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Recently I played a game of D&D 5th Edition. While we liked the simplicity and made characters quickly, there was one big bottleneck: the Wizard (and to a lesser extent, the Cleric) kept having analysis paralysis over the spell choices!

Most of my players were more familiar with 4th Edition in which a Wizard or Cleric had only a handful of spells to choose at first level (without supplement books). We really didn't have analysis paralysis because it was generally "here's four powers, pick one of them". We've also played some systems with moderately more complicated spell systems (e.g. Savage Worlds), but didn't really have analysis paralysis there either.

However in D&D 5th Edition, there are many more spells (about a dozen cantrips and another dozen first level spells). It seems that we've come across analysis paralysis with spell selection pretty hard. This has exhibited itself in several ways:

  • After reading the dozen cantrips & dozen 1st level spells, picking which ones should be purchased as players were constantly waffling between each one. They kept wondering if they would regret not taking a certain spell because it would be expensive to purchase later.
  • Out of all those we purchased, picking which spells to prepare for the day. They kept wondering if they would regret it if they needed a spell if they came across a situation.

After about 15 minutes of waffling back and forth with their spell selection in what felt like a battle of wits with a Sicilian (to the annoyance of the Fighter and Rogue who had been ready to go for a while), we threatened to just make them randomly choose spells if they couldn't decide (they finally did pick, but kept feeling like they might have made the wrong choice).

The only difference I see between this system and others is the amount of spells, but perhaps there are other aspects too, like complexity of spells. At any rate, what can we do in the future? How can we prevent choosing spells from leading to analysis paralysis?

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It sounds like the culprit was the fear that they might regret their choice. That very common problem with the human condition is, alas, a problem for the ages. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 12 at 20:59
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@SevenSidedDie It's true that regret seems to be the motivating factor. While we can't change the human condition, surely there is something that we can change about what we are doing at the gaming table. After all, this seems to be a new problem we are experiencing with 5e that we didn't experience with 4e or with other roleplaying systems. –  Thunderforge Aug 12 at 21:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The solution is for the PCs to experiment with each of the spells to get a better feel for how useful they are during an actual game. Once your players have a chance to experiment a bit with the spells they have available to choose from, the task of deciding which ones are worth picking will be significantly easier. Also, as the DM, you may wish to reward good Intelligence or Wisdom checks made by the PCs during research activities by giving them suggestions as to which spells might prove useful over the course of the adventure. For example, if you're running the Lost Mine of Phandelver, you may wish to reward a player who spends time researching dragons that Green Dragons are masters of poison, so a Protection from Poison spell may be worth the Cleric's time to have prepared.

Because many of the 5th Edition mechanics and spell changes will likely be new for many players who did not participate in the playtest, the Adventurer's League Player's Guide also offers a nice solution to this problem. During levels 1-4 (the first major tier of gameplay) you can rebuild your character at the end of an episode or an adventure. This will allow you to try out low-level spell combinations without fear of being stuck with poor choices. Encourage low-level players to pick spells that sound cool and appear useful but not to fret over making bad choices because at the end of the session they can retcon their choices anyway.

It's worth mentioning that this should be significantly less of a problem for the Cleric, because Clerics automatically have access to their entire class's spell list. If they wish to change the spells they have prepared, they can do so at the end of a long rest.

Lastly, note that some spells can be cast as Rituals. This means the casting time is increased by 10 minutes (to prevent them from being used in combat), but the spell doesn't use up a spell slot. Clerics must prepare their Rituals just like any other spell they plan to cast, but Wizards can use their spellbooks to avoid preparing Rituals ahead of time. This too will allow your players to try out more utility spells that may or may not be useful without making them sacrifice more pragmatic options like combat spells.

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Using Intelligence and Wisdom checks to provide hints on what spells to prepare sounds like a really awesome idea! –  Thunderforge Aug 13 at 14:59

Ok, I'll admit this is the stuff I struggle with when creating a wizard too.

Ultimately though, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to make each of these tasks much easier.

  • What is my primary purpose as a wizard? What's your specialty? Are you going to be a damage machine? Great, take spells that bump your damage. Are you going to be a utility spell fiend? Great, there are tons of good utility spells.
  • What spells synergize with my class. The BD&D wizard is evocation school, grab all the evocation spells you can get your hands on.
  • What spells can fill holes in my party? Don't have a rogue? Make sure you grab Knock. Don't have a fighter? Make sure you grab Mage Armor. That kind of thing.

Spell book spots are the only way to get spells either, so if you don't have room for some spells you want, let your DM know, he might find a way to work them into your adventure.

Preparing spells is the far more limited thing. However, you get to do it every day. Some things I find helpful when prepping spell lists:

  • Have a default list that is your go to list. If you don't know what the day is going to bring, have this list ready to do.
  • Look for spells that can benefit when cast in higher spots. Most do, and you want those.
  • Skip preparing ritual spells. These can be cast in 10 minutes without needing prep or consuming a spell slot.
  • Think about what you know is coming for the day, and plan accordingly. The green dragon is good example, but if you're resting in the middle of a dungeon full of undead, make sure you've got fire and radiant spells.

Really, the most important thing at this point is to pick spells you'll use, and that you think are cool. There really isn't an optimum spell load out at this point (I can tell you which ones do the most damage in which slot, but they all have different shapes, different conditions and a bunch of other things that are unknowns at this point). So figure out what kind of wizard you are building and choose spells that support that. Avoid things that look like traps, because they probably are, but ultimately, don't sweat which spells you choose at level up too much (if you feel you've made a big mistake, talk to your DM and I'll be he'll be willing to send you on a hair-brained quest to find the spells you want/need).

As far as prep goes, build a list of your favorites, swap a few out every day, see what works. This is one of the reasons why it's good to start at low levels. You'll probably have several adventuring days at L1 or L2 where you can play with your spells and figure out what's what.

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