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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.

D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

Many Dungeons & Dragons players love animal companions for their characters, but the game’s fifth edition suffers uneven support for the archetype. Only specific character builds gain access to pets, and creating a character with an effective companion often requires a deep understanding of the game. For instance, of all the game’s class archetypes, the Beast Master ranger earns the most criticism for being too weak. To make beast masters able to hold their own, players must make some canny choices. More on that at the end.

The best route to an animal companion depends on what you want your companion to do. The more capable the pet, the more limited your options. A friendly mascot for your adventuring party hardly requires anything, but a pet capable of battling alongside a higher-level character confines you to just a few character options.

Ask yourself what you want from your pet. This post tells how to find the right creature companion.

For a friend or mascot, befriend and train a creature. In a tweet, D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford writes, “Want your D&D character to have a pet or companion? Here’s a little secret: You don’t need special rules for this. Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy, as long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”

Dungeon masters: When players encounter hostile animals, the characters may try to make friends instead of fighting. Players love turning an angry beast into a mascot or companion to the party. Players attracted to this strategy love seeing it succeed. Treat the creature as a non-player character. As with any tag-along character, the best such animal companions prove useful, but never overshadow characters.

For a horse or similar mount, play a paladin. At level 5, paladins gain the ability to cast Find Steed which summons a spirit that takes the shape of a horse or similar mount. At level 9, Find Greater Steed brings a flying steed such as a Griffin. This mount lasts until you dismiss it or until it drops to 0 hit points. You and your mount can communicate telepathically.

The Find Steed spells share a feature and flaw with many of D&D’s pets. Rather than gaining a live companion worthy of an emotional attachment, the spell brings a spirit. The spiritual steeds boast the intelligence of Maximus, the determined horse in Tangled, but I wish for personality to match too.

In an interview, D&D Designer Mike Mearls said, “Some people really like the feeling that a companion animal is a flesh and blood creature, but there are a lot of advantages to presenting it as a spirit companion or something similar.” In fifth edition, the designers mainly chose the advantages of spirit companions.

Still, nothing says your spirit mount can’t show personality. Perhaps particularly brave and true horses serve in the afterlife as a paladin’s steed. Now I want to play a paladin who struggles with temptation paired with a horse whose spirit mission includes dragging my hero out of the tavern before he has one too many.

For a scout, helpful distraction, or spell conduit, learn Find Familiar. I’ve seen enough familiars in play to witness their utility, but before researching this post, I still underestimated their power. For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, Wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players made better use of familiars, the spell would count as broken.

Find Familiar lets you summon a spirit animal in a variety of forms: bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish, rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Just about every animated sidekick matches something on the list of familiars. Want to play like an animated Disney hero with a wise or comical critter for a companion? Sadly, familiars can’t talk. The designers really missed an opportunity here. Even players who claim they can’t do voices can do a toad voice. It’s so fun.

Still, your sidekick can help. Try these uses:

  • Use your flying, creeping, or swimming critter to scout, while you watch through its eyes. My players used a familiar to explore five levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods while the party stood safely in the first hall. Doors stopped the creature, but so much of that dungeon stands open.

  • Use your flying familiar to perform the Help action on the battlefield, giving allies advantage on attack rolls. Eventually, an annoyed monster will smack down your bird, but that’s one less attack on friends, which may save a 50 gp healing potion. Re-summoning the familiar costs 10 gold, which counts as money well spent.

  • Use your flying familiar to target touch spells from a distance. For clerics who heal through touch, gaining a flying familiar might justify the cost of a feat. Play a grave cleric with a raven familiar.

  • Use your familiar to channel damaging spells like Dragon’s Breath. Familiars can’t attack, but with help, your little toad can spew acid in a 15-foot cone.

To gain a familiar, select one of these options:

  • Wizard: Learn Find Familiar
  • Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Chain
  • Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Tome and the Book of Ancient Secrets invocation. You get two level 1 rituals, plus the ability to inscribe any class ritual.
  • Bard: Choose the Lore archetype and use the Magical Secrets feature to learn the Find Familiar spell at 6th level. Or at level 10, any bard can use Magical Secrets to learn the spell.
  • Any Class: Take the Magic Initiate feat to get a 1st-level spell.
  • Any Class: Take the Ritual Caster feat to get any ritual spells.

For a more dangerous familiar, play a Pact of the Chain warlock. Warlocks who opt for the Pact of the Chain can choose an imp, pseudodragon, quasit, or sprite as a familiar. These hardly count as animal companions. But unlike animal familiars, these creatures can attack—although after level 9 their bites and stings and tiny arrows amount to little. All these creatures fly and most turn invisible, so they make particularly good spies and spell conduits.

For an unusual mount, play a Beast Master ranger and a small character. Neither a familiar nor a paladin’s steed count as true animals. For a flesh and blood animal companion, opt for the Beast Master ranger archetype.

A small beast master such as a halfling or gnome can ride their medium animal companion as a mount. Ride a wolf for its pack tactics, 40-foot speed, and cool factor. Ride a giant wolf spider for its climb speed, poison bite, and creep factor. Ride a giant poisonous snake for its brazenly phallic implications.

For a partner in battle, play a Beast Master ranger and a creepy, crawly beast. Beast masters’ animal companions earn a reputation for weakness. At level 3, when the companion arrives, the poor beast has merely adequate hit points. As the party levels, the creature will have fewer hit points and worse AC than the wizard, despite having to fight in melee. Meanwhile, the wizard’s familiar makes a better scout.

The Beast Companion class description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillon says that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4. If you want such a pet, follow Jeremy Crawford’s suggestion and train a creature to be your friend. Or spend a feat learning Find Familiar.

Unfortunately, warm, fuzzy, charismatic beasts like lions, tigers, and bears have size and challenge ratings that disqualify them as animal companions. If you want a furry friend, wolves rank as decent and panthers as adequate. But the very best companions make some folks say ick. For a pet that makes an able battle partner, choose one of these options:

  • A flying snake offers a 60-foot fly speed, flyby attack, and poison damage.
  • A giant crab brings decent AC, Blindsight 30 ft., grappling, and a swim speed. Plus, I understand such companions perform calypso-flavored musical numbers.
  • A giant wolf spider boasts Blindsight 10 ft., a climb speed, and poison.
  • A giant poisonous snake offers Blindsight 10 ft., a swim speed, and poison.

Dungeon masters: As special non-player characters, allow rangers’ animal companions to fall unconscious and roll death saving throws when reduced to 0 hit points.

With the D&D rules as written, animal companions lack the armor proficiency required to wear barding without suffering disadvantage on attacks, checks, and saves. Nonetheless, I doubt allowing a few extra points of AC breaks anything. Besides, cats in armor look adorable.

Four Ways the New D&D Adventurers League Rules Reshape the Campaign, and One Way They Don’t

The new Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League campaign rules change treasure from a prize for looting to an award for the real hours players spend pursuing an adventure’s goal. This change aims to reward more styles of play, to balance the power characters gain from magic items, and to offer players a better choice of items. While the new rules promise improvements, they reshape the campaign in unexpected ways.

1. Treasure does much less to drive exploration and tempt characters to take risks.

D&D started as a game where characters plundered dungeons and kept score in gold. The rules awarded as much of 80% of experience points for gold, so no one missed the game’s point. Tomb of Horrors stands as co-creator Gary Gygax’s earliest dungeon to reach print, and its villain has no grand plot, just a knack for killing grave robbers. In Gary Gygax’s home games, his players beat the tomb by snatching the treasure while ignoring the demi-lich.

Modern D&D adventures still use treasure to tempt and motivate players. Recently, my players in the Tomb of Annihilation landed in a classic Dungeons & Dragons situation: They entered a room with a deadly monster and heaps of treasure. The monster caught them unprepared, so they fled, and then they debated whether the treasure merited the risk of battle.

Does this predicament still have a place in the D&D Adventurers League?

Single-session League adventures usually rely on loot as a symbolic motivation for players. In the first scene, a patron might offer a reward, but also a job that does good. To finish within a set time, these adventures avoid treasure-hunting tangents. Authors contrive these adventures so a well-behaved do-gooder will win as much treasure as grave robbers and thieves. I have never played or run a single-session League adventure where players lost treasure because they failed to find it or failed to slay a monster. The new rules for treasure awards won’t change how these scenarios play.

The hardcover adventures stay closer to D&D’s tradition: Treasure drives exploration and tempts characters to take the risks that make D&D exciting. The new League rules for treasure undermine some of the rewards that propel these adventures. Characters probably won’t choose to risk a battle for a promise of gold.

To be fair, the new rules offer a sliver of motivation for grave robbers and treasure hunters. Characters who find a magic item don’t just keep it, but they do unlock the ability to spend treasure points for the item.

Still, few players will feel lured to a risky fight by treasure, and I’ll miss that predicament. On the other hand, my players spent hours looting the seemingly endless crypts under Castle Ravenloft. I won’t miss another grind like that.

The flavor of treasure points takes some adjustment. In my mind’s eye, heroes open a chest and a golden glow lights their faces as they look down in wonder at a treasure point.

2. Tables will stop fighting for imaginary items.

By the old League rules, players seeking the best magic items worked to take as few magic items as possible. A low count of items meant your character could claim an adventure’s permanent item. It also might mean that another character particularly suited to the item lost it. In a way, this made sense. In the imaginary world of the game session, only one wand exists. By delivering only one wand each time an adventure runs, the campaign imposes some scarcity. But the League’s campaign world might include thousands of the same item. A character who claimed a “unique” wand might spend their next adventure with 2 other characters wielding the same wand.

Why should a particular character be denied the item just because another character who happens to play at the same table wants the item too? The new League rules still impose scarcity, but not in a way that capriciously denies some characters the magic items they want.

3. Scarce gold imposes tight limits on healing potions, spellbooks, and material components.

In most D&D campaigns, characters get tons of gold, but have nowhere to spend it. That applies to fifth-edition games that award hoards by the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and to the first 7 seasons of the League. All that gold meant characters could easily afford enough healing potions to enter every fight a full health. From level 11 up, parties with a cleric would always split the 1000 gp cost for Heroes’ Feast and laughed at poison and fear effects—and at assassins, yuan-ti, and green dragons. Power-hungry, teen-level wizards brought simulacrums and, in one case, soured an adventure by winning D&D for me. Of all the classes, only wizards might run short of gold. They bore the cost of adding spells to their books. At conventions, when wizard players shared a table, they snapped photos of each others spell lists, and then spend gold and downtime to share spells. Avid wizards collected every spell.

By delivering a fraction of the gold to players, the new League rules rebalance the campaign’s economy. Level 11 through 16 characters who sink all their gold into healing potions can still only afford 11 per level. Simulacrums come at a cost few will pay. Heroes’ Feast becomes a luxury rather than an automatic buff.

The limitations tax wizards most. Forget collecting all the spells; now you face difficult choices. Eleventh-level wizards can add Contingency to their spell books, but even if they save every gold piece, they can’t afford the material component until level 12.

Meanwhile, in a campaign without gold for unlimited healing potions, Healing Spirit now stands as the key to starting every encounter at full health.

4. Characters don’t get magic weapons until level 5.

By the old League rules, a party of new characters will probably find a permanent magic item during their first adventure. By the time the party reaches level five, about half the group will own a magic item. By the new rules, only characters who opt for colorful trinkets like a Bag of Holding will gain permanent items in levels 1 through 4. Characters who rely on weapon attacks will save their points and, at level 5, buy the most useful item: a +1 weapon.

This changes how monsters resistant or immune to non-magical weapon attacks play. For instance, wererats make a popular foe in low-level urban adventures. They boast immunity to non-magic weapons that aren’t silvered. With scarce gold, few characters will lavish 100 gp on a silvered weapon. So until level 5, only spellcasters can hurt a humble wererat. Then, at level 5, everyone grabs a magic weapon and the immunity becomes meaningless. In the new League, resistance to non-magical attacks becomes impotent at level 5. I miss the grades of resistance in third edition.

5. Most characters will select distinctive sets of magic items.

Just like with the old campaign rules, players intent on optimizing their characters will seek adventures that unlock choice items. Every bard will still play that adventure that unlocks the Instrument of the Bards. Now, an all-bard party can play and everyone gets one! I’ll pass on that table, but I will watch that session’s movie version. In my imagination, it’s the D&D movie staring Fred, Ginger, Gene, and a tone-deaf actress voiced by Marni Nixon.

Beyond optimizers, most characters will still carry a unique mix of magic items.

For one, characters of the same type will tend to play different mixes of adventures, unlocking different sets of magic. Few items prove as compelling to a class as that violin for bards.

Also, the point costs encourage variety. A character will earn 48 treasure points advancing through tier 2, levels 5-10. By rule, those points must be spent on items available to a tier 2 character. Some characters may select three uncommon, 16-point items from table F. Others might choose rare items from table G for 20 points, and then have points remaining for curios and wonders. They could choose 2 rares and an irresistible item like an Alchemy Jug or an Immovable Rod. I expect many players to select items that catch their fancy or fit their character’s personality. The hardcover adventures even include unusual, permanent items available for just 2 treasure points.

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 must D&D spellcasters do with their hands?

In my last post, I discussed how expanding options and shrinking rounds turned what Dungeons & Dragons characters had in hand into something that mattered. I showed a mindset that avoids making gear in hand into a distraction at the table, but I dodged the area of the fifth-edition rules that leads to the most questions. What must a spellcaster have in hand to cast spells?

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, no one worried what magic users could do with their hands. That changed when someone captured an enemy mage—or was captured themselves. Now players wondered if their imprisoned magic user could still cast. The 1977 Basic Set gave an official answer: A magic user “can then throw the spell by saying the magic words and making gestures with his hands. This means that a magic-user bound and gagged can not use his magic.”  The set credits Eric Holmes as editor, but the rules came from Gary Gygax and previewed things to come in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

The Compleat Enchanter

The Compleat Enchanter

By requiring wizards to speak and gesture, D&D enabled plots involving captive and helpless wizards, but Gary elected to go further. In The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt, a character explains, “The normal spell consists of several components, which may be termed the verbal, somatic and material.” Even though material components seldom affected play, Gary added them, probably because he relished inventing witty spell components. For example, the Fireball spell requires bat guano because guano once served as a source of saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder. Aside from tickling Gary’s fancy, material components only occasional saw play, and then only as a story device. For example, the second-edition Dark Sun setting turned material components into one of many resources players struggled to find in a resource-poor world.

By fourth-edition, material components only applied to rituals, and then only as a means to cap ritual use by attaching a gold cost.  Of all the new changes that sparked protests, no one seemed to morn the loss of material components. Even the most hidebound players happily continued to ignore material components. Nonetheless, as a nod to tradition, fifth edition included material components. Many casters will opt to substitute a spellcasting focus instead.

Class Spellcasting alternative to material components
Bard Musical instrument (Player’s Handbook p.53)
Cleric Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.
Druid Druidic focus (PH p.151). May be a staff, which doubles as a quarterstaff weapon.
Fighter – Eldritch Knight Arcane focus (PH p.151).
Paladin Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.
Ranger No focus, so Rangers require material components to cast.
Rogue – Arcane Trickster Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Sorcerer Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Warlock Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Wizard Arcane focus (PH p.151)

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ignored the issue of how dual-wielding rangers and multiclassed elves could access material components while fighting with sword and shield. The game used minute-long combat rounds, and a first-level spell only took 6 seconds to cast, leaving plenty of extra time to gather components, repack a bag, and savor a juice box before the start of the next round.  The second-edition Player’s Handbook grants even more wiggle room. “The caster must…have both arms free.” Not hands, arms. It’s all in the wrists.

Players imagine a round as an exchange of blows, making the 1-minute round seem ludicrously long. So in third-edition, the round shrank to a mere six seconds. This seemed more plausible, but suddenly players needed to account for time needed to switch weapons and to being spell components to hand. Mialee, third edition’s iconic elf wizard, wore practical garb covered with pockets for easy access to spell components. (Plus, the midriff-baring outfit can be worn throughout pregnancy.) As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action. In practice, few players paid much attention to what their characters held, with no more concern to freeing hands for spell gestures and components than in 1974.

Next: Lawful DM and Chaotic DM answer questions about spellcasting and free hands