D&D 5E WHAT IF... Spells didn't do damage?

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Like Marvel's WHAT IF comics of old, I sometimes enjoy coming up with a crazy change to the structure of D&D and then thinking through the implications.

So here's one:

There are innumerable threads about martials vs spellcasters. I was thinking about the roles of each in combat, and I came up with a crazy idea.

What if spells didn't do direct damage? What if the only way to actually damage an enemy was to hit it with a weapon (or push it down a staircase, or set it on fire, etc).

I could see a few ways of adapting the 5e Spells to all be non-damaging...

One way would be through conditions. What if spells that deal damage instead created Conditions?

For example, you could have an On Fire Condition.

On Fire: Whenever a creature with the On Fire Condition takes damage, it also takes 1d6 fire damage per level of spell cast upon it. The creature casts bright light in a 15-foot radius, and flammable objects touching the creature catch fire.

So any spell that deals fire damage would instead, on a successful Spell Attack or failed Saving Throw, create the On Fire Condition. Maybe the condition would last for the Duration of the spell?

For cold spells, it could be something like...

Frozen: Whenever a creature with the Frozen Condition takes damage, it also takes 1d4 cold damage per level of spell cast upon it. The creature's speed is reduced to 5 feet.

Or you could even do a "pick your own condition" system. Like for an Acid Spell, you could do:

Corroded: When you cast a spell that successfully deals Acid Damage, choose instead one of the following effects, which lasts as long as the spell duration:
  • Corroded Armor: The target's Armor Class is reduced by a number equal to your Proficiency Bonus.
  • Blinding Acid: The target suffers disadvantage on Perception Checks, Investigation Checks, and Ranged Attacks.
  • Slippery Acid: The target falls prone, and suffers disadvantage on Athletics and Acrobatics checks.

Anyways, those are just some wild ideas. What else could we do if we took the premise spells don't deal direct damage and applied it to 5e D&D?
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
For example, you could have an On Fire Condition.

On Fire: Whenever a creature with the On Fire Condition takes damage, it also takes 1d6 fire damage per level of spell cast upon it. The creature casts bright light in a 15-foot radius, and flammable objects touching the creature catch fire.

So any spell that deals fire damage would instead, on a successful Spell Attack or failed Saving Throw, create the On Fire Condition. Maybe the condition would last for the Duration of the spell?

But, if nothing else hits it, is stand there, on fire, taking no damage? That doesn't make a huge amount of narrative sense.
 

Oofta

Legend
Like Marvel's WHAT IF comics of old, I sometimes enjoy coming up with a crazy change to the structure of D&D and then thinking through the implications.

So here's one:

There are innumerable threads about martials vs spellcasters. I was thinking about the roles of each in combat, and I came up with a crazy idea.

What if spells didn't do direct damage? What if the only way to actually damage an enemy was to hit it with a weapon (or push it down a staircase, or set it on fire, etc).

I could see a few ways of adapting the 5e Spells to all be non-damaging...

One way would be through conditions. What if spells that deal damage instead created Conditions?

For example, you could have an On Fire Condition.

On Fire: Whenever a creature with the On Fire Condition takes damage, it also takes 1d6 fire damage per level of spell cast upon it. The creature casts bright light in a 15-foot radius, and flammable objects touching the creature catch fire.

So any spell that deals fire damage would instead, on a successful Spell Attack or failed Saving Throw, create the On Fire Condition. Maybe the condition would last for the Duration of the spell?

For cold spells, it could be something like...

Frozen: Whenever a creature with the Frozen Condition takes damage, it also takes 1d4 cold damage per level of spell cast upon it. The creature's speed is reduced to 5 feet.

Or you could even do a "pick your own condition" system. Like for an Acid Spell, you could do:

Corroded: When you cast a spell that successfully deals Acid Damage, choose instead one of the following effects, which lasts as long as the spell duration:
  • Corroded Armor: The target's Armor Class is reduced by a number equal to your Proficiency Bonus.
  • Blinding Acid: The target suffers disadvantage on Perception Checks, Investigation Checks, and Ranged Attacks.
  • Slippery Acid: The target falls prone, and suffers disadvantage on Athletics and Acrobatics checks.

Anyways, those are just some wild ideas. What else could we do if we took the premise spells don't deal direct damage and applied it to 5e D&D?
Your on fire condition is still causing damage. You've just added a cross reference.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
What If dandelions were red, or bees flew backwards.

I guess my question is… what is the benefit?

I guess the benefit would be further differentiating spellcasting vs martial play in combat.

Keep in mind this isn't something I've thought through, but is more of a thought experiment.

But, if nothing else hits it, is stand there, on fire, taking no damage? That doesn't make a huge amount of narrative sense.
I suppose you could describe it in more detail like this:

On Fire: When a creature has the On Fire condition, it is constantly in danger of bursting into flames. The creature spends its time slapping at its body or clothes, battling the embers, but when distracted by an attack flares up in gouts of flame. The creature suffers from the following effects:
  • Weapon attacks deal extra fire damage equal to 1d6/spell level
  • The creature sheds bright light in a 15-foot radius and dim light in a 30-foot radius.
  • Flammable objects the creature is touching catch on fire.

Your on fire condition is still causing damage. You've just added a cross reference.
The idea is that the damage would only happen when a martial attack hits. This shifts the narrative damage from the spellcaster to the martial character.


Once more, this is just a wild idea I'm exploring. Feel free to add your own variations or ideas!
 

TheSword

Legend
I still don’t get the benefit. How is making spell casting fundamentally different to attacking good for the game?

What’s the virtue to this approach, or perhaps what’s the problem you’re trying to fix?

For what it’s worth, I can’t see a benefit and don’t see the point.
 

Oofta

Legend
If I were a spellcaster-fan in this scenario I'd just get a sling/bow/crossbow or whatever I'm proficient in and use that. So instead of casting a spell I'd roll to hit or possibly lob a fireball grenade. Slightly different flavor (which can be fun) but doesn't really change much.

I'd probably go the other way if the perception is that martial are on the losing end of the stick, I'd give martial type characters more options. So that flametongue sword can now be charged up and you have X charges to spend per day. Getting hit starts up the "on fire" status, with the number of die rolled being dependent on number of charges used. Once someone is on fire adding the status again doesn't change anything.

Changing the casters? Either you have to come up with a whole new system from scratch or it just changes the fluff of the spells.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I still don’t get the benefit. How is making spell casting fundamentally different to attacking good for the game?

What’s the virtue to this approach, or perhaps what’s the problem you’re trying to fix?

For what it’s worth, I can’t see a benefit and don’t see the point.
I guess what I'm seeing in my mind is creating a need for synergy between spellcasting and martial fighting... If spells create conditions that then benefit the martial characters, both are contributing to the flow and narrative of combat in different ways.

In my mind's eye I see a wizard casting a fireball that catches a bunch of enemies on fire- they're writhing around, trying to put out the flames... But it's the fighter who actually reduces their hit points to 0.

Or a dragon getting slowed down by an ice spell so that the paladin can close in and chop it down.

To me, taking damage out of spells would be an interesting way to create really different roles in combat. I'm not sure it would actually work, but it's fun to tinker with!
 

I guess what I'm seeing in my mind is creating a need for synergy between spellcasting and martial fighting... If spells create conditions that then benefit the martial characters, both are contributing to the flow and narrative of combat in different ways.

In my mind's eye I see a wizard casting a fireball that catches a bunch of enemies on fire- they're writhing around, trying to put out the flames... But it's the fighter who actually reduces their hit points to 0.

Or a dragon getting slowed down by an ice spell so that the paladin can close in and chop it down.

To me, taking damage out of spells would be an interesting way to create really different roles in combat. I'm not sure it would actually work, but it's fun to tinker with!
Personally, I don't think that a party should be required to have martials in any more than it should be required to have casters in.

Of all the various issues that compose the caster/martial power discrepancy, the damage that casters can do is a pretty negligible one.
Control abilities, out-of-combat utility and having general variety, fun and interesting options are things that I would regard way more important.
 


vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Love the idea. I dont mind if spells were more about small damage at best and a nasty effect than can be combo'ed with other members of the party.

Burning
  • Shed light within 15 ft
  • weapon attacks received deal +Int fire damage
  • speed halved

Brittle
  • Vulnerable to bludgeoning and thunder damage
  • If a bludgeoning and thunder damage attack reduces you to 0hp, you die.

Frozen
  • You are Brittle
  • Speed 0

Corroded
  • Armor AC -2
  • -10 speed if wearing armor
  • Weapon attacks roll damage twice, take lowest.

Weakened
  • Cant Dash/Dodge
  • Deal half damage
  • Disadvantage on Str/con/dex check

Dazed
  • Disadvantage on Wis/Int/Cha check
  • Every terrain is difficult terrain.
  • Vulnerable to psychic damage

Drained
  • HD recovery roll twice, take lowest result.
  • Max HP halved.
  • Proficiency bonus halved

Doomed
  • Disadvantage on Death Save
  • Healing received is halved.
  • saves rolled with -1d4

Lured
  • Target must use their speed to move toward the lure
  • target is charmed by the lure
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
What If dandelions were red, or bees flew backwards.

I guess my question is… what is the benefit?
I could imagine the benefit would be to make magic more "realistic," since real-world "magicians" didn't throw fireballs. They laid curses or summoned demons or shapechanged or whatever. (I'm sure, having said that, someone will point out some myth or bit of ancient fiction that did have a spellcaster throwing fireballs.)

It's an interesting thought experiment, as to what if spellcasters didn't have direct damage spells, but I'm not sure it's worth it.
 


BookTenTiger

He / Him
Love the idea. I dont mind if spells were more about small damage at best and a nasty effect than can be combo'ed with other members of the party.

Burning
  • Shed light within 15 ft
  • weapon attacks received deal +Int fire damage
  • speed halved

Brittle
  • Vulnerable to bludgeoning and thunder damage
  • If a bludgeoning and thunder damage attack reduces you to 0hp, you die.

Frozen
  • You are Brittle
  • Speed 0

Corroded
  • Armor AC -2
  • -10 speed if wearing armor
  • Weapon attacks roll damage twice, take lowest.

Weakened
  • Cant Dash/Dodge
  • Deal half damage
  • Disadvantage on Str/con/dex check

Dazed
  • Disadvantage on Wis/Int/Cha check
  • Every terrain is difficult terrain.
  • Vulnerable to psychic damage

Drained
  • HD recovery roll twice, take lowest result.
  • Max HP halved.
  • Proficiency bonus halved

Doomed
  • Disadvantage on Death Save
  • Healing received is halved.
  • saves rolled with -1d4

Lured
  • Target must use their speed to move toward the lure
  • target is charmed by the lure
I love these!

Playing around with making enemies vulnerable to bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage is something I was thinking about too, and sounds super fun
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
I love these!

Playing around with making enemies vulnerable to bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage is something I was thinking about too, and sounds super fun
Harsh Condition

Poison
RankEffect
1Poisoned. You have disadvantage on all ability checks and attack rolls. You can't benefit from a long rest if you are poisoned when the long rest ends.
2Sickened. You have disadvantage on all Intelligence and Wisdom saving throws. You also make Constitution saves to maintain concentration with disadvantage.
3Affliction. When you deal damage or regain hit points, roll all dice twice, taking the lowest result.
4Wracking. You are vulnerable to all damage and you have disadvantage on Dexterity and Strength saving throws.
5Pestilence. Your speed becomes 10 feet. Any creature that ends a rest within 15 feet of you must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or gain one level of poison. The target can make the save again after each hour. For each save failed, the creature gains another level of poison.
6Bout. You die.

Fright
RankEffect
1Frightened. You have disadvantage on ability checks and attack rolls while the source of your fear is within line of sight and you can't willingly move closer to it.
2Fear. You can’t maintain Concentration on a spell or any feature while the source of your fear is within line of sight.
3Panic. While the source of your fear is within line of sight, you can use only the Dash action or try to escape from an effect that prevents you from moving. If there's nowhere to move, you can use the Dodge action.
4Torpor. While the source of your fear is within line of sight, creatures other than the source of your fear are invisible to you while beyond 5 feet of you.
5Forfeit. While the source of your fear is within line of sight, vou must make a DC10 Wisdom save at the start of your turn or your speed becomes 0 and you are incapacitated until the start of your next turn.
6Shock. You die.

Doom
RankEffect
1Doomed. You make death saving throws with disadvantage.
2Malaise. You make all Charisma and Constitution saving throws and ability checks with disadvantage.
3Apathy. You can’t benefit from advantage on any attack rolls or ability checks.
4Frailty. You lose all resistance to all damage types.
5Abandon. Whenever you attempt an action in combat, you must make a DC 10 Charisma saving throw. On a failed save, you lose your action and can't use reactions until the start of your next turn.
6Demise. You die.


Just for you. This is what I'm working on for my table :p
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Harsh Condition

Poison
RankEffect
1Poisoned. You have disadvantage on all ability checks and attack rolls. You can't benefit from a long rest if you are poisoned when the long rest ends.
2Sickened. You have disadvantage on all Intelligence and Wisdom saving throws. You also make Constitution saves to maintain concentration with disadvantage.
3Affliction. When you deal damage or regain hit points, roll all dice twice, taking the lowest result.
4Wracking. You are vulnerable to all damage and you have disadvantage on Dexterity and Strength saving throws.
5Pestilence. Your speed becomes 10 feet. Any creature that ends a rest within 15 feet of you must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or gain one level of poison. The target can make the save again after each hour. For each save failed, the creature gains another level of poison.
6Bout. You die.

Fright
RankEffect
1Frightened. You have disadvantage on ability checks and attack rolls while the source of your fear is within line of sight and you can't willingly move closer to it.
2Fear. You can’t maintain Concentration on a spell or any feature while the source of your fear is within line of sight.
3Panic. While the source of your fear is within line of sight, you can use only the Dash action or try to escape from an effect that prevents you from moving. If there's nowhere to move, you can use the Dodge action.
4Torpor. While the source of your fear is within line of sight, creatures other than the source of your fear are invisible to you while beyond 5 feet of you.
5Forfeit. While the source of your fear is within line of sight, vou must make a DC10 Wisdom save at the start of your turn or your speed becomes 0 and you are incapacitated until the start of your next turn.
6Shock. You die.

Doom
RankEffect
1Doomed. You make death saving throws with disadvantage.
2Malaise. You make all Charisma and Constitution saving throws and ability checks with disadvantage.
3Apathy. You can’t benefit from advantage on any attack rolls or ability checks.
4Frailty. You lose all resistance to all damage types.
5Abandon. Whenever you attempt an action in combat, you must make a DC 10 Charisma saving throw. On a failed save, you lose your action and can't use reactions until the start of your next turn.
6Demise. You die.


Just for you. This is what I'm working on for my table :p
These are so cool!
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Let's try a rewrite of the classic:

Fireball

3rd-level evocation
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 150 feet
Components: V, S, M (a tiny ball of bat guano and sulfur)
Duration: Instantaneous

A bright streak flashes from your pointing finger to a point you choose within range and then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame. Each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on that point must make a Dexterity saving throw. A target that fails its saving throw is pushed 20 feet away from the blast knocked prone and is burning until it or any other creature takes an action to douse the flame. If the target is pushed in blocking terrain such as a wall, it is incapacited until the end of its next turn. On a successful saving throw, the target is not pushed.

The fire spreads around corners. It ignites flammable objects in the area that aren't being worn or carried and any fragile object in the blast is destroyed.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the radius of the spell increases by 5 feet for each slot level above 3rd.
 
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vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Another classic, from my BG runs back in the day.

Melf's Acid Arrow

2nd-level evocation
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 90 feet
Components: V, S, M (powdered rhubarb leaf and an adder's stomach)
Duration: Instantaneous

A shimmering green arrow streaks toward a target within range and bursts in a spray of acid. Make a ranged spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target is corroded until the end of its next turn and takes acid damage equal to your spellcasting ability bonus (minimum 1) and the start of its turn.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration is extended by 1 round for each slot level above 2nd.
 
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