Pathfinder readthough – Chapter 9: Magic

A retroactive (and oft-repeated) introduction: After an actual-play hiatus where I was mostly writing and playtesting for GURPS. I was invited to play in a Pathfinder game, and after a few sessions, it was time to buy the book and learn the rules! I decided to try and read the Pathfinder rules cover-to-cover and see what inspiration strikes, for good or ill!

This is a compilation of the links to read-throughs of Pathfinder-related material

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

0. Prelude
1. Introduction
2. Races

3a. Classes (Barbarian – Monk)
3b. Classes (Paladin – Wizard)

4a. Skills (Appraise – Heal)
4b. Skills (Intimidate – Use Magic Device)

5. Feats

6. Equipment

7. Additional Rules

8a. Combat (Part 1)
8b. Combat (Part 2)


Now we get to the thing that makes the Dungeons and Dragons games somewhat unique, I think – the magic system. Or if not unique (lots of games have magic, and lots do it differently, better, or both), then perhaps it’s that .love it or hate it, the Vancian magic system is a staple of the genre, and Pathfinder builds off of that tradition. This chapter gives the rules for the magic system for those characters who can cast spells. This includes Wizards, Sorcerers, Clerics, Rangers, Paladins, Druids . . . just to start. It’s also possible for some non-casters to pick up some spells too: Rogues can pick up some minor magic, and I’m sure that option exists with the proper Feats allowed.

Casting Spells
Well, first you have to pick one. Knowing it is only enough if you’re one of those classes that can cast any spell they know at any time (subject to the limits on number of spells of a particular type they can cast per day). If you can’t just make stuff up that way, you must memorize, in advance, a number of spells based on your level and class. You can memorize multiple copies of a spell (again, subject to the limits on number of spells at a given level), but for these types of spellcasters, knowing “Wrigley’s Destroying Club” isn’t enough – you must memorize it ahead of time.

Concentration (and Distraction)

To cast a spell, you concentrate on it, subject to distraction. Though the key bit is delayed until rather later, the spell is most often cast right at the instant before your turn comes again – that is, you declare you cast the spell, and right before your turn comes again, your effect occurs. This allows every Tom, Dick, and Hairy to try and disrupt you. 
Distraction can come in many forms, and this section hits all of them. Injury, being grappled, getting slammed with a spell your own self, getting jostled or otherwise shaken-not-stirred, getting tornadoed, or being entangled. You can also “cast defensively,” which means that if you pass a DC 15+2*Spell Level check, you don’t provoke Attacks of Opportunity. Implicit here is that casting spells do provoke such attacks.

Most disruptions simply trigger a check with a DC proportional to the amount of disruption, and each disruption method has its own calculation. Check the handy table on p. 207, or the Pathfinder Reference Document, of course.


You can also use a spell to disrupt another caster. You have to delay your action with a Ready, and when your foe casts a spell, you can make a Spellcraft check at DC 15+your foe’s spell level. If you succeed, you may cast the freakin’ exact same spell being flung at you as a counterspell. Otherwise, you might try Dispel Magic, but that doesn’t always work (some spells can’t be vamoosed by dispel magic, but that’s a spell-by-spell thing). Given how few spell slots you get per day (and maybe if you’re always resting and renewing, this isn’t an problem), I would wonder how often counterspells get used.
Spell Failure

If a spell fails, by and large it just fizzles. No big deal other than the wasted slot and turn. No apparent backfires, dimensional warps, or generally icky consequences. Of course, if you’ve just lost or wasted one of the three memorized spells that makes you a unique special flower, well, that might piss you off a bit.
Special Spell Effects

The key bit here is the (brief) description of what spell bonus types stack and don’t. Dodge bonuses, circumstance bonuses (?), and racial bonuses seem to stack, but most other bonuses and penalties do not, and you only take the worst one. I could see this particular rule being roundly ignored. It’s equal opportunity both ways – since penalties stack as well – and would simplify game play.

Also here is a quick discussion of resurrection, which is the re-merging of the departed soul (literally departed – it goes on vacation on some other plane of existence, and you’re leaving it a voice mail to come back to work) with the body of the fallen. If he doesn’t want to come back, he doesn’t have to. And if enemies want to keep him away, there are ways of either trapping or warding the soul . . . or you can just filch the body, since you need it for the spell!

Multiple Spell Effects

This entire section made me want to dig out my +3 Red Pen of Editing, and write “stop being so wishy-washy” over and over. This little section is in rather desperate need of a few examples. Generally, if you’re providing different types of effects (like a DEX buff and a STR buff, or Enlarge Person and a CON boost or something) things probably go to plan. You can’t give multiple stacking spells of the same type: Two +1 boosts to STR are just +1, and a +1 and a +2 only gives you the benefit of the larger one. Finally, if you cast a series of spells with similar effects, usually it’s the most recent one that applies.

It also throws you under the bus with nice vague advice like “sometimes a spell can make another spell irrelevant!” Gee, thanks. This section is basically some vague GM guidelines, and there aren’t many nuggets here.

Spell Descriptions

At over 100 pages, Chapter 10 is the largest chapter in the book, and it’s “nothing” but spell after spell. So in Chapter 9, we break down the content of the spell descriptions, and what they mean.

School of Magic

Most belong to one of eight schools.

  • Abjuration: protection spells. Some such spells, especially if multiple spells are laid on top of each other, are detectable by Perception.
  • Conjuration: Movement and alteration of living creatures and some objects, I think. There are subschools which are pretty descriptive. Calling spells brings a critter to you from another plane. Creation forms magical constructs that disappear when the spell is over. Healing conjurations make you all better. Summoning brings a pre-existing creature or object to you, which goes back to where you sent it when killed or dismissed. Finally, Teleportation spells are when you’ve got to move it move it, and instantly transport things from place to place.
  • Divination: See secrets, know the future (the GM’s bane), find hidden things. 
  • Enchantment: Mind-affecting spells that change how the subject views you (charms), or force behavior (compulsions).
  • Evocation: boom sticks. Creating and manipulating magical energy, often in highly visible ways to cause damage.
  • Illusion: deceiving the senses of others. There are several kinds of illusions, such as figments (false sensations), glamers (glamour? altering how something looks, tastes, feels, etc.), and others. You’ll generally treat an illusion as real unless you take the time to interact with it, whereupon careful study might reveal and dispel it – that’s a saving throw.
  • Necromancy: Dead things, Mikey. Dead things. The undead, manipulating the forces of life and death.
  • Transmutation: Changing the properties of a thing or person from one form to another. This can inlcude polymorph to change your own body or that of another. There’s a very large block of text here on polymorph, so if that’s going to be your thing, you’d best read it.
Mostly these are fluff text that carry no game-mechanical interaction about the spell itself, but it does say that they can give interaction info on how it plays with other spells. 

Spell components can be a big deal. You can’t cast a spell if you can’t fulfill the requirements! Verbal components require that you be able to speak clearly, as if on stage or giving a lecture. Somatic components are hand gestures (I had always thought they could be full-body movements. Guess not!). Material components are consumed in the casting, but the game says don’t bother to track them unless they carry a cost. Interesting. Focus is new to me, but it’s basically a non-consumed prop that helps cast the spell. Divine Focus is basically a holy something. It might be a sprig of a holy plant for druids and rangers, a holy symbol or reliquary for a cleric.
Casting Time

As mentioned earlier, some spells can be cast in a standard or swift action (which presumably mean they take effect right as you cast them), others are full-round actions (they go zap right before you take your next turn), others can take minutes, which means you get to take ten combat rounds to do this. Better have efficient friends. Or cast out of combat. You only make decisions about range,target, area effect when the spell takes effect, not at casting.

Provides some pretty concise definitions and advice on ranged spells. Personal (you only), touch (up to six people using a full-round action might be allowed by some spells), then Close, Medium, Long, and Unlimited. Except when range is just expressed in feet. Most ranges seem to extend a bit with caster level (+5, +10, +40 feet per two full caster levels).
This section goes on for a bit, talking about rays, cones, spreading fogs, etc. It gives templates for various lines, cones, and radius effects, but the entire section is worth noting. 
Oops. Failed Saving Throw.


Most of the duration rules are straight-forward. One cool bit is that touch spells can be held for the entire duration of the spell, which means if you can cast some nasty fire-hand spell for a minute, you can set people’s face on fire for ten rounds. Not too shabby.
Saving Throws

Some spells can have their effects reduced or even eliminated with a saving throw (some spells are no-save allowed, though). The DC is 10+Spell Level+any applicable bonuses, which for dedicated spellcasters are going to be in the +3 to +5 range. So probably DC 15 and higher, by and large.
Spell Resistance

Basically AC for spells. You have to overcome this if your target has it – 1d20+Caster Level vs. your foe’s Spell Resistance, 
Arcane Spells

I will have to admit that at this point, my brain just started shouting out “my God, the tedium!” I know that these rules are core to a caster’s mission in life. How they prepare spells, what the limits are to casting, how they’re recorded in the spellbook, etc.

But the writing is terribly terribly dull. For a book filled with iconic characters, I really wish they’d have used them more to provide flavor and examples.


Preparing Spells

You must rest for 8 hours, and then take 15 – 60 minutes to prepare your slots. Somewhere buried in there (Prepared Spell Retention) it gives what is a pretty good explanation for this “memorization” thing. You are actually effectively partially casting, and then “hanging” the spell, subject to finalization and execution later.

I should note that the new(ish) GURPS magic system introduced in Monster Hunters – Ritual Path Magic – has something very, very like this. You take the time and energy to cast a spell into a focus, called a charm or dweomer, and then when it’s time to cast the spell, you crush or otherwise activate the item. Spells can take a long time to prepare, and the ability to generate a monster (ahem) spell repertoire is limited to your magic power and really how much time your friends will let you spend muttering incantations before you head out to kill stuff.

If you’re playing a wizard or sorcerer – or any spellcaster, since the rules for Divine spellcasting are best summarized as ‘exactly the same thing, with this small handful of changes – you will want to read these rules a few times, and discuss them with your GM to see if he has any house rules to (hopefully) smooth things along in game.

Short version though. You rest for the night (8 hours), you spend about an hour to prepare stuff. If you’re disrupted in your rest you either need to make it up or prepare fewer spells. It seems to take roughly 60-90 seconds per spell regardless of level (about an hour, maximum of 40-60 spells total memorized, ish).

You can leave spell slots open and prepare them later. If you are facing a journey where you can make frequent stops of about an hour, this might be the best way to ensure you don’t leave yourself utterly without the ability to be flexible. It still takes at least 15 minutes to get this done, and you may not abandon a previously memorized spell in this process. You may only fill an empty slot.


The rules put a lot of thought into the wizard’s spellbook, which is exactly 100 pages, no more, no less. Each spell, from zero-level to 9th level, is one page. Magical writing is a sort of personal arcane shorthand that has as much to do with how your character interprets magic as with any sort of formalism. Thus, it takes a bit to unravel another wizard’s shorthand, which is why it takes so darn long to read them.

It’s a neat trick – DC 20 + the spell level.

You can also prepare a spell from another person’s book, but you have to make a Spellcraft check (DC 15+level) to do it. Copying a spell is a similar check, but it costs a bunch of money: square the spell’s level x 10 gp (5 gp flat cost for 0-level spells). You must be writing in solid gold ink or something – or the ink itself is magical. Still, as they say in my neck of the woods, that’s ‘spendy.’

You can sell a spellbook as loot for half the gp cost of all the spells it contains. The spellbook of a powerful caster that might have 4 spells per level x all 10 possible levels of spells is worth about 5700gp. Not bad as treasure.

Divine Spells

Pretty much just like Arcane spells, but you prepare them at a time of your choosing instead of right when you wake up. Also, any spell slot of appropriate level or higher can be used to cast a healing (or inflict harm) type spell, so you don’t need to prepare those in advance, per se, but you will need to decide what you need to give up as you go. This also works for summon nature’s ally if you’re a druid.

Special Abilities

Some abilities mimic that of spells in certain ways.
Spell-like Abilities are not exactly spells, but duplicate the function of a spell and are definitely magical in nature. You can just ‘turn them on’ with a standard action with no verbal, somatic, material, or focus requirement, and they do not provoke Attacks of Opportunity. However, they can be dispelled and don’t work in areas that disallow magic. 
Supernatural Abilities cannot be disrupted in combat – so they’re wicked cool – and thus aren’t subject to spell resistance or dispel magic, but they don’t function in antimagic areas.
Extraordinary Abilities may look like spells and feel like spells, but they’re not. They’re not magical, can’t be dispelled, don’t suffer the effects of antimagic or dispel magic . . . basically they break the laws of physics for reasons that are not magical or anything. 
Parting Shot

While this chapter is critical to understanding and playing spell-users in Pathfinder, it’s quite a slog to get through. Still, while there are many rules, there seem to be relatively few special cases, so once you assimilate the laws of magic, so to speak, you should be good to go for the rest of your Pathfinder career – unless other books that aren’t the Core Rulebook change that!

4 thoughts on “Pathfinder readthough – Chapter 9: Magic

  1. In ten+ years of playing 3.x/Pathfinder I have never seen Counterspelling used.

    The bonus stacking rules are pretty clear once you get used to them. They just aren't about similarity of _effect_. It's all about class of the bonus, equivalent to a Gurps Power Modifier. Bonuses of the same class (such as Enhancement) almost never stack. The major exception is Dodge bonuses.. Also bonuses without a given class. Equivalent a "Wild" Gurps PM.

    So an Enhancement bonus does stack with a Morale bonus. and both will stack with a Holy Bonus and so on. The highly desirable spells with bonuses in categories beyond the very common Enhancement class are pretty rare though.

    While Pathfinder spell description language is technical and dull itt also tends to be technically precise. Once you learn the codewords there are few questions about any spell effect.

  2. Can either of you comment on why Counterspelling is never used? I've been trying to imagine how it would work properly and I'm at a lost. Maybe you can provide some insight on how it could be fixed?

  3. There are two issues. The first is the part about having the same spell prepared as the one being cast at you. That requires an impractical level of foresight. You can get around this by using a dispel Magic as your Counterspell..

    The second is more fundamental. It is the imbalance between offense and defense in D&D based games. To Counterspell you have to go before your opponent and then take a Ready action (equivalent to Gurps wait). If you take the Ready and then use Dispel Magic as a Couterspell. you've used one of your actions and spells to negate one of his. This only puts you closer to mutual exhaustion and not really victory.

    Problem is that on your turn instead of the ready you could have just cast one of your spells at the enemy. There are a few spells that are effectively Save of Die (or lose the combat at least).. This is sometimes questionable since if he does Save you usually gain nothing.. It can lead to spectacular victory if he fails though.

    Or you could cast a spell that does HP damage.. Combat really is over when one side has no more HP. D&D can be very simple that way.

    Even for a defensive specialist like an Abjuror you could have taken that Turn/spell to negate Fireballs by castina a protective spell on your fighter before he charges or to negate the spell your enemy cast last time or to de-buff your enemy.

    De-buffing with Dispel Magic is usually very important at mid-to-high levels. Adventure Paths often give level bosses an unrealistic amount of foresight and time to cast protective and buffing spells on themselves. At the climax of one Path the boss was AC41 and it was almost all protections about 4 layers deep.

    So the second problem is simply fundamental to the game. You can use your Turn and Spell to prevent your enemy from hurting you _once_ or take other actions that protect you or your party for more than one turn or simply ill the fool.

    Counterspelling is only slightly more rare than Fighting Defensively or even actual use of Combat Expertise(instead of using as a prereq to better feats). D&D just rewards offense over defense.

  4. I usually comment on Google+, but the discussion here is more interesting. In truth I have seen fighting defensively happen all the time in D&D 3.5E Pathfinder. Usually it is a way for a seriously wounded character to try and hold on so they can be bailed out and is far more useful at low levels. At high levels, it is possible to increase AC so much that the arms race results in pretty much automatic hits unless your AC is stellar.

    Counterspelling is a terrible mechanic. The best case scenario (dispel magic) gives you a chance to stop one spell. Or you could use it to dispel existing buffs. Nobody (except possibly a Sorcerer) is going to have many of these spells and if the opposition doesn't cast a spell them you wasted your action for the turn. If you could "borrow" next rounds action for an emergency counterspell then it might get used.

    As for the use the same spell approach, that is hopelessly bad as a mechanic. If the spell is a lethal attack spell why not hit first with it? If it isn't, who is wasting a turn to counter it.

    They would have been better off deleting the mechanic.

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