The Beauty of Alternative Spell Descriptions

As a DM and a player, I have found that one of the greatest things that one can do to improve their abilities at the table is to observe others gaming. While this may seem obvious for DMs, I have found great inspiration in watching other players as well. One of the most powerful things I’ve seen other players utilize is the Alternative Spell Description.

Simply put, it is the player or the GM flavoring their spell, much as one would take an ordinary chip and apply a dusting of Cool Ranch. Sometimes the change is small, like determining the color of the fire bolt (mayhap a delightful shade of green?), and sometimes it actually affects the outcome of the spell, in the case of Kris Straub’s K’thriss casting Fly in a manner that makes his character go full-on Garry’s-Mod ragdoll. Most DMs will have no objection to a player imposing potential negatives to an existing spell, and some will even welcome a slight boon, provided the proper incentivization is offered.

(PROTIP: If ever gaming at my table, the application of a can of Real Sugar Pepsi and a package of SweetTarts Ropes will ensure much nodding of my head when requesting such little advantages.)

What makes this small thing so valuable is that it aids everyone at the table. A flavored spell not only lets everyone know more about the nature of the caster’s character, but also helps to aid immersion for everyone. Saying “I cast Eldritch Blast at the goblin” is one thing, but saying “I spit into my palm, where it erupts into eldritch purple flames before I fastball it at the goblin” helps to paint a rich tapestry for the entire table, including yourself.

As a DM, it adds one further layer to this deep-fried onion of the arcane. It creates a way to differentiate your NPCs, separating one spellcaster from another. Players will treat your NPCs like individuals when they see that one of them casts Shield by waving a hand dismissively and another one casts it by shouting in rage.

(DMs, if you want to be really evil, introduce this kind of sudden change in a player’s spellcasting results as a plot twist. Nothing gets a player more worried/invested in their character than when it’s “not working right”. Just try not to restrict or break their spellcasting unless you’re sure the player will be okay with it. Credit to the original Ravenloft box set for pioneering this level of DM evil.)

One very important thing to keep in mind, to assist in your variation and to inspire your own ideas: There are 3 things you can alter about a spell to make it different or unique. If you can’t think of a way to alter the spell, go back to these 3 guidelines, and often they will help you think outside of your own box.

  1. The way in which the caster performs the casting. Examples: snapping your fingers, opening a third eye, using an implement or components
  2. The way in which the spell’s effects physically manifest. Examples: splitting one projectile into many in tight formation, comes up from the ground, summoning a spirit
  3. The way in which the spell affects the target(s). Examples: targets hear a distant bell, target’s heart skips a beat, target is knocked over (but is able to get right back up again if there’s no prone condition)

To properly illustrate these concepts, I have cobbled together a cavalcade of alternative spell descriptions for the very first spell in the Player’s Handbook: Acid Splash. Please note a few things:

  • These are meant to be inspiration. Feel free to change any or all of them as you see fit. Make up new categories if you want. Go wild.
  • More often than not, you won’t have to ask your DM for permission. Just try one and see how the table reacts.
  • Clearly, some of these variants don’t seem to line up at first glance. Acid Splash is a Sor/Wiz spell, so how would there be a Holy version? I DON’T KNOW, YOU TELL ME. Perhaps your wizard has no natural spellcasting talent, and is able to do so through the blessing of a beneficent god? Or perhaps your sorcerer is an aasimar? Don’t be afraid to let random ideas work for you!

And now, here are the variants:

Holy – No acid actually manifests, but the targets are affected as if they were struck by acid just the same.

Steampunk – The acid is contained in a vial specially designed for maximum range in evacuation.

Water/Ocean – You conjure a ball of water, collecting from the moisture of the air around you; you give it the barest touch, and it darkens with corruption.

Fire/Sun – The acid is clear but reflects light easily, causing it to glow with an angry red brilliance.

Earth – The acid seeps out of the ground below you, dripping upward to collect into a sphere which you fling at your targets.

Air – A gust of wind carries the acid from your open palms, swirling around the targets like a tornado, searing wherever it lands.

Shadow – You press your hands together, and lifting them apart, the shadow cast by one hand on the other coalesces into a black mass of acidic liquid.

Cthonic – You vomit the acid while not suffering any ill effects.

Fiendish – The acid streams from your fingertips, issuing forth with the faint sound of distant screams.

Death – The acid is near-black in appearance and has wisps of white smoke, reminiscent of animal bones, floating in it.

Plant – A large, brightly-colored jungle flower grows from your cupped hands, which suddenly rears back and spews acid at the targets.

Animal – You summon a swarm of bombardier beetles, who spew a boiling noxious chemical spray into the area.

Rage – With a scream, you vomit the acid while not suffering any ill effects.

Dragon – The spell takes the form of a dragon’s breath weapon, while still using the range, damage, stats, etc of the spell itself.

Chaos – A small cloud appears directly over the area, drenching it in acid, before dispersing just as quickly as it appeared.

Fey – With a giggle and a snap of your fingers, the targets suddenly find themselves soaked in acid.

Ki – You made the hand gesture Zai, and spray a thin stream of caustic high-powered fluid towards your foes, like a statue in a fountain.

Music – A certain arpeggio causes the ground beneath your foes’ feet to become caustic and erupt upward like the strings of a harp.

Formally Educated – You draw a perfect circle in the air, glowing as it hangs, and inscribed along its edges with the equation for the perfect parabolic arc. A sphere of acid emerges from the circle and follows the arc to its destination.

Storm – A small cloud appears directly over the area, drenching it in acid, before dispersing just as quickly as it appeared.

Weapon-Based – You drive your weapon into the ground, rending it below your foes. From the cracks, acidic vapor is jettisoned into the air.

Artistic – You dip your paintbrush into a certain paint pot, then flick its now caustic contents to spatter your foes.

Grotesque – You vomit the acid while not suffering any ill effects.

Have you got your own ideas for flavoring this spell or others? Post them in the comments below!

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