D&D 5E How common are "petty" spell casters?

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Before we start, I would like to preface this by saying there is no right answer - this is a "world design" consideration, and of course different DMs will come to different conclusions. But it's still useful to talk about it.

5e has given us several means to generate "petty" casters:
1: Someone who is a very low level caster and has "peaked" (ie won't go up in level and is "stuck" at that low level)
2: Someone who has a bit of magic via another mechanism - racial magic, or the magic initiate feat (a great way to make a "hedge mage" or priest), or a number of other feats that grant magic via a number of mechanisms - a peasant could be fey-touched for example!
3: NPCs don't have to follow precise rules. If you want a local fisherman to have a seagull familiar and not bother to explain how, go for it!
4: Someone could have an "external" source of magic they use - perhaps a magical item, or a magical being that can use magic on their behalf.

So these aren't people who are slinging fireballs and summoning angels - they just have a bit of magic that is useful to them and/or their community.

Personally I think it would be a mistake to have everyone have a bit of magic, but having every village have a local petty caster can be pretty interesting flavor. Of course once heroes reach tier 2 these will fade into the background, but they could be important NPCs at low levels. Just with magical initiate you can craft a great number of casters, who's style/flavor is based upon the spell list and the spell taken: "the ice mage" - someone with prestidigitation (for cooling and food preservation), ray of frost and ice knife, who's a rival of the red mage - a wandering tinker with mending, a raven familiar and firebolt. In an urban setting, there could be dozens of these. The Red Mage might have found employ at a petty noble, who wanted to emulate the king and get his very own "personal wizard".

Lastly, I'll mention that when I started writing this post, I had forgotten about racial magic, which would really change the dynamics in a community where this race is prevalent, but also how they are perceived. If there is one mage per village but every (high) elf knows magic... elves are magical beings!

Anyway, thinking about these "lesser casters" and how prevalent they are can really inform your world design and how the common people react to magic. Personally I like the "1-2 per village" level, as it helps with my personal "the PCs are not special at first but will become special" taste -at low levels you can cast firebolt, cool I guess, but when you start flinging fireballs people notice.
 
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In my world there was a Born Generation who discovered they could cast a single cantrip. These humans, halflings and goliaths are now all middle aged and some have taken to normal D&D casting (but only that small percentage who are potential heroes)
 


Jeremy E Grenemyer

Feisty
Supporter
In the Realms there are hedgewizards. Classed as wizards and (later) sorcerers of middling power, you could expect to encounter one every couple of villages or towns. They were relied upon by locals for the few helpful magics a typical hedgewizard could provide. They also had mundane skills and (local) knowledge that was of equal use to the folk living nearby, as well as to adventurers blundering their way forward to adventure. Their abodes were not wizard's towers or castles, but simple hovels or homes just below or on par with what common folk in the area lived in.

It was the hedgewizard's facility with magic that set them apart from local folk and made them unique. They ought to be rare, maybe a bit idiosyncratic, and memorable if not interesting.
 

Kobold Stew

Last Guy in the Airlock
Supporter
2: Someone who has a bit of magic via another mechanism - racial magic, or the magic initiate feat (a great way to make a "hedge mage" or priest), or a number of other feats that grant magic via a number of mechanisms - a peasant could be fey-touched for example!

For me, this is where small-time casters typically come from. I love playing (otherwise) mundane characters who have a knack -- the jump spell, or magic stone. Or using prestidigitation and mending to have a village laundry/seamstress. some small magic that they can pull out. Magic Initiate and Ritual Caster were great ways to implement it, IMO (and it is one of the ways that the revised Ritual Caster lets me down; and which I hope they change).

At the same time, there is (for my tastes) too much racial magic. One thing the revised Kobold did right was allow a single cantrip, but make it a choice: you could take a cantrip, or a save bonus, or a skill. YOu could play the race without needing to be a spellcaster.

In terms of world-building, among races where magic isn't baked in, I figure everyone knows someone who has a knack. So maybe 1 in 40. A town meeting will have a handful of low-level casters, though maybe only one or two with spellcasting class levels.
 

King Babar

God Learner
For my own setting, I developed this guideline for the rarity of spellcasters:

1 and 10 Rule: On average, 1% of the population knows some cantrips + 1st level spells, then 10% for every spell level after that.
Spell levelExample PopulationExample City
9th1
8th10
7th100
6th1,000
5th10,000
4th100,000
3rd1,000,0002
2nd10,000,00020
Cantrip + 1st100,000,000200
None10,000,000,00020,000

Naturally, this table applies mainly just to humans, since other races have innate spellcasting which fudges things. But my own personal setting is very human-focused, so it balances out.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
For my own setting, I developed this guideline for the rarity of spellcasters:

1 and 10 Rule: On average, 1% of the population knows some cantrips + 1st level spells, then 10% for every spell level after that.
Spell levelExample PopulationExample City
9th1
8th10
7th100
6th1,000
5th10,000
4th100,000
3rd1,000,0002
2nd10,000,00020
Cantrip + 1st100,000,000200
None10,000,000,00020,000

Naturally, this table applies mainly just to humans, since other races have innate spellcasting which fudges things. But my own personal setting is very human-focused, so it balances out.

While it's nice and easy it means that you need a population of TEN BILLION to have ONE person who can cast 9th level spells? So most worlds (including our own) would never have anyone who can do it.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
While it's nice and easy it means that you need a population of TEN BILLION to have ONE person who can cast 9th level spells? So most worlds (including our own) would never have anyone who can do it.
Is that a problem?

I like my magic-using population to number slightly higher than the number of wizards in middle earth. Magic isn't cool if anyone can do it. So petty casters shouldn't really exist.
 




Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
For my worlds magic is rare and difficult to master (like AT ALL), so less than 1 in 100 creatures will be able to use any magic whatsoever.
So as common as a shoe cobbler? (based on one survey done in the medieval age, shoe cobbler was the most common type of artisan, even more so than blacksmith - there was about 1 per 127 inhabitant).

That doesn't seem that rare at all. Definitely fits the "one per every village" idea.
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
So as common as a shoe cobbler? (based on one survey done in the medieval age, shoe cobbler was the most common type of artisan, even more so than blacksmith - there was about 1 per 127 inhabitant).

That doesn't seem that rare at all. Definitely fits the "one per every village" idea.
1 in 100 is rare when you consider that is ANY magic at all, cantrips, spell-like features, etc. And note I said "creatures", not just humanoids/ inhabitant-types. ;)
 


Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
The assumption in Eberron is these types of casters are fairly common. A magewright (arcane), adept (divine), or gleaner (primal) are almost as easy to find as a guild crafter. After that it's a steep drop off, with npcs that can rival high level spellcasting characters being fairly rare.
That aren't outright evil, or stuck in one spot. Very few clerics can match Jaela Daran for sheer divine might, but only while she's within the city of Flamekeep, or the leader of a druid sect that is an awakened pine tree who also happens to be firmly planted in place.

Otherwise all of the most powerful spellcasters are evil, crazy, or both.
 


Quickleaf

Legend
DMG says a village can range up to 1,000 people, which seems really big to me. In my home world I probably use one "hedge mage" per 500-1,000 person village. I don't really pay attention to the exact numbers. So if you imagine 3 villages (one bigger, two smaller) spaced about 1-2 day's travel apart along a river, one of those villages might have 1 "hedge mage", the other two might have none, and there might be 1 "hedge mage" living in the woods nearby.

My "hedge mages" generally break the rules because (a) that helps move the dial of D&D's magic more towards mystery (rather than the intensely de-mystified codification it already has), and (b) because then the "hedge mages" are still of use to PCs wielding earth-shaking magics.

For instance, take speak with dead... it requires that:
  • the corpse must be willing to talk with you
  • the corpse must have its mouth (i.e. not beheaded, disintegrated, or decayed to dust)
  • the corpse can't have been undead or targeted by speak with dead within 10 days
  • the corpse doesn't need to be honest & will be "brief, cryptic, or repetitive"
  • the corpse can only report on what it knew while alive, and may have faulty info
So I might devise a Medium or Deadspeaker "hedge mage" NPC who can compel the dead to speak as a ritual so long as you have a living relative of that dead person present.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
good reply!

For me, this is where small-time casters typically come from. I love playing (otherwise) mundane characters who have a knack -- the jump spell, or magic stone. Or using prestidigitation and mending to have a village laundry/seamstress. some small magic that they can pull out. Magic Initiate and Ritual Caster were great ways to implement it, IMO (and it is one of the ways that the revised Ritual Caster lets me down; and which I hope they change).

I like the use of "knack" - because it's a "level" even lower than the "petty mage". And I think you're making a really good point about profession. If a peasant knows the jump spell... cool, but it's not going to change his life. But prestidigitation? Cleaning everything by hand is a lot of work, and someone could definitely have made a living with that single cantrip alone. And then there are sort of "in-between" cases, where a spell could help a mundane job or be central to the person's living, like a fisherman captain who can use her seagull familiar as I mentioned, or maybe she can hire herself as a pilot on a larger ship.

This would be true of petty mages - I would imagine many of those also try to master "magic adjacent" skills like herbalism or alchemy.

The new Ritual caster feat is definitely a let-down.

In terms of world-building, among races where magic isn't baked in, I figure everyone knows someone who has a knack. So maybe 1 in 40. A town meeting will have a handful of low-level casters, though maybe only one or two with spellcasting class levels.

I think that from a world building point of view, it makes it easier if those knacks are random. If the knack is chosen, then we have to explain why every village doesn't have a magic plowsperson...
 

Personally, I tend to make "magic initiate" level casters fairly common, although they tend to be focused on utility spells (including utility spells that may not be available to PC's since "cure potato blight" isn't likely to be of use in a dungeon). Of course, being an evil DM, I figure if you are a magic initiate for a warlock, there is still a patron involved and the coffers of Hell and the Abyss are full of souls of those who thought they weren't really making a deal....

I also borrowed an idea from the Malazan books, and have governments try to recruit (forcibly if necessary) anyone with offensive magic. Sure, a lich, an archmage, or a bunch of druids can tell the agents of King X or the Empire of Y to pound sand and make it stick, but if the best you can do is a 3rd-level fireball, you should probably keep you head down, move out to the woods, or try to get the best deal when the recruiter shows up.
 

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