by Kelsey Dionne 11 min read

Have you ever had a spell completely derail your entire D&D adventure?

I've heard a few horror stories, including one where a druid used speak with animals and a few pointed questions to uncover the adventure's surprise villain within the first ten minutes.

Or the time Taliesin Jaffe's character in Critical Role managed to sideline an entire naval battle with a good roll on a control water spell.

These moments of unexpected triumph can be incredibly fun for the players, but they can catch even the most experienced Dungeon Masters off guard. So what can DMs and adventure writers do about all these terrifying spells? There are a few things!

While you won't always be able to predict what spells the players will leverage (even Matt Mercer gets hit by this sometimes), you can minimize nasty surprises by digging into the spell lists and hunting for "problem spells."

A great place to start is the divination and enchantment spell lists. Those can have a big impact on mysteries and influencing NPCs. A few examples include zone of truth, speak with animals, and charm person.

You'll also want to watch out for spells that can trivialize the adventuring environment, such as dimension door or scrying + teleport.

Below is a list of spells, sorted by category, that you want to bear in mind while writing or running a D&D adventure.

Remember that you don’t want to outright foil or negate these spells — just consider how you’d respond to them if the players used them. Build your encounters around these spells rather than againstthem.

The purple spells are ones that have an outsized impact at their level bracket. Most of the spells here are “corner cases,” but you’ll want to keep the purple ones in mind at all times.

These spells that cover all sorts of circumstances. Use the list as a reference, but don't feel you have to memorize or live in fear of everything listed in it. The point is to avoid being caught by surprise or writing yourself into an easily defeated corner by something like dispel magic.

Now, with these spells, the idea isn't to figure out how to foil each and every one. You want the characters to be able to use the spells they've earned. But if you sit down to write and realize the fly spell might be an easy button for your adventure, you can design encounters that benefit from fly and others that don't.

Give the players opportunities use these spells; tempt them with expending all their 4th-level spell slots to dimension door through one room, only to find the boss battle could have benefitted from a 4th-level spell, too.

Finally, try not to hinge an entire adventure on a single spell or magic item. For example, if the main villain maintains her cover for most of the adventure with a hat of disguise, even low-level characters have multiple ways to neutralize that, possibly without even realizing (how many rogues can resist stealing a cool hat?).

This season's latest trend: hats stolen from NPCs.

And when the unexpected does happen — a player bombs an entire encounter or adventure with one well-placed spell — go with it and celebrate that player's creativity. You'll notice in the above video that even though Matt Mercer had invested a ton of energy into prepping his naval battle, he didn't pull the rug out from under the players when they derailed it. He embraced their brilliant move with a laugh and an "onward" attitude.

And next time, that same spell won't catch him off-guard.

MOVEMENT

  • Alter self, level 2:An excellent solution to underwater movement. Can also disguise the PC during NPC interactions.
  • Knock, level 2: Mundane locks are not a strong barrier, even for low-level characters.
  • Misty step, level 2:A way to circumvent barriers like pits, rivers, and jail cells.
  • Fly, level 3:Any adventures of 5th-level or higher must assume the characters can fly.
  • Gaseous form, level 3:Most constructed physical barriers, such as doors and wooden or cracked stone walls, can be circumvented with this spell.
  • Thunder step, level 3: Similar to misty step, but with a greater teleportation range. Sacrifices stealth.
  • Water breathing, level 3: This spell opens up a massive world of underwater exploration for the entire party.
  • Dimension door, level 4: A lucky directional guess can teleport up to two PCs far into a location. Splitting the party is not always a great idea, though.
  • Freedom of movement, level 4: Allows underwater movement or automatic escape from nonmagical restraints.
  • Passwall, level 5: A lot easier than having hirelings excavate a tunnel through a dungeon wall.
  • Teleportation circle, level 5: This spell opens up a lot of distant travel, although it must be to another teleportation circle on the same plane.
  • Arcane gate, level 6: A fast way for an entire party to skip a dungeon room if there is an unobstructed line of sight.
  • Find the path, level 6: A limiting factor is the caster must be familiar with a location. When combined with a lucky scryingattempt, this spell can become a direct beeline through a dungeon — so design dungeons with that in mind. Also, most high-level villains are prepared to counteract scrying, which diminishes this spell’s potential.
  • Transport via plants, level 6: If the caster has touched a far-away plant, this opens up the same possibilities as teleportation circle.
  • Wind walk, level 6: Another powerful overland movement spell. An entire party can fly 600 feet per round over the course of 8 hours, covering up to 545 miles.
  • Etherealness, level 7: This spell trivializes all physical barriers, allowing an entire party to move at will through space over 8 hours. To counteract this, high-level dungeons need monsters, barriers, or effects that extend into the Ethereal Plane.
  • Plane shift, level 7:Planar travel is now possible. This spell can take an entire party to a general location or teleportation circle on another plane.
  • Teleport, level 7:Level 7 spells open up travel in many ways. Combined with scrying, this spell can take characters to most places on the same plane not protected against such a combo.
  • Gate, level 9:Precise extraplanar travel, including teleporting directly to the location of a named being.

NPC INTERACTION

  • Charm person, level 1:Hostile or uncooperative NPCs fall like trees to this one. Remember that the NPC only regards the caster as its friend, not necessarily the rest of the group. It also retains its common sense and judgement — the caster becomes a friendly acquaintance, not a best friend.
  • Comprehend languages, level 1: Languages do not make good information barriers even to low-level characters.
  • Disguise self, level 1: NPCs who rely on this spell will be quickly outed with detect magic, true seeing, or otherwise. PCs who use it can often get away with limited false identities, but they don’t stand up long to conversations or physical inspection.
  • Calm emotions, level 2: This spell’s effects are short-term and concentration-dependent. Also, an indifferent attitude does not make any NPCs overly helpful.
  • Detect thoughts, level 2: The target is aware of magical intrusion into its thoughts and may not be happy about that. Moving outside the spell’s 30-foot range ends the effects. The target has at least one round of benign surface thoughts before the caster can probe more deeply.
  • Suggestion, level 2: NPCs can be thrown off their normal behavior for a while with this one. The suggested action has to be reasonable, and completing it is the best way to end the spell. NPCs can seek the help of others to expedite their task.
  • Zone of truth, level 2:The NPC is aware of the spell and is not compelled to answer any questions. The NPC can answer with partial truths, omitting certain details, and can leave the 15-foot radius of the spell to escape its effects.
  • Fast friends, level 3: A more aggressive version of suggestion. The NPC becomes friendly, but the spell’s duration is shorter, and the NPC can make another save if the action it’s taking is directly harmful or against its wishes.
  • Charm monster, level 4: Similar to charm person, but it can target creatures. The creatures are only friendly to the caster.
  • Galder’s Speedy Courier, level 4: Information can now move across dimensions at the speed of thought.
  • Polymorph, level 4: NPCs can use this to assume deceptive forms, but it’s vulnerable to low-level detection and negation spells. Note this can also have movement-affecting ramifications for the PCs, granting flight or powerful creature abilities.
  • Dominate person, level 5:Because of this spell’s potentially long duration, powerful NPCs (especially royalty) have a contingency plan for this spell, such as court wizards with counterspell or dispel magic queued up.
  • Geas, level 5: Similar to dominate person, most powerful NPCs have contingencies such as remove curse to prevent being slapped with an annoying, 30-day quest.
  • Modify memory, level 5: NPCs are more likely to use this to hide critical information than PCs, but it’s also limited to a 10-minute memory and is easily defeated by remove curse. PCs can also use it to plant limited, false information in NPCs’ minds.
  • Seeming, level 5: Similar to disguise self, but it can affect an entire adventuring party.
  • Mass suggestion, level 6: The same concerns as suggestion, but on a larger and longer scale. High-level PCs might use this to divert large groups of low-level guards or NPCs — probably better than massacring them, instead. Most powerful NPCs have contingencies for suggestion-type spells.
  • Dominate monster, level 8: Like dominate person, most powerful NPCs have contingencies against this spell. Creatures with legendary saves definitely reserve one for this spell due to its long duration.
  • Feeblemind, level 8: An incredibly destructive spell on most intelligent beings. Legendary saves, counterspell,and greater restorationare held in reserve for this one.

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ENVIRONMENT-AFFECTING

  • Pass without trace, level 2: Makes the caster hard to track by conventional means.
  • Control water, level 4: Ships beware of this powerful spell. They have a flat 25% chance of capsizing if hit by the flood (wave) effect, and the waves repeat every round over the 10-minute duration of the spell, all but guaranteeing a sunken ship. The best thing for ships to do is remain outside the 300-foot range of the spell.
  • Mirage arcane, level 7:As with many high-level spells, this one can create serious impediments to overland travel. This is mostly an issue for lower-power creatures or NPCs who travel by nonmagical means.
  • Control weather, level 8:This spell can once again cause trouble for those who travel by non-magical means.

INFORMATION GATHERING

  • Detect evil and good, level 1: If the main villain is an undead or outsider disguising itself as a normal NPC, this spell will be a “dead” giveaway.
  • Detect magic, level 1:NPCs using magic items or illusion spells on themselves can easily become the target of much suspicion.
  • Speak with animals, level 1: Animals who see the entire backstory plot go down can become liabilities with this spell. Their Intelligence score remains the same — deep analysis and prefect recall are not likely. They also do not see the world the way humanoids do; their observations can be far out of proportion or focused on their own interests.
  • Augury, level 2: Don’t let this spell intimidate you. The answers of weal, woe, etc. can be vague and subjective.
  • Beast sense, level 2: Animals make great spies. Hopefully the suspected villain doesn’t make evil plots out in the open where birds and squirrels frolic.
  • Locate object,level 2:Note that the caster must be familiar with the named object.
  • Clairvoyance, level 3: Characters can spy from afar on lots of locations. This can be a great way to deliver story clues. Most intelligent villains also know they can be spied upon in this way.
  • Speak with dead, level 3:Dead NPCs can foil mysteries quickly. NPCs do not necessarily have perfect knowledge of events they witnessed, and many villains operate knowing this spell can be used against them. For example, the victim of an adept assassin likely will not have seen their attacker.
  • Speak with plants, level 3: Similar to speak with animals, plants are not highly intelligent, observant, nor capable of deep analysis. They also do not filter information in a humanoid way, instead focusing on weather, earth tremors, animal foragers, and other plantly concerns.
  • Arcane eye, level 4:Similar to clairvoyance, although a larger range given enough time. It can move 300 feet a minute and has a total range of 18,000 feet, or 3.4 miles.
  • Divination, level 4:Similar to augury, but a more helpful answer direct from a god. All gods speak truthfully, but also from their own opinion. They can’t predict the future. Evil gods are more likely to be cryptic and will omit information if the wording of the question has holes. Good gods may also be cryptic or too vast in their scope, failing to advise from a mortal perspective.
  • Locate creature, level 4:The caster must be familiar with the creature. The creature must be within 1,000 feet (a fifth of a mile) and not past running water larger than a stream.
  • Awaken, level 5: A permanent, intelligent plant ally that avoids some of the limitations of speak with plants.
  • Commune, level 5: Similar to divination, although the caster can ask three questions instead of one.
  • Commune with nature, level 5:A way to track down powerful undead or extraplanar villains while they’re in nature. Vulnerable to much lower-level negation spells such as arcanist’s magic auraor nondetection.
  • Contact other plane, level 5: Very similar to augury, but five questions instead of one.
  • Legend lore, level 5:Much like divination, the answers are often cryptic and vast in scope. The spell only functions for questions about legendary people, places, or objects.
  • Scrying, level 5:The ultimate info spell. Most mid-to-high level villains are aware of it and employ lower-level negation magic, such as nondetection, to counter it. That said, don’t foil this spell every time. Not all villains have the resourcefulness or awareness to counteract divination magic. Some villains also invite scrying to spread misinformation.
  • True seeing, level 6:A way to detect hidden or disguised villains, scrying sensors, or secret doors (even those hidden by magic).

NEGATION

  • Arcanist’s magic aura, level 2: Magical or well-prepared NPCs can leverage this to avoid detection spells. Just don’t overuse it.
  • Counterspell,level 3:An intelligent, magical villain who is relying on a ritual or critical spell will be prepared for this one, possibly with a counterspell of their own.
  • Dispel magic, level 3:Long-duration spell effects, magical barriers, and illusions fall to dispel magic. Assume 5th-level or higher casters will use it with impunity against suspicious NPCs or magical effects.
  • Nondetection, level 3:NPCs can leverage this spell to hide from detection magic. Most mid-to-high-level spellcasters use this spell to defeat scrying, clairvoyance, or other magical spying.
  • Remove curse, level 3: An excellent way for NPCs to remove the irksome effects of higher-level spells such as geas.
  • Forbiddance, level 6: The ultimate counter to teleportand gate. This spell feels like a “gotcha" designed for villains to abuse, so don’t do that. That said, PCs love casting this spell on their own strongholds.
  • Guards and wards, level 6: Similar to forbiddance, this spell is ripe for cries of “DM fiat!” And for fair reason — it’s not a ton of fun to go up against. The effects it creates are low-level nuisances that just annoy parties who are powerful enough to tangle with spellcasters wielding 6th-level spell slots. Consider eschewing this spell and creating custom challenges for your villains’ lairs.
  • Resurrection, level 7: This spell trivializes death in most cases. Most parties can now recover from all but a TPK.
  • Sequester, level 7:Powerful villains can use this spell to go into scrying-proof suspended animation while their plans come to fruition.
  • Antimagic field, level 8:Characters and villains alike use this spell to foil magical effects, items, travel, and otherwise. Only spells with a duration longer than instant can be nullified by antimagic field.
  • Clone, level 8: A common deterrent for permanent death. Villain spellcasters likely have a clone or two, if possible.
  • Mind blank, level 8: One of the best deterrents against divination magic. Serious villains cast this spell when the characters have access to wish and/or nondetection wouldn't suffice.
  • Imprisonment, level 9: A way to permanently put a PC or NPC into divination-proof suspended animation. With a 1-minute casting time, most villains do everything within those 10 rounds to avoid this spell.
  • True resurrection, level 9: An even better version of resurrection that can get around corner cases such as death by disintegrate.
  • Wish, level 9: It can function as any other spell, plus a variety of custom effects.

Header art by Tithi Luadthong / shutterstock.com



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