Fixing NPC spellcasters

In D&D, playing a spellcaster is fun – as a player. As a DM? Not so much. Sometimes, in fact, running an NPC spellcaster can be a real headache.

Fundamentally, NPC spellcasters use the same spellcasting rules as player characters. They have a spell list. They have spell slots, sometimes lots of them. But is this helpful for a DM running the game?

Player characters will end up casting multiple spells a day. For example, a 9th-level wizard can cast 14 spells before needing a long rest, and that’s not including cantrips and rituals, or the spells they regain from arcane recovery. Player characters are the heroes of the story and take up the most ‘screen time’: they need options and variety in order to be fun to play. NPC spellcasters, on the other hand, may only be appearing for a single fight, and most combats in 5th edition are expected to last for three rounds – that’s built into the game. So even an archmage with 20 spell slots is realistically only going to cast a handful of spells before the end of the encounter.

Well: so what? Why is that a problem?

DM headaches

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Here’s the thing. A player with an 18th-level wizard has probably been playing their character for over 100 hours of game time. It may be the only character that they play. A player has plenty of opportunities to look up what their spells do, and they don’t have to worry about the spell lists of other classes.

DMs don’t have this luxury. In the Monster Manual alone there are about 80 spellcasters, and maybe another 100 or so if you include Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. And there are well over 300 spells in the Player’s Handbook that a DM might be expected to be familiar with. If the DM is playing an NPC spellcaster, they might be working with a spell list of ten, 15, maybe even 20 spells.

This has consequences. If you’re diligent, you might put in the leg work, study the spell list, and plan accordingly. But this takes time, and sessions take long enough to prepare as it is. Plus, it’s inefficient: you will probably only cast a handful of the spells you’ve bothered to read. (Especially since some of the NPC spell lists are decidedly weird. Archmages can’t cast shield. Acererak the lich has knock but passed over wish.)

What if you skip the prep and wing it at the table? You’re still taking a risk. You might end up playing the NPC sub-optimally because you didn’t know how their spells worked. Or you might get super stressed at the table because you’re trying to juggle too many things at once. Or the fight becomes a slow and boring slog.  

There are tools to help us – Keith Ammann over at themonstersknow.com is particularly great on this – but even with a good strategy guide in front of you, an NPC spellcaster has the potential to be one of the most complicated enemies you will field as DM. And you know what? We DMs have enough to do as it is. So, let’s be kind to ourselves and find some solutions.

Action-oriented archmages

We’re going to do a bit of game design. Strap in.

First of all, let’s clear something up. NPCs don’t need to follow the same character creation rules as the players. There’s plenty of precedent for this already. Thugs get pack tactics. Cult fanatics have dark devotion. Knights get parry and leadership. PCs are cool because they can do things that NPCs cannot, but sometimes, the reverse is also true. Besides, an archmage who casts fireball and magic missile is kind of boring. I think we can do better.

I’m taking my inspiration in this section from Matt Colville’s excellent video on action-oriented monsters. If you haven’t seen it, go away and watch it now. In fact, here it is. Watch the video.

Colville was actually responding to a different issue: the problem of ‘toughness’ and making a solo monster survive for a whole combat in an interesting way. But I think his ideas are totally applicable here.

Action-oriented monster design is eventually this:

  1. Start by thinking about the monster’s themes. What makes it special, unique?
  2. Come up with some values for AC and hit points. Don’t go too high on AC – a monster that can’t be hit is not fun – but be prepared to lean high on hp.
  3. If you need to, tinker with things like speed and senses, but this isn’t important for every monster.
  4. The big thing is actions (hence ‘action-oriented design’). Make sure there is a ranged and a melee option, and make sure it’s a multiattack if possible, too.
  5. Come up with a bonus action. In Colville’s video, he gives his goblin boss the ability to call in reinforcements every round. It’s only a goblin, but it’s fun.
  6. Come up with a reaction, or a choice of multiple options for reactions. They keep the fight dynamic. Keep the trigger simple: if it’s too complicated, you won’t remember to use it.
  7. And then Colville’s Big Thing: ‘villain actions’. These are essentially a kind of legendary action in that they happen on the end of another player’s turn. But here’s the twist: action-oriented monsters get a different villain action every turn. This helps to shape and pace the combat and give it a narrative.
  8. Finally, you look at the numbers: attack bonuses, damage rolls, etc. But actions are the most important thing. This is homebrewing: it’s not an official D&D monster, published in the Monster Manual. Be prepared to adapt on the fly if you need to.

And that’s it.

So: let’s try to make an action-oriented archmage.

Tinkering with game design

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In the Monster Manual, the archmage is a CR 12 spellcaster. I’m going to aim for something in this ballpark, if it’s slightly off, no big deal.

Let’s go through the steps.

1. What are the monster’s themes? Archmages are powerful students of the arcane arts and are usually quite old. That’s actually what it says in the Monster Manual by the way: page 342. So far, so vanilla. Reading on, we get a bit more: an archmage’s home is warded with magic and guardians, and they typically have one or more mages as apprentices. But the main thing is their mastery of arcane magic. I want to create a sense of this but without giving them a long spell list.

2. By default, archmages have pretty much the lowest AC of any official CR 12 monster: 15. But I’m OK with that. Their main method of avoiding blows should be magic. As for their hit points: this, too, is a very low score: 99. Let’s double it and round up to 200. If that seems too high, we can always lower it later.

3. Speed, senses? OK, let’s do something fun. I don’t think a master of arcane magic should be earthbound. Nor should they be caught out by cheap conjuring tricks like invisibility. I’m going to give my archmage a fly speed of 60 ft and truesight of 120 ft. Plenty of creatures by this CR can fly, and so can plenty of PCs. It’s not a big deal, and it links to the overall theme of the ‘powerful arcane master’.

The Monster Manual archmage has magic resistance. Do we need this? Something about it doesn’t quite fit for me. It’s something I associate more with fiends and celestials, or particular creatures like yuan-ti. They also have the option of stoneskin or globe of invulnerability (although, rules as written, you can’t concentrate on both). This all feels like a bit of a headache to run. Instead, I’m just going to add legendary resistance (3/day) and ensure that the archmage’s actions do enough to keep the archmage safe from harm.

4. Right: actions. By default, the archmage has one: a ranged or melee attack with a dagger. Under no circumstances should my master of arcane power be swiping at someone with a knife. We can use the original spell list of inspiration here. Let’s go with four 1d10 magic orbs (ranged, any elemental damage type) or a repelling grasp (limited damage, but pushes the target back 10 feet). Bin the dagger. I also like the idea of an area of effect attack if enemies get a bit too close, so let’s keep cone of cold as an alternative. It probably won’t break the game if the archmage uses it every turn.

5. The Monster Manual archmage already has a bonus action: misty step. (Fun fact: in the Player’s Handbook, 5e wizards only have access to three spells that can be cast as bonus actions, as this is one of them.) This feels absolutely appropriate. I’ll keep it.

At this point, some of you are probably thinking, hold up, aren’t there rules about how many spells you can cast in a round?

Yes. Specifically, if a spell has a casting time of one bonus action, you can’t cast any other spells before or after on the same turn, except for cantrips with a casting time of one action.

I’m going to ignore this. My archmage is a master of arcane power. If anyone can break the rules, they can.

6. Onto reactions. I’m going to give my archmage a choice of two: shield or counterspell. (By default, an archmage doesn’t have shield prepared. This is bonkers. It’s the wizard equivalent of being caught with your pants down.) I want my archmage’s counterspell to feel a bit more powerful than your average wizard’s, so let’s say it is cast at 5th level by default. Picture Dumbledore duelling Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix.

So far, we haven’t actually done much game design! We’ve basically just ‘reformatted’ the stat block so that the actions, reactions, and bonus actions are all clearly signposted. That in itself is not a bad thing. It’s a good place to start. But now we should start to do something more interesting with the villain actions. We need three: first round, second round, and third round.

7. The first villain action should be neat but not devastating, and should probably focus on positioning. Our archmage already has misty step as a bonus action, so I think this should be something that affects the positioning of the PCs. An archmage’s home is warded with magic, so perhaps one of these wards rebuffs the adventurers or moves them around. How about this: characters within 30 feet of the archmage must move back 10 feet and are knocked prone. A pulse of arcane power throws you backwards like a ragdoll. They’re not stunned, they don’t take damage . . . they’re just inconvenienced.

Colville doesn’t give any specific guidance as to the second villain action, but both of his examples seem to focus on inconveniencing the PC who poses most threat. The MM archmage could do this with a save-or-suck spell like banishment, but honestly? I kind of hate banishment, and it’s annoying as hell when it’s used against you. So: what would a powerful master of arcane do when one of the adventurers is proving particularly irksome? This isn’t a necromancer, so we don’t need a big power word kill attack or anything like that, but we do want something troublesome. I’ve come up with an ability called ‘arcane puppeteer’: the archmage can choose one creature and have them use an action of his choice, for one round only. Again, this is homebrew, not official material, so there’s freedom for the DM to adapt this ability on the fly. If the encounter is proving too easy, perhaps the archmage uses the wizard to cast a self-destructive fireball. If the encounter is already very difficult, then maybe just have a character run backward, or skip the villain action entirely. YMMV.

Finally, the third villain action should do something really amazing, because the creature’s death is imminent. How about this? A gale of wind. Everyone flies back 30 feet away from the archmage (taking damage if they hit a wall), and for the rest of the round, characters who try to move toward the archmage must move as if moving through difficult terrain, even if flying. Ranged attacks against the archmage suffer disadvantage. This, too, could be flavoured like some kind of protective ward.

Deviating from Colville, I’m going to add one more action, one which triggers when the archmage dies. This is a master of powerful arcane magic, so when the archmage dies, his or her body disappears in a flash of pure arcane energy. Characters must make a save or be blinded for one minute. A bummer if they haven’t dealt with the archmage’s shield guardian yet . . .

That’s that! This is still an archmage, but we’ve gone down from a spell list of 25 (!) spells to a character who is much easier to run and has some cool actions to use on every turn. I’ve tried to create an archmage who can manipulate the battlefield with magic and use powerful arcane wards to repel opponents. An illusionist, a necromancer, or an enchanter could have different abilities again. But that’s another article. If you give these rules a try, let me know how you get on in the comments below.

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