Top 10 Spells for Dungeon Crawls
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! In today's article we're preparing you for a dungeon crawl, recommending the top ten spells you should prepare for 4th level spells and lower. I chose this level because 1) not everybody gets to 9th+ level where you get access to 5th level and higher spells, 2) I think 4th and lower level spells are actually among the best, if not the best, for dungeon crawls, and 3) you get by far the most slots for these spells, so planning to use some of them for exploration, utility, and problem solving is less of a tax for you.
So naturally use a grain of salt when reviewing this list, as not having access to specific spells (either because of character level, class selection, etc.) may keep you from preparing them, for example. It also means that in the future I may do a post talking about the top ten classes for dungeon crawling, as some classes are definitely better at it than others. But more on that later.
We will start by looking at some honorable mentions before jumping into the list.
The Top Ten Low-Level Spells for Dungeon Crawling
Honorable Mentions: The following are useful spells, they just aren't as good/useful as the spells here on average for dungeon crawls: Jump (because sometimes you don't want to climb and/or can't climb to a specific place, but you need to get there fast), Feather Fall (because sometimes you don't know when you're going to suddenly plummet while in a dungeon, so this at least insures you avoid falling damage), Dispel Magic (inasmuch as you have magical effects in a dungeon this is a useful spell, but it has its drawbacks including the possibility that you will not use it at all), and Rope Trick (a very useful spell, but it's a limited access spell that has to be used in very specific ways with DM buy-in: if the DM says yes to everything you want to do with it, it's the #1 spell. If he/she doesn't agree it may not place at all, so we mention it here as a go-to spell to take, but ask your DM about what shenanigans you're allowed to do with it).
#10: Darkvision (2nd Level)
As you can imagine, treating dim light as if it's normal lighting is very useful in a dungeon as it can completely remove some of the advantages of monsters in a dungeon, reveal traps, etc. And the fact that you can see shapes in full darkness, thereby still revealing potential traps, obstacles, or creatures, is also useful.
The reason that this rates so low is that 1) a number of races already have it, 2) you can replicate if not replace its bonuses with a cheaper resource than a 2nd level spell slot, and 3) you probably don't want to cast this over and against other 2nd level spells you have access to based on your class. So while a niche ability that comes in handy in a dungeon, it's not the #1 choice for spells you should prepare.
#9: Comprehend Languages (1st Level)
This is a very useful spell if you have to read instructions or inscriptions scrawled on the wall, especially if your character doesn't know a lot of languages. The ability to read anything you're touching and understand everything you hear is very nice in a dungeon setting, especially if there are echo-y caverns or hallways that allow you to hear things without being in immediate danger.
Of course, there are dungeons - abandoned cities, undersea shipwrecks, etc. - where it may not be used at all, which is why it appears low on the list: you may not need it based on the style and design of the dungeon.
#8: Knock (2nd Level)
This is a very straightforward spell: if a lock is locked, it's now unlocked, even if it's locked with an Arcane Lock spell. No check, no roll, just an unlocked door. This is a very useful ability because sometimes you just need a door open ASAP and you don't have time to pick the lock and/or you don't want to spend a 3rd or higher level spell slot to dispel a lock.
The issue with this spell is that 1) it's a temporary suppression of magical locks, so it's not as good as, say, Dispel Magic for long-term solutions to the lock, 2) it does nothing for barred doors or heavy doors, so it may not actually solve the issue, and 3) it is very loud, alerting people within 300ft that someone is at the door. So if you're going for silent infiltration, this is not the best option. If you are going in guns blazing, go for it.
#7: Fly (3rd Level)
Ever needed to get really high up, scout out what's very far below, or just get out of reach of a melee monster? Fly will do all of that and more for you, because it can also carry the end of a rope up to a high ledge, retrieve a key or other object for use in opening a door, or, if you're strong enough, pick up enemies and drop them from very high heights.
I place it here for several reasons, as it could easily have gotten to #1 depending on the dungeon in question. First, a lot of DMs plan for fliers thanks to the existence of Aarakocras, so you may find that dungeon hallways are only 10ft or so high or they have traps along the ceiling in addition to on the ground to insure that flying isn't an auto-win against a challenge. I personally have no problem with dungeon design that says, "Flying doesn't automatically make it easier," but since this is a thing, I cannot in good faith place Fly that high on the list, as it may not help much at all.
It also comes with limitations. Some of the best dungeon spells and combat spells require your concentration, so Fly keeps you from using those spells at the same time. Tack onto this the expending of a 3rd level spell slot (which is in high demand by other excellent spells) and it's decent but not great duration, and I think 7th is a good place for this spell: useful, but not a must-have depending on your scenario.
#6: Tiny Hut (3rd Level)
This spell gets a lot of good press and rightly so: you can effectively create a safe place for a short rest, long rest, or a place of preparation, and you can cast it as a ritual spell, so it's not taking up a resource to cast if you have a lot of time to cast it.
Some will balk at me putting it here, and before walking through the spells I thought it would be top three, but hear me out. First, it does require you to have 10+ minutes to cast it if you don't want it to use a 3rd level slot (which is a high-demand slot), and your DM may not give you that time. In a dungeon where things may echo and the villains want to win, they may not give you 10 minutes of uninterrupted time to cast a spell.
Second, if you use it for a long rest, your DM can simply take whatever might have come that night to roll into the next combat encounter as all of your enemies mass to face you once the hut disappears. I've definitely done this before, and I think it's what smart villains that want to win would do: they wait for an opening.
Third, there are actually ways to damage the party while within a tiny hut. Night hags attacking you in your sleep aside, anyone who can scry/see into the Tiny Hut can cast spells that require you to see the target and create an effect at a selected point (thereby not passing through the hut) can still have an effect, so you're not entirely safe from other magical effects, even if the DM grants that the floor is covered by the hut (which the wording is dubious on, as it says, "around and above you," but does not include below you).
So is this a good spell? Yes - you should consider taking it if it's on your spell list. Do you need this spell? No - you're just going to have different tactics (like Rope Trick!) if you don't take it.
#5: Water Walk (3rd Level)
This spell looks deceptively simple and thus a lot of people pass over it: you get to walk on water or other non-solid surfaces. But when you read the text you can see why it would be so useful in basically any dungeon. Afraid of a vat of acid? No worries: just cast this on yourself and up to ten allies and you treat it like harmless normal terrain. No damage, you aren't even slowed down by it - you're all safe for an hour. Run into a lava flow? Here you go - sure it's a bit hot, but you're not being damaged by the lava itself.
Oh, and did I mention this is a ritual spell? So you can cast this as a ritual (no spell slot used), have this active for an hour, then recast it as a ritual before it wears off and you're good for the entire day with no resource expended other than time. That's fantastic, especially since it's helping the whole party, not just yourself.
Sure, can Fly get you to more places? Yes. But is it better to avoid damage, avoid traps, and apply that to everyone in the party, not just one person? I think so. If you have access to this spell, this should be a top choice for you just to cover bases.
#4: Misty Step / Dimension Door (2nd Level / 4th Level)
Both of these do the same thing effectively which is teleport you to a new location. Dimension Door is more useful because it has a longer range and doesn't require you to see the location you're going to (so that ledge 500ft up is a viable target), but the overall effect is the same: you get to phase from one place to another seamlessly.
And while sure, Misty Step has less range, it's cast as a bonus action, so you can do this in combat while still using your action for something useful. So there's a place for both of these that will help you immensely in a dungeon.
#3: Arcane Eye (4th Level)
This is an obvious one: if you can explore parts of the dungeon with an invisible eye before you walk through it, that's fantastic. Now once this happens once DMs tend to prepare for this, as they should: don't plan on this giving you the layout of the full dungeon. But even if you can spy out even a few rooms before you go in, that gives you an immense advantage.
#2: Detect Magic (1st Level)
Do you know what I love about this spell? It's a 1st level spell (so plenty of slots to cast it, plus it's a ritual so if you have time you don't need to spend a resource to have this benefit) that just tells you, without a roll, "Hey: there's magic over there, and it is kinda like these kinds of spells." That is a very useful advantage when going through a dungeon. And this applies to traps, protective wards, spells on a character (so no need to worry about disguised enemies that look like prisoners and are actually hags or dragons or whatever), cursed items, and obvious hostile creatures.
So you have a latent alert that requires no action that gives you useful intel that never lies and doesn't require you to perform well on a roll that tells you critical info you want to know. And you get access to this in every dungeon at every level as long as your DM allows you to cast spells. What's not to like?
But there's one spell more useful than this...
#1: Find Traps (2nd Level)
Hahahahaha, oh boy, that's a good one. No, not Find Traps. If you're wondering how a spell with a name that seems TAILOR MADE for dungeon delving didn't get the #1 spot or even an honorable mention, see our post here on fixes that need to happen to that spell to make it usable. Sorry, that was just too funny not to do.
Okay, for real...
#1: Pass Without Trace (2nd Level)
Can you imagine a spell that allows heavy armor characters to reliably sneak past guards? Can you imagine a spell that basically guarantees that characters taking the hide action will be hidden and gain advantage on their attacks? Can you imagine a spell that causes you to leave no signs/tracks behind you? And with a 30ft radius affecting any/all party members near you, you can, again, benefit the whole group with its benefits.
By far I think this is the best spell for dungeon crawling at lower levels, and while it does require your concentration, all classes that get access to this spell would probably be okay with getting the benefits at the expense of their concentration and a 2nd level spell. And while you can't do this at 1st or 2nd level, once you hit 3rd level you can use this spell. So if you have the choice, you should be picking up this spell.
And of course, a lot of dungeons are situational. Spells like Fireball are useful for clearing rooms because enemies have to be in a relatively tight area. Some spells may not come up at all because of encounter design. But if you have to guess at what you will face, all of these spells help to cover your bases and aid you in effectively exploring, navigating, and conquering a dungeon. If we missed any, let us know in the comments below!
Until next time,