Editing 7 D&D 2nd Level Spells
In our last post of the series, we went over seven 1st level spells in D&D that range from "a few tweaks and it's very attractive" to "who in their right mind thought this was a good choice of words?!?!" Today we continue in this vein by looking at 2nd level spells and ways that we can make less commonly taken/horribly written spells more appealing to players and GMs.
As a reminder, our goal is not to make these spells better than other spells; our goal is to make them competitive choices, offering different things so that there is a good reason to take them over and against the "typical" choices for 2nd level spells.
Honorable Mention: Arcane Lock
This spell isn't bad (which is why it's an honorable mention and not ranked), but it's on this list is because in-world it makes less sense to use it because of the presence of another spell: Knock (the next spell we will examine).
Knock suppresses the effects of Arcane Lock for 10 minutes, which is plenty of time for someone to cast Detect Magic, pick the standard lock (assuming there is one), and get into whatever you are guarding with the Arcane Lock. There's no roll, there's no save, nothing - the Knock spell always works every time.
If Arcane Lock was a 1st level spell and Knock was a 2nd level spell (which it is), that would be one thing. But they are not: they are the same spell level, so in-world this spell makes little sense.
Recommended Changes: No changes to this spell, which is why it's an honorable mention. A change will be recommended for Knock, but I wanted to quickly note this spell at the start of the list so that you have a bit of background going into the list.
So with this in mind, let's look at Knock.
So on its face, Knock is not a bad spell, it's just not great enough for people to take it over other 2nd level spells. It's a situational spell involving locks (which does not make it immediately a bad spell: lots of situational spells like Gentle Repose are not on this list), and it allows you to target a mundane or magical lock: if the lock is mundane, you unlock one lock on the target object, and make an audible knocking sound heard by everyone within 300ft of you.
If you target a lock protected by Arcane Lock, the spell is suppressed for 10 minutes. If there are other locks on it, you have to cast the spell again to get them open.
The spell has a few issues, some of which make it very powerful, and some of which make it very weak. On the power side of things, Arcane Lock requires 25gp of gold dust to cast, and it can be suppressed by a spell of the same level (2nd level) that only uses verbal components, so you don't even need an arcane focus to cast Knock. And if you happen to be good with lockpicks, or have a party member who can lockpick, you will probably have the object open within the 10 minute window.
This strikes me as a problem: why would anyone spend money (and a 2nd level spell slot) to cast Arcane Lock if someone can come up to the object, use Knock, and get into the object as if the spell wasn't there? If Arcane Lock didn't cost anything I'd be fine with it, but it has a cost. So we should fix this.
The spell is also rather weak, though: if a person spends 25gp on...who knows how many locks you can buy for that amount of money...they can lock something with an insane amount of locks that each require a spell slot to unlock. Even if someone has a skilled locksmith in the party, it might be worth it to just put more locks on a thing instead of casting Arcane Lock on it, meaning that the auto suppression from Knock is useless. Also, since Knock requires line of sight, you can't use Knock on a lock on the other side of the door, so the easy way to prevent someone from getting through a door is just two separate locks on both sides, and then keep a guard on either side to unlock their side when someone needs to come through.
Recommended Changes: I recommend a small change to the treatment of Arcane Lock by this spell: give the spell a DC15 Intelligence (Arcana) check to suppress an Arcane Lock for 10 minutes, instead of the result being automatically successful. The spell is most commonly used by wizards (who probably have a good Arcana roll), so it will not make the Knock spell useless against an Arcane Lock, but it will give the lock (that someone spent gold to keep locked) a fighting chance.
Now, there are legitimate concerns about the use of the spell against mundane locks (like how many spell slots you'd need to expend that could be saved by lockpicking the locks instead), but that's fine. It's an arcane way to get around having a unique skill set (or excessive strength and a strong axe), so that's fine. No recommended changes to that part of the spell; we don't need to make magic preeminent over skills honed over years of practice.
#6: Flame Blade
To start off, this spell is not overwhelmingly bad, it's just not great for druids (the class that gets it). The spell allows you to create a weapon that you can drop and summon to yourself as a bonus action, it uses your spellcasting modifier for its hit and damage rolls, and deals 3d6 of Fire damage.
Now it should be noted upfront that the ability to drop it, make it disappear, and then summon it as a bonus action is very useful when you need to sneak a weapon into a place, so that is awesome and I want to praise it. But there are a few issues with this spell.
First, you are inviting a lot of concentration checks by summoning a melee weapon for a class that doesn't get proficiency with Constitution saving throws, so it is very possible that the spell's duration will be shorter than what is listed. Second, it does decent but not great damage, and it deals fire damage which is a common resistance type (so you may be getting less damage than normal from it).
But the biggest issue with the spell is that since it takes your concentration, it gets outclassed quickly by other spells available to druids. For 2nd level spells it comes at the same time as Barkskin (so if you don't have a 16 AC already the spell is pretty attractive, especially since it can carry over to your wild shape), and by the time you reach 3rd level you're competing with Conjure spells for that concentration.
So the spell isn't bad, and at low levels you are probably doing roughlyish the same amount of damage you would do in wild shape. But if you compare this to, say, the Spiritual Weapon spell that clerics get at the same level, or even the Magic Weapon that wizards get at the same level (paladins get it a little later in level progression), it doesn't seem to hold up. But with a few changes, this spell could be fantastic.
Recommended Changes: Remove the concentration on this spell. This would make it a lot more like Spiritual Weapon, gets past one of the biggest issues with druid being the casting class for it, and it doesn't conflict with other concentration spells that you get access to as you progress. If you are not playing a Circle of the Moon Druid and will be spending a decent bit of time not in wild shape, this spell could be a great way to improve your damage output.
The second thing I'd recommend is allowing the druid to throw it, giving it up to a 60ft range (so on-par with a lot of attack cantrips for other classes), dealing damage at range. This way it's like having a nice bow that deals fire damage, and you don't need to be right up in the mix to use the weapon.
This spell would also be amazing on an Arcane Trickster. Since it "is similar in size and shape to a scimitar," you should ask your DM if you can get Sneak Attack on top of your 3d6 fire damage. And since it can be poofed away by dropping it and poofed back to your hand as a bonus action, it would be easy to sneak past guards. But alas, not available thanks to the spell list and spell selection restrictions for the Arcane Trickster. So if I could make another change, I'd allow Arcane Tricksters to take it at 5th level, even though it's not an available spell for them to take.
On its own and in a vacuum, this is a decent spell. You don't tend to see it taken all that often though (even though four classes can take it, though admittedly it can have an "evil" feel, so some clerics may not take it due to theme of the character) for a few reasons.
First, it takes up your action to cast it, so you can't immediately take advantage of the blind/deaf effect, and since the opponent gets to save at the end of each of their turns, they may remove it before you get a chance to act on it. Second, it requires a Constitution saving throw, which we've mentioned earlier in the series (and will again, as you'll soon see) is the easiest saving throw for monsters to make, so your chances of success are already low to apply it in the first place.
But to its credit, the spell doesn't require your concentration, and it only requires verbal components, so if you find yourself disarmed, in prison, etc., this spell is a nice one to take. But I'd prefer it not be relegated to a last resort spell.
Recommended Changes: Since my recommendation stems from a school of thought regarding how sensory inhibiting spells should work that differs from the game designers, I'll present my recommended change first, and then go into the "why" as that will be more involved. I recommend that this should be a Wisdom saving throw instead of a Constitution saving throw for two reasons.
First, Perception as a skill (which is the most common skill check to determine what you see and hear) is a Wisdom skill, so since we are not affecting the bodily aspect of the person at all, it makes the most sense to me that this would be a Wisdom saving throw rather than a Constitution saving throw. As far as I can see, their eyes/ears remain intact, there's no viral infection that plugs their ears or blurs their vision, so a Constitution saving throw makes no sense to me. Instead, we're obscuring their ability to hear or see through magical means, and that sounds like a Wisdom save.
Second, while Investigation as a skill (commonly used in examining specific things to determine their nature, usage, etc.) is an Intelligence skill, I don't think that's the right call here, as that's more of a "knowledge of what I'm seeing" as opposed to "how well do I see" skill. Related to this, however, the Survival skill (commonly used for tracking things, tactically assessing things, etc.) does demonstrate what a person is able to see and discern, which seems to tie the Wisdom stat more closely to the actual art of seeing.
So I would contend that this should be a Wisdom saving throw. It means that there is a better chance of blinding or deafening monstrosities over beasts, or aberrations over humanoids, but that also means that the spell is more likely to be taken if you know you are going to face a specific group of monsters the next day, making it more attractive while also making the spell more philosophically grounded.
The concept behind this spell is good: write a message of up to ten words that can be maintained for an hour. The issue is the limitations and costs of the spell: it requires your concentration to maintain it for the hour that it can last, so you can't put it up while remaining invisible, for example. You cannot use it to signal an attack if you are flying. You can't send up a call for help while concentrating on a defensive or offensive spell. So already this limits its uses.
Second, however, a "strong gust of wind" will end the spell early, poofing away the clouds that form the words. So all the GM needs to do is tell you that a gust of wind comes, and boom: your spell slot is used (if you don't have 10 minutes to set it up), ending the spell early. This means that if the person you are trying to signal doesn't see it before the wind comes - because it's blocked by trees/buildings, the person is unconscious, the person is just not looking, etc. - your spell did nothing. Oh, and it was using your concentration all that time as well (and possibly a spell slot).
Recommended Changes: My first one is pretty simple: don't require concentration. If a druid can cause a field to become overgrown for 8 hours without concentrating on it, and if it's going to just poof away when a strong wind hits it, why in the blazes are we concentrating on this spell? It dramatically eats into the uses of this spell for no good reason - if you're concentrating on it, surely you'd at least have a chance at making a check to maintain the letters in the sky when a gust comes?
The second change is to increase the word count. If the Big Bad Evil Guy wants to give an ultimatum, don't limit it to 10 words. If the players want to send a message, don't limit it to 10 words. This is a 2nd level spell that requires line of sight to the words to read the message, so I have no problems with allowing it to have at least the word count of Sending (which can reach anyone anywhere regardless of range) since it has natural limitations.
#3: Ray of Enfeeblement
This spell suffers from similar issues to other spells we've noted above. It requires a Constitution saving throw to remove its effects once it strikes a target, which is an easy saving throw to make. It is applied with a ranged spell attack (so you have a better chance of applying the effect than spells that start by invoking a Constitution saving throw), but that means that it's likely that the effects of the spell won't last the full minute of the spell's concentration duration.
The other issue with the spell is that it only applies the penalty to Strength-based weapon damage, so it's a spell that a wizard prepares each day if they think he/she will fight a Strength-based character that uses a weapon (as it says "weapon attack," not "melee weapon attack," which is a term used in the errata to include unarmed strikes and the like - it's all a bit confusing, and even Jeremy Crawford's errata of the errata doesn't fully clarify the meaning), or a spell that a warlock has to choose as its boon from its patron and prepare on a very limited spell list. So the spell isn't taken nearly as often as other 2nd level spell options.
So if you are fighting a spellcaster, a Finesse weapon fighter, or a person with a high Constitution, the spell is not that effective. And unfortunately, that is most of the monsters in the game.
Now I'll start by saying that a Constitution saving throw is the right call here: it's a good use of the saving throw, even though it's easy to pass. So our fix is not going to remove this - it's going to up the stakes to make it more worthwhile for the caster to take the risk of it being removed.
Recommended Changes: The root word "Feeble" indicates a lack of strength and a weak or faded nature. As I read it, this feebleness could affect both the strength and agility of the target. So my recommended change is that it affects all weapon attacks performed by the character, be they Strength or Dexterity attacks. An enfeebled person would have difficulty pulling back on a bowstring, swinging an axe, or quick thrusts with a rapier or spear.
The second change is that when the target forces a creature to perform a saving throw, the creature gets to add 1d4 to the resist attempt. If a target is enfeebled, their mind is dimmer than it normally is, making it easier to escape their spells, breath attacks, etc. that require you to pass a saving throw. It's not a huge boost to passing it, but it does reflect the weaker mental nature of the caster.
And finally, you should be able to upcast the spell, inflicting a penalty to the Constitution Saving throw by 1 for each additional level used. Make it so that there is a harder time breaking the curse, since it is already an easier save to pass.
This gives a better reason to take the spell and use it: shut down a Big Bad Guy or keep a pesky target from hurting you as much while you are dealing with another threat. There's a good chance that it will only be for a few turns, but while it's active, the spell will give useful bonuses to the party.
#2: Crown of Madness
I was pretty sure this spell wouldn't be #1, but I was pretty sure it would be in the top three, because it's not only a spell that needs fixing, but it's also deceptive as it looks useful on its face, so I'm sure it has tricked people into taking it without realizing the issues with it (until they are in combat and see it firsthand).
The spell has its appeal, to be sure: you target an enemy with the spell, and you can make them attack one of their allies each turn as long as they don't pass the saving throw, right? Wrong.
Much like the spells above (and even more so in the spell that took #1 on this list), the spell suffers from too many provisos and limitations that make it useless if your DM knows what he/she is doing.
First, the spell specifies a humanoid, so you can only use it against humanoid targets, very few of which have the Reach ability. Second, the humanoid must be within range of you (which, at 120ft, is a good amount of range - no problems here), but you need to be able to see the target (so in dark places or obstructing terrain your range will be lower than 120ft). The target then performs a Wisdom saving throw (which is fine - no issues here), and you charm them for 1 minute, using your concentration. The target can then repeat the saving throw at the end of its turns.
All of this so far doesn't make the spell bad: Hold Person didn't make the list, and it has similar rules. What makes the spell bad is the rest of the provisos that further limit the use of the spell.
The spell states, "The charmed target must use its action before moving on each of its turns to make a melee attack against a creature other than itself that you mentally choose. The target can act normally on its turns if you choose no creature or if none are within its reach." So let's look at this scenario.
You target an orc (as it must be a humanoid) who has no allies within 5 feet of him (as he does not have Reach). Since he has no allies within 5 feet of him, so he gets to take his turn normally. He cannot run up to an ally and attack them, because he has to perform the attack before he moves. And if he does not have a target, he gets to move normally.
That on its own makes this spell insanely hard to use unless your enemies are bottled up in a small space with nowhere to go. And more often than not, the party is the group in that situation, not your enemies.
But wait, there's more! The spell goes on to say, "On your subsequent turns, you must use your action to maintain control over the target, or the spell ends." So on your turn, the big thing you get to do is hope that your enemies group up near the guy you have control over, because if they don't, you just wasted your action (and a 2nd level spell slot).
Add onto this that it uses your concentration (so you can't cast this and be invisible at the same time, for example), and the off chance that the DM moves a target within range of the target creature and thus gets to perform an attack with the target is not worth the constant use of your concentration, let alone the use of a 2nd level spell slot that could have struck several targets with an automatic hit from Magic Missile.
This spell is just bad. Horribly bad. And we need to fix it.
Recommended Changes: First and foremost, the spell should be a concentration spell that retains its Wisdom saving throw and the ability to escape it, because this spell can be used against the party as well. So we need the standard rules for how you escape charm spells. We recommend three changes.
Our first change is to require your bonus action to maintain control over the spell. Free up the action to do other things - even if it's just the Dodge action - but allow you to actually do something on your turn.
Second, allow the target to move before they make the attack. They are charmed by you, so it makes sense that they could move to obey your will. But, I'd caveat this by requiring the caster to make a Charisma (Persuade) check against the Wisdom (Insight) check of the target to convince the target to move first. If the target doesn't need to move, then there's no need for the check: just perform the attack. This gives some protection to the party against opposing wizards as well as some defenses for a hostile NPC from allied wizards, but in a way that makes sense since the target is charmed.
And finally, allow the target to perform ranged attacks if it has one. Spell attacks may require too many moving parts (mental clarity to remember the spell, somatic movements, components, etc.), so I'm okay with not being able to perform those while under someone else's control, but hurling a stone, drawing a bow, or hefting a javelin? That seems reasonable to me.
These would make the spell useful and on-par with other 2nd level spell options while keeping it sufficiently different from other spells in the game. And it makes it a true 2nd level successor to the Charm Person 1st level spell and Friends cantrip.
#1: Find Traps
This will surprise no one who knows spells from D&D, but this spell is among the most useless spells in the game. The concept is good: alert the character that there is a trap present so that they can disarm it safely. And admittedly, in a world with traps that can reduce a lot of hit points very quickly (just last night my fellow party members were hit with a Glyph of Warding that we didn't find), this spell is needed.
The issue is the execution of the spell, as it leaves a lot of loopholes for issues. First, the spell takes an action to cast and does not have the ritual tag, so you are always burning a spell slot and the chance to do something else (like disarm a trap) on the turn you cast it. So there's a cost to the spell that needs to be outweighed by the benefits.
Second, the spell specifically says that you only sense traps "within range that is within line of sight." The range is not a huge issue (120ft), but the "within line of sight" part is. This means that if you are in a dark place (which is most places where traps are present), the "range" on the spell isn't actually 120ft: it's 60ft, or however far out your light/darkvision extends. Second, a trap hidden under a rug isn't in line of sight, so you could be 5ft from it and the magic of the spell would tell you, "There's no trap here," purely because of the line of sight issue.
Oh, related: if there's an illusion up, you'd need to cast Detect Magic (1st level ritual, thank goodness) to discern that the wall/floor/whatever is an illusion, then cast Dispel Magic (3rd level non-ritual, so burning a big resource on another turn) to remove the illusion, and then cast Find Traps (2nd level non-ritual, so more resources on another turn) so that if a trap was behind the illusion you could have line of sight to the trap to find the trap. Chew on that for a bit.
Third, there's an added caveat as to what counts as a "trap" which further limits what the magic finds. The spell defines a "trap" as, "anything that would inflict a sudden or unexpected effect you consider harmful or undesirable, which was specifically intended as such by its creator." It then goes on to mention that things like weak floors, unstable ceilings, sudden sinkholes, etc. don't count (presumably because the builder didn't intend for it to be weak/in bad repair when they created it? I guess?).
So if you are in the desert and you're underground, and as you open a door the door breaks away from its old hinge causing the ceiling to cave in and the room begins to fill with sand, your Find Traps spell won't alert you to this. If you are walking across a carpeted floor, there's old wood in the floor, and you fall through with the carpet (so you can't grab onto the side of the floor) down four stories into a cavern, your Find Traps spell won't tell you this. If the trap is not sudden (like a tremor that knocks you prone and tries to drop you into a hole) or unexpected, your spell won't find it. If it's not harmful or undesirable (like various charmed abilities) triggered by you taking gold from a treasure chest, your spell tells you nothing.
Do you see how many loopholes there are in this spell? But wait, there's more! According to the last paragraph of the spell, "This spell merely reveals that a trap is present. You don't learn the location of each trap, but you do learn the general nature of the danger posed by a trap you sense." There are two things we need to discuss here, as these both compound the issues.
First off, you don't know where it is. You just get an alert that somewhere within 120 feet of you (which is a 240ft diameter area which is A LOT OF SPACE) there's at least one trap. You are not told how many there are, and you aren't even told what the nature of all of them are: you are told "the general nature of the danger posed by a trap you sense." So already you are slowing down the pace of the encounter because even if the party casts this spell they have no idea where to start looking to find the trap(s) they discovered (assuming that all of the traps are also within line of sight, so if they are hidden behind the walls, hidden by an illusion, etc., they'd have no idea they were there).
Second, note the plurals and the singular used in this paragraph: you "don't learn the location of each trap," which is a plural, so you don't learn the location of any of the traps in range of the spell, "but you do learn the general nature of the danger posed by a trap you sense," which is a singular.
So if there is a trap, or four, or ten, within line of sight, not hidden by an illusion, that was intended by the creator, to deal an effect you find undesirable or harmful, in a way that is sudden or unexpected, that is within whatever your line of sight allows you to see (up to 120ft of you), you will be alerted that there is one or more traps (not even just that there's one if there's one: the spell doesn't tell you there's just one if there's just one) somewhere within that range, and one of them has such-and-such a property.
That...is a bad spell. Full stop.
And for the record, if this was a 1st level spell it wouldn't be as bad (though it would still have been bad enough to make our list of 1st level spells that needed tweaking), but it's not. This is a 2nd level spell that, under specific circumstances, might tell you nothing while a 1st level Detect Magic (which can be done as a ritual if you have the time) would reveal the presence of a magical trap.
So, with all of that finally out, here's the fix.
Recommended Changes: First off, and this will not surprise anyone, we're going to add the ritual tag to this spell. There's at least a decent chance that if you are searching for traps you are taking this slowly, so being able to cast it as a ritual and take 10 more minutes to cast is not a bad assumption. This also reduces some of the tax for casting it, as you're not using a spell slot.
Second, we're going to remove some of the parameters of the spell, and I'm going to take a moment to unpack why there are so many parameters before we start nixing some of them, because I get why these exist. Ultimately these exist so that if a DM spends hours building a dungeon with cool traps in it, the party can't just spend a spell slot and say, "Okay: where are all the traps?" And I get that. I just think that the mindset of the DM in this example is not ideal for fun at the table.
We did a post on trap design that talks through why the fun and drama of a trap should be based in the disarming of the trap and not the finding of the trap to solve this very problem: the creators of the game wrote this spell so that the drama of a trap would be found in its discovery (which can be done in many ways, not least of which a good Passive Perception), rather than in its disarming. And that means that the spell has to exist (as people in-world want help finding traps), but we can't have the players (out of world) find them too easily lest they get bored.
So fundamentally I want to shift the focus of traps from discovery to disarming. And for this post, it means that a lot of the restrictions on what you find with the spell will disappear. I recommend removing the trap definition, and replace it with a new one: "A trap, for the purpose of this spell, includes any non-sentient thing that is fashioned or naturally created that would inflict a sudden or unexpected effect you consider to be harmful or undesirable." So an ambush isn't a trap (even though it is a "trap") unless it's an ambush of constructs, and even the presence of an alligator in a pool under a false floor isn't a trap, but the false floor and the fall would be (as it's unexpected and undesirable at least).
Second, give the location of the traps. Don't give the number, because the location gives that away in part. If there are multiple traps tied to one place (the tripwire that is a fuse, as noted in our post on trap design), they know that the tripwire is a trap, but they don't know that there are two trap elements present there.
And finally, remove the line of sight issue. There are so many ways to hide a trap from view (not least of which being in a dark place) that it makes the spell impotent in a lot of situations where it should be used. If you're going to prepare a spell in a game that limits how many spells you can prepare, you should get some value out of this, and that means we need to severely overhaul it to give it that value.
In our last post we ragged on Mage Armor a lot, and it's a spell that does need to be fixed. But at least you get an improved Armor Class from that spell: this spell could be cast and not tell you anything thanks to how the room is situated, where you are in the room, and several other factors, and that is an issue that requires attention.
2nd and 3rd level spells are my favorite spells - they have so much flavor and utility to them, and it hurts to see spells like this that are, for reasons I don't understand, nowhere close to on-par with other spells. I hope that, with these changes, you will be able to enjoy them as much as you enjoy the other spells at their level.
We're going to take a break from spell redesign (as the 3rd level spells are much better on the whole, and I don't have much to say about them) to discuss fixes to some of the races in D&D, so stay tuned! Our first race on the workbench will be the dragonborn, a race that is cool in concept but lacks execution (even after you consider the variant rules from Tasha's Cauldron).