • Tome of Worldly Memory (Magic Item Compendium). Lets you look stuff up (apparently, that needs magic). Effectively, a +5 on non-surprise Knowledge checks.
  • Scrolls. Seriously, hand them out. Especially your Archivist should love it.
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My druid player just got her hands on the Spell Compendium, and is quite happy for it. The archivist already had it, but thanks for the suggestion for the Book of Vile Darkness. The archivist has already expressed quite an interest in pursuing "evil" spells... –  agradine Oct 4 '13 at 3:28

In addition to the above recommendations, another solution to weak low level spell casters is simply allow the spellcaster players to play two PCs - a fighter-type as well as the wizard. That way they can participate in the hack & slash fun while their spell casters are out of the action.

Players could also "share" the wizard PC - a different player plays the wizard each gaming session.

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Druids are probably the most powerful class at low levels.

At level 4, the druid should take natural bond. This allows them to take an animal companion such as an ape, boar or black bear, without applying the -3 druid level.

If you take an Ape, at level 4 you have something with 19 AC if you get it some 0 armour penalty armour. This is the same as a fighter with 1 dex, and full plate. It will have 42 HP, which is the equivalent to a level 4 fighter with 18 con.

It's main attack will be at plus 9, equivalent to a fighter with a masterwork or plus 1 sword, weapon focus and 16 strength. It then also has 2 additional attacks at +4, while the fighter doesn't have extra attacks.

In terms of damage, it's less than a fighter with a greatsword (1d6+8 instead of 2d6+8 or so).

This thing will have 10 ft reach, one hell of a grapple check, faster move speed than most the party, which will be 20 ft at low levels, and if you can talk the DM into allowing an ape sized backpack, will solve the party's carrying capacity problems.

And then, an additional feature of the animal companion class is that you get a druid with it as well! I hear that they can help the ape with healing and buffs, entangle, knowledge nature/survival, summoning wolves to trip enemies over, and occasionally even hitting enemies with a club.

I can't recall the archivist specifically, but wizards are admittedly a little rubbish until level 5 (haste, fireball, lightning bolt, invisibility).

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protected by Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 5 '13 at 3:58

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