I got some words to say about the countering of spells
WotC has changed the way they present NPCs, and it’s caused a lot of really empty-headed takes on the internet. The real question, though, is what were they thinking?
So tl;dr for those out of the loop – spellcaster presentation has changed thusly:
Since 2014, spellcasting creatures have tended to have the Spellcasting trait, the Innate Spellcasting Trait, or both. Starting in 2021, we have merged those two traits into an action called Spellcasting. That action now appears in the “Actions” section of a stat block, and it has a few important qualities:
- The Spellcasting action doesn’t use spell slots. A creature can cast the action’s spells a certain number of times per day.
- The only spells that appear in the Spellcasting action are ones that take an action to cast. If a spell requires a bonus action, a reaction, or a minute or more to cast, that spell must appear elsewhere in the stat block. This change ensures that bonus actions and reactions—such as misty step and shield—aren’t hiding out in a list of spells.
- We’re more selective about which spells appear in a stat block, focusing on spells that have noncombat utility. A magic-using monster’s most potent firepower is now usually represented by a special magical action, rather than relying on spells.
A cavalcade of drivel
There is a lot to be said about this decision. Informed critique about its benefits and detriments. The actual mechanics for spellcasting have subtly changed; what are the effects on system mastery, flexibility, accessibility (for the DM), etc.? This is a really interesting discussion with compelling arguments on both sides.
But because this is the internet that’s not what’s being talked about, instead the conversation is this: Dungeons & Dragons Nerfed Counterspell. The theory here is that, because many damaging spells are now moved to be actions, they cannot be targeted by Counterspell. Or the mage-slayer feat. Or the paladin’s aura of warding.
Now that’s not necessarily a dumb take. The wording is confusing enough that this might actually be the case, although WotC has been suspiciously quiet in the debate (more about that later). What’s really grinding my gear about this, though, is the way that people are framing it as if of course this was the plan all along. It’s a “stealth-nerf”, suggesting some sleight of hand on WotC’s part, sneaking in a massive change to a spell with an otherwise innocuous stat-block presentation change.
And then it gets even more dim-witted with people arguing that, why yes, Counterspell is too strong and totally deserves this.
That’s not the point! Who cares if monsters were “too easily stymied by Counterspell”! Who cares if Counterspell is a “a character creation tax”, “non-choice” or “arms race”! You are so far beside the point that you can’t even see it anymore!
Luckily, dear reader, you and I are better than this.
Let me spell out what people think 1. Is happening and 2. Is good, actually:
Wizards of the Coast, who by the way have been extremely hesitant to put out any errata on their core books, decided, a mere 7 years after the launch of fifth edition, that Counterspell was so imbalanced and anti-fun that they just had to do something about it. And then they proceeded to, not write an article explaining their reasoning and approach, but instead release a completely different article about stat blocks that doesn’t even mention the spell but as a sneaky side-effect stops Counterspell from working on most NPC spellcasters’ core damaging spells. And in the same breath they sacrificed a bunch of other abilities in the crossfire, stuff that interact with spells such as mage-slayer and aura of warding – because that’s just how bad Counterspell is!
Do you see how idiotic this is? This is what people are rolling with as their core thesis, and arguing its merits like it’s a perfectly acceptable course of business. It’s not. It betrays a complete disregard for the game and its players from the design team.
Which is why I think it didn’t happen. I hold Jeremy in higher regard than this.
What were they thinking?
Which brings me to why this state of affairs makes me so anxious: I can’t think of a benign alternative to the “stealth-nerf” theory. I’m personally holding out hope that they simply did not consider Counterspell when planning this redesign. And some follow-up articles or tweets from JCraw will just say “if it says it’s a spell attack or magical damage, then Counterspell works”. This is my best-case scenario but it is still pretty bad. The idea that this was an unforeseen consequence is scary. I mean, oversights happen I guess but… Really? Our options are malice or incompetence?
There are a bunch of other weird side-effects to these action-spells. Consider “fiery explosion”:
Fiery Explosion (Recharge 4–6). Kelek creates a magical explosion of fire centered on a point he can see within 120 feet of him. Each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on that point must make a DC 14 Dexterity saving throw, taking 35 (10d6) fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
If this can be Counterspelled, what level is it? If I cast Silence on Kelek, can he still cast it? What if I tie his hands? Steal his component pouch? What happens if I find his spellbook, can I learn to do my own Fiery Explosions? Also, does this mean he can spam infinite fifth-level Fireballs at a rate of five per minute? There’s a healer statblock out there with a healing spell on recharge – can a single one of those heal the whole team after each battle? I remember Healing Spirit requiring errata to stop just this.
To me, all these problems are incredibly obvious, and poor design at a level that eclipses most other considerations. Is this what we have to look forward to in 2024?
So yeah, all options are kinda bad, and I have no idea where WotC is coming from. They’ve been conspicuously quiet, which in itself could indicate that they haven’t thought it through. If the plan was always to screw over Counterspell then a simple “yeah we didn’t want these spells to be so easily counterspelled” would’ve settled things. It wouldn’t solve the problems with Silence and its ilk though.
If it were up to me I’d roll back to a previous version where spells were called out specifically as spells (Descent into Avernus):
Ray of Sickness (1st-Level Spell; Requires a Spell Slot). Ranged Spell Attack: +6 to hit, range 60 ft., one creature. Hit: 9 (2d8) poison damage, and the target must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned until the end of the master of souls’ next turn. If the master of souls casts this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 1st.
But even this is hard because the Kelek-style of spellcasting is already in print – he’s from the recent Wild Beyond the Witchlight, and it looks like Mordenkainen’s Second Book Full of Monsters is filled with these monsters and in a pretty advanced state of development already.
As a final thought, I leave you with The Alexandrian who examines the design repercussions of the new style in good faith, like imagine if this was done properly then it would still be worth a debate on whether it’s even a good idea or not: Tweet.