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Gwenevere Rothwell

May 5, 2023

Spellcasting in TTRPGs varies drastically between complex and simple. Spellcasting in Pathfinder 2nd Edition is luckily closer to the simpler side compared to its past iterations...

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Spellcasting in TTRPGs varies drastically between complex and simple. Spellcasting in Pathfinder 2nd Edition is luckily closer to the simpler side compared to its past iterations. 


There are a few universal things that you’ll stumble upon when you make a spellcaster: how you cast spells, your magical tradition, cantrips, spell slots, and potentially metamagic.


Prepared vs Spontaneous

To start, when creating a spellcaster there are three kinds of playstyles determined by your class: learned prepared, full prepared, and spontaneous. So, what do these mean?


Learned Prepared is dedicated to classes that prepare their spells ahead of time from a list in which the caster goes out of their way to learn first. Witches and Wizards are an example of this. Rather than having the full range of your spell list as your disposal, you have a select amount of spells that you start off with—referred to as Spells Known—and from those spells you can add them to your smaller prepared list. The upside to this kind of casting is that, as time goes on, you can find and learn spells, thus adding them to your Spells Known which you can prepare from each day.


Fully Prepared are classes like the Druid and Cleric which have access to their entire spell list when preparing spells. You might be thinking, “Well why would I ever go Wizard or Witch then?” And the answer to that is because of preference as well as focus. Wizards and Witches in terms of feats and abilities are far more focused on the pure spellcasting side of things. They have a smaller list of spells, but they have feats to help enhance them. Druids and Clerics on the other hand are more focused on specific kinds of spells with their feats—giving them more options to shapeshift, expanding their capacity to heal and buff their allies, etc.


Spontaneous casters like the Bard and Sorcerer have a very small selection of spells called a Spell Repertoire that they can’t add to outside of levelling up. To make up for this however, they don’t need to prepare their spells ahead of time and instead can cast on the fly. Know the spell Feather Fall and just happen to be falling off a cliff? Well a Wizard would be hoping that he prepared the spell ahead of time, or damning himself for not, but a Sorcerer can freely cast the spell as long as it’s a spell she knows without the extra hassle of preparing it ahead of time.


Spontaneous casters also have what are called Signature Spells. Normally a Spontaneous Caster needs to learn the heightened versions of spells (see below for more information on that), but for their Signature Spell they don’t have to take this extra step and instead instantly know all levels of their signature spell. Prepared Casters don’t have to worry about this—not even Wizards or Witches—as they just prepare the spell they know at a higher level slot.


So, to reiterate, as that was a lot of info at once, Learned Prepared Casters have a list of spells which they choose to learn their spells from, and from that list they can then prepare their spells. They can add to this list as they adventure and also when they level up. Fully Prepared Casters skip the middle step of needing to learn their spells and instead have access to their entire spell list, which they can prepare from ahead of time. Spontaneous Casters rely on a Spell Repertoire which contains a small selection of spells from their tradition and they cannot (by default) expand on their Spell Repertoire beyond levelling up. The benefit for them is they don’t need to prepare ahead of time, so they always have access to their much smaller list.


Magical Traditions

The next step, or more of a step that you’ll find out as you learn the first step, is what Tradition you have access to from your class. There are four in total (at least at the moment): Arcane, Divine, Occult, and Primal.


Arcane is a very flexible tradition. It has a focus on buffing, debuffing, damage dealing, shapeshifting, summoning, and so much more. It’s easier to tell you what Arcane can’t do, which is any kind of healing and also lacks spells tied to things like deities. Think of Arcane users as scientists and researchers, manipulating the world around them to do their bidding.


Divine on the other hand is a very focused tradition. It’s far more centred around healing, buffing, and to a lesser extent debuffing. It also has summoning capabilities. Where Arcane is for researchers and scholars, Divine is for those devoted to a deity or ideal (or those who gain power from these sources like Oracles and Witches, but don’t necessarily worship the divine).


Occult is another focused tradition, much like Divine, but its focus is more on the manipulation of others, charming effects, summoning, and general battlefield control, but it lacks the ability to heal. Bards make great use of the Occult list when accompanied by their bardic capabilities as they can become a fearsome caster who has perfect control over the battlefield as they aid their allies.


Primal is somewhat similar to Arcane in that it has a wider range of what it can do, but its spells are all tied to the natural world. This includes the elements themselves, which means a druid can make an excellent battle mage who focuses on offensive magic, shapeshifting, summoning animals, as well as hindering their enemies. Primal Druids are thus a very flexible class by this nature as they are Fully Prepared Casters and have various bells and whistles that make them not rely on their spells as much as something like a Wizard.


Cantrips and Spell Slots

Next are your spells, to which you have two kinds: Cantrips and Spells. Cantrips are weaker spells that can have a variety of uses. They’re something for a caster to fall back on or to use when they feel it’s not warranted to use some of their more advanced spells because unlike spells, Cantrips don’t consume a spell slot upon being used. Cantrips are also different from spells because they automatically heighten to half your level rounded up. 


Spells on the other hand take up spell slots. When a spell is cast, the slot that held that spell is consumed. This is true for both Spontaneous and both types of Prepared Casters. The difference between them is that for Spontaneous Casters all this means is that they have one less spell slot than before they cast that spell. For both kinds of Prepared Casters however, it means that that slot and the spell within that slot is consumed. So, if you prepared two fireballs and a heightened mage armour in your 3rd level spell slots and you just cast a fireball, then you now have only one fireball and heightened mage armour prepared.


So, by this point you might be dying to know what Heightening means as I’ve used the word a few times. Heightening means taking a spell and casting it at a higher level. With Prepared Casters, this is done by simply preparing the spell in a higher level spell slot. For Spontaneous Casters however, you need to learn the spell at that higher level in order to freely cast it at that level. This is where Signature Spells come into play as—upon making a spell your signature spell—you learn all levels of that spell. This means that you should keep your Signature Spells that gain a benefit from being cast at higher levels, which are most offensive spells, summoning spells, and incapacitation spells. Incapacitation spells learned or prepared at a higher level can be a good choice as it will allow the Incapacitation trait to affect stronger foes more easily.


Basic Saving Throws

As you browse the various spells available, you’re likely to notice that a lot of spells target saves, and some of them list a term called “Basic Saving Throw.” Basic Saving Throw is a simple term for a very simple calculation. What it means is the spell has a Critical Success effect, a Success effect, a Failure effect, and a Critical Failure effect. This always correlates to damage, but sometimes it can also be tied to additional effects as well. Daze is a good example of a Basic Saving Throw. It does an amount of damage based on your spellcasting ability modifier. On a Critical Failure, it does double your spellcasting ability modifier as mental damage and it makes the target Stunned 1; on a Failure, it does your spellcasting ability modifier as mental damage; on a Success, it does half your spellcasting ability modifier as mental damage; and on a Critical Success, it does no damage.


Rarity and Spells

By the core rules, you can only prepare and learn common spells, but how do you learn spells of higher rarity? Well, this depends on your GM. You might have to research it, go on a quest, or perform some other task. It could even be rewarded to you as time goes on. Upon meeting whatever requirements your GM gives the spell, you then have access to that spell, but this does not mean you’ve automatically learned it in the case of Learned Prepared Casters and Spontaneous Casters. With Fully Prepared Casters, if you have access to the spell, then you can prepare it. For Learned Prepared Casters though, you’ll have to learn the spell through normal means of, well, learning the spell which requires the creation of a scroll (or finding one, or finding something that has the spell already on it), and then learning the spell as normal. For Spontaneous Casters—unless you have a feat that lets you learn spells like a Learned Prepared Caster—you’ll need to wait until you level up to add the spell to your Spell Repertoire.


Metamagic

Some classes have access to feats that give them access to Metamagic. Metamagic allows characters to spend an action to enhance or alter their spell as an action, then cast the spell as normal. There are a few questions that commonly come up with metamagic that I’d like to address here:

  1. You cannot apply two metamagic feats on one spell unless otherwise noted. By standard rules, you must use your action to prepare the metamagic, then immediately after you must Cast the Spell. If you do anything else, your prepared metamagic is wasted.

  2. If a metamagic removes a spellcasting component, this does not lower the spellcasting time of the spell. For example, the Silence Metamagic removes the Auditory trait from a spell, but this does not turn a two action spell into a one action spell. While there is a correlation between actions used to cast a spell and components, there is not a causation.


Why No Item Bonus?

This is an argument I see raised a lot online and is often used as proof that spellcasters are weak and “nerfed” compared to their past iterations. So, why do casters not get an item bonus to their spell attacks and DCs? Item bonuses exist for martial classes and their attacks, and armour provides runes for increasing your saving throw modifier, so it seems only fair that a caster should increase these too! But that’s not the case. The reason for this is simple: a martial character will likely be targeting one form of DC with their attacks: AC. A spellcaster on the other hand, has four DCs to choose from: AC, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. All monsters in the game have at least one high DC and at least one low DC, which means it’s only a matter of guess and check (or someone using a recall knowledge check to learn more about the monster) to figure out which DC is the lowest and which they should be targeting. You can also make an educated guess with this. Bigger, bulkier creatures likely have high Fortitude and maybe AC, but lower Reflex and maybe Will. Likewise, spellcasters have a high Will, but a lower Fortitude, Reflex, and even AC. It’s all about assessing the battlefield and knowing which spells to cast on what enemies. Don’t rely on one spell or one type of save! Be sure to mix it up!


Spell Traits

Spell traits are important to understand for any kind of caster. They tell you the limits of your spell and may determine how other effects interact with said spell. It’s important to mark these down when writing out your spells. You can find the list of Spell Traits on page 302 of the Core Rulebook and I’ll be going over them in further detail below.

  • Auditory: Spells with the auditory trait are obviously audible. This trait is different from a Verbal component as the Verbal component isn’t necessarily attached to you making the sound. An example of this is Ghost Sound which creates an auditory sound effect within 30, 60, or 120 feet depending on your spell level.

  • Darkness and Light: It can be important to understand the mechanics behind Darkness and Light if you’re planning on playing a stealth based character or a shadows based caster. It can also be helpful as a caster who lacks low-light vision or Darkvision. The wording with how light and darkness interact with one another can be somewhat confusing, but hopefully this explanation helps: Any light source, be it magical or non-magical, will always supersede non-magical darkness within its range. Think of this like a candle in a dark room. The room isn’t magically dark, so the candle will always light up the room to an extent, but larger rooms will still be dark in areas. Magical light can then be thwarted by magical darkness. In this instance, look at the level of the spell or effect being used. If the magical darkness’ level is higher, then it supersedes the magical light. If the magical light’s level is higher, then it supersedes the darkness. Magical darkness always supersedes non-magical light. If the level is the same, then the magical darkness wins.Magical light can be used to counteract magical darkness and vice versa, but to do so you have to either use a spell that specifically states it counteracts the darkness effect, or cast the light effect on the magical darkness. “I cast magic missile at the darkness,” doesn’t work, but, “I cast light at the magical darkness,” can work, prompting a counteract check.

  • Incapacitation: Incapacitation effects can be absolutely brutal on both players and monsters. These are usually effects that take a character completely out of the fight for a while, or give them horrible negative conditions. The balance to this is that these effects are harder to pull off on stronger foes. If the target of the incapacitation effect has a level more than twice the spell’s level, then it treats the effect as one stage lower towards them. So, if you cast a level 1 Incapacitation spell, the threshold for this would be level 2, so a level 3 or higher creature would treat its effects as one stage lower. So, if making a save, they’d treat a Success as a Critical Success. If there was an attack against them, they’d treat a Critical Success as a Success.

  • Minion: Creatures with the Minion trait are generally summoned monsters, familiars, and animal companions. Minions require their master to spend 1 action to control them. If it’s a spell, this is the same action required to Sustain the Spell. Upon using this action the minion then gets 2 actions to do anything their master pleases. It should be noted that nowhere in the minion trait does it state that you must know your minion’s language, so if you want to be a summoner of elementals you don’t need to worry about knowing their specific elemental language (although you definitely could do that for flavour).

  • Morph: Morph spells slightly alter your appearance, usually by granting you additional attacks, new abilities, and so on. Multiple morph effects can be in use at the same time and morph effects can persist through a polymorph. In both cases the morph effect may be counteracted if you take on a morph that alters something you’ve already morphed or if the new polymorph effect has something in the “morphed slot.” For example, if you use a morph that grants you wings and then use another morph that grants you wings, the second morph will try to counteract the first one. If you are polymorphed into a creature with wings and you previously were morphed to have wings the polymorph wings would supersede your morphed wings. This makes a Wild Druid all the more tasty of an option if you can pull off a morph followed by a polymorph causing you to become a chimeric monster.

  • Polymorph: Where morph can stack, polymorph cannot. A polymorph effect usually overhauls your appearance, making you appear as a different ancestry or as a monster. If you’re hit with another Polymorph effect while you’re already Polymorphed then a counteract check is in order. If the counteract succeeds, then the new polymorph effect succeeds. If the counteract fails, then the spell fails.Some polymorph spells make you transform into a Battle Form. While in a battle form you cannot be affected by Item Bonuses, but any other bonus or penalty still applies. There is a bit of a discrepancy with how battle forms affect certain things. The trait states that, “Unless otherwise noted, the battle form prevents you from casting spells, speaking, and using most manipulate actions.” Some friends of mine have pointed out that some battle forms that should specify that you can talk or use manipulate actions don’t, and their theory behind why is because of some remnants from the playtest since in the playtest it was the opposite; the polymorph trait had no mention of its limitations with casting spells, speaking, or using manipulate actions and instead it was in the spells themselves that stated if they could or not. This is just a theory of course and it does say that the GM has final say on if a battle form can use any of those specific actions, so if you want to be able to speak in your elemental form, poke your GM, maybe you can train yourself to learn how. (I believe this was cleared up in one of the Errata).

  • Summon: A summon almost always has the Minion trait, so make note of that. A summon can’t cast spells of a higher level than what was used to summon it, and the summon can’t summon additional creatures or create additional items. Unlike the Minion Trait, the Summon trait specifically mentions that if you know the summon’s language you can attempt to command it. This is where learning obscure languages can come in handy to help with your summons, or obtaining an item that grants a universal understanding of languages. You can also ask your GM how severe the penalties might be if the creature doesn’t know your language when it comes to commanding it. Generally, I wouldn’t make it much of an issue and I’d more so have a creature’s alignment make it more difficult to control if you don’t speak the language and command it to do something opposed to its beliefs. A black dragon might not care about the townsfolk, but if you can speak its language you can command it to aim its attacks in specific directions to have it avoid hurting civilians.

  • Visual: Like Auditory, Visual does not necessarily mean that people need to see you as you cast the spell, but instead the spell might create a visual, which, if your enemies or allies can’t see, has no effect. The spell description will likely state whether you are the visual or if the spell effect is the visual.


Counteracting

The rules for counteracting can be found on page 305 of the Core Rulebook, and expanded upon on page 458 of the Core Rulebook.


As we know from above, certain spells can attempt to counteract something. Certain items can do the same. This usually relies on a spell or item being used on the effect you are trying to counteract—casting light on a patch of magical darkness or having someone drink a potion of cure disease to counteract a disease.


Pathfinder 2nd Edition never has you do a roll off with something, and instead a counteract check is done using a d20 roll, plus whatever relevant modifiers from skills, spell proficiency, or items, and comparing the result to the DC of the counteract check. For spell against spell, it would be d20+spellcasting proficiency+spellcasting ability modifier+other miscellaneous bonuses vs the enemy’s spellcasting DC (including their spellcasting ability modifier)+other miscellaneous bonuses. When counteracting a spell, you use the spell’s level as the counteract level. If it’s some other source, then take the effect’s level, divide it by 2, and round up to determine its counteract level. There are then levels of success and failure to worry about once you’ve made the roll:

Critical Success: Counteract the target if its counteract level is no more than 3 levels higher than your effect’s counteract level.

Success: Counteract the target if its counteract level is no more than 1 level higher than your effect’s counteract level.

Failure: Counteract the target if its counteract level is lower than your effect’s counteract level.

Critical Failure: You fail to counteract the target.


You are only guaranteed failure if you critically fail the roll, so if you’re trying to counteract an effect of a lower level monster, then even on a failure you’ll likely succeed.


Areas of Effect

Area of Effect isn’t the most complicated thing in the world, but it can be confusing. Area of Effect is particularly important to understand for casters and the GM, but as more books come out more and more classes will be exposed to area of effects due to abilities that grant them, items, and innate spells. No longer is it just spellcasters who need to worry about this mechanic, but soon everyone will at least have the option to wield this power.


Different Kinds of Areas

Area of Effect is an umbrella term that means, “Anything that hits multiple targets within a set area.” So, for example, Electric Arc is not an area of effect because it does not have a set area, it just targets multiple creatures within a specific distance. However, Fireball is an area of effect because it targets everything within a certain area. By that nature, so is Lightning Bolt for affecting all targets within a line. Area of Effects come in a lot of shapes and sizes, and we’ll be going over those below.

  • Burst: The most confusing term here is the use of the word “corner” since Pathfinder 2nd Edition for the most part uses feet over squares, however if we look at the diagram found on page 456 of the Core Rulebook we can see that the origin point is a corner or an intersection between four squares. From this point it then emanates out in a burst in every direction. So, a burst of 5 feet would affect four squares in total. A burst of 10 feet would then expand outwards from that, affecting a total of eight squares. We can tell from the diagram that bursts work in a concave manner instead of convex with how it affects diagonal squares. It can get pretty confusing and hard to word, but hopefully this helps.

  • Cone: Describing a cone as a half circle works fairly well. Cones start from one square next to you and then expand outward. This is the same if you are small, tiny, or large. It extends a number of feet out equal to what is stated in the effect, most commonly 15 feet or 3 squares. You cannot have a cone overlap with your own space.

  • Emanation: An Emanation’s origin point is usually your space or another creature’s space. From this space it then expands outwards. You can choose to have the emanation’s effects ignore you if you are the focal point, which can be quite handy for damaging effects. Additionally, Large and Larger creatures have Emanations that affect an even greater area than that of a Medium or smaller creature, so watch out!

  • Line: These are fairly straight forward. They shoot out from a space (usually adjacent to you) in a straight line. You can fire them off at an angle in which case you draw the line like you would a pixel art drawing depending on the degree of angle of the line. You can use this to be fairly cheeky, perhaps angling the line so that it misses your ally three spaces away, but hits the enemy they’re fighting that is four spaces away.


Line of Sight and Line of Effect

These two terms often go hand in hand. You’ll often (but not always) need Line of Sight to the target of your effect, in the case of a Fireball, but from that point the Fireball is then reliant on Line of Effect instead.


Line of Sight is what you can see. If you cannot see a target due to a wall or an obstacle, then you don’t have Line of Sight. Imagine if you and your roommate are in separate but close rooms that have no way of seeing into each other. Your roommate then decides to go get himself a cup of tea, and in doing so exits his room and enters a hallway—to which you can see into from your room. Your roommate has now entered your Line of Sight and you can freely cast Fireball at them.


Line of Effect is like Line of Sight, but the “eye” is at the focal point of the effect. Your roommate has now entered Line of Sight and you cast Fireball. The Line of Effect now takes charge. Because of the radius of Fireball, you might also be struck by its effects. Additionally, your friend Tammy who just arrived and was heading towards your room but was out of your Line of Sight at the time is currently within the Line of Effect of the Fireball and gets struck by it. Meanwhile, your mother is inside her room with the door shut, so the Fireball does not have Line of Effect to her.


This is the difference between Line of Sight and Line of Effect.


Caution Required

Something to be extra careful of when using Area of Effects is that they do not care about friendly fire unless stated otherwise. This is why you accidentally incinerated yourself and your friend Tammy with your Fireball earlier. Because of this, on paper something that has an Area of Effect might look really juicy, but if you’re a Wizard amongst a party of melee fighters, odds are you’re going to end up hurting more allies than enemies, so it’s better to not entirely rely on Area of Effect spells.


Wrapping Up

Spell traits help us understand the strengths and limitations of our spells. Never forget to write them down and note down any important details if you haven’t memorised them yet. They are fairly straight forward, but their wording can be tricky and even I learned a thing or two from this deep dive into these specific rules that I had previously overlooked. Really want to play a Wild Druid now…


Area of Effects can be a lot of fun, but they can also be a little hard to envision and sometimes can slow down the game. Luckily there is the chart in the Core Rulebook as mentioned before, and there are loads of online resources to help map them digitally or create a map for them for your irl games. There are also various tools that you can buy at specialty shops for such a purpose.


While Spellcasting was always on my list of things to write about one day, a friend of mine, James B, brought up that they’d particularly be interested in my opinions on spellcasting, and I asked him a lot of questions of what he would like to see covered in this article, so thank you very much, James!


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