Should the Dungeon Master be able to Counterspell their players?

Should the Dungeon Master be able to Counterspell their players?

If you know us, you know that this title is bait. Well, at least partially. The Dungeon Master should be able to do anything, granted they got the best interest of all involved in mind - having a blast rolling some dice.  But you might also know about the discussion about one of the problem childs of D&D 5e and I’m here today to both valiantly defend it and then make a point of why maybe not using it as much could also be a healthy choice.

The Problem

The discussions revolving around counterspell quickly spiral into an examination of resource allocation and game theory for Dungeon and Dragons, which is not a bad thing, but we need to take a look at the point of contention. That is, in this case, counterspell: A 3rd level abjuration spell that allows Sorcerers, Warlocks and Wizards to keep a spell from happening. With the spell being relatively forward in its interpretation, what seems to be the problem?

DnD 5e Counterspell

The problem child. Source: Wizards of the Coast

The problem stems from the fact that, in a magical world, the ability to stop that magic from happening is inherently powerful. This means that a sufficiently powerful creature with magic affinity would be well served to count this spell among the weapons in its arsenal. And it only makes sense, really. If the spell exists, why should a powerful Archmage not be able to cast it, why should a dragon not make sure to maybe wear a crown enchanted with three charges of counterspell, why shouldn't  everyone and everything able to cast spells do their darndest to learn counterspell?

In universe, this is a valid point. NPCs and monsters can use spells “meant” for player classes, many official monsters do and if you are an avid homebrewer, you just know that it makes sense to draw from this vast pool of resources and abilities. This leads to the dichotomy at the heart of the problem, between the intrinsic logic of the world and the impact on gameplay. Characters controlled by the players and characters (and monsters) controlled by the DM are inherently different, as resources have different values for them.

A study in resource management

And here we are, spiraling into resource management and game theory!

Playing a character in D&D is really just resource management with extra steps, your decisions always revolve around the value you get from expending resources to reach a strategic goal. Hit points, sorcery points, psionic dice, uses of abilities per day or rest and, of course, spell slots. Often forgotten but stupefyingly important are the more metaphysical ressources, like time and patience. For this counterspell discussion, these factors are the most important. Both player and DM invest those resources to achieve their goals, with the DM having the advantage of their pool of resources being spread over a vast amount of characters. The DM’s level of fun is less influenced by how efficiently they are able to use their resources - they are constantly active and their characters and monsters use their resources to reach a shared goal, meaning provide a challenge for the players.

Back to the original topic: If a player counterspells a spell cast by the DM's NPC or monster, this costs this DM very little, both time wise (“how much time do I actually get to play the game?”) and resource wise in general. It can, of course, severely impact the story, but that's what we're playing for, so that's just a flat positive and DMs who ban the spell because they feel that players should not have this level of influence on the story or their encounters should not be reading this, but basic definitions of fun and cooperative gaming instead.

Back on track

So. We’ve established that D&D gameplay is inherently linked to resource management and that getting value out of these resources is inherently important to having fun. This does not only apply to combat, by the way. You constantly trade your resources for story progression - using a wildshape to turn into a mouse to sneak into a building, using a once per day Charisma ability check advantage to get information out of an NPC. It won't always work out, but it is a DM's job to make this exchange satisfying, even if it does not lead towards success. This gets us closer to the final problem and some possible solutions. A player getting counterspelled by the DM clashes with some of the principles we’ve established.

Resources are rare for players, investing one only to have it unceremoniously chucked in the waste bin sucks. Actual gameplay time can also be rare, especially in combat encounters. It is no secret that vast parts of combat are spent sitting around, plotting your turn and waiting for the initiative count to finally reach you. We spend a lot of time trying to make combat using our monsters as interactive and engaging as possible, but sometimes all reactions are spent and you just have to wait until you are able to act again. This can take time and the longer it takes, the more frustrating it gets when it ultimately amounts to nothing because you got counterspelled.

Mage setting another mage on fire

A nice fireside chat between two practicioners of the arcane arts.

Feelsbad moments

Wasting a resource and having to wait twenty minutes to do so is what we in the industry call a feelsbad moment. It should be paramount to have as few as these as possible in any game, as they just subtract from the overall fun for the individual player. Some feelsbad moments can’t be prevented, it's a dice game after all and sometimes the story or the dice work against you. But it should be a DM's goal to try and keep the number of these moments low and balance them against feelsgood moments.

On the other side of the DM screen, counterspell acts as a means of protection for the respective monster or NPC. There are several spells that can outright end an encounter if applied correctly and as the player's level rises, so does the probability of a caster just casting the right spell at the right time and completely “solving” an encounter (be it combat or otherwise) with a flick of their finger. Now, there are several things to be said about this problem and I will focus on the arguments made with good will towards the game and its participants, as there are some really bad takes I will not honor with a response.

Firstly some, and rightfully so, don’t consider this a problem. The players faced a challenge and they used their wit and resources to solve it. What's not to love? I generally feel that way, because I play with and write for people that I know have the best possible game for everyone involved as their central point of interest. Their victories are my victories and I enjoy them overcoming challenges, period.

A valid argument against this is that, again especially on higher levels, you as the DM begin to be at a disadvantage concerning the game’s balance. Players get more and more powerful and especially spells turn from “deal x amount of damage” or “inconvenience a creature for a turn or two” into powerful tools to not only dominate in combat, but manipulate the overworld. It's simple, really: If you can, for example, manipulate the terrain in video games and the game physics allow for creative problem solving, players can and will find every way and exploit to game the system. That is not metagaming, that is just using the resources at hand - asking their Archmage ally about the weak points of monsters they encounter, using magic mansions to no longer care about safe spaces to sleep, flying everywhere and anywhere, scrying on everything all at once, literally manipulating the terrain with powerful elemental spells, dominating monsters or putting them behind force walls or in resilient spheres. And that's just the beginning. Having a counterspell in your pocket to just try and deny some ridiculous move you weren't able to anticipate that might outright kill the mood for a dramatic and intense encounter you’ve spent a lot of energy on seems sensible at this point.

So what to do?

This is getting to the core of the debate - it's not about a meaningless struggle of dominance between a power hungry DM and a coterie of murderhobos, but the delicate issue of having something akin to a balanced game at a level that forces the DM to play 4D chess every time they try to provide a meaningful and interesting challenge to the players, one that does not only rely on 14d12 breath weapons and 16 legendary resistances to make an impact.

I will now make my case - it's not a clear cut answer to the problem, how could it be, but it pays respect to both sides and even provides a few constructive ideas to deal with the problem. As always, I advocate for goal oriented thinking and moderation. We all want a gripping and fun game. Each player and the DM must act together to get a great game out of a session of D&D. If the goal is fun for everyone (and even a devastating narrative experience can be a fun session if done right), you as the DM must carefully consider when to apply tactics that can lead to feelsbad moments.

A constructive example

An order of battle-mages specializing in anti-mage combat? Of course they should be able to counterspell and it is completely in line to frustrate the players the first time they fight them. This establishes a challenge and should inspire the players to adapt their tactics to engage them in the future. That should be the goal for any mechanic in any encounter - provide a struggle for the players to overcome. This is a constructive way of applying something and this is something I strive for in my designs. If you “close” a gameplay path you should make sure that those paths still open are especially fun.

Fear is not constructive. Fear of your players dismantling an encounter with a single spell is not constructive, it leaves you with two choices: making sure that the encounter can not be dismantled with a single spell or rolling with it.
Monsters have a lot of in-built defenses against this very thing. Saving throws, legendary resistances, these are mechanics to protect a high level monster from being done away with a well timed dominate monster. There are many, many save or suck spells in D&D that either frustrate players because they never work or frustrate DMs when they do work. But if that is how the story goes, that is it. It will always be a cherished memory for a player, if they managed to burn through a dragon’s legendary resistances and kindly suggested to it to fuck off and it does. These are the stories we play for.

BUT. It's just as important, dear players, to not be an ass about it. The DM probably spent a lot of work prepping this dragon encounter and they ultimately want you to succeed, they just want you to appreciate the moment and the moments that lead up to it and not exclaim “You stupid idiot lizard getting owned, this game is too ez”. So - that was the boring answer. Don’t frustrate each other, be mindful of each other’s time and resources.

figuring out your horoscope

Don't worry, he is just figuring out your horoscope.

Borgdash the Flayer and the Shaman Council

That still leaves the problem of in-world coherency mentioned before: If the spell exists and a 5th-level wizard is able to cast it and I do not want to create unnecessary feelsbad moments, how on earth do I rationalize that Borgdash the Flayer does not have a host of shamans with her that protect her via counterspell from magical assaults?

Well, she has and they do just that. But you also expend resources that are as meaningful to you (meaning your monsters) as your player’s resources are to them.

Have Borgdash be accompanied by three Shamans, able to rend magic from the air and dispel it, taking damage in relation to the level of the spell denied this way. Then let the players react, shift their tactics to either overwhelm the Shamans with magic, forcing them to sacrifice themselves to keep the countermagic going. This leaves them with less power on the offense or, as they become the new focus of the party’s aggression, it might keep them from achieving their purpose of healing Borgdash the Flayer, leaving her overall weakened. The Shamans (meaning the DM) now have to invest resources as well: Their reactions, their hit points, their tactical objective. A 3rd level spell slot is also an investment, but not one that is narratively satisfying for your players. But a Shaman being boiled from the inside, as they sacrifice their life to prevent Borgdash the Flayer from being disintegrated - this offers a game mechanic to play around and lets the player still achieve something after waiting 30 minutes for their turn.

Costly unbinding

If you used our Necromancer to give your players a good spook, you might have noticed the Costly Unbinding ability doing just that. It acts as a counterspell equivalent, but comes with harsh costs that forces the DM to play around them as much as the players need to plan their tactics around their resources. Taking damage is a relatively simple way to do it and works for the Necromancer because it is quite frail, forcing it to use a host of life-draining magic to replenish the hit points invested in negating a spell.

I delved into the counterspell thematic for this release and, keeping my own advice in mind, tried to find a synergy between the narrative needs (denying/protection from enemy magic should be an important factor for any mage) and the gameplay musts (this game is supposed to be fun).

I’m looking forward to see what you think of the nifty mechanics I cooked up for them!

If you liked or hated what you read here, feel free to comment either here or on our Discord - I’d love to know what you think!