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Author Topic: Under The Hood: Ten Most Problematic Spells in D&D 5e  (Read 54016 times)

BedrockBrendan

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Under The Hood: Ten Most Problematic Spells in D&D 5e
« on: August 07, 2016, 03:19:40 PM »
By Rick Moscatello

     
There is much to like about the magic system of Dungeons and Dragons 5e. Many of the magic spells have been around for decades and are well play-tested. However, the simple fact is there are well over a hundred pages of spells, and there’s no way to playtest how all those spells will work at all the tables at which the latest edition of D&D is being played.
     
Cantrips in particular represent the biggest change in 5e. While before, cantrips were generally limited effectiveness spells, now cantrips are all infinite use with wide-ranging abilities that, most importantly, increase in power with level. A cantrip from even a middling level spellcaster can devastate a monster as easily as a blow from a mundane weapon from a skilled warrior, and their infinite use as combat attacks frees up most other spell slots for reality-bending utility.
       
I’m just going to focus on the lower-level spells—D&D has never run smoothly at high level, and there have always been ridiculous hijinks possible with spells like wish. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the most puzzling spells in this edition:

10) warding bond. While there are a number of “why would anyone use this?” spells in the game, this one is particularly confounding. The whole “cleric protects you by taking your damage onto himself” is a good theme to have, but Warding Bond has all sorts of issues. What happens if the party is affected by dragon breath or other area effect? That’s right, the cleric ends up taking 50% more damage, quite possibly dying from casting this spell. Even worse, every time the protected character takes damage, the cleric taking damage will trigger a Concentration check, meaning the spell probably won’t last long if you cast it on a character going into danger…the whole point of the spell! The short range of 60’ means trying to use this spell successfully is far too difficult for the theoretical benefit.

Suggested fixes: Remove the range restriction, limit duration to 10 minutes, and damage given by this spell doesn’t trigger Concentration checks.

9) hold person. This spell received a major beating from the nerf-bat in 5e. Not only is the duration reduced, area of effect reduced (one person), and the duration reduced some more (saving throw every round), it’s a Concentration spell as well. Yes, this spell is amazingly effective, but giving the target a saving throw every round is good enough, no need to cut into the cleric’s very limited ability to concentrate as well.

Suggested fix: The spell no longer requires Concentration.

8) mending. If cantrips are now going to be go-to spells in combat, then they probably shouldn’t also have wide utility. Mending doesn’t break the game, but it does let you fix any object (it fixes “a single tear,” but you can cast it infinite times). Thus, the world of 5e probably doesn’t have cobblers, smiths, tailors, and such in nearly the numbers one might guess. A single spellcaster with this cantrip can serve all these functions with perfect reliability and incredible speed, somewhat warping the world.

Suggested fix: an item can only be targeted by this spell one time.

7) polymorph. It’s probably not fair to list this as a problematic spell for 5e, because it’s always been problematic in D&D. The real problem here is it’s easy to cast this on a friend. Older editions prevented the “cast it on friend” issue by including a real chance of death, but there’s nothing like that in 5e. Anyway, this basically lets you turn a friendly creature into a tyrannosaurus rex, which reverts to normal form (in perfect condition!) when the t-rex is finally killed. After that, the fight can actually begin. This, of course, is in addition to the utility you can get by assuming the form of any other creature, if you want to use the spell outside of combat.

Suggested fix: The spell can only target hostile creatures.


6) arcane eye. This spell has been around since older editions, but for some reason 5e decided to increase the duration to a mind-boggling 1 hour. This means the spell lasts long enough to map out a dungeon level per casting, a rather strong ability for a 7th level character. A party can literally camp a mile away from the dungeon entrance, and cast this spell a few times, mapping everything out from afar, before actually “exploring.” Yowl!

Suggested fix: The spell lasts 10 minutes, and has an overall range of 300 feet.

5) mage armor. It’s funny how this spell has improved over the years, from a short duration spell, to a spell with longer duration but limited use, to what it is today, an 8 hour spell that can’t be broken down through combat. It isn’t an awesome spell on its own, but the power of cantrips means there’s no need to use first level spell slots for damaging spells…so why not just take this spell and get a more or less permanent +3 bonus to AC? That’s a question that not even a smart wizard can answer.

Suggested fix: The spell breaks (is dispelled) on a critical hit.

4) misty step. This amazingly useful spell serves as short-range teleport, fly, and get-out-of-jail (or being grabbed!) free card, and has a number of other cute uses. That all seems pretty good, so why make it a bonus action? Teleport away, and blast the bad guys with a cantrip as well is insult to injury, especially as everyone else has to spend an action to, maybe, attempt to accomplish even one of the possible uses of this spell.

Suggested fix: Casting the spell is a standard action. Also, most intelligent creatures in D&D world would know about this spell, and would either have “magic manacles” to prevent its use by prisoners, or simply execute all arcane spellcasters committing criminal acts.

3) guidance. This handy little infinite use cantrip grants a d4 bonus to an ability check. This isn’t game breaking, mind you, but “ability check” is a very common thing in D&D, from picking locks to opening doors to looking around, pretty much everything outside of combat or saving throws…that’s a lot of utility, and always having to add d4 every time it comes up is almost a chore.

Suggested fix: A creature can only be targeted by this spell once a day.

2) shield. On its own, this spell is ok, but it stacks with mage armor, and is a reaction, so it doesn’t cut into “normal” spellcasting, and lasts a round. The end result is every wizard basically has an AC of 18, with the only drawback being “he can only get this armor when he wants it.” Character build options means all characters that feel like it can have a Dexterity of at least 14, so realistically the spellcasters with access to these spells can have an AC of 20, again, only when they feel like it…this is not much of a restriction. The goobers standing around wearing armor feel kind of silly when they see this round after round.

Suggested fix: The spell only affects a single attack.

Most Problematic: sacred flame.  This cleric cantrip is an issue for many reasons. First and most importantly, it changes the nature of the cleric, making all clerics blasters in combat, able to potentially smash monsters with damaging spells every round. Second, it doubles in power at 5th level, meaning the heavily armored cleric will have no reason to ever use his mace (or any other melee or ranged weapon) once he reaches this exalted level. Third, it totally gets around armor, instead dealing damage if the target fails a Dexterity saving throw; this makes it a great general combat spell, and particularly good against heavily armored targets (which tend to have low Dex), or targets using defensive positions. Finally—yes, this cantrip has four problems!--it has range but isn’t a ranged attack, so the cleric can use it even when surrounded by foes. Talk about extreme usefulness! It’s one thing to see Emperor Palpatine blasting a helpless enemy with this kind of spell, but Friar Tuck?

Suggested fix: A creature can only be targeted by this spell once a day.

Honorable Mention, Second Class: water breathing. Ritual spells are nice, but ritual spells with huge durations can warp the game, and game world. In this case, we have a spell with 24 hour duration…that doesn’t even use a spell slot to cast. In coastal cities, I can see the population reporting every morning for “free water breathing” spells, making the oceans just a  little bit less dangerous, and mysterious, in D&D 5e land.

Suggested fix: A wizard can only case a particular ritual spell once a day (this should apply to all rituals), and water breathing should have a duration of 8 hours.

Honorable Mention, First Class: counterspell. The 100% guaranteed effectiveness of this spell is just silly. “enemy mage casts fireball, player mage casts counterspell, enemy mage counterspells the counterspell” is fun in Magic: The Gathering, but seeing as every wizard will have counterspell, it’s a bit much.

Suggested fix: counterspell is 100% effective, minus 10% per level of the spell being countered (cantrips count as level 0). Just making the spell less reliable will make it less of a totally obvious choice for all spellcasters.

EDIT: Oops, I got carried away on Warding Bond. Yes, it isn’t concentration, but the spell can disrupt any other concentration spell the cleric might have going, and he can’t even avoid combat/damage (like you might normally do with Concentration spells) making Warding Bond nearly as bad as a Concentration spell.
If “+1 to hit” is great, then is should be noted that Bless (a first level spell) gives +1d4 to hit, and a  similar bonus to saving throws that can actually reduce damage, and can affect 3 characters. This makes the 2nd level Warding Bond grossly inferior to Bless, despite being a higher level. Warding Bond is just such an all-around bad spell.
 
I guess I should have explained what removing the range restriction and limiting the duration is for: it allows this spell to be used in the way one would expect. With these changes, the cleric can buff up a hero and support him from a distance. The original spell has a very short range (60 feet), making it too likely for the cleric to “accidentally” kill himself by casting this spell and then being caught in a damaging area effect that also affects the person he was trying to protect. It’s generally a bad idea to cast spells that can get yourself killed without making any other mistake. The shorter duration prevents a few abuses, as well as puts an indirect limit on range (admittedly, teleport and the like could get around this…but Warding Bond really isn’t so amazing that it is worth stacking further restrictions on it to handle odd edge cases which will be taken over by far more powerful effects anyway). Even with the changes, the spell is still probably too useless…but at least you’ll have a harder time killing yourself with it, and it opens up a few possibilities when you need to focus on protecting another character.

This is the only error in the piece, however. Other “issues” raised are simply opinion, or confusion based on my not wanting to give overly verbose discussions (like the previous two paragraphs) to address very minor points, in an effort to keep the article at a readable length.

rawma

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Under The Hood: Ten Most Problematic Spells in D&D 5e
« Reply #1 on: August 07, 2016, 05:49:10 PM »
Quote from: Rick Moscatello;911771
Cantrips in particular represent the biggest change in 5e. While before, cantrips were generally limited effectiveness spells, now cantrips are all infinite use with wide-ranging abilities that, most importantly, increase in power with level. A cantrip from even a middling level spellcaster can devastate a monster as easily as a blow from a mundane weapon from a skilled warrior, and their infinite use as combat attacks frees up most other spell slots for reality-bending utility.


I do think the scaling damage is a problem with cantrips, especially those with larger damage dice; only the fighter can go beyond one extra attack, and several kinds of casters can add their casting bonus to the damage (e.g., Warlocks with Eldritch Blast and draconic bloodline Sorcerers with one damage type). Unlike archers, cantrip users don't have to worry about ammunition; a relatively simple fix to cantrip abuse is to have each consume money (no more than 1GP, say) per use (perhaps only after a certain number of uses per long rest).

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10) warding bond. While there are a number of “why would anyone use this?” spells in the game, this one is particularly confounding. The whole “cleric protects you by taking your damage onto himself” is a good theme to have, but Warding Bond has all sorts of issues. What happens if the party is affected by dragon breath or other area effect? That’s right, the cleric ends up taking 50% more damage, quite possibly dying from casting this spell. Even worse, every time the protected character takes damage, the cleric taking damage will trigger a Concentration check, meaning the spell probably won’t last long if you cast it on a character going into danger…the whole point of the spell! The short range of 60’ means trying to use this spell successfully is far too difficult for the theoretical benefit.

Suggested fixes: Remove the range restriction, limit duration to 10 minutes, and damage given by this spell doesn’t trigger Concentration checks.


Warding Bond is not a concentration spell, and the target has resistance to damage, so the total damage taken is unchanged (the target takes half and the caster takes half). The main benefit is the +1 to AC and saving throws, I would think. I don't see why there's a need to shorten the duration since that doesn't really address any of the problems listed. The range restriction is awkwardly short, but completely removing the range restriction allows the abuse of casters hiding very far away with healing potions while absorbing damage for an ally in the battle.

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9) hold person. This spell received a major beating from the nerf-bat in 5e. Not only is the duration reduced, area of effect reduced (one person), and the duration reduced some more (saving throw every round), it’s a Concentration spell as well. Yes, this spell is amazingly effective, but giving the target a saving throw every round is good enough, no need to cut into the cleric’s very limited ability to concentrate as well.

Suggested fix: The spell no longer requires Concentration.


Paralyzed is a sufficiently nasty condition that I don't think the spell needs to be powered up. (Note also that it's available to every spellcasting class except Ranger and Paladin, not just Cleric.)

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8) mending. If cantrips are now going to be go-to spells in combat, then they probably shouldn’t also have wide utility. Mending doesn’t break the game, but it does let you fix any object (it fixes “a single tear,” but you can cast it infinite times). Thus, the world of 5e probably doesn’t have cobblers, smiths, tailors, and such in nearly the numbers one might guess. A single spellcaster with this cantrip can serve all these functions with perfect reliability and incredible speed, somewhat warping the world.

Suggested fix: an item can only be targeted by this spell one time.


It seems rather tedious to repair a lot of breaks, but it seems not a completely unreasonable reading that an object broken into three pieces and then Mended once to join two pieces is no longer one object broken into two pieces but now two separate objects and thus not subject to a second casting.

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7) polymorph. It’s probably not fair to list this as a problematic spell for 5e, because it’s always been problematic in D&D. The real problem here is it’s easy to cast this on a friend. Older editions prevented the “cast it on friend” issue by including a real chance of death, but there’s nothing like that in 5e. Anyway, this basically lets you turn a friendly creature into a tyrannosaurus rex, which reverts to normal form (in perfect condition!) when the t-rex is finally killed. After that, the fight can actually begin. This, of course, is in addition to the utility you can get by assuming the form of any other creature, if you want to use the spell outside of combat.

Suggested fix: The spell can only target hostile creatures.


Note that the target would have to be at least the level of the beast's CR, and probably has other abilities that they would like to use. And the target takes on the mental abilities of the beast form (retaining alignment and personality). It does add a lot of hit points and scales to higher CRs faster than the Moon Druid, but more sophisticated opponents will concentrate fire on the caster to break their concentration.

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4) misty step. This amazingly useful spell serves as short-range teleport, fly, and get-out-of-jail (or being grabbed!) free card, and has a number of other cute uses. That all seems pretty good, so why make it a bonus action? Teleport away, and blast the bad guys with a cantrip as well is insult to injury, especially as everyone else has to spend an action to, maybe, attempt to accomplish even one of the possible uses of this spell.

Suggested fix: Casting the spell is a standard action. Also, most intelligent creatures in D&D world would know about this spell, and would either have “magic manacles” to prevent its use by prisoners, or simply execute all arcane spellcasters committing criminal acts.


It is a second level spell and it's only 30 feet (to a place that can be seen). Blindfold the captives, or gag them to prevent use of its verbal component. (Those with blindsight and subtle casting are a bit of a problem. Kill the ones that still manage to use Misty Step.)

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3) guidance. This handy little infinite use cantrip grants a d4 bonus to an ability check. This isn’t game breaking, mind you, but “ability check” is a very common thing in D&D, from picking locks to opening doors to looking around, pretty much everything outside of combat or saving throws…that’s a lot of utility, and always having to add d4 every time it comes up is almost a chore.

Suggested fix: A creature can only be targeted by this spell once a day.


Having to cast Guidance ahead of time is sometimes too much for players to do consistently. Since the DC is mostly set by the DM, it could be entirely negated (to the detriment of the party who doesn't have anyone to cast Guidance). It also has no effect where multiple ability checks are needed or for negotiation checks where the creature negotiated with will probably react badly to its casting.

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2) shield. On its own, this spell is ok, but it stacks with mage armor, and is a reaction, so it doesn’t cut into “normal” spellcasting, and lasts a round. The end result is every wizard basically has an AC of 18, with the only drawback being “he can only get this armor when he wants it.” Character build options means all characters that feel like it can have a Dexterity of at least 14, so realistically the spellcasters with access to these spells can have an AC of 20, again, only when they feel like it…this is not much of a restriction. The goobers standing around wearing armor feel kind of silly when they see this round after round.

Suggested fix: The spell only affects a single attack.


It consumes a spell slot; after the first four uses (three if they cast mage armor already), it starts consuming the more valuable second level and higher spell slots. Depends on the frequency of rests whether this is unbalanced (and some of the armor wearers are also casting this, due to multiclassing).

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Most Problematic: sacred flame.  This cleric cantrip is an issue for many reasons. First and most importantly, it changes the nature of the cleric, making all clerics blasters in combat, able to potentially smash monsters with damaging spells every round. Second, it doubles in power at 5th level, meaning the heavily armored cleric will have no reason to ever use his mace (or any other melee or ranged weapon) once he reaches this exalted level. Third, it totally gets around armor, instead dealing damage if the target fails a Dexterity saving throw; this makes it a great general combat spell, and particularly good against heavily armored targets (which tend to have low Dex), or targets using defensive positions. Finally—yes, this cantrip has four problems!--it has range but isn’t a ranged attack, so the cleric can use it even when surrounded by foes. Talk about extreme usefulness! It’s one thing to see Emperor Palpatine blasting a helpless enemy with this kind of spell, but Friar Tuck?

Suggested fix: A creature can only be targeted by this spell once a day.


I haven't seen players complaining about this, beyond the already noted problem of cantrips overshadowing ranged weapons a bit. I think the Cleric is already often a blaster in combat.

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Honorable Mention, First Class: counterspell. The 100% guaranteed effectiveness of this spell is just silly. “enemy mage casts fireball, player mage casts counterspell, enemy mage counterspells the counterspell” is fun in Magic: The Gathering, but seeing as every wizard will have counterspell, it’s a bit much.

Suggested fix: counterspell is 100% effective, minus 10% per level of the spell being countered (cantrips count as level 0). Just making the spell less reliable will make it less of a totally obvious choice for all spellcasters.


If the spell countered is higher level than the Counterspell, there already is a chance of failure (DC of 10+the spell level). It's not clear that the Counterspell caster can know what spell is being cast (since the spell is being interrupted), so its use might be a waste.

Some good points in this article are obscured by its inaccuracies and biases. But I'll get off Rick Moscatello's lawn now.