Fireball, hold person, finger of death, and power word kill. While these spells might be quite powerful, are they really the most fun spells to give to monsters? I’d say not!
Designing a spell list for a monster you want to be fun, challenging, and flavorful can be a daunting task when you have over 500 spells to choose from – and I often find myself guilty of picking whatever spells I remember to be “the best” (as in the most powerful) for a player character at various spell levels.
However, D&D is all about having fun, and the “best” options for a monster aren’t the spells that are powerful in a mechanical sense, that you may want for your character. Instead, you want monsters to have spells that can excite and surprise the players, or reshape your encounters in fun and unpredictable ways.
So, in this article, we’ll dive into the issues with the spells that dominate the official NPC statblocks – and provide various suggestions on how to design awesome spell lists for your monsters. Finally, we’ll present reworked spell lists for the lich and the archmage, two of the most popular spellcaster NPCs in 5e D&D.
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How to Avoid Boring Spells
Spells can serve numerous purposes when building a statblock – from allowing a frail monster to boost its defensive capabilities with shield or disrupt the party’s spellcasters with counterspell to healing and bolstering allies with buffs, or controlling the battlefield with area-of-effect spells.
In other words, spells are a super important tool when building a cool statblock in D&D 5E.
Yet, when scrolling down the official 5E monster statblocks from Wizard’s of the Coast, the vast majority of the spells that monsters are equipped with seem to share one or more of the following unfortunate traits:
- They are useless in combat
- They do nothing but deal damage
- They take characters out of combat
Why are these things a problem, you may ask. Well, let’s break it down – and look at the solutions!
If a spell isn’t meant to be used in combat, it simply shouldn’t take up space on a statblock, in my opinion. A spell list can easily become overwhelming for the DM – especially when you have to concentrate on ten other things simultaneously – so filling it up with spells like augury or prestidigitation (did I spell that right?) that has no real use in the combat situations where you’d use the monster’s statblock in the first place just makes it harder to find the stuff you’d actually want to cast.
If you do need a monster to be able to cast identify, ceremony, or some obscure spell with a 24-hour casting time, you can just decide that this specific monster knows that specific spell, even if its statblock would state otherwise – that’s one of the perks of being a DM!
Pure damage spells
While I prefer spells that also inflict some sort of condition or effect (we’ll get to that later!), I can certainly understand the need for using fireball or cone of cold on a statblock for the sole purpose of increasing a monster’s damage output – even if these types of spells are unlikely to impress or surprise veteran players. Sometimes, you just need to blast the party up.
However, I think the spells that are purposefully designed to kill another creature such as disintegrate, finger of death, or power word kill are better left for the player characters and should usually be avoided on monsters. Of course, I can see why the statblock for a lich is equipped with these exact spells, but it can quickly get problematic when the only ‘good’ option you’ll have as a DM – assuming you want your lich to challenge the party – is to fire off spells that literally turn a character into dust. I don’t know about you, but I think most of the players at my table would be pretty disappointed to have their beloved character go in that way.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t go full evil, or run a lethal game, and yes, I understand the urge to dust the dude that keeps interrupting the big speech you had planned out. But c’mon. At least give them a decent death.
Finally, there are the spells that, in one way or the other, take a player character out of combat, whether by rendering them incapacitated or banishing them to another dimension. Why is that an issue? Well, as a DM it can be frustrating to have your BBEG fail its saving throw on banishment, but you’ll still have other minions to move around – or another combat around the corner. When a player’s character gets taken out of combat by a spell, that player literally has to just sit and wait until the spell’s effect ends. Of course, that may happen quickly, but sitting idle at the table for half an hour – even when well-stocked on snacks – just isn’t a recipe for excitement in my book.
With all that out of the way, it’s time to move on to the fun stuff – how to pick awesome spells!
How to give monsters spells that are fun and easy to use!
So, how do we select spells for monsters that are entertaining? Here are my suggestions:
Forget non-combat spells
A spell list should be as short as possible, and these spells take up space for no good reason. If you do need an NPC to be able to cast identify or hallow, these spells happen to be written on the statblock with invisible ink.
Limit Spells that only deal damage
A fireball or circle of death can be a fine choice, but you shouldn’t fill up an entire spell list with spells that just deal damage and have no other fun effects. In general, you should also avoid insta-kill spells such as power word kill.
Avoid spells that take characters out of combat
Spells that take a player character completely out of combat without any subsequent saves such as banishment or maze are usually not very fun for the player who’ll be forced to sit idly by the table for potentially an entire combat. Even spells that ‘just’ incapacitate a character such as hold person can become quite boring for an affected player character – whereas a character targeted by dominate person would at least still get the joy of attacking their own party. Likewise, a spell such as slow that forces multiple creatures to choose between taking an action, bonus action, or moving on their turn tends to be more fun as the characters will still have something to do.
Favor Spells with Fun Effects
Spells that can alter the battlefield or affect numerous targets with cool effects tend to be lots of fun. Newer releases such as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything contains many spells that deal damage while also having fun effects.
For instance, instead of giving your monster cone of cold, you could pick up synaptic static instead. While this spell deals considerably less damage, it uses Intelligence as the saving throw, it deals Psychic damage, and it forces the targets to subtract a d6 from attack rolls and saving throws for a minute, which can really impact combat in fun ways. Likewise, spells such as contagion or flesh to stone that require the target to make multiple saving throws are usually not picked up by player characters, but they’re super cool to use on a monster!
Use Weak High-Level Spells
Have you heard about storm of vengeance or weird? Nope? Well, I can almost guarantee that you won’t find these 9th-level spells on any articles that list “the best spells in D&D 5E”. And for good reason – they’re horribly underpowered when compared to the other options that are available at that level. However, that makes them perfect for a monster!
Not only are these spells likely to surprise and awe even veteran players compared to the more commonly used spell, they’re also so weak that you can give them to a monster with a Challenge Rating that wouldn’t justify a more powerful 9th-level spell such as meteor swarm.
Tweak Existing Spells!
Another way to make sure your monster can cast spells that are actually fun at the table is to tweak the fun spells that exist! If you, for example, like the flavor of maddening darkness for your monster but feel its damage is too high for your party, you can just keep the fun effects of the spell while reducing its damage output.
Many low-level spells are also fun but simply too weak to use for your BBEG – however, you could easily decide that your monster can target multiple creatures instead of one with its vicious mockery or bestow curse, and perhaps even do so as a bonus action while still casting another spell. Even changing the damage type of spells to make it fit your monster’s theme is an effective way to quickly make a great spell list for your monsters!
Statblock Examples: Lich, Archmage, Mage, and Druid
To make all of this a bit more tangible, let’s look at some actual statblocks from Wizard’s of the Coast and see how we can change up their spell lists to make them a bit more fun. Let’s start with a classic:
A lich in 5E D&D is an immensely powerful Challenge Rating 21 undead spellcaster – so, it is only natural for the lich to have an arsenal of deadly spells, which its official statblock certainly has. The ‘problem’ is that deadly – as in insta-kill a player character – spells are basically all it got, aside from useless spells. Here is the lich’s spell list:
Cantrips (at will): mage hand, prestidigitation, ray of frost
1st level (4 slots): detect magic, magic missile, shield, thunderwave
2nd level (3 slots): acid arrow, detect thoughts, invisibility, mirror image
3rd level (3 slots): animate dead, counterspell, dispel magic, fireball
4th level (3 slots): blight, dimension door
5th level (3 slots): cloudkill, scrying
6th level (1 slot): disintegrate, globe of invulnerability
7th level (1 slot): finger of death, plane shift
8th level (1 slot): dominate monster, power word stun
9th level (1 slot): power word kill
Why the Lich’s Spells Sucks
My first issue with the lich’s spell list is the amount of space wasted on out-of-combat cantrips or spells such as detect magic, mage hand, or even scrying – if you need it to, your lich should be able to cast these spells.
When dealing with an all-powerful, unaging spellcaster – and considering the fact that the lich has only 135 hit points, which makes it unlikely combat against it will last long – there’s not really any reason to give it acid arrow, magic missile, or thunderwave either (unless you decide to buff these spells).
Finally, while I can totally see why a lich should logically be able to cast finger of death, disintegrate, and power word kill, being instantly reduced to 0 hit points as a player character is just quite unsatisfying, for most people at least.
Power word stun is also a pretty boring 8th-level spell option, in my opinion. And while blight and fireball are fine for the sole purpose of dealing damage, they’re not very epic or awe-inspiring choice.
Fixing the Lich’s Spells
If we were to remove all of the spells I’ve critiqued above, we’re left with a much smaller spell list, so we’d obviously need to give our new lich a few more options to compensate for that.
Personally, I would suggest adding a few fun but not overly powerful 8th- and 9th-level spells such as illusory dragon, maddening darkness, weird, or ravenous void, which are far from the most powerful for their spell level – meaning you can easily choose more than one of them without breaking the balance. For a few options that are a bit more powerful, you can consider dark star (8th-level) and psychic scream (9th-level). And, if you really want a single-target spell that can kill a character, swap out power word kill with the relatively weak time ravage – that way, the character will at least have 30 days to live in before they die of old age!
Depending on the high-level spells you choose, you may also want to add a few lower-level spells that deal damage (as we’ve removed most of those). I’d personally go for something like synaptic static, Raulothim’s psychic lance (which does go against my rule of causing a player character to be Incapicated, but it’s only for a single round, so that’s okay!). I would then consider changing the damage type of these two spells to Necrotic, just to give it a more lich-like flavor, and perhaps buff the damage a bit. If you prefer to keep it more simple, you can also just give it a good ol’ and thematically fitting circle of death instead, which basically just deals Necrotic damage in a large area (and has a cool name).
Oh, and since the lich can cast cantrips as a legendary action, you could also give it a few more options there such as lightning lure (giving it mobility) or shocking grasp (to prevent characters from using counterspell, muhaha), and/or mind sliver (making its spells harder to resist).
In practice, these changes would not only result in a spell list that is – in my opinion – much more versatile and fun for everyone at the table, it would also make it far more simple to use for the DM. Below is a comparison of the original lich’s spell list versus an example of an updated spell list with added spells written in bold:
Next up, we have the archmage. This time we’ll just dive directly into a comparison between the original spell list and an example of an updated spell list, before I explain my thought process behind the changes:
In stark contrast to the one-sided focus on lethal damage dealing spells on the lich’s spell list, my main issue with the archmage’s spell list is the lack of spells that deal damage – as well as spells with fun effects.
So, the first thing I did in the above is example was to remove two most powerful spells – time stop and mind blank – and give it dominate monster and reverse gravity instead, both of which I believe to be much more fun
At the same time I’ve removed a bunch of defensive spells (disguise self, fire shield, fly, globe of invulnerability, mirror image, and stoneskin). I could’ve kept fly and mirror image, which are cool spells, but I feel it already has plenty options with shield (at will) added to the list plus misty step and mage armor.
I also removed banishment because it is boring for the target and removed all non-combat spells such as identify and detect thoughts – my archmage knows this stuff if it needs to.
Finally, I removed magic missile (because its very weak) and cone of cold, giving it synaptic static instead. The reasoning here isn’t that cone of cold sucks, but rather that it already has lightning bolt and I felt it needed a damage spell that also had a cool effect.
You could also decide to keep cone of cold but add the effect of a ray of frost or slow spell for a round if the target fails its saving throw, or give its lightning bolt the effect of shocking grasp – or give it a fireball with the blinding effect of blindness/deafness. The idea here is that you want the archmage’s spell to be just a bit more fun and flavorful than the standard x die of damage!
That’s it for this one! Of course, compiling a cool spell list isn’t an exact science and will always depend on your party and the theme/flavor of the specific monster. However, whether you design a monster from scratch or tweak an existing statblocks, I hope the following advice and tips will help you make sure its spell list is easy to use and packed with fun options:
- Remove non-combat spells from the statblock to make the spell list simpler to use.
- Limit the number of spells that only deal damage and try to avoid insta-kill spells such as power word kill as they can be quite unsatisfying fun for the target.
- Avoid spells that take characters entirely out of combat – sitting at the table for potentially hours without having anything to do isn’t very exciting as a player.
- Look to newer publications for fun spells such as those featured in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything or Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
- Use weak but fun high-level spells and don’t be afraid to pick up a weak 8th- or even 9th-level spell instead of a powerful 7th-level spell without changing a monster’s CR.
- Tweak existing spells by changing the damage type, adding additional effects, or lowering their damage so that the spell matches the creature’s Challenge Rating – and allow your monster to cast fun but weak single-target spells on multiple foes.
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