One of the trickiest things to get right as a DM is using spellcasters. Often a Spellcaster is used as a damage booster who dies quickly in combat. With low hit points and poor AC the Spellcasters are often easy prey for players. In this series of posts I will take a dive into how you can use Spellcasters as serious bad guys. For the purpose of this article, I will use an NPC wizard called E-Vill Wizard. He will start at 5th level against a 2nd level party.
Spellcasters Crafty by Nature.
The first thing I want any DM to consider is that Wizards are by nature highly intelligent characters and the same would be true of an NPC Wizard. See my post on Intelligence for further details on high Int villains. As such they should be planning several moves ahead and have contingences for anything the players might throw at them. A Spellcaster should plan the order of spells they use to their advantage. They should also aim to bolster their minions in combat and have an escape plan in place if things start to turn against them. The best NPC Spellcasters should always slip away to fight another day.
Please note that I will not be building a Spellcaster to kill the party but rather to make the encounters challenging. The choice of spells and tactics will be aimed at making a challenging fight that the Wizard will flee when it turns to the players favour. If I wanted to kill players one fireball would do it at low level. At higher levels the Wizards tactics will become ever more deadly.
Level: 5 Class: Wizard/Diviner Al: NE
STR: 9(-1) DEX: 13(+1) CON:13(+1) INT:18(+4) WIS:14(+2) CHA:13(+1)
Hit Points: 26 AC: 11 (16 with Shield)
Staff +2 1D6-1 Damage
Portent: Roll 2D20 and note the results. At any time these can be used in place of a roll. This must be done before making the roll.
Spells Per Level – 1st: 4 2nd: 3 3rd: 2
Poison Spray, Chill Touch, Acid Splash, Ray of Frost
1st Level Spells:
Fog Cloud, Shield, Sleep, Longstrider, Thunderwave
2nd Level Spells:
Blur, Cloud of Daggers, Invisibility, Web, Scorching Ray
3rd Level Spells:
Hypnotic Pattern, Stinking Cloud, Vampiric Touch, Fear, Fly
The Set Up.
For the purpose of this article I will frame the adventure around the NPC Spellcaster. E-Vill Wizard is the leader of a gang of bandits. They are all low-level humans under his sway and their goal is to subjugate a small village. The players will arrive and find the village in ruins. Shortly after E-Vill and his minions will show up to demand further tribute.
At this stage the Spellcaster will confront the players. His only aim is to subdue them so he can take goods from the villagers. He brings two thugs with him as bodyguards. Before entering the village he will cast Shield increasing his AC to 16. If and when the players challenge him he will react by casting Thunderwave at them. This spell will decrease the groups hit points and open them up for his second spell.
The Goon Squad.
His bodyguards will block any attacks directed at him allow him to keep casting. Players may try to use missile weapons and spells to slay him. In this instance he will cower behind his guards forcing Disadvantage on any ranged attacks. His hit points should hold out against what the player s throw at him. In the second round of combat he will cast sleep at 2nd level. This will take down 7D8 Hp worth of the players. This may drop the entire group. If this is the case he will take his tribute and steal something from the players before fleeing back to the main group of bandits. If the players kill his guards and the encounter turns against him he will cast Invisibility and slink away.
After the first encounter the players will find out that E-Vill Wizard has taken not only the villages wealth but the children to. This should hook them into going after him to free the children. The middle of the adventure will have the players make their way to the bandits hideout deep in the woods and fight their way to the Wizards chamber.
Spellcaster Vs the Players: Final Encounter.
The final encounter with E-Vill Wizard will be a more lethal affair. He is cornered and enraged that they have dared to come after him. But he should have an escape plan ready. Before the players enter the main chamber he will be preparing for them. He will cast Shield (AC16) and Fog Cloud. With himself and the remaining guards hidden in the Fog they can try to make a sneak (Ambush) attack.
His opening Spell will be Cloud of Daggers. Not only does this deal some solid damage (4D4) but it will block the players from attacking him somewhat. His two remaining thugs will engage the players and try to keep them from the Wizard. If the first round goes well from him E-Vill will use Scorching Ray to deal damage to two of the players. If however it has not gone well for him he will try to incapacitate as many players as possible with Hypnotic Pattern.
Round Two…sort of.
In the third round his choice of spells will depend on how the fight is going. If his thugs are still alive he will toss out a Poison Spay cantrip at the most threating player. If he is being attacked he will cast Blur to try and avoid getting hurt. But if the thugs are dead and he has yet to be attacked he will cast Stinking Cloud or Thunderwave to try and slow the players.
E-Vill will play his last card when the battle looks lost . Casting Web will block up the whole room with sticky webs. He would also cancels the Fog spell. Unknown to the players the children are bound and gagged within the Fog Cloud. The Web now ensnares them and begins to ignite due to the lit torches on the walls. Players are thus forced to divert from him to save the children. This dastardly trick gives him time to cast Invisibility and flee the scene.
Spellcaster Spell Choices…
A note on Spell choices. Hypnotic Pattern and Stinking Cloud are interchangeable. Both are good for disabling players on mass. The same could also be said of Sleep. Although Sleep can be used as a device to capture Players. If you want to go down that route. The last any possibly most powerful of the disabling spells is Fear. Mass effect and it lasts for concentration up to 1 minute. Warrior types (except Paladins I guess) don’t often bother with high Wisdom stats so the save for this spell could be tricky.
Instead of Invisibility E-Vill could use Fly to escape the opening encounter. Either spell should allow him to flee the scene. If you do chose to use Fly then you should allow the Players a few shots at him as he wings away. Blur and Shield are good defensive spells for any caster looking to avoid being hit. At low level they can frustrate the few attacks Players have.
Poison Spray can be swapped for Acid Splash of Ray of Frost. Each has advantages. Acid Splash hit up to two targets. But it is only D6 damage. Ray of Frost reduces targets speed and would slow the Players advance. It is also D8 damage, but only single target. Lastly Poison Spray. This cantrip does a hefty D12 damage but has a very short (10ft) range.
Cloud of Daggers has a nice solid minimum damage of 4 from 4D4. This spell also has the bonus of denying ground. Because it lasts up to a minute it can be used to block off Players or force them back or even into traps etc. Thunderwave is not as powerful with a lower minimum damage of 2 from 2D8, but with pushback also slows any advance on the Spellcaster. Of the spells used to cause damage Vampiric Touch is my favourite. It does 3D6 damage and the Spellcaster gains back 50% of the damage dealt. At very low levels the damage is good (not so much at high levels) and the caster gets some of their hit points back to boot. I would consider it a last ditch spell before they flee the scene.
Web combined with Scorching Ray is also a good spell pairing. The Web holds back the players and the Scorching Ray deals damage and then doubles down by igniting the Web. Web is also great for slowing down the Players advance.
This is just one example of how to use a low level spellcaster. The situation is easy to alter and if as a DM you want to kill the Wizard off then ignore the options for escape.