Archive for November, 2022

(3.5/PF1) Playing a Utility Mage, Introduction and Part I: Spell Categories

November 28, 2022

My current campaign, where I’m playing a magic-hating slayer (a PF1 class) with the witch killer archetype, is moving toward its conclusion. As a result, I’ve started to think about my next character, with a wizard being an appealing prospect. To that end, here are some general thoughts I’ve had on how to get the most out of a wizard PC who has an out-of-combat focus.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that character classes lend themselves to certain roles. While various builds, alternate class features, and Pathfinder-style archetypes can tweak what each class does best, the base versions have particular areas of focus where they tend to be most effective. For wizards, one such area is what I call “utility magic.”

To be sure, their broad selection of spells allows for wizards to fulfill a wide variety of specialties. Blaster mages, battlefield controllers, summoners, and many more are areas where wizards can excel, or at least serve as above-average practitioners (even if several of those areas have their own specialty classes with a tighter focus). But utility magic is an area where wizards truly shine.

But rather than jump the wand, let’s start off with a simple definition of exactly what utility magic – or rather, a “utility mage” – is:

A utility mage is a wizard who primarily uses their spells to solve out-of-combat problems that the party faces.

Now, that’s a fairly broad and unnuanced statement, and so requires clarification. For one thing, this doesn’t mean that a utility mage has no part to play when combat breaks out. They absolutely do! But it’s not their specialty, which means that they’re not going to be an unstoppable force of destruction on the battlefield. Taking huge chunks out of an enemy’s hit points is something best left to fighters, rogues, sorcerers, and similar classes; utility mages do their part, but they truly shine when the problem facing the group is one that can’t simply be cut down.

With that said, let’s take a look at how a utility mage can best prepare their spells for the challenges they’ll face.


Before we talk about how a utility mage should prepare their spells, it should be stressed that what’s below are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. If you have a good idea of what your party will be facing in the near future, make sure to keep that in mind when readying your magical loadout for the day, adjusting the recommendations below as necessary. Flexibility is a utility mage’s greatest assets, so be sure to use it maximum effect when you know what you’ll be up against ahead of time.

Taking that into account, here are a few categories for how you should ready your spells each day:

Spells to Prepare: It’s self-evident that the spells you’ll want to actually prepare in your available spell slots are the ones you think there’s a high likelihood of needing to cast sometime over the next day. But you only have so many slots, which means getting the most you can out of the spells you’ve readied.

To that end, one of the most salient factors worth considering is the duration of a particular spell. Mage armor is an excellent choice here, because its hour-per-level duration means that once you have a few levels under your belt, it’s practically guaranteed to last for an entire adventuring day. Shield, by contrast, is much less likely to last as long as you need.

As a rule of thumb, any spell with a duration of 10 minutes per level should be considered here (taking into account the usefulness of the spell in question; if you’re adventuring in a temperate climate during the summer months, an endure elements spell won’t be very helpful, even if it does last for a long time). False life, resist energy, see invisibility; all are excellent choices that have the potential to last through the active part of an adventuring day, especially if you happen to have an Extend Spell metamagic rod handy.

There’s a second category of spells that you’ll also want to consider preparing here, but based on casting time rather than duration. Specifically, any spell which requires an immediate action to cast is something you’ll want to prepare, simply because there’s no other way to cast them in a timely manner. Feather fall, along with spells such as avoid planar effects (3.5), emergency force sphere (PF1), liberating command (PF1), or nerveskitter (3.5) are all spells you can’t put to their fullest use if you need to spend a move action drawing a scroll. Dedicate a spell slot to them so that you won’t wish you had later.

Spells to Leave a Slot Open For: A quirk of the d20 rules is that, if a preparatory spellcaster chooses to leave a spell slot open when preparing their spells for the day, they can fill it with a particular spell after fifteen minutes of study. You’ll want to take advantage of this for when an unexpected situation happens that requires a spell you haven’t prepped.

The general guideline here is to leave a single slot open at each spell level; if that’s too much, leave open a slot of the highest spell level you can cast, and one at every other level below that (remember, you can prepare a spell in a higher-level slot). That way, if it turns out that you need control water or stone shape, you can prepare them without having to wait an entire day.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with waiting an entire day if the party is in no rush. It won’t be that often that you’ll have fifteen minutes free to prepare a spell, but won’t be able to wait until tomorrow’s round of spell preparation. Even so, there are times when losing a day might make a difference; if the enemy army marches out the next morning, you won’t be able to wait a day to send an arcane eye into the commander’s tent to look over their plans.

While spells with niche effects are the go-to for this particular category, note that spells with long casting times also fit this designation very well. If you have ten minutes free to cast sending, then an extra fifteen minutes to prepare it usually won’t make that much of a difference. Ditto for fire trap, hallucinatory terrain, and major creation, among other spells.

Spells to Put in a Scroll: You know how wizards get Scribe Scroll for free? There’s a reason for that! Even if you trade that free feat away via an archetype or alternate class feature, make sure to take it via a feat slot as soon as you can; it’s that important!

Remember those niche spells we said probably weren’t worth preparing in a slot ahead of time? This is where they go! Something like water breathing doesn’t seem worth preparing at all when you’re about to venture down into a dungeon. But when the back room of the place turns out to open into a cavern with an underground lake, and some tentacled horror lurking in the water grabs the paladin and pulls him under, all of a sudden it’s one of the most important spells in your arsenal…and you can bet that he’s not going to be able to wait fifteen minutes for you to prep it in an open slot.

That’s really the perfect example for this category, because it encompasses spells which won’t be necessary ninety-nine percent of the time, but when they are needed, they’re needed right now! When your fighter fails his save against a medusa’s petrifying gaze, you need him back in the fight immediately, which is when it’s time to break out that scroll of stone to flesh you’ve been carrying around. The same can be said for using that scroll of remove curse you’ve been saving (since the cleric doesn’t usually prepare that spell) when the aboleth you’re fighting dominates the party’s barbarian.

That combination – immediacy and eccentric effect – is also why you shouldn’t bother putting spells with unusually short or notably long casting times on scrolls. The former (as noted previously) aren’t useful if you need to spend an action retrieving a scroll, while the latter can just be prepped into an open slot (since you already have the free time to cast them). That doesn’t even take into account that the PF1 rules specify that activating a scroll takes a standard action or the spell’s full casting time, whichever is longer, to boot. Since each scroll is a monetary investment on your part, make sure you’re putting your gp where it’ll do the most good.

Spells to Cast from a Wand or Staff: Remember that bit about a utility mage having a role to play in combat, even if it wasn’t where they excelled? This is what that was in reference to.

As exciting as it can be to imagine busting out a little-known spell that turns things around, there are going to be times when a fight is just a matter of wearing down the bad guys’ hit points before they wear down yours. To that end, you’ll want one or two good attack spells, an equal number of defensive spells, and a buff spell or two (all 4th-level or below), all of which will be your go-to magic for when a fight breaks out. Those are what you’ll want to go into wands, or ideally a staff.

If that sounds boring, remember that these are your fallback options for when there’s nothing else you can do to contribute. Solving out-of-combat problems is important, but when a fight does break out, you don’t want to be the guy sitting there doing nothing because he prepped for all sorts of unusual contingencies but has nothing to do in a straightforward battle. Better a staff/small group of wands than using a sling or a light crossbow.

This might seem like a less-than-ideal proposition, given that wands tend to have poor caster levels and worse save DCs. A wand of fireball, for instance, is caster level 5; that means it only deals 5d6 damage, which is 17 points on average, and 8 if the bad guys make their Reflex saves…which they likely will, since the save DC is only 14.

The thing to remember here is that’s what “not being optimized for combat” looks like. Reliably dealing a small amount of damage each round, ideally to multiple enemies at once, is a respectable role to play, even if it’s not one that warrants the spotlight. If you do want to stand out a little more, however, consider asking the GM if you can pay to improve a wand’s caster level (as per the “adding new abilities” clause for creating magic items). The difference in cost of upgrading a CL 5 wand of fireball to, for instance, a CL 10 wand of fireball is easy to calculate (it simply doubles the price from 11,250 gp to 22,500 gp), and while that won’t change the save DC, it ups the damage dice and helps to deal with spell resistance. If you can’t upgrade an existing wand, then make sure your next one is built that way to begin with.

A final note with regard to wands with attack spells: you’ll want to have at least two, just in case you run into an enemy who’s immune to one damage type. You can’t hurt devils with a wand of fireball, for instance, so you’ll want to have a wand of lightning bolt just in case.

For defensive and buffing wands, you’ll either want to choose spells that are personal-only (such as shield) or affect multiple creatures (such as haste). Spells which can be cast on others, but only affect one person per casting (such as cat’s grace), are likely to be depleted in very short order if everyone wants those used on them before every fight. While wands are made to be used, burning through them faster than you can fund buying/making new ones is something you want to avoid. Even for spells with long durations (such as protection from energy), you’ll still expend a number of charges equal to the entire party at the beginning of the adventuring day, which can add up faster than you might think; better to prepare those long-duration spells in your slots, even if you need to do so multiple times over.

One trick that help with a defensive/buffing wand’s lifespan is to buy or make them with the Extend Spell metamagic feat built-in. That this can be done is established in Pathfinder via riffle scrolls (which are just normal scrolls whose spells have been modified by Silent Spell), and there shouldn’t be a problem with it in 3.5 either. Using Extend Spell in this way is often a money-saver.

For instance, a typical wand of haste is 11,250 gp, since its construction cost is 5 (caster level) x 3 (spell level) x 750 gp. A wand of extended haste (CL 7 x spell level 4 x 750 gp) is 21,000 gp. And yet the latter lasts for 14 rounds compare to the former’s 5, being almost triple the duration for less than double the price. It also affects seven characters instead of five, in case you have a larger party. For more savings, ask if the GM will let you upgrade a former into the latter (though you’ll either need to have taken Extend Spell or have a metamagic rod for that).

Now, the advantage of a staff is that you can combine all of these functions into one (if you’re worried about the theme of the staff, just say that it’s “battle”). Doing so has numerous advantages, the largest of which is that it saves on money. Consider the following example (for 3.5):

Morios, a utility mage, has a CL10 wand of fireball (22,500 gp), a CL 10 wand of lightning bolt (22,500 gp), a CL 7 wand of extended haste (21,000 gp), and a CL 3 wand of extended shield (4,500 gp). His total expenditures add up to 70,500 gp. Even if he crafts all of those himself, halving the prices, that’s still expensive! To cut down on costs, Morios decides to commission the crafting of a custom staff that has all of those spells.

Because staves can’t be crafted with a caster level of less than 8 (and there’s no reason to go higher, since they always function at their wielder’s caster level), and because Morios doesn’t want to have to expend two charges for any particular function, the costs are as follows:

  • The extended haste (being a 4th-level effect) costs 12,000 gp (caster level x spell level x 375 gp).
  • The next-highest effect can be either of the 3rd-level spells, so fireball is arbitrarily chosen, costing 6,750 gp (caster level x spell level x 281.25 gp).
  • The remaining 3rd-level spell, lightning bolt, only costs 4,500 gp (caster level x spell level x 187.5 gp).
  • The final spell effect, a 2nd-level extended shield, costs 3,000 gp (caster level x spell level x 187.5 gp).

That comes out to a grand total of 26,250 gp, barely more than the cost of his single most-expensive wand! Throw in that there’s no more wasting actions drawing and switching between wands, and that his staff will automatically use his caster level and ability score modifier to save DCs, and this is a much better option all around…or is it?

One thing to keep in mind here is that, as attractive as staves are, they have some hidden drawbacks. The big one being that you’re now drawing on a communal pool of charges for your spells. Before, Morios’s four wands had two hundred charges between them, with an average cost of 352.5 gp per charge. For his staff, he’s paying 525 gp per charge. Whether or not that’s worthwhile is a toss-up (you can’t assign a gp value to saving actions switching between wands, nor the ability to use your own caster level and ability score modifier for save DCs), but purely in terms of cost it’s a net loss, particularly since the charges will run out that much sooner.

And it’s worse for PF1-style staves. Their cost to create is higher, albeit only barely (the example staff listed above would cost 28,000 gp to purchase in PF1), but while their ability to be perpetually recharged for no monetary expenditure means that you save gp in the long run, their miniscule pool of only ten charges – and inability to regain more than one charge per day – means that you’ll expend them almost immediately if you use them as your go-to in battle, and then be stuck waiting for days to fully recharge them.

If you’re playing Pathfinder 1st edition, and want to follow these guidelines for playing a utility mage, it’s probably better to eschew staves altogether in favor of wands.

Next time: Spells are a utility mage’s bread and butter, but they don’t get all that many for free, so we’ll look at various methods of spell acquisition.