Category Archives: D&D fifth edition

The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before

Stirrups. Zero. Shipping containers. Luggage with wheels. All these innovations seem obvious in hindsight. But they went undiscovered for millennia, until someone’s bright idea changed the world—or at least put airport porters out of work. Even those hotel shower rods that curve made someone rich.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons includes one obvious-in-hindsight innovation that the game’s past designers failed to spot. Alas, it won’t make anyone rich.

Sverrir by ArboUp until fourth edition, D&D fighters gained extra attacks, but fourth edition avoided them. The designers shunned extra attacks partly to speed play by reducing the number of attack and damage rolls. Sure, spells attacked lots of targets, but at least spells only required one damage roll.

Also fourth edition, like all earlier editions of D&D, aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. In theory, this made the difference in power between, a 4th- and 5th-level character about the same as the difference between levels 5 and 6. Characters at similar levels could adventure together without someone routinely dealing twice as much damage. But a second attack on every turn brings a fighter a big jump in power.

The designers of past editions worked to smooth these jumps in power by granting fighters something less than a full extra attack. AD&D gave fighters extra half attacks, and a need to remember half attacks. Third edition traded half attacks and the memory issue for weaker attacks and fiddly attack penalties. These solutions complicated the game with awkward memory demands and calculations.

So playtest versions of fifth edition did not grant fighters and other martial characters an Extra Attack feature. Rather than gaining more attacks, these classes earned features that enabled attacks to deal more damage. But this approach put fighters at a disadvantage against weaker foes easily dropped by a single blow.

When a fighter confronts a goblin horde and only makes one attack per turn, no amount of extra damage matters because one strike can only fell one goblin per turn. To help martial types against weak foes, the playtest included cleaving-attack powers that swept through groups. But such features failed to remedy another trouble: To-hit bonuses in fifth-edition increase at a slower rate and never grow as big as in earlier editions. The designers call this bounded accuracy, because they do not come from marketing. Bounded accuracy means that fighters hit weaker foes less easily than in past editions.

Fighter types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. But in the playtest, even the mightiest spent turns muffing their one attack against some mook. With an extra attack, misses matter less because there’s more where that came from.

During the playtest, I wrote, “If D&D Next’s designers can find a good way to allow fighters to gain multiple attacks against weaker opponents, then a key piece of the Next design puzzle falls into place.”

Late in fifth edition’s creation, the designers compared the benefits each class gained as they leveled and noticed that wizards leap in power at 5th and at 11th levels. These jumps come from quirks of a spell list that date to the beginning of the game. At 5th level, wizards gain potent attack spells like Fireball, plus unbalancing buffs like Haste. At 11th level, wizards gain 6th-level spells, which bring save-or-die effects like Disintegrate. At the 9th spell level, Gary Gygax felt comfortable stashing world-altering spells like Wish and Time Stop, because his players never reached 17th level and never gained easy access to them.

Earlier editions of D&D aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. Those editions’ designers ignored the leaps in power certain spells brought; the fifth-edition designers embraced the leaps.

This brought the obvious-in-hindsight innovation: Rather than offering fighters half attacks or fiddly attack penalties, fifth edition matches the leaps in power brought by additional attacks to the leaps brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level spells. Fighters gain extra attacks as wizards gain these spells. At the same levels, other classes gain potent powers and spells of their own. For instance, the bard’s Hypnotic Pattern spell got a fifth-edition redesign that moves it to 3rd level and dramatically increases the spell’s power. 

Third and fourth editions arbitrarily aligned the game’s tiers with 10th and 20th levels, because of round numbers. The fifth-edition tiers match to the levels where characters gain the best new powers and spells. These leaps in ability mean 4th- and 5th-level characters cannot adventure together without displaying big power differences, but characters in the same tier can join a party and contribute.

It all seems obvious now. Designer Mike Mearls says that a lot of innovations in game design work that way.

In 1981 a Troll Named Grimtooth Set a Path for Today’s D&D Books

Grimtooth’s TrapsStarting in 1981, Flying Buffalo Games published a series of Grimtooth’s Traps books. They featured diagrams of traps that showed heroes on the verge of being folded, spindled, and mutilated. For instance, one sample shows a covered pit trap where the swinging cover severs a rope that drops a stone slab into the pit.

Dungeon Master: “As you advance down the tunnel, a trap door opens at your feet, dropping your rogue, Jasper the 8th, into a pit.”

Player: “Ha! Ring of feather fall!”

DM: “Ha! A two-ton stone slab drops on you, pushing you down the pit and crushing you to jelly! Do you have another character?”

Player: “Sigh. Say hello to Jasper the 9th.”

All the traps were ingenious, but very few could work in play.

Swing across chasmIn another example, a rope seems to offer an easy way to swing across a chasm, but at the end of the swing, the rope unspools several feet, flinging the victim into the wall, which is rigged to fire a volley of crossbow bolts into the victim’s body, before he drops into the underground river below, which I assume is full of sharks.

What paranoid adventurer would dare use a rope suspiciously ready for swinging across a chasm? And all adventurers in the world of Grimtooth will grow paranoid in a hurry. In practice, this trap gets bypassed without a second thought.

In most cases, even players who survive the traps will never notice the inventive mechanisms that make them function and that make them interesting. The traps could work in a sort of Toon/Dungeons & Dragons collision, where Wile-E-Coyote-like characters blunder into outrageous traps, only to reappear, without explanation, for the next scene.

Despite the traps’ minimal play value, Grimtooth’s Traps became a hit, leading to Traps Too, Traps Four, and Traps Ate. What made collections of useless traps top sellers?

“The traps were sometimes deadly and sometimes silly. They were often Rube Goldberg-esque, and not the sort of thing you could really use in an adventure,” Shannon Appelcline writes in Designers & Dragons. “However they were beautifully diagrammed and often very funny. The book was a joy to read.”

Much of the humor came from the books’ credited author, a troll named Grimtooth who relished inflicting inventive deaths on hapless dungeon delvers. “I feel that you’ll find this the most entertaining collection of traps you’ve ever laid eyes on. Besides, if you don’t like my book, I’ll rip your lungs out.” (Apparently, Grimtooth enjoyed Warren Zevon.) By flaunting the worst impulses of killer DMs, Grimtooth satirized a type familiar to roleplaying gamers in 1981.

Grimtooth first appeared on the cover of the fifth edition of Tunnels & Trolls. Then, in Sorcerer’s Apprentice magazine, editor Liz Danforth drew the troll as an icon for her “Trolltalk” column. Grimtooth gained his name in a reader contest.

While plotting humiliating ways to kill adventurers, Grimtooth offered some good advice. “A few of you numbskulls out there still haven’t caught on what it means to be a Game Master. A GM doesn’t slavishly follow anything—books, manuals, or edict from On High.” So when readers missed the joke and griped that the traps proved too deadly, Grimtooth invited tinkering. “Some of you have twisted ideas about how to administrate a dungeon, newfangled ideas about delvers escaping with their lives and stuff like that. Don’t ask me to to make my traps less deadly…change them yourselves.”

By the fourth volume, Grimtooth’s Traps Ate, the editors had abandoned any pretense that these traps might see play. Now the traps include dungeon basketball courts with mechanical arms that slam dunked characters, and deadly Christmas-themed rooms that killed adventurers pictured in Santa suits. (Why is volume 4 Traps Ate? The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 7 lack homonyms, so they were skipped.)

Grimtooth set the pattern for new Dungeons & Dragons books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A D&D player can buy a Player’s Handbook and never need another book. Only DMs weary of the foes in the Monster Manual need another collection of monsters. But Wizards of the Coast aims to sell every D&D book to every D&D fan, so they lure buyers to books like Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes by making the text entertaining. Part of the fun comes from humorous notes left by Xanathar and Mordenkainen, characters who owe much to Grimtooth.

As for the troll, his wicked engineering remains amusing. In Grimtooth’s Traps, The Addams Family meets Rube Goldberg.

Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

Adventure paths reveal their linear design in the name: They follow a path. In a linear adventure every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to content that reaches play.

Adventure paths are episodic campaigns that look linear from a distance. Such adventures offer choices in each episode or chapter, but at the end of each chapter, the path leads to the next chapter. This device enables an entire campaign to fit into a book.

Adventure paths serve dungeon masters by making a campaign with a story arc that leads from start to finish easy to run from a book.

In 2003, the Shackled City adventure path in Dungeon magazine led the format to prominence. Shackled City and its successors proved so popular that Paizo made adventure paths the foundation of their publishing strategy, and the inspiration for the name of their Pathfinder role-playing game.

In the classic adventure path, each episode ends with clues or hooks that lead to the next episode. This arrangement dates to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). The steading’s treasure room contains a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain capable of transporting 6 to the site.

When the designers of the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons paired a line of hardcover adventures to the game, they aimed to grant players more freedom than a classic adventure path allows. Each book finds ways to break from the adventure-path model.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures avoided hooks connecting the adventure into a narrative. Perhaps the designers felt the lack of threads benefited the adventures by adding some of the freedom of a sandbox. Explaining his design for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Steve Winter said, “There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.”

Many reviewers judged this design strategy harshly. Bryce Lynch wrote that the designers of Hoard of the Dragon Queen “clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, but are terrified of being accused of railroading.”

The adventures that followed Hoard of the Dragon Queen avoided a specific sequence of tasks. Most chapters described locations and the designers invited players to roam.

While these adventures experimented with sandboxes, they still expected a good dungeon master to prepare or improvise leads for players who need a nudge.

The 2nd adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, poses as a sandbox with strongholds to raid and ruins to explore. But the “character advancement” sections on page 41 and 75 reveal a problem with granting so much freedom. Each note lists the character level best suited to the dungeons and sites on the pages to follow. For example, one site is “appropriate” for 6th-level characters; another “works best” for 9th level characters. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford explained, “For a lot of our published adventures, we’ll have broad difficulty targets for different parts of the adventure. For example, we might decide that one chapter of one of our adventures is really designed to be not too much trouble for characters of 6th level. Characters of any level can go into that chapter, but really what we’re doing is we want to ensure when an optimal group is there, it’s not too much trouble.

In Princes of the Apocalypse, players can stumble into areas too dangerous or too easy for their characters. “If characters aren’t careful, they can definitely ‘dig too deep,’ going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered,” Mike “Sly Florish” Shea wrote. “Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth-level dungeon to an eighth-level dungeon with just a few steps.”

Jeremy Crawford and the D&D team see such design as a feature. “Our starting assumption in 5th edition is that the game is pretty open ended and sandboxy, and we often like—particularly in our published adventures—dangling out the possibility that you might wander into a fight that you can’t win. We don’t view the game as a series of combat encounters that you are expected to face in a predictable way and then march off with a set amount of experience points and treasure. We view the game as a set of potential combat encounters, some of which you might not turn into combat encounters at all.”

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire dungeons that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level dungeon, they can only fight to escape. No player enjoys fleeing a dungeon, and then starting a quest for weaker foes—especially if the dungeon seemed like the best route to reaching their aims.

If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout. Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored—and I’m not alone. Mike Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge. See Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

Like its predecessor, the 3rd adventure, Out of the Abyss, featured loosely-tied locations, each designed to suit characters of a particular level.

In a guide to Out of the Abyss, Sean “Powerscore” McGovern wrote, “This adventure thinks it is a sandbox, but really it is a railroad in serious denial.” To Tim “Neuronphaser” Bannock, the lack of story threads made Abyss resemble “a sourcebook disguised as an adventure.”

The adventure leaves connecting the locations to the DM. “Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the Underdark,” Mike Shea explained.

Such requirements make designers seem blind to plight of DMs running a 256-page adventure. The designers wrote the book. When they play their own material, they enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than any DM can gain from the text. This mastery makes adjustment and improvisation easy for them. If they need a hook, they know just the walk-on character on page 167 who can offer it. If their players go off book in chapter 2, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot assumed in chapter 7.

The designers seem to assume that DMs resist a written playbook as an unwelcome limitation, but most DMs appreciate the help. If a hook or clue doesn’t suit their game, DMs know to ignore or adapt it.

The 4th adventure, Curse of Strahd, ranks as the most successful “sandboxy” design. The Tarokka card reading brings one advantage by hinting at the means to Strahd’s defeat and providing clues that might guide the adventure. The card reading assigns destinations, but as Sean McGovern explains, “it’s up to the DM to figure out how to get the group to these places, and new DMs are going to have a hard time with that. The hooks that take you from one area to another are buried deep in each chapter.” To complicate the challenge, DMs must deal with hooks likely to lead inexperienced characters to their deaths.

The 5th adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, starts with sandbox exploration and finishes as a linear adventure. In between, the adventure leads through 1 of 5 possible strongholds. On the plus side, the choice of giant strongholds gives the adventure unusual variation. As a minus, the strongholds stand as a highlight, but most groups will only explore one. (Still, a party at my local game store chose to battle through them all.)

Of the fifth-edition hardcover adventures, Storm King’s Thunder suffered the second-lowest rating among reviewers on enworld. Reviewers praised the strongholds while criticizing the sandbox chapters.

To start, the adventure shows the menace of the giants, but leaves characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters run errands until they reach the adventure’s true beginning. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either need to rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expects it. Mike Shea advised DMs to “Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on.”

Weak hooks and blank spots can leave DMs to struggle. “I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me,” Snazzy wrote in comments on this site. “I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.”

Many experienced DMs share this dissatisfaction. Sean “Power Score” McGovern writes guides that help DMs running the adventures. “My guides to these adventures are by far the most popular articles on my site. To me, that says that DMs need help with these books. That should not be the case! The point of a published adventure is to make it so that the DM does not have to do a lot of work!

“I still think they should be organizing these adventures like Pathfinder adventure paths—linear. If you want a sandbox, It’s not hard at all to make a sandbox out of a [linear adventure]. But it is very time-consuming to turn a sandbox into a path.

“Every single 5e adventure requires a ridiculous amount of homework and I think that is a shame.”

McGovern wrote those words in the wake of Curse of Strahd. But Storm King’s Thunder presents a flow chart to help DMs, and the latest book, Tomb of Annihilation, scored higher with reviewers than any of its predecessors. Is the fifth-edition D&D team helping DMs more? Perhaps. The hardcover line shows consistent improvement and Tomb of Annihilation rates as the entry that best serves DMs. Some of that success comes because Tomb draws from proven styles of play. The first half offers a hex crawl patterned after  Isle of Dread (1981). The second half lays an adventure path through chapters inspired by classic adventures from Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) to Tomb of Horrors (1978). The authors Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter deserve some credit too. Will Doyle once said,  “Adventures are playbooks not novels.”

Still, I’ve heard nothing from the D&D team that suggests they share Will’s insight. Too often, the designers seem to think DMs who read a 256-page adventure can match its author’s comfort and mastery. Sometimes, the designers have hidden linear designs like a stain of dishonor. But an adventure path offers players plenty of choice and freedom within its chapters. And besides, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as designers think.

As works of imagination, the fifth-edition hardcovers contain the some of the best D&D adventures ever. They teem with vivid characters, fantastic locations, and unforgettable scenes that few DMs could match—especially throughout a campaign. But too often they work better as books to read and admire than as blueprints for DMs to run games at the table.

Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve

The original Dungeons & Dragons game featured some activities that most players didn’t enjoy and eventually came to skip. I already wrote about mapping. Unless your group plays D&D in a deliberately old style, you don’t draft a player as a mapper who struggles to translate room dimensions to graph paper.

Spells with punishing side-effects qualify as another nuisance that D&D players learned to skip.

With some spells, players could simply avoid the side effects. The risk of instant death tends to limit teleportation to safe, familiar locations. And when Polymorph Other threatened system shock or a loss of individuality, party members never volunteered to fight in the form of a dragon.

Sometimes, avoiding side effects meant avoiding the spells. I’ve never seen anyone cast Contact Higher Plane. Apparently, few players like risking their character to a random chance of insanity.

Wish brought a mini-game where the dungeon master to tried grant the letter of the wish while perverting its spirit. Players countered by attempting to phrase their wishes to avoid any punishing interpretations. By third edition, players could skip the mini-game by selecting a wish from a menu of approved options.

A few irresistible spells included punishing side effects that DMs often ignored.

Haste aged its target a year, which forced a severe downside on humans, but an insignificant one on elves—and on humans in casual games without either bookkeeping or a reckoning of calendar years.

Lighting bolts could hit a wall and double back on the caster. When players started treating bolts as billiard balls and demanded to hit every foe using a trick shot, I suspect many DMs gave up on the bounce-back rule.

Fireball proved most popular and suffered the worst side effects. The original version risked blow back. “Fire Ball will generally conform to the shape of the space (elongate or whatever).” This meant a Fireball confined to small dungeon places could easily blow back and damage player characters. This drawback not only threatened PCs, but it also weighed the game with complicated volume calculations. D&D blogger and college mathematics lecturer Delta dutifully did the math. “After years of applying this, let me offer a heartfelt mathematician’s ‘Aaaarrgghh!!!’”

Worse than damage, Fireball destroyed treasure. “Besides causing damage to creatures, the Fireball ignites all combustible materials in the burst radius, and the heart of the Fireball will melt soft metals such as gold, copper, silver, etc. Items exposed to the spell’s effects must be rolled for to determine if they are affected.” Hitting PCs with collateral damage hurt enough, but players hated seeing treasure within their grasp destroyed.

Gary Gygax saw the the gotchas as a test of player skill and relished enforcing the punishments. His son Ernie recalled casting Fireball and how his father “would always let you know whatever cool thing you had destroyed. Normally it was difficult to figure out what anything was, but once it was destroyed, my dad would share. ‘Oh, it’s a real shame.’”

Few others saw the fun. Ernie Gygax found the lost treasure so bothersome that his wizard Tenser developed the spell Cone of Cold specifically to avoid the drawbacks of Fireball.

Faced with Fireball’s volume calculations, with item saving throws interrupting the game, and with the protests of players, many DMs just ignored Fireball’s side effects.

But without the gotchas, Haste, Lightning Bolt, and especially Fireball offered much more power. By Gary Gygax’s calculation, Cone of Cold—a replacement for Fireball without the punishing side effects—rated as a 5th-level spell.

The 5th-edition rules rewrite Haste, Lightning Bolt, and Fireball without the downsides. Haste now requires concentration and just targets one creature, so it loses some of its old power. Wizards seldom prepare Lighting Bolt because Fireball overshadows it. But Fireball keeps all the punch of a 5th-level spell with none of the downsides of its 3rd-level origin. When wizards gain the ability to cast Fireball, they leap in power.

Rather than dropping the power of the best spell available to 5th-level wizards, the designers of 5th edition gave every class some new ability that matches the Wizard’s leap in power. Fighters gain a second attack, Monks gain Stunning Strike, Rogues gain Uncanny Dodge, and so on. For more, see The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before. I suspect the designers boosted Hypnotic Pattern from a average 2nd-level spell to an powerful (and annoying) 3rd-level spell so Bards could match that leap in power.

By the way, Cone of Cold isn’t the only spell made to avoid a part of D&D that players preferred to skip. Originally, some of D&D’s strategy came from the job of hauling coins out of the dungeon. Players hired bearers and bought mules to help. Still, no one found encumbrance fun or baggage trains heroic, and Gary must have noticed. He created Tenser’s Floating Disk on behalf of Ernie and every other player who wanted a painless way to recover every last copper from the dungeon.

7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons want to avoid changing the game as it exists in print. In a Tome Show interview, designer Mike Mearls said they would only make changes if something proves “horribly broken.” Although no character options seem to qualify, a few rate as troublesome enough to land on designer Jeremy Crawford’s undisclosed “watch list.” A few more dominate enough to overshadow lesser PCs. Here are 7 examples.

7. Dealing massive damage during surprise rounds – Paladin 2/Assassin 3/Fighter 2

At level 3, a Rogue who takes the Assassin archetype treats any hit scored against a surprised creature as a critical, which doubles the Rogue’s sneak attack dice. The 2nd-level Paladin’s Divine Smite adds even more dice to double. To land more critical hits, add two levels of Fighter for Action Surge and a second batch of attacks. If you want criticals without surprise, continue to level 3 with the Fighter’s Champion archetype for crits on 19-20.

Is it broken? No. How often does a party or even a sneaky PC gain surprise? When a party does gain surprise, this advantage typically leads to a romp even without an assassin going nova.

Without surprise, you have a Rogue who must boast a Strength and Charisma of 13, and a Paladin who either skips the protection of heavy armor or sneaks with disadvantage.

Related: Dealing Death: Handbook of the True Assassin

6. Healing at low levels – Druid 1/Cleric 1

The 1st-level druid spell Goodberry creates 10 berries that PCs can eat to heal a hit point. Whenever a Life-domain Cleric uses a 1st-level spell to heal, the target regains 3 additional hit points. This bonus applies to each of 10 healing berries produced by Goodberry. At levels 2-4, gaining 40 hit points of healing from a 1st-level spell rates as outrageous. An official Sage Advice post confirms this interaction.

Is it broken? No. Although you can upend a bag of M&Ms into your mouth, eating a single Goodberry demands an action. As levels rise, the healing stays at 40, and the class pairing just yields a Druid/Cleric who can’t wear metal armor, or a Cleric/Druid who can’t be a Druid. Adventurers League players will drop the combination before they reach level 5.

5. Locking down monsters – Monk 5 and Hex

Update: Hex only imposes disadvantage on ability checks, and not on saving throws, so this combination doesn’t work. Jay Elmore tells me that some players combine Hex and grapple to impose disadvantage on their target’s Strength checks.

At level 5, every class gains a game-changing ability. Monks get Stunning Strike. After striking, they can force their foe to make a Constitution save to avoid being stunned until the monk’s next turn. A stunned creature can do nothing except endure attacks made with advantage. Few foes will survive more than a turn or two of the onslaught.

The Warlock’s 1st-level Hex spell lets the monk impose disadvantage on one type of save, say Constitution. Hex lasts at least an hour and can move from victim to victim. The extra 1d6 damage added to each blow just adds a lagniappe of pain. (Also a good name for a Zydeco-Metal band.)

A Monk can gain the ability to cast Hex in two ways: Take the Magic Initiate feat or a level of Warlock. With the feat, Monks can only Hex once a day—still enough for a hour-long adventuring day and at least one boss smackdown. The level of Warlock costs both the level and a 13 Charisma, but gains multiple castings.

Is it broken? No, but the combination tends to dominate every boss fight. If I were a better person behind the DM screen, I would enjoy watching monks seize the spotlight as they turn my biggest threats into piñatas. Forgive me though, because sometimes I fake my admiration.

I have a memo to anyone designing D&D adventures, including many pros who should know better. No single foe without legendary actions can pose a fight to a group of PCs.

4. Dealing melee damage – Great Weapon Master

Arbo-ValkyrienThe Great Weapon Master feat lets characters trade accuracy for damage. “Before you make a melee attack with a heavy weapon you are proficient with, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you add +10 to the attack’s damage.” With fifth edition’s bounded armor classes, this trade usually makes great deal. Your fighter gets no benefit from rolling 20-something to hit a typical 14 AC, but that extra 10 damage stings.

A fighter who gains many extra attacks at higher levels and from action surges can multiply the extra damage by several attacks.

Is it broken? The combination falls short of breaking the game, but it overshadows other melee-fighting strategies.

Related: Great Weapon Mastery How to -5/+10 Like a Pro

3. Dealing consistent ranged damage – Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert

Exactly like Great Weapon Master, Sharpshooter lets characters trade accuracy for damage. The trade can yield even more damage per round, because a sharpshooter with the Crossbow Expert feat gains an additional attack.

Crossbow Expert lets a character attack with a one-handed weapon, and then use a bonus attack to make another attack with a hand crossbow. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “Crossbow Expert does allow a character to shoot a hand crossbow as an action and again as a bonus action.” So fighters with the feat can use their usual multi-attacks, attack with a bonus action, and optionally spend an Action Surge for another volley. Plus, you can make these attacks from range. (The fifth-edition designers often undervalue the benefit of attacking from a distance.)

As a downside, loading requires a free hand. Also, the Great Weapon Masters will mock your tiny weapon.

Is it broken? Players who play any martial archetype that has ever appeared in fantasy face being overshadowed by an improbable character who rapid fires a tiny crossbow for massive damage.

Some DMs will rule that the crossbow used for the bonus attack cannot be the same as the one used for the regular attack. This forces PCs to stow a crossbow, freeing a hand to reload. In organized play, any DMs making this ruling will hear players howl that the ruling “COMPLETELY AND ARBITRARILY INVALIDATES MY ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT.”

2. Dealing bursts of ranged damage – Warlock 2 / Sorcerer 3+

Warlocks gain fewer spell slots than other casters, forcing them to spend more rounds blasting with their Eldritch Blast cantrip. In compensation, eldritch invocations make Eldritch Blast much better than other cantrips. The best invocation, Agonizing Blast, lets Warlocks add their Charisma bonus to their blasts’ damage. It makes the essential, first invocation to take at level 2. Even when PCs never take another level of Warlock, the number of beams from their Eldritch Blasts increase as their level increases.

Once a 2nd-level Warlock can blast the game’s most powerful cantrip, a switch to the Sorcerer class unlocks a way to cast another in the same turn. Third-level Sorcerers can take the Quicken Spell metamagic option, which lets them spend sorcery points to fire another Eldritch Blast as a bonus action. As a level-5 PC, Quicken Spell allows firing 4 beams in one round. By the time such characters reach level 11, they can quicken their blasts for 4 straight turns, dealing up to 6d10+30 damage per turn.

Is it broken? Warlock and Sorcerer both use powers based on Charisma, so the classes combine well. Whether the combination breaks the game depends on how many encounters your game tends to pack between long rests and fresh allotments of sorcery points.

Honorable mention: At level 14, Evokers gain the Overchannel ability, which lets them boost a spell to deal maximum damage. After one use, the overchannelling Wizard takes 2d12 of damage per level of spell—a steep price. But cantrips count as level 0, so overchannel Firebolt every turn!

Designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “As written, an evoker can overchannel a cantrip without taking damage (on my watch list). A DM could say no cantrips.” Sure, and INVALIDATE MY ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT.

Update: The Player’s Handbook errata changed Overchannel so it doesn’t benefit cantrips.

1. Surviving damage – Druids in the Circle of the Moon path

At 2nd level, a Druid can take the shape of beast along with all its hit points. When Druids return to their regular shape, they return to the hit point total they had before they transformed. In effect, a 2nd-level druid can lose most of the, say, 68 hit points of two brown-bear forms before even dipping into their regular supply.

For Druids in the Circle of the Land, the beast form lacks combat strength, so they transform to scout. No one enters the Circle of the Land. Druids in the Circle of the Moon get beast forms that can fight. Plus, Druids assume the Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution of their beast forms, so they can make all three physical attributes dump stats.

Some players make their Druids even tougher by adding levels of Barbarian for their Rage ability and the resistance it grants to piercing, bludgeoning, and slashing damage. Moon Druids never seem endangered, so the combination probably offers more protection than anyone needs. Multiclassing dilutes the Druid’s overall power, because it slows access to more powerful beast forms.

250px-Justiceleague_v2_01Is it broken? Jeremy Crawford has the feature on his watch list, but calls it better on paper than in play.

Many critics of the Moon Druid cite the level-20 archdruid’s ability to shapechange an unlimited number of times, which makes them virtually invincible. But all level-20 characters have abilities that would qualify them for the Justice League.

Nonetheless, in the role of defender, Moon Druids change the balance of the game. In level-appropriate encounters, Druids never become endangered. Once a Druid learns to screen party members, they rarely feel threatened either.

Related: 5th edition D&D Druid Handbook

That’s my list. What have I missed?

A dungeon master’s guide to Glyph of Warding

From the beginning, Dungeons & Dragons has included a few spells for dungeon masters. In my last post, I cited Magic Jar as inspiration for adventure. Player characters won’t cast it, but villains might.

In today’s game, Glyph of Warding caters to DMs. PCs rarely have lairs and virtually never find them raided by murderous treasure hunters. Glyph of Warding protects lairs and treasure, so PCs don’t cast it anymore.

They used to cast it.

dungeon_adventureIn the game’s early days, PCs might rest in the dungeon and use a glyph to defend against wandering monsters. PCs might build strongholds to defend. DMs might even send thieves after the players’ treasure. Back then, many DMs thought angry players were just sore losers.

Also, older rules allowed players to misuse the glyphs. For instance, they would put evil-sensing, exploding glyphs on things like arrows, and then pose as either Green Arrow or Hawkeye, depending on favorite color. Fifth edition ends such hijinks by ruling that moving a glyph more than 10 feet breaks it.

Now the Glyph of Warding serves you, as a DM, and the villains you control.

Traditionally, glyphs appear as traps in empty crypts and on treasure hoards, but glyphs work best as defenses in combat encounters. A cunning wizard or cleric would plant glyphs in the throne rooms, arcane laboratories, and chapels where intruders might attack.

As a tool for Evil, 5E’s Glyph of Warding opens plenty of room for abuse. I could let an evil wizard advise you on how to use glyphs, but he would lead you too far. Angry players are not sore losers. Even though your villain has the means to create glyphs that would frustrate and destroy the PCs, you need to devise wards that simply challenge the party. Good games come from fun, challenging, and winnable encounters.

Triggering a glyph

For a glyph to help defend the dark lord’s lair, it must spare servants and henchman. The spell offers several options: If the lord only employs drow or undead, a glyph could spare those sorts of creatures. A master with only a few allies might award them talismans that let them pass some glyphs. Servants could be trained to avoid others.

Long before D&D grew to embrace mystery and intrigue, Gary Gygax created the Detect Evil spell. Since then, Know Alignment made getting away with murder impossible. Following Pathfinder’s lead, 5E purges all the spells and abilities that reveal alignment—except for Glyph of Warding. I suspect the designers overlooked this loophole. Unless you want a world where trials begin—and messily end—with the accused forced to walk over a glyph that blows up evil creatures, ignore the alignment trigger.

Spotting a glyph

Glyphs are nearly invisible and require a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check against the caster’s spell save DC to spot. In a combat encounter, let characters take an action to attempt to find all glyphs within, say, 5 feet.

Helpful spells

Through third edition, Glyph of Warding specified that casters could only store a “harmful” spell. This prevented casters from scribing helpful glyphs on the pages of a book, creating a collection of self-casting scrolls. Still, the word “harmful” left plenty of room for interpretation. For example, spells that unleashed negative energy could heal undead.

The fifth-editon spell drops the word “harmful.” I suspect that the designers felt the word lacked rigor, and that making glyphs immobile made non-harmful glyphs impractical to adventurers. After all, stationary glyphs can’t become self-casting scrolls. But for an evildoer defending a lair, helpful glyphs create a sort of lair action. Casters could store healing spells on the floor of their cult headquarters, each to be triggered with a step. They could lay a path over Stoneskin and Greater Invisibility glyphs. In 5E, a spell triggered by a glyph lasts its full duration, without any need for concentration. A caster could trigger a series of buffs as part of a move action, and bypass all their concentration requirements.

As an encounter designer, a helpful glyph sprung out of view just adds a power to a villain’s stat block. You admire the villain’s (your) ingenuity, but the players never see it. To be interesting, an enemy needs to trigger a helpful glyph in plain sight, perhaps after negotiation turns to combat. Imagine a foe who triggers healing glyphs just as the players think they have won the upper hand. When players realize they must immobilize their foe to win, the battle turns into an interesting, tactical puzzle.

Update: Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea noted that the fifth-edition description says the spell lets the caster “inscribe a glyph that harms other creatures,” so unless you rule that this description qualifies as flavor, then any helpful glyphs your villains use must be a unique variation on the usual glyph.

Harmful spells

Villains can also defend their lairs in a traditional way, with harmful glyphs that wreck intruders. Harmful glyphs can either trigger explosive runes or a spell that targets a single creature or an area.

Explosive runes deal about as much as any third-level spell, so they work well. However, if you put an encounter on a minefield, no one has fun. Everyone marks off the damage and vows not to move. Many of the spells you can pair with glyphs lead to livelier battles. Area-effect spells with lasting effects encourage movement. Single-target spells that blind or curse PCs will lift routine slug-outs by forcing new plans and by putting different characters in the spotlight.

Explosive runes may not appeal to evil masterminds either. Cleaning up blast damage in an arcane laboratory can be such a bother. A glyph that turns an intruder into a toad lets you gloat, and then squish. Delightful! Even lower-level spells can guard an attack route with less mess. For instance, the door and threshold to the dark chapel could trigger Darkness and Silence unless those who enter speak a short prayer. If an acolyte forgets, the glyph does no lasting damage. If intruders enter, they cannot target attacks or cast spells.

The following lists include the most dangerous or interesting spells to pair with a glyph.

Area-Effect Cleric Spells

Darkness [2nd-level Illusion] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 15-foot-radius sphere. p.230.

Silence [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.275.

Flame Strike [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Dexterity save. 10-foot-radius cylinder. p.242.

Blade Barrier [6th-level Evocation] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Dexterity save. p.218.

Fire Storm [7th-level Evocation] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Dexterity save. 10 10-foot cubes. p.242.

Area-Effect Wizard Spells

Faerie Fire [1st-level Evocation] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (Concentration duration: 1 minute) Dexterity save. 10-foot cube. p.239.

Cloud of Daggers [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) No save. Five-foot cube. p.222.

Darkness [2nd-level Illusion] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 15-foot-radius sphere. p.230.

Silence [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.275.

Web [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour) 20-foot cube. Dexterity save. p.287.

Stinking Cloud [3rd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.278.

Confusion [4th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. 10-foot-radius sphere. p.224.

Wall of Fire [4th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) p.285.

Cloudkill [5th-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Constitution save. 20-foot-radius sphere. p.222.

Wall of Force [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.285.

Wall of Stone [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.287.
Does a Wall of Stone summoned by a glyph create a permanent wall? The demolition makes this impractical for lair defense.

Wall of Ice [6th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.285.

Reverse Gravity [7th-level transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Dexterity save. 50-foot-radius cylinder. p.272.

Sunburst [8th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. 60-foot-radius. p.279.
The spell description fails to specify a cylinder or sphere.

Single-Target Cleric Spells

Blindness [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute) Constitution save. p.219.

Hold Person [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.251.
Unlike with Blindness, targets get a new save on each of their turns.

Bestow Curse [3rd-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.218.
The best single-target spell to pair with a 3rd-level glyph.

Harm [6th-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. p.249.

Single-Target Wizard Spells

Hold Person [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.251.

Levitate [2nd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Constitution save. p.255.
Targets that lack ranged attacks could be removed from battle for 10 minutes. Rules question: Will a victim rise 20 feet and stop, or keep rising?

Bestow Curse [3rd-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.218.

Blight [4th-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. p.219.

Phantasmal Killer [4th-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.265.

Polymorph [4th-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour) Wisdom save. p.266.
Turn the target into a frog or a rat for an hour. Probably the best single-target spell to pair with a glyph.

Flesh to Stone [6th-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Constitution save. p.243.

Otto’s Irresistable Dance [6th-level Enchantment] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save, but irresistable until the target takes an action to attempt to resist. p.264.

Feeblemind [8th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Intelligence save. p.238.

The evil wizard’s guide to defense against murderous treasure hunters

Every evil wizard occasional faces the threat of treasure hunters, do-gooders, and other barbarians. In order to exterminate such vermin, you must learn to defend yourself from their attacks.

kill_the_wizard

Preparation

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

Alarm is a first-level spell that lasts 8 hours. If you want to raise your minions, set an audible alarm. If you want to prepare your own welcome for the accursed intruders who dare to challenge you, set an inaudible alarm. Either way, you should ever face an attack unprepared.

Wizards will always have mage armor and other defenses that do not require concentration cast. They will probably have one active spell that requires concentration.

Cover

When some group of meddling simpletons dares to attack, always find a ready source of cover.

In fifth edition, a character can move out of cover, cast a spell, and then duck back into cover. No PC should ever gain an attack on a spellcaster unless they either readied the attack or met the caster in melee. Without cover, a fifth-edition spellcaster will die halfway through the first round, a victim of either DM carelessness or the adventure designer’s.

Allies

Many wizards seek brutish bodyguards, but your best protection comes from apprentice wizards. Students can lend their concentration to shield you in additional defenses or to lock down the battlefield. Best of all, they can do all that while remaining behind cover, out of view.

Apprentices can make players rethink the virtue of an all-out attack on an obvious leader, and such decisions make a better fight. The best encounters probably come when players face a leader protected by a mix of apprentices and brutes.

Essential defensive spells

Your essential defensive spells either last without concentration or work as a reaction.

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

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

Starting at level 1, every wizard should prepare Shield and have Mage Armor cast.

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.

Blink [3rd-level Transmutation] (V,S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

The blink spell allows you to vanish from the battlefield in between half of your turns. The blinks force attackers to switch targets or to ready attacks for the blinker’s reappearance. When you blink, use your 10 feet of Ethereal movement to thwart readied melee attacks.

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

You shroud yourself in flames that offer resistance to heat or cold, and that punish melee attackers who hit. 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. Still, you never face more than one group of foolish meddlers per day, so you can spare the spell slot.

In first-edition AD&D, Fire Shield returned twice as much damage as an attack dealt the wizard. Second edition dropped the punishment to match the damage dealt. Third edition dropped to 1d6+caster level. Fifth edition sinks to 2d8 damage, less than most monsters challenging a 7+ level wizard. I assume designers kept shrinking the damage to keep mages vulnerable to melee. With the concentration rule making wizards more vulnerable than ever, Fire Shield should dish more damage. This is a level-2 spell lost in a level-4 slot.

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

As a wizard facing a party of murderous treasure hunters, you have plenty of spells, but few actions to cast. Counterspell lets you trade another caster’s action for a reaction that you probably would not use.

Counterspell helps balance the odds for outnumbered casters, but the spell can take fun from D&D combats. When foes counter spells, players see their turns nullified. When foes get countered, fights turn into batting practice.

Disguise and misdirection

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

If your enemies waste time chasing your enforcers while you pose as a footman or food taster, you gain the upper hand. If you pose as a jester, the simple fools could even mistake your gestures and incantations for mummery.

Don’t allow villains to use this ruse often, because the game suffers when players learn to suspect every bystander is a villain or traitor.

Mislead [5th-level Illusion] (S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour)

You turn invisible and leave an image of yourself in your place. Mislead is perfect for when you want to bargain or explain how your ingenious plan will destroy all who oppose you.

Your invisibility ends if you cast a spell, but you might maintain the ruse by stepping out of view and casting spells without an obvious point of origin.

Magic Jar [6th-level Necromancy] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: Until dispelled)

Among other things, Magic Jar lets you possess some other humanoid and use it as a puppet. Either give your enemies a nasty surprise after they “win,” or possess nobles with their own guards and protectors.

Magic Jar brings enough narrative weight to become a central element of an adventure. For a good look at the spell’s inspiration, see “Spells Through The Ages – Magic Jar” at Delta’s D&D Hotspot.

Project Image [7th-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 day)

Do you like long monologues and frustrated enemies? You’ll love this spell. This upgraded version of Mislead lets you create your image in a familiar location up to 500 miles away. You still cannot cast spells from the illusion, but if you surround it with enough henchmen, then they crush your foes while you sit in comfort.

Project Image teases players and builds loathing for the villain.

Evasion

Levitation [2nd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

In addition to using levitate to rise out of reach of attackers, you can levitate unwilling foes. Also, decorate your ceiling with spikes.

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

If you DM long enough, you will accidentally pit flying PCs against earth-bound monsters, and then watch helpless monsters die to less-than-heroic bombing attacks. Fly and Levitate can make good defenses that prevent PCs from swarming. Just do not create a encounter where the wizard can remain untouchable and out of range.

Concentration defensive spells

Defensive spells that require concentration offer much less protection than in days past. Even the Globe of Invulnerability pops like a balloon when a single arrow breaks concentration. Some Invulnerability.

Foes who rely on concentration defenses should also have the War Caster feat. Advantage on concentration checks goes a long way to keeping defenses in place.

Blur [2nd-level Illusion] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

By imposing disadvantage on attackers, Blur offers a solid, low-level defense.

Protection from Energy [3rd-level Abjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour)

As soon as your foes discover your resistance, they’ll switch attacks. Concentrate on Haste instead.

This spell works better for player characters who, say, plan to attack a fire cult and expect to spend an hour battling foes wielding fire.

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

Duration aside, Haste protects much better than Protection from Energy. You gain advantage on Dexterity Saves, +2 AC, plus the extra speed and action.

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

Under Greater Invisibility, you can blast accursed do-gooders while their attacks suffer disadvantage. To evade area attacks, use Misty Step and keep the dolts guessing your location.

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. Only this rule keeps Misty Step from rating as my favorite spell.

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 attackers wielding magical weapons. Against many groups, it offers nothing.

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

The so-called Globe of Invulnerability only protects from magical attacks. Combine the globe with some no-concentration defenses, the War Caster feat, and an inaccessible perch, and it starts to live up to its name.

This edition lets Globe of Invulnerability block 5th level spells as well as spells of up to 4th level as in earlier editions. That fails to make up for the concentration requirement.

Battlefield control spells

Grease [1st-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Grease gives apprentice casters a way to slow attackers.

Cloud of Daggers [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

For fun, ready Cloud of Daggers. When attackers open your door, target the threshold.

Darkness [2nd-level Illusion] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Darkness makes everyone in its area effectively blind and invisible—a handicap to ranged and melee attackers, but little problem when you blast with area-effect spells.

Darkvision does not let you see through magical darkness.

Flaming Sphere [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

This spell can choke avenues of attack. Also, once cast, the Flaming Sphere gives a you way to attack as a bonus action while remaining invisible or disguised.

Although the text says the sphere is made of fire, you cannot pass through. Earlier editions describe the sphere’s substance as “spongy.”

Gust of Wind [2nd-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

The foolish air cultists of the Howling Hatred showed the weakness of Gust of Wind. Still, it can slow a rush. Too bad it doesn’t interfere with ranged weapons as Wind Wall does.

Silence [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Once, you could cast Silence directly on spellcasters and prevent them from casting any verbal spells for the duration. Now, you must target a point in space, so casters can move out of the effect. This spell still makes spellcasters uncomfortable, especially once your lackeys engage them in melee.

Sleet Storm [3rd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

For slowing attackers, Sleet Storm a good value for the slot. Heavy obscurement blinds and hinders ranged attacks, while the slippery, difficult terrain slows a rush to attack. You hardly need to conceal your pit traps at all.

Wall of Fire [4th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

Wall of Fire may do a bit less immediate damage than Lightning and Fireball, but it lasts, forcing your foes to move and take more damage, or stand still and take more damage. That never stops being funny.

The level 5 and 6 walls tend to prevent any attacks across the wall, so they work best with a divide-and-conquer tactic. Let the knuckle-dragging fighters rush to attack, then drop the wall to separate those clods from their allies.

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

For maximum evil, combine with Eyebite.

The spell description says that “nothing can physically pass through the Wall of Force.” Physically? D&D top-banana Mike Mearls says spells cannot pass a Wall of Force, which matches their behavior in earlier editions. Also in earlier editions, teleport, dimension door, and gaze attacks could pass.

Wall of Force often features in player schemes to automatically win every encounter by using the wall to trap monsters in a sort of killing jar. Years ago, a player told me of combining the wall with Create Water to drown monsters. Third edition stopped such shenanigans by requiring that the wall manifest on a single plane. Now, players combine walls of fire and force to trap and incinerate every monster, forcing their DM to seek help. So in a misstep, this new edition reopens the door to old DM headaches.

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

Alas, you cannot create a Wall of Stone in the air where it will fall and crush the fools who oppose you.

Wall of Stone becomes permanent after 10 minutes, so it serves both tricky players who want to seal parts of the dungeon and fantasy economists who want to put imaginary masons out of work.

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

Wall of Ice combines some of the damage dealing of Wall of Fire with a superior barrier.

Escape spells

Sometimes your enemies get lucky and force a temporary retreat. Later, you can return to crush them like insects.

Expeditious Retreat [1st-level Transmutation] (V, S) (casting time: 1 bonus action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

This spell grants the speed to outrun everyone except monks and rogues. If they dare to chase you, then make them die alone.

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

Don’t bother preparing Invisibility unless you either plan to cast it on your assassins or plan to use it as an escape. The invisibility ends when you cast a spell, and it demands concentration, so it just takes you out of the fight.

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

To escape, use Misty Step to teleport to someplace relatively inaccessible, such as a balcony or across a chasm.

Remember that characters must take bonus actions on their turns, so they cannot wink out at any moment.

Gaseous Form [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour)

Gaseous Form is only useful if you can immediately pass through a crack or keyhole.

Dimension Door [4th-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Instantaneous)

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

Teleport and Dimension Door allow near certain escape. Just allow time to cast them before a lucky blow can bring you down.

Next: A line of defense so potent that it deserves a post of its own: the Glyph of Warding.

Saving fifth-edition D&D’s evil wizards from meddling do-gooders

In more than a year of fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve pitted player characters against a lot of wizards. Often, a published adventure or one from the D&D Adventurers League offers a spellcaster as a climactic encounter. These showdowns typically follow the same script: The players target the leader and focus fire. The villain falls, often without firing a single spell.

Sometimes players relish these easy victories. For instance, in the Expeditions adventure, “The Howling Void,” players spend the adventure unraveling the sources of the villain’s power. So at my table, when the showdown proved easy, it felt like a hard-won reward.

Wizard Pinata

Wizard Pinata

More often, players anticipate a climactic battle, face a cream puff, and feel let down. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us so dungeon masters like me could let that happen.

Some encounters with wizards threaten to go the other way. I once spoke to a DM who had just run a convention adventure. His villain won initiative and launched a fireball that killed the entire party. Rather than ending the session and going for a beer, the DM rolled back time, undoing the slaughter. In the wake of the Fireball TPK, casting Grease must have been a let down. To avoid my own total party kills, I’ve held back fireballs against low-level groups, blaming the villain’s overconfidence, and hoping I could still challenge the players with Web.

Some blame for these fizzled encounters goes to habit carried from fourth edition and the practice of building encounters according to an experience-point budget.

Fifth-edition adventure designers will put spellcasters in encounters as they would in fourth edition. They pit the PCs against a single wizard who ranks several levels higher than the PCs. Fifth edition’s experience point budgets even suggest that this match makes a good fight. Not so. In the last edition, these encounters worked because the game designed arcane foes as monsters, contrived to make a fun encounter. They had defenses and hit points that enabled them to survive a few rounds of focused fire, and spells (attack powers) calibrated to damage a party without laying waste to them. In fifth edition, that wizard’s spells may be too lethal, and he is as fragile as a soap bubble in a hurricane.

To create a satisfying fight against a fifth-edition wizard, spread the experience budget. The wizard needs plenty of allies: brutes to lock down attackers and apprentices to concentrate on defenses. Plus, a wizard of more equal level won’t have spells that can nuke the party that you intend to challenge.

Let me tell you how a showdown with a fifth-edition wizard would really go. It would be a hero’s nightmare. The villain’s magical alarms would ensure that he always stands prepared. You would enter an arcane lab for the climactic battle, tripping barely-seen glyphs with every step. Those lucky enough to escape the wards’ curses, blindness, and damage would face a choice between moving and tripping additional wards, or standing still and posing an easy target for fire and lightning. Any of the people in the room could equally be servants or the mastermind himself, magically disguised. Or perhaps he stands invisible and sheltered in darkness. Unseen, he darts from cover to unleash a barrage, then weaves back into cover before you can counter. The mastermind’s apprentices lurk behind barriers, concentrating to surround him in defensive spells. You face a choice between chasing these minions to unravel their master’s protection, or charging into the teeth of his defenses. Then, if you somehow near victory, the villain blinks away, or proves to be an image or dupe.

Truly, the bards would sing of a victory against such a villain. But at your table, find a fun balance between the evil mastermind and the unprepared pinata.

If you approach a wizard’s defense too much as min-maxing players would, you can devise an encounter that would result in a total party kill. Unless tacticians fill your table—unless your players see the game as a puzzle to solve—you must hold back a bit. Good games come from fun, challenging, and winnable encounters.

Even a balanced encounter can frustrate players. Many of the Wizard’s best defenses prevent PCs from finding, reaching, or even identifying their foe. For instance, in “Empowering the War Mage,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea notes that the Blink spell can lead to frustration.

To temper frustration, and add flavor and variety, you can organize a wizard’s defense on a theme. For example an illusionist may rely heavily on misdirection to keep characters guessing. A necromancer might rely on undead servants and may also use Magic Jar to possess a proxy.

However, just as an occasional easy encounter can prove fun, an occasional dose of frustration can lead to fun. A villain who keeps thwarting attacks by teleporting away or by making PCs flail at illusions will fill players with more hatred than one who merely burns orphanages and drowns puppies. When players finally best a maddening trickster, you will see cheers and high fives around the table.

This leads me to consider ways spellcasters can challenge meddling do-gooders. In my next post, I will review the spells that can save evil masterminds from a quick thumping by murderous treasure hunters.

What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide advises dungeon masters, “You can hand out as much or as little treasure as you want.” The new Dungeons & Dragons game offers DMs the freedom to create a gritty, low-magic campaign without any “intrinsic bonuses” that fix the math. It allows legendary campaigns where parties fly like superheroes and challenge the gods. All good, but most of us want a campaign that feels like D&D. Most will seek a middle path.

lossy-page1-399px-Dokumentation,_utställningen_'Silver_och_smycken_till_vardag_och_fest'_år_2006_-_Hallwylska_museet_-_85820.tifFor this baseline, the DMG lists random treasure hoards and suggests how many hoards to award through a tier of adventure.

Obviously, you can award treasure without rolling a random hoard. I suspect most DMs prefer to imagine their own treasure parcels and to award them as they see fit. In this post, I unpack the random hoards and find the middle path behind the random tables. If you skip the hoards, but aim to match the typical treasure awards, this post provides the targets that the DMG lacks.

Q: How many treasure hoards will the PCs win?

The DMG offers this guideline: “Over the course of a typical campaign, a party finds treasure hoards amounting to seven rolls on the Challenge 0-4 table, eighteen tolls on the Challenge 5-10 table, twelve rolls on the Challenge 11-16 table, and eight rolls on the Challenge 17+ table.” (p.133)

Q: How many encounters must a PC complete to level?

At levels 1 and 2, PCs will typically complete 6 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

At level 3, PCs will typically complete 12 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

From level 4 to 9, PCs will typically complete 15 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

From level 10 to 19, PCs will typically complete 10 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

In any case, each hard encounter counts for about 1½ medium encounters. In actual play, the numbers will vary. For instance, many DMs award experience for non-combat challenges.

Throughout all tiers of play, PCs will collect 1 treasure hoard per 5 medium encounters. If you typically finish 5 encounters per play session, players get 1 hoard per session.

Q: How much gold will PCs gain over their career?

The following table shows the wealth a party will gain over their career, to be divided among the PCs. The hoard values come from averages calculated at blog of holding and Dreams in the Lich House. The value of a hoard at a tier tends to be 10 times the value of the prior tier. This fits with D&D’s tradition of steep increases in treasure. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.” All treasure values are in gold pieces.

Level Hoards at level Encounters
at level
Hoard value Gold at level Cumulative gold at start
1 1 6 376 376 0
2 1 6 376 376 376
3 2 12 376 752 751
4 3 15 376 1,128 1,504
5 3 15 4,545 13,635 2,632
6 3 15 4,545 13,635 16,267
7 3 15 4,545 13,635 29,902
8 3 15 4,545 13,635 43,537
9 3 15 4,545 13,635 57,172
10 3 17 4,545 13,635 70,807
11 2 10 36,200 72,400 84,442
12 2 10 36,200 72,400 156,842
13 2 10 36,200 72,400 229,242
14 2 10 36,200 72,400 301,642
15 2 10 36,200 72,400 374,042
16 2 10 36,200 72,400 446,442
17 2 10 336,025 672,050 518,842
18 2 10 336,025 672,050 1,190,892
19 2 10 336,025 672,050 1,862,942
20 2 336,025 672,050 2,534,992
Wealth at end of career: 3,207,042

Unlike Third- and fourth-edition, this edition offers no obvious outlet for the PCs’ wealth at higher levels. Earlier editions empowered PCs to buy magic items. PCs spent their gold on equipment that enhanced their power. The DMGs showed the wealth that PCs required to beat the monsters. Too much gold meant that PCs romped through dungeons, dropping monsters like pinatas; too little meant total-party kills. The new game sets no such requirements.

Q: How many magic items will each PC gain?

This table shows the magic items each member of a party of 4 will gain when they
score the typical number of treasure hoards. To keep pace, parties with more than 4
PCs will need to gain magic items from other sources such as more hoards, fallen enemies,
or a magic item market.

Level Consumable items Permanent items
1 1 common 1st uncommon
2 1 common
3 1 common
4 1 common
5 1 common 2nd uncommon or a 1st rare
6 1 uncommon
7 1 uncommon
8 1 uncommon 1st rare or 2nd uncommon
9 1 uncommon
10 1 uncommon
11 1 rare 2nd rare or a 1st very rare
12 1 rare
13 1 rare
14 1 rare 1st very rare or a 2nd rare
15 1 rare
16 1 very rare
17 1 very rare 1st legendary
18 1 very rare
19 1 very rare
20 1 legendary

Update: Andy Pearlman presents an exhaustive analysis of the treasure tables in this post on Magic and the Math of 5E. He concludes that PCs will claim about 5 items over the course of their career rather than the 6 listed in my table. Also, his analysis shows that +3 and other legendary items start trickling into the PCs’ hands at level 11.

This table only shows the magic PCs gain in a typical game, not the magic they require. In earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, higher-level characters required magic items that increased accuracy, which is a character’s chance of hitting. Without these accuracy enhancements, a PC could hardly hit, only flail away, hoping for a natural 20. In fifth edition, PCs can hit without magical accuracy bonuses, so they do not require magic just to play. Obviously, magic items still make PCs more powerful, but at any level, a PC without magic can contribute.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? Three principles of granting gold

Improved fifth-edition dungeon master screen and initiative tents

When the first set of fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons basic rules arrived, I created dungeon master screen inserts. I put these pages in my mini screen from Hammerdog Games. Others have attached them to screens of their own creation. As I have used my screen, I noticed that I never reference some panels, and that some questions still often lead me to the books. Based on experience, I revised my screen inserts.

Download the updated dungeon master screen inserts.

The new PDF includes all the pages in the old set, but adds some new pages, and tweaks the old pages. Choose which pages to use.

Mini dungeon master's screen on table

I never looked at my screen’s list of skills and tool proficiencies, so I replaced this panel. Instead, I added an insert for encounter building. When I improvise an encounter, I typically reference the Experience Thresholds by Character Level table. This table helps me avoid creating an easier or harder fight than I want. Also, the table offers a handy guide for awarding experience for non-combat encounters.

My screen will also lose the insert for movement types. I don’t need a whole page to tell me that slower forms of movement cost an extra foot for each foot moved.

I still wanted the table of typical difficulty classes and the jump distances, so I copied those items to a new panel. This replacement adds the effects of cover and the DCs for tracking and concentration checks.

Everyone knows you can use an action to cast or attack, right? In place of these obvious entries, the table of Actions in Combat adds rules for grappling and shoving .

Finally, my existing screen had no rules facing the players, only pictures. I yanked one of the pictures and added the table that shows experience points needed to level. I hope players stop asking me how many points they need to level up.

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

I also updated my initiative tents for fifth edition. The player tent loses the insight score and adds a place for armor class. The monster tent replaces the various defenses with the three most common saving throws. On the player-facing side, I added a big box for armor class. Sometimes, I speed combat by marking the AC where everyone can see. You can set these tents on the table or hang them atop your DM screen. For more on using the tents, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Download the initiative tents.