Spells are an integral part of Dungeons and Dragons. There is an entire third of the Player’s Handbook devoted to spellcasting alone. If someone were to suggest a low-magic campaign, or a no magic campaign, two-thirds of players would probably crinkle their nose in apprehension at the thought. If it is a huge part of the game, do you incorporate your characters’ thinking and habits around spellcasting, even if they aren’t spellcasters? Even more so interesting is the idea that spells are, in many cases, pieces of knowledge passed down from master to apprentice, or lost pieces of knowledge created by some archmage of yore. Rarely in D&D, do we get the chance to see characters create their own spells. Stick around to the end of the article for a new spell for arcane casters.
A Girl and Her Spells
The beautiful, cotton-candy color elf you see above, Nyara, is one of Head Curator Kannah’s characters (illustrated by her as well) that was created when we were still playing 3rd Edition shortly before the release of 5th Edition. Nyara was the predominant reason I struggled to recreate some iteration of the Beguiler class in 5th Edition (yes, a newer version is in the works). One of Nyara’s go to spells was a Beguiler exclusive called Whelm. It dealt psychic damage, and interestingly enough, it was nonlethal. Spellcasting in 3rd Edition was similar to what it is now in 5th edition, but Whelm and it’s iterations, Whelming Blast, Mass Whelm, and Overwhelm were fun extensions of that concept that this beguiler, and later, arcane trickster, had a preferred spell.
In 5th Edition, to no one’s surprise, beguiler and whelm were no where to be found. Then came the long discussions of, in order to do ourselves the favor of playing in 5th edition, how did we bring this character and her spells back to life? We eventually settled on her being an Arcane Trickster Rogue and Illusionist Wizard. Though Whelm had to come in somewhere; it wouldn’t really be Nyara without Whelm. Then we got the idea, Nyara is an intelligence based caster in both of her classes. Her Arcane Trickster spells she has memorized, and her wizard spells are extra. Nyara herself is a smart girl, with more of her training being in wizard, it occurred to us, “what if in all her brilliance she started inventing spells, whelm being the first?” We then set out to try to create the whelm spell. There were a lot of iterations of the spell we tried, but they always felt too close to existing spells. Whether it was dissonant whispers or mind spike, whelm didn’t feel like it stood out.
A Dash of Narrative and A Pinch of Mechanics
While talking design with Ruty Rutenberg, someone I’ve come to consider a friend, his advice echoes a constant reminder to me, “Narrative should inform mechanics,” after a crucial pause to hold my gaze, he’d continue, “and mechanics should facilitate narrative.” He’d go on to explain how facilitating narrative is what helps the players feel like the mechanics are organic and a product of their desires manifest, not to stoke the creator’s ego.
In the most recent iteration, rather than trying to replicate old mechanics, I asked myself what would a character like Nyara need this spell for, and based on everything I know about what the narrative Kannah chose for her, is reflected by the mechanics which in turn facilitate that narrative.
I broke it down into parts:
- The spell itself assaults the mind of a creature.
- The definition of whelm is to “engulf, submerge, or bury (someone or something).”
- The spell we wanted to design has the option of not killing the target as it dealt psychic damage.
- An Arcane Trickster’s core mechanic involves using mage hand to pick pockets and other crafty stunts.
- Illusion spells often are disbelieved by Wisdom or Investigation checks- the same mechanics that contest sleight of hand checks.
With these in mind, I realized, whelm might not have been designed as a complete “attack”, sure it has this use, but it may have been at first designed more so as a distraction. As Nyara grows in strength, and the spell grows in power, she could definitely have decided it to function like as her go to “attack”.
If you like creating spells, keep the creator and the setting in mind. By doing so, and with a bit of Ruty’s help, I think we have finally nailed down a version of whelm we are very proud of.
It is with great pleasure I present to you our new version of whelm available for sorcerers, wizards, and warlocks:
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: 1 round
You temporarily engulf the mind of a creature within range in psychic energy, stifling its senses and wits. The target must make an Intelligence saving throw. On a failed save, the target takes 2d8 psychic damage, or half as much on a successful one. On a failed save, the target also has disadvantage on Intelligence and Wisdom ability checks until the end of your next turn.
If you reduce a creature to 0 hit points with this spell, you can choose to have the creature fall unconscious and stable rather than killing it.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 2nd.
If you would like to see more spells like this, we might have a Character Folio: Nyara coming in the future!
If you want to play a beguiler character, Ruty and a bunch of the other Guild Adepts from DM’s Guild wrote Xanthar’s Lost Notes to Everything Else featuring an awesome Beguiler Arcane Tradition. Xanathar’s Lost Notes to Everything Else has a lot of great character options and other awesome resources that fit in almost any setting. Speaking of settings, if you like Eberron, you can also find Ruty DMing for Inkwell Society, a “Neon Noir” Eberron game Wednesdays at 7pm PDT on the D&D channel!