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I’m looking to make a character whose focus is on the use of spellcasting in close quarters. This might take the form of damage waves that are centered on his location, auras that buff nearby allies, melee-range attack spells, or the creation of terrain hazards in his immediate vicinity, but it is not my goal to have or use significant weapon skills. Of these options, I like battlefield control best, and direct-damage blasting least, but most significantly I just want a mage who has good reason to get into close quarters, without being a fighter-mage hybrid.

For the purposes of this question, I’m defining “close quarters” as within 30 ft. of enemy combatants, i.e. close enough that a typical opponent can in one turn move up to me and attack me in melee.

For example, I’m considering a dwarf wizard, picking up the Heavily Armored and Shield Master feats, and not using a weapon so that I can cast spells without War Caster (though the advantage on Constitution saving throws made to avoid losing concentration on a spell may make the feat too valuable to miss out on even if I don’t necessarily care to have a weapon).

Is this wizard my best bet? Which school is most appropriate – in a quick scan of the benefits, abjurer seemed to be choice, though transmuter definitely seemed to putting in some solid food for thought. The evoker’s ability to sculpt spells also seems very valuable, particularly if there are good close-range evocations to use (I would prefer battlefield control, buffing, or debuffing over direct damage, however).

Alternatively, in previous editions, both cleric and druid (especially 4e’s druid) would have arguably been better picks for this, but in those editions and 5e (as far as I can tell) those classes do tend to focus a lot on their melee physical attacks – to what degree can I ignore those without ignoring significant aspects of my class package?

Or are there, perhaps, archetypes for classes more typically comfortable in melee that would give me good reason to use spellcasting even when enemies are around, rather than simply magically enhancing my weapon-fighting skills? I’m not staunchly opposed to having weapon skills, I just don’t plan on using them, ideally.

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There are a few reasons for a spellcaster to be in melee (most of which you mentioned.) I'll cover them one by one.

One is auras that buff nearby allies. The Paladin wins this one. Honestly, no other class even comes close. However, outside that, the Paladin's primary focus is on buffing his own melee attacks with the [X]-ing Smite spells, which isn't exactly what you're after. Also, as a half-caster, the Paladin is almost certainly not what you're after.

The next is spells that damage nearby enemies. The standout here is the Cleric's Spirit Guardians, which, once cast, damages everything around you for up to 10 minutes without requiring any further actions on your part. Other notable spells include the Paladin's Destructive Wave and the Warlock's Arms of Hadar. There's not too many spells in this category, unfortunately. The Elemental Player's Companion addded some good new ones to look for - Thunderclap is a cantrip that's just perfect for a melee spellcaster, and Earth Tremor is a pretty awesome too.

Reason number three is if you want to be attacked for some reason. The Wizard's Fire Shield is probably the best spell for this, but the Warlock's (or Tiefling's) Hellish Rebuke or the Tempest Cleric's Wrath of the Storm ability work here too.

Next up, spells that have their origin on you. Burning Hands, Cone of Cold, Thunderwave, etc. There's a lot of these, but none of them really stand out, no class is particularly better at them, and most of them don't really require you to be in melee anyway. They're good, and you'll want to have some of them, there's just not much to say about them here.

Finally, melee range attack spells. (And yes, I saved the best till last.) There is a definite winner here: Vampiric Touch. A minute of powerful melee spell attacks that do a fair bit of damage and heal you? Perfect. It's available to a few classes, but the one that gets the most out of it is a Necromancy Wizard, because Grim Harvest will get you even more healing when you kill something with Vampiric Touch. If your DM will allow it, the Death Cleric from the DMG also gets pretty good with this spell, with Touch of Death, Inescapable Destruction, and eventually, Improved Reaper (!!!).

I'd probably recommend the Necromancy Wizard or the Death Cleric, but whatever you choose, you are going to run into one problem: concentration. Most of the good spells I've mentioned require concentration, which means you can only use 1 at a time, and you are liable to lose the spell when you get hit by attacks. Which, as a melee spellcaster, is probably going to be often. Concentration checks aren't particularly difficult, but if you have to make a lot of them you might consider investing in a method of gaining advantage or proficiency on them. The War Caster feat gives advantage, while the Resilient feat, Sorcerer, or Barbarian give proficiency. Of course, there are a lot of ways to give advantage on or boost any roll, so you might not find this a problem.

On Wizard schools specifically:

  • Abjuration has some great benefits, but the only one that is particularly good for a melee is the Arcane Ward, which effectively soaks one hit per day, plus a little bit more every time you cast an Abjuration spell. Not bad, but not great.

  • Conjuration has Focused Conjuration, which allows you to ignore damage for concentrating (great!) but only for Conjuration spells, of which there aren't many that suit you.

  • Divination has nothing that works specifically for your purposes.

  • Enchantment actually has one ability that's great for this: Hypnotic Gaze. It effectively allows you to lock down a single creature in melee.

  • Evocation is great for evocations (as you might expect), and most of the damage spells with you as the origin are evocation, so definitely worth a thought.

  • Illusion has an auto-miss reaction, which is cool, but not much else.

  • Necromancy has the aforementioned Grim Harvest, which is pretty good, and Inured to Undeath, also pretty good (but only when fighting undead), but its other features are more geared around having an army of undead fighting for you, which is pretty powerful, but not really what you're after.

  • Transmutation doesn't have all that much for a melee, except that you can get a free proficiency in Constitution saving throws, which will help you maintain concentration.

On Shield Master specifically: for you, it's almost completely junk. It boosts your Dexterity saving throws, and nothing else. I'd really recommend against taking it. Heavily Armoured, on the other hand, will take your AC from a maximum of 17 (assuming you have a Dex modifier of +2), to 18, with no investment in Dex required. With the houserule in place that gives you shield proficiency as well, it pushes your AC up to 20 - at this point it goes from good to downright amazing. AC is quite rare and valuable in 5e, especially if you're used to 3.5 and everyone walking around with AC 30.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Watch out for the strength requirement for heavy armour. 15 Str is a big ask if you are not going to hit things with it! \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Hutton May 24 '15 at 7:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Dwarves aren't slowed by heavy armor even if they lack the strength. It's one of their racial traits (listed with their speed). \$\endgroup\$ – Nick Brown Feb 9 '18 at 19:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Isn't Chill Touch a ranged attack spell in 5e? \$\endgroup\$ – HenryWLee1066 Apr 2 '18 at 23:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HenryWLee1066 Yep, you're right. No idea what I was thinking when I wrote that. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Apr 3 '18 at 13:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ You are correct, @HenryWLee1066. Chill Touch is a lie... it doesn't do cold damage, and it's a ranged spell. :) \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Apr 3 '18 at 13:43
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Whatever you choose, do consider taking Cleric as your first level. You get both medium (or heavy) armour and shield proficiency, and full casting progression. Sure, you have to wait one extra level for new spells, but you'll still be able to cast lower level spells from the new slot.

To clarify, consider Wizard 5 vs Wizard 4 / Cleric 1. They will both have the same spell slots, but the multi-class character won't be able to memorise 3rd-level spells. However, they will be able to cast lower level spells from their two 3rd-level slots, powering them up appropriately. And, for the next 2 levels, there will be no difference in their spell casting. This is a huge improvement over 3.5/Pathfinder…

Here's a somewhat different approach, by way of example. It was an attempt to build off of the Dragon Sorcerer's base AC of 13. Take a half-elf, Cha & Dex of 16 and Con 14, using the standard array. Even without using armour, I'd consider taking Cleric 1, just for the shield, a well as more cantrips and 1st-level spell options. Your starting AC is 18 with the shield, and this can go up with more Dex.

In contrast, you could start a Mountain Dwarf with Int & Str 15, Con 16, Dex 12. Initial AC is only 16, rising to 20 at level 4. But that means that your primary casting stat won't catch up with the half-elf's until level 8! Your AC is 20 and you have full casting progression, but it's at the cost of 2 feats/stat increases, and AC can't be boosted further with Dex.

As requested, here is a starting build:

Half-elf Cleric 1 / Sorcerer X Str 10, Dex 16, Con 14, Int 8, Wis 13, Cha 16

Draconic Bloodline is the core feature of this build as it gives you a base AC of 13 and an extra hit point every level, giving you good survivability at close range.

You start with 4 cantrips:

Poison Spray is a high-damage close-range spell that requires a Con save instead of a to-hit roll. You'll have to pay attention to your target's strengths/weaknesses with this one, but may be your primary attack for a lot of the time.

Shocking Grasp gives you a chance to escape adjacent enemies if you have to, in addition to modest damage and advantage against metal armour.

Otherwise, make sure you pick up at least one cantrip with good range.

I haven't really decided which colour dragon to choose. Fire would be the most flexible, but you may want to consider matching your favourite cantrip instead.

Adding a level of Cleric is the most controversial aspect of this build, and you could probably ignore it if you don't think the return is worth the cost. The primary advantage is gaining shield proficiency, but there are some other benefits.

Cleric gives you three more cantrips. Because your Wis is low, stick to utilities like Mending, Light or Guidance, or Thaumaturgy if you can find creative uses for it.

Which domain to choose is an interesting problem, made simpler by the fact that it is only the first level that you need look at, and you should avoid offensive spells and abilities. Life seems best to me, giving you potent healing abilities that may well save the party if your primary healer goes down, though Nature gives you access to a druid cantrip (Shillelagh) and Tempest and War give you martial weapons (rapier, long bow) if you do want to fall back on mundane attacks.

You can only prepare 2 first level cleric spells, in addition to your domain ones (Bless and Cure Wounds for Life). Protection from Evil and Good is unaffected by level or Wis, as is Shield of Faith, although both require concentration. Other utilities like the detection spells might be better.

Finally, this build does surprisingly well with skill proficiencies. Your high Cha lends you to being the party face, and high Dex (and no noisy armour) can make you a competent back-up for your scouts, potentially pulling them out of the trouble they tend to get themselves into! I'd recommend:

  • Insight and Persuasion from Cleric
  • Deception and Stealth from Criminal
  • Perception and Acrobatics from Half-elf

Though weaving that all into a coherent back-story will be challenging!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As stated in the question, I was seriously considering a mountain dwarf, with the houserule that Heavily Armored also provided shield proficiency if you didn’t have it. Thus I could get all this with a feat, rather than a level (and reduced spell levels). Considering how much 5e uses spell level for things (requiring you to cast spells from higher slots to get more power), your suggestion seems like a big downside for the benefit. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 24 '15 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ But you still can cast them from higher level. That 4/1 character can still cast burning hands at 3rd level, even though he can't cast 3rd level spells. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Hutton May 24 '15 at 19:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, fair enough; I’d misread how that works. I haven’t voted yet (the downvote’s not mine), but I’d definitely +1 a well-developed contrast with simply going with the mountain dwarf. Ultimately, I did go with @Miniman’s answer, and that game is dead anyway, so the accepted answer isn’t likely to change, but another option is a great thing to offer. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 24 '15 at 19:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, the contrast was all I was aiming for! 5e still strongly encourages using a race that boosts your primary stat, so I'm really struggling to find any build at all that makes use of the Mountain Dwarf's medium armour proficiency (even if not limited to spell casters). \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Hutton May 24 '15 at 19:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ (And, to clarify, I thought the aim was to create a close quarters caster, with Mountain Dwarf as a strong contender. Sorry to start out by writing it off!) \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Hutton May 24 '15 at 21:12

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