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

This is the inaugural article 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. You can find the other articles in this series here.

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 years ago (before this website was actually called Dungeon Master’s Workshop). If you are looking for more information about where people typically mess 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. It makes sense in the context of Jack Vance’s world, Dying Earth. Outside of the lore inherent to that world, however, the system is unintuitive and cumbersome.

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 splash someone with the contents of their waterskin 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, spells could be cast using any slot of the spell’s level or higher, meaning that you could still cast a spell if you had burned all the spell slots of that level. While the spell slot mechanic had not been thrown out entirely, 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”.

For new players who didn’t play previous editions, back in the halcyon days of Edition 3.5, if you were wakened in the morning by a pack of orcs breaking down your door, you had to study your spellbook for three minutes in order to prepare fireball to destroy them. And if you lost your spellbook, you lost any spell that you didn’t still have left over from the day before. For example, if you prepared fireball and magic missile twice each on day 1, used magic missile once and fireball twice, then when you wake up on day 2 you would still have one magic missile prepared, but no fireballs. And if you didn’t have access to your spellbook, you couldn’t replace those slots unless you burnt some spell scrolls.

What 5th Edition has changed is that your prepared spells automatically refresh when you finish a long rest. It’s only if you didn’t have a spell prepared the previous day that you have to spend time preparing it. For example, wanting to swap out fireball for another spell you know, such as scorching ray, would require that you spend time studying your spellbook to refamiliarize yourself with the arcane formula of that spell.

Put in other words: losing your spellbook doesn’t doom you to effectively 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, swapping another spell out for each new one.

A consultation of Reddit confirmed that I was reading the rules correctly with this new revelation, and that many other people were also surprised at the removal of the daily preparation mechanic. By posting this clarification, I hope to inform others who have been handling this class incorrectly.

Happy adventuring!

3 thoughts on “Things You Didn’t Know About D&D 5e: Preparing Spells”

  1. Hey, I have a question! I wonder if you could clear up how preparing spells and exchanging spells work during leveling up for multiple classes. Or where I could read up on it. I have a druid, cleric, bard and warlock spellcasters and they want to change the spells/cantrips they put initially, how would I go about this?

    1. Hi Karolis,

      Thanks for your question!

      Each class that can cast spells has a description of the feature that grants that ability. Most of the time it’s called “Spellcasting”, but warlocks have “Pact Magic”. If you read through each class’ feature, it will tell you how they learn and prepare spells. Clerics, for example, get to prepare any cleric spell for which they have spell slots and can swap all of their choices every single day. Bards, on the other hand, know a certain number of spells and can only replace spells known when they gain a level in the bard class.

      And if any of your characters are multiclass spellcasters, remember that you always learn and prepare spells for a class as though you only had levels in that class. This means that if you have 16 levels in the cleric class and you take one (1) level of sorcerer, you can’t learn the 9th-level spell wish as a sorcerer spell because you only count as a 1st-level sorcerer when it comes to picking your sorcerer spells, and a 1st-level sorcerer only has 1st-level spell slots.

      As a final note, there is no RAW mechanic to swap out cantrips. If you would like to let your players replace cantrips, you will have to come up with a house rule. Personally, I allow my players to swap them out when their characters gain a level. Jeremy Crawford will tell you that cantrips are meant to be permanent choices since they grow in power with the character, but last I checked I’m not Jeremy Crawford and so I can do what I want, and so can you. If you want to let your players swap cantrips, do it.

      – the Archmage

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