Spells Per Day Tables Are a Lot of Work for Little Gain

blue wizard

This is a thought exercise. There’s a TLDR at the bottom.

In the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook, the spells per day tables for spellcasting classes are a weird place in the game rules. You get X spells per day for each spell level, but there’s a separate table (in a different chapter) to determine how many extra spells per day you get for having a high ability score.

(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)

It’s set up that way because you might have a character who doesn’t meet the ability score minimums for certain levels of spellcasting, . For example, a level 5 wizard with Int 11 has access to 3rd-level spell slots, but can’t actually prepare 3rd-level spells in those slots because he’s not smart enough to cast 3rd-level spells; he can only prepare lower-level spells in those 3rd-level spell slots.

Which means the basic table is built on the assumption that the character isn’t minimally competent at their class.

Most people wouldn’t choose to build their character that way because it’s a significant limitation, but it could happen (heck, I’ve done it). And it means building a spellcaster character has an extra step of tedious chart-hopping, which is another obstacle between “I’m a new player” and “I’m getting the rules right.”

What if you ignore that isn’t-minimally-competent-character assumption in the table? What if you determined the minimum ability score to actually cast spells of that spell level, and added in the bonus spells per day from Table 1–3: Ability Modifiers and Bonus Spells (page 17)? The wizard table would look like this (listing the extra spells as “+1” just so it’s easier to track the difference compared to the normal table, instead of actually adding in the number):

0 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th
1st 3 1
2nd 4 2
3rd 4 2+1 1
4th 4 3+1 2
5th 4 3+1 2 1
6th 4 3+1 3 2
7th 4 4+1 3+1 2 1
8th 4 4+1 3+1 3 2
9th 4 4+1 4+1 3 2 1
10th 4 4+1 4+1 3 3 2
11th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 3 2 1
12th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 3 3 2
13th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 3 2 1
14th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 3 3 2
15th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 3 2 1
16th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 3 3 2
17th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 4 3 2 1
18th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 4 3 3 2
19th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 4 3 3
20th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 4 4 4

Note that for most of the wizard’s adventuring career, the difference is only 1 spell per day for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level spells. And note this isn’t changing the rules for how many spells a wizard should get, it’s just changing how we show information on the table with the assumption that the wizard can actually cast spells of his highest spell level.

Okay, but most player’s don’t play with an absolute-minimum-Int wizard, they put their best stat into Int and improve it with the ability score bumps at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 20th level. If start with the standard ability score array (15 14 13 12 10 8), put the 15 in Int, no racial mods, and use your +1 ability score boost for Int every time, and incorporate those as the minimum ability score into the wizard table, you get this:

0 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th
1st 3 1+1
2nd 4 2+1
3rd 4 2+1 1+1
4th 4 3+1 2+1
5th 4 3+1 2+1 1+1
6th 4 3+1 3+1 2+1
7th 4 4+1 3+1 2+1 1
8th 4 4+1 3+1 3+1 2
9th 4 4+1 4+1 3+1 2 1
10th 4 4+1 4+1 3+1 3 2
11th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 3 2 1
12th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 3+1 3 2
13th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 3 2 1
14th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 3 3 2
15th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 3 2 1
16th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 3 3 2
17th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 4 3 2 1
18th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 4 3 3 2
19th 4 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 4 4 3 3
20th 4 4+2 4+1 4+1 4+1 4 4+1 4 4 4

That’s much more consistent at the lowest levels (almost always just 1 extra spell per day for spell level 1st, 2nd, and 3rd)—the player would never have to refer to the Ability Modifiers and Bonus Spells until level 7 when he gets 4th-level spells and but his Int (finally) doesn’t grant him a bonus spell of his highest spell level. And notice that even for spell levels where the wizard gets a bonus spell, with the exception of 1st-level spells at level 20, the difference is only one spell per day. In other words, you’re making the player go through a lot of work adding up stuff on different charts just for one spell level per day for low-level spell levels.

You just as easily could build these minimum bonus spells into the wizard table, and then modify the Ability Modifiers and Bonus Spells table to ignore all of those “1” results (because they’re built into the table) and change all of its “2” results into “1” results (because the first bonus spell would already be built into the table, and the second bonus spell would be from really high ability scores); mathematically, that would still give spellcasters the same number of spells per day, but the player wouldn’t have to do cross-table math until the wizard’s Int hit 20 or higher (the first point at which the table gets its first “2”). If you built in all of those “1” bonus spells into the wizard table, and added up the numbers instead of making them “+1,” it would look like this:

0 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th
1st 3 2
2nd 4 3
3rd 4 3 2
4th 4 4 3
5th 4 4 3 2
6th 4 4 4 3
7th 4 5 4 3 1
8th 4 5 4 4 2
9th 4 5 5 4 2 1
10th 4 5 5 4 3 2
11th 4 5 5 5 3 2 1
12th 4 5 5 5 4 3 2
13th 4 5 5 5 5 3 2 1
14th 4 5 5 5 5 3 3 2
15th 4 5 5 5 5 4 3 2 1
16th 4 5 5 5 5 4 3 3 2
17th 4 5 5 5 5 4 4 3 2 1
18th 4 5 5 5 5 4 4 3 3 2
19th 4 5 5 5 5 4 4 4 3 3
20th 4 6 5 5 5 4 5 4 4 4

Of course, if you’re not having to worry about the Ability Modifiers and Bonus Spells table until your ability score is 20, and the net benefit of that high ability score is just a few more lower-level spells, you’re doing a lot of cross-table math work for very little reward. (If you start with 15, increase that stat every 4 levels, and buy a +6 headband at level 12, that’s only Int 24 at level 24, that’s only an extra 3rd-level spell each day… when you’re able to cast 6th-level spells.)

And given the prevalence of scrolls and wands in the Pathfinder RPG, you already have the means to get those low-level spells you need. So it’s a lot of work for very little reward, and that reward is redundant to equipment you’re carrying.

So maybe the Ability Modifiers and Bonus Spells table could just go away, and you could just alter the spells per day charts to include those extra +1s at the appropriate levels (or rebuild the number progression for all spell levels to account for that, so each spell level matches and doesn’t rely on a discarded secondary table at all).

TLDR: Maybe we could dump the Ability Modifiers and Bonus Spells table, and modify the spells per day tables to account for the bonus spells per day from the expected minimum ability scores. Together that would give us a simpler process for building and leveling spellcaster characters so you wouldn’t have to look at two tables 20+ pages apart to figure out your spells per day.

* Of course, PFRPG inherited this from D&D 3E, so it’s not like PF created this problem.

** I’m pretty sure the “extra spells from high ability score” was introduced to D&D in order to make low-level spellcasters be something other than “I cast my one spell, then I’m useless.” And there is merit to keeping “I have more than one spell to cast before I am useless” in the game. For example, the “15 minute adventuring day” is a direct result of the “I only have a couple of my most powerful spells, so it’s in our best interest to rest for a day after I’ve used my best spells” paradigm***. Giving casters more spells helps extend the “15-minute adventuring day” to more than 15 minutes.

*** The “I have a very limited number of spells per day, so they are proportionally more powerful than martial character abilities, which can be used over and over all day” paradigm is the way the game tries to balance spellcasters vs. martials. Unfortunately when you combine that paradigm with the 15-minute adventuring day, it just amplifies the disparity between martials and spellcasters: if you don’t adventure all day and the spellcaster never has to deal with scarcity of his remaining spells, martial characters never get to take advantage of their “I can do this all day” class features. A better paradigm would be to abandon this paradigm for something where all classes have both abundance and scarcity****, but the PFRPG is too heavily invested in the current spell power level to do that without a lot of work.

**** Which is what 4th edition D&D did, although I think they pushed it too far, and different classes within the same role tended to feel the same.

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10 thoughts on “Spells Per Day Tables Are a Lot of Work for Little Gain

  1. Your table accounting for the more-than-minimum ability score doesn’t seem to reach Int 20 until 20th level: some characters have this as early as first level.

    That said, I’d be in favor of that change. The game seems to try really hard to say ‘Wizards with high Int are better wizards than those with low Int”, to the point where there are not any other stats with value to the Wizard. Int determines their spell DCs, often the bonuses associated with individual spells (mage’s sword, for instance), and gives them more spells per day. Reducing that influence to just DCs might encourage wizards with more well-rounded stats.

    As for the “I cast 2 spells and I’m done” at first level, a common houserule back in the 3e era was letting spellcasters use their higher level ‘bonus spell slots’ for lower level spells, instead of not granting them at all. For a first level wizard with a 16 Int, that effectively meant three bonus first level spells, which improved their longevity.

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    • “Your table accounting for the more-than-minimum ability score doesn’t seem to reach Int 20 until 20th level.”

      I built that table assuming you start with the standard array, put the 15 into Int, no racial modifiers, and use your +1 at every 4 levels for Int every time, which gives you Int 20 at level 20. Basically, that’s the minimum level of “optimization” needed. I’ll update the blog to explain that.

      “That said, I’d be in favor of that change. The game seems to try really hard to say ‘Wizards with high Int are better wizards than those with low Int”, to the point where there are not any other stats with value to the Wizard. Int determines their spell DCs, often the bonuses associated with individual spells (mage’s sword, for instance), and gives them more spells per day. Reducing that influence to just DCs might encourage wizards with more well-rounded stats.”

      True. There’s a guy on Facebook pointing out that some cleric builds push Cha instead of Wis to increases uses and DCs of channel energy, but unless you’re really tanking your Wis at the expense of Cha, the net result is one spell level less for each spell level (i.e., not a big deal), so even a class using two ability scores isn’t hosed by this proposal.

      “As for the “I cast 2 spells and I’m done” at first level, a common houserule back in the 3e era was letting spellcasters use their higher level ‘bonus spell slots’ for lower level spells, instead of not granting them at all. For a first level wizard with a 16 Int, that effectively meant three bonus first level spells, which improved their longevity.”

      True, but that’s a house rule (there’s even a Paizo FAQ explaining the actual rule it more clearly).

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  2. I think the idea of making the table easier is awesome. It is one less thing for a player to figure out or miss if they are new. I have several new players to my group and when they are building characters I usually have to point out those kind of things because they find it confusing or not know about it really from the start.

    What are your thoughts on another topic related to casters, a spell point variant similar to what was used in the Unearthed Arcana from 3.5. Do you think that it could find a home in Pathfinder? I have seen your thoughts on AC vs Damage reduction etc, I personally think it could work if there was a way to make spontaneous casters and those that prepare spells to each have their own advantage without nerfing the other. For sorcerers for example may they can use spell points to empower their blood line abilities or for a bard to use power points to amplify his bardic performance etc. The wizard and classes like them would have some flexibility by knowing spells as normal but can cast spells they prepare at a discounted price than one they have to swap out for. I am very happy with Pathfinder but I find there are things I want to change/add that I see in other games like the damage track in Star Wars makes it reasonable that someone who has taken a large amount of damage is in rougher shape and cannot perform like someone well rested and healed. Any thoughts or advice appreciated

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    • I haven’t read the 3.5 UA spell point system (it was published after I left Wizards and during a period when I was focused on non-D&D projects), but I’ve dabbled in spell point systems going back to AD&D 1st edition (probably most GMs have). It can work, but because the system and the spells themselves weren’t designed for spell points in mind there will be some rough edges to it.
      For example, even though burning hands and alarm are both 1st-level spells, they’re probably not worth the exact same number of spell points because alarm is much more useful to adventurers. Because adventurers are the focus of the game, the system has to work best for them and costs for spells have to be balanced in the context of adventuring.
      It’s something that would require an entire book if published by a game company (and buyers would have a LOT of disagreement over specific point values for many spells) but could easily work as a set of house rules without as much trouble, because as a GM you know your group and can customize the system’s needs to fit them. Or a publisher might have to rebuild all the spells from the ground up with the intent of making a spell point system, which would revisit damage caps at various spell levels and damage types. For example, cone of cold is often considered a worse spell than fireball when you first gain access to cone of cold (9d6 damage in a cone shooting from you vs. 9d6 damage in a sphere you can place up to 700 feet away), but there are also factors like “is cold damage more effective than fire damage in the game overall” that make it a very complex issue.

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  3. So I’m trying to figure out the title of this post. Are you saying that using the Bonus Spells per Day table is a lot of work for little game for a player, the GM, or both?

    I agree that cutting out the Bonus Spells per Day mechanic would certainly save a lot of page-flipping. Your formate would get a little bit messy, however, on the Cleric’s table because of the Domain spell mechanic. How would you to propose to note bonus spells from ability scores on the Cleric’s table?

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    • Because bonus spells from a high ability score are exactly the same as any other spells of that spell level, the table would just add the numbers together and show the total, like I did in the third table of this blog post.
      In other words, it wouldn’t have “+1” on it anywhere (unless that “+1” was from the cleric’s domain spell listing), I only listed the “+1” on the above tables so the readers could see where the table would be different from the current tables in the Core Rulebook.

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  4. My question is: why *didn’t* Paizo change things like this when pathfinder was initially drafted? I know there was initally a strong committment to backwards compatibility, but the bonus spell table is hardly an edition breaker. Would I be right in thinking that the prevailing focus of the dev team early in pathfinder’s product cycle was strong conservatism, to ensure a contiguous market from 3.5 -> PF? IE change only enough to make the product feel unique.

    I think I understand the reasoning behind PF’s initial development decisions (they never expected to be so huge they could totally drop 3.5 content), but having followed and played the game from open beta it’s frustrating to watch the system fall prey to some of the same poorly worded and organised rules in the name of a compatibility that isn’t even necessary anymore.

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    • Here’s the long answer:

      * Paizo’s business model was publishing D&D-compatible adventures.
      * There weren’t any copies of the 3.5 D&D Player’s Handbook in stores any more.
      * Paizo wasn’t given much of a preview of the 4E rules or the license that would allow Paizo to publish 4E-compatible products, and deciding to publish supplements for an unfinished game and under a license you hadn’t seen isn’t a smart business plan.
      * That license had severe restrictions that made it a poor choice for Paizo, most importantly (1) Wizards could update or change the license at any time, and Paizo’s only option would be to accept the new terms or to stop using the license, and stopping would require Paizo to destroy remaining inventory published under the license, (2) Wizards could revoke the license at any time, requiring Paizo to destroy remaining inventory published under the license, and (3) the original version of the license forbade Paizo from publishing or selling 3E content, including remaining copies of 3E materials, which meant Paizo’s backstock of 3E products would have to be thrown away.
      * So Paizo was stuck between publishing adventures for 3.5, a game that new players couldn’t start playing because there were no PHs in stores, or publishing adventures for 4E, a game that wasn’t out yet (PF#1 published August 2007, PF announced March 2008, 4E published August 2008).
      * So Paizo decided to take the 3.5 rules, update them, and publish the Pathfinder RPG, and immediately set about doing so (Beta published GenCon 2008, Core Rulebook published Gen Con 2009).
      * So between March 2008 and July 2008, Jason worked his ass off to get the 410 pages of the Beta written, edited, and typeset (there were many days where Erik had Jason work from home, because Paizo couldn’t spare the 30 minutes each way of his commute to the office). Compare that to a typical core line release, which is 256 pages, has 9 designer-months of development (3 designers x 3 months), and has 4–6 editor-months of editing (2–3 editors x 2 months).
      * And then a massive playtest where 50,000 people downloaded and playtested it for a couple months.
      * Then Paizo took all of that information and created a 576-page Core Rulebook in about 4 months. And all the while Paizo continued to publish monthly products for 3E, and made the switch over to PFRPG without knowing if they’d be able to maintain their barely-able-to-pay-bills level of sales, or if PFRPG sales would be better or worse. Fortunately, the answer was “better.”
      * At no time during any part of this process did Paizo have a spare week to sit down and review all the language in the book to make sure everything was synched up and perfectly clear (and it would take much longer than a week to get it done… more like months, plural). Employees worked evenings and weekends to get it done. One person on staff had a series of panic attack and briefly went blind because of all the stress from this project (I am not kidding). The focus was on fixing what Jason felt were the biggest problems with the 3.5 engine (namely, barbarians and rogues had little to differentiate them, likewise sorcerers and wizards other than spells, and combat maneuvers were clunky). Stuff like “should we review the interaction of the class and Bonus Spells tables from the top down” probably wasn’t even on Jason’s radar at the time.
      And yes, backwards compatibility was a very important factor. 🙂

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      • Thanks for the long answer! I was aware of the initial reasoning behind PF’s creation (WotC being typically difficult) but knowing that PF’s dev cycle was extremely short (in time and manpower) puts things into a bit more perspective. If I read you correctly, the answer to a lot of ‘why wasn’t this fixed from 3.5’ is as simple as ‘we had to get it out and there just wasn’t time to sweat the small stuff’. Oddly enough, but that makes me feel somewhat more sympathetic towards the system’s flaws… :-).

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