D&D Tips: Using Summoning Spells

“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!


7 thoughts on “D&D Tips: Using Summoning Spells”

  1. Wizard: “We Need Help! I Will Summon Ulthax The Demon!”
    *Casts Spell*
    *Portal Opens*
    Out Hops An Abyssal Imp.
    Imp: “Hello. My Master Ulthax Is On Vacation In The Great Bath, And I Was Instructed To Answer His Calls. How May I Be Of Service?”
    Wizard: *blinks* *points to charging Tarrasque* Can you Kill That?
    Imp: *charges* *splat noise*
    Party Is Squished

    1. I legitimately pity any DM who would feel it necessary to abuse their power like that.

      Also, just to be a little pedantic, if Ulthax is supposed to be an ally against something as mighty as the tarrasque, you probably are going to be calling on it via the gate spell, which is different than most summoning spells in that you actually call on a specific entity, not “creature(s) of [X] challenge rating”. So be prepared to see Ulthax with a shower cap and all smeared with essential oils stumbling into the fray.

  2. I have a fighter who just gained the Eldritch Knight martial archetype, and I would like to know if metal armor (he has a suit of chainmail) affects the casting of spells? Do I have to get rid of my armor and just cast the mage armor spell on myself. Does this also apply to shields?

    1. Hi James,

      Thank you for your question!

      The only class for which the material of the armour has any bearing is druid, and even then it’s a rather dubious matter. Most DMs are content to ignore the supposed taboo of druids wearing metal armour or using metal shields, either because the alternative is killing and skinning an animal or chopping down a tree, or because the DM just can’t be bothered to limit their player in such an arbitrary manner.

      Aside from material, the other consideration about wearing armour is proficiency. According to the rules as written, spellcasters can’t cast spells while wearing armour with which they aren’t proficient (see the Casting in Armour sidebar on PH 201). As Eldritch Knights (fighters) are proficient with all types of armour, neither the chain mail nor any other kind of armour the character wears will impede his spellcasting abilities.

      Best,
      the Archmage

  3. Hello, I would like to understand what really comes out from a summoning action. Is it randomic? The GM chooses from a list? If it’s random you could end up calling a sea creature on land, wich would be quite the waste (unless it’s something like an elemental of sorts).

    Thanks.

    1. Hello Caio,

      Thank you for your message!

      In short, yes, the DM chooses what creature(s) show up based on the player’s desired CR level. If the player casts conjure woodland beings and chooses the fourth option—eight CR 1/4 or lower fey creatures—then the DM can bring out up to eight of the following creatures: blink dogs, boggles (VGtM), pixies, and/or sprites.

      The DM might also opt to bring out other creatures at their discretion. For instance, if the caster is an elf who is sworn to serve a mighty archfey and chooses the third option—four CR 1/2 or lower fey creatures—then the DM might bring out four scouts with they fey type (elves of the Feywild summoned to the battlefield).

      This is a very important check on the spell’s broad application. Many DMs who simply allow their players to summon whatever they choose later regret it when the druid summons eight pixies, who all cast polymorph on the party to transform them into giant apes or even T-rexes. No DM in their right mind should allow this. However, if the DM deliberately chooses creatures that are useless in the environment (such as a shark on dry land), then shame on that DM and they will likely learn how unacceptable this is when their players decide to go somewhere else to play.

      Best,
      the Archmage

  4. The biggest issue I have with summoning spells is how they bog down combat when suddenly 8 more creatures appear on the battlefield. Now there’s 8 more creatures to move, attack, take damage etc. It grinds dynamic combat down to a bore.

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