Tobold's Blog
Monday, February 01, 2021
D&D spellcasting is badly balanced

Game balance, in general, for me means having lots of different options which are more or less equally efficient. Experience shows that if one option is much stronger than anything else, people stop using the weaker ones, which is nearly as bad as if there were no other options. Unfortunately in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, the game balance between spells is pretty bad. At level 5 players get access to very strong 3rd level spells like Fireball or Lightning Bolt, which deal a big amount of damage to potentially several enemies in an instant. And lots of the spells you get at higher level are simply weaker than that.

For example I am preparing some NPC enemies for my campaign which have the Lightning Bolt spell, which in its most basic format deals 8d6 (average of 28) damage, or half that on targets that succeed their saving throw. By moving before casting the NPC should be able to hit more than one player with that. Let's say the NPC hits two players, one of which succeeds the saving throw, so each spell cast deals an average of 42 damage.

The same NPC also has access to 4th level spells like Phantasmal Killer. That can be cast on only a single player, who at the time of the casting makes a wisdom saving throw. If the player succeeds the saving throw, absolutely nothing happens. If the player fails, the initial effect is minor, the player becomes frightened. At the end of each of his turns, the player then makes another saving throw. Succeed, and the spell ends, fail and the player takes 4d10 damage (average of 22). In other words, the player would need to fail 3 saving throws before Phantasmal Killer deals as much damage as the Lightning Bolt. Furthermore Phantasmal Killer is a concentration spell, so the players have two full rounds to deal damage to the NPC and make him lose concentration. It is pretty difficult to set up a situation where that NPC would want to cast Phantasmal Killer, and unless I as the DM have a strong story reason to choose that spell, I'll probably never do so.

In the rules as written of 5th edition, a spellcasting NPC or monster always has the same set of spells. That can be pretty annoying if the given set of spells has a lot of barely useful ones. Of course the DM can always change the spell lists, but that requires additional preparation work. If the spells were balanced, the DM could choose the spell to cast by what makes sense for the story. If the NPC in the story has some history of illusion magic, that Phantasmal Killer spell makes more story sense than the Lightning Bolt. But 5E combat tends to last not so many rounds, and players usually know how to concentrate fire on spellcasting enemies. So your typical NPC doesn't have all that many rounds to get spells off; do you really want him to cast something that is likely to do nothing?

In the end, both players and NPC are likely to cast the more efficient spells, and not waste their time with spells that are too likely to completely fail. Sadly that means that over time you see the same spells cast on both sides over and over, while other spells are just a waste of space in the Player's Handbook.


"D&D spellcasting is badly balanced" -- well, yes. I mean, sure, you can list the many very good things about 5e, but really well put forward game balance isn't one of them. You can say the same thing about feats, about class features, about lots of things. And, yes, spells.

How much does this bother you? For me, I choose to use D&D 5e for specific audiences, ones that either are new to the hobby (5e is a solid choice for first RPG) or those who are not terribly interested in tactical combat or are mainly there for story and role-play but don't want a really light-weight system.

For players that care about game balance, or character building, or other things I choose a different system. My go-to for folks that like the D&D experience but want better rules and balance, I go with Pathfinder second edition (also available in French). But your mileage may vary, and there are lots of other great choices out there.
This is exactly why I defected to Pathfinder 2E, which is built with more consistency and rigor. It's a good system for what it does, and @jonreece above I agree that 5E is a better choice as a first time RPG.

Example, PF2E's version of Phantasmal Killer is an immediate effect graded by level of success, and can lead to instant death on a critical failure, something D&D 5E specifically avoids in all contexts, accidentally leading to a dramatic lessening of the general risk level in the game. In fact, my experience with 5E is that the only real risk is due to capricious chance at lower level play. PF2E supports a better model for calculated risk/reward. But....each system works well for its intent, but I agree with your example, the net result is choices in 5E that simply never make sense from even a slight bit of tactical consideration. Perhaps 5E would do better to rename Phantasmal Killer into, say, "Phantasmal Bother" and then it would make more sense. But it's an odd duck example now of how many dire threats from prior editions are just poor choice nuisances in the current edition.
I'll add to the previous posts with my endorsement of the PF2e version of spells. They cleverly added four possible outcomes to each saving throw rather than a binary success or failure. The result is that most spells have a reasonable chance of doing something useful and a small chance of doing everything or nothing. I like that balance.
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