Spells Through the Ages – Conjure Elemental

The conjure elemental spell has gone through many modifications through the various D&D editions, and in this case we frequently need to look in at least two different places: both the player's spell description, and also the monster description itself.

Chainmail Fantasy
Conjuration of an Elemental: Wizards can conjure Elementals, but no more than one of each type can be brought into existence. (Note: This does not apply to Djinn and Efreet.) If the Wizard who conjured the Elemental is disturbed (attacked) while the Elemental is still in existence, he loses control of it, and it will then attack the conjurer. An Elemental created by a Wizard who is subsequently killed will attack the nearest figure. Such Elementals must be dispelled by a Wizard or (killed) by combat. (Complexity 5) [CM p. 32]

ELEMENTALS... impervious to normal attacks against them... Only one Elemental of each kind may be brought into any game in play at the time. If an Elemental is uncontrolled by the Wizard who summoned it, it will attack the Wizard who conjured it, moving towards him in a straight path, attacking any figures in its path. [CM p. 36]

Note that this is one of only 6 magic spells listed for Wizards as early as 1st edition Chainmail. In its initial form the primary characteristics of the spell are (1) a per-type limitation on conjuring, and, importantly, (2) the wizard must avoid being disturbed or be attacked by their own elemental (what we'll call "concentration" in editions hereafter). The elementals are invulnerable any "normal attacks" (i.e., basic-level troops), and can only be defeated on the Fantasy Combat Table by some heroic type (like dragons, giants, superheroes, etc.). There is no specified duration limit to the spell, but then, only a minority of spells in Chainmail have one.

Original D&D
Conjure Elemental: A spell to conjure an Air, Water, Fire or Earth Elemental. Only one of each type can be conjured by a Magic-User during any one day. The Elemental will remain until dispelled, but the Magic-User must concentrate on control or the elemental will turn upon its conjurer and attack him (see CHAINMAIL). Conjured elementals are the strongest, with 16 hit dice as is explained in Volume II, MONSTERS & TREASURE. Range: 24". [OD&D Vol-1, p. 28]

ELEMENTALS: There are four types of Elemental: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. Each will be dealt with separately. There are variations of strength (hit dice) within all four types:
Conjured Elementals 16 Hit Dice
Device* Elementals 12 Hit Dice
Staff Elementals 8 Hit Dice
*Those from medallions, stones, gems, or bracelets.

Regardless of the strength of an Elemental, only one of each type can be brought into existence during any "day". Thus, if a character possessed a device to call up an Air Elemental, but before he could employ it an opponent conjured an Air Elemental, another could not be created until the next day. Only magical weapons/attacks affect Elementals...

[Fire Elementals] are brought forth from flame of considerable heat, i.e. a large fire, lava pool, etc.... Water Elementals can only be brought forth from a considerable body of water, i.e. a pond, stream, or larger body of water...

All elementals must be controlled at all times by the persons who have called them forth. Failure to control any elemental will result in its turning upon the one who called it up and attacking. The returning/attacking Elemental will move directly toward the one who summoned it, attacking anything that gets in its path as it returns. Note that once control is lost it can never be re-established. Control consists merely of the summoner maintaining undivided attention upon the Elemental; and being attacked, moving, or any other action will tend to break this concentration.

No Elemental may be hit by normal men unless magically armed. [OD&D Vol-2, p. 18-19]

This is a 5th-level spell (as usual, the Chainmail "complexity" rating has translated directly into the D&D spell level). It's mostly the same as before, with very slight fleshing out to the restrictions of (1) the per-type limitation, and (2) keep-concentration-or-be-attacked. There's a new easy-to-miss detail at the end of the elemental type descriptions that (3) you need a significant body of the fire or water element to conjure an elemental of those types (but, technically, not air or earth). There is still no hard duration limit.

What has changed is that (instead of being simply invulnerable to attacks), the elementals are given different Hit Dice classes (8/12/16), with the strongest coming from the normal spell itself. And the invulnerability is translated via the underlined section, that "magical weapons/attacks" (i.e., +1 or better bonus) are required to hit them.

As a side note, in Original (White Box) D&D, the only wizard spells that could "summon" any monster type on the players' behalf are this spell, and invisible stalker (6th level; 8HD). In that context, these are among the toughest monsters available -- the 16HD elementals have flat-out the highest listed HD of any creature in the game!. (Possibly you might also include a spell like animate dead, and on the cleric side, there's sticks to snakes and insect plague.) All of these spells are in the top 1-2 spell levels for either class, and they all have very specific, heavily-themed effects -- which is to say that, in Original White Box D&D, summoning monsters is a big, even world-shaking, deal.

However, with OD&D Supplement I (Greyhawk), we see a new type of spell: the various monster summoning spells, in variations from spell level 3 to 9, which might randomly create any monster in the game ("By employing this spell the magic-user calls to his aid a monster appearing on the MONSTER LEVEL TABLES, level 1, i.e. kobolds, goblins, skeletons, etc...." [Sup-I, p. p 23]). Obviously, this is a far more abstract and self-referential game mechanic, and much more low-powered, than what we see for the earlier conjure elemental and its ilk.

Basic D&D

What I'll generally call the "Basic D&D" line -- the Holmes/Moldvay BX/Mentzer BXCMI/Allston Rules Cyclopedia product line -- branched off from the OD&D game and generally had only subtle changes to the spell system, so I'll treat that at this time:
Conjure Elemental
Range: 240’
Duration: Concentration
Effect: Summons one 16 HD elemental

This spell allows the caster to summon any one elemental (AC -2, HD 16, Damage 3d8; see the description of elementals in Chapter 14). The caster can only summon one of each type of elemental (earth, air, fire, water) in one day.

The elemental will perform any tasks within its power (carrying, attacking, etc.) as long as the caster maintains control by concentrating. The caster cannot fight, cast other spells. or move over half Normal Speed, else he will lose control of the elemental. If he loses control, he cannot regain it. An uncontrolled elemental will try to slay its summoner, and may attack anyone in its path while pursuing him.

The spell's caster may return a controlled elemental to its home plane simply by concentration. A dispel magic or dispel evil spell can return an uncontrolled elemental to its plane. [RC, p. 51]


To summon an elemental, a character must have a large amount of the element nearby (such as open air, bare earth, a pool of water or a bonfire). When the elemental arrives, it is hostile, and must be controlled by concentration at all times. The summoner's concentration is broken if he takes damage or fails any saving throw. The summoner can move only up to half normal speed while concentrating.

If the summoner's concentration is broken, the elemental will attack him. Once lost, control cannot be regained. The elemental can attack any creature between it and its summoner if it desires.

If summoned in an area too small for it (see size notes below), an elemental will fill the available area - sideways, for example - possibly damaging the summoner in the process (and thus breaking the summoner's concentration). However, an elemental cannot pass a protection from evil spell effect.

An elemental will vanish if it or its summoner is slain, or when the summoner sends it back to its plane (which requires control), or if a dispel magic is cast upon it... [RC, p. 175]

This is fundamentally the same as in OD&D -- there aren't any big changes here. There is still no hard duration limit other than "concentration". Elementals are still hit by any magic weapon (noted by the asterisk after the name). The only new things I see here are: an explication that the elemental can be used for tasks other than just attacking; a highly reasonable expansion of the basic material requirement to all 4 types; and a novel addition that "An elemental will vanish if it or its summoner is slain, or when the summoner sends it back to its plane (which requires control" (in addition to the usual dispelling method). You can contrast these with the AD&D line, below.

Advanced D&D (1st Edition)
Conjure Elemental (Conjuration/Summoning)
Level: 5
Range: 6"
Duration: 1 turn/level
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 turn
Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: There are actually four spells in one as respects conjure elemental. The magic-user is able to conjure an air, earth, fire or water elemental with this spell - assuming he or she has the material component for the particular elemental. A considerable fire source must be in range to conjure that type of elemental; a large amount of water must be likewise available for conjuration of a water elemental. Conjured elementals are very strong - see ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, MONSTER MANUAL - typically having 16 hit dice (16d8). It is possible to conjure up successive elementals of different type if the spell caster has memorized two or more of these spells. The type of elemental to be conjured must be decided upon before memorizing the spell. The elemental conjured up must be controlled by the magic-user, i.e. the spell caster must concentrate on the elemental doing his or her commands, or it will turn on the magic-user and attack. The elemental, however, will not cease a combat to do so, but it will avoid creatures when seeking its conjurer. If the magic-user is wounded or grappled, his or her concentration is broken. There is always a 5% chance that the elemental will turn on its conjurer regardless of concentration, and this check is made at the end of the second and each succeeding round. The elemental can be controlled up to 3" distant per level of the spell caster. The elemental remains until its form on this plane is destroyed due to damage or the spell's duration expires. Note that water elementals are destroyed if they move beyond 6" of a body of water. The material component of this spell (besides the quantity of the element at hand) is a small amount of:

Air Elemental - burning incense
Earth Elemental -soft clay
Fire Elemental - sulphur and phosphorus
Water Elemental -water and sand

N.B. Special protection from uncontrolled elementals is available by means of a pentacle, pentagram, thaumaturgic triangle, magic circle, or protection from evil spell. [AD&D 1E PHB, p. 79]

ELEMENTAL... As elementals are stupid and resent being summoned, the conjuring party must concentrate upon controlling the creature. Failure to do so will result in the elemental turning upon the summoner 75% of the time and attacking. The turning elemental will come directly towards the conjuring party, attacking anything in its path along the way. Control can never be regained, and an uncontrolled elemental will always return to its own plane in three turns after control is lost. If an elemental does not turn (25% chance), it simply goes immediately to its own plane. Control concentration requires that the summoning party remain stationary and be neither physically nor mentally attacked, including attack by missile or distraction. In any event, only one elemental at a time can be controlled. Elementals are impervious to attacks by normal weapons and even magical weapons under +2 bonus. Creatures without magical ability of some sort cannot harm elementals unless the creatures have four or more hit dice. Magical ability includes paralysis, poison, acid, breath weapons, and even the characteristic of not being subject to attack by normal weapons. Kobolds, goblins, orcs, etc. are all powerless to affect elementals because they have neither magical property nor four or more hit dice. Ogres, however, could attack an elemental with effect as they have the necessary strength (four hit dice in this case). Note, however, that if a kobold with a +2 magic sword attacked an elemental the weapon would be effective.

A conjured elemental can be taken over and controlled by a magic-user casting a dispel magic spell (ratio dispeller's level over conjuring party's level to determine chance of success), and deliberately aiming it at dispelling the control rather than the elemental. However, if the spell fails, the effect is to strengthen the elemental to a full 8 points per hit die, double the controller's ability to concentrate, and make the elemental resent the one attempting the take-over, so that if it becomes uncontrolled it will go after that magic-user. [AD&D 1E MM, p. 37]

So: To begin with, we're starting to see a whole lot of text in the Advanced D&D line to wade through. All the usual Gygaxian AD&D additions are here: school of magic, component types, casting times, etc.

Consider our "top 3" restrictions on casting the spell: (1) The per-type daily restriction is still in place; (2) the concentration/control requirement is still there, but if lost, attack by the elemental is now only 75% likely instead of automatic (otherwise returning to its home plane; or else in 3 turns in any event); (3) the basic material requirement is still explicitly in place, just for water and fire.

New issues as far the casting of the spell are as follows: (4) the type of elemental desired must be pre-memorized at the start of the day (something I think was ignored in most published adventures with NPC wizards); (5) there is a 5% chance-per-round to lose control regardless of caster concentration; (6) it's possible to have your elemental taken over by an enemy magic-user with a dispel magic, and (7) for the first time, there is a hard duration limit of 1 turn/level.

The other thing is that the elemental special defense has been boosted from just anything "magic" (i.e., +1) to requiring a "+2 bonus" -- although that is mitigated somewhat by the fact that AD&D provides for alternatives to bypassing that defense, namely either having the same defense yourself, or simply very high Hit Dice. (Note that there's a contradiction in the example in the text above: while the MM states that ogres with 4 HD can hit an elemental, the DMG would have it otherwise -- the combat tables there show HD4+1 good to hit vs. +1 defense, but HD6+2 needed to hit +2 defense [AD&D DMG p. 75]).

And one more thing: In every edition, the protection from evil spell was noted as keeping away "fantastic" [CM] or "enchanted" [OD&D] monsters, and I would read that as including elementals. Here that detail is noted directly in the conjure elemental spell -- along with the possibility of using a non-spell-related "pentacle, pentagram, thaumaturgic triangle, [or] magic circle". The DMG Spell Explanations section (a source of quasi-errata to the PHB spells) has a note for "Conjure Elemental: See the cleric spell, aerial servant, for details of protective inscriptions." [DMG p. 45] , which in turn illustrates actual images for the different protective circles, saying, "The spell caster should be required to show you what form of protective inscription he or she has used when the spell is cast." [DMG p. 42] Based on the presumed usage of the DMG at the time (that players were not supposed to have access to its contents), this raises the fascinating possibility that players might have been required to actually, independently research one of those occult symbols (pre-Internet, of course), prior to being granted protection from their out-of-control elementals. (And if you happen to be in that situation now, you're in luck -- I've presented the images from the DMG below.)

Advanced D&D (2nd Edition)
Conjure Elemental
Range: 60 yds. Components: V, S, M
Duration: 1 turn/level Casting Time: 1 turn
Area of Effect: Special Saving Throw: None

There are actually four spells in the conjure elemental spell. The wizard is able to conjure an air, earth, fire, or water elemental with this spell--assuming he has the material component for the particular elemental. (A considerable fire source must be in range to conjure a fire elemental; a large amount of water must be available to conjure a water elemental.) Conjured elementals have 8 Hit Dice.

It is possible to conjure successive elementals of different types if the spellcaster has memorized two or more of these spells. The type of elemental to be conjured must be decided upon before memorizing the spell. Each type of elemental can be conjured only once per day.

The conjured elemental must be controlled by the wizard--the spellcaster must concentrate on the elemental doing his commands--or it turns on the wizard and attacks. The elemental will not break off a combat to do so, but it will avoid creatures while seeking its conjurer. If the wizard is wounded or grappled, his concentration is broken. There is always a 5% chance that the elemental turns on its conjurer regardless of concentration. This check is made at the end of the second and each succeeding round. An elemental that breaks free of its control can be dispelled by the caster, but the chance of success is only 50%. The elemental can be controlled up to 30 yards away per level of the spellcaster. The elemental remains until its form on this plane is destroyed due to damage or until the spell's duration expires. Note that water elementals are destroyed if they are ever more than 60 yards from a large body of water.

The material component of the spell (besides the quantity of the element at hand) is a small amount of one of the following:

Air Elemental--burning incense
Earth Elemental--soft clay
Fire Elemental--sulphur and phosphorus
Water Elemental--water and sand

Special protection from uncontrolled elementals is available by means of a protection from evil spell. [AD&D 2E PHB Appendix 3]

Elemental, Generic Information... Summoning an Elemental: There are three basic ways to call an elemental to this plane, and the strength of the conjured elemental depends on the method used to summon it:

Conjured by spell 8, 12, 16, or 21-24 Hit Dice
Conjured by staff 16 Hit Dice
Conjured by summoning device 12 Hit Dice... [AD&D 2E MM]

I've omitted a lot of the MM text (mostly copied from 1E, as usual), so as to focus on the changes in 2E. What's shared are the same seven restrictions present in 1E: (1) per-type daily restriction, (2) concentration required or 75% chance to be attacked (returning to plane sooner or later), (3) basic material required for water & fire (but not air/earth), (4) type of elemental pre-memorized, (5) 5% chance per round to lose concentration, (6) possibility of hostile takeover by dispel magic, (7) duration limit of 1 turn/level. Elementals are again hit only by +2 or better weapons, possibly overridden by similar defense or large Hit Dice.

The single great change here is that the 5th-level conjure elemental spell now only brings a creature of 8HD size (i.e., half-strength what it was in prior editions); this while keeping all of the copious restrictions and risks present in 1E. As you can see, the precedence of summoning tools is exactly reversed: staffs are now best (16HD), followed by special devices (12HD), and the basic spell (8HD). Some other possibilities for spell conjurations are shown in the monster listing, accounting for possible use of the stronger priest (druid) spells of conjure fire elemental and conjure earth elemental (6th- and 7th-level, respectively). That said, the primary spell is now clearly much weaker.

And finally, the use of specific occult symbols (magic circle, pentagram, triangle), as presented in 1E AD&D, has been removed. Now your only defense against a rampaging elemental is the basic protection from evil spell.

d20 System D&D (3rd Edition)
Summon Monster III
Conjuration (Summoning) [see text]
Level: Brd 3, Clr 3, Sor/Wiz 3
Components: V, S, F/DF
Casting Time: 1 full round
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Effect: One or more summoned creatures, no two of which can be more than 30 ft. apart
Duration: 1 round/level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

This spell summons an outsider (extraplanar creature). It appears where the character designates and acts immediately, on the character’s turn. It attacks the character’s opponents to the best of its ability. If the character can communicate with the outsider, the character can direct it not to attack, to attack particular enemies, or to perform other actions. Summoned creatures act normally on the last round of the spell and disappear at the end of their turn.

The spell conjures one of the creatures from the 3rd-level list on the Summon Monster table below, 1d3 creatures of the same type from the 2nd-level list, or 1d4+1 creatures of the same type from the 1st-level list. The character chooses which creature to summon, and can change that choice each time the spell is cast.

3rd Level
Celestial bear, black LG (animal)
Celestial bison (animal) NG
Triton NG
Celestial dire badger CG
Azer LN
Elemental, Small N
Thoqqua N
Fiendish dire weasel LE
Fiendish gorilla (animal) LE
Fiendish snake, constrictor (animal) LE
Fiendish boar NE
Fiendish dire bat NE
Fiendish lizard, giant (animal) NE
Salamander, Small NE
Fiendish shark, Large (animal) NE
Fiendish viper, Small snake (animal) CE
Fiendish crocodile (animal) CE
Dretch CE
Fiendish leopard (animal) CE
Fiendish wolverine (animal) CE

When the character uses a summoning spell to summon an air, chaotic, earth, evil, fire, good, lawful, or water creature, it is a spell of that type. [3E SRD: Magic]

As you can see above, the conjuration of elementals was given a radical changeover in 3E D&D. First of all, all of the summoning-type spells were folded into a combined family called summon monster, which serves to summon fiendish animals, salamanders, tritons, demons, etc., as well as elementals. There is a version at every spell level (1-9; the one shown above is the first to include elementals). And there is now a wide variety of elementals that can be summoned by means of magic spell (from "small" with 2HD and no resistance to weapons, up to "elder" with 24HD and damage reduction of 15/+3; monster text omitted above).

Practically all of our characteristic risks and restrictions have been wiped out entirely. This includes: (1) no per-type daily restriction, (2) no concentration requirement, (3) no basic raw material needed for any type of elemental, (4) no type pre-memorization, (5) no chance to lose control, (6) no possibility of hostile takeover by spell.

The only restriction that remains, and has been greatly tightened, is number (7): duration is now only 1 round/level (instead of the previous 1 turn/level = 10 rounds/level in AD&D, or unlimited prior to that). As has been widely noted, this drastically restricted the usage of elementals for non-fighting tasks, such as digging, travel, burden-carrying, etc.

There was a time (when I initially saw 3E) that I thought this folding-in and increased abstraction to the summoning operation was a fine thing; but now I think that it was a big mistake. That's the kind of move that lost all of the character and danger of elementals (arising from a great body of the elemental material itself; enormous strength through AD&D 1E; risk of possibly being attacked by your own elemental, etc.). In retrospect, there's a level of abstraction, a loss of specificity, which irreparably damages the game for me, and the 3E summoning system was a case-in-point.

Below I include a summary table of selected characteristics for this spell through the different editions:

[Illustration by nsjmetzger, under CC2.]


  1. Having just run Caverns of Thracia, where Conjure Elemental plays a part in one of the encounters, I was surprised when I reread the spell.

    At 5% per round, the chances of the elemental turning on the caster is extremely high. If a fifth level caster chooses to keep the elemental for all 50 rounds, the elemental will turn 92% of the time.

    Even after just one turn (ten rounds), the elemental will turn on the caster 40% of the time. That makes it a difficult spell to use--the casting time itself is one turn, so it has to be cast ahead of combat. Timing becomes essential! If the opponents take their time getting to the combat site, the elemental may do their job for them!

  2. Jerry, that's another excellent point.

  3. Yeah, fortunately (in my case) the characters were carrying a sword that lets undead know close to exactly where they are (they sort of know this, but haven’t thought the implications completely through yet). So the undead caster in this case was able to time the summoning well.

    Still, I made three or four rolls before they arrived; would have been an odd result if the elemental turned before they entered the room!

    If they had stopped halfway to argue, as they often do, the elemental would probably have done their job for them.

  4. Ha! :-) Although for me I'll rack this up as another reason to prefer OD&D that lacks that rule detail.

  5. I think that the statement "(3) basic material required for water & fire (but not air/earth)" is not true.

    Materials are always required. Check the description:

    The wizard is able to conjure an air, earth, fire, or water elemental with this spell--assuming he has the material component for the particular elemental. (A considerable fire source must be in range to conjure a fire elemental; a large amount of water must be available to conjure a water elemental.)

    OK, they write a couple of examples instead of writing all four. But earth and air also need materials. SImply they feel it is not necessary to use all four examples. In fact, the examples they used are the most rare (not always you have a huge supply of fire or water). But you always have plenty of air or earth/rocks in the ground. So they feel that it would be enough to use only two examples, probably the most difficult to fullfil.

    That does not mean that you dont need air or earth for an Air or Earth elemental.

    Yet once more:

    "The wizard is able to conjure an air, earth, fire, or water elemental with this spell--assuming he has the material component for the particular elemental".

    1. But in Original D&D there aren't any material components.