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

DeviousQuail

Adventurer
I find the idea intriguing. It's similar to how I approached magic when I played Skyrim. Ignore the destruction school entirely and instead focus on using magic to debuff and cc enemies. It made combat more engaging and visceral compared to just tossing lightning and fire around.
 

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vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
You could largely achieve this by removing damaging spells. Spellcasters would immediately become support and control only, which might be an interesting twist. Several class features and traits would need tweaked, and the evoker wizard would probably just die off.
I think I'd favor going more for ongoing damage instead of instant blast (much like it was in 4e) would be a good compromise. Add to that summons that deal damage or wall effects, and you could have a well balanced controller.

Invokers could have a feature that boost ongoing damages or make it spread, or boost the size of the effect.

You could have more effects that works like elemental weapon and such, or ''weapon spells'' that allows the mage to benefit himself from the conditions he imposed.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
It's an interesting idea. I wouldn't eliminate direct damage entirely (as another poster mentioned, that could have the unintended effect of having mages shooting crossbows).

You could push this avenue of design by simply having spells limited to about the same (or less) damage as a martial character can output in a single round.

The design philosophy regarding spells has traditionally been that because they are a limited resource, they have to be able to do more damage than a fighter can. This has been a general trend over the various editions. That said, damage spells have stayed fairly close to where they originally were, while monster HP has increased significantly. As a result, control spells (which have remained consistently useful throughout the editions) have improved in value relative to their direct damage cousins.

By limiting spells to dealing no more damage than a martial could inflict, the design could push casters towards a control playstyle. Eliminating damage forces them to play as controllers, but may result in undesirable side-effects. For example, what if the fighter falls unconscious and the caster is bereft of options to take advantage of something like burning? Are their only options to heft a crossbow or retreat? IMO, that's not a desirable scenario.
 

Pathfinder 2e goes halfway there - spells are just a terrible way to do damage, although damage is possible.

It works, but you get a lot of wizard-main players complain they've been over-nerfed and aren't fun anymore.
 

Also: does a summon or polymorph spell to add a bear to the battlefield count as a "damaging spell?" If not, that's a pretty good workaround for a lot of the issues people are foreseeing: no martial means you'll need a summon most fights, but presumably in an all-caster party that load can be shared.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen
I like the idea of not entirely eliminating damage from spells, but reducing it in favor of other effects. One observation that's often been made about the original D&D spell lists was, for example, that damaging spells were fewer and farther between. Until Magic Missile came out in Sup I: Greyhawk, for example, IIRC Magic-Users had no damage spells before 3rd level. Similarly, Clerics had extremely few damaging spells until 3rd ed.

That Melf's Acid Arrow writeup and the Fireball variant both look excellent- though I would define the Burning condition as doing ongoing damage of its own- not making it dependent on weapon hits.
 


There's a very real sense among a lot of people that the Fireball spell is too powerful (and DMDavid's blog suggested this may have been because the treasure-destroying side effects were never properly implemented), but I kind of feel like damage spells are going to always be a part of it. (A big part of 'witchcraft' accusations IRL involved doing damage to others, or their livestock or crops.) You could look at Call of Cthulhu, which has a Shrivelling spell pretty early on that does one point of damage per magic point, and most characters have 10-18 magic points total.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
Come to think of it I think that Wolves of God, by Kevin Crawford, has a magic user along these lines. They don't get access to any damaging spells, IIRC. Although I think that class is more utility than control oriented.
 

Dire Bare

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?
This is brilliant! Obviously ideas that need workshopping . . . . but as a way to change the way D&D plays for a campaign, and/or for world-building . . . I love this idea!

I'm watching "The Wheel of Time" on Amazon right now and the magic-user types, the Aes Sedai, have magical rules they must follow including not using their power to harm others . . . . except under certain circumstances. However, the Aes Sedai are experts of following the letter of the law rather than the spirit . . . .
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
This is brilliant! Obviously ideas that need workshopping . . . . but as a way to change the way D&D plays for a campaign, and/or for world-building . . . I love this idea!

I'm watching "The Wheel of Time" on Amazon right now and the magic-user types, the Aes Sedai, have magical rules they must follow including not using their power to harm others . . . . except under certain circumstances. However, the Aes Sedai are experts of following the letter of the law rather than the spirit . . . .
Thanks!

I'm thinking there would be a few approaches to making this happen in a D&D campaign.

The big time consuming way would be to rewrite all the damaging spells so they still have similar effects, but don't deal direct damage.

The easier way would be to just have a menu of effects or conditions that spellcasters can choose based on the damage type. Then when they cast a Fireball or a Ray of Frost or whatever, they choose en effect from the Fire or Cold lists.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Thanks!

I'm thinking there would be a few approaches to making this happen in a D&D campaign.

The big time consuming way would be to rewrite all the damaging spells so they still have similar effects, but don't deal direct damage.

The easier way would be to just have a menu of effects or conditions that spellcasters can choose based on the damage type. Then when they cast a Fireball or a Ray of Frost or whatever, they choose en effect from the Fire or Cold lists.
Nice.

When I first read your initial post, I was thinking of removal of all damaging spells altogether. That would certainly change the feel of D&D! Not for everyone's table, of course, but the idea is intriguing! Certainly would make being a magic-user more strategic and calculating!
 

aco175

Legend
I would rather have more spells that help the other PCs or hurt the bad guys without damage. Something that gives an attack to a PC or takes the attack away from a bad guy. Maybe something that causes the armor to fall off the bad guy making him easier to hit. A shield on the PCs for bonus to AC. I guess everything would become utility and casters would be a backup roll. Great for a NPC type.
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Thanks!

I'm thinking there would be a few approaches to making this happen in a D&D campaign.

The big time consuming way would be to rewrite all the damaging spells so they still have similar effects, but don't deal direct damage.

The easier way would be to just have a menu of effects or conditions that spellcasters can choose based on the damage type. Then when they cast a Fireball or a Ray of Frost or whatever, they choose en effect from the Fire or Cold lists.

I think there should be way more Conditions that both martials and casters could lay on the enemies. It would allow spells to do something more interesting than damage and more damage, with maybe an instance of disadvantage here and there.

If you throw a torch on an enemy within a Grease or Web spell, he sould be burning a few round, not take instant fire damage and done.
 

MattW

Explorer
It's a very interesting idea.

It would be a really intriguing campaign if spells that cause damage are unavailable - but are legendary/mythical abilities that can be located and learned. For one thing, you have an obvious quest object. "Find the legendary scroll of Fireballs" (or a wand of fireballs?).

The antagonists might be evil/tyrannical wizards and clerics that are feared not because they have access to spells like "Fireball", but rather because they can use "Polymorph", "Charm", "Curse", "Cause Disease", or "Summon X" (not to mention the various divination/clairvoyance and mind reading spells)

But I don't think you have to make major changes. Just limit the PCs to "bards", or maybe "Illusionists". Clerical spell lists would also need a little tweaking

Yes, it definitely has some intriguing possibilities. For example, some minor magic items would become much more valuable. Something like a wand of magic missiles could be of major importance on the battlefield.
 
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see

Pedantic Grognard
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).
In short, what if every wizard character had to be played as what Treantmonk, back in the 3.5 era, first named a "god wizard"?
 

rmcoen

Explorer
It's a very interesting idea.

It would be a really intriguing campaign if spells that cause damage are unavailable - but are legendary/mythical abilities that can be located and learned. For one thing, you have an obvious quest object. "Find the legendary scroll of Fireballs" (or a wand of fireballs?).

The antagonists might be evil/tyrannical wizards and clerics that are feared not because they have access to spells like "Fireball", but rather because they can use "Polymorph", "Charm", "Curse", "Cause Disease", or "Summon X" (not to mention the various divination/clairvoyance and mind reading spells)

But I don't think you have to make major changes. Just limit the PCs to "bards", or maybe "Illusionists". Clerical spell lists would also need a little tweaking

Yes, it definitely has some intriguing possibilities. For example, some minor magic items would become much more valuable. Something like a wand of magic missiles could be of major importance on the battlefield.

This would be interesting, too. The only damage spells that exist are found on scrolls/tomes/whatever, and you have to actively use/read them. If you have multiples of these after many quests... you can still only have one ready and in your hands. and maybe it takes a full round to use it, giving foes a chance to disrupt it, swipe the object, whatever.

Then you don't have to rewrite all spells in the game, just start with removing all spells that cause damage. Or better: "All damage a spell does is reduced to 0", but then leave the opportunity to boost it from there. For example, a Red Dragon Sorcerer can still cast a 4pt firebolt with his CHA of 18, while the Evoker Wizard is doing 4 damage (from INT 18) with that fireball to one of the targets. But this way you can still keep the "damaging" spells that might have other effects. Spirit Guardians doesn't do damage, but still lights the area and makes it difficult terrain to enemies.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
This would be interesting, too. The only damage spells that exist are found on scrolls/tomes/whatever, and you have to actively use/read them. If you have multiples of these after many quests... you can still only have one ready and in your hands. and maybe it takes a full round to use it, giving foes a chance to disrupt it, swipe the object, whatever.
I'd go with wands/staves/rods as well. Limited charges or uses per day, you can still only use one at a time, and you may have to attune to them. Perhaps your living tissue (or living soul) is damaged when you try to channel elemental damage through it, but the nonliving matter of a wand can safely handle it.

And even then, you can have certain limitations. Perhaps certain materials can only handle channeling certain types of damage, or break more easily if they are used to make a magic item of the "wrong" material type. Like, a wand of fireball may break on a 1-in-20 if made of metal, but 2 or 3-in-20 if made of wood.

Then you don't have to rewrite all spells in the game, just start with removing all spells that cause damage. Or better: "All damage a spell does is reduced to 0", but then leave the opportunity to boost it from there. For example, a Red Dragon Sorcerer can still cast a 4pt firebolt with his CHA of 18, while the Evoker Wizard is doing 4 damage (from INT 18) with that fireball to one of the targets. But this way you can still keep the "damaging" spells that might have other effects. Spirit Guardians doesn't do damage, but still lights the area and makes it difficult terrain to enemies.
If you're going to remove damage from these sorts of spells, you need to have better effects. Like, spirit guardians actively grapples or even restrains a number of enemies as well as producing difficult terrain, and the number of enemies increases as you upcast it. Moonbeam might slow creatures in it or put them to magical sleep, or poison shapechangers.
 

rmcoen

Explorer
Well, I was trying to avoid rewriting all the spells. Me personally, I love changing everything about everything. An unofficial sarcasm motto of mine since college has been "it's not a game until we've changed the rules!" But... in practice, no one wants to have to go double-check "how did we change this fiddly bit? I forget...". Hence the suggestion for a higher-level sweeping change that applies to everything. Maybe spirit guardians is now underpowered and gets used less... So? It still exists, and might still be perfect for slowing things vulnerable to radiant? Versus the other sweeping high level change proposed: "Remove all damage spells from the game." Moonbeam still forces shapechangers to change shape, making it an underpowered niche spell - but the only one of its kind. Fireball, with no other changes... just sets unattended objects on fire in a big area ("Even works around corners!") - but it's still there. Disintegrate still puts large holes in things... just apparently not living things (no damage). And so on.
 

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