Last Updated: September 26, 2021
To understand how spells work, it helps to understand how a spell is presented. The description of each spell is presented in a standard format. Each category of information is explained and defined below, but note that not all spells include every category.
The first line of every spell description gives the name by which the spell is generally known.
Beneath the spell name is a line giving the school of magic (and the subschool, if any) to which the spell belongs.
Almost every spell belongs to one of eight schools of magic. A school of magic is a group of related spells that work in similar ways. A small number of spells (arcane mark, limited wish, permanency, prestidigitation, and wish) are universal, belonging to no school.
Abjurations are protective spells. They create physical or magical barriers, negate magical or physical abilities, harm trespassers, or even banish the subject of the spell to another plane of existence. Abjuration also includes spells like Dispel Magic which are important for removing other magical effects.
If an abjuration creates a barrier that keeps certain types of creatures at bay (such as Magic Circle Against Evil or Antipathy), that barrier cannot be used to push away those creatures. If you force the barrier against such a creature, you feel a discernible pressure against the barrier. If you continue to apply pressure, you end the spell.
Each conjuration spell belongs to one of five subschools. Conjurations transport creatures from another plane of existence to your plane (calling); create objects or effects on the spot (creation); heal (healing); bring manifestations of objects, creatures, or forms of energy to you (summoning); or transport creatures or objects over great distances (teleportation). Creatures you conjure usually-but not always-obey your commands.
A creature or object brought into being or transported to your location by a conjuration spell cannot appear inside another creature or object, nor can it appear floating in an empty space. It must arrive in an open location on a surface capable of supporting it. The creature or object must appear within the spell’s range, but it does not have to remain within the range.
- Calling: A calling spell transports a creature from another plane to the plane you are on. The spell grants the creature the one-time ability to return to its plane of origin, although the spell may limit the circumstances under which this is possible. Creatures who are called actually die when they are killed; they do not disappear and reform, as do those brought by a summoning spell (see below). The duration of a calling spell is instantaneous, which means that the called creature can’t be dispelled (Dispel Magic), though it can still be banished with spells like Dismissal.
- Creation: A creation spell manipulates matter to create an object or creature in the place the spellcaster designates. If the spell has a duration other than instantaneous, magic holds the creation together, and when the spell ends, the conjured creature or object vanishes without a trace. If the spell has an instantaneous duration, the created object or creature is merely assembled through magic. It lasts indefinitely and does not depend on magic for its existence.
- Healing: Certain divine conjurations heal creatures or even bring them back to life.
- Summoning: A summoning spell instantly brings a creature or object to a place you designate. When the spell ends or is dispelled, a summoned creature is instantly sent back to where it came from, but a summoned object is not sent back unless the spell description specifically indicates this. A summoned creature also goes away if it is killed or if its hit points drop to 0 or lower, but it is not really dead. It takes 24 hours for the creature to reform, during which time it can’t be summoned again. This only means that you can’t summon that specific creature; you can still summon other creatures of the same type.
When the spell that summoned a creature ends and the creature disappears, all the spells it has cast expire. A summoned creature cannot use any innate summoning abilities it may have, such as a Demon’s or Devil’s ability to summon other Demons or Devils.
- Teleportation: A teleportation spell transports one or more creatures or objects a great distance, such as Dimension Door or Teleportation. The most powerful of these spells can cross planar boundaries (Plane Shift, Astral Projection, etc.). Unlike summoning spells, the transportation is (unless otherwise noted) one-way and not dispellable.
Divination spells enable you to learn secrets long forgotten, predict the future, find hidden things, and foil deceptive spells. Divination spells are important tools for gathering information, and few parties are foolish enough to leave home without someone who can cast Detect Magic.
Many divination spells, such as Detect Magic and Detect Evil, have cone-shaped areas. These move with you and extend in the direction you choose. The cone defines the area that you can sweep each round. If you study the same area for multiple rounds, you can often gain additional information, as noted in the descriptive text for the spell.
Many Divination spells, including Detect Magic, can be blocked by a thin sheet of lead, or a sufficiently thick quantity of other dense materials like stone. Because of this, many spellcasters are smart enough to line their homes with lead to keep out prying eyes.
- Scrying: A scrying spell creates an invisible magical sensor that sends you information. Unless noted otherwise, the sensor has the same powers of sensory acuity that you possess. This level of acuity includes any spells or effects that target you, but not spells or effects that emanate from you. The sensor, however, is treated as a separate, independent sensory organ of yours, and thus functions normally even if you have been blinded or deafened, or otherwise suffered sensory impairment.
A creature can notice the sensor by making a Perception check with a DC 20 + the spell level. The sensor can be dispelled as if it were an active spell.
Lead sheeting or magical protection blocks a scrying spell, and you sense that the spell is blocked.
Enchantment spells affect the minds of others, influencing or controlling their behavior. All enchantments are mind-affecting spells. Two subschools of enchantment spells grant you influence over a subject creature.
- Charm: A charm spell changes how the subject views you, typically making it see you as a good friend.
- Compulsion: A compulsion spell forces the subject to act in some manner or changes the way its mind works. Where Charms spells say “would you kindly?”, compulsion spells simply state “you will.”
Evocation spells manipulate magical energy or tap an unseen source of power to produce a desired end. In effect, an evocation draws upon magic to create something out of nothing. Many of these spells produce spectacular effects, and evocation spells can deal large amounts of damage.
Evocation spells are the most common way for Arcane spellcasters to deal damage with spells. Iconic spells like Magic Missile, Lightning Bolt, and Fireball are all examples of Evocations spells. If you are new to playing a spellcaster, and Evoker is an excellent way to learn, and can be a lot of fun. There are few things more satisfying than casting fireball and picking up a bucket of d6’s to roll damage.
Illusion spells deceive the senses or minds of others. They cause people to see things that are not there, not see things that are there, hear phantom noises, or remember things that never happened.
Illusions are complicated. They require that you be creative enough to use them well, and that your GM be creative enough to make the other creatures in the game respond appropriately to the illusions. If you plan to use illusions extensively, talk with your GM ahead of time to make sure that they will work as well as your hope they will.
Saving Throws and Illusions (Disbelief)
Creatures encountering an illusion usually do not receive saving throws to recognize it as illusory until they study it carefully or interact with it in some fashion. The rules don’t specify what is involved in studying something carefully, so check with your GM. A Perception check may be sufficient.
A successful saving throw against an illusion reveals it to be false, but a figment or phantasm (see Subschools below) remains as a translucent outline.
A failed saving throw indicates that a character fails to notice something is amiss. A character faced with proof that an illusion isn’t real (such as an object passing through the illusion) needs no saving throw. If any viewer successfully disbelieves an illusion and communicates this fact to others, each such viewer gains a saving throw with a +4 bonus.
- Figment: A figment spell creates a false sensation. Those who perceive the figment perceive the same thing, not their own slightly different versions of the figment. It is not a personalized mental impression. Figments cannot make something seem to be something else. A figment that includes audible effects cannot duplicate intelligible speech unless the spell description specifically says it can. If intelligible speech is possible, it must be in a language you can speak. If you try to duplicate a language you cannot speak, the figment produces gibberish. Likewise, you cannot make a visual copy of something unless you know what it looks like (or copy another sense exactly unless you have experienced it).
Because figments and glamers are unreal, they cannot produce real effects the way that other types of illusions can. Figments and glamers cannot cause damage to objects or creatures, support weight, provide nutrition, or provide protection from the elements. Consequently, these spells are useful for confounding foes, but useless for attacking them directly.
A figment’s AC is equal to 10 + its size modifier.
- Glamer: A glamer spell changes a subject’s sensory qualities, making it look, feel, taste, smell, or sound like something else, or even seem to disappear.
- Pattern: Like a figment, a pattern spell creates an image that others can see, but a pattern also affects the minds of those who see it or are caught in it. All patterns are mind-affecting spells.
- Phantasm: A phantasm spell creates a mental image that usually only the caster and the subject (or subjects) of the spell can perceive. This impression is totally in the minds of the subjects. It is a personalized mental impression, all in their heads and not a fake picture or something that they actually see. Third parties viewing or studying the scene don’t notice the phantasm. All phantasms are mind-affecting spells.
- Shadow: A shadow spell creates something that is partially real from extradimensional energy. Such illusions can have real effects. Damage dealt by a shadow illusion is real.
Necromancy spells manipulate the power of death, unlife, and the life force. Spells involving Undead creatures make up a large part of this school.
Transmutation spells change the properties of some creature, thing, or condition.
- Polymorph: A polymorph spell transforms your physical body to take on the shape of another creature.
Because Polymorph effects are so complex, I have written a Practical Guide to Polymorph which explains how it functions in depth. This is very complex for new players, so I recommend skipping it unless you plan to use Polymorph extensively.
Appearing on the same line as the school and subschool, when applicable, is a descriptor that further categorizes the spell in some way. Some spells have more than one descriptor.
Most of these descriptors have no game effect by themselves, but they govern how the spell interacts with other spells, with special abilities, with unusual creatures, with alignment, and so on. For example: Creatures with a Good alignment cannot cast spells with the Evil Descriptor.
A language-dependent spell uses intelligible language as a medium for communication. If the target cannot understand or cannot hear what the caster of a language-dependent spell says, the spell fails.
A mind-affecting spell works only against creatures with an Intelligence score of 1 or higher. Creatures with no intelligence score are mindless, so they are immune.
The next line of a spell description gives the spell’s level, a number between 0 and 9 that defines the spell’s relative power. This number is preceded by a list of classes whose members can cast the spell. A spell’s level affects the DC for any save allowed against its effects. Remember that Spell Level is different from Class Level or Character Level. Different classes gain access to new spell levels at different rates.
A spell’s components explain what you must do or possess to cast the spell. The components entry in a spell description includes abbreviations that tell you what type of components it requires. Specifics for material and focus components are given at the end of the descriptive text. Usually you don’t need to worry about components, but when you can’t use a component for some reason or when a material or focus component is expensive, then the components are important.
- Verbal (V): A verbal component is a spoken incantation. To provide a verbal component, you must be able to speak in a strong voice. A silence spell or a gag spoils the incantation (and thus the spell). A spellcaster who has been deafened has a 20% chance of spoiling any spell with a verbal component that he tries to cast.
- Somatic (S): A somatic component is a measured and precise movement of the hand. You must have at least one hand free to provide a somatic component.
- Material (M): A material component consists of one or more physical substances or objects that are annihilated by the spell energies in the casting process. Unless a cost is given for a material component, the cost is negligible. Don’t bother to keep track of material components with negligible cost. Assume you have all you need as long as you have your spell component pouch.
- Focus (F): A focus component is a prop of some sort. Unlike a material component, a focus is not consumed when the spell is cast and can be reused. As with material components, the cost for a focus is negligible unless a price is given. Assume that focus components of negligible cost are in your spell component pouch.
- Divine Focus (DF): A divine focus component is an item of spiritual significance. The divine focus for a cleric or a paladin is a holy symbol appropriate to the character’s faith. The divine focus for a druid or a ranger is a sprig of holly, or some other sacred plant.
If the Components line includes F/DF or M/DF, the arcane version of the spell has a focus component or a material component (the abbreviation before the slash) and the divine version has a divine focus component (the abbreviation after the slash).
Most spells have a casting time of 1 standard action. Others take 1 round or more, while a few require only a swift action.
A spell that takes 1 round to cast is a full-round action. It comes into effect just before the beginning of your turn in the round after you began casting the spell. You then act normally after the spell is completed.
A spell that takes 1 minute to cast comes into effect just before your turn 1 minute later (and for each of those 10 rounds, you are casting a spell as a full-round action, just as noted above for 1-round casting times). These actions must be consecutive and uninterrupted, or the spell automatically fails.
When you begin a spell that takes 1 round or longer to cast, you must continue the concentration from the current round to just before your turn in the next round (at least). If you lose concentration before the casting is complete, you lose the spell.
A spell with a casting time of 1 swift action doesn’t count against your normal limit of one spell per round. However, you may cast such a spell only once per round. Casting a spell with a casting time of 1 swift action doesn’t provoke attacks of opportunity.
You make all pertinent decisions about a spell (range, target, area, effect, version, and so forth) when the spell comes into effect.
A spell’s range indicates how far from you it can reach, as defined in the range entry of the spell description. A spell’s range is the maximum distance from you that the spell’s effect can occur, as well as the maximum distance at which you can designate the spell’s point of origin. If any portion of the spell’s area would extend beyond this range, that area is wasted. Standard ranges include the following.
Remember that calculating range uses the same rules as calculating distance for movement, so diagonal squares cost 1.5 squares, rounded down.
- Personal: The spell affects only you.
- Touch: You must touch a creature or object to affect it. A touch spell that deals damage can score a critical hit just as a weapon can. A touch spell threatens a critical hit on a natural roll of 20 and deals double damage on a successful critical hit. Some touch spells allow you to touch multiple targets. You can touch up to 6 willing targets as part of the casting, but all targets of the spell must be touched in the same round that you finish casting the spell. If the spell allows you to touch targets over multiple rounds, touching 6 creatures is a full-round action.
In the same round that you cast the spell, you may also touch (or attempt to touch) as a free action. You may take your move before casting the spell, after touching the target, or between casting the spell and touching the target. You can automatically touch one friend or use the spell on yourself, but to touch an opponent, you must succeed on an attack roll.
- Close: The spell reaches as far as 25 feet + 5 feet per two full caster levels.
- Medium: The spell reaches as far as 100 feet + 10 feet per caster level.
- Long: The spell reaches as far as 400 feet + 40 feet per caster level.
- Unlimited: The spell reaches anywhere on the same plane of existence.
- Range Expressed in Feet: Some spells have no standard range category, just a range expressed in feet.
A spell’s duration entry tells you how long the magical energy of the spell lasts.
- Timed Durations: Many durations are measured in rounds, minutes, hours, or other increments. When the time is up, the magic goes away and the spell ends. If a spell’s duration is variable, the duration is rolled secretly so the caster doesn’t know how long the spell will last.
- Instantaneous: The spell energy comes and goes the instant the spell is cast, though the consequences might be long-lasting. Spells may have permanent effects, but an instantaneous duration (such as Flesh to Stone). These spells cannot be reversed with Dispel Magic, but may list other effects which can reverse their effects.
- Permanent: The energy remains as long as the effect does. This means the spell is vulnerable to Dispel Magic.
- Concentration: The spell lasts as long as you concentrate on it. Concentrating to maintain a spell is a standard action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity. Anything that could break your concentration when casting a spell can also break your concentration while you’re maintaining one, causing the spell to end. See Concentration.
You can’t cast a spell while concentrating on another one. Some spells last for a short time after you cease concentrating.
Subjects, Effects, and Areas: If the spell affects creatures directly, the result travels with the subjects for the spell’s duration. If the spell creates an effect, the effect lasts for the duration. The effect might move or remain still. Such an effect can be destroyed prior to when its duration ends. If the spell affects an area, then the spell stays with that area for its duration.
Creatures become subject to the spell when they enter the area and are no longer subject to it when they leave.
Touch Spells and Holding the Charge: In most cases, if you don’t discharge a touch spell on the round you cast it, you can hold the charge (postpone the discharge of the spell) indefinitely. You can make touch attacks round after round until the spell is discharged. If you cast another spell, the touch spell dissipates.
Some touch spells allow you to touch multiple targets as part of the spell. You can’t hold the charge of such a spell; you must touch all targets of the spell in the same round that you finish casting the spell.
- Discharge: Occasionally a spells lasts for a set duration or until triggered or discharged.
- (D) Dismissible: If the duration line ends with “(D),” you can dismiss the spell at will. You must be within range of the spell’s effect and must speak words of dismissal, which are usually a modified form of the spell’s verbal component. If the spell has no verbal component, you can dismiss the effect with a gesture. Dismissing a spell is a standard action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity. This is sometimes useful for dismissing ongoing spells which you no longer want running, such as a Wall of Force which was keeping enemies out of an important room, but is in your way now that your enemies are defeated.
A spell that depends on Concentration is dismissible by its very nature, and dismissing it does not take an action, since all you have to do to end the spell is to stop concentrating on your turn.
Usually a harmful spell allows a target to make a saving throw to avoid some or all of the effect. The saving throw entry in a spell description defines which type of saving throw the spell allows and describes how saving throws against the spell work. For more on Saving Throws against spells, see Resisting a Spell.
Saving Throw Difficulty Class
A saving throw against your spell has a DC of 10 + the level of the spell + your bonus for the relevant ability (Intelligence for a wizard, Charisma for a Bard, Paladin, Sorcerer, or Summoner, or Wisdom for a Cleric, Druid, Oracle, or Ranger). A spell’s level can vary depending on your class. Always use the spell level applicable to your class. Your spell’s DC can also be improved by Feats like Spell Focus.
Spell resistance is a special defensive ability. If your spell is being resisted by a creature with spell resistance, you must make a caster level check (1d20 + caster level) at least equal to the creature’s spell resistance for the spell to affect that creature. For more on Spell Resistance, see Resisting a Spell.
This portion of a spell description details what the spell does and how it works. If one of the previous entries in the description includes “see text,” this is where the explanation is found. Be sure to read this section thoroughly, as it often contains considerably more important information than the rest of the spell’s description.