Summoning spells in D&D 5e are quite a complicated topic. There are a few main issues that often come up, either narrative or mechanical in nature;
- Do certain summoning spells not work in unusual places such as Avernus?
- Who gets to pick the creatures and how do you pick what is summoned?
- How can you prevent summons from slowing down combat?
The last two points are perhaps the most important for most players and DMs, yet the thematic nature of what is summoned can have some rather interesting implications which shouldn’t be overlooked.
Can I summon pixies to Avernus?
I’ve seen some DMs say that Conjure Woodland Beings and similar spells make no sense in the middle of Hell… but saying “No, you can’t summon fey to Avernus” just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you do that I hope the player has a way to choose a different spell instead.
I really like how D&D 5e has taken to cosmetically changing spells to match the location. I’ve not read all the modules but both Descent into Avernus and Curse of Strahd do this for a handful of spells, giving them little nudges to fit the theme.
Find Steed in Ravenloft gives you a skeletal horse and in Avernus a nightmare. Only cosmetically of course. Yet there’s no mention of changes to the main conjure/summon spells.
We could assume this is because these spells don’t care – you are literally conjuring them from nothing, or from a different Plane. Yet, another option would be to reflavour these creatures too, cosmetically at least. I think that’s the more interesting option!
Give them horns, spikes, dripping bloody wounds, or anything that reinforces the themes of the adventure location. Tokens which match the visual you are going for will ensure these changes are kept front and centre.
You may want to either change the choices to only match the theme, or create entirely new options specific to the theme. This extra work can really make a big difference in helping push the thematic tones of your campaign.
I choose to summon 8 pixies!
The discussion that sparked this article was whether a player could choose to summon 8 pixies and have them carry the characters safely down from a great height.
This goes against the Sage Advice Compendium’s ruling (although obviously the DM may choose to ignore the ruling).
So maybe you find the inventiveness of having a player conjure some pixies to solve the problem really fun and creative so you say “Sure, pixies show up and carry you down.” (I would have spined devils come and make things even more fun!)
Yet, maybe the choice isn’t inventive or fun to you. Maybe the player read a guide which told them to pick 8 wolves because they clog up the battlefield, have great attacks thanks to Pack Tactics and Trip and maximise action economy… to me that isn’t inventive or fun at all to do every single combat.
Okay so Pixie#1 casts entangle… Pixie#2 casts…
One of the single biggest complaints you will read from DMs about summoning spells, animate dead and paying for loads of henchmen in 5e is that they massively slow down combat – and it’s true.
Back in older editions such as Basic/Expert, it was expected for the party to actually be quite large, with players sometimes hiring a whole bunch of NPCs to fight alongside them.
However, as the complexity of the game increased, so did the length of combats. There’s pages to be written about the issue, but essentially when you compare a single human NPC making a crossbow attack to 8 pixies each of which is casting spells that require multiple saving throws (entangle, confusion, sleep) you can tell it’s going to take much longer.
How best to handle it? Well you have a number of options…
First of all, just avoid giving the players multiple NPCs with complex abilities and spells. If one player already takes 5 minutes to choose which spell to use on their turn, maybe avoid giving them 8 pixies to manage as well. Choose more straightforward creatures with just plain attacks such as needle blights or giant badgers.
Or, rather than just flat out never giving the player mechanically complex creatures, try giving them a mix of creatures. 6 badgers and 2 wolves is a lot quicker to play, with less knockdowns and pack tactics to worry about.
Another option to speed things up is to always use average damage for any summons or henchmen. These are included on the statblocks for a reason! This can save a lot of time.
Finally one often forgotten (or never read) rule lies hidden away in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Keeping combat moving along at a brisk pace can be difficult when there are dozens of monsters involved in a battle. When handling a crowded battlefield, you can speed up play by forgoing attack rolls in favor of approximating the average number of hits a large group of monsters can inflict on a target.Handling Mobs, page 250 of the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide
The idea is that you subtract the creatures attack bonus from the AC of the target and figure out the minimum roll needed for the target to hit. You then compare this to a table which states how many monsters have to be attacking the target to score a single hit – you never actually roll dice and instead just take the average number who are likely to hit.
So rather than worry if the 8 wolves hit the bearded devils, you simply take their attack bonus (+4) and remove it from the devils AC (13) leaving us with a 9+ on a d20 to hit. The table lists that if the d20 roll required is between 6 to 12 then you need 2 attackers per successful hit.
As such we know that 4 wolves hit and 4 miss. No rolls required!
But what about Pack Tactics or other sources of advantage? Well, Advantage is mechanically interchanged in other rules for +5, so in our example above now every wolf with pack tactics in effect hits.
Sure it’s not for every group, and it’s not for every fight. I would only implement the Mob Rules if people are unhappy about how slow combat is becoming due to summoned creatures, but it’s a good rule to keep in mind.
- Don’t limit player choices for narrative reasons, change the narrative to make sense of the choice!
If you think pixies in Avernus are weird, maybe make them fiendish counterparts who are neutral evil due to the pervasive evil of Avernus. You could really sell this by finding tokens with a more fiendish appearance, or showing art to your players as you describe the fiendish twists.
- The player chooses the number and CR of what they want to summon, but the DM picks the specific creatures.
You could make up random tables to roll on or just fiat pick things that best fit the narrative and seem fun. Don’t let a min-maxer dominate the table by picking the Most Optimum Choice, unless that’s the kind of game you want to run.
- There are various methods to speed up summoned creatures in combat;
- Use less mechanically complex creatures (or only a few)
- Use average damage for summoned creatures
- Use Mob Rules to automate how many creatures hit if people are unhappy with how much time summoned creature attacks take to resolve