house of the dragons

Spellcasting Combat Narration for D&D

image credit: Ben Wootten

So I was gonna include this in my other article on narrating combat, but it proved far too lengthy, so I made this into part 2! 

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.

Attack Words

Generic shapes and terms that will launch from the caster’s hand.

Helix, Spiral, Beam, Erratic, Mote, Bolt, Stream, Blast, Burst, Blade, Arc, Miasma, Cloud, Eruption, Wave, Cone, Missile, Rune, Glyph

Class-Based Ideas

  • Bard
    • 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)
  • Cleric
    • 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.
  • Druid
    • 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.
  • Paladin
    • 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
  • Ranger
    • 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.
  • Warlock (Archfey)
    • 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.
  • Warlock (Fiend)
    • Energy takes the shape of the unholy symbol of your patron.
  • Wizard (Abjuration)
    • Energy shoots forth from your magical wards, arcing towards your enemies.
  • Wizard (Conjuration)
    • You conjure a short-lived elemental of the energy type you need. It soars at the enemy.
  • Wizard (Divination)
    • You weave the glowing threads of fate in the palms of your hands, tweaking reality to cast your spell.
  • Wizard (Enchantment)
    • You enchant an object to exude the energy and toss it at the enemy.
  • Wizard (Evocation)
    • I mean, you just sorta blast them. That’s what this school’s about.
  • Wizard (Illusion)
    • Your spell usually spawns two or three illusory copies. When the attack misses, the enemy simply managed to dodge the right duplicate.
  • Wizard (Necromancy)
    • Your energy takes the shape of a skull screaming as it flies toward the enemy
  • Wizard (Transmutation)
    • You transmute the energy out of the surrounding environment and fire it at the enemy

On-Hit

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.

Fire

  • 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

Cold

  • 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.

Thunder

  • 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

  • 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

Acid

  • 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.

Poison

  • 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

Necrotic

  • 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.

Radiant

  • 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.

The Houses as Video Game Things

Hufflepuff:

Only picking the nice dialogue options. Carrying around way too much stuff because “what if it might be helpful later?”  Pausing a fight because you’re about to die and need to use a health potion. Being really good at puzzles and minigames. Balancing your skills so that you do well in a fight, regardless of the circumstances. Never wearing matching armor. Fighting the same enemy over and over again and cheering when you finally beat them. Panicking whenever dark music starts to play. Having to walk everywhere because you’re carrying too much to fast-travel.

Ravenclaw:

Spending 2+ hours on the customize character screen. Getting emotionally attached to the NPCs. Using actual strategy to plan out your quests/fights. Always having a lot of money but never having anything to spend it on.  Spending all of your level-up points in one category.Never getting caught when you steal things, but only taking small items because you’re afraid that someone will notice if you take something big. Wasting a lot of lockpicks on something that doesn’t even have good items in it. Placing waaay too many manual map-markers because you can never find your destination otherwise.

Slytherin: 

Spending too much time on side-quests instead of working on the main objective. Accidentally walking into a ridiculously difficult battle when you’re only level 2. Using long distance weapons to fights the enemies because you’re terrible in close combat. Forgetting what quest you were working on because you got distracted by a hunt for a random object. Actually using resistance potions/spells/e.t.c. Having conversations with companions and unlocking extra quests. Forgetting which buttons on your controller do what and having to spend a couple minutes to figure it out.

Gryffindor:

Forgetting to save and having go way back to the beginning of the quest when you die. Screaming out loud whenever something scary happens. Getting lost in a location that you’ve been to 50+times. Sneaking? What is that? You run straight into the open and hope you won’t die. Not understanding what the different stats for your weapons mean and picking the one that looks the coolest. Always forgetting that you have helpful items and never using them when you need them.

D&D: Teamup Attacks

A neat way to encourage teamwork and partnership midcombat: get a bonus when you combine your action with another character! You’ve probably seen things like it before in comics and action movies. The “fastball special” when Colossus throws Wolverine at an enemy. Hawkeye firing an arrow with Ant-Man hiding microscopically on the arrowhead. The ol’ one-two.

The mechanic I’m using for this is to let players use a teamup attack whenever two players roll the same intiative result, but you could feasibly let them do it if they ready their actions appropriately and make proper rolls for whatever they are trying to do. But otherwise, you just add some sort of condition or bonus damage to the attack, along with the regular damage from both players’ attacks. It’s that easy! After the first teamup attack, the players resolve initiative normally by figuring out which player has the higher modifier or rerolling.

The fun part of this mechanic is you or your players coming up with a special attack! Check out some examples I came up with below.

Fastball Special

Half-Orc Barbarian + Halfling Rogue: The Barbarian uses their strength to throw the rogue at an unwary enemy! The attack deals the regular sneak attack damage plus the barbarian’s regular attack damage, and then knocks the target prone.

Timber!

Fighter + Druid: The Druid casts Entangle or Thorn Whip or some such spell to wrap up the target’s feet, setting up the Fighter (or any martial class, really) to knock them down with a heavy blow to the torso or head. This deals the Druid’s normal damage from the spell (if applicable) and then the Fighter’s damage, plus knocks the target prone.

Shadow Boxing

Way of Shadow Monk + Assassin Rogue: Alternating attacks from each player jumping out of hiding and back into the shadows between each strike confuses the enemy. The target has disadvantage on all attacks during its next turn and cannot move more than 5 feet. It also takes the Monk’s and Rogue’s regular attack damage.

Nail on the Head

Great Weapon Paladin + Archery Ranger: The Ranger hits the creature with an arrow, and then the Paladin follows through with their two-handed maul, hammering the arrow deeper into the creature’s wound. This deals regular damage from the Paladin and Ranger plus causes the creature to bleed for 1d4 damage each round for three rounds.

Come to Deity

Paladin + Cleric: One of the players sweeps the target’s feet and the other whacks the back of their head, causing the target to fall into a kneeling position before the two holy heroes. The damage from both players coupled with their righteous auras causes the creature to become Frightened for one round.

Who Turned Out the Lights?

Fighter + Rogue: The Rogue pulls some of the target’s clothing or a bag over the target’s head, blinding them for 1 round if they are subject to such a condition. The Fighter and Rogue then wail on the creature with their attacks, each of which is made at advantage.

Soul Shred

Good Cleric + Fiend Warlock: The two players blast the target with spells of both fiendish and celestial energy, like an Eldritch Blast and Sacred Flame. The diametric energies surge through the target and vibrate enough to damage their very soul. The creature gains 1d2 levels of Exhaustion in addition to regular damage.

Elemental Convergence

Sorcerer + Wizard: The two spellcasters cast spells with different energy types simultaneously. The target(s) are Stunned for one round from their bodies trying to recover from the shock to their system. The creature or creatures take regular damage from the spells.

Harmonic Spell

Bard + Sorcerer: The Bard guides the energy of the Sorcerer’s spell with their musical magic, fascinating everyone who can see the spell (but not the initial targets of the spell). These creatures gain disadvantage on Perception checks and have their attention drawn to the spell’s effect, even if they were in the middle of combat, giving their enemies a chance to make Stealth checks. The Bard adds a die equal to their Bardic Inspiration die to the Sorcerer’s spell damage, without expending a use of Bardic Inspiration.

Arcane Epiphany

Wizard + Wizard of different school: The two Wizards combine the culmination of their studies to reach a magical revelation of sorts. They can each combine a spell from their chosen schools of magic to create a new spell, limited only by the imagination of the two players. For example, a Shocking Grasp and Phantom Steed launches an electrified steed at the target, becoming a regular Phantom Steed after the damage is dealt. The spell combines the damage of both base spells plus 2d6 damage, if either of the spells deal damage.

Rain of Arrows/Torrent of Blows

Ranger + Ranger: The two Rangers barrage the target with either their dual weapons or multiple arrows. The creature hesitates offering each ranger time for an additional attack in addition to their regular attacks, each at -1.

Look Behind You

Archery Ranger + Rogue: The Ranger and Rogue attack from hiding and use each other’s attacks to distract the creature from one another. The attacks deal a bonus 1d4 damage and do not reveal either player’s hiding place.

Beastcall

Bard + Druid: The Bard’s music combines with the Druid’s natural affinity to call a woodland creature to aid in the battle. This round, the Bard and Druid both deal damage from their respective spells or attacks. Next round, between the Druid and Bard’s initiative, a beast of CR 2 or less arrives to make an attack against a target the Bard and Druid agree upon, using the higher of the two characters’ proficiency modifiers to the attack and damage rolls. The beast then retreats back into the wilderness.

Eldritch Infusion

Warlock + Barbarian: The Warlock infuses the Barbarian’s open mind with the force of their patron to fuel their rage. The Warlock can use its action each round to maintain this bond. While infused, the Barbarian’s last attack each round deals damage equal to the Warlock’s Eldritch Blast damage plus 1d10 additional damage.

Dragoncall

Cleric + Draconic Bloodline Sorcerer: Through the Cleric’s exaltation to the draconic deities and the Sorcerer’s draconic origin, the two of you call a dragon to your aid. The Cleric and Sorcerer deal no damage this round. Next round, however, a Young dragon of the Cleric’s or Sorcerer’s choice arrives to use its breath weapon on a 15′ radius area they agree upon, using the dragon’s regular damage and saving throw. The dragon then leaves once its air raid is complete. (this one is a bit of a stretch, but I think that it’s fair if they forego their damage for a round to gain about 16d6 (possibly halved) damage on a small area.)


edit: It was also brought to my attention that Pathfinder’s Teamwork feats are a great example for these! Two I liked were Cover Fire and Harder They Fall. The former lets you use your ranged attacks to also use the Aid action, which i think still works in 5e. The latter lets you help an ally make a bull rush (Shove in 5e) attempt against a creature two sizes bigger than normal, which sounds like something that can be adapted! Even if you don’t use an explicit mechanic, always remember to think outside the box during he game and use teamwork to your advantage!

8

“I remember, Sam. I still remember.”
He was not making sense. “Remember what?”
“Dragons,” Aemon whispered. “The grief and glory of my House, they were.”

3

      “Dragons,” Aemon whispered. “The grief and glory of my House, they were.”
      “The last dragon died before you were born,” said Sam. “How could you remember them?”
      “I see them in my dreams, Sam. I see a red star bleeding in the sky. I still remember red. I see their shadows on the snow, hear the crack of leathern wings, feel their hot breath. My brothers dreamed of dragons too, and the dreams killed them, every one. Sam, we tremble on the cusp of half-remembered prophecies, of wonders and terrors that no man now living could hope to comprehend… or…”
      “Or?” said Sam.
      “…or not.” Aemon chuckled softly. “Or I am an old man, feverish and dying.”