“I hate conjuration spells, by the way, guys. Just so you all know.”
“To be fair to Marisha, the spell does say ‘Your DM will have a list of the creatures—’”
“Does it really?”
“It does, at the end of the—”
“Fuck that spell. Conjurations can die. No; conjuration’s great… when you’re not the DM.”
— Matthew Mercer and Sam Riegel, Critical Role, Campaign 1, Episode 49
The flavour text above really is better than any introduction we could write to the problem. Matthew Mercer, a master of improvisation and all-around fantastic Dungeon Master, who is the primary creative force behind the biggest D&D show in the world, had a scathing indictment for conjuration spells when he had to break up the pace of an encounter to awkwardly read through a bunch of monster stat blocks for his player. The delay in the action was so tedious that even Travis Willingham, whose enthusiasm for the game runs so deeply that his Fitbit once reacted to his excited heartbeat during combat, grumbled about being bored.
Mercer’s experience is hardly unique. Complaints about summoning spells are ubiquitous in the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS community. You can’t swing a dead cat at a convention without hitting a Dungeon Master who has, at some point or another, pondered whether they’d rather scour the Monster Manual in the middle of a battle or just put their own head through the nearest wall. Even with the two appendices between the Monster Manual and the Player’s Handbook dedicated to compiling a list of suitable creatures for most summoning spells, it still leads to book keeping that most DMs would rather avoid.
Fortunately, these foibles are surprisingly easy to correct, with several simple options that can encourage creativity and player input.
“the DM has the statistics”
A while back, there was a popular strategy among shameless power gamers that went something like this:
1) Cast the conjure woodland beings spell and summon a bunch of pixies.
2) Have the pixies use polymorph to turn the party into some beefy, high-damage beasts such as giant apes or tyrannosaurus rexes.
3) Proceed to wreck the game.
This was the first time people really started to understand why the game developers had included certain language in these spells: ‘the DM has the creatures’ statistics’.
The purpose of this language isn’t merely to keep players from having to borrow their DM’s Monster Manual in the middle of a battle, nor to assign responsibility for keeping the statistics to any specific party (let alone the already beleaguered Dungeon Master). Rather, along with the particular wording of summoning spells, it meant that the DM was free to bring out whatever creature was appropriate to the summoning. You don’t summon eight pixies, you summon eight fey creatures with a challenge rating of 1/4. That could be a lot of different things, and it’s the prerogative of the DM to decide what ultimately comes out. Eight pixies only appear if the DM wants eight pixies to appear.
“creature types are interchangeable”
Not only does the DM have the ability to choose any creature of the intended type and challenge rating, they also can make something up. The DM has the statistics, after all, not the Monster Manual. The new creature could be a reflavoured standard creature, such as a scout with fey type instead of the humanoid type (perhaps an elf native to the Feywild), or an entirely new creature of the DM’s own design. The only thing that matters is the challenge rating, and there are instructions in the Dungeon Master’s Guide on how to use that mechanic.
Want to make the standard choices a little more interesting? No problem! Not only are creature types are interchangeable at the DM’s discretion, there are also many monster features and abilities that have no influence on a creature’s challenge rating and can make for unique experiences. Perusing the Creating a Monster section in chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide reveals that the creature summoned using a 7th-level conjure celestial spell could easily be a celestial-type creature that uses the stats of an elephant with the Siege Monster feature (as found in the earth elemental stat block). Such a thing could even be exactly what the stats say: a celestial elephant, or it could be something else that uses those stats for convenience (maybe a loxodon-esque dreadnought).
“make the players do the work”
Of course, there’s an even easier way to handle this, though it does require allowing the players to use the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual to an extent. That is: make the players do the work of coming up with the monsters that get summoned.
To clarify, this does not involve giving the players carte blanche to pull off the pixie-powered murder brigade described above—nobody is suggesting that the DM can’t put the kibosh on something that is so flagrantly disruptive to the game. Rather, this option is simply delegating the legwork of summoning preparation to the player for DM review.
Ideally, this would be done between games, before the spell would be cast. The DM simply asks the player to write out one or two results of the spell that they would be happy with so the player and DM can each have a copy and if it comes up in game, nobody has to go flipping back and forth through pages and pages. This could be a simple, “I cast conjure animals at 5th level and attempt to call on four giant eagles able to bear us across the lake”, or a more complex, “I cast summon greater demon at 4th level and attempt to call on Ulthax, the cambion son of Graz’zt (who has the demon subtype because he is native to the Abyss)”.
Doing this ahead of time allows the player and the DM to both have a hand in coming up with creative uses of summoning spells and better prepare for the execution of the abilities in battle. It might even lead to character-building questions, such as, “How does your character know of Ulthax, son of Graz’zt?” or perhaps allow the DM to prepare for how Ulthax might attempt to seduce the character into damnation, or why another demon might be sent in his place on a certain occasion (read: plot hook).
Putting It All Together
Many Dungeon Masters look at summoning spells and see a headache when in fact they can be a fantastic opportunity. While a sidebar explaining some of the information above might have prevented thousands of awkward scrambles for a solution that is both universally favourable and also expedient enough that it doesn’t waste half an hour, the books do ultimately have the answers to your woes in the form of tools to help organize and manage creatures. Use them well and you might be able to make the preparation work double as character building material or to drive the plot.
Remember, the point of the game is to have fun, so always be thinking how you can turn the tedious parts of the game into an enjoyable experience—summoning included!