I’m not a fan of Ang Lee’s Hulk movie, but it did have an interesting villain. No, I’m not talking about the 10-foot-tall gamma poodle. I’m talking about Absorbing Man! During the film’s abstract finale (which featured some ambitious CGI for 2003) there’s a brief moment where Absorbing Man becomes stone. I was only ten at the time, and I thought it was extremely cool.
Twelve years later, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons in Utah with some friends. Fifth Edition D&D has just released, and I’ve decided to try my hand at being a Dungeon Master. All three of the core books are out, but I only own the Player’s Handbook because $50 is quite the investment. (Support your local game store!) I’ve only played 3.5e at this point, and to be honest, I didn’t really understand what’s was going on at the time.
I’m reading the PHB like crazy, trying to absorb all the info I can because my DM is about to be one of my players, and I don’t want to look like a complete fool. (I did, but that’s a story for another time.) I’m not a fast reader by any means, but going through the core rulebooks at least once a year has become an important pastime and made me a better DM. That was the first time I came across the stoneskin spell.
Here’s the spell, courtesy of D&D Beyond:
Sounds Dope. What’s the Problem?
It looks awesome at first glance, right? Thematically it is. Your skin becomes rock-hard for an entire hour so you or your buddy can go toe-to-toe with that towering stone giant without getting dropped in the first round. In fact, casting this spell on someone else is probably the most effective use of it. But I’ve never seen a player cast it, let alone take it in 5th Edition.
Why does this spell feel underwhelming? Well, there’s not really one glaring problem with the spell. In my opinion, stoneskin falls flat due to a few micro-contributions, namely:
- It requires 100gp to cast. Right off the bat, you need 100 gp in diamonds every time you cast this spell. If your DM is a stickler for resource management, this one’s going to be a pain.
- It’s a 4th level spell. Getting to 7th level in any class is quite the achievement! Generally, I think that 4th level spells are in the awkward place between iconic 3rd level spells like fireball and haste and game-changing 5th level spells like scrying, but there are some great ones out there.
This spell has to stand up to banishment, dimension door, fire shield, and Otiluke’s resilient sphere. That’s a tough line-up!
- It lasts an hour. Sounds great at first, but this is part of the reason that the spell is both concentration and 4th level. A lot can happen in one hour in-game. Generally, I take a 1-minute duration as one encounter and a 10-minute duration as 2 combat encounters – though I’ve seen more than that due to snowballing bad decisions. An hour could be an entire dungeon!
- It’s concentration. Fans of older editions absolutely despise concentration, but I generally think it’s a necessary evil to keep the gameplay flowing instead of being bogged down by mechanical upkeep. That said, there are a lot of concentration spells in 5th Edition, and it’s worth asking, “Should stoneskin be one of them?”
Stoneskin is an armor spell, which means you don’t cast it on someone unless you think they’re going to get hit. If you’re casting this on yourself, or you’re close to the ally on which you cast it, you’re going to be making a few concentration checks to avoid dropping the spell with a minimum DC of 10 (see below). Unless you’re rolling really well, you’re most likely not going to make use of that 1-hour duration because eventually you’re going to fail this check.
On top of that, fire shield doesn’t require concentration and is at the same level. Sure, it’s a bit more situational and fills a different niche, but still.
Sculpting a Better Stoneskin
I actually like the stoneskin spell, but I also like to play against type and am generally pretty easy to please. My desire to “fix” it comes from the reaction on my players’ faces when they read this spell. Despite how excited they were about the prospect of taking hits like Rocky, they end up ultimately disappointed and pass on the spell in the end.
The best part about modifying this spell is you have some options, and you can pick the one that best suits your table. Here are my proposed fixes for the stoneskin spell.
Option 1: Lower the Spell Level
Make stoneskin more accessible at lower levels by making it 3rd level. Your wizard’s Arcane Recovery and the sorcerer’s Font of Magic feature can get more use out of this spell as they level up.
There are already a ton of great 3rd level spells. However, if a player really wants to take this spell, you can offer it earlier. If you choose this option, I recommend one of two additional tweaks:
- The spell still requires concentration, but the duration is now 10 minutes.
- The spell does not require concentration, but it only lasts 1 minute. With a 1-minute duration, you’ll almost always use your first turn in combat to cast it.
Option 2: Remove Concentration & Lower Duration
My favorite option involves removing the concentration component and changing the duration to 10 minutes. The spell stays at 4th level. This isn’t a huge change, but it does the spell justice. You won’t have to curse under your breath and hope for a high roll every time you take damage, and the spell could potentially last for two or even three encounters. Sure, there are going to be some weird combos where someone is flying with stoneskin or something, but they’ll only last 10 minutes!
Option 3: Remove Concentration & Increase the Spell Level
If you want to cap off your 10- or 11-level campaign with a spectacular boss fight or dungeon, you could remove the concentration requirement and make stoneskin a 5th or even 6th level spell. This is my least favorite option, because 1) most campaigns fizzle out around these levels, 2) the balance seems shaky here with such a long duration, and 3) there are so many cool 5th and 6th level spells.
You’re probably better off just giving a potion of stoneskin if this is your preferred route because if you’re making this change for the long-haul, this spell is going to become a no-brainer before every dungeon. And without concentration, it’s going to be cast on multiple characters.
Then again, high-level play is all about challenging your players and learning how to tell the best stories in the framework of their epic abilities. If it’s too much, it doesn’t hurt to learn how to retcon something diplomatically.
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