[RPG] Close-quarters spellcaster – Not a gish


I’m looking to make a character whose focus is on the use of spellcasting in close quarters. This might take the form of damage waves that are centered on his location, auras that buff nearby allies, melee-range attack spells, or the creation of terrain hazards in his immediate vicinity, but it is not my goal to have or use significant weapon skills. Of these options, I like battlefield control best, and direct-damage blasting least, but most significantly I just want a mage who has good reason to get into close quarters, without being a fighter-mage hybrid.

For the purposes of this question, I’m defining “close quarters” as within 30 ft. of enemy combatants, i.e. close enough that a typical opponent can in one turn move up to me and attack me in melee.

For example, I’m considering a dwarf wizard, picking up the Heavily Armored and Shield Master feats, and not using a weapon so that I can cast spells without War Caster (though the advantage on Constitution saving throws made to avoid losing concentration on a spell may make the feat too valuable to miss out on even if I don’t necessarily care to have a weapon).

Is this wizard my best bet? Which school is most appropriate – in a quick scan of the benefits, abjurer seemed to be choice, though transmuter definitely seemed to putting in some solid food for thought. The evoker’s ability to sculpt spells also seems very valuable, particularly if there are good close-range evocations to use (I would prefer battlefield control, buffing, or debuffing over direct damage, however).

Alternatively, in previous editions, both cleric and druid (especially 4e’s druid) would have arguably been better picks for this, but in those editions and 5e (as far as I can tell) those classes do tend to focus a lot on their melee physical attacks – to what degree can I ignore those without ignoring significant aspects of my class package?

Or are there, perhaps, archetypes for classes more typically comfortable in melee that would give me good reason to use spellcasting even when enemies are around, rather than simply magically enhancing my weapon-fighting skills? I’m not staunchly opposed to having weapon skills, I just don’t plan on using them, ideally.

Best Answer

There are a few reasons for a spellcaster to be in melee (most of which you mentioned.) I'll cover them one by one.

One is auras that buff nearby allies. The Paladin wins this one. Honestly, no other class even comes close. However, outside that, the Paladin's primary focus is on buffing his own melee attacks with the [X]-ing Smite spells, which isn't exactly what you're after. Also, as a half-caster, the Paladin is almost certainly not what you're after.

The next is spells that damage nearby enemies. The standout here is the Cleric's Spirit Guardians, which, once cast, damages everything around you for up to 10 minutes without requiring any further actions on your part. Other notable spells include the Paladin's Destructive Wave and the Warlock's Arms of Hadar. There's not too many spells in this category, unfortunately. The Elemental Player's Companion addded some good new ones to look for - Thunderclap is a cantrip that's just perfect for a melee spellcaster, and Earth Tremor is a pretty awesome too.

Reason number three is if you want to be attacked for some reason. The Wizard's Fire Shield is probably the best spell for this, but the Warlock's (or Tiefling's) Hellish Rebuke or the Tempest Cleric's Wrath of the Storm ability work here too.

Next up, spells that have their origin on you. Burning Hands, Cone of Cold, Thunderwave, etc. There's a lot of these, but none of them really stand out, no class is particularly better at them, and most of them don't really require you to be in melee anyway. They're good, and you'll want to have some of them, there's just not much to say about them here.

Finally, melee range attack spells. (And yes, I saved the best till last.) There is a definite winner here: Vampiric Touch. A minute of powerful melee spell attacks that do a fair bit of damage and heal you? Perfect. It's available to a few classes, but the one that gets the most out of it is a Necromancy Wizard, because Grim Harvest will get you even more healing when you kill something with Vampiric Touch. If your DM will allow it, the Death Cleric from the DMG also gets pretty good with this spell, with Touch of Death, Inescapable Destruction, and eventually, Improved Reaper (!!!).

I'd probably recommend the Necromancy Wizard or the Death Cleric, but whatever you choose, you are going to run into one problem: concentration. Most of the good spells I've mentioned require concentration, which means you can only use 1 at a time, and you are liable to lose the spell when you get hit by attacks. Which, as a melee spellcaster, is probably going to be often. Concentration checks aren't particularly difficult, but if you have to make a lot of them you might consider investing in a method of gaining advantage or proficiency on them. The War Caster feat gives advantage, while the Resilient feat, Sorcerer, or Barbarian give proficiency. Of course, there are a lot of ways to give advantage on or boost any roll, so you might not find this a problem.

On Wizard schools specifically:

  • Abjuration has some great benefits, but the only one that is particularly good for a melee is the Arcane Ward, which effectively soaks one hit per day, plus a little bit more every time you cast an Abjuration spell. Not bad, but not great.

  • Conjuration has Focused Conjuration, which allows you to ignore damage for concentrating (great!) but only for Conjuration spells, of which there aren't many that suit you.

  • Divination has nothing that works specifically for your purposes.

  • Enchantment actually has one ability that's great for this: Hypnotic Gaze. It effectively allows you to lock down a single creature in melee.

  • Evocation is great for evocations (as you might expect), and most of the damage spells with you as the origin are evocation, so definitely worth a thought.

  • Illusion has an auto-miss reaction, which is cool, but not much else.

  • Necromancy has the aforementioned Grim Harvest, which is pretty good, and Inured to Undeath, also pretty good (but only when fighting undead), but its other features are more geared around having an army of undead fighting for you, which is pretty powerful, but not really what you're after.

  • Transmutation doesn't have all that much for a melee, except that you can get a free proficiency in Constitution saving throws, which will help you maintain concentration.

On Shield Master specifically: for you, it's almost completely junk. It boosts your Dexterity saving throws, and nothing else. I'd really recommend against taking it. Heavily Armoured, on the other hand, will take your AC from a maximum of 17 (assuming you have a Dex modifier of +2), to 18, with no investment in Dex required. With the houserule in place that gives you shield proficiency as well, it pushes your AC up to 20 - at this point it goes from good to downright amazing. AC is quite rare and valuable in 5e, especially if you're used to 3.5 and everyone walking around with AC 30.