When I named the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, my list topped at 4th-level with the banishment spell. That list came from D&D players and dungeon masters who named the spells they find the least fun in play. Some players nominated higher-level spells, but at the time my lack of high-level play left me unsure of those picks. Four years later, 3 powerful spells that stood accused have proven annoying.
The original list revealed that fifth-edition versions of the 4 spells all added changes that turned them from forgettable to powerful—and aggravating. The 3 spells on this new list all started powerful, even among 6th- and 7th-level peers. Two of the spells’ 1st-edition descriptions start, “This powerful spell…”
If anything, these spells falter because the designers worked too hard to avoid disappointment. No player likes to cast one of their most potent spells, only to see it amount to little. Here, the designers worked so hard to avoid such bummers that they steer right into aggravation.
Animate Objects proves annoying for two reasons.
First comes sadness. In the popular imagination, magic causes brooms, tables, chairs or, best of all, statues to spring to life. That scene resonates so strongly that it appears in countless stories. Sadly, animate objects never leads to that scene. Instead, casters just use the spells to make 10 pebbles fly up and pepper a victim. Why such a dull choice? The spell description makes 10 flying coins into a far more dangerous onslaught than say, animating a wagon, Transformer like, into a huge attacker. That’s just sad. Plus, animated objects that lack legs or other appendages gain flying, a clear advantage.
The decision to make objects fly comes from a good place. The designers never want a player who prepared animate objects to be disappointed by a lack of suitable objects, so they made the most suitable target a handful of coins.
In effect, animate object rates as a more efficient telekinesis spell that robs the game of the attacking tables, statues, and fruit carts that we all want.
Those flying coins lead to the second annoyance: 10 more attack rolls every damn round. If the wizard player insists on rolling each attack and its damage separately, then the game becomes insufferable. A better spell would create an incentive to animate fewer objects.
Animate object entered D&D as a 6th-level cleric spell in the 1976 Greyhawk supplement by Gary Gygax. From Mickey Mouse, we all recognized animate objects as a wizard spell learned from a book. The 5th-edition designers spotted Gary’s error and moved the spell to its proper place. But why did Gary originally give the spell to clerics? Greyhawk introduced 6th-level cleric spells to D&D. Perhaps Gary struggled to find enough spells with a religious flavor to fill the new levels. Gary probably hoped to evoke stories of faith bringing life, turning sticks to snakes or vitalizing clay into a golem.
Clerics get few offensive spells, so animate object should have proven popular, but that early version suffered from a lack of stats for animated objects. The spell description mentions a few things DMs might consider when they improvise hit dice, armor class, movement, and damage for a sofa, but that still dropped a big burden on DMs in the middle of running a fight. Meanwhile, players hesitated to prepare a spell that only hinted at an outcome. The spell only grew popular when the third-edition Monster Manual set monster statistics for the animated objects.
I dislike spells that turn battles into murder scenes where characters beat down helpless foes. Nothing could feel less heroic. Forcecage doesn’t leave every foe helpless and vulnerable, but still, no spell generates those dreary executions as reliably. The spell’s victims don’t even get a save. In past versions of forcecage, the rare creature capable of teleporting could escape. Now, as a way to avoid disappointing players seeking their murder scene, such an escape requires a saving throw.
Whenever I gripe that some overpowered spell or feat hurts the game, some folks inevitability tell me to level the imbalance by having foes bring the same attack against the players. A little of that goes a long way, especially in a case like forcecage. As Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea notes, trapping a character in forcecage throughout a long battle might cause a player to rage-quit the game. Besides, serving players a regular diet of wizards casting forcecage seems a touch adversarial.
The original version of forcecage dates to the 1985 Unearthed Arcana book credited to Gary Gygax. That book includes some classic material among lesser entries that betray the book’s inspiration—an urgent need for cash flow. Earlier versions of forcecage consumed 1,500 gp worth of ruby dust. Ideally, the ruby dust made forcecage feel like a trap set for a powerful foe at great expense. The latest version works without the recurring expense.
Years ago, I ran a tier-3 Adventurers League epic adventure centered on a green dragon and its poison-themed allies. Like any group with a level 11 or better cleric, the party started with heroes’ feast, which grants immunity to fear and poison. No doubt through hour 1, the players relished laughing off all their foes’ attacks. By hour 4, the slaughter of toothless foes must have felt a bit empty.
Perhaps D&D’s designers imagined that the cost of components limited heroes’ feast. The spell consumes a 1,000 gp bowl. But by the time characters who earn fifth edition’s expected treasure rewards can cast 6th-level spells, they can effortlessly spare 1,000 gp for every adventuring day. So every day, the whole party enjoys immunity to poison and fear.
Mike Shea writes, “Many high challenge creatures are built around the damage they inflict with poison and the status effects they impose with both poison and fear. With every character in a party immune to these effects, certain monsters become much easier. This might be fine, but many of these monsters are intended to be truly powerful threats.” While I’m content to gripe, Mike’s post offers advice for handling the spell. Perhaps the best remedy comes from the Adventurers League, which now limits gold rewards enough to make 1,000 gp a serious cost.
Heroes’ feast works the same as when it first appeared in Unearthed Arcana, so don’t blame the spell’s problems on recent changes. Over 35 years, the spell has proven too good. Perhaps it invited a bit of tinkering, even if that risked disappointing fans of a good breakfast.
Related: What the Player’s Handbook Should Have Explained about 6 Popular D&D Spells
I wonder if the problems with Heroes Feast stems from monster design. The in 5e, the Ancient green just has his poison, claws, and fear, but in earlier versions, I believe it was more common for a dragon to pick up some spellcasting, giving them more options to deal with such cheeky adventurers.
A table of mine will be facing Elaacrimalicros, the green dragon who slaughtered a lot of Aarakocra, towards the end of their story and I’m going to be giving him some spells, just to give him a chance.
If Hero’s Feast becomes a problem at the table, it would be pretty easy for a GM to ask where the party is getting all these 1000GP bowls from. I can’t imagine that is a very common item. Even if you commissioned a bunch of them from a jeweler or gold smith, something that valuable would take time to craft. So, it would seem reasonable for them to have a few bowls available at a given time, but not enough to get through a whole dungeon/adventure.
Jerry’s got it. The chalice for a Hero’s feast should be hard to come by, craftable one at a time with some level of time commitment. It was interesting on Critical Role, during the first campaign, how reliant on those chalices the group became. I thought Matt let them off too easy on that. It should be something the characters prepare well ahead for in anticipation of a climactic encounter with the BBEG, etc. That’s my plan for it, anyway. Characters are still level 7, so I have some time to prepare 🙂
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Wot no Simulacrum? 🙂
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One of the things I’ve started implementing as DM is requiring every spell component with a gp cost to be bought in-game. The real problem is when players cast Heroes’ Feast and use 1,000 gp as the material component, not a jewel-encrusted bowl worth 1,000 gp. They need to have that component in their inventory ahead of time, and I make objects like those scarce. Maybe they find one in a tomb or receive it as a reward from a ki-rin, but I do not allow them to just straight up transform cash into whatever they want.
“seems a touch adversarial.”
And it’s the main problem you youths have in a nutshell! %))
As for Heroes’ Feast, iirc, old editions had it with quite a long casting time – another balance feature that current edition sadly lacks – and what’s worse, nothing was implemented to replace it in bablancing many spells. mind, 5e is still better than 3e in this regard… ;))