Tobold's Blog
Sunday, September 06, 2020
D&D non-instant spell effects

I am still regularly playing Dungeons & Dragons on Roll20, both as a DM and as a player. One thing that I noticed right at the release of 5th edition D&D is that some of the instant damage dealing spells at low levels dealt quite a lot of damage compared to what hit points characters have. The basic magic missile spell, that used to deal 1d4+1 damage now deals 3 times that. Even a cleric has a level 1 spell that deals 4d6 damage, Guiding Bolt. So my initial impression of 5E was that spellcasters had been boosted compared to previous editions. However, over time, I noticed how much of a nerf spellcasters had received in the form of the concentration rules. The large majority of spells that don't have instant effects are concentration-based. Meaning that you can't have two of those effects running, and if you are hit, you need to make a concentration check or the spell effect disappears.

These rules affect different classes and different types of players differently. I know a player who loves to play mages, and pretty much exclusively uses instant damage spells. So 5E gives him a lot of power. On the other end of the spectrum a class like the warlock is very disadvantaged by the fact that they are built around the Hex spell, and that this one is concentration based. If you don't get hit, your Eldritch Blast spells or your hexblade attacks deal good damage, but once you lose concentration you end up being a lot weaker.

As a DM my main problem with concentration is that players tend to concentrate fire on enemy spellcasters anyway. In 4th edition it was a lot easier to set up interesting tactical encounters that involved a specific non-instant spell of an enemy spellcaster. In all previous editions, a spell like Cloudkill cast by an NPC mage was feared, in 5E it is kind of a joke. So while setting up an encounter for my next session, I was thinking about how to make these non-instant spells from NPCs more threatening and thus interesting, and that without changing the rules.

One thing that came to mind is using the interaction of non-instant spells with the rules on vision and cover. A Cloudkill spell not only deals damage, but also makes the spell area heavily obscured by green fog. So an enemy mage casting Cloudkill would usually be able to cast it in a way that once the cloud appears, the group can't see the mage anymore. A lot of spells can't be cast at all at a target you can't see, while most ranged attacks fired at a target you can't see would have disadvantage. An even simpler method is a mage stepping out from behind a wall, casting an area spell, and then moving back behind that wall. While the mage has to see the area of effect when he casts his spell, he doesn't need to see it while keeping concentration on it. Of course that is also true for player character spellcasters, but "I cower behind the wall and concentrate on the spell I cast previously" isn't really much fun to play.

Speaking of fun to play, one issue with the scenario of a corridor in which the enemy mage cast a Cloudkill between him and the group is the boring option of the group retreating out of spell range for 1 minute. Fortunately there usually is at least one player who can't wait for 10 turns for the spell to end. So I think I will be able to set up some situations in my game in which enemy mages use non-instant spells to good effect for a more interesting tactical combat.


That's why whoever polymorphs the other party member into a t-rex stands like 2 rooms over from where the fighting occurs. In practice, they don't care because it's their spell that is doing massive damage and everyone enjoys watching a t-rex go to town.
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