Things You Didn’t Know About D&D 5e: Preparing Spells

I recently discovered that I—and many others—had been wrong about a major part of the spell preparation mechanic. As such, I’m starting a semi-regular series called “Things You Didn’t Know About D&D 5e” which will endeavour to keep people informed about rules that tend to be frequently misunderstood or overlooked.

Edit (2018/03/14): I’ve been getting a lot more traffic on this older article, and so I wanted to just let everyone know that it focuses on a single revelation I had one night at 2 a.m well over a year ago (before this website was actually called Dungeon Master’s Workshop). If you are looking for more information about where people typically screw up spell preparation that is written in a more informative way, I would encourage you to check out our article on Multiclass Spellcasting (click here)

Many of you who have perused my posts can probably guess which class is my favourite. If not, I’ll give you a hint: it starts with “w-” and ends with “-izard”. To me, magic is what makes the difference between fantasy and fiction, and the wizard is my idea of the most eminent spellcaster. My very first character was a wizard, and the class will always have a special place in my heart.

Much of my frustration with D&D comes about because I perceive there to be too heavy an influence of the works of Jack Vance. I’ve probably mentioned my hatred for his system of magic in half the posts I’ve made to this blog, if not more.

The problems are inherent to every facet of magic in D&D—why doesn’t a wizard who knows fire bolt automatically know scorching ray, when they’re pretty much the same thing and he’s done the first one dozens or even hundreds of times? Because Jack Vance. Why can’t a wizard who knows control water use a very minor manifestation of that magic to gather up the contents of her water skin to douse the campfire without having to burn a 4th-level spell slot? Because Jack Vance. Why do we even have named spells (especially dumb ones like prismatic spray) which are always cast the same way, as opposed to a pool of magic with which a caster might shape each individual spell? Because Jack Vance.

It was to my great delight to find that the 5th edition wizard no longer forgot spells upon casting them, as had been the case in 3rd edition. No longer did wizards have to prepare fireball multiple times in order to cast it more than once, they simply had to have it prepared. Additionally, spell could be cast using any slot of the spell’s level or higher, meaning that you could still cast a spell even if you had burned all the slots of that level. While the spell slot mechanic had not been thrown out, it was still a victory. It was like we had finally told Jack Vance to get his grubby fingers out of our fantasy.

However, I recently discovered that there was another benefit to this that I had overlooked in my excitement: you no longer have to prepare your spells every day!

To save you the effort of opening up your book, I’ll give you the rules for preparing and casting spells, as found on page 114 of The Player’s Handbook:

The Wizard table shows how many spell slots you have to cast your spells of 1st level and higher. To cast one of these spells, you must expend a slot of the spell’s level or higher. You regain all expended spell slots when you finish a long rest.
You prepare the list of wizard spells that are available for you to cast. To do so, choose a number of wizard spells from your spellbook equal to your Intelligence modifier + your wizard level (minimum of one spell). The spells must be of a level for which you have spell slots.
For example, if you’re a 3rd-level wizard, you have four 1st-level and two 2nd-level spell slots. With an Intelligence of 16, your list of prepared spells can include six spells of 1st or 2nd level, in any combination, chosen from your spellbook. If you prepare the 1st-level spell magic missile, you can cast it using a 1st-level or a 2nd-level slot. Casting the spell doesn’t remove it from your list of prepared spells.
You can change your list of prepared spells when you finish a long rest. Preparing a new list of wizard spells requires time spent studying your spellbook and memorizing the incantations and gestures you must make to cast the spell: at least 1 minute per spell level for each spell on your list.

What I recently discovered is that there are some significant words missing from this section. I’ll quote them from the Wizard entry back in 3.5 (emphasis mine): “A wizard must study [their] spellbook each day to prepare [their] spells”.

That’s right, unlike in 3.5, if you’re wakened in the morning by a pack of orcs breaking down your door, you don’t have to study your spellbook for three minutes in order to prepare fireball—at least, not if you had it prepared yesterday. It’s only if you didn’t have a spell prepared the previous day that you have to spend time preparing it. You just need a 3rd-level (or higher) spell slot and you’re good to cast any 3rd-level spell you have prepared. Put in other words: losing your spellbook doesn’t doom you to become (effectively) level 0 when you next wake up the next morning.

And it’s not just this way for wizards. No spellcasting class—not clerics, not druids, not paladins, no one—has to “re-prepare” their spells every day; they only have to spend 1 minute per spell level adding a new spell to their list of prepared spells for the day, if they choose to swap spells out for new ones.

I was already aware that casting a spell no longer removed it from your list of prepared spells, and that is reflected in all the homebrew material I have made. However, some of the other material I have made needs to be updated. Most notably: the Sorcerer Redux.

Aside from wanting to announce that I would be revising some of my earlier material, the other reason for this post is because I went to Reddit to confirm that I was reading the rules correctly with this new revelation, and I found that many other people were also surprised at the daily preparation mechanic being absent. By posting this clarification, I hope to inform others who have been handling this class incorrectly.

Happy adventuring!

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