This article was first broadcast in Episode Thirty-One on 11th July 2018.
Ostron: Lennon? Did you take my dictionary out of the gnomish workshop?
Lennon: I did, and then the research beholders took it.
Ryu: Weren’t you working on elemental wizards? Ohhh you meant to grab a spellbook and ended up with the dictionary instead didn’t you?
Lennon: No!…well yes, but this actually helped more. I mean, like the research beholders pointed out, finding the spells to use is easy, but the really important bit is what you call the resulting mage.
Ryu: Okay, leaving aside the fact that you’re taking advice from beholders, is something wrong with “wizard”? Or “sorcerer”?
Lennon: Phah. Boring! Come on, look at this.
Most fantasy settings that have magic users always group them into types. Sometimes it’s as simple as “good” and “bad” a’la the Wizard of Oz, but other sources apply a deep and complex hierarchy to magic users, grouping them in specialties, beliefs, power sources, and more.
D&D certainly has types associated with its magic users: beyond the different classes, wizards in particular have certain “schools” of magic they focus on, and are better at doing. However D&D has usually shied away from one of the more common tropes in fantasy: elemental affinities. That is, spellcasters who master control of a particular element. There is no “fire mage” specialty in D&D. At least not officially.
Fortunately the list of spells available, even in 5th edition, has enough variety to allow players to construct spellcasters following that pattern, though some choices are more viable than others. We’re going to cover what those choices are. Most of the spells we’re basing our lists on are damage-dealing spells; there are probably a few utility ones that we missed. Also note that we’re only going to be talking about Wizards and Sorcerers here because they can more easily pull it off. Most other classes’ spell lists are already partially bounded to a particular area based on the class (Druids are nature spellcasters, for example, and Paladins are all about the holy smiting). Also, nobody likes Warlocks.
The most obvious place to start is a fire mage, or Pyromancer if you want to be fancy. Building a spellcaster that focuses on fire can happen almost by accident; there are at least 26 spells available that are fire based, and most of them do slightly higher than average damage. Three of them are cantrips, and there are at least three for almost all spell levels. There’s only one for levels 5 (Immolation), 6 (Investiture of Flame), and 8 (Incendiary Cloud), but I have yet to hear a wizard complain about extra opportunities to upcast Fireball. Sorcerers lose out on 6 of the spells but that still leaves more than enough to fill out your usable slots.
The next biggest list belongs to weather wizards (Aeromancers, maybe) although you have to be somewhat flexible with how you define weather. For example, the research beholders included spells like frost bite, lightning bolt, and fire storm in this list because they are things that occur naturally as a result of weather. There’s still a debate going on about the inclusion of Melf’s Minute Meteors and Meteor Swarm as “weather”, but even if you remove those you still have a list of 20 spells. Sorcerers get absolutely shafted for level 5 spells but both classes are otherwise well covered at all 10 ranks.
An ice mage is the next easiest to pull together (Cryomancer was the coolest sounding title the research beholders could come up with). There are 19 spells that inflict cold damage and most of them are explicitly ice-based, but some of the spells technically deal with snow rather than ice and you have to start dipping into spells that have multiple damage type options such as Chromatic Orb and Elemental Bane to fill out your spellbook. You have two cantrips to work with, but you could make an argument for Chill Touch based on the name despite it doing Necrotic damage. Sorcerers get shut out of a lot of the higher level ice spells but they still have a lot of good ones that can be upcast to fill out those slots.
An earth wizard (Geomancer works) has a bit less variety than the other groups we’ve covered so far, but almost all the spells are on point with the theme. Unfortunately there aren’t explicitly earth-based damage cantrips, so you might have to cheat and branch out there. In fact, many of the earth spells are more utility than straight out damage, so if you’re going this route you might have to be content with not outputting a lot of hurt and instead supporting a battle. Also, Sorcerers lose out on access to four of the higher level spells and all of the cantrips, so they’d require more tweaking. This may also be a good place to put in Melf’s Minute Meteors and Meteor Swarm, again, depending on your definition of “earth”.
From here on the number of spells per element start dwindling but the names get cooler. A lightning mage (Electromancer is the obvious choice here, though Galvanomancer is etymologically valid if you want to be fancy) only has 13 spells that theme with the element, and like the ice mage you’re using a lot of spells that can technically pick almost any element like Chromatic orb. There are a whopping 3 cantrips to use but after level one thematic options are thin on the ground, so lots of upcasting and lack of variety are the downsides here.
A wizard that messes with people’s heads is another valid choice (Psychomancer is the easiest go-to, but Thymomancer and Phrenomancer are valid, off the beaten path titles you can assume). Focusing on spells that deal psychic damage or cause mental effects (like Dominate Person), you get a list of 17 available spells covering most of the spell levels, although Mind Spike is the only cantrip you get to play with. Note that you can pad the list out extensively by just looking through the “Illusion” school of magic and assuming the illusions are coming from you messing with everyone’s head rather than creating a magic hologram. Our list, however, has spells that do damage or have an immediate aggressive effect, as opposed to the support or utility ones. Making this build with a Sorcerer is tough as they are shut out of a lot of the damage spells, so the use of the Illusion spell list may be more necessary. And really, messing with people’s heads is more traditionally bard and warlock territory anyway.
There aren’t enough spells to pull together a viable list for focusing on Poison or Acid, but if you combine the two lists (a lot of creature’s venom is actually potent acid anyway) you get 13 spells to use for your Venomancer (or Oxymancer if you prefer a classical twist). Here again we’re relying on spells like Chromatic Orb to round out the list with appropriate damage but the good news is that Sorcerers still have access to almost all of them so the build is viable for either class.
Unfortunately that’s the limit of what the spells as written provide. There aren’t really enough spells that focus on Water, Thunder, or Force damage, so creating an Aquamancer, Brontomancer (yes really), or a Jedi… fine, probably Arietomancer or Otheomancer, depending on how you deconstruct what “force” damage is. Anyway, there aren’t enough spells to really build the themes. There are enough necrotic spells to create a Necromancer (this is already the best option: Mortimancer just sounds like it should be someone’s dog) but most of them are Cleric spells. As we already mentioned, if you’re trying to be a divine spellcaster and fling radiant damage around, play Paladin or Cleric; they have access to far more. And if you want to be a nature wizard and you aren’t playing a Druid you’re just being difficult.
Of course, as we said, these are only the spells as written, and sticking strictly to the themes, so a lot of obvious utility spells are left out. If you want more options, it’s not a stretch to say that whatever school or master your character learned under required everyone to learn spells like Shield, Magic Missile, or Misty Step as “core requirements” before you picked an element to work with.
Beyond that, there’s no reason you can’t modify some of the spells to fit with a different elemental theme. If you really want a water-themed caster, for example, you can remake Lightning Bolt into Water Stream and have it do force damage instead (there’s a reason police use firehoses on rioters), or take Cloudkill and say you actually produce a cloud of super-hot steam. But the key here is talking to your DM about it first. Remember, the DM is able to change whatever they like in the end; if you come to them first and have reasonable suggestions, there’s a good chance they’ll go along with it.
We’ll be posting the lists we came up with for what spells fit with what type of caster, so if you want to put your own elemental mage together, head over to our show notes and take a look.
Ryu: Okay, that wasn’t bad, but I’d feel better if you stopped taking advice from the beholders
Lennon: This coming from the woman who regularly wears a hat that possesses her and turns her into someone known as the KILLER DM!?
Ryu: That’s totally different and not the point right now.
Ostron: The point is, can I have my dictionary back? I have a formula I have to classify.
Lennon: Fine, I’ll go get the dictionary back from the research beholders