The Future of D&D, Part One: Spellcasting NPCs
There was a lot going on at D&D Celebration this year, especially regarding the final round of announcements at the Future of D&D segment. While I’m planning on getting to the discussion of 2024 and the “is it 5.5 or what” aura surrounding the 50th Anniversary edition of the core rulebooks, I wanted to start with something that’s already starting to appear in D&D, and is going to be expanded in the near future.
The Journey of a Thousand Stat Blocks
We’re going to be talking about NPC spellcasters, and how their stat blocks work. I think it’s also worth noting that the changes that we’re seeing now is the next evolution of something that started with the Descent Into Avernus NPC stat blocks. In those stat blocks, some key spells were added to the stat block, detailing those spells as an attack, meaning that the most common tactics that the spellcaster was likely to use didn’t require additional reference.
Some of the stat blocks included cultists that got attacks that were not listed as a spell, but they also weren’t given spellcasting abilities. Those characters that did have spellcasting abilities had the spell detailed, along with spell slot usage. Effectively, this wasn’t much different than how spellcasters have always worked as NPCs in 5th edition, except that the reference for their most common spell was given in the stat block.
The Evolution of (NPC) Magic
What we’re seeing in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is the next phase of this concept. Instead of defining the supernatural abilities of a spellcaster as a spell being cast, and then giving the details of a commonly used spell in the stat block, these new stat blocks are giving effects as attacks, without directly calling them spells. These stat blocks might also have reactions or bonus actions that allow for other spell-like effects which also aren’t directly mapped to existing spells. In addition, they may have spells that they can cast, but instead of giving the character spellcasting progression or slots, they have a per day format.
This change is positive in two ways:
- This allows the NPC to be run in combat without an external reference, making them less of a cognitive load on the GM
- This allows for rebalancing of the CR for NPC characters, because there is less reliance on existing spell damage to determine damage output
That said, this isn’t entirely a positive, and this new stat block format introduces a lot of questions regarding how an NPC spellcaster, who isn’t actually using spells, interacts with a player character spellcaster, who is using spells.
Credit where credit is due: a lot of these observations were made by Brandes Stoddard, and others came from my conversations with him.
If a spell effect isn’t a spell effect, can you counter it? Technically, you can’t. It’s not called a spell, doesn’t have a spell level, and thus, doesn’t have a means of adjudicating how counterspell (or dispel magic) interacts with the attack.
Love it or hate it, counterspell exists, and a lot of players use it. This creates a divide between older stat blocks, where the PCs may ruin the spellcaster’s plans with a well placed counterspell, and newer stat blocks, where evil casters are only susceptible if they are using one of their “X per day” resources that are constructed as spells.
Even if you rule that spell based attacks counter as a spell of X level, or that anything that is a spell attack that isn’t formulated as a spell counts as, say, 3rd level or lower, there is another problem that I’ll address under “Multiattack and Action Economy.”
This is a problem that Brandes Stoddard identified in our conversations. I will also point out that it’s not new, but it becomes exacerbated with these new caster NPC stat blocks. In my Tales of the Old Margreve game, the bearfolk shadow chewer barbarian, who hated shadow fey, had the mage slayer feat. Unfortunately, when I had a shadow fey use their ability to hop to a nearby shadow, that ability was not formulated as a spell, meaning that my player’s barbarian couldn’t do what they got the feat to do . . . ruin a spellcaster’s day if they are within reach of the spellcaster.
Because the new attacks (and reactions and bonus actions) aren’t formulated as spells, they don’t trigger the attack of opportunity granted by the mage slayer feat. That means that only if the NPC uses one of their “X per day” spells will they trigger this ability. This means that mage slayer is way more effective against PCs than it is against NPCs.
I don’t even have a good fix for this concept, because some supernatural abilities should just function, and not count as spells. As much as I felt bad for my barbarian player in the instance I cited above, it also kind of makes sense from a narrative standpoint, because the shadow fey in question was using a natural ability that they had because of their connection to the Shadowfell. They were an assassin, not a spellcaster.
Multiattack and Action Economy
I’m seeing discussion of the literal attacks being formulated as attacks without spell references, but not that many of these attacks are listed as part of a multiattack routine. Some of the stat blocks have these spell-like attacks as part of multiattack. While this helps to make the stat block more effective for CR rebalancing, it creates more issues for spell emulation.
If you could counterspell one of these spell attacks, you end up only negating one attack. If you counterspell an actual spell, like scorching ray, the caster loses all of their rays. Even if you rule that counterspell works on these abilities, the NPC spellcaster may still have one or two other attacks. However, there is an even more interesting part of this multiattack paradigm shift.
Many of these stat blocks say that the NPC spellcaster can substitute casting one of their “X per day” spells for one of their attacks. This isn’t like those attacks in the stat block that aren’t mentioned as being valid as part of the multiattack, and thus only work when they are used singly. This specifically calls out that you can mix and match spell-like attacks with spells. That means an NPC spellcaster might trigger a “legitimate” counterspell, but still get one or two other attacks that round. This may be less frustrating for the DM, but it may also make the player feel a little bit shafted (see also the FOMO section).
This also brings to mind another issue with potential spells listed in the “X per day” section. What happens if you have an NPC with, say, healing word as a spell in this list? That’s a bonus action spell, but the formulation of how this routine works seems to indicate it could be switched out for an attack. But does that mean it can’t be cast as a bonus action? We’ve never had a strict ruling on if NPCs have bonus actions and reactions that aren’t called out in their stat blocks, and honestly, I never wanted that kind of granular ruling, but this seems to be nudging us to the direction that a bonus action or reaction not called out in the stat block might not exist for the NPC.
There are a few other consequences as well. If an NPC fires darts of force as a spellcasting attack, those darts of force aren’t negated by a shield spell the way magic missile is negated in this manner. Similarly, if an NPC has a reaction that creates a force shield, they similarly aren’t cancelling out any magic missiles because that bonus action isn’t called “shield.” Granted, this problem is worse if that force attack doesn’t require an attack roll, because rolling to hit may still be negated by the armor class bonus, but it is another conceptual break by making things that “kind of” are and “kind of” aren’t the thing they work like.
Player character spellcasters, if they plan their spells well, may be able to cast a bonus action spell, and a full action spell on their turn. If they are from a class or subclass that gets multiple attacks, they might work in that bonus action spell to boost their attacks, especially if they remember to do everything in the right order. But they aren’t going to be able to cast a full action spell as a replacement for one of their weapon attacks.
That means that spellcasters, not just legendary spellcasters like liches, but spellcasters working as part of a group of NPCs, are more efficient at using magic than PCs, just because of how their multiattack might be written. As another consideration, while some attacks are pretty straightforward and mimic existing spell effects (a ray of cold, a small burst of fire, etc.), the preview we received for the War Caster gets an attack that does radiant damage and potentially blinds an opponent, something not as easily emulated with an existing spell.
Characters won’t get this action economy. They won’t be able to get these specific spells. For some players, that will be a problem. Does that mean there may be some spells developed in the future that emulate some of these effects? Maybe.
I think the thing that might be stretching things is that, even if you BUILD NPCs and PCs using different rules they mainly use the same action economy to govern their turns. The more you bend the rules that everyone uses, the more you might see some dissatisfaction. People accept that legendary creatures get extra actions, because they are special, and often singular, creatures. But if you start using multiattack to redefine the casting rules too much, is that same level of separation going to feel satisfying?
If you have ever noticed, in D&D 5e, you don’t have cantrips that can heal hit point damage? This is because if you have a resource that is unlimited, that can provide other resources, that other limited resource then becomes unlimited. You may still be in danger in a fight if damage output outpaces damage replacement, but outside of a fight, you can replenish any number of hit points and go into every fight with full damage ablative resources.
The preview stat block for the new War Priest has a bonus action healing ability. This healing ability is framed as a recharge ability. Here is where we get into tricky territory. If it’s a recharge ability, and the War Priest ends up traveling with the player characters, they now have unlimited hit points as long as the War Priest NPC is traveling with the group.
Now, we may be able to agree that powers in a stat block don’t work the way they work in combat the way they work out of combat. That said, unless the whole group agrees to this, you have introduced something that is going to be nit picked and exploited by people that don’t sign on for that paradigm. I’d argue that healing in a monster/NPC stat block should have the same kind of limitations placed on it as any other kind of healing for which the PCs might access.
Is New Bad?
Why no, clickbait worthy header, new isn’t automatically bad. That said, new is new, and hasn’t had a chance to be used. New may have unexpected consequences that clash with previous expectations. New may require acclimation. I can’t say that all of the concerns that have been raised here are going to be problems. I do think at the very least, player facing resources like counterspell, mage slayer, and even healing may need to be addressed.
I think that having more abilities that can be run straight from the stat block is important to help DMs with their cognitive load, which helps make the game, overall, run smooth and makes it more fun for everyone. I also know that D&D has a lot of moving parts that interact in different ways, and changing something, even something that is usually in the DM’s purview, may have a ripple effect.
I don’t want D&D 5e to be a game that requires the level of definition and clarification that was the hallmark of 3rd edition OGL based games. That said, I do want something brand new to the game that may cause contention to have enough clarification to make sure it relieves more stress than it causes.
Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs had certain traits that could only be taken by NPCs that would give them abilities that made them harder to hit, or give them defenses or attacks that player characters couldn’t get with a single talent. This worked because it didn’t give the NPC something they couldn’t have at all, it just made it simpler to add those traits to an NPC, instead of following the multiple talents/progress tree format that PCs used. This feels like similar game design intent . . . making NPCs spellcasters feel like spellcasters, without making the DM run multiple spellcasters by PC rules. I think it’s laudable, I’m just curious to see all the points of contact between these “shortcuts” and the expected cycle of play.