Sunday, March 1, 2020

5 Low-Level Debuff Spells That Never Stop Being Useful (in Pathfinder)

One of the unfortunate facts about magic in Pathfinder is that all too often spells simply don't scale in power along with your character level. Which means a lot of the time that when you start hitting the final arc of the campaign, you can end up never touching your low-level spell slots... after all, they just don't have anything to contribute when you're going up against ancient wizards of obscene powers, or colossal dragons who can smash mountains to dust with a swipe of their tails.

With that said, though, there are a few low-level tricks that are worth keeping up your sleeve. Just in case.

There. That should put a cramp in your style.
If you're a fan of debuffing spells, then here are a few that you should hang onto no matter your level, because they're always going to be good to have on hand... they just won't end encounters are higher levels the way they can when you're at the start of the campaign.

#1: Adhesive Spittle

Well, this won't end well for anyone...
Out of all the cheese we got to play with in the Advanced Class Guide, this spell remains one of my favorite additions. A first level conjuration spell, adhesive spittle is basically a magical tanglefoot bag that you spit out for an automatic hit. The difference is that you can hold the spell for 1 round/level before the spitting happens (it's only got a 15-foot reach), and the save DCs and attempts to get out of the goo are modified to reflect your spell DCs rather than what's standard in the book. That can be a big benefit as the game goes on, especially if you are specialized in conjuration.

The benefits of this spell, aside from not requiring an attack roll to hit, are that being entangled can seriously hurt an enemy's effectiveness. It cuts movement in half, even if the target isn't stuck to the ground, and they can't charge. They also take a -2 on attacks, and a -4 penalty on Dexterity (so a -4 overall to attacks from Dex-based enemies, but also things like reducing the Reflex save and AC, which can come in quite handy). Spellcasters who are entangled also need to make Concentration checks, which probably isn't a huge deal at higher levels, but every little bit helps. This spell also doesn't allow spell resistance, which is a big deal when you start hitting a lot of foes with SR.

It's not overkill, though, because it has all the same limitations as a tanglefoot bag. It can be torn apart, broken, or removed by the target, which removes the penalty easily, but still eats up actions and time. Additionally, it only lasts for 2d4 rounds once deployed, and it can't affect any creatures bigger than Large size. It's also ignored by freedom of movement, and spells which grant similar effects, which a DM might start tossing in if you liberally use this one. Still, within those limitations, it's a handy way to toss a spanner into the enemy's gears.

#2: Web Bolt

Speaking of things that aren't good for your enemies...
Something that came to us out of the Advanced Race Guide, web bolt is basically a one-target version of the web spell. In addition to being a 1st-level spell, web bolt also takes up significantly less of the battlefield, while still inconveniencing the subject of the spell in question.

This spell also doesn't require an attack roll, but targets do get a Reflex save. If they fail, however, they now have the grappled condition (which gives them a -4 penalty to Dexterity and a -2 to attack rolls except for attempts to break a grapple, and it prevents them from doing anything that requires 2 hands... they're also stuck in place). There's a concentration check for spellcasters who get grappled, as most wizards out there know. It also allows no spell resistance, and unlike adhesive spittle doesn't have a size restriction, so that can come in handy when your monster is just too damn big to actually use a tanglefoot bag on.

While this spell technically lasts for minutes per level, the creature can try to break free every turn with a CMB or Escape Artist check. While the negatives might stop them (especially if they have other debuffs on top of being grappled), you're still eating up their actions as they try to get free. A solid use for a low-level spell slot.

#3: Touch of Gracelessness

Fall down, go boom.
While most of us think of ray of enfeeblement as the go-to 1st level nasty debuff, in my book touch of gracelessness hurts so much worse. Brought to us in the Advanced Player's Guide, this transmutation spell gives you a much bigger bang for your buck. Short version is that you make a melee touch attack, and you inflict 1d6 + 1 per 2 caster levels (maximum 1d6 + 5) penalty on the target's Dexterity. If the target moves more than half their speed, they fall prone, and if they fly, they reduce their maneuverability category by one. It lasts for 1 round/level.

Now, the target gets a Fortitude save to resist this, which will cut the penalty in half. But at level 10 (the last time you'd get an increase), you can roll a minimum of 6, with a save that's at least a -3 penalty to their Dexterity. If you roll well, and they don't, it's a -11 penalty to their Dexterity, and that can be game changing. It represents a lowered attack in many cases, lowered AC, lowered Reflex saves, inability to run away... that target has become a sitting duck. And when combined with the two debuffs we've covered already, this could quickly become a nightmare in a one v. party throw down.

But there are hefty risks involved. The first is that you have to make a melee touch, and that is especially bad at higher levels when you are squishy, and monster is dangerous. However, if you can sneak up unseen (or deliver the spell before the enemy can react) you may be able to abscond with your win. You could also have the spell delivered by a familiar, by the spectral hand spell, or by using the Reach Spell feat, or a metamagic rod. The spell also needs to actually get through spell resistance, which can be a pain at higher levels (though the potential reward can certainly be worth it).

#4: Frostbite

Baby, it's cold out here...
First debuted along with the magus in Ultimate Magic, this spell doesn't seem like that big of a deal. A touch attack that deals 1d6 + 1 point per caster level of non-lethal cold damage, it also bestows the fatigued condition onto any target as long as that damage persists. This spell is never going to be a big deal to a high-level monster's hit points... but that's not why you cast it.

For those not familiar, fatigue is a nasty condition. A creature cannot run or charge while fatigued, and it imposes a -2 penalty to Strength and Dexterity. And doing anything that would cause you to become fatigued instead renders you exhausted, which is a whole separate pile of particularly gross fish.

Now, that's only a -1 to Reflex saves and AC, to attacks (since we're hitting Strength and Dexterity both), and a minor issue with movements. It's not a huge deal, especially considering that it allows spell resistance, and you've once again got to get close enough to actually touch the target (or use one of the other methods of delivering the spell). It also won't work on creatures immune to fatigue, like undead, constructs, and the like. However, it's a nice bit of middle finger icing on the cake, and it can help stack just one more straw onto a target to help ensure they can't do as much damage to the party as they otherwise might. Additionally, and this is the really sneaky use, frostbite is a great way to mess with barbarians. Because more often than not they lack the ability to Rage while fatigued, which might allow you to shut off one of their main powers before they can hit the party like a truck... if your initiative is fast enough, anyway.

#5: Mudball

And here's mud in your eye!
Another one out of the Advanced Race Guide, mudball feels like one of those useless, gimmicky spells that only goblins toss your way in low level encounters. A conjuration spell with a close range, any target actually hit with a ranged touch attack is immediately blinded. They can make a Reflex save on their turn, or spend a standard action wiping the mud off their face on their turn, and as soon as they do, boom, the blinded effect ends.

However, the question is what can your party do between the time the mud ball lands, and the time the enemy wipes it off their face.

Because when a target is blind, they take a -2 penalty to their AC, and lose whatever Dexterity bonus they had to their AC. Your party is considered to have total concealment against them, meaning the target can't take attacks of opportunity while the others move into position. It also lets folks with sneak attack roll all of their dice when attacking the blinded creature. It makes them easy to hit with other effects while their guard is down, and best of all mudball doesn't allow spell resistance. So even if the bad guy shakes off the ball first thing on their turn, you've still got everything else that could happen. And if they don't manage to clear their vision with the Reflex save, you've also eaten up their standard action to wipe the mud out of their eyes... that's a big win at higher levels when they might instead have cast a devastating spell, or taken a dozen attacks against the party.

As with anything else, it's not a universal win. Creatures that have blindsight (dragons in particular) aren't going to be impacted at all. Enemies who have Uncanny Dodge or similar abilities may be able to fight blind, being down but certainly not out just because they can't see. Still, there are far more enemies who need their eyes than there are those who don't in the course of any given campaign.

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  1. I once played a Transmutation specialist wizard (flavoured as an old Acupuncture focused Martial Artist) who specialised in Touch of Gracelessness and Calcific touch.

    It was a fairly fun build to play, even if the Summoner in the same game completely derailed the campaign by killing the lvl 20 BBGG in one round, after tearing his girlfriend (who was secretly an evil cultist) apart with a pack of summoned Blink Dogs.

    I would be interested to see how you would reconcile that build, of the martial arts focused wizard, with no multi-classing.

  2. Frostbite is a great add-on for druids because it works with natural attacks (which might or might not qualify it for the Enforcer feat; YMMV). It's also a good candidate for a Rime spell (either via a metamagic feat plus the magic lineage trait or via a rod) to bestow a round of entanglement after each hit.

    Winter's Grasp as a Rime Spell reduces a target's speed to 1/4 of normal (difficult terrain plus entanglement).

    Less direct debuffs include entanglement from spiders (Summon Monster 2) and sickening from skunks (Summon Minor Monster), both of which require ranged touch attacks.

    Adhesive Spittle is worthless if your caster level is only 1.

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