Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Do not horde your spell slots

From behind my dungeon masters screen, I keep seeing players hording their spell slots. Even as the wizard’s allies fall dying, even as the monsters bunch in a cluster ripe for a burning hands, he or she opts for another icy blast. Why?

Some of the reluctance comes from unfamiliarity with the spells. Fourth-edition character sheets listed powers and their effects right on the sheet; fifth-edition sheets offer no such descriptions. Many fifth-edition spells trace back to 1974, but to fourth-edition players, they all seem new. So instead of puzzling over Spiritual Weapon, the cleric chooses Sacred Flame again. None of this applies to you, because if you read D&D blog posts, you read your spell descriptions.

Defiance in Phlan at Gen Con 2014

Defiance in Phlan at Gen Con 2014

Even when players know the spells, fifth edition changes Dungeons & Dragons’ resource-management game, and so players struggle to decide when to spend a spell slot.

Fourth-edition characters had 3 types of resources: (1) encounter powers and other resources that renewed after every battle, (2) healing surges that characters virtually never exhausted, and (3) daily powers. In an easy fight, or even in a typical encounter, PCs rarely needed to reach past their renewable or barely-limited resources to tap daily powers. (For more on the changes to the frequency and scale of encounters, see “Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D Next to fourth edition.”)

In general, long-time 4E players used daily powers when either (1) a string of bad luck turned the odds to the monsters, or (2) the boss appeared for the adventure’s climax. In other words, you only use a daily to swing a fight that turns bad, or because your day ends with the current fight. If you spent daily powers early, you risked trading something you could not recover today for hit points and encounter powers that you would get back in five minutes.

To a player coming to fifth edition from fourth, a spell slot looks a lot like a daily power. These players learned to save their dailies for the boss. Meanwhile, the horde of creatures flooding the battlefield seems no more threatening than a group of minions. But fifth-edition adventures include fewer final bosses and no minions—that horde may kill you.

In a fifth-edition battle, feel free to spend your spell slots early, whenever you see a chance to get maximum effect. Cast them when you spot a way to target a multiple enemies with an area effect or to lock down the most dangerous foe early. Don’t worry about squandering a spell on a fight that you could have won anyway. Unlike in 4E, even easy fights tax your party’s resources. If your spell wins a quick victory, then your party emerges fresher for the next battle.

Obviously, don’t just fire at will, because you may need something for the next fight. Still, fifth-edition battles can go sour much faster than before. In 4E, even low-level parties brought ample hit points and healing. If the rogue got surrounded, the wizard locked in melee, and the cleric dropped, you still had extra time to change strategy, use daily powers, and turn the tide. That margin is gone. Use your spells now to keep your party from ever reaching such a perilous situation.

9 thoughts on “Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Do not horde your spell slots

  1. Don Holt

    This article smacks of realism, i.e. the party might die so do what you can when you can. The previous one did too. You actually have to describe what you are doing when searching to be successful.
    Some authors tell me there is no joy in playing a “realistic” game. What’s your opinion?

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Don,
      I suppose unrealistic games offer more opportunities for players to take control of a shared story, or allow greater wish fulfillment by allowing players to control characters who overwhelm obstacles. Plenty of folks favor those styles, so I’m happy that games exist to accommodate them. My tastes lean to games that require player ingenuity and present challenges with some risk of failure, or even death. So if that counts as realism, I’m all for it.

      1. Don Holt

        And there upon I think you have hit upon what I find most objectionable about RPGs that cater to the less common denominator, even though it may be extremely popular and/or profitable. They permit unrealistic wish fulfillment with very little thought on the player’s part.

        I also assume you are distinguishing between “taking control” of a shared story (being something undesirable) and participating in a shared story(being something sought)?

        As you say, I’m glad there are games for those players.

  2. Wallace Cleaves

    This is a great point that has relevance to an audience far larger than just those struggling through the change in editions. I have to admit, I never really thought about the way that 4th edition’s fundamental change in character design was affecting player’s tactics as my main D&D group organically broke up (or at least went on hiatus) shortly after its debut – for reasons that had nothing to do with the edition changes. Still, I can see that your analysis makes perfect sense in light of 4th edition’s encounter powers and healing surges.
    Yet, I think this tendency to illogically hoard spells and other resources was wide spread even before 4th edition. As a hybrid gamer, one who spends about equal time on both sides of the DM’s screen, I became hyper aware of the importance of both focusing fire (as you also mention in another post) and taking enemies down as quickly as possible. Time and time again, I’d see players wait until late in the battle to throw their most powerful spell or use some ‘uber’ ability. It would often have dramatic effects, such as knocking down multiple opponents. However, when I “did the math,” I’d quickly realized that much of the spell’s damage had been wasted, and that, paradoxically, more party resources had been used than needed to be as a result of the “penny wise, pound foolish” strategy that was so frequently adopted.
    This was also a factor with magic item use, particularly with consumables like potions and scrolls. I can’t tell you how many characters I saw die off, retire or fade away with a hoard of unused consumables in their equipment sheets. To my eyes, those unused portions and scrolls were an indictment. The most egregious example of this I ever saw was when a party member neglected to use a potion of ghoul control (that I can only imagine the DM had set in his path anticipating just this moment in the campaign) in a deadly fight with a pack of ogre ghouls. Reviewing our battered characters and our limited remaining resources we all sounded off on what we had left to work with. When the player (who shall remain anonymous – and is actually an excellent tactician now) called out his unused potion of ghoul control we all shouted, aghast (pun intended), “Why didn’t you use it?”
    “I was saving it for a really big battle” was his deadpan response.
    Following that and similar events I developed a tactical style that might appropriately share the appellation “Shock and Awe.” I always started the fight with my biggest spells. I always used my consumables if they provided any advantage. The results were immediate and effective and much imitated in the play group. Fights didn’t drag out and we ironically used far fewer resources as a result.
    I applaud both your analysis of this phenomenon and your project to examine the tactical component of the game. I love the storytelling elements and role playing as well, but I do not find an honest and clever appraisal of the tactical realities of the game world and system in which our characters exist to be antithetical to those ideals. It would be the poor roleplayer who took on the personae of a competent adventurer and didn’t explore the tactical realities of his or her character’s world.

  3. Dan C

    I have also experienced this type of hording but it is/was more pronounced with magic items using charges like a wand of Magic Missiles. So when I first read the description for some magic items and saw that they automatically recharged each day I was intrigued. For example:

    Wand of Magic Missiles
    Wand, uncommon
    While you hold this wand, you can use an action to
    expend 1 to 3 of its 7 charges to cast the magic missile
    spell without using any components. For 1 charge, you
    cast the spell as if you used a 1st-level spell slot, and you
    increase the spell slot level by one for each additional
    charge you spend.

    The wand regains 1d6 + 1 expended charges each day
    at dawn. However, if you expend the wand’s last charge,
    roll a d20. On a 1, the wand crumbles into ashes and
    is destroyed.

    My only question about this new mechanic for charged items is whether the PC is aware of the number of charges renewed each day or if this is something that the DM is expected to track secretly. Due to the new atmosphere of simplicity I assume that the player character rolls and maintain the charge stat but if that is true then they would be able to avoid using the last charge and possible destroying and losing the wand.

    1. SiriusT

      Hoarding is a HUGE part of why I hate charged items. One-time consumables? Fine. Regenerating character resources? Great, of course!
      But the old-style items that had limited charges that either expired or had to be recharged once used almost always followed the same pattern, in which the first 1/4 – 1/2 of he charges get used right away, and the remainder linger on until the character has gained enough power that the item is of little use to them anymore.

      This model makes me a lot happier, and I hope it’s the standard for 5E.
      Thanks for sharing it with those of us who haven’t played the final new edition yet.

      1. DM David Post author

        Hi SirusT,
        As a player, I feel so reluctant to spend an irreplaceable magic charge that I tend to never use charged items—even when I should. The fifth-edition designers must understand the phenomenon, because 5E items regain charges. Now items regain charges so quickly that they no longer seem like a resource to manage.


  4. Pingback: Dungeon master’s tools and miniatures update | DMDavid

Leave a Reply