The Conditions Combo
GM: The phalanx of legion devils is closing in. You must protect the ritual to close the portal or you’ll be swarmed by more fiends coming through! Their shield wall is nigh impenetrable and they seem to be immune to your devastating fireballs. What do you do, Dalren?
Dalren (PC wizard): Blast it! My last spell hardly phased them. The devil line is too big for our fighter and barbarian to block their advance, you say? *Tugs on imaginary beard* Well, if Dalren causes a few of them to stop their advance, they might tighten up into a smaller group, allowing the melee warriors to hold the line. Or, they might break formation, allowing the ranger to pick ‘em off.
GM: Both seem likely options. But the clock is ticking! Dalren can feel the ground tremble under the armored feet of the fiends as they march nearer.
Dalren: Let’s see if these cretins have any backbone. *Mumbles some made up spell-words* I move up to avoid affecting my allies and cast fear! And then I take a few steps back, just to be safe.
GM: Wow, half of them fail their saves and are frightened! The devil line breaks as the wizard’s magic twists their minds, filling them with dread and stopping them in their tracks. The remaining phalanx warriors close ranks and advance, meeting the mighty barbarian and fighter in melee. *Rolls dice* But the fiends are unable to break through!
When Dealing Damage Isn’t Enough
What happens when plain old damage isn’t doing the trick? A lot of times, we as players can get away with just piling on the damage with our characters: take out the enemy faster than they can do the same to you. I think this playstyle became especially prominent due to the rise of MMOs and the different roles a character can play in such games. Even in this article, I’ll be using familiar terms such as ‘Tank’ and ‘DPS’ to talk about these roles within the adventuring party. Without a doubt, these are useful ways to describe different builds and playstyles for your characters. However, allowing these roles to define your character (and the way you play them) completely shuts down one of the greatest strengths of tabletop RPGs - freedom to act and respond in non-scripted ways.
In this article, we’ll be looking at how to move beyond simple damage-dealing with your characters in D&D 5e. In a previous article, I talked about how conditions contribute to the narrative flow of your game (I highly recommend reading that one first!). Here, we’ll be focused on how different character playstyles can make the best use of conditions in order to maximize fun gameplay, in addition to how they add to the narrative. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the more technical/mechanical side of conditions that will take your gaming to the next level!
Being a high damage-dealing (aka DPS) character can be fun, and it certainly helps your party eliminate the threats before too much damage is dealt to your group. BUT. Can you guess what I’m going to say? This gets bo-o-oring. Attacking over and over again or throwing out the same powerful spells, fireball *cough*, and watching the enemy burn is cool. . . for a little while. When the wizard’s turn comes up and there’s a clustered group of baddies, you can sometimes hear the whole table utter a collective sigh: we all know what’s coming. Yup, fireball, what a surprise.
That’s the thing about simply dealing damage with your attacks and spells: after a while, it all feels the same. Yeah, maybe a creature is resistant or vulnerable to certain types of damage and you get a little morale boost when you can play to those strengths and weaknesses. But ultimately, it’s just a game of numbers. How big are the numbers I can get? And when you’re trying to answer that same question every combat round, the game loses something. Fights become static and predictable rather than dynamic and exciting.
However, since your party does need to deal good damage when the situation calls for it, let’s use our powers of investigation to see how we can mix things up. For one thing, inflicting conditions benefits not only yourself, but your allies as well: blinding a foe gives your whole party advantage on attacks against them. That’s VALUE! So, what are some ways we can use certain spell/ability combos to keep up the damage and make your turns a little more interesting at the same time?
Saving Throw DPS
Many of the high-damage spells, especially when you factor in the ability to hit multiple creatures with an AoE, force your opponents to make a saving throw. Most often, these are Dexterity saves (fireball, dragon’s breath, call lightning), but you might see Constitution (shatter, sickening radiance) or a mental Ability (synaptic static) on occasion. With that in mind, the most effective way to maintain your DPS while also using conditions is to decrease the opponent’s ability to save against your spells. In 5e, this pretty much means giving them disadvantage or making them automatically fail (again, affecting their Dexterity saves is usually your best bet).
Fortunately, there are some conditions which do just that: restrained, stunned, paralyzed, and unconscious. Restrained creatures have disadvantage on Dexterity saves, while stunned, paralyzed, and unconscious creatures automatically fail. There aren’t too many ways of stunning, paralyzing, or rendering unconscious in 5e: the most common are the hold person/monster or sleep spells or the monk’s Stunning Fist ability. If you (or your party) have access to these, that’s fantastic - try to combo it up!
More than likely, restrained is going to be your best friend. There are quite a few spells that restrain creatures: from entangle, Maximilian’s earthen grasp, and web as low-level spells to Evard’s black tentacles and telekinesis on the higher end. A special mention goes to web and entangle because they create a nice AoE of difficult terrain in addition to the restrained effect, so this will also help to slow down or divert enemy movement. To top it all off, web has the benefit of burning a target for a little extra damage. (Can you tell web is one of my favorite low-level spells?)
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with conditions (aside from stacking three levels of exhaustion) to affect the other types of saving throws. The general benefit of using spells like shatter or synaptic static is that they deal less common types of damage, which fewer creatures will resist. Another special mention goes out to bane, as this is one of the only spells (and 1st-level at that!) which reduces any/all of an enemy’s saving throws.
This category can apply equally to casters and martial classes. This method of damage-dealing relies on attack rolls - including critical hits - to take down your enemies. Lowering your enemy’s AC will allow you to hit more often, but 5e tends to lack this kind of effect. Instead, you’ll be looking for ways to gain advantage on your attack rolls, as this increases both your chance to hit AND your chance to crit. What’s more, when you’ve inflicted a condition on your opponent, your allies’ attacks also benefit.
All of the conditions mentioned in the previous section are equally useful here. And, lest we forget, paralyzed creatures are auto-crit by attacks from adjacent creatures (including spell attacks)! You’ll also have advantage on attacks when the creature is blinded or when you are invisible. Finally, let’s not forget prone, although this condition exclusively favors melee attackers and tends not to last longer than a couple turns - unless, the prone creature is also grappled/restrained. Since these latter conditions reduce a creature’s speed to 0, the creature can’t spend half of it to stand up from prone.
So, blindness/deafness is a pretty obvious choice for casters, as is darkness. The second option is a little tricky, however, as you/allies need to be able to see the target: for instance, with the warlock’s Devil’s Sight invocation, or if the creature is large enough to be partially visible. One trick that I absolutely love is to attach an object near a Huge/Gargantuan creature’s head (tying a piece of cloth to their horns or the like) and casting darkness on that object. Wherever the creature goes, the globe of impenetrable darkness will go with it, and hopefully leave part of their body exposed to attack. WARNING: this tactic does not work against dragons - their blindsight is a real buzz-kill.
Another special mention goes to phantasmal force. Since this spell causes a creature to believe in whatever mental illusion you imagine, an illusion that would (in reality) inflict the blinded condition actually does blind the creature. This makes the spell INCREDIBLY versatile. And since it also forces the creature to save using Intelligence, it has a pretty good chance of persisting (unless you’re up against a wizard). Although the druid/bard spell faerie fire doesn’t inflict a condition, it’s a great, 1st-level, advantage-granting AoE (that also stops creatures from becoming invisible). What’s not to love? The cleric’s 1st-level spell, inflict wounds, also deserves a mention here - using advantage to crit for a whopping 6d10 necrotic damage is no joke!
Inflicting conditions is much more difficult with martial classes than it is for casters, simply due to the fact that there are more spells than class abilities that do this. Obviously, barbarians have it easy because they can use Reckless Attack all day long. Other martial classes with absolutely no access to spells have to rely more on their wits and Athletics score to knock their targets prone before the beat down begins.
Rules as written, I think prone is a little weak because of how easy it is for the creature to stand up, even when your fighter is standing right on top of them, but that’s what house rules are for. Yes, you are sacrificing one of your attacks to knock your enemy on their butt, but remember that this not only benefits your follow-up attack(s), it also lets allied melee characters get in there for some extra punishment. HINT: target creatures who take their turn before yours in initiative: that way, there’s almost a full round of them being prone before they can stand up!
It really would be nice to see some of the pure martial classes get more abilities that inflict conditions. Certain Feats and archetypes that have come out through Unearthed Arcana and 3rd-party material can help mitigate this lack of options. Even so, without using something like a “called shot” house rule (take disadvantage on an attack to inflict a condition for a round), it’s really up to players and GMs to get creative, use terrain to your advantage, and rely on teamwork to put conditions on your enemies.
Lastly, we’ll take a look at how conditions help your character play defense and weather more attacks while your party dishes out the damage. Naturally, any conditions that completely prevent your foes from acting are awesome here: charmed, paralyzed, stunned, and incapacitated/unconscious. But more likely, giving your enemy disadvantage is your go-to here: blinded, frightened, invisible, poisoned, prone, and restrained.
As we saw in the opening example, frightened is great because it not only gives the enemy disadvantage, it also makes them unable to move closer to the source of the fear. As before, spells receive most of the love in this arena: charm person/monster is great to ward off a specific creature from attacking you, and introduces fun roleplaying opportunities featuring you and your new “friend.” (But remember, being charmed is not equivalent to an absolute mind-control effect like with dominate person/monster.)
The spells cause fear and wrathful smite are fantastic 1st-level options to frighten your opponents at early levels. The latter is only available to paladins, but is a phenomenal option to put the fear of your god into your foes! A bonus action to cast AND the target must use their action to attempt to remove the condition after failing the initial save. Yes please! And as with the saving throw DPSers, bane is a friend to tanks as well. This little -1d4 to all attacks and saves can be a godsend.
Many martial classes are naturally better Tanks, so they don’t need the extra boost from conditions as often. Still, when you’re facing the business-end of a hill giant’s club, you want every advantage you can get. Effects that induce the frightened or the poisoned condition are a little more common for martial classes, but could still use a boost from house rules. A swift kick to the groin (poisoned) or judicious use of Intimidate (frightened) would be a great way to inflict temporary conditions. In my opinion, literal poisons are far too expensive and limited in their use to be worthwhile with rules as written - and many don’t even inflict the condition!
Overall, inflicting conditions adds VALUE to your character’s combat actions. As mentioned above, your allies also benefit when you inflict conditions. Additionally, spells that inflict conditions are usually lower-level than your prime damage-dealing spells. Instead of throwing two fireballs in a row, you can use a 2nd-level web and then a 3rd-level fireball. On average, this will do roughly equivalent damage as two fireballs (assuming creatures would’ve saved against both when not restrained), and you’ve saved a 3rd-level slot for later.
More importantly, using spells and abilities to inflict conditions breaks up the monotony of your turns. Even if the condition doesn’t end up changing the outcome of the rolls (your own, or your foe’s), the variety and creativity that you can introduce to the game will force the GM to stay on their toes. Terrain becomes more important when you start using it to create advantageous situations. Or, when your cleric is about to go down, your barbarian can rush over, knock the enemy prone, and even grapple them to keep the healer safe. Isn’t that a more exciting turn than “I attack the enemy right in front of me again, and deal 8 damage.”? You bet it is!