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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Shields exist in D&D 5e. That’s about it. You can bash with em and get +2 AC with em, but that’s all that they do. That’s all the customization that they have. But what about the differences in wood and metal shields? What if I carry a buckler? What about my shield breaking? What if I am a simple weapons guy? Shields were hands-down the best options for soldiers in the middle ages fighting with one-handed weapons so they really should have more mechanics dealing with them. Here are some homebrew rules for shields to let more people use them and make using them more fun!
Some notes I couldn’t fit in any section: Shields went out of style as armor improved. People started using two-handed weapons around the same time full plate armor became widely used. The kite shield was used in a time when leg armor was weak or not worn because it was too heavy and unwieldy. The kite shield’s shape could protect their legs without exposing themselves to attack. Also those shields with holes for lances were largely ceremonial or for jousting tournaments only, not adventuring. Bucklers were the most common for someone who needed to be ready for combat at a moment’s notice, as carrying a shield was really tiring unless you were going specifically to battle. But hey, this is a fantasy RPG so we can do whatever looks badass.
Wooden Shield: +1 AC.
Metal Shield: +2 AC. Only creatures proficient with Medium or Heavy Armor can comfortably use a metal shield. Druids are typically forbidden from using a metal shield.
Wooden Buckler: No AC bonus. Creatures proficient with Light Armor can wear bucklers.
Does not provide an AC bonus against ranged attacks.
You can use your reaction to deflect an incoming melee weapon attack that beats your armor class, reducing the damage by 1d4. The buckler has a 50% chance to break when used in such a way.
A metal buckler
Metal Buckler: +1 AC.
Creatures proficient with Light Armor can wear bucklers.
Does not provide an AC bonus against ranged attacks. Druids are typically forbidden from using a metal buckler.
Wooden Tower Shield: +1 AC. You must be proficient in Heavy Armor and have a STR score of at least 13 to comfortably wield a tower shield. You can plant the shield on the ground to gain partial cover (+2 AC). When using the shield in this way, you only move at half your regular movement speed. The bonus provided by the shield does not grant cover against spell attacks. You have a -1 penalty to attacks while using your tower shield for cover.
Metal Tower Shield: +2 AC. You must be proficient in Heavy Armor and have a STR score of at least 15 to comfortably wield a tower shield. You can plant the shield on the ground to gain partial cover (+2 AC). When using the shield in this way, you only move at half your regular movement speed. The bonus provided by the shield does not grant cover against spell attacks. You have a -1 penalty to attacks while using your tower shield for cover. Druids are typically forbidden from using a metal tower shield.
Sticky Shield: When a creature misses you with a melee weapon attack, this sticky shield coated in alchemical slime can catch the weapon. The attacker must succeed on a DC 11 Strength saving throw, or the weapon becomes stuck to your shield. If the weapon’s wielder can’t or won’t let go of the weapon, the wielder is grappled while the weapon is stuck. While stuck, the weapon can’t be used. A creature can pull the weapon free by taking an action to make a DC 11 Strength check and succeeding
Spiked Shield: When you succeed at a Shove attempt when wielding a spiked shield, you deal 1d6 piercing damage to the target. Improvised weapon attacks made using the spiked shield deal 1d6 damage instead of 1d4.
A dhal shield (Indian spiked shield)
Mirrored Shield: Any metal shield treated with alchemical silver. When a ranged spell attack is rolled against the shield’s wielder and the attack misses, the wielder may use their reaction to reflect the spell back at its caster. To do so, the wielder makes an attack roll against the caster using their DEX modifier at disadvantage. If the new attack beats the caster’s AC, the spell affects the caster instead.
Pavise Shield: A tower shield meant for archers to use as cover. It has either a spike on the bottom to be driven into dirt, or a hinged rod to prop it up. Creatures can prop up the pavise shield as an item interaction, or stow it as a bonus action. Once set up, it provides partial cover (+2 AC) for those standing behind it, and it does not move unless hit with a melee attack. You do not need proficiency in Heavy Armor to set up a pavise shield and use it for cover, but using it as a regular tower shield does have this requirement.
Tanglevine Buckler: A wooden buckler intricately grown out of vines by wood elves that can be used to deflect ranged attacks as well as melee attacks in the way described above.
Stonemountain Shield: A dwarven stone tower shield that requires a STR score of 18 or higher to wield. It can be used to provide ¾ cover (+5 AC) when planted on the ground. In addition, it is resistant to being sundered (see below). It has one additional point of durability.
Iron Shield: A metal shield resistant to sundering (see below). It has one additional point of durability.
Sundering: You can sunder an enemy’s shield with repeated bashing. You can attempt to hit a creature’s AC minus the bonus provided by their shield to target their shield directly. Each time you hit their shield, roll for damage. For every 7 damage dealt to it, it loses one point of durability. When the last point of its durability is lost, the shield breaks. This also makes it easier for creatures who deal more damage to sunder shields more easily. A magical shield cannot be sundered except by a magical weapon. Use the table below:
Wooden Buckler: 1 durability
Iron Shield: 4 durability
Wooden Tower Shield:
Metal Tower Shield:
Stonemountain Shield: 5 durability
Group Tactics: Shields for the Romans and Greeks were all about group formations. Greek hoplon shields were held in the left hand and the hoplites would sometimes use their righthand neighbor’s shield to block attacks (leading the right flank to often win battles). Roman scutum shields were sometimes used in a tortoise formation to protect everyone from incoming arrows. Give shield-carrying characters adjacent to one another +1 AC against attacks if they opt to halve their speed and always move together to simulate this.
Example of a Roman scutum shield and javelin
Javelins: So another point on Roman scuta: the legionaries would usually throw a few javelins as they made their initial charge. The purpose was not necessarily to kill the enemies (although I am sure that would be perfectly welcome). The intent was to get the cheap-to-make pointed sticks to impale themselves in the enemies’ scuta. Have you ever tried to hold up a 6-foot javelin sticking straight out from your forearm? Me neither but I would imagine it’s unwieldy. You have to either spend time snapping it or ripping it out or just ditch the shield altogether. Javelins in D&D, however, always have felt stupid. It’s just a basic ranged attack for orcs and goblins. Instead, have creatures just carry a few javelins and let them try to disable the PC’s shields! And let them do the same! To do so, make a sundering attempt (see above). If you remove at least 1 point of durability, the javelin sticks and the unlucky creature either has to drop the shield, spend an action making a STR check to break the javelin, or else live with a -10 move speed reduction and no shield bonus.