Is Counterspell overpowered? The answer is probably yes. Using just a reaction (ie. you can still use your own action to cast another spell or attack!), and a third level spell slot (minimum), you can negate the effect of any spell of 3rd level or lower cast within 60ft of you, and you have a decent chance of bringing higher level spells to a grinding halt as well.
During a recent encounter our poor Dungeon Master grew quite frustrated as the sorcerer in our party rendered a high level cleric powerless, by negating a succession of dangerous spells that would have put the combat right in the balance, all with just a couple of 3rd level spell slots. Maybe that’s why DM David voted it one of the four most annoying spells in D&D!
As a Dungeon Master the spell carries a double annoyance. It can make it harder to judge how tough to make encounters (if Fire Storm takes effect the party is going to be in a lot of trouble… if it doesn’t it could turn into a cakewalk), and from a story point of view it can replace epic happenings with the empty hiss of arcane magic fizzling out into nothing.
Of course you could simply ban the spell from the table, but that can feel pretty rough on those who consider it a key weapon in their armoury, so let’s look at some ways you can legitimately prevent it from getting overpowered without changing the existing rules.
1. Perception Check
The caster of Counterspell has to be able to see the caster of the spell they are trying to interrupt. But let’s remember that they don’t get a little notification in their inbox saying “someone within 60ft of you is trying to cast a spell, would you like to try and counter it?” Just because it’s possible for character A. to see character B., ie. there is a clear line of sight, doesn’t mean that character A. was looking in that direction at exactly the right moment. Unless the character in question was unquestionably focused on the caster have them roll a Perception check to see if they notice what the hell is going on. On a chaotic battlefield with multiple casters I’d recommend a DC of around 15.
2. Don’t Automatically Reveal What Spell Is Being Cast
If you know one or more of your players has Counterspell up their wizards’ sleeves, then be smart. Don’t declare what spell your NPC is casting. Simply inform your player(s) that they see a creature (if indeed they do see them… see points 1. and 2.) about to cast a spell, and have them roll an Arcana check DC15. If they pass they correctly guess the spell being cast, otherwise they have no idea and have to gamble whether or not to use their spell slot to try and counter the spell on what might just be a magic missile or cantrip. What’s more if the character has never seen the spell cast before give them disadvantage on their Arcana roll (if they have seen it plenty, or frequently cast it themselves, you should probably give them advantage). If you want to be really mean roll for them privately, behind your screen, and feed them misinformation when they fail their roll. This way they never know for sure, because even when they pass the check and you tell them the truth, they don’t know they passed the roll, so can’t be sure to trust their character’s assessment.
3. Make The Players Act Instantly
The uncertainty caused by point 3. will create a lot hesitation… snap your fingers, and if they haven’t decided tell them they’re too late! They just lost their reaction. Better luck next time. (That is if they survive the Lich’s Power Word Kill… mwah ha ha ha!).
4. Get The Rules Right
When the spell being cast is higher than the spell slot being used to interrupt it the Counterspeller must make a DC check of 10 plus the spell level. They can add their spellcasting ability but NOT their proficiency bonus. (I mention this because we got this wrong on our table and indeed our frustrated DM might have got off at least one more spell if we had this clearer! There is actually a skill called Improved Abjuration available to Wizards who follow the School of Abjuration who reach 10th level that enables them to add their proficiency bonuses to this roll [p.115 of the Player’s Handbook]… chances are your players don’t have that!).
5. One Reaction A Turn Max.
Remember the spell does take a reaction. And every character only gets one reaction a round. So if they’ve cast Shield already for example, or indeed another Counterspell, or used Uncanny Dodge to halve some damage (if they are multiclass Rogue), then they’re shit out of luck.
6. Fight Fire(ball Extinguisher) with Fire(ball Extinguisher)
One other very obvious way to fight the power of Counterspell is to arm all your NPCs casters with it as well – a particularly good tactic if you want to persuade magic using characters on your table to drop it from gameplay altogether, as you’ll soon see them get frustrated when their own spells fizzle out and the combat is decided by the fighters in the party. (Do note however, despite some DMs arguing that you can, you should not be able to Counterspell a Counterspell. Aside from the ridiculousness that would ensue, that would also involve casting two spells simultaneously, which is not only against the rules, but also against common sense. Additionally CS is so fast there’s no way you could react to it… most spells take several seconds to cast, CS takes a split second. More on this in the Comments section below).
Hipster Rules Fix
If, after applying all these factors to your gameplay, you still feel that the spell is overpowered let me suggest the following rules fix. Instead of setting a DC, the CS caster must contest the original caster each using their spellcasting ability modifier. If one of them is using a higher spell slot than the other, they get +2 modifier per slot higher.
Eg. Gandalf is a wizard with Intelligence 18 (+4 spellcasting modifier) and seeing the dastardly Harry Potter (Intelligence 16, +3 modifier) preparing a nefarious incantation he successfully rolls Arcana to recognise it. It’s the level 7 Finger of Death spell! Gandalf uses his highest spell slot left, a level 6, to try to counter it. He rolls a 15, which becomes 19 with his spellcasting modifier. Harry rolls 13, plus his own spellcasting modifier of 3, and an additional plus 2 as his spell is one level higher than the slot being used to counter it. His total is 18 (a draw would result in the spell being cast). Gandalf succeeds in his counter… just.
In my rules fix there’s also no such thing as an automatic counter, so you should roll/contest if even if you are countering a spell using a higher spell slot, getting +2 on your roll per slot level higher you use. (Otherwise a higher level wizard would systematically destroy a lower one without a chance, which is against the spirit of D&D).
Personally I quite like Counterspell, probably because I currently play as a multi-class Fighter / Rogue / Wizard, and it gives me a chance at least to avoid seriously nasty spells of magic users before engaging them in melee, where I have the upper hand. As someone with a long history of failing saving throws I really enjoy getting a second chance to avoid some excruciatingly annoying effect that is going to take my character out of the game for the rest of the encounter…
You can counterspell counterspell: page 12, upper right.
Thanks L, you’re right, I’d seen this somewhere before, I think on Sage Advice’s Twitter account. I haven’t given it much thought, but seems pretty silly ruling to me! How can you be about to cast one spell, and stop and cast another, and then continue with the first!?
Thanks Alexey, although I did already link to this post at the bottom of my post!
Steven Victor Neiman
My thinking is that it puts a stopper on the arcane energy the caster is forming. If the counterspell fails, that means that the original spell pushes through. If the counterspell works but gets countered in its turn, that means that when the caster feels his spell being blocked he instantly responds with his own energy manipulation to undo the block and let the spell through.
It only takes a fraction of a second to cast a counterspell, less time than it takes for a counterspelled spell to fully dissipate. If you only take a moment off to counterspell you can still resume your own casting before it falls apart.
I actually don’t like the Sly Flourish fluff for a counterspell, because it implies things that aren’t true. If the pit fiend can conjure tentacles to rip apart the hand of the gods pulling it back, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to conjure those same tentacles to rip apart the troublesome PCs who keep trying to cast spells on it. It does make a bit of sense for 3.5-style counterspelling where you counterspell by using the same spell or one which is naturally antithetical, but it doesn’t make sense for 5e-style counterspelling where there’s a single spell which shouldn’t be able to do more than one thing.
Howard P. Dahl Jr
I think of casting spells with the concept of “Weaving” different energies together to produce an effect. Pretty much exactly like the magic system in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time, casting another spell takes much more focus than casting CS, because you are working with multiple strands of magical energies. CS, on the other hand, uses just ONE strand, and that strand is sent out like a knife to cut through the weave of another caster, destroying the spell. I makes sense to me that a caster could maintain work on a different spell, while at the same time lashing out with their “strand of spirit” to block or cut another casters strand.
I thought you couldn’t cast 2 spells in a turn? This would make countering Counterspell with the same caster impossible
Hi Simon, sorry just saw and approved your comment. You can’t cast two spells in your turn (unless one, or both are cantrips), however normally Counterspell takes place outside your turn, as a reaction to what someone else is doing in their turn. So normally it’s totally legit to burn an additional spell slot in this way.
However in this instance – the original caster countering a counterspell – I guess it would still be that caster’s turn that the action is happening… so yeah you’ve spotted an official WoTC glitch it seems 😉
In any case, you’re entering bananas territory when you allow countering of a Counterspell IMHO.
That limitation on casting another spell is explicitly about casting as a Bonus Action:
“A spell cast with a Bonus Action is especially swift. You must use a Bonus Action on Your Turn to cast the spell, provided that you haven’t already taken a Bonus Action this turn. You can’t cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a Casting Time of 1 action.”
Spells cast as a reaction do not carry that limitation:
“Some spells can be cast as reactions. These spells take a fraction of a second to bring about and are cast in response to some event. If a spell can be cast as a reaction, the spell description tells you exactly when you can do so.”
“Order of Combat” in PHB explicitly allows taking reactions on your own turn: ” A reaction is an instant response to a trigger of some kind, which can occur on Your Turn or on someone else’s. ” and Sage Advice used the example of counterspell-ing a counterspell as the example of when this might happen.
Steven Victor Neiman
One implication of this is that I’m pretty sure that you can counter-counter to protect your own action spell, but not to protect your own bonus action spell. Which makes sense with how I imagine counterspells blocking and dissipating spell energy. A bonus action spell is designed to be faster, so the energy isn’t as stable and will dissipate if you take even a moment off to counter-counter.
Counterspell is instantaneous, and only requires a somatic action. RP-wise I can entirely see a WizardA chanting and moving one hand to cast some kind of projectile, then WizardB attempting to counterspell the attack. WizardA notices this attempt, and while continuing to cast his spell, waves two fingers in annoyance and swats his enemy’s counterspell attempt away.
How I do it is always is a counter check as follows:
Same level as Counterspell: my arcana versus yours
Lower level than my Counterspell: same but I get advantage
Higher level spell than my Counterspell, I get disadvantage
Way higher spell than my Counterspell: automatic failure
Arcana versus divine or natural — disadvantage as totally different kind of magic
Super evil nasty monster like a lich? You try to counter and fail and you take ability/psychic damage.
Still a super useful spell players attempt to use, why 5e made is so childish is beyond me
hmmm, setting up an Arcana contest… that’s maybe a bit clearer and quicker than my system. I will certainly give this some thought. Thanks for sharing!
Your suggestion is one of the things that made Worst DM Tactics in 5e list.
Changing the way NPCs who have never seen the PC react to the PCs because of what the PCs did to other NPCs
Having every caster have Counter Spell. I think if you did that to your players, 1) you’re a piece of crap DM, and 2) Your entire table should quit because … well … you’re a piece of crap as a DM
Sounds like you’ve had a bad experience recently, Ann, but no need to throw your toys out of the pram.
I see your point, but firstly, enemy casters definitely would come armed with CS… they’d be stupid not to, and most casters are definitely not stupid. CS also doesn’t require any knowledge of how the party operate and what they might cast… you see someone casting a spell, you try to negate it. (If you want to ensure no metagaming is involved you can say to the DM, ‘i am going to cast a spell’ without saying which spell, but writing it down on a piece of paper. The DM then has to decide to counter it without knowing if it is fireball or mage hand).
I can only really see a problem if every encounter suddenly includes a caster, when you wouldn’t really expect one. If every band of orcs suddenly comes with two shamen packing several spell slots of CS that would feel like a very forced ‘fix’ that the DM is imposing on the game in order to (unfairly) frustrate spellcasters.
My actual suggestion of arming enemy casters with CS is not about ‘winning’ encounters. It is to prove to players that CS is bad for the game, so it’s easy to convince them to remove it from the table. Ultimately CS hurts players more than NPCs…
As a good rule of thumb though, if a spell can ruin the game when cast on members of the party – like Banishment or Hypnotic Pattern – then maybe the players shouldn’t have it either. CS fails the playability test for me.
I must have mistaken your meaning. I read the whole article and I thought you were suggesting that NPC spell casters would START using CS where before they were not using it. As retaliation for the PC wiz using it.
Like if you have a bunch of traps in your dungeon all using poison. The Warlock summons an Imp who is immune to poison and “all of a sudden, all the traps use cold damage.”
If that is not what you meant, why say “a particularly good way to get the PCs to drop it from the table altogether.”?
Counterspell loses almost all of its power of the DM is smart and 1) doesn’t disclose what the spell is or what level it’s being cast at and 2) they follow the rules of counterspell as they are written (roll to counter higher level spell).
If a PC wizard wants to burn all their higher level spell slots on counters, fine; that’s what control mages do, this allows other party members do deal damage. Giving all NPC casters counterspell sounds like a very antagonistic DM move; the PCs aren’t ‘regular’ people, they are supposed to be different, stronger, better educated by battle and experience. If it makes narrative sense for an enemy mage to have counterspell, fine. But if you play those kinds of games, expect your players to return the favor (I’m gonna cast a spell DM, will the enemy counterspell it? No? cool, power word kill.) countering counterspell is one of the big reasons for sorcerers to take subtle spell, no overt casting means no countering.
This whole discussion is getting dangerously close to a pet peeve of mine, DM metagaming, when the DM gives monsters/NPCs tactics and information about the PCs that the NPC/monster couldn’t or wouldn’t know.
In the end, stop thinking about your job as a DM is to stop the players from doing stuff and instead focus on telling a collaborative story. If the PCs succeed at cool stuff like countering an enemy wizards fireball, good for them, they earned that victory through their time spent adventuring.
Another easy trick to use at the cost of your reaction is to ready the spell before leaving cover, with the trigger being “when I leave cover”.
So basically you cast and hold your powerful spell where the PC group of counterspellers can’t see you. Then you leave cover and blast them with the spell. The “casting” takes place when you choose to ready the spell, so the actual release of the spell is immune to counter spell since it was already successfully cast as a previous action.
Hey Abel, yes I was made aware of this trick recently. Pretty sneaky! On the other hand, PCs will immediately learn to pull the trick on your own casters… 🤣🤷♂️
I, whole heartedly, agree with Alan.