Editing 7 D&D 1st Level Spells
In our last post of the series, we went over 6 cantrips in D&D that range from "meh but could be better" to "how did the Dev Team let this hit the printers!?!?" Today we continue in this vein by looking at a set of 1st level spells, and ways that we can make spells that are less commonly taken/horribly written more appealing to players and NPCs the GM wants to run.
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 1st level spells.
This is an interesting spell. On the one hand, it's fun for priests to be able to perform ceremonies, so I want the mechanic to exist in the game (whether it's a spell or not is another question, as I could also see it being an Intelligence (Religion) skill check, but more on that in a future post). On the other hand, I look at the bonuses and I wonder, "Is any of this worth 25gp to cast?" We'll run through the list:
1) Atonement: You can restore a creature to its original alignment. In a game where alignment has more or less been removed and players are acting out the alignment, this begs questions like at what point does alignment change, is that a unilateral decision by the GM or is it determined by the player, and what is the material change that happens? More than that, is it worth 25gp to get this boost if you have a chance to fail (as it's not automatic like the other ceremony benefits)? I'm not sure it is.
2) Bless Water: You get to make holy water, which normally costs 25gp to buy. So on the one hand, no issues with this - it's a way, using a ritual cast, to make Holy Water.
This is a great use of the spell, especially in keeping with the theme of cleric as local priest. It does beg the question of how anyone makes money off of holy water as it takes 25gp to cast the spell and then you can buy it for 25gp, but hey, on its face I've got no issues with this. You could increase the cost of the item to like 27-30gp to buy and say that the extra tax goes to coffers for the poor, and I don't think anyone would mind, but hey, even as-is this is passable. No problems here.
3) Coming of Age: You pay 25gp to give someone a d4 to all ability checks (which includes Initiative, by the way) for 24 hours. No issue immediately with this, and I'd totally do this in a one-off campaign that takes place over the span of 24-48 hours.
The issue is that "coming of age" is a specific event in a person's life, so do you have to cast the spell at a specific point in time? Sure, you can only get this once (so in that sense it makes it a "special moment" for you), but if it's cast on a "young adult" human who is 13, is that too young? What age makes you eligible for the spell based on your race? Once you get it, are you no longer a "young adult" anymore because you've come of age? Is the term "young adult" the wrong term to use, as the word "adult" makes you think they've already come of age? Not necessarily problems with this part of the spell, just a lot of questions about why it's worded the way it is.
4) Dedication: You pay 25gp to give someone a d4 to their saving throws for 24 hours when they devote themselves to your god. Off the top, this sounds great - good use of a ritual casting spell, and thematically cool coming from a priest.
Upon a closer investigation, this is just weird. If a person devotes themselves to your deity, don't make a saving throw for 24 hours, and then make a saving throw the next day, their dedication to the deity means...nothing. Literally nothing. And, similar to Coming of Age, you can't cast it on them again: they can only get it once. So is it worth 25gp for something they may not use?
The issue with a saving throw bonus is that it's something that is GM-prompted, not player-prompted. You can put yourself in a situation where you make a skill check or an attack, but it's hard to put yourself in a situation where you will invoke a saving throw unless it's hard baked into the plot and you have to do it (like going through a trap-infested dungeon, for example). So this is going to be less used.
5) Funeral Rite: You pay 25gp to keep a dead body from becoming undead for 7 days (unless someone spends a Wish spell). Fantastic use of a ritual cast, totally worth the money. This is quality spellwriting here - no issues with this.
6) Wedding: For 7 days each person gains +2 AC while within 30ft of each other (after those 7 days, I guess the "honeymoon period" is over, as you get no other bonuses). This is interesting because...I guess I don't see how this represents the bond of marriage? As someone who is married, I'd be cool with a bonus to actions you take (skill checks, attacks to protect your love, etc.), but I don't understand the boost to AC, especially considering what Armor Class represents in D&D.
From a cost perspective I think it's fine - a 25gp tax (assuming you ritual cast) to get a 7-day boost to AC is really nice, especially in a one-off campaign. I just don't understand why this is what was chosen for the bonus when so many other good options are on the table (in a game that has limited mechanics when not in combat; it could be more expansive, but I don't mind that as D&D is primarily a combat simulator and centers most of its rules around combat).
Recommended Changes: A few things I'd recommend. First off, bonuses that last for a 24-hour period should be tied to player actions, not GM actions. This way if people don't use their bonus it's because they chose not to use it, not because it didn't come up. So if it's tied to GM actions (turning undead, passing a saving throw), make it a 7-day bonus (so keep Funeral Right as-is, and edit Dedication to allow them to add d4 to their Armor Class when hit within that time, representing the deity's protective power of them as they set out in the service of this god).
Second, I'm recommending a wholesale change to Wedding: change this to a d4 to skill checks and Action rolls you make (attacks, grapple checks, etc.) on behalf of your spouse. I'd even go as far as to say that this should go ad infinitum as long as the couple is married, faithful to each other, and both are alive. Worst case scenario, it encourages characters to get married to NPCs (or heck, other party members), and it gives more stake and investment in the story. Best case scenario, it gives a stats reason to engage with NPCs, make lasting relationships, and give more NPCs more value and meaning to adventurers who tend to travel around a lot.
Third, remove the Insight check on Atonement. If you want to spend 25gp to change a person's alignment, and they are willing to have it changed, let it be changed. May the deity you serve bless you and set you on the right (or wrong?) path.
This makes the spell far more useful, as it rounds out the "meh" and "huh?" options while leaving the good ones intact. It makes you really want to take a cleric that uses this ritual on constant occasions, blessing and caring for people wherever you go, and starting out literally every one-shot with like 5 weddings. Mazel tov.
This is not a bad spell per se - it creates difficult terrain for a decent amount of time, and targets must make a Dexterity save to avoid falling prone. The issue with this spell is that, even when cast as a 20th level spellcaster, the range is still 10ft wide, which is easy to get past in most scenarios, and not wide enough to protect people on the other side of it. And since it has no effect on flying creatures and minimal effect on anyone who has a good Dexterity score (which is a surprisingly high number of monsters), a lot of people pass on taking Grease. Now we won't be able to solve the flying issue, but for everything else I recommend a small change.
Recommended Changes: The spell text should allow you to upcast the spell. For each additional spell level you use, you add 5ft to the side of the square. So by 9th level (if you really want to spend a 9th level spell slot on it - I wouldn't, but hey, your call) you could have a 50ft square area of difficult terrain invoking a Dexterity save to avoid falling prone. And that means that even high Dexterity characters will need to make 1-3 saves, increasing the chance that they fall once (maybe more than once).
Now that is stopping power. Regardless of how big the room is, you can lock down a whole section of the battlefield and make most creatures think twice about coming for you if you boost the spell (even a 3rd level cast would be a good sized area). I'd totally take this spell, even if only to insure that I have time to react to enemies that try to flank the party.
#5: Animal Friendship
I've always loved this spell - as someone who enjoys playing nature characters I've used this spell several times, and it's very useful as-is. Not an amazing spell, but good in a pinch when you need it (and since Nature Clerics get it pre-prepared, it's not costing you a spell slot to have it prepared, so it's fine if you don't use it all the time).
The issue with the spell is that, unlike Animal Messenger at 2nd level, you can't ritual cast it, so you have to not only prepare it (with limited spell slots available if you are not a Nature Cleric or similar subclass that gets it for free), but you have to spend a spell slot to cast it. So even if, for example, you're trying to charm a few horses for the party to use and the horses are tied up at a stable (and thus not going anywhere for 10 minutes), you have to spend a spell slot for each one.
And, since you can use Animal Messenger as a ritual spell on tiny creatures that are known not to sit still for very long, it just makes no sense why the latter can be done as a ritual and the former cannot. This places a "tax" on preparing this spell that it doesn't place on higher tier spells, and that's why many don't take it (and instead take Speak with Animals).
Recommended Changes: It's a pretty straightforward change: add the ritual tag to this spell. It potentially removes the tax of a spell slot (though if you really need to make friends right away you can still cast it quickly), and gives a decent reason to have it on-hand in case you're going into town, are out in the wilderness, etc.
I would also consider allowing you to upcast the spell, allowing you to charm 1 more beast for each spell level you spend on it. So if you really want 5 horses for the party in a quick pinch, you could spend a 5th level spell slot to get them. Probably not the wisest of plans, but if a troop of orcs on direwolves come charging you, charming all of their steeds and getting advantage on your check to tell them to run home to where it is warm and full of food is not a bad play.
#4: Compelled Duel
So to start off, this is not a bad spell concept for a paladin (which is the primary class that gets this spell). Sure, it requires concentration so it will be conflicting with other stuff paladins want to cast, but giving disadvantage and possibly keeping the target from moving beyond 30ft of you is not bad. It kinda sucks if you're a dwarf and can't move 30 feet in a turn, but on the whole it's not bad.
So why don't people use this spell? Because it doesn't actually compel a duel. The target is still free to attack someone else, it's just at disadvantage (so if a party member has an AC12 or AC13, there's still a decent chance that the opponent hits your ally). There's nothing forcing the target to attack you.
Second, it's only one target, so while you can cast it on the Big Bad Evil Guy (who might have a good Wisdom save, so he might shrug off the spell entirely), you can get a bigger benefit from Command and making the person flee, or an area-wide boost from Bless, or added damage from one of the many Smite spells you can cast, let alone spending a 1st level slot to deal smiting damage with a weapon.
So we need a way to make this spell more attractive over the plethora of options that paladins have at this level. And there's two small changes that make it work better.
Recommended Changes: First, if a person fails the saving throw they have to attack the caster. Make this the "aggro draw" spell for early paladins: you have to come after me, punk. This makes it attractive to people who want to shield the party, as it takes a big dude (or a person who slipped past the other melee characters to the soft casters) away from the weaker characters.
Second, drop the movement distance to 20 feet instead of 30 feet. This means that you can catch them wherever they go, regardless of race (or encumbrance if you're a 30+ foot movement person, assuming your group uses encumbrance), but also it means that your casters can be 30ft back from your front line, instead of having to be 40ft back to be safe. It keeps the reins tighter on the person you challenged.
This spell makes it, in my opinion, more appealing to a "guardian" style paladin than the other 1st level spells. It does something none of the other 1st level spells does for you: it allows you to actually draw them away from your allies, not just inflict a penalty that may not even keep them safe against some attacks against that squishy character. And that makes it a go-to spell for some paladins.
The spell is very straightforward: use an action (not a bonus action, but an action) to give the target +10 feet of movement for 1 hour, or more than one person (also touch distance away) for each slot above 1st level that you use.
Now, on its own, this is not per se a bad spell, but you hardly see it used in-game for several reasons. First, it's a spell slot for classes that have very competitive uses for those spell slots. When is a bard going to prioritize 10 feet of movement over Disguise Self? Heroism? Dissonant Whispers? Tasha's Hideous Laughter? Whether in or out of combat, there's a lot of better choices for bards to use than Longstrider.
Druids and Rangers have similar issues: their spell slots (and in the case of the latter far more so, as they have less spell slots to start with) are better used doing other things than adding 10 feet of movement, and in the case of druids they can always wild shape to gain different types (and typically longer ranges) of movement.
Boosting the spell doesn't even increase your speed beyond 10 feet, it just allows you to target more than one person. This means that yes, you could use it for travel purposes to move your party a bit farther in an hour, but the spell only lasts for an hour, and that means that if you were traveling a normal adventuring distance in a day, you would be burning all of your 1st level slots just to move a bit faster. And that assumes you don't get attacked along the way and find yourself wishing you had those spell slots back for use in combat.
Also, you can buy a mount for relatively cheap that has +10 or more movement than you do. So...why would you spend a spell slot potentially multiple times a day to get the bonus you could get from a horse?
Recommended Changes: This one has a small change that goes a long way that we've seen before (and will see again): give it the ritual tag. If you're not burning a spell slot but have to spend 10 more minutes casting the spell, it means you get more utility from it (as you can boost someone's speed) without spending a resource, but only if you do it proactively. If you know that your party scout is going to go ahead of the group, you can make them faster. If you are a dwarf or halfling and you are in a party of people faster than you, you can boost your speed to keep up with them.
And of course since you can still cast it as an action by spending a spell slot, if you are in a tight spot and need some extra speed, you can always do that. But if you are trying to be a helpful party member, you can take this spell and cast it as a ritual, making it a more appealing choice.
If you don't want to give it the ritual tag (for whatever reason, but I could see it if the DM doesn't want to give out a ton of spell bonuses without using spell slots), you can also change the casting time to a bonus action. This allows you to boost the move distance of an ally without giving up your attacks, and while most bards, druids, and rangers have good things to do with their bonus actions, arguably they have better things to do with their actions, so it makes it more appealing then it is right now.
#2: Witch Bolt
So this one is commonly taken by sorcerers and wizards (though it's also available to warlocks), and it makes sense at first blush: you get to do automatic damage (and with d12s at that) every turn using your action so long as none of the conditions are met that would end the spell. The issue with the spell that makes it so bad is 1) how many conditions there are, and 2) how easy it is to meet those conditions.
There are three ways to end the spell. First, it is maintained on concentration, which means that if you can damage the caster (which, since it's a sorcerer, warlock, or wizard, it's not that hard to do) they have to make a Constitution saving throw to avoid losing concentration on the spell. While the caster is probably going to make the check, d20s are very janky, and can roll a 2 just as easily as a 20. And since you're always looking for a 10 or higher on the check, and you are probably getting a bonus to the roll, you'd need to roll pretty low to fail this one.
There are two other ways to lose it, though, that are very easy for the enemy to do and for which there are few responses. The first is to move beyond 30ft of the caster, and since the range on this spell is 30ft, if the caster is casting it at its maximum range (which, since the caster is pretty squishy, is tempting), the creature needs to move only 5ft away to end the spell. Furthermore, since most creatures can move 30ft or more with a Move action, and since the spell doesn't inflict a movement penalty, there's no way to guarantee that the creature stays in range of the spell short of a spell that quarters the speed of the creature, a feat that reduces speed to 0ft, etc. (as the creature can always take the Dash action if they are moving through difficult terrain, start prone, etc., so even then they can escape the spell's range).
But believe it or not, there's a third issue: you can also cancel the spell if you move behind total cover, being "fully concealed by an obstacle" from the person (to use the official language). Now thankfully this means that things like Invisibility and such don't cancel the spell (as they don't grant you the effects of total cover, just grant disadvantage to attacks), but it also means that if you are fighting in a room with pillars, walls, etc., the person can simply move behind one of these, be completely concealed from you, and the spell ends. That...is very easy to do.
And this isn't the only issue with this spell. Each turn it also uses your action to maintain it, so if you do other things with your action you can't do those while you concentrate on the spell. Technically sorcerers are hit less by this if they have the Quickened Spell metamagic, as it can allow them to cast another spell as a bonus action while using their action to maintain the bolt, assuming the other spell doesn't also require concentration, but for everyone else, your action is very important, and you lose it for that minute. We've also mentioned the short range, but just to key in on another important feature, it is only a 30ft range, so you are very close to the enemy as long as you have this on (which is not where people typically like to be when they play a wizard or sorcerer, and even a warlock for most warlocks).
Recommended Changes: We recommend three changes to make this spell more useful. First, we don't want to extend the range: the range penalty is what keeps it in line with other 1st level damage spells. But the spell should inflict a speed reduction to the target: they are being hit with continual lightning, and from Star Wars and other fantasy franchises this always means less speed. So give a -15 feet movement penalty (to a minimum of 5), which will help to keep the target in your range without you having to be within 5 feet of them all the time.
Second, allow the caster to maintain it on a bonus action rather than their action. This allows the bearer to use their action for dodging, dashing, disengaging in case the person runs up to them - it really opens up options while still making the spell a critical part of their turn.
And finally, remove the full cover part. This is lightning magic: keeping it away from you is really hard, especially when you think about how witch magic is portrayed in fantasy (which is in the name of the spell, so it's a reasonable comparison). You can't hide from this: if you are the target of witch magic, you have to face it head-on or endure it. No amount of hiding will protect you.
And when you compare this spell to other 1st level damage spells, it could use a boost. Compare this to another sorcerer spell: Chaos Bolt. The spell does far more damage on the turn you cast it, has a variable damage type (making it more useful against monsters that may have resistances or vulernabilities), and can jump to another target, so while it may not deal as much damage over time, it will likely deal more damage overall than a Witch Bolt in that single turn (and a Witch Bolt is not guaranteed to last more than one turn, as we mentioned above).
Hail of Thorns from the Ranger spell list does far more damage than a Witch Bolt, as it adds 1d10 to the ranged attack damage (which is typically another 1d6 or 1d8), and it only takes a bonus action to cast, so you can perform that attack just as many times as a Witch Bolt, and all from the safe distance of the ranged weapon.
Witch Bolt is alluring but so easy to get away from, and that makes it a dangerous spell to prepare as it may entice you to cast a spell that could be just as effective as a cantrip. But there's a spell that's even worse...
#1: Mage Armor
I started this rant in a past post talking about my issues with armor proficiency, but I'm going to give rein to the rant here because I want to fully flesh out why this spell is so horrible, and the small solution that fixes everything (and you probably already know what it is, as this thought is not original to me or even new to this post, but hear me out).
The Mage Armor spell is primarily a way for wizards and sorcerers to increase their Armor Class through "arcane means." Since Dexterity is #2 or #3 on their priority list for stats, a high Armor Class will basically never come to a mage unless you play the War Mage subclass from Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which has various ways beyond the Shield spell to improve its Armor Class (and saving throws, too - it's pretty cool).
There are several issues with this though. The first is the in-world explanation. In a world where spell slots represent magical power being expended and a person having a limited amount to spend each day, what wizard in his/her right mind would say that it is worth their money and potentially blood in battle to expend a spell slot every time they want to cast Mage Armor? Since the spell lasts for 8 hours, you could potentially have to cast it 3 times in a single day, especially if you are dungeon delving (once during the "adventuring time," once during the travel time if bandits appear, and once before going to bed/being on watch due to night raids). That's most of your 1st level slots for any character. Just think about that for a moment.
Why would anyone say, "Yes, this spell will be our primary defense! Far better than learning how to put on a shirt of mail (which would have just as good an armor value, possibly better, than a caster with Mage Armor) or a thick jacket with metal plates (in the case of splint mail, which would be better Armor Class than most wizards can get below 15th level). Oh, and if the spell is targeted by Dispel Magic it is automatically dispelled, as we cannot cast it with a higher spell slot than a 1st level slot, so I hope that you don't run into an enemy spellcaster with Dispel Magic or you are hosed!" That is what people in-world are saying to young wizards and sorcerers.
In-world this spell makes no sense - no wizard (a high Intelligence character familiar with arcane magic) is that dumb. But that is the position the vast majority of player character wizards and sorcerers find themselves in, thanks to the rules.
Now, ironically, a lot of wizard/sorcerer-style monsters don't have Mage Armor. They just have good ACs (see Drow casters as a good example). This...should be telling. I'll let you think on that.
The second issue is a wording issue. We talked about this in our Armor Proficiency post, but the whole explanation for why wizards and sorcerers don't have any armor proficiencies makes zero sense. Consider light armor (which, for the record, would not "unbalance the game" as wizards wearing light armor would have a lower Armor Class than a Mage Armor spell, to keep this in perspective): since armor proficiency is whether or not a person can "wear it effectively," are you telling me that a wizard in robes with various layers (as shown in virtually all the art for D&D) is incapable of knowing how to wear...a robe with front straps (a gambeson, aka, padded armor)? Are you telling me that the straps and buckles that hold leather armor and studded leather armor together are so complex that a barbarian can figure it out but the smartest people in the land cannot figure out how to "wear it effectively"?
Because that's literally what the book says. It literally says that the smartest people in the whole game cannot figure out how to put a shirt over their heads (chain shirt). And I should take this back: the artificer knows how to do this. Artificers (who are also smart) can figure out how to wear light and medium armor (and in some cases heavy armor). But a wizard? No way. Why? No clue. The game has no explanation.
And finally there's a mechanics issue. A wizard is spending 1-3 spell slots every day they fight (you heard that right: literally every day that they face danger) to improve their AC by +3 (as they get 13+DEX instead of 10+DEX). Assuming a 16 Dexterity (which is pretty high for wizards - typically you want a good Constitution score for concentration saving throws, so DEX is typically #3 or lower, depending on whether you want a good Wisdom score for Perception), so your AC will typically not be above a 16 with Mage Armor (13 without it) until you are at least 12th level and get your third Ability Score Improvement. Likely later as you've probably taken a feat (like War Caster) before increasing your Dexterity, so it could be as late as 16th level.
Do you know how much it costs to get an AC16? 50gp if you buy Scale Mail and have a 14 in DEX (which anyone can totally do), or 75gp if you are willing to have a 13 in STR to wear Chain Mail (which is also doable). So, here's the "logic" internal to the D&D system about how armor works: a wizard (who is a smart person - typically the smartest person in the party) believes that it is more effective to spend 1-3 spell slots a day (that they could be using to cast auto-hit Magic Missiles in a fight, let alone area of effect damage spells, utility spells, the Shield spell, etc.) instead of spending...50-75 gold pieces once. Oh, and risking Dispel Magic getting rid of their armor entirely. Oh, or an anti-magic field (for when they get to higher levels and are still relying on that armor to protect them because, reasons!).
Do you see the issues? The cost and reasoning in-world makes no sense. So I have no issues calling this the worst spell at 1st level, which is ironic since so many people take it - they are just being penalized for no good reason in taking and using it, all in the name of, "Well, I guess that's what wizards and sorcerers have to do."
And before someone says, "Well sorcerers aren't that smart - so how does this apply to them?" Simple: sorcerers haven't been locked away in a tower "studying" to gain their magic. They've been out in the world, living like everyone else, and presumably having the same experiences (based on subclass archetypes) as, say, rangers, clerics, rogues - other people who get proficiency with anything from light to medium armor and in some cases heavy armor, while also managing spells (in the case of the Arcane Trickster for rogues, and all rangers and clerics).
But more than that, sorcerers get it: whatever their bloodline is, there's magic that roils in them that they know they can't control and they know is dangerous. So if they are relatively fragile people (D6 hit die tells us that), why in the blazes would they put their trust in a spell that they'd need to cast 1-3 times a day to give them the same protection they could get by plunking down some cash? Especially if they don't have a wide access to spells (or spell slots) as it is? It makes zero sense.
The spell needs to be fixed. I recommend two changes which can be done either/or, or you can do them together. Either way, you'll have much happier campers who will get more fun out of the game by removing a tax that they've had to pay for years.
Recommended Changes: First and foremost, nix armor proficiency from the game. It's dumb, makes no internal sense, and the issue of "wizards and sorcerers are so powerful that if you give them armor they won't be the squishy people anymore" is already fixed with the D6 hit die. You don't need to reduce their Armor Class for no good reason on top of that, especially since the DM decides what the wizard/sorcerer fights. You can always run enemies who invoke saving throws if you are terrified of people having too high of an Armor Class.
Second, and the fix that maintains more of the rules of the game while still making the spell appealing (though I'd do this in conjunction with the recommended change above) is I'd add the ritual tag to this spell. Since the spell lasts for 8 hours, I see a lot of wizards cast it at the start of the adventure, getting it ready before they hit the road, enter the dungeon, etc. It is very rare that people cast this spell in combat, even though it can be cast as 1 action. And this makes sense: why wouldn't you put up your shields before a fight (unless you're a Starfleet captain, in which case I guess putting shields up before a battle is optional? I never understood that either).
The spell as-written is puzzling at best and downright insulting to the squishiest and in some cases smartest people in the game at worst. We can fix the spell by removing the spell slot tax, and possibly even by removing an antiquated system carried over from a tabletop miniatures strategy war game that does not reflect the way people would act in a fantasy world filled with dungeons and dragons. So make the fix.
Well, that felt good to get out of my system after all this time, :P
Seriously though, as you can see from this post, not all of it is bad. And out of the scores of spells at 1st level there's only seven on this list, so congrats to the Dev Team at Wizards of the Coast on a good set of spells. But if the game is, as it claims on its merchandise, "the world's greatest roleplaying game," there are some changes we can make - small changes - to make a few of the more problematic spells better. And hopefully these small changes will open your mind to trying new spells that you might not have tried otherwise, and maybe fix some longstanding issues that will bring you more enjoyment from the game.
In our next post we will be moving into 2nd level spells that could use some tweaking and thankfully there are not as many.