Monday, September 28, 2020

AD&D - When to use spells?

As always, when I say AD&D I mean 1st edition. If there isn't a efreet on the cover and you're not prying out the eyes of an idol, I'm not interested.

After our last game session, we'd ended early so we chitchatted about AD&D and did a Q&A on the module we'd used. One thing we talked about were spells.

When to use spells

It's not always clear to players, especially relatively inexperienced AD&D players, when to deploy spells. They're use it or lose it, but they're also a limited supply, and often do things you cannot do without magic. You're torn between the need to conserve your spells for real need, and the need to use them to avoid costs to other resources.

Personally, I find the whole "When to use spells" question a lot of fun to think about. In my own philosophy its relatively simple. For me, it's simply this:

Use a spell when you have a good opportunity to use it.

My way of thinking is this - you don't want to use spellcasting as a desperation move. A lot of the spellcasting can be described as basically flailing for success - casting Command at high-level foes, hoping for a missed save, Hold Person to bail out a fight going bad, Fireball because there doesn't seem to be a way to reach a distant or fortified foe, Magic Missile because the mage doesn't have anything else to do. Sleep maybe when you're getting overrun. That generally doesn't work well because those aren't the best conditions for those spells.

Instead, you use Command when you need a way to distract a foe for a round, especially a low-level one who doesn't get a save. Hold Person to open a fight, targeting dangerous opponents. Fireball when you have an open area and many foes to potentially hit. Magic Missile to hit low-AC targets you can't touch otherwise, or enemy spellcasters - either to kill them or interrupt up their spells. Sleep is a great fight-opener against low-level foes, as it can drop a lot of them in short order before they accomplish much (or anything, even.)

By all means, pull spells out of your butt when things go badly, but don't expect them to work as well as they would had you chosen better circumstances. I try to think of ways to have a spell end a fight at the beginning, not turn it around at the end. By using a limited-use resource of a spell early and effectively you can save yourself needing to use other resources to solve this same problem. A spell deployed when it's the best opportunity to maximize its benefits should mean minimizing other costs in the long run.

That's my approach anyway. I'm also the kind of player who tosses torc grenades into bar brawls because it's a heck of a target. Maybe we'd have won that fight anyway, without the grenade. Who cares?

That said, it does mean you need to know what your spells do, and have given them some thought on how to use them. With tournament PCs, that's an issue. Maybe you'd never bother with ESP or Levitate or Mirror Image but there it is, on your sheet. You need to find a way to make it shine . . . you don't have a lot of them, so you can't spray them around and hope. As a GM, you can - your NPC is probably going to die that fight or cause a TPK, so go for it. Use them all, as fast as you can. As a PC, though . . .

That's my thoughts on it, in any case. I'd love to hear other people's working theory on spell usage. Not specific spells - just an overall strategy on what spells are for in general.

When to use healing spells

This one I've been giving a lot of thought.

My players generally use them right away. After a fight, as soon as you're down enough HP that a maximum roll would heal them all (don't want to waste any), they'll heal people up. Have 25 HP and suffered 9? Cast Cure Light Wounds, and get him to 17-24 HP. This means that, pretty quickly, they're out of healing spells.

I'm thinking that's a mentality brought about by three things:

- being used to games where healing is plentiful, or at least replenishible.

- a use-it-or-lose it attitude - you don't want to die with healing potions unquaffed.

- feeling vulnerable when you're down HP in a harshly deadly game and going to 0 HP takes you out for extended time, not just until you're healed.

I also mentioned to my players that I was thinking you might need to save healing spells. Yes, the guy with 25 HP who is down to 16 after a fight is more vulnerable than when he's fully healed. But what happens when you're in a fight later, and another fighter starts with 20 and then is at 15, 10, 5, because he just can't seem to catch a break on the "to hit" rolls? Then what? It might be useful to have the spell then, and apply it to keep someone up now instead of to minimize the risk of someone going down later.

Healing potions as well - it doesn't take that long to drink them (although it does take 2-5 segments to take effect.) They might be more useful as a mid-fight boost than in just pools of replacement hit points between fights.

Of course, you'll need them between fights as well . . . but how to deploy them? As soon as possible, to keep as far away from 0 HP as possible for as long as possible? Or when needed, because you don't really know who'll get to 0 HP first or who will be most necessary to keep alive later? And if it's a mix, how do you decide what that mix is?

I'm wondering what other people's strategies are.


  1. I think you, having played a lot of AD&D back in the day, have a strong strategy. At least it looks like mine.

    Generally spells are things for which you imagine a set of scenarios in advance where they work poorly, work fairly, or work well. Then keep an eye out for these situations during play. If you spot a "work well" scenario, don't hesitate to cast that spell since you may not find a better one (D&D spells are also very specific to the situations they help in so a good use scenario may come up only once in an adventure...or not at all).

    Healing is a specific exception. Because you have a limited amount and things can turn bad quickly, it actually saves more characters from death to hoard your healing for when it is starting to look like a character is in deep trouble. Exactly as Peter said, you may be down 9 hit points or 25% but then you might get into a fight and someone else who was fine just before takes a massive hit to drop them to 40%. One more like that will be death, but if you can heal the character that may give another round to defeat the enemy or withdraw from melee somehow. If you used your last healing on the character who is almost at full health then the badly wounded character is likely to die! This actually comes back to the general rule, but the "work okay" and "work well" situations require more thought or experience to recognize, so I just call it out as an exception. Easier for people to remember it that way.

    Potions vs spells is another important thing to balance. Potions are single use and not renewable, but anyone can use one and using them cannot be disrupted. Spells are also single use but can be renewed with a few hours of rest and memorization, but only the caster can use them and the casting can be disrupted. So if the caster goes down with spells uncast, the party can't benefit from any healing. Similarly, if the caster is occupied in a melee and can't risk casting without being hit and the spell disrupted, that's bad. My advice is to use the memorized spells first when out of combat. In combat, use spells if the caster can avoid becoming a target before getting them off. Save potions for when spells are exhausted or the caster is not available to heal you. Remember, anyone can use that potion, so make sure to tell your companions which is the healing potion so if you go down before you can drink it, they can either come to your aid while you are bleeding in the negatives (so you don't die) or "rescue" the potion for use on someone who isn't beyond hope >:-}

    1. Thanks for agreeing with me. Heh.

      I think the three-cases approach to spells is a good tip for my players. It's a way to read a spell description - when is the best, so-so, and worst times and ways to use this spell?

      I think, in general, "don't die with spells" leads to using them badly just to get them off as things go poorly. "Don't get into melee if you've got a better combat spell available" is a good one for desperate single-class casters and multi-classed fighter/casters. If your elf fighter/magic-user goes down swinging in a tough fight, that's bad. If your elf fighter/magic goes down swinging in a tough fight with memorized spells handy that could have swung the fight in your favor, it's disastrous.

      And the potion strategy is helpful, too. Thanks for that tip, as well. It's very different in my GURPS campaign, where buying potions in town is just a standard assumption of the game and thus they're much more readily available.

    2. The healing potions for purchase could also be true in a D&D game. That's a GM's choice and many do. But your players don't have that option because they are in the middle of the dungeon so in theory they bought all they could afford before entering. Even in your game if the players are inside Felltower they have only what they have and if they run out there is no buying more in the middle of the dungeon.

      Example for healing:
      Works poorly: If the randomly rolled healing could heal more damage than has been taken (ex: 1d8 healing and 7 points lost) then there is potential to waste healing points that do nothing.
      Works ok: If the recipient has at least as much damage taken as the healing is capable of providing (ex: 1d8 healing and 10 points lost). The healing always has full effect.
      Works well: If the recipient is in danger of dying if hit twice more by a typical attack they are facing (ex: recently hit for 10 damage and currently 13 hit points) and the character is unlikely to defeat their opponent with one hit then the healing could save them from a dirt nap and attacking won't.
      Guidance: If you are in a "works good" situation, use the healing. If you are in a "works ok" situation, use the healing if you have more effective to do or the healing would be recovered immediately (ex: before the party rests to recover spells, use up all the spells you currently have memorized). If you are in a "works poorly" situation, don't make the mistake of using your healing.

    3. You're right about it being potentially available in AD&D. But by default GURPS DF assumes they are more freely available; it's a significant change to limit access to potions, paut, power item recharges, etc. Potion cost isn't significant, either, and weight is less of an issue than vanilla AD&D, too.

    4. It varies by edition but the only encumbrance I could find was 10 cn (1 pound) per potion [Expert Rulebook]. In AD&D the recommended cost for a healing potion was 400gp, about what you'd pay for a suit of plate mail, but later editions made them common equipment expected to be bought in every town like GURPS. 3E and 5E both price healing potions at 50gp which is cheap enough that starting characters can afford them.

    5. Later editions went with the plentiful healing approach that DF accepts as a basis. Potions in AD&D should weigh 20 gp, as "flask, full" implies. Otherwise they don't have any listed encumbrance. I always went with the 20 gp. Add in the fact that they're worth 400 gp, and there isn't any automatic assumption that you can buy them, and you get a bit of scarcity. Back in the day when I first played you found them or that was that. Cleric players didn't always want to "waste" spells on Cure Light Wounds, either, but that's a whole different story of the "good old days."

  2. My usual strategy in AD&D was always to reserve combat spells for tough encounters and try to only use one when there was a significant chance it'd end the encounter or save us a lot of resources winning. I prefer spells that can turn the tide of a whole encounter in one cast (sleep, fear, haste, illusions, wall spells, sometimes fireballs) to single-attacks like lightning bolt or magic missile. My only exception is cases where you can trivialize a bunch of the bad guys' major resources by spending comparatively peanuts (like when you get a chance to abuse a higher-level wizard by repeatedly breaking his concentration on big spells with Magic Missiles).

    One slot is always kept open for a good escape spell to save the party's rear end as we run away, just in case, and if we get the crap beat out of us so bad that I have to use that spell, we rest ASAP. I see that as less for winning a losing battle than it is for bailing on it.

    If I think there are going to be special needs (stealth, flying, a really difficult fight, enemy wizards who will need dispelling, etc), slots get reserved for those spells as dictated by whatever the Plan is.

    My experience with healing spells in AD&D (and I say this having played a cleric to 16th level in 2e) is that they don't heal that much and are generally much less effective than using the same slots on spells that end encounters faster and prevent damage from happening in the first place. You want to take only a few healing spells for emergencies (as few as you can get away with), reserve them for when people drop below 50% hp, and burn any leftover cures on the most badly-wounded party members just before you rest for the night. Even then, it's usually better for people to address emergencies with potions and reserve spells for cheating your way to a less bloody victory.

    1. Your experience is valid. WotC tried to change the game to help players that never learned this lesson (perhaps the designers who worked on 3E never learned this lesson). It resulted in the change of viewpoint that Clerics were fighting utility casters to turn them into what has become known negatively as the healbot. Their idea was you need more healing and every spell should potentially be a healing spell because that's what the players want...only it was mainly the fact that poor play had made so much healing necessary and that drove changes to future editions of the game.

    2. I like that approach.

      I think the key takeaway is, really, you need to have a plan. You can't just have spells and wing it with them, or only take them out when things go badly. You need some thought behind the selection and the deployment. With pregens, you only get the thought behind the deployment.

    3. > It resulted in the change of viewpoint that Clerics were fighting utility casters to turn them into what has become known negatively as the healbot.

      Honestly, I think more than 3e and WotC, combat-focused D&D video games were the root culprit of that. I remember playing the SSI games back in the day. A lot of the better uses for cleric spells weren't easily programmed in, and about the only really useful spells the clerics had left were healbotting and a few oddballs like Hold Person, and Silence.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...