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The Acolyte stat block on page 342 of the 5e Monster Manual states

the acolyte is a 1st-level spellcaster.

However it also states, that the Acolyte has three 1st-level spell slots. This contradicts what common sense would suggest, as a player character who is a full spell caster, such as a wizard or cleric (which the acolyte is based on), would have two 1st-level spell slots at level 1 and three at level 2.

Is this a typo, or could there be any reasoning behind this apparent paradox? To be fair, the rules for spellcasting monsters on page 10 don't say that a monster should have the same amount of spell slots per caster level than a player, they simply state

a monster with the Spellcasting special trait has a spellcaster level and spell slots [...]

I can understand them wanting to give it three spell slots, so it can use its spells more often, but is there any reason not to make it a 2nd-level spell caster at the same time? I personally can't think of any mechanical effects, being a 2nd-level spell caster would have on the acolyte.

Interestingly all other spell casters in Appendix B, such as the Archmage or the Druid, stick to the rule of having the same amount of spell slots as a player of that level would, which makes me think even more that this might just be a typo. What throws me off, is just the fact, they haven't fixed this in the almost 10 years, that the MM has been out.

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3 Answers 3

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Monsters do not follow the same rules of the Players Characters.

The Spellcasting section in the introduction of the Monster Manual says (emphases mine):

A monster with the Spellcasting class feature has a spellcaster level and spell slots, which it uses to cast its spells of 1st level and higher (as explained in the Player's Handbook). The spellcaster level is also used for any cantrips included in the feature.

The monster has a list of spells known or prepared from a particular class. The list might also include spells from a feature in that class, such as the Divine Domain feature of the cleric or the Druid Circle feature of the druid.

Note that the sole reference to spellcaster level in game mechanics is to the scaling power of cantrips. Moreover, the reference to spell list clarifies that a monster uses the spell list of a particular class: the slots distribution of the class is left apart. The number of slots could be independent by the CR and/or by the spellcaster level as Acolyte's case, or they can strictly follow the class' slots distribution as in the Lich's case.

As Thomas observed in his answer, monsters do not have class levels: however, the DM could create a monster with class levels following the guideline in the DMG, page 283.

A further example: the Mummy Lord

The Mummy Lord stats block specify that it is a 10th level spellcaster, but it has a 6th level slot: for (full caster) PCs, a 6th level slot is available only at 11th level. It seems the sole consequence of this is that the cantrip Sacred Flame deals only 2d8 (for a 5th level spellcaster) and not 3d8 (for a 11th level spellcaster) fire damage.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, monsters can be of any species, even PC species. In fact, one could argue that every NPC is also a monster, in 5e. \$\endgroup\$ May 16, 2023 at 14:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MindwinRememberMonica Indeed the MM includes this in the introduction: "A monster is defined as any creature that can be interacted with and potentially fought and killed. Even something as harmless as a frog or as benevolent as a unicorn is a monster by this definition. The term also applies to humans, elves, dwarves, and other civilized folk who might be friends or rivals to the player characters." \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    May 16, 2023 at 14:53
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The NPC Acolyte does not have class levels, so the rules for characters with class levels don’t apply.

Your expectation for how many spell slots a 1st level caster NPC has are based on how many a spell slots a character with 1 class level has. But the acolyte does not have class levels, so while it seems likely that the class level pattern is usually going to be followed, there are no rules that govern how many spell slots an Nth-level caster has. No rules have been broken.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It might not have class levels, but it is still "considered a member of that class", in some circumstances according to the MM, so why make such a weird exception here? If what you are saying is correct, I am just left baffled, why they only used this design principle for this one random stat block and nowhere else. And I am still wondering why they just didn't make it a 2nd-level spell caster. There wouldn't be any difference if they did that, other than preventing this confusion, right? \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2023 at 10:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TreeSpawned it is in the realm os speculation. I believe that they adjusted amount of spell slots but didn't change spellcaster level, because it doesn't affect anything anyway. The only real use for it is determining accessible spell levels, since amount of spell slots is written explicitely. Even then I do not remember any creature for which highest accessble spell level was not equal to the highest slot level. \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2023 at 11:36
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5e doesn't assume PC classes represent NPCs

In some previous versions of D&D, 3e most strongly, player character classes where assumed to be how wizarding (or whatever) worked.

An NPC wizard would use the rules of a level 10 PC Wizard.

4e was a direct backlash against this, in which NPCs where explicitly never built using PC rules. It was listed as an option, but was advised strongly against. A completely different set of rules where used instead, focusing on what you needed to use the NPC as a foe in a single encounter.

5e is agnostic about how you determine monster stats. Instead, it gives you rules on how to take monster stats and turn them into a difficulty number (CR). So in 5e, using PC rules to make a monster is within bounds, but it isn't required.

Monsters built using PC rules tend to have lots of complex moving parts. 5e D&D makes PCs complicated as a way to make players have fun using the complex bits. When a DM is running 5 creatures at once, and those creatures almost all die within a single session, that level of complexity is often not needed.

So, 5e permits you use other ways to build monsters. Many NPCs refer to or are inspired by PC rules instead of following them faithfully. And this is becoming increasingly common as the game progresses.

You can use this as part of the fiction

If you assume PC rules (including XP) are part of how the world works, the logical result is a world full of plucky heroes who go from near commoner to superheroic levels of power within weeks.

If you instead assume PC rules are how you deal with exceptional people who may be destined to become superheroic, and most other people don't suddenly get better at magic by killing goblins in caves, then the result is a very different world.

The PCs meteoric rise to power is now an exception instead of a rule.

PC classes are no longer in-world sets of abilities, but rather specific to the relatively unique hero. Other NPCs might have similar abilities, but need not match them exactly.

Many expert fighters might learn to hit more often. Some holy warriors might have bonded steeds.

But NPCs might learn and gain spells far differently; maybe almost every wizard in the world is actually reading spells off scrolls. This act drains their own power (unlike a PC), so they can only do this a few times per day. And they still destroy the scroll; so they have to do a lot of work to replace it.

In such a world, actually casting a 6th level spell becomes a serious investment for those who can cast it. Meanwhile, for a 13th level PC they are doing it relatively stress free every long rest.

CR measures how hard a fight is

CR doesn't measure NPC level or anything else. With NPCs using different rules for how they are built than PCs, mapping that to the world fiction or to combat capabilities (CR) is the problem.

How the NPC got the abilities? That isn't in the stat block.

One specific pyromancer might be able to cast fireball with a recharge of 56, which no PC can ever do. If you asked how, that pyromancer might be the result of a fire cult sacrificing and breeding mortals until they found a line with extradinary gift for fire magic. Then they embedded living magma within these select souls, turning them into meat-puppets for the elemental prince who they worship in the volcano shrine.

That fiction isn't relevant to the pyromancer's CR. And it is also a deal that few PCs would be interesting in taking. The core part is that the world-fiction doesn't have to be tied to PC mechanics.

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