Combat is easy to describe compared to narrating spell attacks. I ran into this problem last session when I was getting into detail telling the barbarian how they tore off an ogre’s head but then the druid just kept using Fire Bolt and I kept defaulting to “you shoot a bolt of fire at his face.” I’m going to try and vary things up with these lists and help everyone else in the process! I am organizing them by energy type.
Mode of Attack
Half of a spell’s attack is how the caster shapes their spell. The same spell can look very different with every casting if you have a creative DM. Feel free to switch it up each time it’s cast, or vary the same spell when cast by different characters of different classes.
Generic shapes and terms that will launch from the caster’s hand.
Energy manifests from thin air a foot in front of their instrument as they play
Energy is shaped like ribbons of written music that ripples towards enemies
Several tiny motes of energy appear with each note sung or played. Each point of damage comes from a mote hitting the opponent (rolls a 4 out of a d6, 4 of the 6 note-motes hit)
Energy falls from the sky or emerges from the ground as the cleric prays
Beam of energy originates from holy symbol
Spell attack should highlight that the cleric is granted their powers from a greater power, don’t have the energy come from their hand/finger. Have the energy come TO them, and then be thrown at the enemy.
Energy is shaped like an animal.
Energy rushes forth from the surrounding wilderness and zooms past the druid and toward the foe.
Much like Cleric, energy shouldn’t come from the caster. It should come from elsewhere before being thrown at the enemy.
Fighter (Eldritch Knight)
Energy blasts from their bound weapon pointed at the enemy.
Energy fires from their mouth as they yell.
Energy surrounds their weapon and is used in tandem with it (if close enough)
Monk (Way of Four Elements)
Literally just watch Avatar: the Last Airbender and do that.
Most Paladin spells are smite-based, so they usually happen when an attack hits. Otherwise, let the energy come from a higher power like the Cleric.
Energy bursts forth from within the creature hit
Energy surrounds weapon right as the strike lands
Energy falls from the sky or erupts from the ground
Honestly, most Ranger spells often seem a lot like man-made traps like Cordon of Arrows (arrow traps), Fog Cloud (smoke grenade), or Grasping Vine (slipknot trap). But otherwise, Play it like the Cleric where the energy comes from a higher power.
Energy takes the form of the Ranger’s animal companion or an animal they associate with.
Spells seem to cast automatically whenever the Ranger is in a tight spot, almost as if nature itself is protecting them. The Ranger gives an approving nod whenever this happens in thanks.
Rogue (Arcane Trickster)
Energy is always accompanied by a shimmer of glitter
The Rogue plays with the energy over their fingertips as they whistle before casting the spell.
Energy enchants one of the Rogue’s daggers and casts the spell by tossing the dagger at the intended location or target.
Sorcerer (Draconic Bloodline)
Energy takes the shape of a dragon of your bloodline.
Energy surges forth from your breath
All energy takes the shape of your bloodline dragon’s energy type, regardless of the actual energy type. For instance, a sorcerer of a blue dragon’s bloodline that casts Burning Hands or Cone of Cold keeps the energy type but shapes the fire and cold damage into the form of a bolt of lightning.
Sorcerer (Wild Magic)
Energy takes on many random forms, never under the full command of the Sorcerer.
Energy erupts from random places in the environment when the Sorcerer calls upon them.
Energy bubbles and fizzes with all energy types (but mostly the one called upon), as if a piece of Limbo was thrown at the enemy.
Your energy shimmers with iridescent colors and showers enemies with sparks of glitter.
Warlock (Great Old One)
Your magic corrupts and twists the flesh of the target of your spell, regardless of the energy type.
Energy takes the shape of the unholy symbol of your patron.
Energy shoots forth from your magical wards, arcing towards your enemies.
You conjure a short-lived elemental of the energy type you need. It soars at the enemy.
You weave the glowing threads of fate in the palms of your hands, tweaking reality to cast your spell.
You enchant an object to exude the energy and toss it at the enemy.
I mean, you just sorta blast them. That’s what this school’s about.
Your spell usually spawns two or three illusory copies. When the attack misses, the enemy simply managed to dodge the right duplicate.
Your energy takes the shape of a skull screaming as it flies toward the enemy
You transmute the energy out of the surrounding environment and fire it at the enemy
So if half of a spell’s attack is the shape and travel of the spell, the other half is when the spell hits. I organized this list by energy type, as different energies will do different sorts of things when they hit a creature. This is mostly a collection of interesting effects, colorful language, and examples.
Your bolt of fire singes their armor (burning cloth, blackening leather, discoloring metal)
A tiny bead of fire explodes on contact
Showers them with red sparks
Your attack leaves behind a billowing trail of smoke
A fast-travelling meteor of flame soars from the sky towards the enemy.
Your flames leave blisters and cracked skin in its wake.
Your fire blackens the enemy’s flesh
You freeze the moisture in the air into icy daggers that fall onto your enemy
You freeze the water in their blood to damage them
Their skin turns blue and numb
You literally hurl a snowball at them.
Your spell leaves them covered in a layer of frost
A buildup of ice covers where your spell hit. (it’s easily shattered once they move, though)
A blast of icy wind and rain leaves them shivering.
A crack of thunder pummels your foe
A high-pitched, deafening shriek focuses itself on the target
A thin trail of blood races from the foe’s ears from a sound no one else can hear
The enemy falls to their knees cupping their hands over their ears, gritting their teeth
You buffet the target with waves of thunderous sound
The ground shakes with the force of your spell. Brittle glass objects nearby shatter.
Lightning comes from the sky to smite your foe
You all smell the faint odor of ozone before a bright bolt of lightning streaks toward the target of your spell
Before your enemy can blink they are showered in electrical sparks followed by crippling pain
The enemy’s back stiffens as the powerful current of lightning surges through them
Your attack leaves a permanent web of lightning shaped burns all over one side of their body
Your blast of lightning causes their skin to rupture as it travels through their body
Your acid sizzles as it burns a new, unnatural color into their skin
The attack melts their flesh, leaving them permanently disfigured at the site of the spell
Your spell’s acid causes blue fire to burn where it hit their skin, and bleaches their armor and belongings
A rancid smell fills the foe’s nostrils as the acid bubbles on their bare skin, burning through the simple cloth of their shirt.
You spew a poisonous cloud from your mouth at your opponent
A spectral viper or insect is flung at the opponent, biting them and filling them with magical venom
Your index and middle finger each grow a poisonous fang which you sink into your opponent’s arm (melee range spell attacks only)
The enemy’s mouth fills with a foul tasting liquid which forces its way down their throat
Your target’s flesh bubbles and boils as a black ichor sputters from the spell’s origin
The foe’s flesh festers with magical disease as boils and wounds quickly cover the affected area
A skeletal hand wriggles free from beneath the earth, flying towards the target
An incorporeal undead shrieks as it flies from your finger toward the enemy to deliver the spell’s effect
Black energy swirls around your arm before launching towards the enemy as if it had a life of its own
Your iridescent blue magic enters the target’s body and afflicts their soul, making them momentarily dazed as their eyes glaze over.
A holy light shines from the skies to harm your target, regardless of time of day or obstructions
A halo of radiant energy surrounds your head and blinds the target as they gaze upon it
Enemies that aren’t of your alignment hear the whispers of your deity moments before being enveloped in a blinding white light
The foe’s eyes and mouth emit warm light and they howl in pain
A blade of radiant energy slashes through the victim, leaving a trail of blinking motes of light in its wake
The enemy’s skin blisters from the raw positive energy surging through them
So essentially this whole post was a creative writing assignment for myself, but I hope that it gives you guys new creative ideas for new spells or new ways to describe existing spells! They don’t much affect the mechanics of the spell at all, so most DMs I suspect will be fine with most of these descriptions if you want your character to cast spells a certain way.
Here are my personal notes for an encounter I have set up for my players for our next game. They’re way up in the mountains and are about to meet a forgotten orcish demon cult living among them. This small dungeon can be dropped in whenever I’d like to have a beat between the main plot points.
Cleric: (ooc) What’s a pagoda?
Ranger: I shoot the Pagoda!!
DM: The Pagoda is indifferent.
Ranger: What do you mean it’s indifferent? I crit!
DM: The Pagoda is indifferent.
Ranger: *shoots it again, doing 19 dmg in one hit*
DM: The Pagoda is indifferent.
Ranger: *incoherent screaming*
Wizard: I roll History to try and figure out what a Pagoda is. *rolls a 15*
DM: A Pagoda is like a Gazebo.
The laughter continued for 2 minutes solid.
D&D: How to Use Character Arcs as a Dungeon Master
In my previous post on character arcs, I talked about how a player should determine how they want their character’s arc to begin and end. It was from a player’s perspective. But how does a DM write an adventure that will make that player’s arc happen?
First, get the information you need. Ask your players to each determine how their characters will begin the campaign and how they want them to change by the end of it. Then ask for copies of their character’s traits, flaws, ideals, and bonds. Note whether a player’s character is going to die tragically and if they are okay with that. With this information, you can give the players what I call a moral quandary, personalized for their own character’s arc. A moral quandary is giving the player two difficult options that the player must decide how their character would choose. The character should lean to one side of a moral quandary at the beginning of an adventure, but gradually start to lean the other way as their arc comes to completion.
For instance, a cleric might be presented with a choice to kill an evildoer or merely capture them. If the cleric is heading down an arc where their ideal changes from “all life is precious” to “evil must be stopped at all costs” in their character arc is going to make very different choices in that situation depending on where they are on their arc.
Let’s figure out how we can use this info as a DM and where to put moral quandaries using a 9-point story structure. These are not an entire campaign, but you can use each point as a fixed point in the narrative; a story outline based on the characters’ arcs. Plenty of different stuff can happen between each point, but the points must happen to create a robust story.
Call to Action
The player is given an initial call to action. Essentially, a moral quandary disguised as a quest hook. Try to have a separate but related call to action for each player. Ideally, the players should refuse the call to action, as they haven’t been “changed” yet. If they play to their characters’ initial backgrounds and traits, they will refuse the call. You can even enforce this by loading your call with descriptions of how the character is feeling. “You are offended that someone would even offer something so morally reprehensible to you, despite the fact that you could use the money.”
A good-hearted rogue is starting a tragic fall arc and is offered a chance to make millions from some morally questionable actions involving an evil regime, but decides it is wrong. An innocent paladin starting a coming of age arc could be offered a chance to rise against an evil regime, but values their own safety. A studious apprentice wizard starting a corruption arc is offered power in exchange for service to an evil regime, but decides they can get power on their own.
Something happens to force the player to action, whether they are ready or not. Try to come up with an inciting incident that involves all of the players, not just one. The inciting incident can act as where the adventuring party finally meets.
The evil regime in the Call to Action ends up invading the players’ quiet suburb to enforce martial law. The players escape or fight back or else they and their loved ones die or are enslaved. The rogue decides to run from their debts by joining the party. The paladin has seen firsthand what the regime can do, and will now join the party to find someone else who can help them stop it. The wizard seeks out more power to stop the regime.
1st Plot Point
The players learn the first shreds of information about the overarching narrative of the campaign. After the inciting incident, some characters might not be convinced and want to turn back. This gives them a reason to continue onward together, as a team. There should be no turning back from the 1st plot point.
Players learn how this evil regime has been spreading across the kingdom. It still holds many mysteries, but its power is great and threatening. Its power is centered in a capital city, which the players now opt to travel to in order to find the things they currently desire.
1st Pinch Point
A pinch point is the first real display of power from the antagonist or opposing force. In D&D this should be actual combat, though it doesn’t have to be. As long as the players see firsthand what the antagonist can do to their characters, this part will add the tension/drama that it should. If you want to have a 1st Pinch Point for each character, then this display of force should directly target the player’s character arc and spark the desire to change through a moral quandary. It’s an awakening. Create tension by ending a session with this pinch point.
The players come across a thieves’ guild run by the evil regime. The rogue takes note of how rich, glamorous, and lawless the life of a criminal is to spark their tragic fall arc. The paladin realizes how deep the corruption of the world runs and sparks their coming of age arc as their innocence starts to fade. The wizard realizes how much resources the evil regime has, and wonders what sorts of power they had in mind for him sparking their corruption arc.
More info is revealed about the antagonist and the perception of the characters change. They have an epiphany and decide to continue onward through their arc. This can, and most likely will, happen at different times for each character and their varying arcs.
The players learn about the leader of the regime. They have been pushed to the breaking point by the regime’s forces. The rogue decides join the regime and start doing crime for the regime and acting as a double agent against the party. The paladin no longer cares about finding someone else to help them stop the regime, vowing to end it themselves. The wizard gets an unholy tome and decides to learn how to make a pact with the demon the regime mentioned to overpower the regime. They are all still heading to the capital, though now with severely divergent goals.
2nd Pinch Point
The antagonist reveals their full power and threatens the completion of the characters’ arcs. The entire party should, in general, be at their lowest moment and completely without hope. This should happen at the same time for everyone. Ideally, end a session with this pinch point to create a cliffhanger and highlight the hopelessness.
The players reach the capital of the evil regime. The rogue is faced with a moral test, where they will be offered riches and allowed to live if they rat out their adventuring party. They choose to take the offer and are betrayed by the regime’s leader and sentenced to death anyway. The paladin comes face to face with the regime’s leader after being ratted out by the rogue. They fail the encounter and barely manage to escape with their life. The wizard is also defeated and their unholy tome is destroyed in the battle. The rogue is imprisoned and the paladin and rogue escape the leader and are being hunted in the capital.
2nd Plot Point
The last piece of the puzzle has come together in the second plot point. The characters finish their arc and learn how to overcome the antagonist. This can happen at different points and doesn’t have to happen quickly. For a tragic character, this is the part where they finally meet their end. Tragic characters fail to change or their change is self-destructive and they fail to overcome the antagonist of the story (tragic, isn’t it?). Think of this part as a moral quandary that characters’ finally “know the answer” to, as far as their character arc is concerned.
The rogue tries to escape, succeeds, but heads back to the thieves’ guild instead of his adventuring allies, and they ultimately betray and kill him. The paladin’s innocence is shattered and they gather rebel forces over time to take on the regime’s leader, becoming a leader themselves. They also find an unlikely ally in the wizard, who has finally succumbed to evil. The wizard still doesn’t know how to summon the demon, but they have already gotten a taste of evil’s power by performing vile rituals on captured regime members and will now use their power for vengeance against the regime’s leader.
The characters finally face off with the antagonist. The promise set out at the beginning of the campaign is fulfilled. The characters, having completed their arcs, are now changed enough to be able to defeat the antagonist. This should be the players at their most powerful and should be the most epic battle to take place in the campaign.
The paladin’s rebel army and the wizard’s evil magic face off against the evil regime’s leader. The battle is long and epic, but the characters succeed, freeing the kingdom of the evil regime.
The game shouldn’t abruptly end after the antagonist is defeated! There needs to be closure. The players’ characters find out the results and the aftermath of defeating the antagonist, for better or for worse. In the case of an ongoing game, you should now set up the next campaign here.
The paladin and wizard regard each other as unsteady allies who no longer have a common enemy. The wizard seeks more power, even seeking to possibly usurp the void of power left from the regime’s defeat. The paladin and their rebel army gather in defiance of the wizard. The paladin tells the wizard to leave the kingdom and not threaten anyone with their evil, else the paladin will smite them down. The wizard, not having many spells left after the battle and not being ready to face an entire army, teleports away to parts unknown with a puff of green smoke. The paladin is placed in power, and the wizard now acts as a looming threat. Perhaps an NPC and villain for the next campaign?
This character arc outline is not cut-and-dry. You should use it as a guide, not a rule. Some characters might abruptly choose to change. Some will reach different parts of the outline at different times or out of order. Some characters might waffle between two sides of their arc before deciding which side they want to be on. But the more you talk to your players about it, the easier it is to come up with a generalized plan for your campaign’s story. Heck, your story might even change from what you initially intended by the end of it (a character with a bad roll can still end up dying before even finishing their arc!) But hopefully this will aid you in making the players love their characters even more and have fun as they grow and change in your campaign’s world. That’s what it’s all about, after all.
I consistently have players looting conquered foes, random strangers, ruined villages, etc.. And the truth is I almost NEVER know what they’re going to find. Usually I just spout some nonsense at the top of my head and it often ends up being dull, leaving my players less likely to look for items while adventuring in the future. I created this table to help give me a guideline for random loot, and it lets players feel lucky when they roll high and find something unexpected.
(Click Keep Reading below the image for more specific information and a text version of the chart at the bottom)
My apologies that I don’t have the image credits (though I do know that several are from the 5e DMG). It’s been a while since I started putting these together. If there are any issues, or you know the image source, please let me know!