Spell Slots and Class Features as Expendable Resources in 5E D&D
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted explain one of the most often misunderstood options in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons — spell slots and multiclassing. Chapter 6 of the Player’s Handbook is all about Customization Options, which essentially covers multiclassing and feats. (Yes, both of these are optional 5E D&D features — not core to the game!) How many spell slots does your Eldritch Knight fighter/Fiend warlock character have? Can you use Sorcery Points to get back cleric spell slots? Why can’t you cast fireball if your overall character level is 5th and you’ve got 3rd level spell slots?! All of these questions and more are covered in the video so what I’d like to do is side step the discussion but keep the focus on spell slots. These expendable resources determine how, what and how often a character can manipulate and dole out magical energy. But they can also be used for all sorts of other things in 5E D&D too. Every class comes with some feature or resource, and recently Unearthed Arcana playtest documents explore using these resources in new and unusual ways. I like the sound of this very much.
Spell slots and expendable resources in 5E D&D
For quite a while now in our own games and many of our products we look to existing character features, options and mechanics when designing new components for 5E D&D. More recently the Unearthed Arcana playtest documents from Wizards of the Coast explore these spaces too. Take Telekinetic Bulwark for example. This class feature for Psychic Warrior fighters presents a new way for one of the fighter’s base class features to interact.
10th-level Psychic Warrior feature
When you take the Attack action, you can forgo one of your attacks to project a bastion of psionic power in a 10-foot radius around yourself. It lasts for 1 minute or until you’re incapacitated. For the duration, you and your allies in that area gain the benefits of half cover and have advantage on Strength saving throws.
Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest or until after you use your Second Wind feature.
See that last line, about refreshing your ability to use the feature until after using your Second Wind? Very cool. With this kind of design in mind let’s look at each 5E D&D class for resources you can use in different ways. Mostly this falls under the purview of Dungeon Masters, who might call for expending a resource some other way not specified in the rules. By the same token any player can dabble in homebrew and game design. You could create new products for Dungeon Master’s Guild, your own website or simply to share online at forums or social media.
Here are each of the 5E D&D classes along with core class features with potential to fuel new abilities whether through substitution or suppression for a limited time. Where applicable I’ll add an example of using class features as expendable resources for other things.
- Magical Tinkering
- Infuse Item
- Flash of Genius
- In a recent game I allowed a player to expend a use to affix an animated skeleton torso (NPC) to their steel defender.
- A Path of the Azure barbarian can expend Rage to manifest a creature ability they’ve absorbed.
- Bardic Inspiration
- Channel Divinity
- Wild Shape
- Circle of Spores and Circle of Stars both include alternate uses for Wild Shape
- Second Wind
- Action Surge
- A monk in one of my games expended ki to placate a hostile mutant tiger
- Divine Sense
- Lay on Hands
- Our Flavour Shots series offered several alternate uses for this iconic class feature
- Divine Smite
- Channel Divinity
- Aura of Protection
- Aura of Courage
- Improved Divine Smite
- Cleansing Touch
- Primeval Awareness
- This one’s a stretch and is itself already an alternate use for spell slots but I can easily see further expanding awareness
- Sneak Attack
- Would any rogue character willingly give up one of these precious Sneak Attack dice, either temporarily or permanently? The return on this heavy investment ought to be significant!
- Sorcery Points
- Eldritch Invocations
- Arcane Recovery
Along with spell slots, which nearly every 5E D&D class can potentially gain through subclasses, exhaustible class features come in handy for design work as well as during game play. Many, many times I’ve offered players opportunities to expend or suppress existing resources and features to do unusual things and you might be surprised to hear I’ve never had players abuse this situation. Your mileage may vary if the payoff is so juicy that players consider the benefit greater than the standard feature provides — be careful!
On the other hand making rulings like this during a game can make complicated plans and complex series of events more manageable and smooth. Used this way, as on the fly solutions, I recommend keeping to a minimum and not getting too carried away. But for the purposes of content design, go nuts. The technique gives DMs a way to reward player ingenuity and creativity but still include a cost they’ll have to weigh. In some cases the result packs a ton of juice like Telekinetic Bulwark. It’s a great class feature, fitting with the theme of fighters in general and Psychic Warriors specifically, and makes perfect sense too — when your character digs deep to keep going they refresh not just their body but their mind too.
Have you used spell slots or other class features as expendable resources in your games? What effects came about by giving characters opportunities to do unorthodox things by using up or suppressing existing class features. What would it take for a rogue to give up Sneak Attack dice for something else? Have you created your own homebrew content that keys off existing class features? I want to hear all about these stories in the comments. Inspire me with your creations that I can take and drop into my own games.