A Brief Summation of the Schools of Magic in the Pathfinder RPG
In Pathfinder, most casters will want to specialize in some school of magic or another. This is largely because of the existence of the feats Spell Focus (SF) and Greater Spell Focus (GSF), and other character options available that benefit the save DCs for a particular school. Generalists can certainly be played, but are typically some form of support and utility caster. If you are an aggressive caster, specialization is required.
This makes caster classes very tough nuts to crack for newcomers, as one needs to look through their class options far into the future and read a lot of spells to understand where the class’s strengths lie. This article intends to give a broad overview of each of Pathfinder’s schools of magic to help with that. Those schools are:
This school is an interesting one. It is simultaneously the one option on this list that I cannot recommend anyone taking SF/GSF for…ever. No class, no one. Abjuration specialists aren’t a real thing. However, it is a very good school of magic for pretty much anyone to have some spell slots invested in. This paradox is explained by the very nature of abjuration: it protects. Abjuration is how you stop a lot of enemies from harming you, and as such are typically self-targeted. That means you’re almost never concerned about a save DC being high. Divine casters have a better list of abjuration effects than arcane, but everyone has some goodies. This school includes such auto-slot standby spells as: shield of faith, shield, alarm, endure elements (and communal), life bubble, protection from [alignment] (and communal, and magic circle), resist energy (and communal), protection from energy (and communal), remove curse, remove fear, and recentering drone among others. That’s mostly in levels 1-3. However, I don’t think a single one of these spells has a save DC. They’re harmless.
This is considered by many (including myself) to be the single best crowd control school of magic in the game. It isn’t necessarily the most powerful (that honor goes to enchantment, which we’ll get to later), but it is the most consistently effective method of shutting down opponents.
It has a large suite of effects it can create, often doesn’t allow SR (which is major points in its favor in high level play particularly), and can target the various saves (albeit mostly Fort and Ref). In early levels you’re looking at the create pit and cloud spell lines, aqueous orb, black tentacles, grease, and web. Conjuration also does possess a fair amount of utility, such as mage armor and many healing spells. Used aggressively, however, it really shines as a way of throwing one of a variety of hard shutdown conditions on a few opponents at a time. Usually the effects won’t hit the whole battlefield (with exceptions), but you’ll get more than one opponents with careful placement. The effects will usually give you a number of rounds where you can safely ignore that opponents. That pattern stays fairly true in high level play, but with larger radii and usually some damage over time (DoT) attached.
It also houses the various summon spells. Summons as a general rule start out fairly weak. You get some templated animals or similar, which has a bit of action economy, and might get lucky and land a weak hit for piddling damage. Who knows, maybe they’ll succeed at a combat maneuver. In late-game, that tune changes considerably. The summon monster line (available to both arcane and divine) starts to pick up some real outsiders with good support abilities around summon monster V. Don’t have magic circle against evil prepared? Summon a hound archon. Exhausted your invisibility counters? Have a Babau (which can dispel magic at will to boot). A Bralani Azata is good at absorbing hits and for a bit of healing, can fly and hit at range.
Given that conjuration houses virtually all of the healing, the most consistently effective crowd-control, and the ability to gain action economy and flexible utility casting through summons, I truly believe that conjuration is the overall best school of magic in Pathfinder.
If we lived in a world of magic, the rulers would be diviners. Divination is somewhat paradoxical, similar to abjuration. In combat-centric campaigns (which most are), no one should consider being a focused diviner. In a more social maneuvering or investigative campaign, a divination focused spellcaster may be the most optimal character choice possible.
That is because, in the immortal words of one Joe, GI “Knowing is half the battle.” If you always live in the other half, well, a diviner doesn’t fare well. But if you have time to do research and approach situations with care, a diviner is your best friend. A well-prepared diviner can track better than a ranger, disable traps as well as a rogue (with Aram Zey’s focus), scout better than anyone, identify pretty much anything and anyone, foretell the future (kinda), read minds, talk to anyone and anything, see through illusions, and spy on targets far away. That’s not to mention threefold sight, which I just discovered and you should now read. If Littlefinger were a diviner wizard, he’d have been on the Iron Throne before he was twenty.
That said, not all that many divination effects have save DCs, making it an unattractive choice for specialization. However, some (such as scrying, detect thoughts, and other more intrusive divinations) do, and a diviner wizard’s specialty school abilities are among the best available. So, it’s a tough call. A divination spell is never going to kill anyone, but it might help you put yourself or your party in the best possible starting position for just about any situation. It could be a very cool play-style with the right campaign and party.
I mentioned that while conjuration is not the most potent school of crowd-control, it is the most effective. Enchantment has the honor of being the most powerful crowd-control school. It is chock-full of large radius effects that have devastating conditions like unconsciousness, paralysis, confusion, and effects like unnatural lust and calm emotions. It also possesses single target capture spells in the form of dominate and similar. There is no effect that will more swiftly turn the tide of a battle than turning an enemy into an ally. It possesses some buffs and utility like zone of truth and heroism, but that isn’t a strong-point of the school.
The reason it isn’t the most effective battlefield control is simply because aggressive enchantment effects almost ubiquitously have the [mind-affecting] descriptor. As I’ve said in the past, “What kills you are…immunities. Immune to mind affecting [is a trait of] anything mindless, undead, constructs, plants, vermin, ooze, swarms, qlippoths, aeons, kytons, and inevitables. Immunity to mind-affecting… is not uncommon outside of those creature types as well.” Nearly 50% of the bestiaries are immune to mind-affecting. That makes this school unmatched in campaigns with primarily NPC opponents, but if monsters are your target, you’re better served with a different specialty.
Due to this, I’m not fond of enchantment specialist characters. They tend to be useless in around 40% of fights, and the rest of the time they shut down fights before anyone else has a chance to shine. Bards are somewhat forced into enchantment if they want to use spells aggressively: they have virtually no other crowd control to their names. It isn’t as much of an issue for them, however, as the bard’s DCs probably aren’t so high that they’re shutting down entire encounters, and they can always perform and get in the fight a bit to contribute when against immune opposition.
Enchantment also targets Will saves almost exclusively, making it difficult for enchanters to come up with a response to Will-strong opponents. Some other schools allow for greater flexibility here.
Kitsune are notably incredible at enchantment due to their racial bonus, and some of their favored class options.
The blaster caster school. Evocation, simply put, deals damage. It is the flashiest school of magic, receives possibly the most attention from developers, and is a favorite of newer players jumping into casting for the first time.
It is also, in my (not even close to) humble opinion, the worst school of magic for anyone to specialize in, and the worst overall school of magic.
This is a very contentious statement, and will probably earn me more than a few arguments and disparaging remarks from wrong people. Note that I am NOT talking about kineticists, which really play as martial characters with energy weapons. I am mostly talking about your typical Ifrit Sorcerer and so on. The Blaster Caster and evocation are the worst for the following reasons:
Dealing damage is the bailiwick of martial classes. If your party already has martial characters (which virtually all parties do), the blaster caster steps on their specialty’s toes without really doing what the caster is meant to do: everything else.
A blaster will never out-compete a martial in terms of DPR, given equal amounts of cheesy optimization. Don’t get me wrong, a maximized intensified empowered fireball and a quickened empowered fireball with extra d6s and all the garnishings can deal a lot of damage in a round. There are many ways listed in the DPR Olympics thread to exceed that with martial characters. DPR calculators with caster classes also usually fail to consider the possibility of a save succeeding (which usually halves or negates the damage of evocation spells), nor SR. Those limitations are the equivalent of AC for a martial character, and must be factored to know the expected outcome of a spell.
A blaster cannot keep their damage up for all that many rounds in a day. A martial might have usage limited buffs per day (smite, rage, etc.) but will still be plenty effective once they’re exhausted.
Aggressive evocation spells target Reflex almost exclusively. Like enchantment, that hurts their flexibility compared to many other kinds of aggressive casters.
There is almost always a spell that would have a far greater impact on an encounter than throwing more damage out. A creature with 10 HP is just as dangerous as one with 150, so if your damage didn’t bring a creature to 0, it didn’t change the state of play. Controllers like enchanters and conjurers can almost always dramatically alter the state of play in their party’s favor with a single incantation. A 20d6 fireball on round 1 (70 average damage) will almost never change the state of play in an encounter at the level you’d see it. Black tentacles is a different story.
Evocation also suffers from a similar problem to enchantment’s: immunity. Not only is immunity to one or more elements extremely common, resistances are usually much bigger values than DR at similar CR. A creature with DR 10/adamantine might also have Resist fire: 20. On a successful save, that creature will take an average of 15 damage from that 20d6 fireball. Once in high-level play, virtually all enemies will have multiple immunities and high resistances in those elements they’re not immune to. With some of the elemental flexibility options available and a successful knowledge check, one can at least pick the right element for the task at hand, but it’s always an issue the blaster will have to dance around. Opposing casters will out-dance them, as they can toss up abjuration effects to continue no-selling blasters.
Blasters will find their moments in the sun: they’ll take down a fire giant with some icy spears or what have you. All in all though, I’d rather have virtually any other specialist with me at basically any time. Evocation has virtually no utility (though contingency and some of the force effects are admittedly nice), buff, troubleshooting, or control spells. It has one note, and that one falls flat an awful lot.
With illusion, what you see is ironically what you get. You make illusions. This can occasionally end encounters with a single spell, often by hiding the party or deceiving would be opponents into believing they shouldn’t fight you. It houses invisibility effects, protections like mirror image, the ultimate utility line of shadow conjuration, and can (sort of) give you summonlings like conjuration’s summon lines. It can even kill outright with spells like phantasmal killer and weird. It is versatile, fun, and interesting.
The problem that illusion has is one of, frankly, bad game design on the part of the publishers. Just about everything above CR 11 has constant, at will, or easily castable true seeing. There are basically no caveats or exceptions to true seeing ruining an illusionist’s day. That spell is just silly. There is no spell that grants immunity to enchantment, conjuration, or necromancy – but a single cast of true seeing makes an entire school of magic useless. They then gave that (pretty high level) spell effect as a constant sense on a startlingly large percentage of the Bestiary.
That said, if you aren’t planning on playing past level 11 or so anyway (which fits a PFS career), it’s a really fun style of play. Gnomes are the standouts, and sorcerer pairs nicely with them.
The first thing I want to say about necromancy is that it’s a lot more than making undead. Making undead actually might be the worst use of a necromancer’s time and money: they’re expensive, hog a lot of table time, they require a lot of bookkeeping, and are either very weak (mindless undead like skeletons and zombies) or risky (the create undead options) in that they can rebel unpredictably. I really wish there were more streamlined options for being that kind of necromancer: it’s one of my favorite tropes in fantasy fiction. I’m as sad that it’s terrible as anyone. In a strict, by the numbers sense, it actually can be optimized to be pretty darn good. The issue is that it’s probably the most cumbersome playstyle in the game…well, except maybe Path of Numbers.
Where necromancy shines is taking targets (usually just one) and telling them, “You’re not going to be dangerous, ever again.” Spells like blindness and bestow curse immediately and irrevocably make an opponent into a far lesser threat. They usually aren’t complete shut-downs like enchantment or conjuration, but immunities are rarer (constructs are immune, but that’s about it) and you don’t need to worry about duration.
It is the best debuff school in the game, though conjuration, enchantment, and even transmutation are superior in terms of crowd control. Great for bosses, less so for mooks.
It is a notably attractive option for aggressive casting Clerics.
Kind of an overlooked school, actually. It is the best ‘buff’ school, housing effects that can grant you bonuses to just about anything (AC, attacks, ability scores, size categories, extra limbs, etc.), help you disguise yourself, and can eventually turn you into just about anything with polymorph effects. It has a surprising amount of battlefield control, especially on the Druid list but arcane classes have some tricks there. Baleful polymorph (among others) can be a devastating Save-or-X for single target debuffers. This school pretty much has it all.
Polymorph has a lot of limitations, the biggest two being that you can’t have more than one active, and that most of the best ones (form of the dragon, elemental body, beast shape, etc.) have a range of ‘personal’. The 1/2 BAB classes will never be THAT much of a threat as a Huge dragon with lots of STR bonuses because their starting STR probably wasn’t that high, and they have a lot less BAB than their martial allies. Martials will likely also have invested a lot more in other attack/damage bonuses like Power Attack, enhanced weapons, and the many wondrous items, traits, and other feats that make them the damage dealers.
An important exception to this rule is the Brown Fur Transmuter arcanist. They can use their polymorph spells on their friends. Your buddy the big punchy Barbarian? Why not use monstrous physique III to turn him into a a Huge sized monster with +6 STR and 6 arms and grab? Yeah, it’s silly.
Transmutation is a very diverse school suited to a variety of playstyles.
Well, I hope that was helpful. I obviously didn’t dive into a great deal of deatil in this post, but I hope I’ve provided a useful overview for understanding each school’s role in a game of Pathfinder.