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So the common consensus seems to be that spell slots and the restrictions that come with them are an in-universe truth that characters are aware of, to varying degrees. But that implies a few strange things about wizards, right?

If I'm an archmage, a high-level evil wizard or something along those lines, there's no way I'd ever use anything beyond cantrips in my day-to-day life, right? If I did, I'd risk getting ambushed while only having access to like half my slots.

So do I ration my spells throughout the day? Seems weird, considering an archmage is supposed to be close to the pinnacle of arcane power and all. And if I do ration my spells, or stick to cantrips, that means there is, for like 90% of the day, very little difference between an in-universe Lvl 3 Wizard and a Lvl 20 Wizard, right?

Obviously I know that this is because the game doesn't simulate actual life with routines and downtimes and all and focuses on a few events per day - but an NPC wizard has a whole day to get through outside of those big events, which are probably really rare besides, and it bothers me and hampers my worldbuilding if I can't get a clear picture of what life is supposed to be like for the people actually living in it.

I don't know if the scope of the question is a bit too vague, but basically what I'm asking is: how does the spell slot restriction affect the daily routine of a wizard in-universe? Do they just use spells when they feel like it and risk getting shanked by a rival who hasn't wasted their spells? Do they ration them out and live on cantrips in the interim? Do they not use them at all in fear of an emergency?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Normal people do indeed need to get through their whole day... but most normal people are not worried about being ambushed all the time either. \$\endgroup\$
    – Izzy
    Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 13:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Izzy sorry if that's unclear, english isn't my first language. By normal people I meant 'normal' as in NPC wizards within the world have a whole day to get through with a very limited amount of spell slots. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sina Kaas
    Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 14:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ You mention world-building, so if this is your own homebrewed world there is probably a lot of socio-economic questions you want to ponder first. Like, how common is magic in your world? How common are wizards specifically, outside of "adventuring" parties? E.g. NPC spellcasters may exist, but may not be "wizards" in the typical class sense (Eberron has "magewrights" for example). If non-adventuring wizards are common enough, how do they even earn money day-to-day? Would their job even require high-level spell slots? Thinking about these questions may allow you to answer yourself. \$\endgroup\$
    – PJRZ
    Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Friendly reminder that answers belong in answers, not in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 16:04

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There are passive ways to protect yourself and convenience yourself in your own 'lair'.

Unlike many PCs, NPCs are not continuously on the move. NPC wizards within their famous towers will have the opportunity to set traps or other fail saves to protect themselves. An example is the spell Glyph of Warding, which can be cast once but will thereafter remain active till dispelled or triggered. The higher level the wizard the more options they will have, like Simulacrum or Clone.

In addition to protective long-lasting spells it is not uncommon for wizards to have followers, like students or evil minions. They can help provide enough safety on a normal day to perhaps warrant using your spells for convenience, or simply make them use their spells for you.

As the DM you are also free to come up with magical devices that help the wizard. A magical cannon to defend the tower, a magical servant that does not require the wizard to use their spells on mundane tasks, or perhaps magical items like a Pearl of Power; a Ring of Spell Storing; or a Shield Guardian to minimize the relative cost of using a spell slot.

All of this is to say an NPC wizard is only as hindered by day-to-day spell usage as you want them to be. Paranoid evil wizards expecting an attack will likely be less willing to use up their spells during the day. But a friendly wizard residing in the middle of a big city will probably be less worried.

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This may matter less than you should think

First, I think in a typical day, there is no need for a wizard to cast a lot of spells. I know that the most my wizard typically casts on downtime days is rituals1, Mage Armor, an Arcane Sanctum2, maybe a Sending, and a couple of Scrying. Not to conserve capacity (although he has plenty of evil enemies), but because there is just no need to cast spells when you are not adventuring. The time is filled with magical research, crafting magic items and transcribing spells. The slots are never touched.

Even for a non-adventuring wizards there are many typical activities that do not involve casting a lot of spells. For example, if they cast Control Weather to help their population with crops, this is just one slot and will take them the whole day. If they craft a scroll or magic item, this requires a single casting per day, and again takes up the entire day, often for weeks on end.

That is not to say that a high-level mage might not find use for casting many spells in the day, for example they might spam scrying, or they might cast spells to help their community3; but it is just one option, they do not have to, to fill their role.

Second, all you really need is Teleport. All they need to manage is to escape, they do not need to battle you when the odds are against them. Dimension Door and Teleport both can do the trick. Get away, and come back for revenge another day, with better support and full preparation. Maybe they want a third level slot too, for Counterspell to force it through against an opposing Counterspell. (If they are in their home base, they might even have a Dimension Door set up in a Contingency).

Third, as Pepijn mentioned, archmages tend to have Clones, typically safely tucked away in a Demiplane nobody can find. Go and off them at your own risk. They will come back a few months later, find out who did that, and come after you. For example, my wizard has beef with Madgoth, an evil archmage (or lich) in Undermountain. I think we could set up an ambush with multiple casters to shut him down with counterspell cover and off him, but even if we manage to, how do we know he has no Clone or Phylactery somewhere, and then will really come after us? Better not mess with him.

In summary, I do not think the spell limit is that relevant for a high level wizard in daily life. Typically, if they are not adventuring, they will not exhaust it meaningfully anyways, and even if they do, they can keep back enough emergency capacity and have fallback security measures to make attacks a stupid move.

P.S. The logic of your question extends to all spell casters, not only archmages -- evil high priests, evil sorcerers etc. pp. are spellcasters, too.


1 For example, identify, alarm, detect magic, comprehend languages, contact other plane all do not consume slots when cast as rituals, and may be useful in non-adventuring day-to-day research and community work.

2 If my wizard was a sit-at-home resident mage, not an adventurer, they would have a permanent arcane sanctum from casting it every day for a year, with no need to even cast that.

3 Including possibly new ones not in the core rules, as the core rules are heavily focused on adventuring.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I somewhat disagree with the first part of this answer. There are lots of reasons to use lots of spells on a daily basis. There are many canon utility spells that would get a lot of use. Fabricate, move earth, and control weather all come to mind as ways a wizard could help a community or earn money fast or even just handle chores. And keep in mind that most published material focuses on adventurers. The implication is that in-universe there are a lot more utility type spells that don't come up for adventurers but would get used in downtime. The rest of the answer is really good. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 18:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman Thank you for the kind words, and the feedback. I added some additional paragraphs to the first section, as I think your point is valid in general. (I think making money with Fabricate or Move Earth might not be needed if you have access to wish to create 25,000 gp each day if you like to, but there are other useful purposes for the slots.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 19:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer still seems to be assuming that the published spells are all that there are, but they are just examples, and specifically catering to what spells a typical adventurer might want. There are probably all sorts of day to day convenience spells worth casting that don't get mentioned in the books \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 19:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri That's not the intention, I do not care what spells we are talking about here. I added it to clarify. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 20:05
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In a single fight, you'll run out of HP before spell slots

If two high level spellcasters get into a fight with each other and start slinging high level spells at each other, one of them is almost guaranteed to drop to zero HP or otherwise lose the fight long before either of them runs out of spell slots. The same is true for a high level spellcaster against a larger number of lesser foes. So you don't need all your spell slots for a single fight, you only need enough to last until the end of the fight. And as an archmage, you can probably force an early end to the fight by walking behind full cover (to prevent a Counterspell) and casting Teleport, or perhaps Dimension Door if you've spent all your high-level spell slots for the day.

This makes sense, of course, because the game is balanced with the intent that your daily allotment of spell slots should last you through multiple encounters in a typical adventuring day. But an archmage getting ambushed isn't adventuring, so they don't need to save any spell slots for later, they just need to win or escape from this one fight.

Reserve enough spell slots for an ambush, spend the rest freely

If the battle lasts 4 rounds (which is a fairly typical length for a fight in D&D 5e), in general the maximum number of spell slots you could spend in those four rounds would be 8 slots (one reaction and one action or bonus action in each round). As a 20th level spellcaster, you have a lot more than 8 spell slots. All the rest of your slots are completely useless for defending yourself during this hypothetical 4-round fight. So you don't lose any security by spending them on everyday tasks (at least not in the specific scenario of being suddenly thrown into a fight).

You might not agree with the exact math above, but the take-home message is this: the action economy of combat imposes a pretty hard limit on how many spell slots you can spend in a single battle. So as an archmage, you make a determination of how many spell slots (and of which level) you think you need to get yourself out of any situation. Then as long as you keep those spell slots ready at all times in case of emergency, you can use the rest for whatever you like.

Be more proactive with your paranoia

Speaking of using your other spell slots, might I suggest spending them scrying on your enemies and otherwise gathering intelligence about those who may wish you harm? The best way to survive an ambush is to know that it's coming and foil it before it begins.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great point -- I recall one wizard duel (not at level 20, but already at level 12) that took a total of three spells. Disintegrate, Counterspell, and Counter-counterspell. Its all about initiative. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 4:29
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An Ounce of Prevention

If your archmage is a high-level caster with time and resources at their disposal, they may already have permanent spell effects in place to save them having to burn spell slots during their day-to-day routine. Several spells have an option to make them permanent by casting them in the same spot repeatedly for some amount of time:

Mighty Fortress in particular has effects that may save your archmage several spell slots per day:

… The keep is furnished and decorated however you like, and it contains sufficient food to serve a nine-course banquet for up to 100 people each day.

A staff of one hundred invisible servants obeys any command given to them by creatures you designate when you cast the spell. Each servant functions as if created by the unseen servant spell.

This would save your archmage having to cast Create Food and Water (if they don't have vassals), Purify Food and Drink (if they're paranoid), Unseen Servant (if they're lazy), or Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion (which has many of the same effects, but is temporary).

Finger of Death (7th level) can create a zombie under your archmage's permanent control. Planar Binding and Mass Suggestion have a duration of 10 days if cast with a 6th level spell slot, up to a duration of a year and a day with a 9th level spell slot. Having a swarm of creatures already under their control would save your archmage having to cast summoning spells like Summon Elemental or Summon Fiend.

Your archmage may have one or more of these spells in effect, and may have discovered additional modes of other spells to make them permanent as well — after all, there's no requirement that your NPCs use only the spells outlined in source books.

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Battles just don’t last that long

You can only cast one (non-cantrip) spell per turn. That means you simply aren’t going to get a lot of chances to cast a spell if you’re attacked, so you won’t blow through all your spell slots in a single fight even if you might want/need to in order to survive it. The book expects adventurers to deal with 6-8 encounters per day!¹ So if you have no expectation of being attacked at all, but ya know are maybe a target of some notoriety and can expect you’ll be attacked sometimes, you still don’t need to reserve all that many spells, because at worst you’ll have one fight (and most days, you won’t even have that). Particularly for archmages, who just don’t have a lot of foes on their level. Reserve a single spell slot of your second-highest spell level or something, and you’ll be able to mop the floor with almost anyone who comes calling.

  1. In my experience, this almost never happens, because that is an absurd figure and we’d go real-world months without a long rest accomplishing that. Looking at published adventures, the answer seems to be including these boring little speed-bump set-pieces to burn a few spell slots, but I don’t know anybody who’s got time to waste on that. Why they chose to balance the game around a number so high, I’ll never know.
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I hope for this partly soft/vague question it might be helpful to get some perspective from a non-5E version of the game. I had basically this same question that I researched in the context of the 1E game and wrote up some findings on my blog:

Obviously it doesn't make sense for wizards to sit around without any martial spells at all, nor would it make for an interesting game. On the other hand, there seems a need for wizards to have some spells usable for things like information-gathering and research, since presumably they are engaged in that most days in their lair, not combat.

So what I did was survey the main adventure path by the O/AD&D creator (Gygax) -- that is, the 1E Temple of Elemental Evil, Against the Giants, and Descent into the Depths of the Earth adventure series -- and tally up the indicated spell load-out by all the NPC wizards in those series. This was categorized in terms of each spell being either offensive, defensive, or miscellaneous (a classification laid out at one point in the 1E DMG).

The overall result was that Gygax was providing these spells to his NPC wizard (magic-user) spellcasters in a ratio of approximately 3-2-1; 3 offensive spells per 2 defensive spells per 1 miscellaneous spell. Or in other words, for every 6 prepared spells, 5 were specifically for combat, and 1 was used for "something else", usually information-gathering of some type (e.g., detect magic, comprehend languages, identify, write, unseen servant, etc.)

This seems compatible with Gygax's explicit assertion in the DMG that threatened spellcasters should almost always respond with some legitimately aggressive combat magic:

So, then, does a threatened cleric cast a know alignment spell upon an aggressor? Or a hold person? Obviously, the latter choice is far more logical in 99% of the cases... (1E AD&D DMG, p. 105)

I think that's sufficiently reasonable that I use that as a basis for fleshing out NPC spellcasters in my O/AD&D games today. The NPC will want to get some "normal" arcane work done daily with about 1/6 of their spells in the miscellaneous category. But it's a dangerous world, and PCs should not be presented with pushover opponents, so they retain 5/6 of their spells as security combat magic just in case they have a bad day.

Consider if that or something similar might be a useful model for your 5E campaign.

On my blog: Gygaxian Magic-User Spell Usage

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    \$\begingroup\$ Dan, your blog is such a wonderful source of great insight, thank you for putting all the time and effort into it! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 9:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin: Thanks so much for saying that! :-D \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 14:33

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