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5E BBEGs and Counterspells

Dausuul

Legend
(Man, I seem to be starting a lot of threads lately...)

So, after heinously abusing a hapless NPC spellcaster last week with counterspell, I'm putting on my DM hat and trying to figure out how a spellcasting villain should deal with it. Given the relatively low DC (10 + spell level) to counter a spell from a higher level slot, and the fact that the countering caster only has to burn a reaction to negate the villain's action, it's a significant challenge. However, I'm checking my initial impulse to just house-rule counterspell. I'd rather explore what tactics can be deployed against it. I really like the idea that you can have genuine magical duels in 5E, rather than just awarding the fight to whoever wins initiative.

The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is to pack counterspells of your own; you can respond to counterspell with another counterspell, like two blue decks going at each other in Magic: The Gathering. This works great if it's one PC caster versus one villain caster (and if the villain belongs to a class that gets access to counterspell!). However, what if you have two PC casters with counterspell? The villain only gets one reaction, so can't counter them both.

Another option is globe of invulnerability. If you can somehow slide that through, your spells become uncounterable since globe blocks anything of 5th level or lower, even when cast in a higher-level slot. However, this requires concentration and a 6th-level spell slot, it stops working if the enemy caster gets within 10 feet of you, and it can itself be countered.

A third possibility is to bluff. Unlike in 3E where you can roll Spellcraft to identify a spell being cast, I don't see any way to know what you're up against in 5E*. That means you have to counterspell blind. A clever enemy mage could trick PCs into wasting their counterspells on cantrips. The problem is that this still leaves you having expended your action, while the enemy only used a reaction. It'll be a few rounds before you can wear down the PC spellcaster's resources this way--rounds during which you are likely to get pounded to death.

A fourth possibility is contingency linked to dimension door. Use the "bluff" option as long as you dare, then speak the trigger word and pop out. Get some heals from your stash of potions, then re-commence combat under more favorable circumstances. This does require the BBEG to be in a friendly environment and have contingency up, but contingency/dimension door is such a good general-purpose escape hatch that it seems entirely reasonable.

What do you think? How would you, as a caster (PC or NPC), deal with a counterspelling foe?

[SIZE=-2]*That's strictly by RAW, of course. Personally, I'd be inclined to allow an Arcana check at DC 10+spell level to identify a spell being cast. But then it's only fair to allow a Sleight of Hand check to fake the other guy out... heh, heh.[/SIZE]
 
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Agamon

Adventurer
I know you'd rather not house rule, but opposing spell checks would be more "spell duel-y" and make the "DC" higher on average.
 

Saelorn

Hero
What do the rules actually say about identifying spells as they are cast? I'm inclined to believe that they would lean more toward automatic identification, rather than nobody ever having any idea.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What do you think? How would you, as a caster (PC or NPC), deal with a counterspelling foe?
What is good for the goose is good for the gander! The PCs have some spare reactions for counterspelling, because there's a group of them? Well, why are you, Mr. NPC Spellcaster, all on your lonesome? Get some minions and lackeys! Make some of them spellcasters. Their purpose in a fight is to protect themselves from damage, and to counterspell anything the PCs try to cast. See how they like them apples!
 

dd.stevenson

Super KY
If it's the bbeg, you'd be in your rights to give it legendary actions.

Otherwise, I would take advantage of bonus action spells to draw out the counterspell. I would definitely not allow the spell to be ID'd before it was cast without a readied action and an Arcana check.
 

GameDoc

First Post
RAW, it looks to me like you can't counterspell a counterspell, since you have to be actively casting before someone else can use their reaction to counterspell you. Then again it doesn't expressly say you can't counterspell in the middle of casting another spell. Can you take a reaction on your own turn in response to someone's reaction to you, then return to whatever you were doing?

It seems rather bland to just wave a hand at another spellcaster and disrupt his spell automatically. Seems like you should always have to beat a DC like 10 + spell level - level of slot expended to counterspell.
 

Dausuul

Legend
RAW, it looks to me like you can't counterspell a counterspell, since you have to be actively casting before someone else can use their reaction to counterspell you. Then again it doesn't expressly say you can't counterspell in the middle of casting another spell. Can you take a reaction on your own turn in response to someone's reaction to you, then return to whatever you were doing?
The rules explicitly state you can take a reaction on your own turn. I interpret that to mean counterspelling a counterspell is legit. I also think it adds depth to magical combat.

What do the rules actually say about identifying spells as they are cast?
Nothing whatsoever. I guess you could argue it either way. Myself, I feel like Joe "Intelligence Dump Stat" Barbarian shouldn't be able to see a wizard cast a spell and go, "Wizard cast Otiluke's resilient sphere! Joe smash!"
 

GameDoc

First Post
The rules explicitly state you can take a reaction on your own turn. I interpret that to mean counterspelling a counterspell is legit. I also think it adds depth to magical combat.
.

In that case I agree 100%.

I suspect that once we have item creation rules, my own wizard, sorcerer, and warlock characters might want to have a scroll or wand of counterspell handy.
 

kerbarian

First Post
Counterspell can only be used against your villain if the characters are within 60 feet, and only if they can see the villain casting (and have line of effect).

So if you can get some distance, that solves the problem. Or if the villain has a non-spell way to become invisible or block line of sight (e.g. a smoke bomb), that also works. For area spells, it could even work to step around a corner to where the villain can't directly see the party and then lob a Fireball that will splash onto them.
 

Using a higher DC (start at 15 instead of 10?) might be good if you use fail forward-y stuff. A failed counterspell might blunt a spell's effect, even if it doesn't knock it down completely.
 

When I ran the playtest for the War of the Burning Sky adventure path, I had one player who really loved Magic, and wanted to dive headfirst into spell dueling. Some clever techniques he developed:

  • The Pump Fake. Make a Deception check to pretend to cast a spell (as a bonus action), and if you beat their Wisdom check to detect your trick, they cast their counterspell to soon, letting you cast your real spell. (We used to play basketball, and he'd do this all the time, feigning a jump shot so we'd go up to block, but waiting to actually jump until we were coming back down.)
  • The Tree. Duck behind cover and cast your spell where your opponent has no line of sight.
  • The Gunslinger. Step out of cover but ready an action to cast acid arrow the moment your opponent starts to cast anything. Get into a staredown as each waits for the other to move first. (Hopefully your opponent doesn't realize that the spell you cast when you were behind a tree was invisibility, on the party's rogue, who should be stabbing your opponent right about . . . now.)
  • The Phantasmal Tree. As above, but the spell you cast is an illusion of yourself. Next turn direct that illusion to pop out and pretend to cast a spell, drawing your opponent's counterspell. Then step out and hit the opponent with your real spell.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Nothing whatsoever. I guess you could argue it either way. Myself, I feel like Joe "Intelligence Dump Stat" Barbarian shouldn't be able to see a wizard cast a spell and go, "Wizard cast Otiluke's resilient sphere! Joe smash!"
Back in 2E, our house rule was that anyone can recognize a spell that they would be capable of casting. So a wizard will recognize wizard spells, a cleric will recognize cleric spells, etc.
 

TheGorramBatman

First Post
What do the rules actually say about identifying spells as they are cast? I'm inclined to believe that they would lean more toward automatic identification, rather than nobody ever having any idea.
I honestly don't think it matters anymore rules-wise. Counterspell is just another reaction now, just one that requires a spell slot. As with any reaction, it requires an offending action to have been announced first.

The DM says the big badguy throws out fireball at the group and starts marking out the AoE. The Wizard says "no, thank you. I use my reaction to cast Counterspell." They roll for it if necessary and that's that.

It makes me feel better to assume the counterspelling caster is nullifying an effect in progress rather than stopping that effect from occurring in the first place. Rather than describing a spell fizzling out before it casting has completed at all, it works better to imagine a disintigrate beam firing straight at the Barbarian and the counterspelling caster blasting it out of existence before the damage is done. It is easier to visualize the badguy's Lightning Bolt crackling to life around their hand only to discharge harmlessly before the it can be lobbed at the party.

In hindsight, Spellcraft Checks to identify a spell as it is being cast just feels like one more thing slowing down the pace of the game. We'll see how I feel in a month or two, but for now I'm glad they're gone and I have no issues outright telling my players what is being cast and allowing them to stop it if they feel like using a reaction and a spell slot.

How you deal with counterspell-happy players is easy: Throw more than one enemy caster at them. They only get one reaction per round. Replan your evil caster BBEG as creepy twins. Done and done.
 

ccooke

Adventurer
I honestly don't think it matters anymore rules-wise. Counterspell is just another reaction now, just one that requires a spell slot. As with any reaction, it requires an offending action to have been announced first.

The DM says the big badguy throws out fireball at the group and starts marking out the AoE. The Wizard says "no, thank you. I use my reaction to cast Counterspell." They roll for it if necessary and that's that.

It makes me feel better to assume the counterspelling caster is nullifying an effect in progress rather than stopping that effect from occurring in the first place. Rather than describing a spell fizzling out before it casting has completed at all, it works better to imagine a disintigrate beam firing straight at the Barbarian and the counterspelling caster blasting it out of existence before the damage is done. It is easier to visualize the badguy's Lightning Bolt crackling to life around their hand only to discharge harmlessly before the it can be lobbed at the party.

In hindsight, Spellcraft Checks to identify a spell as it is being cast just feels like one more thing slowing down the pace of the game. We'll see how I feel in a month or two, but for now I'm glad they're gone and I have no issues outright telling my players what is being cast and allowing them to stop it if they feel like using a reaction and a spell slot.

How you deal with counterspell-happy players is easy: Throw more than one enemy caster at them. They only get one reaction per round. Replan your evil caster BBEG as creepy twins. Done and done.
This is a really nice way to view it - thanks!
 

MarkB

Legend
Casting from cover has been mentioned, so I'll add casting from concealment / invisibility. The enemy mage can't react to what he can't see.

The other option is to find a way to make that enemy caster burn his reaction - or regret it if he doesn't.
 

Wild Gazebo

Explorer
I think if the PCs are willing to blow two spells and two reactions to avoid one BBEG spell...let them. That is a fair amount of resource in exchange for one simple and direct bad guy tactic.

I really like the spell feint idea...can't believe I never thought of that before.
 

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