I'm hoping to get a little but of advice. You see, I've been running Rise of the Runelords, although the fact that I'm using Pathfinder probably isn't too relevant. Point is, I'm relatively new to GM-ing and we've reached a point where NPCs using spells has become a lot more common.

As I'm not that familiar with how each spell works and what it does, sometimes I slow things down a little when deciding what the NPCs should do because I have to look up some spells.

In order to help with this, I've been:

  • Reading the books quite a bit and I'm comfortable with a bunch of spells so far, but not everything that could possibly pop up at any level.
  • Creating spell cards, but as you can image, I end up with quite a large pile of them by the end of a dungeon and I still need to just flip through them sometimes.

Does anyone have any other ideas or techniques for how to deal with learning and using spells as a GM?


5 Answers 5


Let the Players Help You

If this is early in your DMing career, it's okay to ask the players for help. You've already put the spells on cards, so when a creature casts a spell just flip the card into the middle of the table and say, "I'm pretty sure this is the spell the creature would cast, but I'm not exactly sure what happens."

In other words, give yourself a way to take back the spell if it does something you totally didn't expect, like color spray's weird area stunning all the caster's allies or the obscuring mist preventing the caster from using his sneak attack ability. Do this because (I hope, anyway) you'd grant the same leeway to the new players; while the PCs understand the area of a color spray and that obscuring mist often grants concealment, the players don't yet. But they will.

And that's kind of important. Sharing this information can pause the game, but when running a new system, pauses are okay, and mastering the low-level spells makes using higher-level spells much easier. Further, the newer players also learn how the spells function, and the experienced players learn the kinds of judgment calls you make.

The great thing about doing this now with, I hope, low-level spells, is that those spells will happen again--in later campaigns. Low-level spells like color spray, grease, obscuring mist, shield, sleep, and the like are things your group should agree on because campaigns start with those available. Making sure everybody agrees on how they work is a priority for your gaming environment, now and in the furture.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for this. It's such a simple idea yet so effective and I can see how everyone would not only enjoy but benefit from this. We did have a case of colour spray taking out an NPC ally, but we were aware that would happen, and I did mess up when I accidentally let an Elf get put to sleep by magic, but we just laughed it off later and continued adventuring. But point is, I'll keep this in mind, and thanks again. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Sha
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 12:17

Having spell cards is a great idea - organizing them by monster is even better. Having a stats card with a little stylized picture on top of a bunch of spell or ability cards is possibly too far but I would definitely recommend it.

It doesn't take long to read spells once you get the gist of their layout, which is actually the largest barrier to understanding them. I'd sit down for a little bit and read the Magic section, understanding what 'Range' and 'V, S' and '[Fire]' mean, and when you do, reading the entries will be much quicker and easier for you.

Otherwise, rely on your players to allow you to retcon things if you screwed up, for example if the Caster put a spell down that didn't help them, or hadn't pre-cast Mage Armour, just say that they did, or didn't, as the case may be (although don't roll back rounds).

Finally, once you have some idea of how basic game effects like areas and effects (stun, daze, prone, damage, reflex saves etc) work, feel free to mix it up a bit. Sure, the book says that Fidelius the Enchanter has colour spray prepared, but perhaps he's a bit of a rebel and has invented his own colour blast, similar, but affects a line instead of a cone. Remember, Custom Spells and Spell Like Abilities are very much a thing, and you are the GM - if you say he invented a custom version, he invented a custom version.

For extra cool points, perhaps he scribed it onto a scroll, and the wizard could find it and use it! (and if you accidentally make something overpowered, you can then have fun with all the various drawbacks that manifest over time and are the reason that the magical community at large doesn't use this spell - involuntary transformation when hiccuping is a fantastic one, as is it slowly draining your wisdom so you do dumber and dumber things and become confused from time to time in stressful situations)


I like to make sheets with all the monsters stats and abilities on them. Then I keep them grouped via encounter in a binder that I take to game nights. This way when It's time to run a certain scenario I know how many monsters are involved and what each one can do along with it's health and defense info and any other relevant info for each monster.

This is just a short term solution, however. Do keep reading and studying and eventually you'll only need a list of what monsters are in any given fight. Learning what each monster can do, or at least what it's main abilities focus on, not only helps when you are running a game so you can keep the pace going, but it also helps if/when you decide to write your own adventures!

Keep up the good work, and I hope my binder idea helps!

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea. I've been doing something similar with these cards (am I allowed to link my own site?) I've been making. But I find that I end up with books, NPC sheets, and cards taking up half the table.. and I still look at the monster sheets and go, "Ok, he has these spells. Now what do they do?" and shuffling through cards for a few minutes. But thanks for the encouragement as well. I'll keep trying to get better at it! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Sha
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 12:10
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Shianra You are allowed to link to your own site, yes. If your own material from your site is your answer to a question, you should A. describe the material in your answer so the answer isn't useless if the link dies (do this for all "link" answers), and B. note that it is your own site just for transparency's sake; in theory we wouldn't like it if someone joined for the sole purpose of surreptitiously plugging their own stuff, but as long as you're honest about it and it's not your only purpose here, you're not only allowed but encouraged to. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 17:14

When I'm preparing an encounter I usually sort the spells in different categories. I usually have the long duration buffs that are already in effect when the NPC is seen, the spells the NPC uses to gain time to cast the short duration buffs (which must be few!), the short duration buffs themselves and the actual attack spells.
These are usually divided by type. The direct damage spells (needing a to hit roll), the debuffs, the area damage (needing a saving throw). Before the game I try to find out which spells are better (It's usually the most damaging ones or those who synergize with the tactics of non-casters) but of course this needs you to familiarize with the spells you're going to use.

Any internet resource telling you which spells are the best ones (in D&D 3.5 there were even low level spells that could win a fight, like grease or glitterdust, I'm sure these do exist in Pathfinder as well) and guides to building spellcasters are a good read to speed up your knowledge of the spells you need to focus on.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a useful idea. :) Since you mentioned spells, it seems as though Detect Magic, Mage Hand, Prestidigitation, Grease, and Color Spray are the 0 and 1st level spells Wizards/Sorcerers have to be crazy to not get, for example. Is there are way to keep these low level casters interesting and challenging but not all slightly different looking versions of the same thing or obviously tailored to the party (like having Damp Powder when there's a Gunslinger)? Or is that just a "the GM needs to learn to be more creative" thing? (Which I'm trying to work on. Really!) \$\endgroup\$
    – Sha
    Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 1:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's no less interesting to have low-level wizards relying on similar spells than it is to have low-level warriors relying on the same weapons. The game's variety of foes will keep things interesting; there's no more reason to sweat your players complaining, "O, man, another wizard casting color spray! C'mon!" than there is them complaining about another orc with a falchion. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 12:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ As NPCs become stronger they get access to different spells. With a wider selection you can get different tactics (trying to blast the enemy, slowing them down, helping some archers, aiding the damage dealers). In the end, D&D 3.5 becomes a game of countermeasures where your players get immunities and their opponents are forced to change spells. Grease isn't that great against flying characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 16:26

I find spell-cards are a must, grouped with the NPC/monster (as has been suggested). I actually print out monster stat blocks on cards as well.

This isn't just about understanding the individual spells and what they do... you don't need to memorize the entire spell list. Assuming that spell-casters of any note indicate some kind of "boss battle" or otherwise big event (the hobgoblin with only two simple spells prepared doesn't present much challenge to the GM), I think the key thing here is preparation for that battle or for that character (if you don't have a set battle planned and a fight could come up anywhere).

Sit down with the bad guys' information and think about how the battle might go... before it ever starts, you should have an idea of how the casters are going to use their spells. The caster does... he chose to prepare a specific list of spells because he expects to fight a certain way. If you're creating your own encounters, or a published scenario doesn't give advice, you should come up with a strategy before game day.

Unless you're dealing with really high-level casters, that should narrow your field of study down pretty well... study those spells, think about their interactions with other spells, with abilities of the caster's allies, and with the environment.

Does the caster have a fog spell that his allies can "see" through? Then its use is going to be different than a situation where the fog will blind allies as well as foes. Think about when you can use it, where you can use it effectively. Pop it early to confuse the enemy and give your allies an advantage? Pop it as a last resort to cover a retreat?

Does the caster have magic missile? How will he use it? MM is an automatic hit... think about where that advantage is best used (probably a foe caster's allies have trouble hitting) and plan to watch for that situation.

Do this with all of the casters' spells... have an idea how you will use each one in the planned battle, or in any general battle. Thinking about the spells in the context of "how will the caster use this?" will both help you prepare and help you remember what the spells do.


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