The Alphastream Game Design Blog
The latest spellcasting monsters still have design issues. Let’s look at an alternate approach.
As we saw last time, while Monsters of the Multiverse is overall an improvement, even the latest design has issues:
These issues aren’t trivial. They create work for a DM, and may intimidate them to the point where they decide not to DM (as it did for me with 3rd edition). And, we should ask… what are we gaining from this design?
We can review our goals from last time with regards to spells on monsters:
That second bullet above? It drove 5E spellcasting monster design. Most monsters essentially have levels in a spellcasting class. Take a look at the Transmuter from Volo’s:
We can clearly see that this monster is a 9th level Wizard with the Transmuter subclass (it even has a Transmuter’s Stone feature, and the number of spell slots are exactly those of a 9th level wizard). The whole point of this design is verisimilitude, to make the monster feel like the actual PC class. That’s a neat goal. But here is an interesting thing. In 5E, a 9th level Wizard and a 9th level Cleric should be equals. And yet, the 9th level Transmuter is CR 5, while the 9th level War Priest cleric is CR 9. Why? It goes back to how WotC has that secret spreadsheet and how it calculates spell damage. The different spells drive different CRs. But with huge spell lists, the DM has trouble choosing the right spells that drove that CR!
That’s one of the reasons why WotC has changed the design in Monsters of the Multiverse to use smaller spell lists and shorten the spell lists. This is the new Transmuter:
We no longer have the same spell slots as a level 9 wizard. And we now have the ability to make three “Arcane Burst” attacks. They aren’t spells. You can’t counterspell them, and there is no such spell that a PC wizard could choose.
So… I have to ask… if that verisimilitude no longer matters, why bother with spell lists at all? If they are no longer actually accurate, and they create so much work… what is the spell list achieving?
Two designers I was discussing this with pointed something out to me. The design in Multiverse and even in Witchlight isn’t new! We can actually find it in Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus and the adventure in the Essentials Kit, Dragon of Icespire Peak. Both of these were published in 2019… and I actually like aspects of that approach better. (Note: sadly, none of the monsters I discuss below were reproduced in Multiverse.)
In Icespire we can find the Rock Gnome Recluse. While he has a spell list, his actions actually state what two of those spells do. These are actually reproducing the spell text, so we get that verisimilitude (Magic Missile even expends the spell slot, though I don’t think that’s necessary design).
Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus also features this design. The monster Black Gauntlet of Bane has the action Guiding Bolt, and the text contains the critical wording from the Player’s Handbook needed to run the spell. The same is true of the Skull Lasher of Myrkul, who has the Ray of Sickness action and faithfully reproduces that spell’s text.
The best example in the adventure is the Master of Souls. While it still has a Spellcasting block, we can practically ignore it. Take a look at the complete stat block:
That’s a relatively big stat block, but it appears larger than it actually is. There is the Grave Magic feature to turn spell damage into necrotic, plus the Action for its Flail attack. And then we have three spells. Each is an actual Player’s Handbook spell, with the text needed to run it.
Do we need the Spellcasting section? According to WotC designers, a monster is expected to last around 3 rounds on average, sometimes 4. I see 3 spells in that Action block. What if we remove the others?
Here is that stat block with the Spellcasting section removed:
I like that! Yes, we lose the flexibility of the 11 spells and spell slots it once had. But we also pare down our spellcaster to just the actions that were intended to be used anyway. This is still a capable monster with a variety of options. It isn’t overwhelming. And, it becomes really easy to correct the damage and turn this into a fearsome monster (it should deal 27-32 damage per round, so Chill Touch and Ray of Sickness need to deal higher damage). If we want to prevent a spell from being used too often, we can up the damage and add a recharge. This emulates having limited spell slots.
By having fewer options, we can easily design them to all be useful and relevant, removing trap choices and confusion. By using abbreviated but faithful spell text, we gain that verisimilitude back. Players aren’t tracking spell slots. In the three or four rounds this monster will be alive, it will seem like a true caster, slinging up to three different spells. It wasn’t going to do more than that anyway! Because the spell text is accurate, players will recognize this monster as a sorcerer or wizard.
You may notice something else. I didn’t remove the original text saying “1st-level Spell,” “Cantrip,” and so on. This will make the Action a spell, and allow counterspell, dispel magic, antimagic shell, and similar spells and rules activate normally against them. (I’m not a fan of counterspell, but many folks are!)
At the start of the pandemic, my son and I began writing the adventure The Clockwork Tower. In it, there is a spellcasting monster. Long before we had pondered anything in this blog post, my son and I looked at that monster and decided to simplify. I don’t want to spoil the foe, but they have three actions which are spells, plus a reaction that is a spell. We have been playtesting the adventure, and that foe has been very easy to run effectively. Not once did a player fail to see this monster as a spellcaster.
When a monster lasts three rounds, spellcasting actions are really all we need. With them, we can achieve all of our design goals. And, it isn’t that different from the design that WotC has employed in the past. I hope we might see something like this in 2024, when 5E is revised.