I'm about to help get a bunch of interested new players into D&D, running a one-shot for them to give them a feel for the game and hopefully a fun first-taste of tabletop roleplaying.

Before starting, I've been asking them what kinds of things they want to get out of the game, and what their expectations are. In particular, as I'm going to pre-gen characters to simplify things, I've asked what kinds of character they find appealing.

However, the flavour of things that they want to play aren't necessarily supported by the PHB - but at the same time I'd rather steer clear of homebrew as far as mechanics go. For example, one player who is interested in being "some kind of magic user that exploits darkness-like-effects".

For an example spell: turn flaming sphere into a sphere of darkness that engulfs those it touches, absorbing the life straight from their skin. But it still does 2d6 fire damage.

I don't plan to change damage types as this feels like a bigger can of worms. Fire-damage would still apply, but would be described as darkness eating into the target/wrapping round "like flames". It would also mean that oil and flammable items would be affected in a similar way to fire.

That’s just one example though. Since I’d be doing this with more spells my question isn’t about one specific spell.

My question is: What dangers, if any, are there of renaming existing spells and changing their flavour text while using their existing mechanics?


You'll be fine

As the DM, you retain full control over the whole game world, including what spells are available and what they do. All you have to do is be honest and upfront with what rules you're changing before hand (and, if possible, why).

That's as easy as saying "Hey everyone. Before we get started, I'd just like to mention that Alex is interested in playing a darkness mage, so I've renamed Fireball to Voidball for Emomage the Wizard. It now engulfs an area with tongues of searing, dark flame. Everyone ok with that?"

This makes it clear that you're slightly tweaking the game and why. This should help clear up any confusion like "Why can't I find this spell in the book?".

The DMG has a few tidbits on changing spells. In particular, there's a section on page 283 called Creating a Spell. It offers some guidelines on damage, consistency with class themes (eg. no healing for Wizards), and tweaking the dice used. The closest it comes to a flavor change you're talking about is in the opening, where it says

When creating a new spell, use existing spells as guidelines.

Guidelines don't get much tighter than "mechanically indistinguishable".

There is some evidence of explicitly reflavoring a spell in the DMG as well. Take a look at page 41 in the Wuxia section.

... spells need only minor flavor changes so that they better reflect such a setting. For example, when the characters use spells or special abilities that teleport them short distances, they actually make high-flying acrobatic leaps. ... Flavorful descriptions of actions in the game don't change the nuts and bolts of the rules, but they make all the difference in the feel of a campaign.

The DMG is very clearly in support of the DM's ability to change this kind of detail to better support the campaign. The kind of change mentioned in the question, flames to dark-flames, is well in line with this kind of change.

You may change your mind and decide you do want to change some mechanics, such as the damage type. If you're worried about basically coping an existing spell, then you're probably overthinking it.

Sure, it's true that some damage types are more resisted than others across all monsters in the Monster Manual. Changing a Poison spell to Force can have a big impact in some games.

Fun fact: that's totally irrelevant.

You're running a one-shot, and creating the characters for it as well. This means you have a huge amount of knowledge and control over this situation. You know that if you're setting up the party to fight a bunch of Gnolls and Goblins, the damage type doesn't matter because they have no resistances/immunities/vulnerabilities. On the other hand, if you're setting them up to fight a few Devils, then most of the baddies are immune to Poison. Therefore changing a Poison spell to Force damage would have a large impact on that spell's effectiveness in your game. Fortunately, you know all this in advance and can make an informed decision on it.

So long as you don't change actual mechanics, such as the number of enemies targeted, the range, damage type, etc, any cosmetic change you make will be fine. Even small changes to spell mechanics are not likely to break anything.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ All of the answers are extremely helpful, and give me a lot of really good points to consider - especially if we decide to continue into a full campaign afterwards. But this answer has removed a lot of my worries, in regards to this being a one-shot and how much less I need to worry about long-term issues because of that - so I feel it applies best for my specific situation. \$\endgroup\$ – Bilkokuya Jun 22 '18 at 12:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, reskinning has been a thing for such a long time. Example: the original grippli was a reskin of a grig (type of fey) iirc. DMG even has some rules for it. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Jun 22 '18 at 12:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or, you can make "voidball" more or less the same as Fireball, except make it do, say, necrotic damage instead. That's not too world shaking, there are cantrips available that do necrotic damage. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Dec 25 '18 at 16:57

I would say there are no dangers to merely cosmetic changes, for example renaming a spell and describing its visual effects as something 'non-standard'.

If you want your magic missiles to look like miniature skulls burning with a ghostly purple glow...I say go for it.

However, anything that changes any real statistic such as damage type needs to be thought about carefully. In the example given, if a fireball is renamed "Eclipsing sphere" but also changed to do necrotic damage instead of fire then you need to think about the rarity or otherwise of any resistances/immunities that monsters may have.

Not many monsters have resistance to force damage for example, so changing a spell to do force damage will have a big effect on balance; however changing fire damage to cold damage would probably not be a big deal.

Similarly, be careful about adding additional effects that may make a spell glow or make a noise where it didn't before (or not glow when it did before). Even small changes could lead an enterprising player to come up with some use for the spell that you didn't foresee!

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    \$\begingroup\$ That last sentence is a "not necessarily bad" occurrence. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 22 '18 at 13:18

Don't Do It (or "Baby Steps")

A teaching game is a bit different from a regular campaign, and you said...

I'm about to help get a bunch of interested new players into DnD

If you're teaching new players, stick to the published names. When players go to look things up on their own, it will reduce the occurrence of confusion: "Why can't I find Happy Fun Ball in the book?" "Oh, it's actually called Flaming Sphere."

I've seen other DMs do it, and it leads to frustration later - players end up playing with other DMs, and show up with preconceived notions that do not match the baseline game. While they're still learning the basics, don't complicate the learning process with the need to play what's-custom-and-what's-not, too.

Once the players are comfortable with the system as a whole, then you can introduce concepts like reskinning and refluffing. In effect, don't take the training wheels off too early.

That said...

There are balance implications in changing damage types (e.g. Fire is the most commonly resisted element, Force is the least common), but you've said you don't want to do that. In a game with somewhat experienced players... Have at it. As long as everybody understands it's just a rename or redeco, it's a great idea. It can add flavor and verisimilitude to a character or a campaign.

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Back up a step

If all the setting's casters already know of the renamed spells, then there's little danger in creating a bunch of new spells that are identical to existing spells except in name and appearance. I mean, if you're rolling to see which spells are on a magic scroll or something, you'll have to remember to include those new renamed spells, too, and that's more work for you, but that's not really a danger and more of a setting quirk.

However, if the player wants the PC to cast heretofore lost, secret, or unknown yet merely cosmetically different darkness spells, I'd recommend taking a different tack: do not rename a bunch of spells and give them to the PC, and, instead, change only how the PC casts existing spells.

Giving the PC unique new spells—even if they're identical to existing spells except for names and appearances—gives the PC an edge when dealing with other, more traditional casters: those renamed spells are new spells that probably only the PC and those like the PC know. The PC can trade that special knowledge—that the PC received for free—, and that gives the PC a resource that other PCs presumably lack.

Instead, tell the player that when the PC learned magic, that's how the PC learned to cast spells. That is, the PC's spells are otherwise normal—with the same names and everything—, but it's the PC's special casting technique that changes the appearances of spells so as to add the darkness theme even though this otherwise has no mechanical effect.

This alternative still makes the PC interesting, and you don't have to change your setting to accommodate the PC.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I like this! You could even call it "Dark Flame" magic, so he gets darkflamebolt, darkflameball, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Dec 25 '18 at 17:00

I don't think there are any mechanical problems with re-skinning spells, as long as you are not changing any of the mechanical statistics of the spell, as PJRZ said.

Something you may want to consider is that if you rename all the spells they use, it could be confusing to them in the future. For instance, if you rename flaming sphere to eclipsing sphere then the players may be unable to find the spell on their own, or be confused by someone else talking about flaming sphere.

It's a minor concern, and I think you could easily mitigate it by either telling them that you've re-skinned the spells, or just adjusting the cosmetics of the spells and not the names.

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Spells could lose their identity

If you're too lenient with this, you could end up with characters that have no real theme to their spells, and just a skin that's painted on. Imagine the wizard player saying this:

As I chant the magic words, my breath crystalises in the air. Snow flakes start coalescing around my hands, forming a snowball. I throw the ball into the pack of enemies and it explodes in a cascade of icicles. Enemies in the area take 37 fire damage, dex save for half.

Wait, fire damage?

Er, the icicles are shaped like flames.

It's probably best to allow reskinning only where it's appropriate to make sure things don't get silly. The example of skinning fire spells to be shadowy is a bit iffy - fire creates light: it is illuminating, not shadowy. Things like this could make it hard for some players to suspend their disbelief.

Additionally, if any spell can be reskinned then players could just take all the optimal spells and reskin them, reducing character diversity. Being a bit strict about which spells can be reskinned could encourage players to take different, more varied spells.

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Go for it

This is something I have done quite often, almost all the time in fact. However, after I describe my spell I use the real spell name, with different flavor.

Pathfinder examples include an oracle of Rovagug casting Shield of Unreasonable Faith or "You all fill with bloodlust and the desire to destroy things, knowing that giving in feeds something deep below" (bless spell, after that you would be surprised to see how many people do NOT want the benefits of that spell).

Another character would run around the map screaming "The Langoliers are coming!" before tiny pacman-like creatures fell upon the target. Yup, magic missiles...

Now the one warning I must provide. While changing the flavor is all great and fun, the player must not draw special advantages from this re-flavor. No "My darknessball is not made of fire so it cannot be seen from afar." Otherwise, go nuts, re-flavor, re-skin, make your game awesome.

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