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At level 1, a wizard has a very small amount of hp compared to most classes, and lacks armour proficiencies meaning they must invest in Dexterity as well as constitution to have less AC than most other classes on top of less hp. They can improve their armour class using the Mage Armor spell, but they only get 2 spell slots per day which makes this a rough choice even with the long duration.

What spell choices, tactics, or assistance from party members could be used to help a Wizard in avoiding dying at level 1?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Highly relevant, possible duplicate: How can a low AC support character better survive? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Oct 3, 2022 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Man, I remember when wizards had 4 hp at first level. \$\endgroup\$
    – Exal
    Oct 4, 2022 at 16:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've never known a level 1 Wizard die in 5e. Melee characters are the ones that die, IME. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 16:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Exal Man, I remember when wiza— magic-users had 1d4 hp at first level! \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Oct 4, 2022 at 21:21

4 Answers 4

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There are many tools you can use, but no guarantees

While there is no surefire way to survive the first level, there are several things you can do to increase the odds:

  • Defensive Spells The classical options are mage armor and shield. Yes, you have very limited slots, but these spells still help. Mage armor, depending on your play style, you can also cast in the mornings if you have remaining slots from the prior day, to last you a good while. Expeditious retreat allows you to disengage from melee without the opponent being able to catch up and attack.

  • Information gathering You also use find familiar to scout ahead and avoid being ambushed. An orc is a lot more dangerous, if you are ambushed by them, than if you know where they are and can assault them with your team.

  • Keeping back This is another tried and true tactic, you don't walk in front where the fighters and barbarians are that can soak up more damage in melee and block opponents from getting at you, you hang out in back. That is why sleep and fire bolt are often better than burning hands: they do not require you to get up close and personal.

  • Having friends. Yes, you can go down more easily, but that still gets you at least three rounds to make death saves, if you do not have a cruel DM kicking you when you are down. That is time for your party cleric to stabilize you, or to pick you back up with healing word or cure wounds.

  • Getting OK Con and Dex. As you mentioned, Con and Dex are typically the two secondary stats for Wizard after putting their best effort into Intelligence, for this very reason. They will not help you to get a great AC, but with mage armor and 14 Dex, you are at least respectable for first level. Con also will help you longer term with your Concentration checks.

  • Taking variant human. If you really are super concerned, and want to prioritize survivability over overall power, you can take a variant human which will give you access to an extra feat on level one. You can pick Tough, and get an extra 3 hit points, putting you at 9 to start out with, 11 if you put 13 into Con and one of your Stat increases there, too. That is not that much worse than even the fighters. Alternatively you can take the Lucky feat, to possibly turn some deadly attacks into misses.

  • Roll up a new one when you die. A bit of natural luck can get you there, but there also is the fact that when your character dies, you can make a new one. Make another wizard. One will be lucky enough to survive, or the party will have advanced in level and you will be able to make a higher-level wizard. You will still end up with a wizard, just not the exact same one you started with.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Mage Armor and Sleep are go to 1st level wizard spells for a reason. Remember that Sleep has no save and a decent range, which is pretty awesome for a 1st level spell. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 3, 2022 at 18:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Blade Ward cantrip is also useful for a low level Wizard. Resistance is a big deal, especially at level 1. \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Oct 3, 2022 at 19:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ValhallaGH: Have you seen it used to good effect yourself? It costs your action, so you can't take any other action that round, at most casting a spell as a bonus action. But you probably don't have any of those at level 1. I could see casting it before the party opens a door, but it only lasts 1 round. Once you're fully in combat, in 5e it normally helps more to take enemies off the board with damage or crowd control than spending actions on healing. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5, 2022 at 9:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Mitigation for a big hit you know is coming can help if you get caught in a bad spot I guess, but that should be a rare case; if you can get out of danger with disengage or dash as your Action, that's better than taking half damage with Blade Ward. (Although if someone's going to take the hit, wizard tank with blade ward might be it?). Or Dodge; with low +hit bonuses on enemies appropriate for a 1st level party, even a wizard's AC might be enough to make disadvantage cause some misses. But that's a gamble, even with Mage Armor or Shield, vs. worst case half dmg. Still big opportunity cost. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 5, 2022 at 9:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes I have, in fact. My Wizard used Ray of Frost to draw agro, then used Blade Ward to play off-tank when the melee arrived to stab me for blasting them with freezing rays. Between Blade Ward, Mage Armor, and Shield, a level 1-3 Wizard is a stunningly effective off-tank. \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Oct 5, 2022 at 11:56
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Cover

Using cover is important as a ranged combatant, but doubly so for the ever-squishy wizard. Level 1 is a time when enemies with shortbows tend to show up a lot, and wizards tend to attract incoming fire. Moving into cover at any opportunity will vastly increase the longevity of the wizard.

The Dodge Action

Not often used, the dodge action grants a significant increase to not getting hit, and while it does require your action if the wizard is in a situation where enemies can strike them, they are often better off doing this (and surviving to cast spells on a later round) than to cast a cantrip.

Casting Mage Armor

Although it uses one of their 2+1 spells per day, and the loss of utility compared to a Burning Hands or Thunderwave is painful, that +3 to AC (effectively) is very meaningful when enemies often have low to-hit.

The Disengage Action

Opportunity attacks are often a situation that will cause a wizard to go down. In level 1 fights, it is often better to move away from enemies rather than to stand and fight, for a wizard. Only if you are fairly sure the enemies adjacent to the wizard can be defeated before they can act should the wizard attack rather than flee. This goes triple for any hard-hitting enemy (an orc with a greataxe, say) who could potentially instantly kill the wizard.

Establish a marching order

If more heavily armoured/tougher characters are significantly ahead and behind the wizard, it makes it less likely the wizard will be struck by traps, melee attacks, or be in line of sight of archers. A 15' separation between front marcher, wizard, and then another 15' separation from rear marcher generally will work best given typical trap ranges and line of sight.

Scout using your familiar

The familiar is one of the few things a Wizard has going for them at level 1. Small and often with good traits for scouting, using the familiar to figure out where enemies are will often allow the wizard to avoid painful or fatal ambushes.

Have the familiar keep watch

A familiar keeping an eye out for trouble will potentially spot hidden enemies, especially if it is a familiar with the keen hearing and sight trait, granting it advantage on perception checks. This helps avoid the 'ambush followed by dead wizard' problem, as Surprise is especially deadly for a low hp character.

Prepare Shield

Although if you have already spent 1 spell slot on Mage Armour using shield uses up your entire allotment of spells for the day (pre Arcane Recovery), it's better to survive than to potentially roll an encounter with burning hands. If focused on survival, negating the hit that would knock you out/kill you with Shield is superior to doing damage especially if your party can win the fight regardless.

Move, shoot, then move

Movement can be used both before and after your Action. Nothing stops you stepping around a corner, using Fire bolt, then stepping back around that corner with the rest of your movement. And you should. Most ranged combatants have better armour than you - if anyone should be hiding around a corner sniping at enemies from afar, it is you. Let the people with splint mail and d10 HD attract most of the heat.

Drop Prone

It's often a good idea as a ranged combatant to drop prone, giving enemies disadvantage to hit you with ranged attacks. As a wizard, this can be even more vital, as while a Ranger may wish to move to gain LoS on enemies, or a bard or rogue may end up close to melee and thus be in danger of enemies moving up on them while they are prone, the Wizard with long-range cantrip attacks and low hp and ac is often far more advantaged by hugging some dirt whenever there are arrows in the offing.

Don't be in melee range or line of sight of archers

Dodge, Disengage, and shoot/move/shoot are means to avoid being in melee range or line-of-sight of archers after ending up in that situation, and finding Cover, dropping prone or casting Shield are means to mitigate being the target of ranged or melee attacks. But by far the best way to avoid being hit is to stay away from enemies, ideally at max Fire bolt range where you can assist your allies while remaining as safe as you can from being killed. Marching order, familiar scouting, and familiar keeping watch are all tools to help achieve this state, although they are imperfect and won't ensure it on their own.

Ultimately part of being a wizard at first level is doing your best to be as canny about entering danger as you can. Caution is a very important part of this, as is scouting, trapfinding, and having a party that shares your concerns and will aid you in not getting crit in the face with a greataxe. Simply hanging back at all times could lead to the wizard dying when the party is attacked from behind, likewise sticking close to the fighter might backfire when a pit trap opens up and the fighter toughs it out but the wizard goes down (or even dies). What is most effective will be variable and dependent on situation (and even on skill checks). However the above Actions, ideas, and spells will potentially allow even a disastrous situation to be recovered, and, via hasty beating of feet, the wizard to once again retain some modicum of safety.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @user2754 - looks like I came up with a very similar list as you did yourself. I did not include Disengage and Dodge, but these are useful too. +1 \$\endgroup\$ Oct 3, 2022 at 17:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your answer touches on this, but I would like it to be more clear (you get the upvote regardless): stay away from the fray. Easiest way to not get hit is to be too far away. \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Oct 3, 2022 at 17:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Might be worth adding that Arcane Recovery allows you to recover a spent spell with a short rest...so casting Mage Armor is really only 33% of your daily spell slots. \$\endgroup\$
    – aaron9eee
    Oct 3, 2022 at 23:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you can't find cover, then against ranged attacks, dropping prone is a good option that doesn't cost an action. I actually used this with my wizard at level 1, in our first ever combat. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 1:33
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First: Consider Intelligence your main stat. Dexterity and Constitution are your secondary and tertiary stats, not in that order.

Second: Tier 1 MAGES, not just wizards but all mages, should consider their primary goal of tier 1 is simply survival. Recognition that most mages, can be useful, but often are USING their party to survive. It isn't pretty, but it is the life of casters. Think like a motorcyclist. There are Bold mages and Old mages, but there are very few Bold Old Mages. Cantrip Life. Save your spells for surviving. 1-2 spell slots for each day should be expected to be used on Mage Armor for the first 8 hours, and Mage Armor for the second 8 hours. If you are awake, consider that you probably should cast mage armor. I always make a point to tell my DM that my first thought waking up, is always weaving magic around my corporeal body, to protect myself, casting mage armor. I always set up an understanding, after someone gets mage armor, we have a discussion after they cast it a time or two; what is your practice in regards to mage armor? Do you cast it regularly and 'religiously?' Are you stingy trying to conserve spell slots?

Third: Shield tends to be my next spell of choice, often mage armor means you have '1' spell slot to actually cast with to help the party needs. Shield may be that spell, specially without healers, if the healers are good at their job, I might be inclined to have sleep ready. Consider the second rule when considering what to do with this spell slot.

Fourth: be strategic. Staying close to the rest of the combatants can put you in danger, just as much as it can prevent you from being in danger. There is a tendency for mages and marksmen to stand near the back lines, this isn't an old tactic, it isn't some new magical panacea... it's an old strategy that on the surface seems easy and wise, but it is the very reason cavalry exist, to out maneuver and kill the artillery thus encircling the main force and then from both sides destroy the main battle force. Sometimes having the party back to back is wisest, you can encircle us, but we live and die as one, rather than risk being split, isolated and killed one by one.

Fifth: Your utility to the group may be in other non combat roles until higher tiers of play. Make sure when you have your spell slots assigned to spells to survive, you also get spells that are rituals so you can be of use to the group. Asking the party to hold here and protect you whilst you ritual cast 'X' to solve a problem is part of the game and part of being the utility caster.

Sixth: Don't be afraid to Disengage and or Dodge when something gets to you, if you have to run to your party consider if you should dodge and risk the hit, or disengage to avoid that one instance of attack(s). If archers are shooting at you, but you don't need to move to keep up with the party, often casting your spell, dropping prone. Standing, casting, dropping prone... is the way to go.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the stack! This is a very good and well thought-out first answer. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 12:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a really good first answer, and what people tend to forget is that until extra attack at level 5 cantrips are actually competitive in terms of damage, so even though it is cantrip life, it is far from useless. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 4, 2022 at 13:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks Serious! Cantrips go up in damage at fifth level too, often it weights the Spell Attack Cantrips at higher damage for more chance to miss, versus two attacks and similar damage mitigating misses. But, that is more the question between Firebolt and Eldritch Blast. Or swinging two weapons versus one big weapon. All of these are great and interesting ways to look to probability and average damage over time. As well Saving Throw cantrips rely on opponents, and increase their effectiveness still. Eventually not expending resources just isn't an effective way to end combat. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 14:15
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Stay out of direct combat, and be useful to the party so they are content with having to protect you while you learn. And don't go into situations where that doesn't work, eg where area-of-effect or unpredictable traps are expected. And don't be more stupid than your character.

Ditto for any non-combat class.

Note that this requires the DM to scale the adventure to the characters. But that's always true.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Whether you dislike this advice or not, it's how the game has worked since it's inception. \$\endgroup\$
    – keshlam
    Oct 3, 2022 at 17:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ (its, not it's. Darned auto-incorrect...) \$\endgroup\$
    – keshlam
    Oct 4, 2022 at 1:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that this means things like Detect Magic may be a good idea for first-level spells, since that's something nobody else in the party can do and it's potentially valuable both during the adventure (which justifies you travelling with them and getting the XP) and when evaluating loot after you get back. \$\endgroup\$
    – keshlam
    Oct 26, 2022 at 13:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Clerics get detect magic at level 1...if they want to prepare it. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 1 at 14:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Clerics may or may not want to start with healing. (I've always preferred systems that let you cast prepared spells immediately but also allow you to do so withing else if you can take the time to reset, possibly at increased cost/significant focused time//reduced effectiveness. That just feels more in keeping with received mythos.) \$\endgroup\$
    – keshlam
    Apr 1 at 15:27

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