With a cruel gleam in the cold, baleful points of light that mark its eyes, the lich raises its hand. Sickly green light coalesces around its outstretched finger, casting long shadows that dance maniacally as the party leaps for cover from the imminent curse. All except the wizard, who waves his hand and cancels the spell, completely nullifying the threat.
Counterspell is one of the most popular abjuration spells and is practically a staple of any decent wizard’s spell list. No other spell has singlehandedly changed the outcome of encounters like counterspell, and when measured against the spell slot’s potential use to cast fireball or some other effect, the option to completely negate enemy damage is difficult to pass up. As magic is almost inevitably encountered as the party gets higher in level, this spell is certain to find plenty of opportunity for use.
It’s also a spell that many players and Dungeon Masters wish had never been created, for these precise reasons.
In this article, we will examine common complaints about this spell and how it might be reimagined into something that is more engaging.
What Is Counterspell?
In Fifth Edition DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, counterspell is a 3rd-level spell that can be cast as a reaction when a spellcaster sees another creature casting a spell. If the level at which the spellcaster casts counterspell is cast is equal to or higher than the level of the spell they are countering, that spell is automatically negated. If the spell that would be countered is of higher level than the counterspell, the spell is only negated if the creature casting counterspell succeeds a spellcasting ability check.
For example, a 3rd-level counterspell would automatically counter a 3rd-level fireball, but the spellcaster would have to make a DC 17 spellcasting ability check (not an Arcana check) to negate a 7th-level finger of death. With a DC 19 spellcasting ability check, counterspell might even foil the mighty wish spell.
What’s Wrong With Counterspell?
Due to its potential to trivialize an encounter, counterspell either becomes the focus of a party’s strategy, or it becomes worse than useless. Many Dungeon Masters have complained about this spell after the ignoble murder of one of their spellcasting villains, and many players complained that such an experience prompted their DM to only ever run enemy spellcasters in groups larger than the number of player characters with access to this spell, leading to an escalation of counterspell usage where everyone attempts to counter everyone else’s counterspell, resulting in the only spell that is ever successfully cast being counterspell. Turns are effectively wasted and frustrations rise because combat largely devolves into pointless sound and fury. It’s not even a nuclear deterrent; that would at least be more interesting because something would happen.
Regarding that last point, it is possible to use creative narration to flavour the counterspell in a conceptually impressive way, changing it from a sad trombone moment to an opportunity to engage your players’ imaginations—our friend over at Sly Flourish has an exceptional article all about this which we highly recommend you check out. However, nothing is still nothing, no matter how much of it there is and how creatively it’s presented, and for many people this is an insufficient solution.
If you and your players are unsatisfied with the spell in its regular form, consider using this reimagined version from us here at Dungeon Master’s Workshop:
Casting Time: 1 reaction, which you take when you see a creature within 30 feet of you casting a spell
Range: 30 feet
You attempt to interrupt a creature in the process of casting a spell that is not this spell. Make a spellcasting ability check contested by the spellcasting ability check of the target. If you cast this spell using a spell slot higher than the triggering spell, you gain a +1 bonus to your check for each level this spell exceeds the triggering spell. If you cast this spell using a spell slot lower than the triggering spell, you gain a -1 penalty to your check for each level the triggering spell exceeds this spell. If you succeed, the creature’s spell fails and has no effect, and the target creature takes 1d6 psychic damage.
If you roll a 20 on the d20 for your spellcasting ability check to negate a spell that targets only one creature (not an area), and the total of your check would exceed the total of the target creature’s check, you can instead cause the spell to be reflected back on that creature, using the slot level, spell save DC, attack bonus, and spellcasting ability of the caster.
If more than one creature casts this spell in response to the same trigger, only one caster (chosen by the one with the highest initiative) may make the ability check to negate the spell, and that creature has advantage on the roll.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the damage increases by 1d6 for each slot level above 2nd.
There are a number of significant changes in this version of the spell. They are described below, along with the intentions behind the change.
- The automatic negation aspect is removed and replaced with a contested ability check that still rewards you for using a higher level spell slot.
- Reducing the range to 30 feet makes the strategy of using this spell inherently more risky.
- The addition of psychic damage causes the spell to have a meaningful effect on the game beyond burning one of your enemies’ spell slots at the cost of one of your own, and is some consolation if you cast counterspell at a much higher level than necessary.
- Escalating counter attempts are prohibited because the spell can’t be used to counter itself.
- Multiple attempts to counter the same spell are resolved simultaneously with a single check in a way that also makes initiative meaningful beyond the first round.
- The 5% chance to reflect a spell (9% chance with advantage) adds a dynamic element to the spell and allows for amazing spell duels between you and your foes.
- Dropping the spell level by 1 (to 2nd level) is appropriate given all the above changes, and encourages shenanigans with it because more NPCs will have access to it (it’s a tier 1 spell).
This version of the spell is much more engaging, with numerous mechanics that appeal to players who feel the regular version of the spell lacks tangible benefits to make up for its many potential convolutions. You would be hard pressed to call this spell boring.
Putting It All Together
Creative narration and clever encounter design can certainly go a long way to improving gameplay experience, even with mechanics some people find frustrating. Sometimes, however, certain features can pose a constant source of irritation, and you must look to alternatives to keep everyone happy. Any one of the changes above can significantly alter how counterspell plays out at your table. Try them out and see what works best!
Feature Image Credit: “Counterspell” by Remi Roundtree
Would you like to share your thoughts on this spell and how it works at your table? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!