Whether you’re hurling fireballs at your foes, raising the dead, glimpsing the future, or curing grievous wounds, magic is an integral part of Dungeons & Dragons.
From wizards to warlocks, sorcerers to clerics, and bards, the majority of playable classes in D&D 5e can weave their own particular brand of magic — drawing their power from different sources, learning spells from different schools of magic, and casting those spells in different ways.
Magic can be one of the most daunting aspects of the game for new players to get to grips with — and even veterans with multiple years and campaigns under their belts can still get tripped up by its finer points.
So, whether you’re just learning your first cantrips or an all-powerful archmage, welcome to our complete guide to spellcasting in Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
In this guide, we’re going to give you a comprehensive, scannable crash course in magic and spellcasting from the origins of magical power to spell components, rituals, innate spellcasting, and how to calculate your spellcasting modifiers.
We’re also taking a look at how each spellcasting character class casts its spells and the differences between them.
So, grab your cursed grimoire, young apprentice. It’s time to cast some spells.
What Is a Spell in DnD 5e?
A spell is a single expression of magical power — the raw underlying energy of the universe harnessed to create a particular effect.
Casting a spell allows an individual to pull that raw energy into a particular form or shape — either by chanting strings of mystical syllables in long-dead languages, weaving their limbs in elaborate gestures, or offering up specific material components — and bend it to their will.
There is little that lies beyond the scope of magic.
The right spell can allow a magic user to manipulate the elements, summon spirits, teleport over great distances or between planes of reality, heal the dying or resurrect the dead, and more.
Magic can be delicate and inconsequential — a shower of sparks or a sound conjured from nothing. It can also be devastating.
Archmages can call down fire from the heavens to rout armies and raze cities to ash.
A powerful cleric is a lot closer to the deity they worship than to the “average” follower of their faith. Learn a powerful enough spell, and a wizard can rewrite reality on a whim.
There are many ways to learn magic and many conduits through which its practitioners draw their power.
Wizards study dusty tomes and scrolls for years, carefully memorizing arcane runes of power. Druids draw from the energy of the natural world all around them. Warlocks strike dark bargains with powerful, otherworldly beings.
Each spell exists as a series of sounds, gestures, and/or ingredients that create a specific reaction in the fabric of reality.
Though there are countless spells that have been created throughout the multiverse’s history, many are long forgotten.
Some live on — whether buried in ancient libraries or in the memories of deathless liches — and some are gone forever. Many survive, however, and each one belongs to a particular school of magic.
Schools of Magic
All spells in D&D 5e are divided among eight categories or schools of magic. These schools group spells according to the effects they have on the world.
Some spellcasters devote their lives to the study of just one school, while others draw from all of them.
Some magic users (looking at you, druids) probably don’t know or care that healing word and moonbeam are both evocation spells.
You can read more about the eight schools of magic and what they do in our full guide here. Otherwise, here’s the abridged version.
Abjuration spells protect the caster and their allies, creating magical barriers, purging harmful effects, banishing creatures, and warding areas against trespassers.
Conjuration spells either transport objects and creatures from one place (or plane) to another or create objects and effects out of nothing.
Divination magic is all about revealing information. This can mean magically spying on an enemy, communicating over great distances, uncovering secrets, dispelling illusions, or even glimpsing the future.
Enchantment magic exerts the caster’s will over others. This magic lets the caster control their enemies’ actions, making them dance like puppets, or forces them to perceive reality differently or calm their emotions.
Evocation magic manipulates arcane energy, sometimes with devastating effects. Fire, lightning, blasts of freezing-cold ice, or electricity are all an evoker’s playthings — but so too are healing energies.
Illusion magic is similar to enchantment, but instead of playing upon the mind, it deceives the senses with illusory sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations. An Illusionist can cause people to see things that don’t exist, to overlook things that do, to hear phantom sounds, or even become lost in new, false versions of reality.
Necromancy deals with the forces that govern life and death, and necromancers manipulate those energies to their own ends. Necromancy magic can drain away life force as easily as it can restore it, raising undead servants or even returning people to life.
Transmutation is the magical instigation of change in the properties of a creature, object, or environment. A transmuter (also known as an alchemist) might turn lead into gold, an enemy into a frog, or an ally into a fearsome beast.
Origins of Magic
Although magical powers in 5e can stem from over a dozen different sources – from a Celestial’s favor to the power of the natural world or centuries of hard study – the fundamental source of any spell breaks down into two categories: the arcane and the divine.
Arcane magic refers to the manipulation of energy, elements, and the consciousness of others. It’s like hacking into the basic code of the universe and rewriting a few lines.
In settings like the Forgotten Realms, arcane magic directly manipulates the Weave (the universal magical fabric underlying all creation) to create the caster’s desired effect.
Arcane magic is the caster’s will to power imposed upon the laws of physics, whereas Divine magic is all about channeling the power of another – be it a god, ancient void-dwelling entity, demon, or the formidable wrath of the natural world.
Clerics are the obvious candidate for Divine magic, but Druids, Rangers, and Warlocks also fall within this umbrella.
What Are Spell Slots?
Every spell cast in D&D 5e has a level from 0 to 9, which denotes its power.
Level 0 spells – known as cantrips — are simple enough that a spellcaster can learn them by rote and cast them as many times as they like without exhausting their reserves of magical energy.
Other than cantrips, each spell’s level (from 1-9) takes a toll on the caster, meaning that regardless of how many spells they know, they can only cast a certain number before needing to rest.
Spellcasters all have a certain number of spell slots that they can use each day to cast their spells.
Usually a powerful magic-user can expect to accumulate a whole handful of 1st-, 2nd-, and even 3rd-level spells as they grow in power with each new spell level unlocking drastically more and more impactful options.
Some spells can be cast using a higher-level spell slot that is standard, which can increase the potency of the spell.
9th-level spells can level mountains, rewrite all of reality, and crack open a gate between different ends of the universe.
Even the most powerful magic-users can barely manage to cast more than a single 9th-level spell a day.
How Do You Cast a Spell?
Each spell, regardless of who’s casting it, can be understood in roughly the same way according to a series of criteria: the spell’s name, level, casting time, range, components, and duration.
For example, let’s look at one of my favorite damage-dealing spells, the 2nd-level evocation spell Scorching Ray.
You create three rays of fire and hurl them at targets within range. You can hurl them at one target or several.
Make a ranged-spell attack for each ray. On a hit, the target takes 2d6 fire damage.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you create one additional ray for each slot level above 2nd.
Casting time refers to the speed at which the spell can be cast. Most spells take an action to cast, but some can be cast faster using a bonus action or even faster in reaction to something another creature does.
Some spells take much longer to cast — minutes or even hours compared to just a few seconds.
If you attempt to cast a spell with a casting time longer than a single action or reaction, you need to spend your whole action each subsequent turn casting the spell until the casting time duration is complete, and you must maintain your concentration while you do so.
If your concentration is broken, the spell fails, but you don’t expend a spell slot. If you want to try casting the spell again, you must start over.
Some spells (which have the ritual tag next to their casting time) can be cast as a ritual.
Casting a spell as a ritual takes 10 minutes longer to cast than normal, but it doesn’t expend a spell slot. This means that ritual spells can’t be cast at a higher level.
Not all spellcasters have the ability to cast spells as rituals.
The Ritual Caster feat allows a character who doesn’t otherwise have access to ritual spellcasting to gain access to ritual magic.
A spell’s range refers to how far away its target can be. A spell that tries to target something beyond its range fails.
Spell ranges can vary hugely, from spells that can only affect the caster or someone/something they can touch all the way up to anything on the same plane of reality.
A spell’s Area is the amount of space around the target that the spell affects. The spell’s area also refers to the shape of the space the spell affects. Some spells affect a sphere, a cube, a cone, a cylinder, or a line.
Most spell ranges and areas are expressed in feet.
A spell’s components are the physical requirements needed to cast them.
Although some class abilities (like the sorcerer’s subtle spell), innate spellcasting, and other special traits allow certain spells to be cast without components, almost all spells in D&D 5e require one or more components to cast.
There are three kinds of components a spell can require: Verbal (V), Somatic (S), and Material (M). If you can’t supply all of the components required to cast a spell, you cannot cast it.
Each spell’s description indicates whether it requires verbal, somatic, or material components.
Verbal (V) components require the chanting or muttering of ancient mystic words, although it is not the words themselves but rather the exact combinations of syllables and sounds the words create that draw arcane power from the ether.
A spell with a verbal component needs to be heard to be cast, meaning effects that deaden noise like the Silence spell can prevent them from working.
Somatic (S) components involve a series of gestures and intricate hand movements that require the caster to have at least one hand free.
Some abilities (like the War Caster feat) allow spellcasters to perform somatic components while also wielding weapons.
Material (M) components refer to a few specific objects that are usually symbolically tied to the spell being cast.
(If a spell has a material component, the exact items required are included in parenthesis beside the entry; for example, the 2nd-level abjuration spell Alarm requires the use of a tiny bell and a piece of fine silver wire).
Most spell components can be found or substituted with the use of either a component pouch or a spellcasting focus.
However, some spell components have a material cost (in gold pieces) that needs to be met in order to cast such a spell.
Some classes have the option to use something other than a component pouch or a specific material to account for the material components of a spell — although spells with a gold cost still require those components.
Arcane Focus: Used by wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers, arcane foci can take the form of an orb, a crystal, a rod, a specially constructed staff, a wand like length of wood, or some similar item that allows a spellcaster to focus their power.
Druidic Focus: Druids can use sprigs of mistletoe or holly (or other plants native to their region with special significance) to channel the power of nature.
Holy Symbol: clerics and paladins use holy symbols that represent their chosen deities (or the ideals they represent) and channel the power of those divinities through them.
A spell’s duration refers to the amount of time its effects persist after it’s been cast. Spells can take effect and dissipate instantaneously or in a matter of seconds or minutes.
Others can last for hours, days, or even an entire month — especially those that warp the mind or perceptions of a creature, like a Geas. Some spells, once cast, are permanently active until dispelled.
Most healing magic, spell attacks, or any other effects that harm, repair, alter, or create new matter have an instantaneous duration as the magical effect they weave is immediately wrought upon the world.
Some spells require the mage who casts them to continue to concentrate on the spell in order to prolong its effects.
Concentration doesn’t preclude you from doing things like moving, attacking, speaking, and other tasks while you continue to weave the effects of the spell.
However, the following events can break your concentration and force a spell’s effects to end before its duration expires.
Casting another concentration spell. You can’t concentrate on two spells at once, and if you start casting another spell that requires concentration, you end your focus on your current concentration spell.
Taking damage. Whenever you take damage or are subjected to an effect that could reasonably be expected to break your concentration (being knocked prone or plunging into an icy cold river, for example) while you are concentrating on a spell, you must succeed on a Constitution saving throw to maintain your concentration.
The DC is equal to 10 or half the damage you take, whichever number is higher. You need to make a save each time you take damage from a different source, even if the damage happens simultaneously.
Being incapacitated or killed. You lose concentration on a spell if you are incapacitated or if you die.
You can read our full concentration guide here.
Casting Multiple Spells
Because characters have an action, bonus action, and reaction that they can take on their turn in combat, it’s perfectly understandable to wonder if it’s possible to cast multiple spells on a single turn.
For example, could a wizard with the Magic Missile (1 action), Shield (reaction), and Misty Step (bonus action) cast all three in a single round of combat?
The short answer is no. There is a rule that you can’t cast more than one leveled spell (1-9th level) in a single round.
You can cast a Cantrip as an action or bonus action and still use one of your remaining actions to cast a leveled spell, however.
So, a wizard could cast Firebolt (1 action) instead of Magic Missile and still be able to cast either Shield or Misty Step on the same round of combat.
There is an exception to this rule in the form of the Fighter class.
At 2nd level, fighters gain an ability called Action Surge, which allows them to take an additional action on their turn.
If either an Eldritch Knight Fighter or another spellcasting class with at least two levels multiclassed into fighter wishes, they can use their action surge to cast two leveled spells or cantrips in a single turn that use an action.
Whenever a character casts a spell, they do so using one of their ability scores.
This is usually tied to their character’s class and the origin of the magic they’re using, although some racial traits and feats allow a spellcaster to draw magic from different ability scores.
Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are the three ability scores in D&D 5e that can power spellcasting.
- Intelligence: Artificer, Eldritch Knight (Fighter), Arcane Trickster (Rogue), Wizard
- Wisdom: Cleric, Druid, Ranger
- Charisma: Bard, Paladin, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard
The ability score modifier that’s connected to your character’s spellcasting determines two key scores:
- Spell Save DC (8 + Spellcasting Ability Score Modifier + Proficiency Bonus + Any Special Modifiers): The number that creatures have to beat when they save against the effects of spells you cast.
- Spell Attack Modifier (Spellcasting Ability Modifier + Proficiency Bonus + Any Special Modifiers): The number added to a d20 roll when making a spell attack compared to the target’s Armor Class.
Magic Items and Spellcasting Modifiers
Some magic items can affect the caster’s spellcasting modifiers, adding modifiers that raise spell-save DCs and spell-attack modifiers.
Items like the Rod of the Pact Keeper provide different bonuses depending on their rarity.
Spellcasting by Class
Out of all 13 playable character classes that count as “official” material in Dungeons & Dragons 5e (not counting Critical Role content like the Blood Hunter), nine have access to spellcasting abilities by default, and three more (the Arcane Trickster Rogue, the Eldritch Knight Fighter, and the Way of the Four Elements Monk) can gain access to spellcasting via a subclass.
Only the barbarian has no way to cast spells — largely because it clashes with the class’s core rage ability.
While every spell functions in roughly the same way in D&D 5e, different classes access their spellcasting abilities in different ways.
Some classes, like the ranger and the bard, simply commit a certain number of spells to memory and always have them on hand.
Other classes, like the druid and cleric, can prepare a new array of spells from their list each day. Others, like the wizard and the warlock, have their own unique take on the process.
Some spellcasters effectively commit certain spells to memory permanently, unlocking more as they grow in levels, and always having their list of spells prepared as long as they have spell slots to cast them.
Different classes can learn different numbers of spells and gain access to higher-level spell slots at different rates.
With the exception of the artificer, all classes that practice using arcane rather than divine magic tend toward knowledge-based spellcasting.
The other common method for spellcasting involves the spellcaster preparing a number of spells each time they finish a long rest.
The spellcaster can choose from their class’s entire spell list and completely rework their list of available spells each day.
Classes that draw their power from divine sources (like clerics, druids, and paladins) prepare spells in this fashion as they beseech the source of their power for new abilities.
The number of spells a character who obtains spells in this way can prepare each day is tied to their spellcasting ability modifier and level.
For example, a Druid can prepare a number of spells each day equal to their spellcasting ability modifier + their druid level.
Therefore, a 2nd-level druid with a Wisdom score of 16 (+3) can prepare five spells in this way.
Artificers are an Intelligence-based class that focuses on influencing magic into items and inventions.
The artificer spell list contains a somewhat limited variety of spells from the wizard spell list, which focus on controlling the battlefield and dealing area-of-effect damage, and when artificers cast spells, they use their tools as a spellcasting focus.
Artificers are the only arcane magic class that prepare spells, meaning an artificer can choose a new loadout of spells each time they finish a long rest.
The number of spells they can prepare is quite small (they are known as a 1/3 caster class), seeing as the artificer also has a number of other magical abilities outside of spellcasting.
Bards are Charisma-based spellcasters who weave magic into their music and other forms of performance — lacing cutting words with subtle enchantments, manipulating the emotions of others, or creating dazzling displays of light and sound.
When bards cast spells, they can use musical instruments as spellcasting foci.
Bardic magic largely stems from the Illusion and Enchantment schools of magic. There are four spells that are unique to the bard’s spell list.
- Compulsion (4th, Enchantment)
- Dissonant Whispers (1st, Enchantment)
- Power Word Heal (9th, Evocation)
- Vicious Mockery (cantrip, Enchantment)
Bards use the knowledge method of learning spells, committing new ones to memory as they level up, although a bard can also switch out a spell they know for another one on the bard spell list as part of the leveling-up process.
Later on, bards also gain access to an ability called Magical Secrets, which lets them learn spells from outside their class’s spell list.
Clerics draw on the divine power of their chosen deities to cast magic and can access one of the broadest pools of available spells and cantrips in D&D 5e as well as being among the only classes to be able to cast healing spells.
When clerics cast spells, they can use their holy symbols as spellcasting foci.
Clerics have a full 29 unique spells that aren’t available as standard to any other class.
These abilities largely revolve around summoning celestial spirits, contacting deities for advice, and both buffing and healing allies — although there are plenty of cleric spells designed to harm and hinder enemies as well.
A few of the cleric’s more iconic unique spells include…
- Augury ® (2nd, Divination)
- Flame Strike (5th, Evocation)
- Hallow (5th, Evocation)
- Spirit Guardians (3rd, Conjuration)
- Thaumaturgy (cantrip, Transmutation)
Clerics use the preparation method to select new spells from their class’s list after each long rest, choosing a number of prepared spells equal to their Wisdom Modifier + Cleric Level, meaning a cleric can adapt their entire magical skillset to new circumstances in the middle of an adventure.
The druid spell list contains a mixture of healing, mobility, and support spells — but it’s the battlefield control options that really set druids apart as spellcasters.
Druids have 23 unique spells on their spell list, including…
- Druidcraft (cantrip, Transmutation)
- Entangle (1st, Conjuration)
- Flame Blade (2nd, Evocation)
- Moonbeam (2nd, Evocation)
- Shillelagh (cantrip, Transmutation)
- Wall of Thorns (6th, Conjuration)
Druids use the preparation method to choose new spells from their entire class spell list after each long rest.
Druids can prepare a number of spells each day equal to their Wisdom Modifier + Druid Level, making them highly versatile and powerful spellcasters whose spellcasting abilities are often enhanced by their chosen subclass (druid circle).
Eldritch Knight (Fighter)
Fighters don’t naturally have access to spellcasting abilities (although some can dabble in rune magic or psionics), but if you want to combine martial prowess with spellcasting ability focused on combat, the Eldritch Knight is a great option.
Known as a 1/3 caster, the Eldritch Knight gets to learn a smattering of spells from the wizard list as long as they predominantly choose spells from the Abjuration or Evocation schools of magic.
Way of the Four Elements (Monk)
A few monk subclasses can access the odd bit of spellcasting, but the Way of the Four Elements is probably the one that comes closest to playing like an actual spellcaster.
Rather than preparing or memorizing spells that are cast with spell slots, the Way of the Four Elements Monk chooses from several available spells (tied to their monk level and one of the four elements: air, earth, fire, and water), which they can then cast using Ki points, the special energy that the class uses to power its other wuxia-inspired powers like wall running and catching arrows in the air.
Way of the Four Elements monks get access to a limited array of elemental energy themed spells, usually from the evocation or conjuration schools of magic, including Burning Hands, Gust of Wind, and Cone of Cold.
Filled with the divine magics drawn from their sacred oaths, paladins mix the divine spellcasting of clerics with some of the martial prowess of fighters.
Also, while the paladin spell list may be relatively small (and they can only prepare a number of spells equal to 1/2 their paladin level + Charisma modifier and don’t have access to ritual casting), they probably have one of the most unique spell lists in the game.
There are 18 unique paladin spells out of a total list of 50 — by far the biggest proportion of unique spells on by far the shortest spell list.
These include a lot of magical auras and versions of the paladin’s divine smite ability with extra effects added on as well as some powerful battlefield control options…
- Aura of Life (4th, Abjuration)
- Banishing Smite (5th, Abjuration)
- Compelled Duel (1st, Enchantment)
- Find Steed (2nd, Conjuration)
- Wrathful Smite (1st, Evocation)
Rangers blend the nature magic of druids with the martial skill of fighters and rogues.
Their magic isn’t as central to how their class functions as to more dedicated spellcasting classes, but rangers can still cast some powerful spells, especially ones that have an interesting impact on the way a party navigates the wilderness.
In a way that feels thematically appropriate for people who have learned to tame the wilderness, rangers use the knowledge method to accumulate divine spells from the druid list but also have access to some useful and unique options of their own.
There are nine unique ranger spells, including…
- Conjure Volley (5th, Conjuration)
- Hail of Thorns (1st, Conjuration)
- Hunter’s Mark (1st, Divination)
- Zephyr Strike (1st Transmutation)
Arcane Trickster (Rogue)
This subclass (also a 1/3 caster) gets access to a few spells from the wizard list, including a sneakier version of the mage hand cantrip, which largely need to be from the illusion or enchantment schools of magic.
Fonts of magical energy, sorcerers nevertheless have a rather small list of spells and cantrips (not to mention the actual number of spells they can know, which they can’t switch out like a druid or cleric) for a “full caster” class.
Sorcerers make up for this with a unique resource called Metamagic, special points that sorcerers can use to modify and manipulate their spells, speeding up casting times, changing damage types, and even making spells target more than one enemy.
Sorcerers only have one unique spell: Chaos Bolt.
Despite a lackluster spell list that is basically the wizard list trimmed down, sorcerers can accomplish a surprising amount of versatility or just be devastating damage dealers.
Drawing on the eldritch powers of their otherworldly patron, warlocks probably have the most unique variant of spellcasting in the whole of D&D 5e.
While they memorize spells according to the knowledge method, warlocks don’t technically have an ability called spellcasting. Instead, they use Pact Magic.
Fueled by a warlock’s Charisma modifier, Pact Magic only allows warlocks to cast spells of between 1st and 5th level, and Pact Magic spell slots make no distinction between different spell levels.
For example, a 5th level warlock has two 3rd-level spell slots. To cast the 1st-level spell witch bolt, that warlock would still need to expend one of those 3rd-level slots and cast witch bolt as a 3rd-level spell.
In addition, rather than recharging on a long rest like most other classes’ spell slots, Pact Magic slots return on a short rest, which gives the warlock a highly distinct feel to play.
Also, warlocks can still cast spells of a level higher than 5th, but they unlock them as single-use abilities through a class feature called Mystic Arcanum.
There are just seven exclusive warlock spells, but they include some terrifyingly powerful low-level spells, including the best damage cantrip in the game, Eldritch Blast…
- Armor of Agathys (1st, Abjuration)
- Arms of Hadas (1st, Conjuration)
- Eldritch Blast (cantrip, Evocation)
- Hellish Rebuke (1st, Evocation)
- Hex (1st, Enchantment)
- Hunger of Hadar (3rd, Conjuration)
- Shadow of Moil (4th, Necromancy)
Wizards gain their arcane power through the accumulation of knowledge and have access to the longest spell list of any class by far.
Wizards have 40 unique spells and hundreds more that appear on other class’s spell lists.
Each wizard subclass focuses on a different school of magic, allowing wizards from that subclass to learn and cast spells from their chosen school more efficiently and effectively.
Out of the 40 unique wizard spells, here are a few options that demonstrate what a varied and versatile spellcasting class the wizard can be…
- Arcane Lock (2nd, Abjuration)
- Grease (1st, Conjuration)
- Illusory Dragon (8th, Illusion)
- Maze (8th, COnjuration)
- Melf’s Acid Arrow (2nd, Evocation)
- Sequester (7th, Transmutation)
- Wall of Force (5th, Evocation)
Wizards prepare spells similarly to druids and clerics but with a twist. Rather than communing with a higher power to learn new spells for the day ahead, wizards rifle through their own spell books.
A wizard learns new spells by copying them into their spell book, allowing them the option of preparing (Intelligence modifier + Wizard Level) spells per day.
A wizard can keep on adding new spells to their book without limit, creating a much bigger pool of spells than they would otherwise have access to.
Many playable races (especially the fantastical races from Monsters of the Multiverse) and monsters have sparks of natural magic flowing in their blood — or are taught fragments of spellcasting as part of their cultures — and can cast these spells innately without needing levels in a spellcasting class.
Innate spellcasting usually removes the need for a spell’s material component.
Innate cantrips still improve as the character levels up. Also, not all innately known leveled spells can be cast using spell slots that the character has as a result of levels in a spellcasting class.
Some extraordinary supernatural powers emanate directly from the mind itself, manifested through sheer mental discipline. These are called Psionics.
Wielded by creatures like the Illithids or Githyanki, Psionics are a category of mental powers adjacent to, but separate from, arcane and divine magic.
Mechanically, they function similarly to innate spellcasting in that they don’t require material components, and sometimes even forgo verbal and somatic components as well.
You can check out our full guide to psionics here.
So that’s it folks. Whether you’re calling down the wrath of the gods upon your enemies, raising the dead, or doing anything else that involves harnessing the infinite mysteries of the multiverse to your own ends, just remember: keep track of your spell slots.
Until next time, happy adventuring.