If you’ve heard of the DMs Guild (an online marketplace for Dungeons & Dragons adventures, sourcebooks and supplements, written by everyone from Matt Mercer to yours truly), then you’ve probably heard of Elminster’s Guide to Magic. It’s been one of the best-selling products on the marketplace for some time now, with average review rating of over 4.5/5 at the time of publishing this post.
Having leafed through a copy recently I have to say I am not surprised in the slightest.
It’s a hefty tome (178 pages) of useful goodies, written by an experienced team of D&D creators, that includes:
- 350+ new spells, including for bards, clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, sorcerers, warlocks and wizards (so for every spellcasting class basically!).
- 50+ new magic items
- A long list of magical trinkets
- Lore about the magical factions of the Forgotten Realms
- 8 new character archetypes.
That’s a lot of material right there, and exactly what many players, bored of casting thunderwave, haste and fireball are looking for.
The book is written in the voice of the sorcerer Ashemmon of Rhymanthiin, with the famous Elminster serving as a kind of editor, dropping in to make the odd droll remark or observation. Whilst it’s not written with quite the sparse craft and precision of a Wizards of the Coast official product, the prose is certainly better than you would expect of most community content and indeed rather funny at times. The formatting and artwork is also of high quality, giving the product a professional feel.
But let’s get to the meat already…
The New Spells
This book is all about the spells for me. As a player, learning the same old familiar incantations every day can get rather dull, whilst as a DM I want to be able to throw spells at PCs that they’ve never encountered before, thus bringing back some of the mystique and fear of enemy spellcasters back into the game. To this end I found plenty of new spells I would bring to my table. Ball lightning is a fun new way of blasting people (I think they actually converted it from an earlier edition of D&D), and one that carries on round after round, as your arcane artillery bounces around the battlefield. The spell freeze is so simple and brilliant that one wonders why it didn’t exist beforehand, abolish shadows is like light on steroids, and I like the cleric spell celestial fist – a damage dealing restrainer – a lot (although the saving throw once restrained should be Strength not Dexterity it seems to me!). Meanwhile spells like leaf into dagger and animal spy are hardly game changers, but have their charm (and uses).
Creating a spell is a tricky balancing business. It’s easy to get carried away and overpower them, whilst on the other hand, if the spell is any worse than those available who is going to bother to learn it? And by extension why bother create it? What is needed of course is new functionalities and subtle variations, operating at the same level of power as existing spells (at least those that are not grossly overpowered. I’m looking at you hypnotic pattern). If anything, my first impressions are that the publishers have erred on the side of caution and made their own creations a bit less powerful than the best available in the Player’s Handbook, rendering some of them redundant (to PCs at least. NPCs not driven to pick the optimal option every time could be perfect proponents of such spells, as per my comments above about throwing unfamiliar powers at parties). However I did as well find spells which seemed a little too powerful (at a glance at least). A few spells put me off by seeming too wordy and complicated, and there were many where, as a point of preference, I just didn’t like aesthetics of the spell’s effects (I could say the same of many in the Player’s Handbook as well!). A few could have been more accurately named.
If anything, rather than such a rich supply, I personally would have preferred a smaller tighter selection of spells that had been playtested to death. A bit like an album by your favourite artist, you’d prefer just the 5 or 6 great tracks to those same tracks, plus another half dozen that don’t stand out. Of course you can always discard what you don’t like… it’s just you need a bit more time to evaluate what’s hot and what’s not. Anyway considering the difficulty of pitching spells powers I think the publishers have done very well overall, with nothing falling too far either side of the mark (under vs overpowered) and plenty to get the creative juices flowing. It’s also worth noting that what I like and will use might be completely different to what someone else likes, so maybe we’ll forgive the publishers for opting for a high quantity product – it’s a more surefire way of providing something for everyone.
Magic Items (and trinkets)
I pretty much hate magic items as a rule. Not only do I dislike the high fantasy aesthetic, with players owning dozens of powerful arcane tools (give me a gritty Westerosi style setting instead please!), but they also unbalance play and detract from the much more satisfactory sensation of powering up via achieving new levels and experience-based abilities. But anyway, so as not to be a completely miserable bastard I took a look at what Elminster’s Guide to Magic has to offer on this front and found a few I really liked. Cat’s Eye Marble, conferring dark vision of 60ft is a lovely fix for the human in the party who has to lug a torch around every time they go underground, Leaf of Falling stops you having to learn feather fall every day (annoying use of a limited pool of prepared spells!), but a clear favourite is the Golden Tongue: This charm is the shape of a small golden tongue. It grants you advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks—however you are required to make your argument in rhyming couplets. If you fail to speak in rhyme when making the check, you take 1d8 psychic damage. Brilliant, that’s going in my next adventure for sure!
These were all labelled Wondrous Items, but there’s actually a list of Magical Trinkets that I like even more. Little treasures like a malachite figurine carved in the shape of a dragonfly, which flies around and kills any flies or mosquitoes in your presence and a crystal goldfish. When held, it enables you to hold your breath for 2 minutes longer can add fun and flavour to the game without any worry of unbalancing it. If nothing else they inspire the imagination!
Factions & Archetypes
I haven’t had time to go through all the factions and I’m not sure how many of them have been homebrewed vs. already alive in Realm’s lore (having taken up D&D again after a 20 years break, I’m seriously behind on my lore!), but anyway I do see some good material there for DMs to delve into for their campaigns. As for the new archetypes… it seems like homebrewing these are more or less an obsession for all DMs Guild creators, but they are almost always amongst the content I’m least likely to use. For one thing there are so many cool archetypes I haven’t had a chance to play in the Player’s Handbook and now in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything that there doesn’t strike me as any need for any more. The other is that these really do need more playtesting than a few rogue authors, no matter how experienced, can manage alone. WoTC have a massive team and vast community to draw on, and I don’t see myself playing anything other than their tried and tested archetypes, well ever, really. But maybe you’re different?
There’s a few other bits and bobs in this supplement, such as a library of arcane texts (just for flavour), potential names of wizard towers, something about verbal components (turning the geek level right up to 11), and a pretty useful ‘Advice for Young Wizards’ section that most beginner to mid-level player can learn a few valuable lessons from.
Elminster’s Guide to Magic is not perfect (although I suppose neither are the official WoTC products!) and you’re going to have do some sifting to separate the bits you like from the bits you don’t, and I sense a bit of tinkering here and there too, but given the depth and breadth of the content, for 15 dollars it has to be one of the best value-for-money products on the DMs Guild – if not the best. Every type of spellcaster is going to benefit from having a copy in their library, not just in terms of powering up, but in terms of unveiling exciting new possibilities. Meanwhile DMs who enjoy pitting their parties against nefarious evil spellcasters will love the looks of surprises on their PCs’ faces as they unveil new trick after new trick from up their baggy black sleeves. What’s more the material has a near infinite shelf life and is going to remain useful to you adventure after adventure, campaign after campaign. (Obviously when you buy an adventure you tend to only play it once!).
Finally, before you go, I have also homebrewed a few of my very own 5e spells for wizards which you can check out on this here blog. They will form part of a published adventure coming to the DMs Guild very soon!
Disclosure: I was gifted a free copy of this supplement.