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I hear that full casters are considered the best in pathfinder, but a lot of campaigns that I seem to play in never make it past level 5 or 6. I'd like to play wizard, but right as I'm about to become useful the campaign fizzles out.

At low levels I feel like I'm more of a hindrance than a help. I fire a magic missile or two, then shoot a light crossbow or something and die in one or two hits from just about anything. At level three, second level spells help the situation a lot, but levels one and two in particular are quite brutal.

How can I build my wizard in such a way that he's useful in combat at all levels, not just once he can cast fireball? Is it futile to expect a wizard to stand up to the fighters, and even clerics, at such low levels?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Low-level wizards measure up fine because

Low-level Combats Are Incredibly Lethal

In a group of brand new, fresh-from-the-core-rules group of PCs, the wizard--with his bad Armor Class, bad weapon proficiencies, low hp, middlin' class features, and 2 or 3 spells per day--will appear to be unable to measure up to the killin'-all-the-time fighter or the I've-spells-and-armor-and-weapons-and-channeling cleric.

But, then, look at this orc. He has AC 13 and 6 hp, but he's attacking at +5 to hit for 2d4+4. His ferocity extraordinary ability gives him sort of, like, 10 extra hp, and that falchion--with its wide threat range--makes a lot of level 1 characters just dead.

There're 3 of those orcs in an EL 1 encounter.

And you can expect 4 encounters each day.

There's a lot of adventurer blood on those falchions, and it's not all wizard blood... although it may feel that way sometimes.

Beginning Wizards Use Crossbows

Most folks who sign up to play wizards think they're going to get to play Raistlin, Gandalf, Harry Potter, or whoever, but then, after winning the the day's first and second encounters via the spells color spray or sleep, those folks are out of spells and stuck with their light crossbows.

You know what that makes them? Crossbowmen. A beginning wizard without spells should act like an archer because he is. An archer stays in the back. An archer delays and readies until he's got a clear shot. An archer lets his party know if someone needs to move. An archer moves if he can't get a clear shot. An archer spends some of his treasure on archery stuff--masterwork bolts just aren't that expensive, and a dozen is probably enough. An archer uses cover. A crossbowman can even drop prone to avoid enemy missile fire and keep firing. Seriously, a beginning wizard can apply his arcane bond class feature to a light crossbow and just start with a masterwork one:

Wizards who select a bonded object begin play with one at no cost. Objects that are the subject of an arcane bond must fall into one of the following categories: amulet, ring, staff, wand, or weapon. These objects are always masterwork quality.

Such a wizard will take crap from theoretical optimizers, but, y'know, it doesn't matter how awesome a character would've been if he's dead.

Low-level combats are supposed to teach everybody how combat--mundane and magical--will be run with that DM in that campaign, and all players and characters need to be on the same page for when they engage in bigger combats with nastier threats later.

Going Shopping
A starting wizard has an average of 70 gp. Here's a shopping list:

  • crossbow, light (35 gp; 4 lbs.)
  • bolts, crossbow (20) (2 gp; 2 lbs.)
  • club (3 lbs.; 0 gp), dagger (1 lbs.; 2 gp), and/or quarterstaff (0 gp; 4 lbs.)
  • leather armor (10 gp; 15 lbs.)
  • spell component pouch (5 gp; 2 lbs.)
  • sacks (6) (6 sp; 3 lbs.) for loot

Rolling well on starting wealth adds to this list the following:

  • scroll of cure light wounds (1st-level spell at caster level 1) (25 gp; 0 lbs.) given to a PC who can use it

With this load, the starting wizard casts his 2-4 spells then dons leather armor and becomes a crossbowman. The wizard should sleep in his leather armor, too, if he's cast all his spells for the day anyway.

The Alternatives

It's understandable that most wizards don't want to be crossbowmen. Here're some ways out of that bind.

Patient Wizards Contribute More and Live Longer
Having a beginning wizard in the party is a burden. He needs his beauty sleep to prepare spells. He's got a really wide but very shallow power meter. After one or maybe two encounters the wizard should encourage the party to knock off for the day, reminding the party that--despite their impatience--it's better to have their wizard at full power than have just another crossbowman.

Encourage the DM to Start the Campaign at a Level Greater than 1
This might be the real problem. Some DMs never get the idea that campaigns can start at any level the DM wants. Really, there are very, very few pieces of media that simulate a character's growth from Wizard Who Casts Sleep Once Per Day to Wizard Who Casts Wish Thrice Per Day, and, really, most folks want to play something in between anyway. Talk to the DM. See if the DM'd be willing to start a campaign at level 3 or 6 or 10 or whatever instead of always 1. Or start such a campaign yourself--then your bad guys can cast at the PCs the awesome spells you've always wanted your characters to cast (and now those are your characters!), and when those bad guys are defeated, you get to try different bad guys with different spells versus the PCs.

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Wizards are not designed to be DPR machines like other combatants.

The wizard's usefulness lies in his versatility. You should be doing things other than casting magic missile.

Magic missile itself is kind of a trap. It does low damage at low levels at the cost of your precious level 1 spell slots. For a slight decrease in damage, you can prep a damage dealing cantrip which you can cast an unlimited number of times. (Generally, I tend to skip prepping any direct damage spells unless I think my wizards might be alone part of the day or I think I will need it to bypass DR.)

Things you should be casting beside magic missile:

Cantrips: acid splash, ray of frost, daze, disrupt undead, detect magic, prestidigitation

Level 1 spells: grease, sleep, color spray, obscuring mist

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I typically don't even bother with the direct-damage cantrips; even a wizard can often do more than that with a crossbow. Usually just about all my cantrip slots are detect magic and prestidigitation. Speaking of, you aren't a proper wizard without prestidigitation. The first-level spells are solid, though, and the rest of your analysis is spot-on. – KRyan May 8 '14 at 18:04
direct damage cantrips are still good for when the rest of the group has gotten some guy down to 1 hp and he's about to get another attack... use for KOs only. – mxyzplk May 8 '14 at 19:03
The amazing thing about grease is that it never really goes out of style. Sure, the save gets trivial after a while, as does the Acrobatics check, but anyone in grease is still flat-footed, even 22 HD half-fiend dragons. Your pet rogue will love you. It's just an amazing spell. Sleep and color spray get useless at higher levels, but that doesn't matter much for a prepared caster anyway. – Paul Z May 8 '14 at 19:08
direct damage cantrips are useful because of the touch attack aspect; if you end up fighting someone with really good armor, even a little bit of damage each round is nice. – starwed May 8 '14 at 21:01
@PaulZ that is partly incorrect. "Creatures that do not move on their turn do not need to make this check and are not considered flat-footed." Not moving is a valid tactics, especially at higher levels. – MrLemon May 9 '14 at 9:08

Expanding on the other answers, in some Pathfinder-specific ways:

  1. Familiar. In Pathfinder, the negative consequence of losing a familiar is just not having a familiar for some time (you're not screwed all around). Having something as simple and natural as a Raven familiar makes all the difference between "we walk the road and oops are ambushed" and we "walk the road, Corvus sees the ambush, we [deal with it some smart way]". That's just one example.
  2. Bonded object. This is alternative to a familiar. It allows you to cast one extra spell (any spell, as long as it's in your book) each day, for a total of 4 (assuming you are a specialist, because, in Pathfinder, you should be). Note how this number corresponds with recommended number of encounters per day. One real spell per encounter is not bad - you should attempt and expect to disable more than one opponent with a spell, thus being the most effective party member as long as you can arrange things right.
  3. Cantrips. In Pathfinder, these are infinite, so you are never really out of spells.

    • Acid splash: with a small sturdy bottle of acid in your pouch to act as an alchemical power component (focus), you can deal 1d3+1 as ranged touch attack all day every day. This does no less than 2 hp damage on a hit, so very useful for finishing off things your party fighter did not quite drop. DM should allow this to ignore DR of objects made from ferrous metals (locks, bars, chains, ...).
    • Daze: you do nothing useful this round, orc does nothing useful this round. Might be just what you want. Once per target.

The key thing here is that, as a wizard, it's not enough that your character is listed as smart. You have much more options than "I swing at them", and are both more fragile and potentially more powerful. You have to play him smart. Just to contrast an otherwise good advice of acting crossbowman: sure, you do that in the hills, but in the dungeon (especially tight dungeon) things are different. Shooting at an opponent engaged in melee with party member, from behind said party member, is done at -8, so you better employ something else, be that Daze or a longspear at -4. This is just an example of things to consider, and the more things you consider, the better off you will be.

Further reading: Treantmonk's Guide to Pathfinder Wizards.

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Can you please link or cite the alchemical power component rule you mentioned for Acid Splash? What book is that from? – Matthew Najmon Jul 8 '14 at 15:48
@MatthewNajmon that particular focus combo and the Alchemical Power Component rules are from Adventurer's Armory. Alchemical Reagents, which are similar, are in the Alchemy Manual. – the dark wanderer Oct 31 '14 at 1:56

As there's many posts here, I'm just going to try to add stuff that other have not mentioned or provided.

Here's something to take into consideration:

  • Ensure Constitution is one of your main stats. This will definitely help early on, allowing you to make it that 1 extra round to get far enough away or to heal. [Not a requirement, but can be really nice]
  • Pay attention to the battlefield- Knowing where to be and where not to be can make or break your Wizard (or any character for that matter). If the majority of your attack spells have a decent range, try to stay at that range, (and if you're not using a play-mat, make it clear that your at your max range without any penalties AND that you're taking out any other ranged opponents first so you don't have to worry about them. Use your 5-foot steps, and readied actions whenever possible. [This also ties in with taking cover, but other have mentioned that]
  • Know what spells to take- I'm not going to give a review of the '5 best spells' or 'level-1 must have wizard spells', but try to provide you with the knowledge to know what to look for. Early on, don't get too bogged down in utility spells, instead focus on party buffs and attacks. It's always good to have at least 1 offensive and 1 defensive cantrip (level-0) spell on hand, so it doesn't matter how many encounters you face or spells you've cast, you've always got something "Wizardy" to do. [As opposed to being a crossbowmen or archer as described in other answers] You might not have the versatility you normally would, but give it a few levels/encounters and you'll have enough spells copied, that you're not missing anything.
  • Least popular answer- Don't get into so many fights.... A band of goblins coming down the road? Ignore them or hide. Bandits? Try to bargain with them. And if you can't skip the fight. Try to do creative things to slow the enemies down or use your environment to your advantage.
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The first levels of any caster rely on versatility and filling in roles that the party cannot quite cover. Focus on spells that provide crowd control like: Daze, Hypnotism, Grease, and Sleep. Sleep is a will saving throw, you have a range of 100ft + 10ft per caster level and you effect all creatures, of 4hd or lower, within a 10ft burst radius. If you succeed, your opponents are rendered helpless and your party can coup de grace. Grease is a reflex saving throw else they immediately fall prone, and an acrobatics check for them to navigate over it, you can also cast it on your opponents weapons to force them to drop them or on your allies armor to provide +10 escape artist / cmd against grapples.

Take an aoe spell like Burning Hands to handle swarms, and use spells like Mage Armor or Shield if you feel your character is getting hit too much. Magic Missile is mostly useful when against opponents that have damage reduction or elemental resistances, it is good to have, but not something you want to rely on 100% of the time. Under Transmutation check out the spell Enlarge Person, and Expeditious Retreat. Expeditious retreat is self cast, but will allow you to maneuver, reposition or even escape from combat much easier. Enlarge Person increases the target one size category and gives them a +2 size bonus to strength, -2 size penalty to Dex, -1 to atk and ac, but also gives the target 10ft reach and increases their weapon size! (Spell is on page 278, the weapon size increase is found on page 145 of the CR). Your fighter was once wielding a greatsword (2d6), they are now wielding a greatsword (3d6) with 10ft reach!

Aside from spells, taking toughness as a feat early on is a good option, especially if your character is lacking in Constitution. Some of the most helpful wizard spells are ones that are used out of combat such as: Comprehend Language, Detect Magic, Read Magic, Light, Mending, Unseen Servant, etc.

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Really? Toughness as a recommended feat? There are so many better feats you could take that would still help once you get past level 2 and your hitpoints are high enough for you to survive a stray unlucky arrow. Until then just stay well towards the back with your crossbow and ensure you have a vaguely decent constitution score if possible. – Haegin May 9 '14 at 10:37
@Haegin The feat Toughness--whic‌​h scales--remains valid for any character until he has hp sufficient to survive a lucky Str 10 commoner's critical hit with a scythe (32 hp) or guard's with a greataxe (36 hp). For a wizard, that could totally be at least a third of his career, or more if the campaign--or the character!--doesn't last beyond level 6. I support picking the feat Toughness in a highly lethal, short-term game. You can't play if you're dead. – Hey I Can Chan May 9 '14 at 20:22
Think of toughness like a +2 con buff that only applies to your health. For casters at first level, it could make the difference of 8-11hp (assuming 14-15 in con). At first level you are not going to take meta-magic feats, and even combat casting could be delayed till third level due to the concentration check required only paying off if you plan on receiving more than 7 damage, else you take a 5ft step (10 reach that early is not common) – DanceSC May 9 '14 at 22:36
If you're a wizard you shouldn't be getting hit by things that often. Certainly not often enough that the chance of a commoner critting with a scythe should worry you (not to mention the fact that at levels 1-4 at least toughness is no use against that scythe). Play careful with movement in combat and grab a better feat, even if it's not that useful straight away, because when you hit 3rd level you want to be taking even better feats, not something you put off until later. If you really want the extra hitpoints grab the toad familiar. – Haegin May 11 '14 at 8:01
@Haegin I'm missing your logic here. Of all the familiars to get, you do realize that their special ability is equivalent to a lesser feat? Aside from the fact that skill focus increases to a +6 at level 10, and Improved Initiative is double. The toughness feat doubles the health of the toad at level 6 and continues to increase in value. Granted taking other feats so that you can unlock / meet the pre-reqs of level 3 ones makes perfect sense. The preference is totally up to you. I personally like the security at lower levels, especially when running harder campaigns. – DanceSC May 11 '14 at 17:26

Look for spells with long durations or whose effects will last a long time. Color spray is, of course, good, because it is basically a level 1 cone save-or-die for any encounter you'll be facing before you get level 2 spells. Any other spell, then, needs to be doing something better than winning a single encounter by itself (which is a pretty tall order). Consider taking two-world magic as a trait for access to create water (if your party has no cleric) which is an amazingly useful level 0 spell precisely because its duration is unlimited. Stop focusing on combat because you are NOT a blaster at level 1 (assuming you are a universalist wizard); you are a support character. You are basically the best support ever, but still support. Learn Rope Trick (to hide from pursuit while on the run from an encounter gone wrong- with the rest of the party), Tenser's Floating Disk (to carry everything ever, and also for first-level psuedoflight. Also grants cover against attacks from below (your GM may, reasonably, make this partial cover if the attacker is not directly below you (in which case you have total cover))), detect secret doors (much better at level 2 than level 1, since 20 rounds is enough to scour a huge portion of dungeon while 10 feels kinda small), Undine's Curse (situational save-or-die that doesn't involve telling everyone that you're a mage and you are here), etc.

If you take the life specialization, you're a better healer than a Cleric out of battle, as you can burn you cantrips (which count as 1/2 level for all purposes despite being '0-level' spells) to heal everybody up to full health all day every day, 1/2 hp at a time. You may not want to do this, as you will have to put up with all the stuff that the party cleric normally has to put up with.

If you want to be a blaster at level 1, play a fighter. Note, however, that the low level advantage is overcome sometime around level 2-3.

If you REALLY want to be a blaster and you are sure you're mostly gonna play levels 2-5, consider being a multiclass mage. Multiclass casters get a lot of crap because at high levels higher level spells are way more important than spell volume. However, at level 4 a Wizard/Sorcerer/Witch/Oracle can pump out about 20 level 1 spells a day, something like half of which are spontaneous. You will also never fail a Will save, ever, even against dedicated casters twice your level, which is kinda nice. Unfortunately, you have no second-level spells and no future, which sucks. Take leadership if the game hits level 6 and hire one of those single-classed optimized mages as a cohort. He can share in the bounty of your low-level superiority.

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Re-read the rounding rules. You can't heal someone up a half a hit point at a time. Trying to heal someone for 1/2 hit point gets rounded down to zero hit points healed, and you can heal them for zero hit points, over and over, all day long, they're still not gonna be at full health – Matthew Najmon Jul 1 '14 at 7:07
I believe damage and healing effects are a specific exception to that rule in that they deal or heal a minimum of 1 point of damage or healing. Regardless, if you intend to be a party healer as a wizard there are a number of feats/traits/etc which either increase the healing you generate or, if your party wants to waste some feats, increases the healing they receive. With strict RAW at level 5 you can use bestow curse to permanently make your 1/2 hp heals have a minimum of 1 hp effect on your party members. It is also of note that 1/2 hp still counts as magical healing for caltrops, etc. – the dark wanderer Oct 31 '14 at 0:35
Regarding the specific exception, there is a specific exception for minimum 1 point for damage rolls with numerical penalties (a 1d3 weapon with -4 Str still does 1 damage), but none for healing, nor for damage as a fraction of caster level. Regarding caltrops, here's what the caltrops rules have to say on the matter: "or until it receives at least 1 point of magical healing". Regarding Bestow Curse, none of the standard curses do any such thing. You could try to get it under the invent-your-own clause, but that's not "strict RAW", and anyway, every DM I've ever known would call shenanigans. – Matthew Najmon Oct 31 '14 at 4:14
@MatthewNajmon PAthfinder #82 yields "The victim can’t heal naturally, and magical healing heals the victim by only half the usual amount (minimum 1 point). Fast healing and regeneration are likewise halved." as an official option for bestow curse. You are right about caltrops though, I spoke off the top of my head and lumped it in with Hydrus parasitism and such, which does specify "any amount of magical healing". My point is just that there are lots of ways to make 1/2 hp healing heal more and some cases where it is effective even if you don't increase it. – the dark wanderer Oct 31 '14 at 23:30

If gold/xp/time are available, try scribing (or just buying) some first level scrolls. They will greatly expand the number of available spells as well as saving headspace by storing utility spells for when they might be needed.

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If you want to carry your party in battle by just dealing damage, you may want to try out the Warmage.

Warmages studied in military academies and they are specialized in dealing damage during battles and finding the most useful strategy to tear their enemy down. In fact, they (almost) only have Evocation spells.

They also can wear light armors and shields without penalties in casting spells (you may want to get a buckler to be able to cast spells with somatic components), and their hit die is d6. This grants you more survivability in battle;

Oh, and you add your Int modifier to your spells' damage! While this feature does not scale well in late game, in early levels it's pretty good.

Unfortunately, AFAIK there is not an official Warmage conversion from 3.5e to Pathfinder, but you could use one of the unofficial conversions if your GM allows you to do it. You can find one here.

Alternatively you could try a Magus which IS a Pathfinder class, albeit the class only gets up to 6th level spells, not 9th.

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Seems vaguely inappropriate to recommend 3.5 material in Pathfinder, but I'd look the other way if it was a good suggestion. The warmage, unfortunately, is a really terrible class; it's strictly a blaster and it's not a better blaster than a wizard or sorcerer. – KRyan May 8 '14 at 19:26
Armor and shields are trivial to get anyway, the Hit Die isn’t nearly better enough, the warmage gets very few unique spells (and misses out on a ton of fantastic ones), and the Int-to-damage thing tends to be a trap more than anything, as it adds an inconsequential amount of damage much past, say, 5th level, and investing in it for that purpose detracts from more important things. – KRyan May 8 '14 at 23:46
@agradine does have a point when he says there's no such thing as a trap. Yes there are some classes that are weaker than others but if you want to play an armoured warrior slinging around blasty spells the warmage is a pretty easy way to do it. You could spend a bit of time making a wizard that can do the same kind of thing and that might be worthwhile if you enjoy planning out characters but if you just want to play a blasting wizard in armour the war mage is exactly that. No, it's not as powerful as other casters but that doesn't matter if it's the character you will enjoy playing. – Haegin May 9 '14 at 10:42
@Haegin "No, it's not as powerful as other casters but that doesn't matter if..." It most certainly does matter if you're writing an answer the entire point of which is to try to claim that they are better than other casters. – Matthew Najmon Jul 8 '14 at 19:20

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