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D&D 5E Using NPC Spellcasters

Dan Chernozub

First Post
After reading a couple of published adventures and playing a bit as a player, I have an impression that some (most?) DMs shun using NPC spellcasters unless it is a BBEG.

Me personally, while running DnD standard, magic-abundant worlds, I use at least a few low-level spellcasters in any humanoid group, regardless of their alignment/attitude towards the party.

If anything, because the world logic suggests that. If an Orc Tribe is warring with the Dwarven Forpost, why would only one side have a sizeable % of its combatants wielding magic? Obviously, orcs won't sport a lot of wizards amongst their ranks, but still.

On the other hand, I find even a limited spell selection can make an encounter more interesting. It not only brings variety to the mob, it also helps you create group tactics that really set apart fighting against intelligent foes from hacking through hordes of mindless brutes.

For example, a group of Bugbears with access to just a few 1st level spells can do so much more:
Disguise Self/Snare/Fog Cloud to set up an ambush;
Color Spray/Faerie Fire to maximize the damage and chaos;
Alarm the path to their hideout for protection;
etc ...

How often and how are you using/facing NPC spellcasters in your games?
 

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Nevvur

Explorer
Magic is relatively common in my world, but spellcasters are not. They're uncommon-rare as adversaries, but I don't restrict them to boss or miniboss status either. Heavily dependent on the situation. If the party is raiding a cultist's compound, every adversary might be a spellcaster. If it's a goblin warren, maybe they only have a single shaman, if that.

If I had to throw out a rough estimate of their frequency over time in my games, NPC spellcasters comprise about 10% of the ranks of mooks, 30% of lieutenants, and 70% of big bads.

I don't always include spellcasters, and encounters featuring multiple types of NPC spellcasters are infrequent.
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
I'd say about 10-25% of enemies of races who could be casters are casters. Typically my parties will encounter essentially another "party": one or two defensive types, one or two offensive types and 1 or 2 support types, the latter are usually casters. I run a very limited spell selection so that I can run them quickly and usually use average+1 on damage dice to speed things up. There are some exceptions: dragons are always full casters (I ignore the dragon caster variant rules and give them sorcerer spell-levels based on their age above wyrmling; 5/10/15/20), Drow parties are at least 3/4ths casters (usually 2 battle-mage/EK-types, 2 clerics or sorcerers and then light melee AT or rangers). The same is true for Yuan-ti and other magically-flavored races when encountered.

This is fairly representative of my world as well, that 10-25% of people who take up "classes" (which is again, only about 10-25% of the population) become casters. Mileage may vary depending on the civilization in question.
 

5ekyu

Hero
It varies but it is not at all uncommon. Shamans, priestess, alchemists/herbalists more often and arcane casters less. By the same token, charms, fetishes, tonics etc as expendables are even more common.



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Hawk Diesel

Adventurer
Spellcasters are a common enemy in my games. However, I think the reason people are reluctant to use them is because it increases the DM's workload to cast spells. Not only do you have to be on top of the spellcaster's spell list and use their spells appropriately based on the situation, but it takes a good amount of work to either have the spell ready or know what it does.

For this reason, I don't use the spells presented in the PHB or other official sources. I describe what the spell looks like, I figure out roughly the mechanical effect in my head based off of the situation, and set a DC if it's not an attack. It keeps the game fluid and moving, and it keeps the players off their toes. Spells in the PHB, SCAG, XGtE, and ect are for the players. A DM does not need to be bound by such limits, and can be and should exercise greater creativity on the fly.

You can maybe make notes in the enemy's description that they specialize in fire magic, support/protective magic, necromancy, or whatever. Or pre-plan certain tactics. But otherwise, I just kinda wing it.
 

5ekyu

Hero
Spellcasters are a common enemy in my games. However, I think the reason people are reluctant to use them is because it increases the DM's workload to cast spells. Not only do you have to be on top of the spellcaster's spell list and use their spells appropriately based on the situation, but it takes a good amount of work to either have the spell ready or know what it does.

For this reason, I don't use the spells presented in the PHB or other official sources. I describe what the spell looks like, I figure out roughly the mechanical effect in my head based off of the situation, and set a DC if it's not an attack. It keeps the game fluid and moving, and it keeps the players off their toes. Spells in the PHB, SCAG, XGtE, and ect are for the players. A DM does not need to be bound by such limits, and can be and should exercise greater creativity on the fly.

You can maybe make notes in the enemy's description that they specialize in fire magic, support/protective magic, necromancy, or whatever. Or pre-plan certain tactics. But otherwise, I just kinda wing it.
Agree.

But slightly differently i will also for some pre-buff and then have a short list of spells per slot and reduced slots.

This then allows for changes if the circumstances change with time to prepare... Different spells for tracking down robbers vs sitting at base.

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Dan Chernozub

First Post
Nice point,

I usually assume that some cantrips/spells go for utility things and hence make give cantrips/spells to combat-mostly NPCs.

@ Hawk Diesel I am a bit worried about winging it due to balance issues and the risk to make players feel "unfair". How do you handle this to keep yours on the go spells balanced and challenging and not frustrating?
 

As part of your DM prep for a session, I think it's easy enough to print up a short spell sheet or two for your NPCs using this resource: www.dnd-spells.com

I encourage the spellcaster players to do the same as they add new spells when they level up.

Less time looking up spells in the PHB at the table = more time for the fun stuff at the table
 

Gadget

Adventurer
I think this is one area where 4e had some great design that has been largely left behind. Monsters/NPCs don't need to follow the same creation rules as PCs: the PHB is for making PCs, not necessarily NPCs/Monsters. The burden and folly of this was made clear in 3e. 5e's simpler system makes it more manageable, but is still constraining and overly complex for most NPCs.
 


Hawk Diesel

Adventurer
Nice point,

I usually assume that some cantrips/spells go for utility things and hence make give cantrips/spells to combat-mostly NPCs.

@ Hawk Diesel I am a bit worried about winging it due to balance issues and the risk to make players feel "unfair". How do you handle this to keep yours on the go spells balanced and challenging and not frustrating?

Fair question. My perspective on balance is more concerned with players feeling balanced against one another. No one player should outshine the others or steal the spotlight too much, and vice versa. I also make it clear in session 0 that my DM style is that not all encounters will be designed to be fair or that the players can win. Just because they encounter someone, doesn't mean they can beat it. This causes them to have to think about how to approach each NPC and encounter, rather than just run blindly into battle and strong approach NPCs.
 

Gadget

Adventurer
[MENTION=6899046]Dan Chernozub[/MENTION]

I think right now, the implications are that the DM is free to (or burdened with, depending on your pov) winging it a lot more. For neutral/friendly NPCs (and even antagonists), it means you can tailor their abilities/powers to the needs of the story/plot/theme without having to worry overly much about 'breaking' the PHB spellcasting rules for a given character class. This means that the Town/village cleric or Druid can assist the PCs by casting raise dead as ritual without being a powerful enough spell caster to throw down 5th level spells left and right, with the PC's wondering why she doesn't just handle the vampire threat herself. Perhaps her version can only be performed at great need, in response to a heroic sacrifice or some such. Maybe the PC was only 'Mostly dead' ;)

It means that the goblin shaman can cast a bestow curse like effect (maybe multiple times) without throwing down with fireball. It is more than just spell selection: the ability can become available again after a "recharge" roll (more shades of 4e). It may be based on a PC spell effect but freed of some of the limitations and more narrow in scope in other areas. Dragons are another classic example. In some past additions, they practically became wizards in scaled cloaks to make them at all challenging. I've seen the trend in 5e to 'give them about 3-5 levels of Dragon Sorcerer' or something, to help make them live up to their CR. While that works, the Sorcerer class is designed for humanoid PCs (even the Dragon Sorcerer). I kind of like giving them abilities that are similar but more thematic to their Archetype and status. Maybe a hypnotic gaze that implants a suggestion in the victim, an aura of heat/cold/poison. Maybe "scintillating scales" that give them a Mage Armor like ability.

That said, it takes a fair bit of experience and practice to eyeball these things, and I won't pretend I'm an expert at it, so YMMV.
 
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CTurbo

First Post
I completely agree with [MENTION=59848]Hawk Diesel[/MENTION] in that not every encounter is winnable, and fighting is not always the answer. Especially at low levels. Choose your fights wisely.

Now about NPC spellcasters, I like using them, and to help keep the prep time down, I usually don't prepare a spell list for them. I just cast whatever I think will fit best in that situation. You don't HAVE to follow any spell set when you're DMing. Do whatever you want. This also helps keep options available for you to control the battle if needed. If your party is wiping the floor with the encounter so far, you can attack their weaknesses. If the party is struggling a lot more than you thought, you can attack their strengths.

Example, want to go easy on the 21AC fully armored Fighter/Pally? Ranged spell attack or something with a Str save like Lightning Lure. Want to be hard on the 21AC fully armored Fighter/Pally? Upcasted Magic Missile or something with a Dex save like Sacred Flame.
 

Satyrn

First Post
Nice point,

I usually assume that some cantrips/spells go for utility things and hence make give cantrips/spells to combat-mostly NPCs.

@ Hawk Diesel I am a bit worried about winging it due to balance issues and the risk to make players feel "unfair". How do you handle this to keep yours on the go spells balanced and challenging and not frustrating?
I do the same kind of thing as Hawk Diesel. I keep it "fair" by giving the spellcasters thematic effects that reinforce the enemy's feel, rather than making their spells powerful.

Like, if I've got a cult priest of the Serpent Demon, he might have a scorching blast like spell ('multiple rays) except that he hurls magically conjured snakes that deal poison damage. And instead of hold person, he'll hurl a boa constrictor to wrap them up. Just those two effects are enough to make the character look like a spellcaster - and he probably won't last long enough to use both of them twice.

Oh, and on top of that, when I want to up an enemy spellcaster's AC, I just do so and pretend it's an effect like mage armor, but again, flavored for the character. The cultist will have scales, for example, while a cleric might have a blessed shield aura, and a wizard will like just have mage armor because mages are boring.

I make the effects flavorful, thematic, and not overpowered (based 9on however powerful I want the caster to be). For me, its really just like creating any other monster in the end.


Oh, and if the players see a spell they like, they can research it, or it down in a spellbook, and it's at that point that we can worry about writing it up like a player's spell.
 

Me personally, while running DnD standard, magic-abundant worlds, I use at least a few low-level spellcasters in any humanoid group, regardless of their alignment/attitude towards the party.
Why do you think that magic-abundant worlds are standard? We don't really get anything in any of the core books that tell us how common spellcasters should be, or are assumed to be, except for the part in the DMG that tells the DM to take that into consideration whenever they create a new setting.
 

Dan Chernozub

First Post
Why do you think that magic-abundant worlds are standard? We don't really get anything in any of the core books that tell us how common spellcasters should be, or are assumed to be, except for the part in the DMG that tells the DM to take that into consideration whenever they create a new setting.

Well, because we know how magic abundant are the most of the worlds where the printed adventures take place. Might be wrong. Not an expert on published materials.
 

To me NPC spellcasters are very important. They make it harder for PCs to assume enemy strength just by looking at numbers of enemies.

Also NPC wizards are important as middling foes as they allow PC wizards to acquire new spells to expand their spellbooks.
 

Well, because we know how magic abundant are the most of the worlds where the printed adventures take place. Might be wrong. Not an expert on published materials.
I think the published adventures are supposed to take place in The Forgotten Realms, which is one of the highest-magic settings around, and we have a ton of stories about spellcasters in that setting; but I don't know if they ever got around to saying exactly what percentage of the total population is actually magical. I've read a couple of Drizzt books, and he spent most of a trilogy hanging out in a party of pure fighter-types.

If the published adventures only feature spellcasters as high-level bosses and lieutenants, it could be that they're copying from the format of the novels. Or it could be that the novels are patterned after earlier published adventures, which only had very few spellcasters because they took place in lower-magic settings.
 

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