The 3 Most Annoying High-Level Spells in D&D

When I named the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, my list topped at 4th-level with the banishment spell. That list came from D&D players and dungeon masters who named the spells they find the least fun in play. Some players nominated higher-level spells, but at the time my lack of high-level play left me unsure of those picks. Four years later, 3 powerful spells that stood accused have proven annoying.

The original list revealed that fifth-edition versions of the 4 spells all added changes that turned them from forgettable to powerful—and aggravating. The 3 spells on this new list all started powerful, even among 6th- and 7th-level peers. Two of the spells’ 1st-edition descriptions start, “This powerful spell…”

If anything, these spells falter because the designers worked too hard to avoid disappointment. No player likes to cast one of their most potent spells, only to see it amount to little. Here, the designers worked so hard to avoid such bummers that they steer right into aggravation.

Animate Objects

Animate Objects proves annoying for two reasons.

First comes sadness. In the popular imagination, magic causes brooms, tables, chairs or, best of all, statues to spring to life. That scene resonates so strongly that it appears in countless stories. Sadly, animate objects never leads to that scene. Instead, casters just use the spells to make 10 pebbles fly up and pepper a victim. Why such a dull choice? The spell description makes 10 flying coins into a far more dangerous onslaught than say, animating a wagon, Transformer like, into a huge attacker. That’s just sad. Plus, animated objects that lack legs or other appendages gain flying, a clear advantage.

The decision to make objects fly comes from a good place. The designers never want a player who prepared animate objects to be disappointed by a lack of suitable objects, so they made the most suitable target a handful of coins.

In effect, animate object rates as a more efficient telekinesis spell that robs the game of the attacking tables, statues, and fruit carts that we all want.

Those flying coins lead to the second annoyance: 10 more attack rolls every damn round. If the wizard player insists on rolling each attack and its damage separately, then the game becomes insufferable. A better spell would create an incentive to animate fewer objects.

Animate object entered D&D as a 6th-level cleric spell in the 1976 Greyhawk supplement by Gary Gygax. From Mickey Mouse, we all recognized animate objects as a wizard spell learned from a book. The 5th-edition designers spotted Gary’s error and moved the spell to its proper place. But why did Gary originally give the spell to clerics? Greyhawk introduced 6th-level cleric spells to D&D. Perhaps Gary struggled to find enough spells with a religious flavor to fill the new levels. Gary probably hoped to evoke stories of faith bringing life, turning sticks to snakes or vitalizing clay into a golem.

Clerics get few offensive spells, so animate object should have proven popular, but that early version suffered from a lack of stats for animated objects. The spell description mentions a few things DMs might consider when they improvise hit dice, armor class, movement, and damage for a sofa, but that still dropped a big burden on DMs in the middle of running a fight. Meanwhile, players hesitated to prepare a spell that only hinted at an outcome. The spell only grew popular when the third-edition Monster Manual set monster statistics for the animated objects.

Forcecage

I dislike spells that turn battles into murder scenes where characters beat down helpless foes. Nothing could feel less heroic. Forcecage doesn’t leave every foe helpless and vulnerable, but still, no spell generates those dreary executions as reliably. The spell’s victims don’t even get a save. In past versions of forcecage, the rare creature capable of teleporting could escape. Now, as a way to avoid disappointing players seeking their murder scene, such an escape requires a saving throw.

Whenever I gripe that some overpowered spell or feat hurts the game, some folks inevitability tell me to level the imbalance by having foes bring the same attack against the players. A little of that goes a long way, especially in a case like forcecage. As Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea notes, trapping a character in forcecage throughout a long battle might cause a player to rage-quit the game. Besides, serving players a regular diet of wizards casting forcecage seems a touch adversarial.

The original version of forcecage dates to the 1985 Unearthed Arcana book credited to Gary Gygax. That book includes some classic material among lesser entries that betray the book’s inspiration—an urgent need for cash flow. Earlier versions of forcecage consumed 1,500 gp worth of ruby dust. Ideally, the ruby dust made forcecage feel like a trap set for a powerful foe at great expense. The latest version works without the recurring expense.

Heroes’ Feast

Years ago, I ran a tier-3 Adventurers League epic adventure centered on a green dragon and its poison-themed allies. Like any group with a level 11 or better cleric, the party started with heroes’ feast, which grants immunity to fear and poison. No doubt through hour 1, the players relished laughing off all their foes’ attacks. By hour 4, the slaughter of toothless foes must have felt a bit empty.

Perhaps D&D’s designers imagined that the cost of components limited heroes’ feast. The spell consumes a 1,000 gp bowl. But by the time characters who earn fifth edition’s expected treasure rewards can cast 6th-level spells, they can effortlessly spare 1,000 gp for every adventuring day. So every day, the whole party enjoys immunity to poison and fear.

Mike Shea writes, “Many high challenge creatures are built around the damage they inflict with poison and the status effects they impose with both poison and fear. With every character in a party immune to these effects, certain monsters become much easier. This might be fine, but many of these monsters are intended to be truly powerful threats.” While I’m content to gripe, Mike’s post offers advice for handling the spell. Perhaps the best remedy comes from the Adventurers League, which now limits gold rewards enough to make 1,000 gp a serious cost.

Heroes’ feast works the same as when it first appeared in Unearthed Arcana, so don’t blame the spell’s problems on recent changes. Over 35 years, the spell has proven too good. Perhaps it invited a bit of tinkering, even if that risked disappointing fans of a good breakfast.

Related: What the Player’s Handbook Should Have Explained about 6 Popular D&D Spells

When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 70s, as Gary Gygax co-created Dungeons & Dragons, he played the game seven times a week. He wrote, “As I worked at home, I did not schedule play sessions, but when a gamer or two dropped in on a day, I made haste to finish immediate work and put on my DM’s hat. Evening games with the regulars were generally scheduled a few hours or a day or two ahead.” Weekend games included 10 to 20 players.

How did Gary referee his ongoing Greyhawk campaign for a cast of characters that changed completely from session to session? (Nowadays, dungeon masters like me stretch to keep one or two absent PCs from upsetting our game’s plot.) How did Gary create material for so many games? (I always scramble to prepare one game a week.) In 1974, as Gary focused on publishing D&D, he began sharing campaign duties with a second referee, Rob Kuntz. (I would never dare attempt collaborating on a campaign with a second dungeon master.)

The secret to all these feats lay in the design of the 12+ level megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Castle Greyhawk

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

Like Gary, D&D co-designer Dave Arneson ran a campaign for a large and fluctuating pool of players. Dave managed with his own megadungeon below Blackmoor Castle.

Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. These megadungeons enabled a style of episodic play that made those original campaigns manageable. Al from Beyond the Black Gate described the advantage well. “The scale and scope of the Megadungeon makes it friendlier to episodic play than for the more common ‘clear the dungeon’ style of play. The Megadungeon is the perfect place for short, engaging adventures in a compelling environment (even if those sessions just happen to combine into one long campaign).”

Gary never needed to adjust a session’s difficulty to party size or experience, because players could chose a difficulty by choosing how deep to delve. The game awarded more gold and experience to players who dared the lower levels. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.”

Today, we tout the value of sandbox play, where players can take the game in any direction they want without feeling corralled by some story in the DM’s head. DMs tend to expect sandbox play to require improvisation and in-game adjustments. For instance, the designers worked to make much of the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure play as a sandbox. When I talked to dungeon masters about running it, we always focused on the challenges of preventing the PCs from straying into certain death.

The megadungeon let Dave and Gary to act as referees rather than dungeon masters—that term would not see print until the game’s second supplement Blackmoor in 1975. They could run a game entirely from notes, wandering monster tables, and the whims of the dice. If megadungeon referees choose, their campaigns never needed improvisation or in-game meddling. This gives players more control over their characters’ fate—more player agency—than in typical modern games.

Gary kept preparation manageable. He wrote, “I usually made one-line notes for my dungeon encounters, from around 20 to 25 of same for a typical level done on four-lines-to-the inch graph paper—a few more on five-, six-, or seldom used 8-line graph paper. The other spaces were empty save for perhaps a few traps or transporter areas and the like.” He and Rob Kuntz kept notes. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa, so we winged all of [the campaign management]. Sometimes a map change and encounter key note of something special in nature was made, but not often.”

On page 4 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Gary made a megadungeon a requirement for play. “A good dungeon will have no less than a dozen levels down, with offshoot levels in addition, and new levels under construction so that players will never grow tired of it. There is no real limit to the number of levels, nor is there any restriction on their size (other than the size of graph paper available). ‘Greyhawk Castle,’ for example, has over a dozen levels in succession downwards, more than that number branching from these, and not less than two new levels under construction at any given time. These levels contain such things as a museum from another age, an underground lake, a series of caverns filled with giant fungi, a bowling alley for 20’ high Giants, an arena of evil, crypts, and so on.”

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

Although folks don’t play megadungeons much now, the places remain uniquely suited to episodic play with multiple parties exploring the same space. Scott Fitzgerald Gray ingeniously used those strengths when he wrote the adventure Dead in Thay for a D&D Encounters season. The Encounters program lets players drop in a game store for a night of D&D. Different players may come for any night of play, shuffling each table’s adventuring party.

At first, the program managed these fluctuations by requiring every table to play the same episode in the adventure. The format limited players’ choices to battle tactics.

In Dead in Thay, each table launches their own, unique foray into a megadungeon called the Doomvault. By creating the sort of dungeon that made the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns work, the season rediscovered some of the format’s advantages: episodic play for whoever attends, the freedom of a sandbox where players can change the environment, and manageable cooperation between dungeon masters.

When Shannon Appelcline looked back on the adventure, he wrote, “For the most part, Dead in Thay is a classic, old-school dungeon crawl of the sort you could find back in the ‘70s. However, it presents a more mature, more active dungeon, where the rulers of the realm can react to the players’ actions…and where the players themselves could change an environment.”

The Best DM Tricks for Helping a Party Make Choices

Sometimes in a Dungeons & Dragons game, a party faces a thorny decision and the action pauses while they weigh options and make plans. As a dungeon master, I sit back and listen, feeling like I won D&D. Such situations show players taking the game world and its threats seriously. It shows a game offering meaningful choices.

Other times, players must choose between, say, the left or right passage, and they stall. Those times, DMs can speed the game by helping the group make quick decisions.

Instead of asking the whole party, “What do you want to do?” I’ll ask one particular player for direction—usually the one who’s had the least to do. This can help bring a quick choice for the group. Scott Fitzgerald Gray writes, “I often try to put it in the form of saying to the quiet player, ‘Okay, while everyone else has been focusing on X and you’ve been keeping an eye out for trouble, you hear something. What do you do?’”

Of course, you can choose a party spokesperson in another way. “I occasionally ask who has the highest skill modifier appropriate to the moment at hand,” Will Doyle writes. For example, the character with the highest Investigation skill might choose how to tail the quarry.

Scott and Will commented when I asked DMs for tricks for expediting group decisions. This post reveals some other favorite techniques.

One of my favorite techniques comes from from Monte Cook’s book of advice, Your Best Game Ever. “Sometimes one player will attempt to speak for the group, saying something like ‘We turn on our flashlights and go inside the warehouse.’ If that happens, just go with it. If the other players don’t object, it makes things a little easier and moves them along a little faster. You don’t have to get confirmation from all the other players. It’s their duty to pay attention and interject with ‘Wait, I don’t want to go into the warehouse,’ or ‘I’ll stay outside while everyone else goes in’ if that’s how they feel.”

Early editions of D&D suggested the party appoint a caller, one player who spoke for the group. Perhaps we have reinvented the caller as a momentary role of expediency.

Characters in a roleplaying game have freedom to attempt any action. Sometimes that latitude leaves players struggling to sift through options in search of a few promising choices. Too often, players may feel confused by their predicament in the game world. Either way, summarizing the situation and listing the most obvious choices cuts through the fog and brings focus. “I’ll often give the players two reasonable choices and then add they can also do something else if they prefer,” writes Tom Pleasant. “Putting those two things straight up front, even if they don’t choose them, re-establishes the scene and clarifies their thoughts.”

I used to worry that suggesting a menu of likely actions might seem like an attempt to limit the player’s freedom, but they always welcome the clarity.

“Whenever you think your players aren’t sure where to go or feel forced to go down a particular path, offer them three choices,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea writes. “Each of these three options should be viable directions with clear meaning and motivations. There shouldn’t be a clear ‘right way’ to go and it shouldn’t simply be a random choice. As a GM, you shouldn’t prefer one path over another—players can tell. When you provide these choices, you should be happy to go with whichever one they choose.”

At the end of a session, I always like to ask for the party’s plans for the next game. This helps me plan, keeps the players looking ahead, and shows the players that their decisions guide the course of the game.

Many DMs like to jolt players from indecision by adding urgency to their predicament. Jon Lemich suggests that a DM say something like, “You hear a door hinge creak and new voices talking. You’re still hidden. Barbarian, what do you do?”

For the right tables, real-world time pressure can help force decisions. Nathan Hughes has told players that “something” will happen in 1 minute, and then set a timer. Roman Ryder purchased a set of 1, 3, 5, and 10 minute hour glasses. “I break them out sometimes for timed scenarios to turn up the pressure. I also recently used them for a map that had moving parts that were on a timer.”

I’ve had groups seeking a faster pace suggest an hourglass, but the wrong group could easily see such pressure as adversarial.

What techniques do you favor for expediting party decisions?

Meet the Woman Who by 1976 Was the Most Important Gamer in Roleplaying After Gary

In 1976, after Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, the most important person in roleplaying games was a Los Angeles woman named Lee Gold. She still contributes to the hobby and still runs a campaign using her Lands of Adventure (1983) game.

Lee who? And what happened to Gary’s co-designer Dave Arneson? Although Dave and his circle of Minneapolis gamers deserves the most credit for inventing roleplaying games, Dave’s passion centered on sailing ships in the age of Napoleon. He never matched Gary’s fervor or written output. In 1976, Dave would work briefly for TSR, but little came of it. See Basic and Advanced—Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR.

Meanwhile, D&D’s popularity exploded. Nothing else like the revolutionary game existed and it proved irresistible to most wargamers and fantasy fans. See 4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed.

In 1975, Hilda and Owen Hannifen told their friend Lee Gold of a wonderful new game called Dungeons & Dragons. “Hilda had made up a dungeon and she ran it for us. So you see our first experience was with a female game master. It was a lot of fun.” Lee’s friends gave her a photocopy of the rules, but not before they watched her post a check to TSR for an official copy. “I started making up a dungeon—and told our local friends that they could start coming over and participating in D&D games that I’d be game mastering.”

Alarums & Excursions issue 2

Even before Internet message boards and blogs, science fiction and fantasy fans liked sounding off. So they published fanzines, or just zines. To publish, fans typed their thoughts, printed copies on a mimeograph or an employer’s photocopier, and then mailed to friends. “A zine may include essays, comments on previous issues, poems or songs, a writeup of a gameplaying session, artwork, and just about anything imaginable,” writes Lee. For efficiency, zine publishers started collaborating in amateur press associations, or APAs. These associations bundled collections of zines under a single cover to save on postage and to create publications matching the substance of a magazine.

Excitement in the new D&D game fueled so much discussion that it started to overwhelm the pages of the APA-L from the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. To meet surging interest, and to the let APA-L refocus on literature, Lee Gold started a new APA devoted to roleplaying games. She named it Alarums & Excursions after a phrase Shakespeare used to denote a confused uproar in stage directions. Plus, a name starting with ‘A’ would appear at the top of any list of APAs. Pronounce “Alarums” as alarms. The first issue debuted in June 1975 as the first periodical devoted entirely roleplaying games.

For a standard APA, an official collator collects fanzines and then mails the collections to the authors. “I didn’t want anything that minor,” Lee explains. “I also wanted subscribers, and the subscribers would support the contributors. It was something that had never been tried before. Therefore, I wanted to have something where there would be lots of subscribers and then contributors wouldn’t have to pay anything for postage. This was a whole new thing that had never been done before. It was my entirely new and brilliant, I hoped, idea.” This model allowed Alarums to reach a wider audience than a traditional APA. Hobby shops stocked issues of A&E alongside magazines. As A&E gained contributors, the page counts burgeoned from 30 to 150, when the limits of binding and shipping forced Lee to hold contributions for future issues.

The shabby state of D&D’s original rules inspired much discussion, and Lee’s Alarums & Excursions served as the hub of this network. “All the role players I know, when we looked a Gary Gygax’s game with its “% liar” and all its typos said, ‘this stuff needs tinkering.’ Ken St. Andre looked at it an wrote Tunnels & Trolls, and the people in Michigan wrote their thing, and the people at CalTech wrote their thing, and Steve Perrin wrote his thing. Everybody tinkered with D&D because it needed tinkering to be playable. The nice part about D&D was that it obviously needed player help. Well, obviously to all the players I knew.” (The people in Michigan likely refers to Kevin Siembieda and his Palladium Books the Metro Detroit Gamers, who published the original tournament versions of the TSR modules S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and O1 The Gem and the Staff, and regularly ran conventions like Wintercon and Michicon. The thing from CalTech is the Warlock rules which came to influence D&D through J. Eric Holmes. For more on Warlock and Steve Perrin, see How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules.)

The zines that Lee published in A&E became profoundly influential on the evolution of role playing games. Lee says, “I remember zines from Dave Hargrave giving tidbits of the Arduin Grimoire, Steve Perrin’s Perrin Conventions (which were the start of the system that later grew into Runequest), Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus’s discussion of Chivalry & Sorcery, John T. Sapienza, Jr.’s discussion of various game systems, and other professional and semi-professional writers. I remember Mark Swanson’s ‘character traits,’ a way of individuating characters with minor bonuses and minuses. I remember a number of people (including myself) getting tapped to write games professionally because RPG publishers read their A&E zines.“ Other contributors included D&D Expert Set author Steve Marsh, third-edition D&D lead designer Jonathan Tweet, Vampire: The Masquerade designer Mark Rein-Hagen, fourth-edition D&D lead designer Rob Heinsoo, Paranoia and Star Wars roleplaying game designer Greg Costikyan, and more. Plus, a fellow named Gary Gygax contributed to issues 2, 8, and 15.

Alarums & Excursions issue 1

Soon though, Gary came to hate APAs like A&E. Partly, he seemed to see APAs as ringleaders for thieves, and not just the sort who—in Gary’s estimation—stole a ride on his coattales. Remember that Lee Gold started with a photocopy of the D&D rules. Early on, copies of D&D, especially outside of TSR’s reach in the Midwest, proved scarce. The $10 price of the original box struck many gamers as outrageous. In the first issues of Alarums & Excursions, some contributors argued that TSR’s profiteering justified Xerox copies of the D&D rules. Gary wrote a rebuttal and Lee told readers that Gary deserved to gain from his work and investment. Surely though, he remained incensed.

Eventually, all the discussion of D&D’s flaws and all the redesigns of the game wore on Gary’s pride in his creation. In issue 16 of The Dragon, he wrote, “APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticize those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious.” For a rebuttal of Gary’s criticism, refer back to A&E’s list of contributors.

Meanwhile, Lee published A&E and began writing games. Much of her work showed an interest in history and particularly Japan, where she lived 4 months during A&E’s first year. Land of the Rising Sun (1980) extended the Chivalry & Sorcery system to Japan. Her game Lands of Adventure (1983) aimed for roleplaying in historical settings. Her other credits include GURPS Japan (1988) and Vikings (1989) for Rolemaster.

Men dominated the gaming community of the 70s, but Lee felt insulated from that culture because she came from science fiction fandom. “The SF fan experience was largely male when I entered in 1967, but it wasn’t male-dominated. SF fandom of the late 1960s had only a few women, but they were highly charismatic women—including women like Bjo Trimble—and they were not dominated by men. I entered the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society as an editor and the leader of a sub-group that produced a fanzine, The Third Foundation.

“This pattern of female equality also held true for the D&D play and roleplaying that took place in SF fandom—and that’s where I did my roleplaying. Not at hobby stores but at the LASFS and at science fiction conventions, usually with old friends or with people I’d met through A&E. A&E started through people who already knew one another through APA-L or through science fiction fannish connections.”

Meanwhile, the men in gaming tended to suppose that only men contributed to the hobby. Lee remembers visiting the Origins convention and spotting shirts for sale that identified the wearer as a “wargaming widow.” Why else would a woman attend a gaming convention?

After Lee finished writing Land of the Rising Sun for Fantasy Games Unlimited, she met publisher Scott Bizar at a local convention to sign the contract. She recalls discussing the game’s credits.

“Do you want to say this game is written by yourself and your husband Barry?” Bizar asked.

“No,” I said. “Barry didn’t write any bit of it. He did the indexing, and I gave him full credit for that. I wrote all of the game. Just say the game is by Lee Gold.”

“Most female writers say they wrote a game with their husbands,” said Bizar.

“I don’t care what other people do,” I said. “Just say the game is by Lee Gold.” And so Land of the Rising Sun came out as written by Lee Gold.

Her one personal encounter with Gary Gygax revealed a similar bias. Early on, Lee sent copies of A&E to TSR. After a couple of months, she received a phone call, which she recounts.

“This is Gary Gygax,” said the voice, “and I’d like to speak to Lee Gold.”

“I’m Lee Gold,” I said. “I gather you got the copies of A&E I sent you.”

“You’re a woman!” he said.

“That’s right,” I said, and I told him how much we all loved playing D&D and how grateful we were to him for writing it.

“You’re a woman,” he said. “I wrote some bad things about women wargamers once.”

“You don’t need to feel embarrassed,” I said. “I haven’t read them.”

“You’re a woman,” he said.

We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so I told him goodbye and hung up.

Despite her design credits, Alarums & Excursions rates as Lee Gold’s most stunning achievement. Since 1975, she has sent the APA monthly with only two lapses: one during her stay in Japan and a second scheduled for health reasons. Today though, many subscribers take their copies through email.

How to Wring Maximum Drama from a Roll of the Dice

Often the most exciting moments in Dungeons & Dragons come from die rolls. When we throw the dice, dungeon masters and players alike surrender control to chance. Dice add surprise and risk to the game. See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.

Every D&D game has rolls important enough to grab everyone’s attention. Does the dragon’s breath weapon recharge? Did the inspirational speech win an ally? A die roll can spell the difference between victory or defeat, and sometimes between life and death. As a DM, you can spotlight these moments to heighten the drama and excitement.

Even DMs who typically roll in secret can benefit from making some rolls in the open.

  • Choose rolls that bring high enough stakes to grab attention.

  • Make sure you feel comfortable honoring the outcome of the roll, whatever it brings.

  • Announce what the roll means. “If the lich fails this save, it dies. Otherwise, it’s turn comes next and it has an 8th-level spell ready to cast.”

  • Announce the target number. For maximum drama, don’t make players wait for you to interpret the results. Tell everyone the number to look for on the die. “The lich needs a 13 or better to save.”

Then throw the die into the middle of the table. Let everyone watch the roll together and share the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

For some rolls a DM would usually make, I sometimes ask a player to make the roll. For example, I almost always ask a player to roll to see if a monster’s big attack recharges.

D&D’s lead rule designer Jeremy Crawford favors this trick too. “Sometimes I love making it impossible for myself to fudge rolls and will have players roll for me. Partly because as any DM will be able to attest, it’s too tempting when you tell yourself I’ll just roll to see what’s going to happen, but then you look at the die and think ‘eh, I don’t really like that result.’

“There’s something powerful about giving it to the players, and then we’re all agreeing we’re handing over the decision to fate. When I’m feeling particularly impish as a DM, I like having the players do it especially when it’s something bad because then they don’t feel like the DM did that to me. You rolled the die.”

We don’t use this stunt because we worry that players think we can’t be trusted with the roll. Instead the trick works because we all can feel like if we want a certain roll strongly enough, we might sway the outcome. Sure, those of us who play D&D rather than Las Vegas recognize that sense of control for a lie, but we feel it all the same. That feeling heightens the drama of the roll. The DM didn’t make things go wrong. I rolled the die.

The trick of explaining a roll, naming the target number, and then having a player cast the die works especially well for random encounters.

In a dungeon, the threat of random encounters forces urgency on players. Instead of slowing down for painstaking caution, and instead of stopping to chop down a locked door, characters have to keep moving. In the wilderness, random encounters give a journey more weight than “You spend three weeks travelling from Waterdeep to Neverwinter without incident.” (Sometimes you may want to fast-forward through a trip; other times distance should matter.)

For random encounters to benefit your game, players need a sense of the threat of wandering monsters. Nothing makes the threat more obvious than saying, “You’ve spent an hour in the tomb. Someone roll a d20 for me. On a 17 or higher, something bad happens.” See You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (and so Do I).

D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter

If you want your D&D game to tell a story, why bother with the dice? Why bother with a random element capable of foiling our plans?

The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook calls Dungeons & Dragons a game about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. If D&D players only wanted to collaborate on stories, we could join a writers’ room and pitch dialog, beats, and character arcs just like in Hollywood, but without the paychecks.

Instead, we add dice.

The oldest known d20 comes from Egypt dates from somewhere between 304 and 30 B.C.. The die may have rolled in a game, but oracles may have cast it in divination rituals. Blogger James Maliszewski writes, “There’s something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal.” Like an oracle’s die, our dice lead our characters into an unknowable future. The dice make us surrender some control, because they add the risk that the story won’t go as we plan. Events beyond our control make the game unpredictable and exciting. We embrace that.

Surprise

After countless stories, we all start to see patterns repeated. We still enjoy them for many reasons, but even the best can seem like a familiar dance performed well. So when a tale breaks the pattern, the unexpected becomes riveting.

Stories from D&D games can follow patterns of their own. Two combat encounters plus a roleplaying interaction take us to the big bad, and then to dividing treasure. We dungeon masters have an extra incentive to follow the expected track that we prepared, so the dice help us let go. They nudge us off course and remind us to welcome uncertainty. Writing about dice and random encounter tables, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains, “Such tables help to remind the DM that chance can and should be a powerful element. It can be a subtle reminder that the printed page isn’t one single script and that different outcomes (whether on tables or not) are good.”

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford likes how rolling in the open forces him to honor the outcome of a roll even when his own inertia might sway him to override it. “As often as possible, I like to stick with whatever the dice tell me, partly because as a DM I love to be surprised. I love that sense whenever I sit down at any table where I’m DMing I don’t actually know what’s going to happen because I don’t know what the dice are going to say. The dice can turn something I thought was going to be a cakewalk into a life or death struggle.”

Creativity

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Forget dice for a moment and think of the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity.

Poet William S. Burroughs coined a cut-up method of writing where he scrambled words on scraps of paper and then assembled the jumble into new poems. If poetry seems too high-minded to connect with a game rooted in pulp fantasy, then consider this: Rock musicians like Curt Cobain, Thom York, and David Bowie used the technique. Burroughs asserted, “Cuts ups are for everyone.”

David Bowie explains his use of the process, “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black uses a program to make random lists of titles, plots, and other idea seeds. He explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.”

Creation doesn’t stop during writing and preparation. It extends into the game session when the dice inject that random element.

Fairness

Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the dungeon master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the DM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the DM wants the dice to take the blame.

Random rolls reduce the DM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite DM and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

D&D historian Jon Peterson writes, “Die rolls impart to players a sense of fairness, they also give the referee a way to decide events impartially when they can’t trust themselves. Back when referees were adjudicating between competing parties (and in early D&D, they still were, sometimes). Referees needed a way not to show favor, even unconsciously, to one competing party over another. Dice play an important part in hedging against the risk of unintended bias.”

In modern D&D we tend to associate dice with the attacks, checks, and saves at the core of the game, but the games’ founders used dice to impartially settle questions about the game world. Many DMs still roll to direct a monster’s attack, but otherwise the technique seems faded. Now we seldom roll to learn a shopkeeper’s disposition, or the guards’ morale, or for the weather. To settle these and other questions in the game, we seldom think to just ask the dice.

D&D adventure designer Will Doyle knows the technique’s power. “I use ‘lucky rolls’ literally all the time. For example, player is sneaking down a corridor, I call for them to make a lucky roll to see what happens. On a 10 or above, it’s probably clear. Roll lower than that, and guards come whistling along.”

Preference

Ultimately, how much your rely on luck depends on your taste for a game that can feels as surprising and as messy as life. James Maliszewski associates a big dose of random chance with old-school gaming and writes, “Much like life, old-school gaming is often ‘just a bunch of stuff that happens’ and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only ‘meaning’ that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.”

How much of the future do you and your players want to force, and how much do you want to keep unexpected?

“What do dice represent?” D&D video creator Matt Colville asks. “They represent the future and the fact that the future is ultimately unknowable,” “You know we may know the odds of the different horses in a race and who’s likely to win and there may be a horse that is very heavily favored to win, but that doesn’t mean that they’re guaranteed to win. No. Because the future is uncertain. That’s what the dice represent.”

How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules

Some groups playing first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons might have run initiative by the book, but with the incomprehensible rules text, no one knew for sure. Besides, the full rules proved so complicated and cumbersome that most groups threw some out in favor of a faster pace. Even AD&D author Gary Gygax ignored most of it. “We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.” (See For 10 Years Dungeons & Dragons Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

For the designers working on second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, updating these rules posed a challenge. D&D’s management had required the designers to make their new version of AD&D broadly compatible with the original. Even after years on store shelves, plenty of first-edition products continued to sell. TSR wanted to keep that income coming. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

So second edition needed a version of the first-edition initiative rules, but which rules? First-edition players handled initiative in countless ways, none precisely by the book. The second-edition team settled on all of those ways. Like before, each side rolled a die and the winning roll went first. Beyond that, second edition offered enough optional rules to reconstruct whatever system a group already used. Groups that favored a system complicated by spell casting times and weapon speed factors could keep it.

Second edition also kept the wargame-inspired rule where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. Many groups chose to ignore this rule. Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison says, “I’ve had many conversations with fans who were really big fans of AD&D and who never really left second edition. I would say, ‘So you like the declaration phase?’ And the answer would always be, ‘Oh we don’t play that way.’ So you like AD&D better because you don’t play by the rules!”

When Adkison led Wizards of the Coast to buy TSR, he granted the third-edition design team permission to redesign initiative—and the rest of D&D—without keeping broad compatibility. Adkison simply charged the team with creating the best D&D game possible.

To start, the team looked at how gamers actually played second edition. Few groups declared actions before a round, and groups that did found the process slowed the game. Third-edition lead designer Jonathan Tweet explains, “Eventually what you ended up doing is you had to tell the DM what you were doing every round twice.”

Most tables did roll initiative every round. That added some exciting uncertainly, but also friction. “It takes forever to go through the round because no one knows who’s next and people get dropped.”

Despite having so many systems to choose from, none of the options pleased anyone. Co-designer Monte Cook says, “Initiative was probably the longest knock down drag out kind of fight. We must have gone through—no exaggeration—like 8 different, completely different, initiative systems.”

Meanwhile, in Tweet’s home games, he used a system that he hesitated to propose to the other designers. “I said to the group, ‘I want to try this cyclical initiative. It’s always worked for me, but it’s so different from AD&D. You know what, it’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.’”

For the origin of cyclical initiative, the story goes back to D&D’s early days.

The original D&D books omitted a rule for who acts first in a fight. For that, co-designer Gary Gygax supposed gamers would refer to his earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. As the game spread virally from the creators’ local groups and from the conventions they attended, gamers in the Midwest learned to play D&D.

Gamers in the West found D&D too, but those communities lacked the same word-of-mouth connection to the game’s creators. Necessity forced those players to make up rules to patch the gaps in the rule books. Copies of these fans’ informal game supplements spread from table-to-table.

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

A group of gamers around Caltech created Warlock. “What we have tried to do is present a way of expanding D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules and with various supplements.”

Future RuneQuest designer and D&D supplement author Steve Perrin wrote a set of house rules that came to be called The Perrin Conventions. He distributed his rules at California’s DunDraCon I in March 1976.

The enthusiasts working on these West coast D&D enhancements lacked Dave and Gary’s deep roots in wargaming, so they found fresh answers to the question of who goes first. Instead of an arcane system built on weapon types, they worked from the description of the Dexterity attribute in original D&D’s Men & Magic booklet (p.11). Dexterity indicates the characters “speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.” So Warlock lets the spellcaster with the highest Dexterity goes first, and The Perrin Conventions explain, “First strike in any situation, whether melee combat, spell casting, or whatever depends on who has the highest dexterity.”

Meanwhile, D&D hooked California physician J. Eric Holmes, but the original game’s obtuse and incomplete rules frustrated him as much as anyone. So he contacted Gygax and volunteered to write rules for beginners. Gygax already wanted such an introduction, but he lacked time to write one because he also wanted to create his new advanced version of D&D. He welcomed Holmes’s unexpected offer and compared it to divine inspiration.

Starting with the original rule books plus the Blackmoor and Greyhawk supplements, Holmes made D&D comprehensible while keeping “the flavor and excitement of the original rules.” As much as he could, he reused wording from the original game. But J. Eric Holmes had learned to play D&D from the Caltech Warlock rules and he probably had seen The Perrin Conventions. That experience led him to pitch Warlock’s spell-point system to Gygax. We know how that turned out. Gary hated spell points. However, Holmes’s take on D&D included one West coast innovation: The character with the highest Dexterity struck first. Back then, monster stats lacked a number for Dexterity, so the rules explain, “If the Dungeon Master does not know the dexterity of an attacking monster, he rolls it on the spot.”

Holmes’ revision became the 1977 Basic Set known for its rule book’s blue cover. That version of the rules introduced young Jonathan Tweet to D&D. Even when new versions of D&D appeared, Tweet stuck to his interpretation of the 1977 initiative rule. “It was really fast. Everyone knew what order you went in.”

Fast forward twenty-some years to the design of third edition when Tweet proposed his home initiative system inspired by that blue rule book. He called the system cyclical because instead of re-rolling initiative every round, turns cycled through the same order.

The design team’s third member, Skip Williams brought deep roots into AD&D. Williams had played in Gary Gygax’s home campaign and came from years of experience answering AD&D questions as Dragon magazine’s sage. Tweet suspected Williams would hesitate to test an initiative system that defied AD&D tradition, but Williams said, “Well, let’s try it.”

“We played one battle using initiative that goes around in a circle instead of being different every round and it was so much faster,” Tweet recalls. “It feels more like combat because it’s faster. By the end of the turn, by the end of the 5 hours playing D&D, you’ve had way more fun because things have gone faster.

“One of the big things that I learned from that experience is how well people took to a rule that on paper they rejected but in practice they saw how well it played.”

Monte Cook says, “If you can look at something that happens 20, 30, 50 times during a game session, and eliminate that or decrease it hugely, you’re going to make the game run faster, more smoothly. That idea is now a big part of my game designer toolbox.”

In today’s fifth edition, cyclic initiative now seems like an obvious choice, but the D&D team still considered alternatives. Some players tout the side initiative system described on page 270 of the fifth-edition Dungeon Masters Guide. The opposing groups of heroes and monsters each roll a die, and then everyone in the group with the highest roll goes. Unlike in past editions, nobody re-rolls initiative; the sides just trade turns. The designers chose against this method because the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and finish them before they act. At low levels, when a single blow can take out a foe, winning side initiative creates an overwhelming advantage.

Many players find side initiative even faster than individual initiative. Side initiative could also encourage tactically-minded players to spend time each round planning an optimal order for their turns. Some players enjoy that focus. However, if you aim for fast fights where rounds capture the mayhem of 6-seconds of actual battle, avoid encouraging such discussion.

Why do you prefer your favorite method for deciding who goes first?

Related: 13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules

For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots

While every version of Dungeons & Dragons has a rule for who goes first in a fight, no other rule shows as much of the game’s evolution from what the original books call rules for “wargames campaigns” into what the latest Player’s Handbook calls a roleplaying game about storytelling.

Before you old grognards rush to the comments to correct my opening line, technically the original books lacked any way to decide who goes first. For that rule, co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson supposed gamers would refer to Gary’s earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. The way to play D&D spread gamer-to-gamer from Dave and Gary’s local groups and from the conventions they attended. D&D campaigns originally ran by word-of-mouth and house rules.

Gygax waited five years to present an initiative system in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). Two things made those official rules terrible.

  • Nobody understood the system.

  • Any reasonable interpretation of the system proved too slow and complicated for play.

Some grognards insist they played the first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons initiative system by the book. No you didn’t. Read this 20-page consolidation of the initiative rules as written, and then try to make that claim. Grognardia blogger James Maliszewski writes, “Initiative in AD&D, particularly when combined with the equally obscure rules regarding surprise, was one of those areas where, in my experience, most players back in the day simply ignored the official rules and adopted a variety of house rules. I know I did.”

Not even Gygax played with all his exceptions and complications. “We used only initiative [rolls] and casting times for determination of who went first in a round. The rest was generally ignored. We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.”

With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D story grows complicated, because original or basic D&D soldiered on with workable initiative systems. My next tale will circle back to D&D, but this one focuses on first-edition AD&D, the game Gygax treated as his own. (See Basic and Advanced—the time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games.)

Some of the blame for AD&D’s terrible initiative system falls back on Chainmail and Gygax’s love for its wargaming legacy.

Chainmail lets players enact battles with toy soldiers typically representing 20 fighters. The rules suggest playing on a tabletop covered in sand sculpted into hills and valleys. In Chainmail each turn represents about a minute, long enough for infantry to charge through a volley of arrows and cut down a group of archers. A clash of arms might start and resolve in the same turn. At that scale, who strikes first typically amounts to who strikes from farthest away, so archers attack, then soldiers with polearms, and finally sword swingers. Beyond that, a high roll on a die settled who moved first.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the 1-minute turns from Chainmail became 1-minute melee rounds. Such long turns made sense for a wargame that filled one turn with a decisive clash of arms between groups of 20 soldiers, but less sense for single characters trading blows.

Even though most D&D players imagined brief turns with just enough time to attack and dodge, Gygax stayed loyal to Chainmail’s long turns. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gygax defended the time scale. “The system assumes much activity during the course of each round. During a one-minute melee round many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried.” Gygax cited the epic sword duel that ended The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as his model for AD&D’s lengthy rounds. He never explained why archers only managed a shot or two per minute.

Broadly, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons held to Chainmail’s system for deciding who goes first. Gygax also chose an option from the old wargame where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. “If you are a stickler, you may require all participants to write their actions on paper.”

Why would Gygax insist on such cumbersome declarations?

In a D&D round, every character and creature acts in the same few seconds, but to resolve the actions we divide that mayhem into turns. This compromise knots time in ridiculous ways. For example, with fifth edition’s 6-second rounds, one character can end their 6-second turn next to a character about to start their turn and therefor 6 seconds in the past. If they pass a relay baton, the baton jumps 6 seconds back in time. If enough characters share the same 6 seconds running with the baton, the object outraces a jet. Now expand that absurdity across AD&D’s 1-minute round.

Years before D&D, wargamers like Gygax had wrestled with such problems. They couldn’t resolve all actions simultaneously, but players could choose actions at once. Declaring plans in advance, and then letting a referee sort out the chaos yielded some of the real uncertainty of an actual battle. Wargamers loved that. Plus, no referee would let players declare that they would start their turn by taking a relay baton from someone currently across the room.

Especially when players chose to pretend that a turn took about 10 seconds, the Chainmail system for initiative worked well enough. In basic D&D, turns really lasted 10 seconds, so no one needed to pretend. Many tables kept that system for AD&D.

But nobody played the advanced system as written. Blame that on a wargamer’s urge for precision. Despite spending paragraphs arguing for 1-minute rounds, Gygax seemed to realize that a minute represented a lot of fighting. So he split a round into 10 segments lasting as long as modern D&D’s 6-second rounds. Then he piled on intricate—sometimes contradictory—rules that determined when you acted based on weapon weights and lengths, spell casting times, surprise rolls, and so on. In an interview, Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison observed, “The initiative and surprise rules with the weapon speed factors was incomprehensible.”

In a minute-long turn filled with feints, parries, and maneuvering, none of that precision made sense. On page 61, Gygax seemed to say as much. “Because of the relatively long period of time, weapon length and relative speed factors are not usually a consideration.” Then he wrote a system that considered everything.

Some of the blame for this baroque system may rest on the wargaming hobby’s spirit of collaboration.

Even before D&D, Gygax had proved a zealous collaborator on wargames. Aside from teaming with other designers, he wrote a flood of articles proposing variants and additions to existing games. In the early years of D&D, Gygax brought the same spirit. He published rules and ideas from the gamers in his circle, and figured that players could use what suited their game. In the Blackmoor supplement, he wrote, “All of it is, of course, optional, for the premise of the whole game system is flexibility and personalization within the broad framework of the rules.”

I doubt all the rules filigree in AD&D came from Gygax. At his table, he ignored rules for things like weapon speed factors. Still, Gygax published such ideas from friends and fellow gamers. For example, he disliked psionics, but he bowed to his friends and included the system in AD&D. (See Gary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?.)

Weapon speed factors fit AD&D as badly as anything. In theory, a fighter could swing a lighter weapon like a dagger more quickly. Did this speed enable extra attacks? Not usually. Instead, light weapons could strike first. But that contradicted Chainmail’s observation that a fighter with a spear had to miss before an attacker with a dagger could come close enough to attack. Gygax patched that by telling players to skip the usual initiative rules after a charge.

AD&D’s initiative system resembles a jumble of ideas cobbled together in a rush to get a long-delayed Dungeon Master’s Guide to press. The system piled complexities, and then exceptions, and still failed to add realism. In the end, AD&D owed some success to the way D&D’s haphazard rules trained players to ignore any text that missed the mark.

In creating D&D, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax faced a unique challenge because no one had designed a roleplaying game before. The designers of every roleplaying game to follow D&D copied much of the original’s work. Without another model, Gygax relied on the design tools from wargames. His initiative system may be gone, but ultimately Gary’s finest and most lasting contribution to D&D came from the lore he created for spells, monsters, and especially adventures.

Next: Part 2: “It’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.”

How Dungeons & Dragons Gained Feats

At a Dungeons & Dragons game, I overheard a player explain that feat was short for feature.

That’s not right, but I kept quiet for 2 reasons:

  • I don’t want to be the guy who butts into conversations to say, “Well, actually…”

  • I like the feature explanation much better.

Using “feat,” a word for a stunt, as a game term for a character feature or talent bothers my wish for precise terminology. Back in the third-edition days, this word choice annoyed me to such an embarrassing degree that I griped about the misnomer on the Wizards of the Coast D&D boards. That post probably only exists on a backup tape labeled “GLEEMAX” in magic marker.

How did we end up with feats?

Designer Monte Cook explains that feats came from the development of the third edition’s skill system. Two ingredients from D&D’s history contributed to skills.

The designers aimed to combine the two threads. “What we saw was that there were certain skills that we wanted to put into the game, but they were unlike the others because there wasn’t a check involved,” designer Monte Cook explained in an interview. Some of those proficiencies granted an ability to use things like shields, but others unlocked stunts that a character learned to do.

The design team called those stunts “heroic feats. As the game element developed, the team dropped the heroic bit. “Feats opened up a way for us to give cool character powers and abilities that weren’t skills and that weren’t tied to your class.”

Spell Tactics for 8 Wizards in the D&D Monster Books and for a Wizard of Your Own

Evil wizards in Dungeons & Dragons can make exciting foes for players. They have access to a range of spells that threaten characters and create tactical puzzles. But that potential seldom translates into play. The designers of fifth edition aimed to make a typical fight last 3 rounds. That seems brief, but wizards lack hit points and they carry a big bullseye, so they can only dream of lasting so long. Too often, some evil “mastermind” stands in an open room, whiffs an initiative roll, and dies in an encounter that resembles an execution by firing squad. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us just so players could claim a Table H treasure without a fight or even any cunning.

Five years ago, I wrote the The Evil Wizard’s Guide to Defense Against Murderous Treasure Hunters. That post focused on defensive spells and assumed dungeon masters would choose spells rather than stick to the lists in the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Sometimes players who see non-player wizards go off script can get a bit salty. After all, an archmage who prepares greater invisibility becomes a much bigger threat than one bringing the standard spells listed in the book. For a convention table, I’ll stick to a standard spell selection. For a home game that includes players who welcome a challenge, anything goes.

This post focuses on the game’s stock wizards and their spell lists.

Wizard encounters

Wizards make poor solo foes. Better fights come where wizards—even the boss—play supporting roles. Players must wonder if they can safely ignore a casters’ allies to focus fire on the wizard.

If wizards are paper, the party’s archers are scissors. Ranged rogues and sharpshooting fighters break concentration and heap damage on a wizard’s meager health. Avoid starting a fight with a spellcaster standing in the open, because they rarely bring enough hit points to survive long. In fifth edition, a character can move into view, cast a spell, and then move back out of sight. Make the party ready attacks or charge in to face the wizard’s allies. I dream of wizard battles where a solo wizard boasts defenses that the players must fight to unravel, but we have a game with sharpshooters instead. (This message brought to you by the alliance to return protection from normal missiles to D&D as a non-concentration spell.)

Spellcasters are smart and have the potential to become recurring foes, so whenever I pit the players against a wizard, I plan an escape and reserve the spell slots required for that plan. For lower-level casters, my escape may require invisibility or fly. Higher-level casters may reserve teleport or wall of force.

Next, identify the wizard’s most powerful offensive spells. For the mage and archmage in the Monster Manual, this means cone of cold followed by fireball. Few D&D battles last long enough to tap lesser spells.

Next check the wizard’s defenses. Without their defensive spells running, wizards become as fragile as soap bubbles. Unless the players make a special effort to gain surprise, and succeed, let the wizard raise a few defenses before they enter battle. Since defenses often require concentration, pick the spell that merits that focus. Sometimes this means concentrating on an offensive or battlefield control spell rather than a defense.

The rest of this post highlights the wizards in Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, from the tricky illusionist to the mighty (underwhelming) archmage.


Illusionist

A 7th-level wizard.

Escape

Invisibility [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 hour)

Invisibility lets wizards escape from melee, but without much stealth, they need more tricks or obstacles to block a chase.

Disguise Self [1st-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 hour)

Disguise self enables an illusionist to blend into a crowd.

Minor Illusion [Cantrip] (S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Minor illusion could make a hall or a door look like a plain wall for long enough to engineer an escape.

Offense

Phantasmal Killer [4th-level Illusion] (V,S) (Casting time: 1 Action) (Duration: concentration, 1 minute)

Phantasmal killer only hits one target and requires 2 failed saves before inflicting any damage. Even that feeble effect requires concentration. An attacking illusionist can only target the barbarian and hope for the best.

The illusionist starts with feeble offensive spells, so more than any of the other wizards, illusionists work as part of a group of foes.

Defense

Mage Armor [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 8 hours)

Every wizard the players face will have mage armor in effect.

Mirror Image [2nd-level Illusion] (V,S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Even compared to higher-level options, mirror image ranks as the best no-concentration defensive spell.

Make it fun

Illusionists make bad foes for dungeon showdowns. Instead, use an illusionist in an urban environment to trick an frustrate the party, potentially helping other attackers.

Major Image [3nd-level Illusion] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

Use crowds, illusion, and cover to avoid being spotted, and major image to befuddle the party. For a good model, think of the super-villain Mysterio as seen in Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Power up

Hypnotic Pattern [3nd-level Illusion] (S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, 1 minute)

To make an illusionist more dangerous, perpare hypnotic pattern rather than phantom steed and shield instead of magic missile.


Mage

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Misty Step [2nd-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 bonus action) (duration: instantaneous)

For a quick escape, use misty step to teleport to someplace relatively inaccessible, such as a balcony or across a chasm, then dash out of view. Misty step just takes a bonus action to cast, but you cannot cast a spell as a bonus action and cast another spell other than a cantrip in the same turn. See Player’s Handbook page 202.

Fly [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Fly offers a defense against melee attackers and a potential way to escape a fight that goes bad. When a wizard can fly in and out of cover, the spell makes a good defense.

Offense

Ice Storm [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

While ice storm falls short of the damage from cone of cold or fireball, the spell slows movement and makes a good opening attack.

Cone of Cold [5th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Fireball [3th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

While the other wizards in D&D’s monster books include some weaker spell choices to make them into distinctive foes, the mage picks the strongest spells as a player might.

Defense

Greater Invisibility [4th-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Greater invisibility rates as the best defensive spell in D&D. Most attacks on you suffer disadvantage. Plus, you avoid spells that require a target “that you can see,” which includes counterspell.

Counterspell [3rd-level Abjuration] (S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: instantaneous)

An enemy wizard will run out of turns before running short of spell slots. Counterspell gives wizards a use for their reaction and lets them benefit from casting two leveled spells in a round rather than just one. Counterspell lets you trade another caster’s action for a reaction that a wizard probably would not use. Despite the power of counterspell, most enemy spellcasters benefit more from ducking out of sight between turns.

Whenever players face enemy spellcasters, pay close attention to the 60-foot range of counterspell. If possible, spellcasters move out of that range before they cast.

Shield [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: 1 round)

Shield offers protection against archers and melee attacker that lasts a full round. Use this to protect against readied attacks when you move into view to cast spells.

Also: mage armor.

Make it fun

The mage brings the best spells on the wizard list, so of all the monster-book wizards, this one hits hardest for its challenge rating.

Power up

For a more durable, and therefore more dangerous mage, swap suggestion for mirror image.


Conjurer

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Misty step.

Offense

Evard’s Black Tentacles [4th-level Conjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

In most fights, start with Evard’s black tentacles and follow with fireball.

Cloudkill [5th-level Conjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

If the natural terrain somehow prevents attackers from easily escaping from a cloudkill, or against parties dominated by ranged attackers, start with cloudkill. Remember, cloudkill creates a heavily-obscured area that blocks vision.

Defense

Stoneskin [4th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 hour)

The quality of stoneskin depends on the number of foes wielding magical weapons or attacks. Against groups likely to fight a 9th-level wizard, stoneskin offers nothing. Just about every non-player character wizard prepares stoneskin, and that’s always a mistake. With so many of the conjurer’s spells requiring concentration, stoneskin becomes doubly useless.

Also: mage armor

Make it fun

The combination of cloudkill and Evard’s black tentacles makes an exciting challenge for a party facing a pair of conjurers.

Power up

Prepare shield instead of magic missile and mirror image instead of cloud of daggers.


Enchanter

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Invisibility.

Offense

Enchanters have fireball, which seems like a bid to give them something to do in a fight, even if that lacks the flavor of the specialty.

Hold Monster [5th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

In the best case for hold monster, the enchanter paralyzes one character and spoils one player’s fun, then the rest of the party takes an average 1.5 turns to zero the caster’s 40 hit points.

Haste [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Haste ranks as an excellent spell for an enchanter to cast on an ally, but a fight with a hasted, charmed assassin doesn’t feel much like a fight against an enchanter.

Dominate Beast [4rd-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

The best setup for a battle against an enchanter features a giant ape or a tyrannosaurus rex improbably around to become the target of dominate beast.

Defense

Instinctive Charm seems like defense that shows an enchanter’s flavor, but enchantment spells tend to require concentration, so an enchanter probably won’t cast one every turn, and the ability will rarely recharge. Let the ability recharge every turn anyway.

Also: mage armor and stoneskin.

Make it fun

An enchanter serves as more of a story piece than a combatant. For a fun battle against an enchanter, add odd creatures under a geas to defend the wizard and perhaps a fearsome beast in a cage.

Dominate Person [5th-level Enchantment] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

For enchanters to show their power, power up with dominate person.

Power up

Confusion [4th-level Enchantment] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Switch hold monster for dominate person, confusion for stoneskin, and shield for magic missile.


Evoker

A 12th-level wizard.

Escape

Wall of Ice [6th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

A cautious evoker saves a 6th-level spell slot for a wall of ice to block pursuit.

Also: misty step.

Offense

Bigby’s Hand [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Rather than casting chain lightening, start with Bigby’s hand to interfere with melee attackers, and then start blasting with cone of cold and either fireball or lightning bolt.

Lightning Bolt [3th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Defense

Mage armor, mirror image, and counterspell.

Make it fun

With so many blasting spells and few defenses, the evoker will probably strike hard, and then die quickly. This caster may work best supporting other foes in a high-level encounter.

Power up:

Prepare greater invisibility instead of stoneskin and shield instead of burning hands.


Abjurer

A 13th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport [7th-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Teleport enables a near-certain escape, so long as you allow time to cast it.

Wall of Force [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Wall of force can serve three purposes.

  • Create a barrier to enable escape.

  • Trap some of your foes so the rest become outnumbered by your allies.

  • Create a defensive shield that blocks attacks while you blast foes.

An invisible wall of force lets you see targets for spells, but “nothing can physically pass through the wall of force.” Few wizard spells let you continue to concentrate on the wall while enabling attacks through the wall. Sadly, none of the non-player character wizards prepare both wall of force and something like disintegrate or finger of death. Unless you change spells, this lapse eliminates the wall’s third use.

Also: invisibility.

Offense

Symbol [7th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: until dispelled or triggered)

The abjurer’s most dangerous spell takes too long to cast in battle, but it lasts until dispelled or triggered. Each symbol costs 1,000 gp to inscribe. This leaves DMs to decide how many symbols protect an abjurer. One seems sporting.

Symbol aside, start blasting with cone of cold, and then fireball.

Banishment [4th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

As soon as you take damage, upcast banishment in a 6th- or 7th-level slot and bolster your Arcane Ward.

Defense

Alarm [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: 8 hours)

Abjurers should never face an attack unprepared. Best case, that means casting symbol on the entry, taking a position that puts a barrier between you and melee attackers, and having a globe of invulnerability in effect.

Globe of Invulnerability [6th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

Globe of invulnerability only protects from magical attacks, so it just leaves most casters vulnerable to the party’s archers. Paper, meet scissors. Fortunately, the abjurer’s Arcane Ward grants a measure of protection that other wizards lack. Plus, the ward takes damage instead of the wizard, reducing concentration checks. The globe might remain active long enough to shape the battle.

Also: mage armor, shield, counterspell, and stoneskin.

Make it fun

The abjurer rates as the only wizard able to make a globe of invulnerability into a tactical challenge for an adventuring group, rather than a bubble a few arrows pop. So start with the globe. Once the wizard takes damage, switch to concentrating on banishment.

Forget the archmage, the combination of symbol, Arcane Ward, and banishment makes abjurers the most dangerous wizards in the monster books. If enough characters fail their saves, banishment could make half the party vanish. If you pit an abjurer against a group, ready a plan B involving a capture, a rescue, or a deal that can avert a total-party kill.

Power up

Prepare mirror image instead of arcane lock.


Diviner

A 15th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport and fly.

Offense

Mass suggestion [_6th-level Enchantment] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 24 hours)

A diviner’s best strategy probably starts with a mass suggestion that convinces everyone to leave in search of the real villain. Unlike suggestion, mass suggestion doesn’t require concentration.

Maze [8th-level Conjuration] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

Escaping maze requires a DC20 Intelligence check. Because so few player characters boast an Intelligence above 10, the spell usually guarantees one character leaves the fight for its duration. If the party includes a paladin, then use maze to banish that character and their boost to saving throws. Otherwise, wait to see who saves versus mass suggestion.

Delayed Blast Fireball [7th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

A diviner can see enough of the future to know not to cast delayed blast fireball, saving their 7th-level slot for teleport instead.

Also: ice storm and fireball.

Defense

Portent will probably only get one use, so keep it for a saving throw.

Make it fun

Like an enchanter, a diviner serves better as a story piece than a combatant. Diviners make good patrons because they see enough of the future to send the party on quests.


Archmage

An 18th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport, wall of force, fly, misty step, invisibility, and disguise self.

The wealth of spells that enable archmages to escape reveal the role of these wizards: Archmages underperform in combat and work better as plotters who avoid fighting whenever possible.

Offense

Cone of cold, banishment, and lightning bolt.

Defense

Time Stop [9th-level Transmutation] (v) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Time stop gives an archmage a chance to cast a suite of defensive spells.

Mind Blank [8th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 24 hours)

Mind blank serves as a story piece more than a spell that actually defends against anything players might use to attack an archmage.

Fire Shield [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

As a 4th-level spell, fire shield ranks as the worst no-concentration defense. The damage amounts to less than a typical melee attacker can deal, and wizards lack health to lose in trade.

Combine fire shield with stoneskin, the worst defense that requires concentration, and you follow a recipe for a short and disappointing showdown.

Make it fun

The archmage’s spell list makes this wizard weaker in combat than some of the lower-level specialists. I suspect the designer who concocted this spell list imagined a fight starting with a time stop that enables an archmage to erect defenses, followed by a barrage of attack spells. Unfortunately, the feeble defenses do little to thwart a party facing an archmage. The archmage’s 99 hit points may not last two players’ turns. Paper, meet scissors.

The smart move is to skip time stop and upcast banishment at 9th-level, and then to blast the survivors who made saves. Once you thin those foes, cast wall of force to split the banished party as they pop back. Divide and conquer.

I’m not sure which of those strategies seems less fun for players.

The Intelligence-20 move is to teleport away to live for more evil schemes.

Power up

Disintegrate [6th-level Transmutation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Prepare greater invisibility instead of stoneskin and disintegrate instead of globe of invulnerability.