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(Note: I feel that this question is sufficiently different from this one to justify a new post, as my question is about specific information informing Wizard spell preparation)

(Additional note: These same issues may be similarly relevant for other preparation casters. I chose to focus on Wizards because of my personal experiences as a player, my current needs as a DM, and the flexibility in access to spells that is unique to Wizards.

Please feel free to address this question for any preparation caster; Wizards simply have more opportunity to make "bad" choices in preparing spells due to their large spell list and greater number of spells known, while also having one of their key features be their versatility in what spells they can bring to a challenge)


One of the major class-balancing elements of the Wizard class is that they are only able to prepare a certain number of spells at a time. Among all magic using classes, wizards have access to the largest number of spells that they can learn, which makes them extremely versatile, but that versatility is tempered because they can only prepare a subset of those spells at any given time.

This can be very exciting-- it adds a degree of planning, creativity, coordination, and tension to playing a wizard. It is also valuable in that it helps prevent the wizard from overshadowing other spellcasters with less expansive spell lists.

However, it can also be frustrating, particularly at lower levels when fewer spells can be prepared at once. It's difficult to choose which spells to prepare if you don't have any idea what challenges you'll be facing, and even if you do have some information about that there may not be enough time to change which spells are prepared beforehand. It can be annoying to be completely mis-prepared for challenges.

Sometimes that's appropriate: surprises do happen, narrow windows of opportunity may appear, and being maximally appropriately prepared for every encounter is not a realistic goal. Often there will be a middle ground, such as knowing you'll be exploring an area rumored to be filled with undead enemies and so it might be a good idea to have spells that are useful against the undead.

But it's not much fun to only rarely be able to use spells that you've learned specifically to deal with situations in which you find yourself because you didn't (whether or not you couldn't) know anything about what you're walking into. Using magic to solve problems is largely what the Wizard class is about.

This has frustrated me as a player, and I'm having trouble balancing those concerns in a game I'm running now. If my approach to the issue is fundamentally that:

  • Surprising encounters can happen, particularly if my players drive those events
  • Events which are known in advance may not offer enough time to swap out prepared spells before dealing with them
  • Gathering advance knowledge about upcoming challenges won't always be equally possible or reliable
  • Obtained knowledge about future challenges shouldn't be a how-to guide on min-maxing those challenges
  • I don't want to do away with the preparation mechanic
  • I don't want to elide the issue by providing abundant spell scrolls or similar items

My experiences playing a wizard have been plagued by this issue, often leading me to wish I'd just chosen a different class. I'd like to spare my players that irritation if I can.

How can I telegraph enough information to a player with a preparation caster character (especially at lower levels) that they can avoid being totally mis-prepared, and how often should I do so?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 20 '20 at 1:54
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Every class can suffer from FOMO 1

They brought the wrong tool, memorized the wrong spell, took they wrong skill proficiency, didn't have enough ball bearings.

Preparing spells is no different. Every morning when the character wakes up they need to make choices about how to prepare for the day--What spells to prepare (if they even get a choice!2), what weapons to have ready, what supplies to bring, and what clothes to wear.

This is the same for you and me! You get up in the morning and have to decide what clothes to wear, what books/supplies you need to bring to your school/job, whether or not to carry a pocket of change or just a credit card, whether to carry a pocket knife with you, and so on.

Why do you feel this is unjust for Wizards alone?

Let's examine some of your thinking:

One of the major class-balancing elements of the Wizard class is that they are only able to prepare a certain number of spells at a time.

While true to a degree, all spell casters face this; they can only have access to a limited set of spells per day. Usually that limit is based on the character level plus their spell casting stat modifier. So number of prepared spells is not unique nor that class-balancing.

I see the major class-balancing elements are the lack of hit points and armor/weapon proficiency. Wizards (and sorcerers) have the lowest hit die (1d6) of all the classes. They also have no armor proficiencies (neither do monks, but they have a built-in feature to overcome that). So spell versatility is part of their survival.

Remember, Wizards also get the "Ritual Casting" feature. But unlike all the other classes, these are spells they can cast without preparation--effectively giving Wizards even more spells they can cast above their normal limit of prepared spells.

However, it can also be frustrating, particularly at lower levels when fewer spells can be prepared at once.

Yes, you have fewer spells prepared at lower levels - because you're a lower level. Not because you're a Wizard.

Among all magic using classes, wizards have access to the largest number of spells that they can learn, which makes them extremely versatile, but that versatility is tempered because they can only prepare a subset of those spells at any given time.

This is kind of a misconception. Wizards have guaranteed access to 44 spells, not counting cantrips; 6 at 1st level, and 2 each for level 2nd through 20th. There in nothing in the rules that state the wizard will ever find another spellbook, a random scroll, or a friendly wizard willing to share. They may be stuck with only the spells allowed at level up.

Now counter this with Clerics and Druids. Both get unfettered access to over 100 spells; there is no research, no copying, no limit other than asking for them.

But just like Wizards, they can only prepare a subset of all those spells. Based on these numbers, Clerics are Druids are much worse off because they can only prepare smaller ratio per day.

And I feel I should shout out to all the other spell casting classes that can only change spells when they level up; so 19 (or less with multi-classing) chances to get just the right mix of spells that will have to carry them their entire career.

Telegraphing

Do you need to telegraph what is going to happen? To me, this borders on railroading.

DM: "Tomorrow, you'll need to investigate the docks."
P1: "Guess that means we should prepare Water Breathing..."

And even if you're that blunt about it, players still have free will and may decide to spend the day at the tavern with their characters talking to locals. Players will do as they want. You can drop hints which can be used or ignored. They may come up with a completely different method to solve the problem.

DM: "The mayor wants you to investigate why ships are disappearing around Shipwreck Cove."
P1: "I'm going to prepare Zone of Truth to interrogate the Harbor Master."
P2: "I'll use Commune and Scrying to see what I can learn about the area."
P3: "I'll head to the library to do research."
P4: "I'm going to go meddle with Old Man Johnson at the old Saw Mill. He always dresses up as a monster to scare people to get away with something."

So just play the game. The players make choices for their characters; sometimes for the better, sometimes meaning they need to improvise. That's part of the fun!

Here's an example from one of my games: The party was going to a fancy party in a castle where they suspected the food to be tainted (not poisoned so no way "unpoison" anything). Our Cleric prepared "Create Food and Water" so the party could swap out the bad food for good. But before dinner was served, the jig was up and the party was on the run to escape the castle. The quick thinking Cleric summoned 45 pounds of fish in a narrow corridor. It stopped the hounds in their tracks and made a slippery blockage for the pursuing guards.

Just because you "think" you prepared the wrong spell, doesn't mean it can't be used creatively.

What you can do as a spell caster (not just Wizards)?

For all my spell casters, I create a spreadsheet detailing their spells per level (including cantrips). Then the list of prepared spells are broken up into different categories:

  • Attack (Melee)
  • Attack (Range)
  • Attack (Saving Throw)
  • Area of Effect
  • Buff
  • Debuff
  • Healing
  • Defense
  • Movement
  • Social
  • Utility
  • Multipurpose

The first time I did this I was amazed how some of my casters were overloaded in one section and blank in another. I suggest doing a similar look at your Wizard (and any other spell casters) and see if maybe it's not a matter of choosing the wrong spell, but choosing too many of one style of spell. Feel free to add or remove categories as you see fit.

Now with this knowledge, you're better prepared for more situations. You also have a clear idea of when you need to swap in a specialized spell, where you drop one (instead of two AOE spells, prepare one and use the other slot for your special purpose).


1 FOMO = Fear Of Missing Out

2 As I mentioned in a comment, Warlocks and Sorcerers can only choose what spells to "prepare" once per level? They can't change spells over night even if they know about something days in advance. Wizards get at least two spells per level they can switch off as needed. And within those spells, some can be ritual so they don't even need to prepare them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also worth mentioning that if your players don't know what they are doing the next day they are not doing their job, they should be planning and investigating. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    May 19 '20 at 20:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your answer. I've edited the question to include other preparation casters as well, and also tried to emphasize that the ability to switch spells every day (and therefore be better prepared for specific challenges) is a meaningful part of a wizard's unique role as a class. \$\endgroup\$
    – Upper_Case
    May 19 '20 at 20:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree with the premise that choosing daily resources (prepared spells, gear) is no different from choosing permanent resources (known spells, skills). Preparation casters need the current situation information to choose. Non-prep casters need campaign/world information, or DM may even adapt the campaign to match Bard/Sorcerer/Warlock spell selection (like, planar travel or no). \$\endgroup\$ Mar 19 at 12:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WakiNadiVellir, I never said they were the same. In fact, I call out the fact that those spell casters that can chose every morning have it easier compared to those that can only change during a level up of that class. I only mention things like skills to point out that this is a game of choices; some are in the heat of the moment, some can be changed daily, and some are on your permanent record. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Mar 19 at 18:51

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