Multi-Round Actions (Part 2, Channeled Spells)

When I thought of “things in D&D that can take more than one round”, the first place I went was “spells”. However, that space in D&D is largely filled with “spells not designed for combat” and “sorcerers trying to use metamagic feats no matter how little the designers wanted them to”, not so much “spells too awesome for a mere six seconds”. The only place I found combat-ready spells that took more than one round was the Player’s Handbook II, which introduced channeled spells.

Here’s the short version. A channeled spell has a mutable casting time. The longer a caster puts energy into the spell, the more powerful the spell is, within specified limits. Channeled spells usually do something mildly helpful when cast as a swift action, something fair when cast as a standard action, something interesting when cast as a full-round action, and something powerful (but not as powerful as casting two spells) when cast as two full-round actions. This means that with the same spell slot a caster can throw out a quick swift-action version of the spell to shore up their turn, spend twelve seconds focusing and releasing a game-changer, or something in between.

A caster doesn’t need to decide the casting time when they start casting. If a wizard starts casting a channeled pyroburst, she probably intends to spend two rounds and drop a much scarier version of fireball when she’s done. But if her allies rush into the area between rounds one and two, she can shrug, release the spell for less damage in a smaller area to preserve party continuity, and carry on with her turn.

Once I decided I wanted to write more channeled spells to scratch the multi-round action itch, I looked at everything Wizards had done in the space. All of the example channeled spells (hint: the full text of all three fits on one page) are basically mundane spells that get louder and louder as casting time increases. Channeled divine health gets a bigger range and heals more damage, channeled divine shield gives more damage reduction, and channeled pyroburst deals more damage in a bigger area. The spells get stronger, but they don’t get more interesting. They don’t offer any more options or utility. Given that they’re designed to get better as a player works at them, I found channeled spells a prime opportunity for presenting a list of options (benefits, targets, anything that allows choice) and letting a player pick from them.

So, yeah, I told you that story to tell you this one.

There are a few goals I had while working on these:

  1. Spells of various levels. The original three spells were all 3rd- and 4th-level, making them inaccessible for new characters and somewhat irrelevant at high-level.
  2. One spell for each school of magic. Channeled spells should be accessible to all casters, not just specific builds.
  3. Combat spells only. There’s little downside to a multi-round casting time if progression isn’t measured in rounds, so no exploration- or interaction- based spells and only one pre-combat buff. I suppose you could argue that a multi-round cast is easier for people to detect when you’re trying to cast one surreptitiously, but that’s enough of a corner case that I don’t see a point in designing for it.
  4. Try to present a list of options and allow the caster to pick from among them. It’s perfectly fine for a spell to just get bigger and bigger the longer you channel it, but it’s not as fun.

You can find my results here. They’re not playtested and there’s still work to be done around balance, but I hope I’ve opened up the design space for any players interested in firing a Mega Buster.

By the way, combining points (1) and (3) was a pain; there’s only so much a diviner does mid-fight. I didn’t always succeed at (4) either, though I succeeded about as much as I expected to. Where I definitely failed is the spell names. When I eventually play that half-orc sorcerer who uses only custom spells, I might tank his Intelligence so my naming can be excused.

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