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This might be a dumb question, but I'm really lost on how some standard action spells / actions are supposed to actually work.

If a player takes an standard action that causes some kind of effect, and it says it lasts "1 round per level", and someone is a level one so it only lasts for one round, does this not totally negate using it? Is it not expired by the time the round comes back around to the character? If so, why would something like this even be a Level 1 option, since it's useless until you're at least a Level 2?

There are a number of examples of this, but to show a clear example, suppose a Level 4 Ranger (caster level 1) casts Sun Metal:

Casting Time 1 standard action
Components V, S
EFFECT
Range touch
Target one melee weapon
Duration 1 round/level (see text)
Saving Throw Fort negates (object); Spell Resistance yes (object)

DESCRIPTION
The target weapon ignites into flame that does not hurt the weapon or the wielder, but damages those hit by the weapon. When the weapon’s wielder hits with this weapon, it deals an additional 1d4 points of fire damage. This damage is not multiplied in the case of a critical hit. This effect immediately ends if the weapon is submerged in water. This effect does not stack with the flaming or flaming burst weapon special ability or any other effect that grants the weapon extra fire damage. It does not function on weapons with the frost or icy burst weapon special ability or any other effect that grants a weapon extra cold damage.

Since they used this as a Standard action, they can't make an attack to follow it up, they must wait until their next turn, i.e. the next round. By that time, the spell has dissipated, correct?

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You are right,

Some first level spells are not (that) useful for first level characters

The combat rules for measuring the duration of effects (including spells) state:

When the rules refer to a "full round", they usually mean a span of time from a particular initiative count in one round to the same initiative count in the next round. Effects that last a certain number of rounds end just before the same initiative count that they began on.

(emphasis mine)

Unfortunately for our first level casters, this means that when they cast a spell which lasts only 1 round, it will fizz away immediately before they get a chance to use it.


So, why would something like this even be a Level 1 option?

First of all, there are several exceptions which makes such spells useful even for a first level character:

  • Touch spells allow you to "hold the charge" until you successfully hit with them, and give you a "free" touch attack attempt as part of the action of casting the spell.
    So you can attack on the same round you cast them, as well as keep trying to hit for as many following rounds as you need.
  • The spell is still active during other combatants' actions on that round - both enemies and allies - this may come up when:
    • Your spell can counter an enemy's action - for example, casting Unbreakable Heart on yourself will protect you from a Fear spell your enemy will cast during his action.
    • You cast the spell to buff an ally (such as Sun Metal cast on your barbarian friend's axe or Unbreakable Heart cast on a confused ally, allowing him to take his turn normally)
    • An enemy exposes himself to your attack of opportunity (your Sun Metal will be active and enhance your damage during his turn)

But, most importantly, some first level spells are mainly useful for casters of higher levels - but it is still better that they are first level spells, because:

  • You can access them earlier - for example, Sun Metal may be cast by a 5th level ranger (caster level 2), if it was a second level spell, that ranger will have to be at least 7th level to cast it.
  • You can cast them more times per day - sticking with Sun Metal as an example - a 7th level ranger can cast it 2 times per day, instead of just once if it was a second level spell.
  • They don't "compete" for spell slots with the more powerful second level spells - at the end of the day, you probably wouldn't want to trade a casting of Brow Gasher or Wilderness Soldiers, just to gain the benefits of Sun Metal - it is not powerful enough to justify being a second level spell, and if it was, it probably would have never been selected by any ranger.

Hope this helps you making sense of it all...

p.s. - I'm not even trying to discuss whether casting Sun Metal is ever the optimal choice for a ranger of any level - you didn't seem to ask about that, and I normally don't care much about such issues myself, so I may not be the best user to tackle that...

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As part of casting a spell with a touch attack, you're allowed to make one touch attack.

Many spells have a range of touch. To use these spells, you cast the spell and then touch the subject. In the same round that you cast the spell, you may also touch (or attempt to touch) as a free action. You may take your move before casting the spell, after touching the target, or between casting the spell and touching the target.

So the spell isn't wasted, since you get to make one attack with it even at level 1. Otherwise you're correct, at level 1 the spell only lasts for one round and so they wouldn't get to use it on their next turn.

In this case at level 1, you'd want to target someone else's weapon, so they can use it on their turn to attack before the effect goes away. If you tried to target your own weapon, by time you got to use another standard action to attack with that weapon, the spell is over.

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