Friday, March 3, 2017

Add Some Spell-Like Abilities To Your Character For An Ace-in-The-Hole (in Pathfinder)

Magic is a powerful force in Pathfinder. Whether it's the arcane study of the wizard, the eldritch power of the sorcerer, the blade lore of the magus, or the prayers of a cleric, magic can completely change the game. It can burn enemies to cinders, cure diseases, or curse those who wrong you. However, despite all the different ways magic can be used, spells are all pretty similar. They have a verbal component, a somatic component, and some of them have a divine/arcane focus component, along with a material component.

Those components are often seen as a spell's choke point. If you can take away one of those components (steal the component pouch, pin the caster's arms, put them in an area of silence, etc.), then you cripple the caster's ability to make that magic happen.

At which point they can't let the lightning out of the bottle.
There are a lot of ways around these requirements. Silent Spell and Still Spell, for example, allow you to cast without a verbal or somatic component respectively. Eschew Materials lets you ignore inexpensive spell components. The problem is that the two metamagic feats will raise the spell slot level needed to cast a given spell significantly, and it will take more time for spontaneous casters to apply. Eschew Materials is useful, but it still requires you to be a spellcasting class to make use of it.

What if you could just add magic onto a character that wasn't a spellcaster, though? If you could still acquire your normal class levels, but throw a few spells in for flavor? There is a way to do this, but it is rarely pursued. Partially because it's very narrow in its application, and partially because it gets overlooked.

That way is acquiring spell-like abilities.

What Makes Spell-Like Abilities So Special?

Well, according to page 221 of the Core Rulebook, spell-like abilities use none of the components of actual spells. While they still provoke attacks of opportunity, they have no verbal, somatic, or focus components. They also don't have any material components, unless expressly stated. What's even better, though, is that spell-like abilities cannot be counterspelled as you use them.

A particular problem for those facing someone with "baleful polymorph" as a spell-like ability.
While all of that is pretty great, Pathfinder tends to keep most spell-like abilities firmly on the DM's side of the screen. That doesn't mean you can't get them as a player... it just means it's going to be tough. And you probably aren't going to get high-level spells.

Still, there are ways you can gain access to all kinds of helpful powers. Here are some of my favorites.

Races and Feats

The most common way to get spell-like abilities is as a racial benefit. Gnomes, for example, get dancing lights, ghost sound, prestidigitation, and speak with animals once per day as spell-like abilities. Tieflings have darkness once per day, and aasimar have daylight. There are other options, particularly when you start getting into more restricted races, but these work perfectly well as examples.

What you'll run into, though, is that racial spell-like abilities for playable races aren't really that big of a deal. They're useful, surely, and clever players can turn these in-born powers to their advantage... but they're rarely the sort of thing that will turn the tide of an encounter.

That's where feats come into it.

This is where the crunch gets started.
One type of feat modifies racial spell-like abilities, or uses them as a prerequisite for more powerful abilities. Heavenly Radiance, for example, is an aasimar feat that allows you to choose an additional spell-like ability from a chart. The higher your level, the more powerful the spell-like ability you can choose (including the spell Sunbeam, which can be an encounter killer if you're fighting something like a vampire). The Drow Nobility feats increase the power of your initial spell-like abilities as a drow, and add new ones to your bag of tricks (including making your darkness into deeper darkness, making detect magic constantly active, and giving you feather fall and levitate a certain number of times per day).

You'll find others in the Racial Feats section, though you should also look through Monster Feats just to cover your bases. Also, remember what I mentioned in Bored Playing Regular Humans? Try Racial Heritage on For Size. You don't have to be an exotic, monstrous race to take their feats, as long as they're humanoids, and you can count as that race with Racial Heritage.

It's also worth pointing out that many sorcerer bloodlines grant you spell-like abilities that increase in power with your sorcerer level. And as I said in How To Power Up Your Pathfinder Characters With The Eldritch Heritage Feats, the Eldritch Heritage feat tree is a great way to snag a part of that power. The Infernal bloodline, the Fey bloodline, the Undead bloodline, and others all have an assortment of powers. Even better, your sorcerer level is considered your level -2, so even low-level powers can grow as your character progresses.

One more method, for those who just want a simple, first-level sorcerer/wizard spell up their sleeve, is to take a pair of rogue tricks. Minor Magic grants you a cantrip, and Major Magic grants you a 1st-level spell, using your rogue level as your wizard level. So if you're playing a straight rogue, a ninja, or even a multiclass character, you could keep a true strike or a vanish up your sleeve for an emergency.

Remember To Keep An Eye on The Big Picture

The thing about spell-like abilities is that they're a lot of fun, but rarely are they the meat and potatoes of your character. They're a back-up plan, or a reserve resource you call on when the chips are down. This is partially due to how relatively low-powered they are (barring some of the more potent powers given to specific races), but it's mostly because really powerful spell-like abilities tend to be limited to once-per-day use.

On the one hand, it's just the ticket if you end up stripped of all your gear and need an ace-in-the-hole for a way to shadow-step out of your prison cell. Or if you need to lay a hand on your guard and put him to sleep. Spell-like abilities are also great when you're being observed, and you don't want to be seen using the more traditional components of a spell. But building your entire character around a single-use power, or even a collections of limited-use powers, is going to run into some serious flaws. So, if you want to acquire a few unique spell-like abilities, make sure they're going to mesh with your overall character goals. Otherwise you may have found you spent all your money on a submarine, and your mission is going to the middle of the desert.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic! Hopefully some of you found it interesting, and potentially inspiring. If you'd like to support me, and help Improved Initiative keep bringing content just like this to your screen, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. If you pledge at least $1 a month, you'll get some sweet swag, in addition to my undying gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start now?


  1. One of my personal favorites is Eldritch Heritage (Orc) combined with Community-Minded (and possibly Quicken SLA, if your GM loves you).

  2. My favorite is the elven Dreamspeaker alternative racial trait that gives the 5th level spell Dream as a SLA (along with DC bonus to sleep and divination spells!). It's a unique effect with a lot of story options that most GMs won't mind because it isn't combat oriented... but there are still lots of fun ways to (ab)use it.

  3. Don't forget about paladins! Detect Evil at will at level 1.