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The Future We Want for Spellcasting Monsters

Art by Eric Belisle

It is absolutely iconic for enemies to unleash spells upon the heroes. In a fantasy RPG, magic should be fearsome, chaotic, and exciting.  Acknowledging problems with early design, WotC has made changes to D&D’s spellcasting monsters. Do the changes go far enough?

The Point of Critique

I want to make clear that I adore 5E, and I have the absolute highest respect for designers at Wizards of the Coast. I find design fascinating, and I think constructive critique can help designers (as it continues to help me year after year). In recent videos, WotC designers say they listen to feedback. Feedback was critical to the success of 5E. My hope is that this feedback is useful, constructive, and thought provoking.

WotC will be updating 5E in 2024. The extent to which 5E will be changed is unknown. We are told it will be fully compatible with 5E, but you can never be sure. I think community feedback will be important over the next two years.

Spellcasting is a Critical (Intimidating) Design Aspect for Monsters

Almost every aspect of monster design is either self-contained in the stat block or so integral to combat that it rapidly becomes secondhand to a DM. Not so with spells. Spellcasting is a unique element in monster design, because it references another very specific rules set (spells). Most DMs will need to look up the majority of the spells appearing in a stat block (if only to confirm the damage, range, or other specific element).

Spells on monsters intimidate DMs. Unlike a player, who likely learns a handful of spells at a time, a DM may at any point be called upon to understand some of the roughly 500 official spells in 5E. There are very few people who can memorize all of that material. When a monster stat block contains a spell, we must leave that page (and probably that book) to look it up. This may happen before the game or during the game (or both).

I know how challenging this can be. By the time 3E came out I had been a DM for 13 years. And yet, I was so intimidated by monster spell lists that I waited an entire year before DMing convention games. I played a variety of spellcasting PCs specifically to get to know more of the spells before I DMed.

Art by Alexey Aparin

Goals for Spellcasting Monsters

We want spells on monsters so that we can capture the wondrous, chaotic, and dangerous nature of magic. Magic is integral to the game, and foes and allies should employ it.

We also want magic to reflect the mechanics of the game. When an enemy fireball resembles the PCs’ fireball spell, and when an enemy wizard resembles a wizard, the game generally feels more accurate to us. Utilizing common mechanics also leverages that design work.

As important as the above factors are, we also need to weigh these against two more very important goals. We want monsters to be easy and fun to run for a new or casual DM. And, we want spellcasting monsters to achieve the desired challenge level, based on their CR (Challenge Rating).

Updated Design in Monsters of the Multiverse

Wizards of the Coast has updated their design, reprinting monsters from Volo’s and Mordenkainen’s in the new Monsters of the Multiverse book. I discussed some of the changes in the previous blog post (see Why It’s Time for WotC to Come Clean on Monster Design). Several of the new changes are related to spells. 

Let’s discuss these changes, while also ascertaining how well we have met our monster design goals. To do so, let’s compare some of the updated monsters with their original versions.

Hobgoblin Devastator

The first change we can see with the hobgoblin devastator is that spells now appear in the Action section rather than in the general Features section. This reflects a new design philosophy that the spells should be primarily useful actions. Another important concept is that if a monster is a challenge due to spellcasting, then that should be an integral and obvious part of its attack options.

Take a look at the features and actions of the old hobgoblin devastator. A boost when dealing damage with a spell to a target next to an ally, a feature to exclude allies, and then Spellcasting. This includes 14 spells (4 at-will, 11 with spell slots). The only action is a quarterstaff dealing just 4 or 5 damage. A CR 4 monster is supposed to deal 27-32 damage! A DM using this attack would be making a terrible mistake.

(Clicking on the stat block images will provide you with the complete stat block)

Old Hobgoblin Devastator

Now lets look below at the new hobgoblin devastator. We get rid of Arcane Advantage, perhaps to simplify. Actions now include multiattack, and the quarterstaff can be used twice, and has been boosted with force damage (reflecting its magical nature). This now deals 34 damage, which is actually higher than expected for CR 4! Excellent!

The Spellcasting section is now an action, and it is simplified down from 14 to 7 spells (2 at-will, clearly non-combat, plus 5 combat spells it can use 2/day each). Excellent! It’s worth noting that there is some loss here. Before, fireball or lightning bolt might be used three times, which is really strong! And, those spells could be upcast to a 4th level slot for extra damage. Other spells might also have been upcast for greater effect/damage. That is no longer possible.

New Hobgoblin Devastator

One last change is also visible here: making some spells into non-spell actions. For the old hobgoblin, the quarterstaff was a trap, and didn’t perform better than fire bolt or shocking grasp. All three were bad options given the expected damage. Now, we instead get an action called Devastating Bolt, which deals 21 force damage and knocks the target prone. This ranged option can be used twice, for 42 damage! That’s well above the expected CR 4 range of 27-32 and the MM/Volo’s average of 25. The new hobgoblin then lacks all the trap actions that would have played that role: magic missile, fire bolt, ray of frost, shocking grasp, melf’s acid arrow, and scorching ray. All are gone because the new multiattack options do that work and allow simplification.

Overall, this is great. A strong damage boost, simplification, and we didn’t lose much. I like this change!

Blue and Green Abishai

These spellcasting devils are draconic in nature and tied to Tiamat. The original CR 17 blue abishai had an incredible 24 spells! Whew! In the action section, it attacked with claw and quarterstaff (for a total of 33 damage… about 75 points shy per round of the expected CR 17 damage! Good grief!

Old Blue Abishai

The revised version shrinks the spell list from 24 to 7 spells. We will quickly note that some powerful options are gone, such as chain lightning and cone of cold, plus the option to upcast those spells. However, chain lightning in essence becomes a new non-spell Attack called Lightning Strike, which can be done three times for 36 damage each. Now, the old spell dealt an average of 45 damage and might strike four targets. But, 36 damage 3 times is 108, which is in the expected range for a CR 17 foe.

New Blue Abishai

The new Bite is still weaker. 27 damage, which three times will for the round be about 27 points lower than expected for the CR… but it now gains a bonus action Teleport, which should prevent it from needing to use the Bite. Bite is perhaps just for opportunity attacks?

The blue abishai is a much more focused foe now. If you are tactically minded, it can cast either wall of force or greater invisibility and then use Lightning Strike, moving around the battlefield with its Teleport as needed. Simple, flavorful, and effective. The old design… it was all over the place. Very flexible, but unclear and perhaps comes across as “cast a bunch of spells, good luck choosing which ones.” (Now, fortunately, I have my copy of Moar! Monsters Know What They’re Doing by Keith Ammann, so I actually can run the original blue abisahi effectively. Great book!)

So, all-in-all, I think the revised blue abishai is excellent design. We lose a little, but we focus and that means we are overall far better off as DMs… even tactical ones.

But… what about the green abishai? The old version had 8 spells. The new version? The same 8 spells! I note this because it is interesting that WotC didn’t simplify all monsters. Some have been judged to be simple enough. I’m not sure I agree. The spell list for the green abishai:

Green Abishai Spells (old and new)

There are a lot of similar spells here that charm/control. I need to look them all up to really tell the difference and this many options pushes me to examine nuances. Is this design good for new/casual DMs? Is the monster better off for experienced tactical DMs? I don’t think so.

In fact, I’m not sure I know what WotC is directing DMs to do for this monster. What should a green abishai do? I read Keith Ammann’s tactics, and those call for an attack plus confusion, and then points out that multiattack may be better after that… because most of its good spells are concentration spells! They also all rely on Wisdom saving throws. I think the green abishai should have changed to take those factors into account.

A final problem: the claws deal 28 damage and inflict the poisoned condition (saving ends). For CR 15, that’s about 40 points too low per round if we can’t cast another spell. Ouch. None of the spells are damaging. Thus, the green abishai can only hope to control some of the party and slowly (very slowly) whittle down its foes. This can work okay if it has high-damage friends, but not if it is alone. New and casual DMs don’t understand this, and we’ve seen before that encounter construction is tricky.

Deathlock Mastermind

Speaking of how tricky it is to design encounters, We reviewed this one last time. I mention it here because it is very much a spellcaster and its new tactics are far more confusing than the green abishai. Those monster design goals we listed earlier? I don’t see them accomplished here.

Drow Matron Mother

This was and is an enormous stat block! It’s worth pausing to say that there is a place for larger stat blocks. Some monsters, particularly bosses, should have a number of features so that they can threaten and surprise in more flexible ways. However, spellcasting boss monsters still need to meet our goals. This includes being easy/fun to run and achieving the desired challenge level. For WotC, their updated design would lead us to expect a streamlined experience with fewer traps and more obvious paths to success.

If you want to see the whole thing, here is the old stat block, and the new one.

Because this stat block is so big, let’s break it up. First, just the spells. These actually appear as two separate pieces in the Features section, separating innate from learned spellcasting:

The old design has a total of 39 spells! They range from cantrips (because I’m sure capturing that she has mending is important) to 9th level spells. This monster is practically impossible to run without Keith Ammann’s book.

The new design reduces this to 18 spells:

From a tactical perspective, we lost a number of useful spells, from spiritual weapon to holy aura to spirit guardians, plus the ability to upcast spells such as banishment or hold person (she has these spells… but as they only target one creature, they are far less effective than before). We still have a lot of spells, and not all of them are great options given the others. And which spells to use is not clear from what is provided. It’s a soup of options, not a progression, and nothing in the rest of her stat block indicates choices the way we saw with the blue abishai or hobgoblin devastator. A new or casual DM may end up with the paralyzed condition! (I found myself still using Keith’s book.)

Part of the revised Matron Mother’s Attack section

What about the rest of the stat block? Her Multiattack has only a minor boost to damage, allowing either 2 Demon Staff attacks or 1 plus 3 Tentacle Rod attacks. The staff deals 22 damage and may frighten. The rod deals 3 damage (not a typo) and if that hits 3 times the target is basically slowed (the big thing being being limited to an action or bonus action, but not both). These are pathetic given the CR 20 (which should deal 123-140 damage/round! Wasn’t this revision supposed to remove trap choices and bad damage?

She can also now take an action to essentially cast flame strike (called Divine Flame), but only twice per day and it only deals 28 damage to each creature in the 10′ radius.

One good change is that she can now summon a fiend as a bonus action. This was previously an action.

But, overall, this monster remains exceedingly hard to run for any DM, with no clear tactics and a number of trap spells and options. It has lost a lot of flexibility and has not gained enough damage. How exactly did this drow matron come to rule an entire drow house? I’m not convinced she can do that.

The Drow Matron Mother isn’t alone. Many of the high-CR creatures have these issues. There is improvement, but we still fall short of the goals we stated earlier.

Other Spellcasting Monster Issues

Moving some spells into actions is thematic and achieves clarity. However, the approach WotC uses makes these actions no longer be spells. You can’t use dispel magic or counterspell and it will be confusing to many DMs whether an antimagic field could work on something such as Divine Flame.

Verisimilitude is also important. The blue abishai’s Lightning Strike is similar to the chain lightning it emulates, but an astute player will spot the difference. The hobgoblin’s devastating bolt is standing in for various spells, but doesn’t resemble any of them. Though this isn’t important to me personally, some players want magical attacks to resemble the spells more closely.

Okay, so what might we do about all of this? Tomorrow I will post a shorter post pulling all of these concepts together and presenting an alternate approach.

3 comments on “The Future We Want for Spellcasting Monsters

  1. Jacob
    February 18, 2022

    Doing the math on the Drow Matron Mother:

    247hp; AC 17; 3 saving throw proficiencies = Defensive CR 13

    (28×2 + 28×2 + 22×9 + 22×2) ÷ 3 rounds = Offensive CR 19

    Averages out to CR 16, and that’s not including the Bonus Action to summon a CR 9 or 10 Demon or any of the spells. I can see that being worth a 4 CR bump.

    • Alphastream
      February 19, 2022

      I noted this in a reply to my follow-up post, but it’s worth mentioning this here as well. There is a recent design directive for 5E that says that the Spellcasting Action should have no relevance to a creature’s CR. Meaning, that whether a monster casts a spell or not should have no CR impact. We are told the spells should be interesting and flavor-appropriate options, not something mathematically necessary for the CR.

      I don’t think WotC is actually following that directive strictly, but that’s their theory. (One staff member even wrote on the Studio blog that spells would now only be utility spells… which clearly isn’t the case in Multiverse.) This all makes the Matron Mother even more perplexing. It would mean that the damage needed to reach her CR’s damage level would only come from the summon. Oof.

      • JACOB
        February 19, 2022

        I don’t think you need the spellcasting though. The Matron is a CR 16 without spellcasting or the extra summoned CR 9 or 10 demon. Surely summoning a Glabrezu as a Bonus Action is worth an extra 4 CR, no spellcasting necessary. My biggest worry would be her lack of Legendary Resistance in a world with Silvery Barbs and Raulothim’s Psychic Lance.

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