Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Creepiest Spells in 5e D&D

I’ve grinched before about the lack of magic in 5e’s magic system. The spells themselves blow hot-and-cold. Too many simply do damage with only the thinnest veneer of flavor or, a favorite trick of 5e’s, do damage and have a secondary mechanical effect; Guiding Bolt, for instance, which does damage and gives the next attack on the target advantage.

But then you’ve got gems like Hunger of Hadar or Crown of Madness which are full of creepy atmosphere. In Hunger’s case it’s largely cosmetic (at the end of the day it’s largely just plopping dangerous terrain that is impossible to see through, another favorite trick of 5e’s).

While none of these rise to the level of Raggian twistedness, there are still times when a little extra creepiness fits the tone of an encounter or an adventure. Collected here are the spells I consider the creepiest from 5e.

Do note that this is a very personal list. It’s based on my own preferences and on how I normally see D&D run. For instance, flame spells ought to be horrifying. Even the lowly Flaming Hands spell is, in effect, getting hit in the face with a flamethrower. But burns in D&D land don’t work like burns in the real world, to the point that meeting someone who’s actually badly scarred from getting 3rd degree burns just yanks you out of story; burns don’t cause permanent scarring in D&D, certainly not if they’re healed via magic. No matter how many times the red dragon breathes on you, an eight-hour nap is all it takes to shake off the worst effects.

Likewise, just doing necrotic damage isn’t enough to warrant a spot on this list. Nor is acid or poison damage, as horrifying as that ought to be. Repeatedly going to those wells has reduced all of that to mere lost hit points, easily regained.

I’m also ignoring charm spells for the most part. Sure, those are creepy if you really think about it, but most players don’t when they’re at the table. They’re difficult to adjudicate and their potential for creating drama at the table (rather than in the world) is high, so they deserve their own discussion.

Still, that does leave us with a number of spells creepy enough to fit an already disturbing atmosphere you may be trying to maintain and deepen. Let’s take a look:

CANTRIPS

You’re going to be seeing numerous mentions of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything because that book punches above its weight when it comes to atmospheric spells. Among them is the cantrip Infestation. Yeah, mechanically, it’s just some poison damage and a forced move (that doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks), but if you’ve already talked up all the creepy-crawlies in the dungeon, this one is sure to get a reaction from bug-phobic players.

1st LEVEL

Armor of Agathys and Hellish Rebuke both have a nice write-up and both fall into the school of stop-hitting-yourself spells. I’ll admit, the write-ups for these spells are ok but not terribly creepy; they’re mostly on this list for their power to make players stop and re-evaluate their tactics which, I think, magnifies their otherwise meh-level creepiness.

Crown of Madness goes beyond most charm spells. It’s not just mucking about with someone’s impressions, but full on, “You are my puppet! Now kill your friends!” The FX are just icing on the cake. If the barbarian fails his save on this one, sure, he won’t be raging, but the rest of the party will radically shift their priorities until this is no longer an issue.

2nd LEVEL

Not much here. Melf’s Acid Arrow ought to be spooky, but it’s just more damage of the acid type rather than, “ARRRRGH! It’s burning through my face!”

3rd LEVEL

Hunger of Hadar combines blindness (even for those pesky races with darkvision), difficult terrain, and nasty damage with some excellent FX. Even more effective if you add some panic by telling players they have no idea where the edge of the Hunger is, and they blindly stumble about trying to escape.

4th LEVEL

Blight is mostly here for its ability to kill plants. It’s a straight up “Look how toxic I am!” thing that makes the practical application also the cool FX.

5th LEVEL

Cloudkill is on the list because it invokes the horrors of mustard gas and the first World War. It’s the spell to use if you want your bad guys to prove just how vile they are by turning it on entire villages or mobs of protesters or the like.

Contact Other Plane
is a classic, and probably the only spell in D&D that reminds players that magic is something mysterious and dangerous. Really wish the game had more like it.

Danse Macabre and Negative Energy Flood are both from Xanathar’s and both here because they create undead. Negative Energy Flood is slightly creepier in my book because it animates PCs killed by the spell, pre-empting attempts to bring them back from the dead.

6th LEVEL

Create Undead does exactly what it says on the tin. That’s always great if you play it up right.

I love how Flesh to Stone in 5e is a slow, creeping process. Sure, it means you’re more likely to save out of the effect, but it’s also got this great, gradual body-horror thing going on that it didn’t have before.

Soul Cage
is from Xanathar’s and is another lovely baddie spell, allowing you to not just steal a soul (and possibly pre-empt resurrection) but then torture that soul in multiple useful ways. All your darkest baddies should have a soul in their pocket for use with this spell. Preferably the soul is connected in some way to the PCs.


7th LEVEL

Finger of Death is here because it turns those it slays into undead. That’s always a fun, creepy trick to pull on your PCs. Power Word Pain is all about the FX; be sure to cast it on the character of the hammiest player in your group, who will delight in acting out just how their character reacts to its tortures.


8th LEVEL


Like Hunger of Hadar, Maddening Darkness blinds even those elves and half-orcs and the like who have darkvision. Alas, it doesn’t actually cause madness, and for that it nearly got dropped from this list.

Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting, from Xanathar’s, is Blight turned up to 11. The FX on this one is to kill every non-creature plant in a 30’ cube, and that’s on top of whatever other damage you do to creatures. Again, the message is that whoever casts it is toxic as hell and doesn’t give a damn about collateral damage.


9th LEVEL

Xanathar’s Psychic Scream literally makes people’s heads explode. What’s not to love?

Weird probably works best for smaller, more intimate games, where you spend a lot of time in the heads of the PCs. You can have a lot of fun forcing the PCs to confront their deepest fears with this one.

So that’s my list of creepiest spells in D&D. It’s pulled almost exclusively from the warlock and wizard list, so I may have missed some gems from the druid and cleric lists. Let me know which I missed, please.

Painting by Pieter Claesz. Not sure who took the gas mask photo.

2 comments:

Warclam said...

Bestow Curse and Contagion have potential.

Contagion gives each disease a grotesque description; I know I don't want Flesh Rot or Slimy Doom anywhere near me.

Bestow Curse could be horrifying, if you use appropriately-themed custom curses. For extra credit, don't tell players what the curse does until it actually comes into effect. Leave them wondering.

And with a good enough description, any spell can feel a little uncomfortable. I have a tiefling Cleric (actually Divine Soul) that I'm going to be playing soon whose healing spells cause a tumour to grow over the wound, then shrivel and crumble, leaving healthy flesh behind. I'm looking forward to busting that out for the first time.

trollsmyth said...

Warclam: can't believe I forgot about Contagion! The first time our cleric's player read that spell, she was both repulsed and couldn't wait to cast it. ;D

Love the tumor idea.