Pathfinder for Beginners: Spells


It’s been a little while since my last post in this series – real life has been a bit hectic – but I hope to post more regularly going forward. Last time we looked at the types of magic and spellcasters in Pathfinder. Today’s post is about actually casting spells.

Spellcasting Terminology

Casting spells is not as complicated as it may seem at first, but there is some terminology that I’ve not covered before, so I’ve listed these below. Casting a spell works the same way whether you’re a prepared or spontaneous spellcaster, or an arcane or divine caster (see more on the differences between these here).

Spell Slots

Spells are limited resources, and all Pathfinder spellcasters can only cast a certain number in a day. These are listed in the Spells per Day in the description of every magic-using class. A high casting stat (e.g. Intelligence for wizards) may give a few bonus spells per day.

Caster Level

Many spells get more powerful as the person casting the spell gets stronger. The spellcaster’s caster level is an indication of this, and is usually equal to his level. For example, a level 5 wizard has a caster level equal to 5.


Spells generally require the caster’s full attention, and any interruptions or distractions may cause your attempt to cast a spell to be wasted. Distractions can include violent weather conditions or nearby enemies. In these cases, you will probably need to make a concentration check to see if you are able to cast the spell under these difficult conditions.

To make a concentration check when called for, simply roll a d20, add your caster level and your spellcasting attribute modifier. If you are using a pregenerated character, this number will already be calculated and listed on your character sheet, so you just need to roll a d20 and add the number listed under concentration.

Choosing a Spell

Before you can cast a spell, you must decide which one you want to cast. If you’re a prepared spellcaster like a wizard, you need to have that spell prepared. If you’re a spontaneous caster like a sorcerer, you must know the spell and have spell slots of the appropriate level available.

For example, a 5th-level wizard can has three 1st-level spell slots, two 2nd-level spell slots, and one 3rd-level spell slot available. He may have extra slots due to his Intelligence score and other factors, but we won’t worry about that right now. He prepared fireball in his 3rd-level spell slot and wants to cast it.


Anatomy of a Spell

Once you’ve chosen your spell, it’s time to cast it. You’ll need the spell description from a book or a website such as the PRD. Let’s have a look at the fireball spell that our 5th-level wizard plans to cast. I’ve listed the entry for the fireball spell in below, and given a bit of explanation on each aspect.


This is the name of the spell. Although written in all caps in the spell description, elsewhere, spell names are usually written in lowercase and italics.

School evocation [fire]

I talked about magic schools in my introduction to magic. This is basically the category of the spell, and is important for spellcasters who specialise in or are restricted to certain schools. There may be a subcategory or descriptor. In the case of fireball, the word ‘fire’ is the kind of energy damage that is done by the spell.

Level sorcerer/wizard 3

This is the level of the spell, which is different from character level. There are nine spell levels. A spell may list several classes if that spell is accessible by more than one class. Fireball is a third level sorcerer/wizard spell, so can only be cast by sorcerers or wizards who have access to third level spell slots.

Casting Time 1 standard action

This is how long your character will need to spend to cast the spell. I’ll cover different actions in a future post, but a standard action is the most common spell length, and you can take one standard action per round on your turn. Simply put, casting a fireball spell will take you about the same amount of time as smacking a monster with a sword.

Magus - Seltyiel (Small)Components V, S, M (a ball of bat guano and sulfur)

In Pathfinder, spellcasters must be able to speak clearly to say the magic words (V is for Vocal). They usually need at least one hand free to perform the gestures appropriate to the spell (S for Somatic, referring to these gestures). Some spells also have material components (M for Material) that are used up when the spell is cast. Spells may also have F (Focus) or DF (Divine Focus) components, which are reusable components that are not consumed when casting a spell, such as a cleric’s holy symbol of his deity, which needs to be presented when the spell is cast.

Sometimes these spells have expensive material components, in which case the cost will be listed under the components as well. Where the cost is not listed, the cost is assumed to be negligible, and the components are generally common enough that a prepared wizard or other spellcaster would have them in their spell component pouch.

Range long (400 ft. + 40 ft./level)

This is the maximum distance that you can cast the spell at. The level mentioned here refers to your character’s caster level. In the case of this fireball spell, our 5th-level wizard can cast so that the spell effect (i.e. the fireball explodes) happens up to 600 feet away from his current position (400 ft + 40*5 ft). Other common spell ranges are close, medium (both measured in feet), personal (the spellcaster can only cast it on themselves) and touch (the spellcaster must physically touch the target).

Area 20-ft.-radius spread

Not all spells affect an area, but spells like fireball do. Specifically, it affects everything in a roughly circular area that’s 40 feet across. Refer to this page to see a visual representation of spell areas of effect.

Duration instantaneous

Some spells last for a few rounds, minutes or hours, and some last longer based on the caster level of the character. Many spells, like fireball, happen as soon as they are cast, and leave no lingering effects.

Saving Throw Reflex half

Saving throws determine if a spell is avoidable at all. Reflex saves indicate that the spell’s target(s) can try and dodge out of harm’s way. In this case, a character caught in the fireball’s area of effect can roll a Reflex save – if they succeed, they will only take half damage. Other spells may allow Fortitude or Will saves. I’ll look at saves more closely in a future post.

Spell Resistance yes

Certain enemies may have spell resistance, a special defensive ability that means it’s harder for spells to affect them. To affect an enemy with spell resistance with a spell, roll a d20, add your caster level, and compare the total to the spell resistance (SR) listed in the enemy’s stat block. If your total is lower than that number, your spell does not affect the enemy. If your total is higher than their SR, your spell works normally.

Spell Description

This is a detailed description of what the spell does. Some spells may have very long or very short descriptions, depending on the complexity of the spell. Important information usually includes the spell’s damage (bolded below), as well as any extra effects created by the spell.

A fireball spell generates a searing explosion of flame that detonates with a low roar and deals 1d6 points of fire damage per caster level (maximum 10d6) to every creature within the area. Unattended objects also take this damage. The explosion creates almost no pressure.

You point your finger and determine the range (distance and height) at which the fireball is to burst. A glowing, pea-sized bead streaks from the pointing digit and, unless it impacts upon a material body or solid barrier prior to attaining the prescribed range, blossoms into the fireball at that point. An early impact results in an early detonation. If you attempt to send the bead through a narrow passage, such as through an arrow slit, you must “hit” the opening with a ranged touch attack, or else the bead strikes the barrier and detonates prematurely.

The fireball sets fire to combustibles and damages objects in the area. It can melt metals with low melting points, such as lead, gold, copper, silver, and bronze. If the damage caused to an interposing barrier shatters or breaks through it, the fireball may continue beyond the barrier if the area permits; otherwise it stops at the barrier just as any other spell effect does.


Casting a Spell

Once you have read the spell description and know what effect the spell will produce, you are ready to cast it. The steps are summarised below for easy reference:

  1. Select the spell you want to cast.
  2. Read over the spell description.
  3. On your turn, declare that you are going to cast the spell.
  4. Position your character – preferably not adjacent to any enemies.
    • If you are adjacent to an enemy or in some other distracting situation, make a concentration check.
  5. Choose a target(s) or target area for the spell to affect within the spell’s range.
  6. Inform the GM of any actions the enemies must take, such as making Reflex saves.
    • If the spell allows spell resistance, inform the GM of this as well.
  7. Cast the spell as described in the spell’s description. (You may want to describe the spell effect to the table to show off how awesome your character is.)
    • If the spell does damage, roll the appropriate dice and inform the GM of this.
  8. Enjoy watching your enemies burn/freeze/go mad/die horribly.

I hope this post has given you a good starting point for casting spells. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below. If you have suggestions for future topics you would like to see me cover in this Pathfinder for Beginners series, you can also let me know in the comments below!

Images by caiomm on DeviantArt, bpsola on DeviantArt, and JohanGrenier on DeviantArt; iconic magus by Wayne Reynolds.

Abigail Holden

Gamer, geek, LEGO fanatic. I also love Pathfinder RPG, The Sims, cross stitching, crochet and sci-fi and fantasy movies, games & books. And animals.

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