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I could really use some advice from someone with experience with new players dealing with D&D spell analysis paralysis.

I'm about to kick off a second D&D 5e campaign for a set of friends interested in trying D&D for the first time. They've got nearly zero experience with the game, and we're hitting some hurdles I didn't expect.

One of these is that two of them are playing classes with spells, and they've ended up with total choice paralysis. Both of them are terrified of choosing the "wrong" spells and keep changing their minds on a practically minute-to-minute basis. (Seriously, the amount of texts I've gotten from each of them...)

The difficulty is that it's hard to explain what the spells do or how useful they'll be when your audience has no personal experience with the game. I frequently end up in a circular conversation with a player asking me "how often will I x" where my response is "well...it depends on where you guys take the story" which is basically useless advice.

TL:DR; I'd like to make choosing spells more newbie-friendly from the get-go, but I don't know how.

I'm particularly looking for out-of-game DM solutions, rather than in-game roleplay ones. For that reason I don't believe this question is a duplicate - its answers are focused on giving the players a chance to change their minds later in the game, or offering other during-play ways to trial spells. I'm looking for an up-front solution (if there is one).

In response to a comment asking why I'm not looking for "later" solutions; I've already told them if they really hate their spells we can discuss swapping them later. This has had zero impact on their paralysis. If anything, it's made it worse because now spells that they previously (reluctantly) dismissed as undesirable are now contenders again. We've already pushed our game back a week because they couldn't make up their minds and they're threatening to need another week for further thought after I mentioned swapping later.

Post Mortem:

We managed to hold our session on time, and everyone had a blast. I ended up using a combination of some of the top answers;

Based on Shem's answer: I sent both of them lists of their spell options broken down into very basic descriptions. I probably over-simplified some of them and used a lot of incorrect terminology to put them in contexts my players would understand (and left out a few I felt would be useless in our campaign in particular), but it helped them rule out spells they either thought were too complicated to cast, or weren't something their character would like to use.

Based on crunchykids answer: I also emphasized that every spell would have a use somehow if they were creative about it, and that as a DM I was on their side and would try to accomidate them. I took time to differentiate between in- and out- of combat spells and explain why having a mix was useful. I also reminded them that I was okay with on the fly switching (one player took advantage of this after deciding Light would be functionally useless in a party where 2/3 have darkvision...)

A big thank you to everyone who replied to this question; my best advice to others finding this later is to really sit down and listen to your players; everyone's different and tailoring your responses can help them get past the paralysis faster.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 11 '18 at 3:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your post mortem should really be a self-answer to your question. Here's a relevant answer on meta by doppelgreener to "Too many good answers…now what?": "If you find that no one answer does it, or a combination of answers are necessary, I would invite you to post an altogether new answer sharing with us what you did, and accept that. If you utilised other answers' methods in your own answer, you can attribute those linking to the other answers." It's not part of the question itself, but rather an explanation of how you solved the problem. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 16 at 13:47

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When I had a new player start playing with us about 6 months ago, she had this exact problem. My solution was two-fold.

Reduce the number of options

She wanted to play a druid, so there were lots of spells to pick from. So I reduced the spell list from 7 cantrips and 16 level 1 spells to a list of 3 cantrips and 6 spells (1st level druids pick 2 and 4 respectively).

In my case, she didn't know what sort of role she wanted to fill, or what sort of things she wanted out of her spells, so I picked a decent range of generally useful spells. If your player(s) have a better idea (healing, DPR, charm, illusion, utility, etc...) then you can tailor the selection to that.

I highly suggest if doing this for a caster with semi-permanent spell selection (Bard, Eldritch Knight, Ranger, Arcane Trickster, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard) that you allow them to change out their spells more frequently than is permitted in the books as they learn what they do and don't like. For example, if your Bard finds out they aren't a fan of Charm Person, let them swap it out for free, even if they haven't just leveled up.

Make short descriptions of the spells

I also did this for my new player, as druids frequently change out spells. I wrote up short descriptions of each spell, and their general purpose. Some examples:

Shillelagh - hit things better

Entangle - make people move slower in an area

Faerie Fire - turn off invisibility and make people easier to hit

Thunderwave - AoE damage right next to you, and push away

This way, she had a quick idea of what each spell does, and could make the selection from there.

Final Notes

This method seemed to work well, although it's a sample size of 1, so YMMV. I think it requires a certain amount of trust between player and GM (since the GM is reducing their choices), but it gets them on their feet quickly, and if you allow them to change after the fact, it doesn't penalize them for their choices, which will make it easier on them to make a choice.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I understand why people like this answer removing options is a massive no-no for me. As a player I would still be thinking about the options you removed, and feel cheated if I was then in a situation better solved by one of those removed options so this is something you need to be very careful with. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jan 11 '18 at 7:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri, the options weren't permanently removed, only at character generation and at early levels, so that she could make choices quicker (she already is a very indecisive person). As I alluded to in the post, this requires the player to trust that you, the GM, understands their goals as a player (at least, as well as they do), and knows the spells well enough to make a good selection for them. I explicitly outlined areas where you would want to break the rules in spell selection so they had the option of picking up new spells later. \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Jan 11 '18 at 14:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ooh, having a 10-ish word description of every spell in the game would be an awesome resource for new-ish players. Any thought of making this a public resource online? If not, I could probably create one. \$\endgroup\$ – Kyle Strand Jan 11 '18 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that you may not have to custom roll these guides: there are guides for Pathfinder by Treantmonk, and he's produced at least a 5e wizard's guide. The guides make it really easy to at a glance determine good spells from bad and he generally gives a blurb about why. \$\endgroup\$ – TemporalWolf Jan 11 '18 at 18:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a great guide. I don't think it really has a place here though. It has so much information, that a player with analysis paralysis will take only slightly less time deciding after that post. I'd rather just help them make the selection, then show them the post after they have gotten into the game, and have a better feel for how things work. \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Jan 11 '18 at 19:46
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Get rid of the idea that any choice could be wrong

I would have a conversation with them about how D&D is not a game that you "win" so there's really is no way to make a "wrong" spell choice. A spellcaster's spells should flavor who the character is and how their magic manifests itself. Part of the fun should come from finding inventive solutions to problems in the game, not getting past the obstacles in the most efficient manner possible. Also assure them that there is more to spellcasting than vanquishing enemies and a spell that might not be useful in a combat situation may be the one that breaks the party out of captivity.

Empathize and then get them to define their effects

Don't underestimate how overwhelming spell choice can seem to a new player, especially if they have limited exposure to fantasy lit. Have them come up with the cool stuff they imagine their character being able to do and then point them to the spells that would have those effects.

Suggest that this is an organization problem, not a choice problem

Suggest that they use spell cards, bought or homemade. Or they can create a spreadsheet or whatever method works for them to be able to learn the spell options that are available to them. Ask them how they would plan for a big trip and then suggest that they apply that to their spell choices.

The thing that is different from role playing than most games is that players have more responsibility to "know" their part. New players often times have to have this pointed out to them. It's easier in board games to rely on someone else knowing the entire rule set.

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    \$\begingroup\$ fantastic answer - the very idea that you'd pick the wrong spell is annoying at best \$\endgroup\$ – Jim B Jan 10 '18 at 20:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a note: getting rid of the idea of a "wrong" choice will simply change the adjective "wrong" to "inefficient", which essentially leaves the player in the same place. The players describing it as "wrong" are just a simplification for describing the problem. At least, that's my experience since I sometimes experience choice paralysis and can spend a ridiculous amount of time making up my mind. \$\endgroup\$ – Ellesedil Jan 10 '18 at 23:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "A spellcaster's spells should flavor who the character is and how their magic manifests itself." I'd advocate picking spells that it seems like my PC should know/learn over spells that seem powerful/useful. If I'll need a steady supply of pine cones in order to hurl my less effective flaming projectiles then so be it. The important thing is that they're multi-coloured. \$\endgroup\$ – Brent Hackers Jan 11 '18 at 10:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mark One can to some extent alleviate that with a strategy from the Amber DRPG: as GM whatever spells your characters choose signify their characters' interests in the context of the greater campaign, and your campaign is designed to fit those interests. If someone takes Illusory Script that's a vote towards intrigues and secrets and note-passing, just the same as if they get proficient in Deception or Investigation or such. \$\endgroup\$ – CR Drost Jan 11 '18 at 15:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mark - Personally I've never played a spellcaster where my spell list was perfect for every situation during a campaign. This is true of any class, melee fighters tend to be inefficient during ranged combat. But you don't tell your sword wielding gladiator that he has to be an archer instead, unless you know that ranged combat is going to figure heavily in your campaign. The OP stated that the spellcasters had asked how often they would do certain things and his answer was "it depends on where you take the story." This tells me that from the DM's pov everything is up for grabs. \$\endgroup\$ – crunchykids Jan 11 '18 at 20:09
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In my experience you use the below options (At the same time)

1. Away from the table - Guides, and guidance

This probably only appeals to a certain type of player, but honestly if people are thinking enough to cause this kind of confusion but not willing to put in the effort to fix the problem themselves then I am not sure there is much hope for them.

Send them out to Google (Other search engines are available) to search for class guides. Most that I have found come with a list of recommended spells.

Once they have the list of spells - talk to them.

Tell them what you expect them to do / encounter in the early part of the campaign so that they can tailor that smaller number of recommended spells to your campaign. Maybe even outright tell them which would be most useful once they present you with the guided shortlist.

Examples: If you are a lenient DM tell them that Illusion and Charm spells are awesome. If you plan on more combat than anything else tell them directly that out of combat spells have no place. If they are fighting invisible creatures let them know so they can pick the right counter spells.

2. At the table - Don't lock people in

What causes this issue is the fear of making the wrong selection. Remove this fear. You will know your audience better than anyone here but the following are options:

  1. Let them pick more than the allowed spells and lock them in as they pick one to cast

  2. Let them pick the right amount of spells but allow change every - for example every short rest / every turn / whenever they buy the group pizza

Additional notes

Option 1 above puts a bit of knowledge into the players hands, you tell them that you will help sort through the spells, but there is no discussion allowed at the table. They make the decision before the next session. Option 2 allows them to change easily at the table but if they can't decide quickly then they don't get to change.

I suffer from this issue myself and for my campaign have spent pretty much every spare hour over the last month pouring over my options and coming up with plans A-Z so that I know what to do with each of my choices. I expect the burden to be on me and it is not up to you as a GM to fix this for the player. Give them info, let them make their choice. Just don't punish them if they get it wrong.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Class guides have helped me out a lot when looking into new character content. I tend to go with what's recommended for the particular role I'm interested in, particularly if the guide provides character templates. And then I'll swap things in and out as appropriate based on my ongoing experiences. A flexible DM that invested in ensuring everyone enjoys themselves helps a lot here. \$\endgroup\$ – Ellesedil Jan 10 '18 at 23:57
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Explain that agency doesn't come from skill selection

It's a very easy trap for new players to get stuck in - to think that their skills (spells included) are the "things I can do" and the "things which make me unique". From this, it then becomes a terrifying prospect that you have to choose your playstyle, and as such your in-game effectiveness, from a list of relatively diverse skills and spells. In many ways, it's players being scared that without picking the correct skills, they will have no agency in your campaign.

But we all know this is not how DnD plays.

Explaining to your players that their base character, as a humanoid that can think and speak, is the bread and butter of a session is vital. They need to understand that skills/spells are just additional bits of flare that may help get them out of a jam, or occasionally be fun - the majority of success they will achieve comes from their character's personal interactions and process of problem solving. Remind your players that in real-life they are non-magical humans, but are still capable of having a very direct agency on their lives.

There are no winners

Beyond this, make sure they understand there is no way to win DnD. Existing in the universe you've created as a DM is the fun - whether they fail every quest they are sent on, are always near bankrupt or anything else player's tend to feel is a "bad outcome". Making them realise they can have as much fun at level 1 as level 20, and that there is no measure of success they need to compare themselves to - will hopefully alleviate some of their stresses about choosing "wrong" and making mistakes in general.

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Conduct an interview

Sit down with the player off-table and see why they chose that character and what they want to do in-game. Here are some starter interview questions:

  • What would you like to accomplish with this characters?
  • Who is your role-model?
  • If you had one spell you could cast in real life, what would it be?
  • How do you see your character progressing?
  • We already have characters X and Y, where do you see yourself fitting in?
  • The campaign will be facing a "town setting/dungeon/mystery/cave exploration" to start with? How would your character contribute to this quest?

You get the idea.

Once you as a DM know what they want to do, give them a list of spell. You know what they will be up against so make the choices appropriate.

For instance, if they want to be a battle wizard, but your adventure is a mystery, use the cantrips as damage spells (they can be cast repeatedly and are not wasted) and detection and identification spells as the 1st-level (they will feel like they contributed by having just the right spell).

The key is, they have an idea of what they want, but you know what is needed for the adventure. Use this knowledge to ensure they have a good experience, can play out the role they want, and feel useful.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm guessing that, in the circumstances, the answers to questions 1, 2 and 4 will be "Seriously, I have no clue: I'm completely new to this and I don't even know what the options are." \$\endgroup\$ – David Richerby Jan 11 '18 at 14:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidRicherby, even with no experience in playing the game, most people will at least have a concept of swords and sorcery; King Author and Merlin legends, The Hobbit books, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, any number of D&D inspired movies, TV shows, books, and/or video games. As for question 5, you don't need call the existing characters by their actual class name. You can just use the trope version: "We have a muscle-bound fighter, a sneaky cat burglar, and a charming minstrel that's good with a sword. How do you think you can help this team succeed?" Even an "I don't know." can help the DM. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Jan 11 '18 at 17:14
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Focus on Theme

5e is pretty cool because you can make a fairly effective character by focusing on almost any theme. It may not be exactly top-tier optimization for their class, but if they're as new as you describe they won't know that. Additionally, focusing on a theme makes for stronger and more interesting characters.

For example, one of your characters is a Sorcerer. As a Sorc they'd start out with 2 first-level spells and 4 cantrips. If they choose an elemental destruction focus, they could pick up burning hands and ice knife, along with firebolt, ray of frost, gust, and mold earth. That may not be the perfectly optimized build, but it has some solid damage, control, and utility to it - it's plenty good enough to have fun.

Other potential themes off the top of my head:

  • Arcane: Prestidigitation, mage hand, chromatic orb, magic missile
  • Light: light, dancing lights, minor illusion, color spray, chromatic orb.
  • Enchantment: Friends, minor illusion, message, charm person, sleep.
  • Illusion: Minor illusion, disguise self, silent image
  • Necromancy: Chill touch, frostbite, poison spray, ray of sickness

All of the above could make a compelling playstyle, with different strengths and weaknesses. Obviously the elemental destruction focus will deal more damage and have less social utility than the enchantment focus, but that follows the flavor of each respective theme.

If they focus on want kind of magic fits the character in mind, they'll build a character with spells that fit the kind of playstyle they want. This should help the spell paralysis significantly, as once they decide they want to build (for example) a character with a focus on ice, water, and air magic, their choices become much more apparent. Even if they still have a hard time deciding, the list of spells that fit is much smaller.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I second this - I've used it successfully in the past for my own analysis paralysis, and some others have had success as well. It works much better if the player in question values role-playing aspects over raw mechanical power. \$\endgroup\$ – Logan Pickup Jan 11 '18 at 7:54
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Why delay the game?

At this point, from your description, it sounds like there's been plenty of time for people to make their character concept and get feedback from you. I don't see what would be gained by delaying things more, and it probably wouldn't actually accomplish reducing their anxiety about the spell-choosing process.

I would propose that you set a time limit, and force them to have a spell list by the start of each session of your game. If they don't have one, then they have to use a spell list that you have already selected.

Where do you get "default" spell lists?

What worked very well when my family and I were starting to play a few months ago is that we started with the Pregenerated Characters. The spellcasters there have reasonable "default" choices. Even though your players may not have any interest in using pregenerated characters, I find it really useful to reference them to figure out what a "normal" safe character build is. I'd suggest pointing your players toward them if they haven't seen them already so they know what a typical spell selection is, and use it as your baseline for the list of spells you select in case they don't have their own selection done in time for the session.

Let them change it before each session

As they get experience with the game, allow them to swap out spells as desired, as long as they have their new spell list selected by the start of the session. (I believe that Adventurer's League allows for rebuilding characters up through fourth level, that seems as reasonable a cut-off line as any to establish if you don't want to leave rebuilding characters to be completely open-ended.)

For our family's party, we've changed around a lot about our characters, particularly in terms of what spells they have selected and the Wizard's school of magic, from the pregenerated characters we've started with. Once players have more of a handle on how the game works, they start to understand what all these numbers and abilities actually mean, and start to figure out what their character wants to do.

Encourage your players

Starting with character creation in a game like D&D is really overwhelming, and really not the way I'd suggest to get people "hooked" on the game. (Though, the fact that they've expressed so much interest and want to look through all the options is really a good sign, that they're engaged with the idea of the game.) Think about any time you've learned a new board game from an experienced player. Likely they just gave you a quick overview and started playing with you teaching as they went, rather than having you read through the whole rulebook ahead of time. Playing a game is the best way to see how it actually works.

Encourage your players that they're going to have fun regardless of the selection. Make sure that they know that they only need commit to a decision for a session at a time (and that if mid-session they decide they really made a mistake, you'll allow them to fix it). They'll get over the anxiety eventually once they see how much fun they're having with the spells they were "stuck" with.

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Tell them how the adventure starts

If you've given the basic D&D explanation of "You play a guy in a story and you can do whatever you want" then a lot of their paralysis is probably coming from "Oh no anything could happen, I need to prepare for everything".

From experience with new players, the second best option to deal with this (the best one being to give them a predefined list, but I don't think that's what you're looking for) is to narrow down how much of "anything" might happen by telling them how the adventure starts. That'll give them a good idea of what will be useful and what will not.

For example, if you say "The first adventure will be hunting down and killing some Goblins that were raiding a village" they will pick very different spells from "The first adventure will be sneaking into a Dragon's lair to steal an artefact", which again will be very different from "The first adventure will be convincing some nobles to band together".

All the spells in the book are useful, but none are useful in every situation. Right now, your players fear it might be any of these and that if they pick the wrong spells they will be useless. If they know roughly which of these they will actually be doing, then narrowing down gets a lot easier.

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Personally, from my own experience, I would ask the players what kind of spells a player would want to use, and what kind of spellcaster they want to be. When I was helping one of the players from my current campaign create his character, one of the first things he said was that he wanted to be a necromancer. I told him to be a wizard, since the 'School of Necromancy' becomes available at 2nd level. Additionally, I assisted him in choosing first level spells and cantrips that helped to reflect his characters' backstory and the kind of wizard he would like to be.

I recommend asking the players about their characters' backstories to see what background they come from and what spells they are likely to use. For example, one play may wish to be a "fire wizard", and another may try to focus his magic around poison.

Another tip I can give is to let them make mistakes. One of the first rules of DMing is never telling a player "no, you can't do that" (unless they try to do something totally outlandish). Work the stories around their spell choices, don't try to make them work their spell choices around the story, at least not at first.

Tell them they should try to work around an archetype or trope at first, such as "the healer". This could get them used to the idea of spellcasting, and what spell to use in certain situations.

Additionally, you can make use of spell cards, if you do not already. Whether you want to buy them or write them on standard notecards is up to you, but it may be helpful for the players to have their spells in front of them.

The last piece of advice I can give you is to run your players through short simulations, or give them examples of when to use a given spell. Simulations can help give the players more confidence for using a given spell.

Perhaps instruct the bard to be the person who buffs other players, and have the sorcerer be a more offensive spellcaster.

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You pick, initially.

Sit down alone and pick their spells for them, spells that you feel will be useful for them and that represents a few different types of spells/situations.
Tell them that these are the spells they will have initially and later on they can get to chose their own spells, but not yet (unless they have something they really, really want, then you just remove one of their other spells in lieu of the one they're in love with).

This will probably go over just fine, as you're removing the stress from them and they know that you're willing to let them pick if they really want to.

Back when I was younger, playing with a group of very new players where many of the others would have made a mess of choosing their own spells, our GM simply asked which direction we wanted to take our characters in, then assigned spells to us all. It worked wonderfully and even though I more or less knew the spells in the game by heart, I really didn't mind, since he gave me what I really needed.

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This idea comes from board gaming, more or less, but might be applicable here:

Iron Chef spell casting.

Don't make your novice spell caster agonize endlessly over the right spells to prepare -- put a curse on them (or have them carelessly pick up an ego artifact) that picks their spells for them. Over the course of the few sessions it takes to clear the curse, they will play through all the spells in their repertoire a few times -- if you're in a jam and the only spell you've got left is Levitate, you might find it can accomplish more than you gave it credit for.

(You'll probably need to tone down the encounters to account for the unusual spell choices.)

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I'm facing a similar problem with a new group of players. I offered some suggestions and let them know that if they wanted to pick things that were completely different, that was fine. I made sure that everyone knew that they couldn't make a "wrong" choice. I'm planning to make sure that whatever spells/abilities they pick, they will have a chance to be useful. I'm fully prepared to make lots of changes on the fly to accommodate whatever they decide to go with up until level 5, where we will all review, and they can rebuild characters entirely, or make any changes that they want. (The option to rebuild if desired at level 5 was massively helpful)

As for delaying a week, my approach there is to point out that instead of delaying a week to pick spells, we can just play that week so that they know (in practice instead of theory) if they like the spells. I set a time limit, and let them know that if they hadn't picked spells by the time we started, I would pick for them, and they could change them later.

The main idea I tried to get across to them was "pick what seems awesome, and we will make it work". This is what I did as DM, which is the same that that a DM did for me when I started 5e and had the same problem.

Hopefully something in here is useful to you unique circumstances.

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Player First Decisions

Let your players know that their spell selection allows them as players to tell you as a gm what kind of game they want to play. If a player has chosen a "wrong" spell it is your duty as a gm to understand what that player is telling you and at some point provide an appropriate challenge which may be overcome using the "wrong" spell. This all comes down to having and building trust with the players.

This doesn't mean you should only challenge them with problems for which they are obviously prepared but that moment when the "wrong" spell used creatively is actually the "perfect" spell will be something they will remember.

More Work For You

As a part of this advice, your players are responsible for committing to a choice with adequate time before a session. You are then responsible for looking at their choices coming up with appropriate challenges for those choices.

Try to come up short descriptions of scenarios based on this homework that you can throw into an adventure at some point which will specifically challenge a choice. For more on this see, Running With Bangs.

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While the players might be paralyzed by the available choices, the characters shouldn't be. Separate player knowledge from character knowledge!

There is no reason why the answer to this question should be any different from the answer to the other question. As I suggested in the accepted answer there, this is exactly the type of situation that knowledge checks are tailor made to address. While the player may have no frame of reference for determining what types of spells will probably be useful during any given adventuring day, the character most certainly does.

As the DM, it is your responsibility to fill in the gaps between character knowledge and player knowledge. The way that I would handle this situation is I would generate three lists dividing the spells currently available to the characters from the Player's Handbook into three tiers.

NOTE: This is very subjective! You need to use your experience and judgment here! Your lists might not match mine, and that's okay!

  • Tier 1 spells are almost always useful in your world for characters of that level to have prepared (Shield/Mage Armor, Detect Magic, Command, Magic Missile, Cure Wounds/Healing Word, etc).
  • Tier 2 spells are more situational, but still extremely useful when those situations arise (Comprehend Languages, Goodberry, Entangle, Identify, Sleep, Speak With Animals, etc).

  • Tier 3 spells are very situational, but provide good flavor to round out the character's initial spell list (Purify Food and Drink, Illusory Script, Disguise Self, Detect Evil and Good, Unseen Servant, etc).

For every spell that a character needs to choose, have them roll an ability check using whatever attribute they use for their spellcasting. If they get a natural 20, give them a spell you know with absolute certainty will be useful (since you know what challenges lie ahead of them). Otherwise, give them a tier 1 spell for beating a Hard DC (20), a tier 2 spell for beating a Medium DC (15), or a tier 3 spell for beating an Easy DC (10).

This process represents the experience that their characters have up to this point in their adventuring careers. Once an initial list has been assembled, they can use the other strategies to refine and customize their spell lists to better suit their needs and play style as the campaign continues based upon their experience as players.

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I was just going to post a comment, but figured this might get a little lengthy. I'm hoping the extreme level of paralysis you've described is at least a little hyperbolic, but regardless, committing to one of many unknown options can be intimidating. Here are a couple of thoughts:

One thing I'd do for my players is to assure them that none of the spells is useless. Sure, those of us who play know that we use some less often than others, but every spell has a purpose. It can even be fun to try to find creative ways to use a spell that doesn't quite fit. Personally, I believe that one responsibility of a good DM is to adapt the game to the players (and their characters) to make sure everyone has a good time, no matter what they've chosen.

Even for an experienced player, it can be helpful to know your DM's game style -- will players be doing pure hack & slash and need only offensive spells, or will they be focused more on RP and puzzle-solving, in which case other spells may be important? It's helpful to make sure that your players understand how the spells will work in the context of your game.

The idea of providing simple descriptions (see Shem's answer) is also helpful for new players (especially if you can put it into terms from other games they're familiar with, e.g. MMOs). Beyond that, sitting down with new players and going over the RAW and making sure they understand the terminology and what the rules mean can be helpful -- decisions are most frightening when you don't really understand what you're deciding between.

I think if I were in this position, I'd run a little intro game. One long gaming session or a couple of short ones could help players get acquainted with rules (even beyond spell choice for your casters), determine which tools (spells) appeal to them, and can also help them to establish their characters' personalities, backstories, etc. and how they'll be playing those characters. They can also learn how you run your game, and as DM, you might also learn a little bit about what your players will need from you to get the most of the gaming sessions. Tell your players that you'll "reset" their characters after the session so nothing (good or bad) is permanent and this is totally separate from the game you intend to run. Let them make mistakes (including spell choice) and then give them an opportunity to change their characters before starting your "real" game.

Finally, don't let this paralysis keep you from gaming. Even if you have to set a hard deadline, just make the players choose SOMETHING so you can move on. There's no sense letting a group that's ready to play lose interest to boredom!

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As the DM, it is incumbent on you to design the campaign around the characters in your group. As a result, you're going to design the campaign in such a way that your players will have opportunities to use the spells they selected but won't run into many situations that penalize them for not having the spells they didn't pick.

I'm sure you know that, but your players probably don't. If you let them know this and assure them they can pick out spells based just on what they think would be the most fun, it might take pressure off of them to make the "right" decisions.

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Practical advice

Plenty of decent answers here already, and one that almost hits all the right notes for me, but I'd like to offer what has worked for my groups without fail and has made them more and more confident as games/campaigns go on.

Choosing spells to begin with

Don't let them dwell on it. You can give them basic pointers from your own experience, or just describe how they could use some of the spells (keep it brief!) and see if any of that catches their eye. You can also suggest archetypes that might appeal to them like elemental builds, themed builds, etc. Just be encouraging and gently nudge them in a direction if they seem interested, and emphasize that it isn't a commitment (I'll get to that in a moment).

In game

Keep a cheat sheet of what they picked, and as you're going through a session, hint at possible uses for their spells. Get creative with it wherever you can, the idea is to get their mind wrapped around how to think about spellcasting and that it's not just a hammer for a specific nail. Lightning bolt? Set things on fire! Electrify something! Intimidate people! Power a device! Lure enemies into water and hit them all at once! Be creative in your suggestions so they don't just see it as a "thing that does electrical damage". Hopefully they'll start surprising you with their creativity.

After the game

Check in with them to see if they thought it was a good choice. Did they like it, or are they regretting not having chosen something else? Maybe let them swap out once if they're really bummed out.

Going forward

Here's the real incentive that has made both newbies and veterans alike very happy in my groups. Set a level, from the beginning, where everyone gets a chance to redesign their character. If they hate their class, or their spells, or maybe even their gear, they've got one shot (maybe at level 5 or whatever you deem acceptable) to just fix it all the way they want. By this time they've hopefully gotten a feel for what they like and don't like, and have seen other players explore their areas as well, so they'll be more confident in committing to a spec.

From my experience that's all it takes to get newbies comfortable, and provide veterans with the chance to try things that would otherwise make them nervous. If your group is still wishy-washy, you can add another chance to respec or smaller checkpoints to rework their spells/skills. You just have to feel it out. Keep it casual and friendly, and communicate often. Open dialog will go a very long way to keeping your players happy and engaged, and will mitigate all that uncertainty and paralysis.

Unless you're playing hardcore, but then you have a different problem all together.

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A new campaign you say? Why not

Start at Level 1

The number of spell choices available at first level are inherently restricted. Often a big part of AP is having too many choices.

Options to change

Let the know they don't have to worry too much about picking "the wrong spells" because they'll be able to make some changes as they level up. Most classes have some form of "retraining" and you could even house rule that at 2nd level they can do extra spell switching. Maybe also let the swap any unused spells for different ones each session.

Give a little Guidance

Maybe make a few suggestions (or even just tell them) a spell or two they know. Especially for cantrips I might say something like, "Okay, when you were an apprentice, your Master taught you Prestidigitation and ... would you rather Acid, Fire or Ice? Okay Acid Splash then, and in your spare time you learned one more cantrip, which was it?"

Print out Spell Cards

Print out little cards with the descriptions of all the spells they know/can cast before the game.

A delay is a delay in game

If all else fails and they can't decide what to do then they are holding their action. After a reasonable amount of time bump them down a spot in initiative order and go to the next player. When they figure out what the want to cast they can jump back into the initiative order at that point. In general any action is better than no action, and learning to think about what they're going to do before the start of their turn will also help.

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Collaborate with your players

As other answers have pointed out, there are few "wrong" answers for spells, but there are spells that might not get used as often as others. This list of "wrong" spells depends entirely on the context of your game. If you're running a high-class political campaign, maybe a damage dealing wizard isn't that useful. Or vice versa, if you're a dungeon-delving campaign a wizard designed to trick people and persuade others wont be as effective. The list of useful spells is entirely dependent on your campaign, so work together to create a campaign idea and a character that fit nicely together.

Session Zero, Kind of

This is an issue of conflicting expectations, and you can solve this pretty easily. Session 0 is a popular, effective tool for campaigns. Before you start, you should all figure out what kind of campaign you want to play. But barring that, you can have a meeting to help them build their character.

Rather than remove the choice from them by giving them a list of spells, help them understand what spells are useful for what in a broad sense. Do this by having an interview with them, maybe as long as an hour, to go through the spell list. This is a problem to solve all it's own, so I would encourage you to be prepared for this aspect of the solution. But, the important thing is that you find out what type of character they want to play AND what type of campaign you want to run. DnD is a highly collaborative experience, so letting your players get in on this action as early as possible is important. If they seem drawn to ritual spells, things that shape reality, or generally don't deal damage, then you should work together to run a campaign that is suited to this. Or perhaps your campaign is already good to go, and you want them to adapt to what you're running. This is fine, help them understand why some spells might be more useful than others. This should have a two-fold effect of being both pragmatic and alleviating. They will have a spell list they can work with and they will feel better about their choices knowing their DM has their back.

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Scrolls.

I'm not sure if this applies to 5e, but in earlier versions it was easy to make scrolls of your spells and carry them around. I would bring Scrolls of spells that were useful on limited occasions, like Gaze Reflection.

Let the characters buy or create scrolls, and this would increase the number of spells they can choose from when the trouble starts.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Seems to make the problem in the question worse, not better: "I've already told them if they really hate their spells we can discussing swapping them later. This has had zero impact on their paralysis. If anything, it's made it worse because now spells that they previously (reluctantly) dismissed as undesirable are now contenders again." \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Jan 11 '18 at 3:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the problem is that, in the fight, they don't know which of their prepared spells to cast, then maybe you're right. But if the problem is that, at the start of the game, they don't know which spells to have prepared, then my solution will help. When are they paralzyed: At character creation, at character prep, or when they actually have to cast spells? \$\endgroup\$ – Shawn V. Wilson Jan 11 '18 at 4:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question is talking about character creation (presumably for sorcerers or the like), but explains that an attempt to use similar logic has previously backfired. (If you have a working way to convince people who have had this difficulty that it doesn't matter, feel free to edit that in, but it's not enough to convince me, or even the OP, that scrolls could solve the mechanical problem of having the wrong spells. Rather, the argument needs to convince the players that they don't need to worry, which has previously been difficult to manage.) \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Jan 11 '18 at 4:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Shawn, beyond @TuggyNE's well made point, the scrolls solution does not fit this edition quite the way it might in another edition. Magical items are somewhat rarer in this edition; first and second level characters have very few money resources to spend on something as expensive as scrolls. (Making scrolls part of early treasures/rewards does make sense, though, from the point of view of introducing spells to characters). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 11 '18 at 13:49

protected by Oblivious Sage Apr 30 at 18:42

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