October 16, 2020 11 min read 3 Comments
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 against them.
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.
Header art by Tithi Luadthong / shutterstock.com
August 22, 2021
Great list! Particularly useful if you’re writing a mystery adventure! Thanks for compiling this!
Seems with Clairvoyance, there’s no reason why an amazing clue would be revealed in the 10 minutes the PC cast it… offering DMs flexibility. They can give something away or not. Maybe the meeting the player is trying to spy on hasn’t started yet, is in recession or has finished!
Speak with dead doesn’t work twice within a 10 day period… ergo, murderer casts it on the victim and they have 10 days to make their getaway!
July 09, 2021
Arcanist’s Magic Aura is Nystul’s Magic Aura.
Like Bigby and Tasha the spell becomes difficult to find when you don’t mention which arcanist.
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September 12, 2021
What about Sending?
Speedy Courier doesn’t have a reply function and can be easily observed by anyone nearby the recipent