Recently I played a game of D&D 5th Edition. While we liked the simplicity and made characters quickly, there was one big bottleneck: the Wizard (and to a lesser extent, the Cleric) kept having analysis paralysis over the spell choices!

Most of my players were more familiar with 4th Edition in which a Wizard or Cleric had only a handful of spells to choose at first level (without supplement books). We really didn't have analysis paralysis because it was generally "here's four powers, pick one of them". We've also played some systems with moderately more complicated spell systems (e.g. Savage Worlds), but didn't really have analysis paralysis there either.

However in D&D 5th Edition, there are many more spells (about a dozen cantrips and another dozen first level spells). It seems that we've come across analysis paralysis with spell selection pretty hard. This has exhibited itself in several ways:

  • After reading the dozen cantrips & dozen 1st level spells, picking which ones should be purchased as players were constantly waffling between each one. They kept wondering if they would regret not taking a certain spell because it would be expensive to purchase later.
  • Out of all those we purchased, picking which spells to prepare for the day. They kept wondering if they would regret it if they needed a spell if they came across a situation.

After about 15 minutes of waffling back and forth with their spell selection in what felt like a battle of wits with a Sicilian (to the annoyance of the Fighter and Rogue who had been ready to go for a while), we threatened to just make them randomly choose spells if they couldn't decide (they finally did pick, but kept feeling like they might have made the wrong choice).

The only difference I see between this system and others is the amount of spells, but perhaps there are other aspects too, like complexity of spells. At any rate, what can we do in the future? How can we prevent choosing spells from leading to analysis paralysis?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like the culprit was the fear that they might regret their choice. That very common problem with the human condition is, alas, a problem for the ages. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 20:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie It's true that regret seems to be the motivating factor. While we can't change the human condition, surely there is something that we can change about what we are doing at the gaming table. After all, this seems to be a new problem we are experiencing with 5e that we didn't experience with 4e or with other roleplaying systems. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you need a trendy buzzword alternative to "analysis paralysis", you might try "indecisiveness". All the coolest MBAs are saying it! \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob Grant
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 12:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just a note: The common name for this issue in game design is "paralysis of choice". \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 19, 2015 at 14:49

6 Answers 6


The solution is for the PCs to experiment with each of the spells to get a better feel for how useful they are during an actual game. Once your players have a chance to experiment a bit with the spells they have available to choose from, the task of deciding which ones are worth picking will be significantly easier. Also, as the DM, you may wish to reward good Intelligence or Wisdom checks made by the PCs during research activities by giving them suggestions as to which spells might prove useful over the course of the adventure. For example, if you're running the Lost Mine of Phandelver, you may wish to reward a player who spends time researching dragons that Green Dragons are masters of poison, so a Protection from Poison spell may be worth the Cleric's time to have prepared.

Because many of the 5th Edition mechanics and spell changes will likely be new for many players who did not participate in the playtest, the Adventurer's League Player's Guide also offers a nice solution to this problem. During levels 1-4 (the first major tier of gameplay) you can rebuild your character at the end of an episode or an adventure. This will allow you to try out low-level spell combinations without fear of being stuck with poor choices. Encourage low-level players to pick spells that sound cool and appear useful but not to fret over making bad choices because at the end of the session they can retcon their choices anyway.

It's worth mentioning that this should be significantly less of a problem for the Cleric, Druid, or Paladin because they each automatically have access to their entire class's spell list. If they wish to change the spells they have prepared, they can do so at the end of a long rest.

Lastly, note that some spells (those with the ritual tag) can be cast as rituals. This means the casting time is increased by 10 minutes (to prevent them from being used in combat), but the spell doesn't use up a spell slot. Bards can cast any ritual that they know. Clerics and Druids must prepare their rituals just like any other spell they plan to cast, but Wizards can use their spellbooks to avoid preparing rituals ahead of time. Warlocks who take Pact of the Tome have an invocation option which gives them the ability to learn every class's rituals in the same way as a Wizard. There is also a feat (Ritual Caster) which can grant ritual spellcasting to the other classes. This too will allow your players to try out more utility spells that may or may not be useful without making them sacrifice more pragmatic options like combat spells.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Using Intelligence and Wisdom checks to provide hints on what spells to prepare sounds like a really awesome idea! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 14:59

Ok, I'll admit this is the stuff I struggle with when creating a wizard too.

Ultimately though, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to make each of these tasks much easier.

  • What is my primary purpose as a wizard? What's your specialty? Are you going to be a damage machine? Great, take spells that bump your damage. Are you going to be a utility spell fiend? Great, there are tons of good utility spells.
  • What spells synergize with my class. The BD&D wizard is evocation school, grab all the evocation spells you can get your hands on.
  • What spells can fill holes in my party? Don't have a rogue? Make sure you grab Knock. Don't have a fighter? Make sure you grab Mage Armor. That kind of thing.

Spell book spots are the only way to get spells either, so if you don't have room for some spells you want, let your DM know, he might find a way to work them into your adventure.

Preparing spells is the far more limited thing. However, you get to do it every day. Some things I find helpful when prepping spell lists:

  • Have a default list that is your go to list. If you don't know what the day is going to bring, have this list ready to do.
  • Look for spells that can benefit when cast in higher spots. Most do, and you want those.
  • Skip preparing ritual spells. These can be cast in 10 minutes without needing prep or consuming a spell slot.
  • Think about what you know is coming for the day, and plan accordingly. The green dragon is good example, but if you're resting in the middle of a dungeon full of undead, make sure you've got fire and radiant spells.

Really, the most important thing at this point is to pick spells you'll use, and that you think are cool. There really isn't an optimum spell load out at this point (I can tell you which ones do the most damage in which slot, but they all have different shapes, different conditions and a bunch of other things that are unknowns at this point). So figure out what kind of wizard you are building and choose spells that support that. Avoid things that look like traps, because they probably are, but ultimately, don't sweat which spells you choose at level up too much (if you feel you've made a big mistake, talk to your DM and I'll be he'll be willing to send you on a hair-brained quest to find the spells you want/need).

As far as prep goes, build a list of your favorites, swap a few out every day, see what works. This is one of the reasons why it's good to start at low levels. You'll probably have several adventuring days at L1 or L2 where you can play with your spells and figure out what's what.


Give them a way out.

The other answers already offer good advice to players. But since you're the DM in this scenario there's a convenient short-term solution: give the players a free undo button.

There was a similar mechanic for Sorcerers in 3.5:

Upon reaching 4th level, and at every even-numbered sorcerer level after that (6th, 8th, and so on), a sorcerer can choose to learn a new spell in place of one he already knows. In effect, the sorcerer "loses" the old spell in exchange for the new one. The new spell’s level must be the same as that of the spell being exchanged, and it must be at least two levels lower than the highest-level sorcerer spell the sorcerer can cast. A sorcerer may swap only a single spell at any given level, and must choose whether or not to swap the spell at the same time that he gains new spells known for the level.

You can houserule in any version of this you prefer. You could give each player the ability to swap out a single spell at levelup, only allow it when they unlock a new spell level, or give them a limited number of tokens to expend on replacing a spell. Add restrictions at your discretion: only spells of current level -X, don't allow replacement of spells they have used (often), ...

By doing this you're giving players suffering from spell selectin paralysis a free out that should be enough to get them going again.

Pointing out the rituals that Dyndrilliac mentioned should have a similar effect on players struggling with spell preparation. (I'm assuming it replaces the concept of leaving spell slots blank that 3.5 had.)


One thing I have found that helps me decide if I like a spell is getting to try it out before I use it. One way to do this is via scrolls. So hand out some scrolls to your PCs as treasure. It effectively gives them a free try of a spell not on their spell list / not memorized.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It’s a neat idea, but at least for me, I would be even more paralyzed—a scroll is a one-time thing, what if you need it later? (I am totally one of those people who finishes campaigns and video games having a massive trove of consumable items, most of which I have never used.) \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 16:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Heh. I hadn't thought of that aspect. But I totally horde consumables in video games. At the Table Top though, one thing that can help mitigate this somewhat is that scroll can be handed to them by a mentor / ally with the caveat that IF they find a use for the spell then they can always get another from them - maybe for a discount. Or, if they really like it, they might be allowed to scribe the spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – JWT
    Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 18:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ This approach won't work with anyone playing a wizard - they will scribe every scroll they ever get, thus expanding their choices and adding to their paralysis. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 23:29

For spells on level up, have the players decide on a character theme.

If they're really having this much trouble deciding which spells to pick, I can't help but suspect they didn't develop their characters enough from a roleplaying perspective. While "my guy" syndrome is something to be avoided, your character's personality can often help you make a decision when you have no idea what to do. This is what I fall back on if I truly have no idea what I want to pick and it usually resolves the situation quickly.

For preparing spells, didn't they collect enough information?

The players' lack of ability to choose which spells to prepare each day leads me to believe they either have no idea where they're going or they're not taking it into consideration. The GM should reward players when they take effort to try and find out more information about their next destination. Knowing that you're going to be fighting undead, for example, should lock down at least one or two of your spell slots to spells effective against them.

Advise your casters that it's important to choose spells based on what you know is going to happen, instead of what they're worried might happen. It is granted that unexpected things will happen, but it's impossible to prepare for every one of those things.


I've encountered similar problems with low level Wizards. I don't have much experience with clerics to date.

In the case where I was putting together a Wizard on short notice I simply reminded myself that it is a game and went with the Quick Build cantrip and spell recommendations. It could be argued that the spell list doesn't take best advantage of the spells but it isn't a bad start and it gives some room for experimentation.

What I found more difficult was skill selection. The PHB does not make it clear how potentially important Arcana can be to a Wizard. Depending on the DM and the campaign, a Wizard without that skill is almost blind.

For the DM:

I do wish, however, that there was something like the charts in 1E for initial spells in the spellbook. You might consider building such a chart. I believe it broke the spell list down into three broad spell types and, if memory serves, you started with one of each type in your book.

The benefit of this was that it 1) forced more experienced players to try something other than the tried and true spells and kept things interesting 2) for less experienced players it avoided having to study all the spells and pick (with a lot of pressure to pick the right spells) and 3) it both put a great value on acquiring spells and encouraged DMs to make that part of treasures in the adventure.

The down side, of course, was that you might wind up with spells that had very little utility in the adventure.

In the circumstance described in the OP, as DM I might simply role play a brief exchange with the new character's mentor in which he is gifted with his spell book populated with spells you have chosen. Simplify the new player's life.


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