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.
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.