Better 0-Level Spells

Well, another week and another post about the new magic system. What I intend to do here is address a disparity created by the rules for Acquired Spellcasters. This is the recharge mechanic –  most recently explained here, although an updated document will follow shortly. The recharge mechanic creates the need for new and better 0-level spells. Why? Read on!


There has been some fairly consistent comment on D&D message boards over the last decade or so that the damage potential of a third edition wizard is a little low. The most powerful spells cast by a 20th level wizard can’t quite match the damage potential of a fighter with four attacks per round. Whether you completely believe these tales is up to you, but I think there is a little leeway to increase the damage that spells inflict.

I propose that, in most cases, casters add their prime spellcasting ability score modifier to the damage of their spells. So a 10th level wizard with an Intelligence of 19 would inflict 10d6+5 with his fireball and not a flat 10d6. It’s a small boost for high level spells, but at low levels it can make a difference. At very low levels (when the spellcaster is often resorting to 0-level spells) then it can make a game-changing difference – which is largely the thrust of this blog post.

Because it’s rather clumsy to keep saying “add your prime spellcasting ability score modifier, for example Intelligence for a wizard, Wisdom for a cleric, Charisma for a bard” every time we mention this mechanic; and because it’s even more tedious to type it in every spell description, we need a shorthand way of referring to it. I’m going to call it “spellpower”.  So everytime the description of a spell says “add your spellpower” what it means is “add your prime spellcasting ability score modifier, for example Intelligence for a wizard, Wisdom for a cleric, Charisma for a bard”. If you don’t like the term spellpower, then feel free to come up with something better.

New 0-Level Spells

Zero level spells are sometimes referred to as cantrips, orisons or (confusingly for this blog) talents. Zero level spells can be cast at will. They don’t disappear from the mind of a recharge caster, and instinctive casters don’t need to make a languor check when they are cast. Why do we need more of them in the new spell system? Well, actually it was something that Neil said in the comments of an HD&D post a long time ago that got me thinking about this.

Basically: if all spells using the recharge mechanic are ‘fire-and-forget’ magic, what happens when a recharge caster, such as a wizard or cleric, runs out of spells? Not a problem outside combat, they can just sit down and rest for a moment, but inside combat this is an issue. The first level wizard whose only offensive spells are sleep and magic missile is out of spells by the end of round two. What does he do then? Hurl insults? Attempt some laughably inaccurate shots with his crossbow?

Fourth edition has the same problem. It gets around it by giving all the characters At-Will powers: lesser powers that the character can fall back on in a pinch. 0-Level spells are already at-will abilities, so they could fill this role in our game. However, as it stands they’re not really powerful enough to be seen as viable alternatives. If all the wizard can do is fire a 1d3 ray of frost then he might as well be hurling insults.

With this in mind I intend to make a few changes to the existing 0-level spells. They’re going to do a little (not a lot!) more damage. And, in most cases, spellcasters are going to be to apply their spellpower to the damage of these spells. If ray of frost inflicts 1d4+4 damage instead of 1d3 damage, then it suddenly becomes a more viable option. It’s still not as good as a first level spell – and the damage of the cantrip will not scale as the wizard gains levels – but it’s still something to fall back on.

However, the existing cantrips printed in the third edition PHB or the Pathfinder RPG aren’t quite enough to fill the role I have in mind. I think we need a few extra options for 0-level spells, hence the meat of this post. Below is the text and commentary on a handful of additional 0-level spells to fill out the arsenal of the recharge caster. Languor casters can select these too of course, as long as they are of the appropriate tradition.

Arcane Bolt

Evocation [Force]
Level: Arcane 0, Divine (Magic) 0
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Effect: Ray
Target: One creature
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: None

Raising your hand, you project a beam of near-invisible magical force at your foe. Make a ranged touch attack, if successful the ray inflicts 1d6 + spellpower force damage.

Arcane Bolt is quite obviously a lesser form of magic missile. The actual ray does a little more damage than a single magic missile, but arcane bolt doesn’t have the range of the first level spell and doesn’t enjoy the magic missile‘s unique advantage: it always hits. The fact that magic missile becomes better as characters gain levels but arcane bolt does not, reinforces my view that arcane bolt is balanced as an at-will ability.

The damage inflicted is comparable with a single arrow shot from a short bow, although again the range of the shortbow trumps arcane bolt. It doesn’t have as much damage potential as a crossbow or heavy crossbow. However, it is much easier to hit with the arcane bolt than a weapon. I think a wizard would choose this spell over grabbing a crossbow, which is as it should be.

Faith Healing

Conjuration (Healing) [Radiant]
Level: Divine (Healing) 0
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Touch
Target: Creature touched
Duration: 10 minutes per level
Saving Throw: Will negates

You call upon the power of the weave to offer your allies a timely respite from grievous wounds. Such minor magic cannot permanently restore hit points, but it can grant the target a temporary reprieve.

You lay your hands on an yourself or another creature. This healing touch temporarily retores 1d6 + spellpower hit points. Targets of the spell should treat the damage restored as normal healing, but also keep track of all the hit points that have been restored through the Faith Healing spell. This is the character’s timeshifted damage.

Before the expiration of the spell, the character may receive traditional healing magics (potions, cure wounds etc) to reduce this timeshifted damage. If he doesn’t, then the all that damage returns at the end of the spell.

At the end of the spell’s duration, all the timeshifted damage is inflicted on the character. Wounds that were ‘healed’ reopen. If the character takes sufficient damage then he may fall unconscious or even die on the spot.

Multiple castings of Faith Healing on the same character do stack. However, the duration of all the spells run from the moment the first active Faith Healing was cast on the character. For example, if a 10th level cleric cast Faith Healing on the same ally eight times over the course of an hour, all the timeshifted damage would be inflicted on the character 100 minutes after the first Faith Healing was cast.

The hit points restored by Faith Healing are not Temporary Hit Points. They cannot increase a character’s hit point total above his normal maximum.

The hit points restored by Faith Healing increases to 2d6 + spellpower at level four, and then by a further 1d6 every four levels thereafter.

It’s not only the ability to deal damage that suffers from the recharge mechanic: it’s also healing. Cure light wounds may be the only 1st level healing spell a cleric knows. It restores 1d8+1 hit points, and once it’s cast then it can’t be cast again for at least five minutes. Yes: I know that this is the way clerics have always functioned in D&D, but that’s going to come as something of a shock to players who have had the freedom of spellpoints for the last fifteen years.

What faith healing does is allow clerics (or other classes) to keep healing throughout a combat without having to worry about losing access to their healing spells. It also allows me to give clerics at-will healing without it destroying the integrity of the campaign setting. After all, if clerics can heal at will then – by logical extension – there shouldn’t be any sick or wounded people left in the world. Verisimilitude demands such a conclusion. Faith healing gets around that, because the healing is not real healing – it doesn’t last that long.

I think it’s a neat solution, and I also think that it could be fun at the gaming table. The healing from the cleric might save your life in the short term, but it’s also a death sentence. If you don’t get some real healing before the duration expires then you could be a goner. The text of the spell says that the targets of this spell should keep track of the damage, but vindictive players of clerics might want to keep those records themselves.

Assuming that the cleric survives the fight, he can probably cast enough cure light wounds or equivalent spells to stop characters who have received faith healing from dying. Probably. If you’re nice to him.


Conjuration (Healing)
Level: Divine (Healing, Trickery) 0
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Touch
Target: Creature touched
Duration: 3 rounds
Saving Throw: Will (harmless)

Sometimes being honest gets you nowhere. Sometimes when the orcs outnumber the party ten to one, or when facing a great wyrm with a severe case of the munchies… sometimes even the most righteous cleric has to be a little economical with the truth. This spell convinces the target that the cleric has cured a deliterious condition, when in reality it’s just a case of mind over matter.

When you cast this spell you target an ally with one of the following conditions: Cowering, Dazzled, Fatigued, Shaken, Sickened or Staggered. The effects of one of these conditions is suppressed for the duration of the spell. Placebo cannot be used to overcome the same condition on the same target more than once per day.

I’ve been wanting to write a spell called Placebo for some time, and I think this one fits the bill nicely. A minor healing effect, that makes the cleric a useful member of the party but without making him too useful. I very much like the idea of the fast-talking cleric who simply convinces the rogue that he’s not really fatigued, only to see him collapse in a blubbering heap three rounds later.

Resonant Burst

Evocation [Sonic]
Level: Song 0
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Personal
Area: 5 ft. radius emanation from caster
Target: All creatures in area
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Fortitude negates

As foes close in for the kill, you unleash a devastating sonic scream that causes pain in your enemies and forces them back. All creatures within the area of effect must make a Fortitude saving throw. If they succeed then they are unaffected. If they fail they take Sonic damage equal to your spellpower. Any creature your size or smaller is also forced back 30 ft. from the caster by the terrible noise.

Resonant burst sits on the line between 1st and 0-level spells. In some circumstances, it might even be more useful than a 1st level spell. However, it does have some limitations. Firstly, the damage inflicted by the spell is fairly poor. Secondly, it only affects creatures within five feet of the target – this tends to mean those foes who are already in melee combat with the caster. I’m not sure about this one – what do you think?

Tooth and Claw

Level: Primal 0
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Personal
Duration: 5 rounds
Saving Throw: None

Your fingers are transformed into powerful talons, and your  jaw distends to make room for a new set of bone-crunching canines. After casting this spell, the primal caster gains the ability to make claw and bite attacks against his foes.

Claw attacks inflict lethal damage equal to the damage normally inflicted by the character’s unarmed attack. This would be 1d4 for most player character races such as humans, elves, dwarves and hobbits; plus the character’s strength bonus.

Bite attacks inflict base damage that is one step up from the die used for the claw attacks. A damage die of 1d4 for claw attacks would give a damage die of 1d6 for bite attacks; 1d6 for claw attacks would mean 1d8 for bite attacks and so on. The bite attack is also lethal damage, and the primal caster adds 1½ times his Strength modifier to the damage roll (as if using a two-handed weapon).

This spell does not grant the primal caster any additional attacks per round. If the caster only has one attack per round, then he must choose to attack with one claw or one bite. He cannot attack with both, and does not gain the signature claw/claw/bite routine of many creatures.

However, a primal caster who knows this spell and has additional attacks per round – perhaps because of his level, the Two-weapon fighting feat or even the Multiattack feat – may make multiple attacks with these natural weapons.

If the caster already has a claw and bite routine that inflicts the same or greater damage than that listed above, then this spell has nothing but a cosmetic effect on the character.

Finally, something for all those druids out there. To my mind, Primal casters aren’t the sort of people who stand at a distance blasting their foes – they like to get stuck in. Tooth and claw certainly does that. It may look comparable to a 1st level spell, but the duration is fairly poor and the caster actually has to take a round away from doing anything else in order to cast it. After spending one standard action to cast tooth and claw the caster can’t make any attacks in that without spending an action point or using the Quicken Spell feat, although he can still move into position. This limits the utility of the spell, which makes it more acceptable at zero level.


So: Arcane Bolt, Faith Healing, Placebo, Resonant Burst and Tooth and Claw. Five additional 0-level spells to add to the number that already exist in the game. In my amended system, all spellcasting casters will get a prescribed list of cantrips or orisons at first level. They can then add to that total in the same way they add any spells to their total. I think these spells are a necessary addition to the game. I also think that when taken alongside all the other cantrips, they’ll keep low-level recharge casters functioning meaningfully in combat even if they have cast all their big spells.

But what do you think? Are these cantrips overpowered, underpowered or just right? And can you think of any particular niche that I’ve missed? Is there something you would like to see a 0-level spell do that isn’t possible with any of the spells we have at the moment? We could convert most of 4e’s at-will powers, but that strikes me as overkill. As always: over to you.


21 thoughts on “Better 0-Level Spells

  1. Right.. I STILL don’t like the idea of recharge magic.
    I think it is TOO artifical.

    I would like you to ALSO implement a rule that all fighters must change weapon category after each successful attack – as they have temporarily forgotten how to use their broadsword/mace/etc etc……and see how Brack/Elias (poor Marc!) like your rule changes then.

    The other point is that you have required spell users to take talents (a limited commodity) & feats to acheive what they previusly had as a result of a class choice

    BUT I WILL give it a go – provided you are prepared to take it back out if it doesn’t work.

    • Well, I think we have to disagree here Jon. There maybe solid mechanical problems with the system, but it seems in keeping the ‘campaign narrative’ of Iourn to me. We’ve always drawn a line between those casters born with the ability to cast magic, and those who have to study to acquire it. We’ve also always said that those who have to study never really know magic.

      In fact this makes more sense to me than having one system for clerics and druids, and another for wizards. It ticks the verisimilitude box for me. But we’ll see during play. Obviously, if it doesn’t work we won’t continue with it – but hopefully, you’ll be surprised.

      One thing, I will defend is that I’m compelling acquired casters to waste finite resources like feats and talents to make their spellcasting viable. I’m really not. For starters, this is Pathfinder and not HD&D – so there are no talents (at least not in the way we have been discussing them on this blog), only feats. And Pathfinder is more generous with its feats than traditional D&D.

      Of course, there are feats that make acquired spellcasters better at their art. But this is true of all classes. Clerics can take feats to make their Turn Undead power better, but it doesn’t invalidate the power in the first place. Arguably the worst offenders in this are not spellcasters at all, but Fighters. Any fighter can fight, but if we wants to be really good at it then he simply has to take feat after feat to augment his martial prowess. If he didn’t take these feats then arguably, he would be subpar.

      An acquired caster like a wizard, who uses recharge magic, is still a spellcaster. He likely has a large collection of spells (including at-will spells) and a few class abilities up his sleeve. He’s still perfectly viable from just selecting the class, even if you spend all your feat slots on abilities unconnected to spellcasting.

      • ok – let me put it like this.
        We get into a fight. I can’t drop a fireball or a Cone of cold – ‘cos it’ll take out the party.

        So I have to use personal level spells.
        So that means I have (IIRC) : 1 Disintegrate (which can be resited) ; 1 Magic Missile and if i’m lucky on the angles ; 1 Lightening Bolt.

        Then I can go sit down….
        Oh and I could summon a monster – but only once.

        Magic is my “weapon” ; and saying I can only use each spell once is UTTER cobblers.

        This only came about bercause you don’t like Book Keeping…

        The reason I played a Sorcerer and not all those years back in Rubberfrog Cloisters was ‘Cos I didn’t want to do teh Book-keeping and was prepared to be less powerful for longer.

        Now – with your rules – there is no reason to play a Sorcerer.
        The wizard is more powerful earlier ; has more access to spells – so can get lots of “different” attacks for a combat and DOESN’T have to put any bookwork in.

        I know I can’t stop you implementing this – but I UTTERLY disagree

        (looks pleadingly at Marc for Support)

  2. “The most powerful spells cast by a 20th level wizard can’t quite match the damage potential of a fighter with four attacks per round.”

    I cannot possibly think of a sentence related to third edition (or third and a half edition) that is more completely and totally incorrect, even only using core rules.
    I honestly have no idea where you pulled that one from :\

    In relation to the 0th level spell stuff, that i do completely support. Low level casters can always use a boost and i’ve always found it rather entertaining that low level casters spend more time acting as archers (or in the case of Clerics, fighters) than as casters.

    The only thing i would consider is using d4’s instead of d6’s. Touch attacks are much, -much- easier to hit with, making them substantially more potent than normal attacks and thus much more dangerous than they would seem to be at first glance.

    • Well, I didn’t say I agreed with the opinion, just that it was out there! There is some evidence to support it. If you take a spell like the 8th level polar ray – a twentieth level caster inflicts 20d6 to one target on a successful hit, with no saving throw. Assume 70 points of damage on that one.

      A twentieth level fighter with four attacks per round, or (just to be silly) a twentieth level ranger with eight attacks per round can deal more than 70 points of damage in a round. And yes, I know that they have to roll to hit with each attack, and I know that they’re trying to hit AC and not Touch AC, but even on balance they’re going to crack out more damage than a Polar Ray cast by a wizard of the same level.

      Now I’m sure there are other examples of third edition spells which favour the wizard over the fighter. I think both sides of the argument have a case, and I’m not going to get into which side has the stronger case as I largely can’t be bothered to dig up any supporting evidence (I’m lazy like that). I will say that from my experience as a GM, the melee characters have always been the main damage dealers – not the spellcasters.

      • To exactly what degree spellcasters dominate the battlefield depends heavily on the level of the campaign, the access to splatbooks and the degree to which the players are willing to optimise.
        What i absolutely can agree with is that a relatively unoptimised or “role over roll” Fighter will probably outdamage a similarly unoptimised Wizard, on average.

        With access to certain splatbooks and some dedication to research and optimisation, the Wizard rapidly outpaces the Fighter both in utility and deadliness. At what level this occurs depends; some feel that as soon as the Wizard unlocks Colour Spray he’s got the lead (which, iirc, was around level 4), others feel that Wizards don’t really come into their own until around level 7ish.

        The other important thing with Wizards is Metamagic. The key that makes spellcasting The Best Thing You Can Be Doing is Metamagic, without Metamagic casting is a great utility and potentially devestating under the right circumstances, but somewhat lacking otherwise. With Metamagic spellcasting turns into a ferocious monstrosity; it’s entirely possible for optimised high level Wizards to slam down dozens of negative levels across extremely wide areas every round, or hit monsters with massive dexterity damage.

        Given that the nature of your games appears to be more role than roll with a greater emphasis on characterisation and players who seem to be primarily uninterested with optimisation (or, dare i say, ‘power gaming’), it doesn’t really surprise me that martial classes are the heavy hitters. That’s why martial classes other than Rogue are usually suggested for new players; it’s pretty hard to screw up a Fighter, but quite easy to screw up a Wizard.

        Ironically, if you allow unrestricted access to splatbooks and have extremely dedicated players, the raw damage swings back in favour of martial builds. Charger builds are capable of hundreds or even thousands of damage in a single hit, and of course the imfamous Hulking Hurler build can dish out literally millions of damage with each attack.

        Of course in practice the spellcaster still has the upper hand thanks to status effects, but 3rd edition is funny like that.

  3. Also, i forget how you’re handling AoO’s (or whatever you’re calling them), but if casting spells in melee provokes them then you might want to consider adding special text to Resonant Burst to say that it doesn’t, as otherwise actually trying to use the spell is going to be somewhat of a suicidal maneuver.

  4. Will: To pick up your other points –

    I did consider making arcane bolt 1d4 base damage instead of 1d6. On balance, I don’t think it makes too much difference. I guess if I see a wizard favouring arcane bolt while he still has some perfectly respectable ranged first level spells remaining then I will have to thing again.

    I’m removing almost all Attacks of Opportunity from the game. Spellcasters will be able to cast their spells in melee without fear of it provoking a free attack. Enemies will still be able to disrupt spellcasting, but they need to attack at the instant the spell is cast – so the attacker would have to hold his action.

  5. Marc won’t help you!
    He never reads this cobblers.

    Book-keeping isn’t the only reason for the new magic system. Spell Points don’t really work after about level 9. They’re a poor way of regulating spellcasting – at least the way that we’ve used them in the past. Plus I wanted to do something to help the wizard: the burden of being the only class who had to choose all his spells in advance was too much to bear.

    We have two different magic systems working in the game. The recharge system for acquired casters, and the languor system for instinctive casters. The sorcerer falls into the latter category, so you don’t have to worry about recharge spellcasting as Ravenna won’t be using it. The advantage of a sorcerer is that you can cast disintegrate and chain lightning multiple times within the same fight.

    I don’t think that there’s much difference in book keeping between the sorcerer and the wizard. More dice-rolling for the sorcerer, certainly. The languor system certainly isn’t more complex than the subdual system we used before.

    The full magic rules aren’t too far away. Have a look at them. And I can guarantee you that I won’t persist with a system that no-one likes, or doesn’t work just because I’m feeling contrary!

    • Fine – well if the Recharge system doesnlt apply to the Sorcerer – then I can see that as worker – Sorcer gets less choice of “offensive” spells ; but can cast then as often as tehy like… the wizard has more scope for fun – but can only use each flavour of fun once per encounter…

      I would say that if I were playing a wizzard I would be making sure you didn’t make access to spellbooks as difficult as you appear to now, they’re goign to need lots of choices for a 10 round combat to keep themselves occupied! A lack of book materials would be a significant hinderance to Sorcerer/Wizard balance IMnsHO

      • Yes, you have my intentions spot on. Although I’ll add that the sorcerer doesn’t have any less choices in this system than she does with the rules we’re currently using – in fact, she has a few more spells.

        You’re right of course. A different magic system does mean a different way of doing things. Clerics and Druids use the same system for gaining new spells as wizards (nor spell books, but the need to find a teacher or a source of new magic) so it’s essential to make these available in game.

        Of course, there’s also a need to curtail those ridiculously long spell lists that druids once enjoyed… so there’s a balance to be had.

  6. By the way, i do like Faith Healing, i’ve always been fond of temporary healing measures like that, although in practice they tend to just be too much bookkeeping to be worth it.

    Personally i’d make it Temp HP with a restriction on the maximum amount gained so that Temp HP + current HP cannot exceed max HP, but that’s just because i dislike playing around with ‘real’ HP in temporary fashions. It always ends up feeling clumsy and overcomplicated.

    • I agree – Ars Magica had a healing system which was only temporary unless you pumped the spell will some “vis” (magical goodness which made everything better)….

      Neil – is that a worker? – any mechanism to allow the healer to make the healing permanent (an un-restorable loss of 1 CON for a month for example)

      • Two points here.

        I didn’t want Faith Healing to use Temporary Hit Points because I thought that it would make the spell a little too good. (I can see higher level healing spells that do this, however).

        If you have Temporary Hit Points than any damage is taken away from your temporary hit points first. Therefore Faith Healing can never actively endanger the target – which is something I wanted: the price that had to be paid for off-the-cuff healing. If this doesn’t work in practice (or proves too complicated) then usign Temporary Hit Points would definitely be the way to go.

        Jon: making all healing temporary is probably a little too severe for D&D. It might work in a game like Ars Magica, but I’m not sure it really fits in the mileu larger-than-life heroism. I’ll canvas other opinions here, but I think it’s a bit extreme. Combat happens to frequently.

        If the cleric needs to heal himself and the rest of the party, should he find himself down 6 points of Con because of it? We could probably contort the healing system to make this work of course, but I think it’s a step too far.

  7. Not sure, why WordPress doesn’t allow more than two replies to a comment….

    Anyway Will: You’re right, I don’t think I have any power gamers in my group. Well, I’ll amend that: I don’t have any players whose main enjoyment of the game comes from creating world breaking characters. I still have plenty of players who know the system inside out, and can create something on the edge of ridiculous. That’s part of the fun, I’m told.

    Balance at level 13+ is tricky. Depending on choice of ability and availability of splat books (Book of Nine Swords), any class can be ascendency. Third edition is indeed – “funny like that”. But that variety is one of the reasons why I like it so much. Even if it is slightly broken.

  8. I certainly agree with that last comment. With access to all of the books available, it is possible to create a broken character in many ways – combatants, spellcasters et all. I recently found a way of creating an infinite action loop if you are multi-classed psion/wizard. Me and Daniel have often said that character background and personality are the most important thing, but once you decide on your character concept you try to make them as good as possible at what they do.

    I am a fan of the more powerful level zero spells by the way.

    • If i remember correctly, a pure Psion can pull an Infinite Action Loop using Affinity Field, Synchronicity, and Font of Power and his Psicrystal.

      • Ye gods. Nineteen years of playing D&D and I’m still an amateur.

        Glad you like the 0-level spells, Steve. Could probably do with adding a sligthly more significant toasty-death orison for fire clerics, and Faith Healing should probably be available to druids as well in hindsight. But you get the idea!

  9. Hey Will – that is the same combination that I stumbled across, although the multi-class Wizard was just to get a familiar which would carry on manifesting font of power infinitely and granting a standard action to the character each time.

    Neil – I think a toasty death orison is an absolute must for fire priests. Perhaps a suped up version of conjure flame.

    • I don’t think a Wizard’s familiar can manifest Psionic abilities, hence why the combo uses a Psicrystal.

      Theoretical optimisation is always fun :D

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