On Counterspells

I wanted to possibly have a separate discussion thread just on the issue of "counter-spells". If you read the last post on the history of the dispel magic spell, you'll see that the phrase "counter" was always lurking kind of cryptically in the text for every edition of the spell, until it blossomed into its own full-blown mechanic in 3E (i.e., ready an action, give up your normal attack, name a specific enemy in sight, and possibly interrupt that enemy if they happen to cast a spell). I didn't expect to deal with that in my OED house rules, but in my last session of module D1, it came up partly by accident, as Paul found that particular word lingering in my Book of Spells text (copied from the 3E SRD as a source). We rolled dice to see if that was allowed and it came up "no". But what should I do going forward? Mostly I have to say that I'm rather offended by the prospect of breaking the standard action cycle with "interrupting" behavior, although on the other hand that leaves no way to prevent being devastated by an enemy's fireball, for example.

I considered making a poll for this question, but the field is so completely wide-open to interpreting the classic D&D editions' text that I don't think I can exhaust all the possibilities. Some ideas that come to mind include:
  1. Ready an action to interrupt other casters (as in 3E).
  2. Cast a dispel, all enemy spells that round are ruined as they occur.
  3. Cast a dispel on an area, it lingers until a spell is cast there, ruining it (note that duration in several editions is "permanent").
  4. Dispels can be used spontaneously whenever an enemy casts a spell (no readying).
  5. Spells are declared pre-initiative, allowing anyone to react to enemy declarations with "I dispel/counter!"
  6. No counterspells (it's just a stylistic flourish for standard dispels).
  7. Other stuff??
What's your preferred interpretation?


  1. My initial thought is to do something not D&D like. Dispel magic is a spell you cast to remove magic effects or magical items. And then a new mechanic should be made that deals with a spell caster wanting to counter spell another spell caster.
    I rather liked Decipher's LotR version of counter spell. I will have to go look it up again and write about it here.

  2. From Decipher's LotR, a spellcaster can cast a counterspell to any spell that he knows. A caster my declare a counter-spell attempt prior to his turn, though it counts toward his action allowance for the round. He can even cast a counterspell if he has finished his round, but he suffers a cumulative -5 test penalty per additional action required.
    It then becomes a contest of skill between the two casters. Translating that to D&D terms, it would be something like
    [pc level] + [pc 1d20] - [enemy level] - [enemy 1d20] > 0

    1. That sounds a lot like the 3E mechanic, and the roll is equivalent to how dispel magic works there (and in my games by default).

    2. Ah, it seemed different to me in that a spellcaster could only interrupt another spellcaster. And he could preform the counter spell at any time, he would just take a -5 penalty if he already used his action for the round.

    3. That latter part is definitely an addition.

  3. Suggestion:

    1. A spell caster must either be "holding" and ready to cast a spell or in the process of already casting a spell to cast a counter-spell.

    2. If the opposing spell caster gets initiative, a holding spell caster may make a saving throw vs spells to identify the spell being cast, and thus cast an "optimal opposing spell" by element, theme, what have you (ice vs fire, shield vs magic missile, etc). Otherwise, the counter-spelling caster must choose a spell as a counter.

    3. Both spell casters make a saving throw vs spells; if the counter spell is optimal, the counter spelling caster gets a bonus to the save equal to the spell's level; if not, the original spell caster gets a bonus equal to his spell's level.

    4a. If both saves fail, both spells go off as normal;

    4b. If the original caster's save succeeds and the counter-spelling caster's save fails, the original spell is fully cast and the counter-spell fails totally;

    4c. If the counter-spell caster's save succeeds and the original caster's save fails, the original spell fails (is countered entirely) and the counter-spell has some other minimal effect, 5% per difference between the saves but no greater than 50%.

    4d. If both saves are successful, the original spell is countered dramatically by the counter spell, and some sort of secondary, unexpected effect occurs (thunderclap, strange summoning, etc) appropriate to the levels and forms of the spells.

  4. I don't like any rules that require giving up an action for this, because the uncertain nature of the enemy's plans greatly disincentivizes the action. I've tried several versions of this, and have almost never seen them used in play. Requirements for knowing a certain spell also seem to add complications and get in the way. The less friction the better.

    I would thus go for 4 or 5. 5 is perhaps more elegant, but requires modifying the entire encounter procedure, which may be more difficult to make stick.

    Here is something like 4 that I have been considering recently:


    1. Yeah, I certainly agree with your instinct. The 3E ready vs. one foe is just monumentally too expensive on an action-budget basis. And any kind of complication to the turn cycle is very much frowned upon (by me).

  5. In my rules, it takes N half-round actions to cast a spell where N is the spell level. So a fireball takes at least one whole round to prepare, and so counterspells as an exception may be cast in a single action to, err, counter spells. You do of course have to prepare counterspell, which is separate from dispel magic and is a rare spell, but if you want to engage in wizardly combat, it's probably worth it.

  6. I've always liked the idea of having a chance to counter a spell if the mage recognizes that he knows the spell being cast, and doing it at the expense of burning one of his spell slots/spells for the day.

    1. This is sort of what I was thinking too.

    2. My problem with that is that I'm not sure it syncs up with the D&D interpretation of magic spells, that they're Vancian math-like formulae to create a fixed effect. Like, throwing a recipe for acid on someone else's acid doesn't make less of it -- so that's why I'm happier with a specific, separate "dispel" power.

  7. I kind of like option 3, but with a non permanent duration. It still allows for some battle field prep and prevention of spells. Of course it begs the question, what if the next spell cast is also Dispell Magic.
    Everything else seems like it is inelegant, or costs too much to ever be used (3rd edition style)

    Option 4 also works for me, provided it requires an equal or greater slot?

  8. what I did was to create three spells that were only usable as counterspells.

    * one these spells disrupted evocation-type effect like lightning or fireballs or cold rays

    * one disrupted mental-type attacks like charms or sleep

    * one disrupted exotic attacks (basically everything else: polymorph, imprisonment, di temporal stasis, etc.)

    To use a counterspell you had to be in the area of effect of the spell.

    They were first level spells. They worked on a 5+ on d20 with a +/1 per difference in magic user level (i.e, all the time if 4+ levels higher).

    A magic user memorized them just like other spells, but they took no time to cast. (If several opposing MUs were in the area of effect, the option to cast went in the turn's initiative order and then highest Dex)

    Basically, what happened was that higher level mages would usually fill up 5-6 slots with a mix of 2-3 of these spells, so the first few rounds of any magical duel saw an exchange of spell and counter spell.

    For magical duelling, mages initially stocked up on the counter-evocation spells (called "energy shield") (as these were usually the big party threat) but at mid to high levels would usually memorize at least one or two counter-mind ("mind shield") and counter-exotic spells (called "spell shield")

    I also created a few higher level versions of the counterspell set that did more interestingly things but were2nd or 3rd or 4th level spells: that reflected spells back on the attacker, or even "captured" the attacker's spell and allowed the mage who blocked it to use it themselves.

    A counterspell was a fairly decent choice as it gave a roughly 75% chance of a stop against an equal foe.

    Counterspells were also effective against magic item offensive powers.

    Counterspells were NOT effective against defensive or harmless spells. Use the regular dispel magic for that.

    1. @David

      This system sounds very cool. Do you still have the write-up? I'd be curious to read it in the level of detail at which it was presented to your players.

    2. Interesting, very different. I like the flavor, I think.

    3. @David

      Excellent. I look forward to it.

  9. Thanks for your interest!

    I've got a writeup buried somewhere in one of my old campaign binders - it was a few years back when I last used it (I think it was with D&D Rules Cyclopedia set).

    If I can dig it up, I'll put it up on line somewhere and let you know on this thread.

  10. I like the idea of just letting the magical fur fly. Wizard battles in D&D are often more boring and prepatory than they are in fiction.

    Letting spells resolve semi-simultaneously could make for some fun adjudications if you're into that sort of thing. Can you pop up a wall of ice in front of the fireball?

    Maybe there could be Separate magic phase at the start of each round, "magic initiative" is D6 + (MU level) + (stat bonus). Slower casters mean you have to declare spells first (if the other side can see.)

    Spells actually take effect simultaneously, though spells used in a defensive manner it takes precedent. If you see the enemy mage casting fireball, you can teleport away to take no damage, but hitting the enemy mage with magic missile won't save you from getting it by the fireball.

    Or something..

    1. That is a really compelling argument, actually. Now I very much want to see your two examples happen in a game.

    2. In my modified 5e rules, I don't use normal initiative, everything happens in a logical order or simultaneously. If it's important to know whether one action occurred first, then the relevant creatures make an opposed initiative check.

      It would work really well for this approach - was the Wall of Ice up first or did it just miss the Fireball?

      I like the 5e approach of the Counterspell spell, that is cast as a reaction, no readying needed. The only thing I haven't decided is whether a specific spell is needed as written, or whether I'd prefer to allow the spellcasters to burn any spell as a counterspell.

      Although since there's a chance that a counterspell can cause a wild magic surge in my rules, perhaps the risk of any spell makes more sense. Time to rewrite a few things...

  11. Option 2 seems like the answer to me. If nothing else, it's very simple. Of course vs. drow there's magic resistance to overcome, and I would assume a saving roll as per OED precedence

    1. Thanks for reminding me about this post! (Because I just wrote another thing for counterspells and forgot about this one.) Honestly, I think I've recently decided to just wipe out counterspells from my game. At least in my game, that doesn't have advance declaration of spells, if I were to use #2 the enemy casters could just skip casting as their round came about.