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I'm running the Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus adventure.

In a session 0 for one my PCs, they acquired a Bone of Animation, which is an item in Mordenkainen's Tome of Marvelous Magic (a pretty great list of magical items from DMsGuild). The description of the item reads:

Wondrous item, uncommon (requires attunement)

This item appears to be a regular human upper arm bone. While holding the bone you can use an action to speak the command word and turn the bone into a skeleton. The skeleton reverts to bone form after 1 hour or when it drops to 0 hit points.

The skeleton is friendly to you and your companions for the duration. Roll initiative for the skeleton, which has its own turns. It obeys any verbal commands that you issue to it (no action required by you). If you don't issue any commands to the skeleton, it defends itself from hostile creatures but otherwise takes no actions.

Once the bone is used, it can’t be used again until the next dawn.

So far, so good. This is a pretty cool item.

We're now approaching level 5, and my wizard is super excited to use animate dead after he levels up. The animate dead spell description says:

This spell creates an undead servant. [...]

On each of your turns, you can use a bonus action to mentally command any creature you made with this spell if the creature is within 60 feet of you (if you control multiple creatures, you can command any or all of them at the same time, issuing the same command to each one). You decide what action the creature will take and where it will move during its next turn, or you can issue a general command, such as to guard a particular chamber or corridor. If you issue no commands, the creature only defends itself against hostile creatures. [...]

The creature is under your control for 24 hours, after which it stops obeying any command you’ve given it. To maintain control of the creature for another 24 hours, you must cast this spell on the creature again before the current 24-hour period ends. This use of the spell reasserts your control over up to four creatures you have animated with this spell, rather than animating a new one.

By comparison to the animate dead spell, the Bone of Animation seems overpowered:

  • It does not require a spell slot to use
  • You can issue verbal commands without using an action

Whereas for animate dead:

  • You must expend a spell slot
  • You have to use a bonus action to command the creatures

The only downsides of the Bone of Animation is that you can use it only once per day, and the skeleton lasts for at most one hour. But in a typical adventuring day, there is probably only one combat encounter that would require pulling out all the stops — so neither of these downsides seems that impactful.

I do understand that animate dead scales well, and at higher casting levels you can start to control groups of undead. But it seems very off to me that animate dead requires a bonus action to command, whereas the Bone of Animation does not. Every similar item in the Tome of Marvelous Magic works the same way, so I assume it was a deliberate decision by the author(s).

The question I need an answer to:

I'm thinking of editing the Bone of Animation so that it also requires a bonus action to command. Without this, I anticipate my wizard asking me why he has to expend a bonus action when my other PC does not.

Does modifying the Bone of Animation in this way negatively impact gameplay or materially change the item's balance implications?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPGSE. I've edited out some of the extraneous text. Please see the tour, help center, How to Ask and How to Answer for how to get the most out of an SE Q&A site. Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 30 at 20:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ What are you asking if it's balanced against? What other items are in use by the party? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 30 at 20:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why would you need to be higher level to control groups of undead with Animate Dead? You can control up to 4 of them at 5th level when you get the spell, since you'll have 2 slots of 3rd level. One to add a new skeleton, and the other to maintain control over the ones you have. Just takes a few days to build a group. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jul 31 at 6:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt Please don't answer in comments. If you think that's a good solution to the problem please put it up as an answer along with the support to back it up. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Aug 2 at 13:54
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I believe part of the problem is is that you're making the wrong comparison.

Don't get hung up on the fact that it makes a skeleton. The verbiage is actually close to Conjure Animals:

The summoned creatures are friendly to you and your companions. Roll initiative for the summoned creatures as a group, which has its own turns. They obey any verbal commands that you issue to them (no action required by you). If you don't issue any commands to them, they defend themselves from hostile creatures, but otherwise take no actions.

In that case, let's look at the stats:

Conjure Animals:

  • Can summon eight CR 1/4 animals
  • Lasts one hour max
  • Takes Concentration
  • Uses a spell slot
  • Can be used while the caster has 3rd level spell slots and above

Bone of Animation:

  • Can summon one CR 1/4 skeleton
  • Lasts one hour max
  • Does not need Concentration
  • Does not need a spell slot (But does require attunement)
  • Can be used once per day

So the big differences are quantity, Concentration, and number of uses.

Spell slots are finite, but are not completely limiting. Attunement slots on the other hand are; you get three per character and that's it. Based on level, the character probably already has at least one attunement slot used up if not two. That means the item is fighting for a precious resource.

Concentration is nothing to sneeze at either. That can greatly hamper a full caster (someone most likely to be using the Conjure Animals spell). But on the other hand, you get eight people to act as meat shields vs one calcium shield.

Which means quantity of animals would generally beat out a single skeleton. This puts the magic item on par with a single-use 3rd-level spell. Since the characters are nearing 5th level, that's when your Druids would be able to pick up the near equivalent spell. However it becomes available to any class that has a spare attunement slot. But it's not completely unbalanced based on level.

As a DM, I'd hold off until 6th level, just so the Druids have their glory.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with most everything you said except the last part. If anything, the druid gaining Conjure Eight Minions is more likely to steal the thunder of the guy with the bone of Conjure One Minion than the other way around. \$\endgroup\$ – RevenantBacon Jul 31 at 12:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's just how I roll. I'd rather the character that is trained for a situation say, "I can solve this" than any random schmoe say, "I have a McGuffin". Everyone had their own playstyle. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Jul 31 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ 1) A McGuffin is an item who's sole purpose in existence is to be a plot device. Having a minor minion that can (barely) swing a sword for, at most, 1 hour per day definitely doesn't qualify. 2) I also never consider "happening to have a spell on my list" to be equal to "trained to this particular situation". Like, ever. That's like saying Rogues shouldn't have proficiency with Thieve's Tools, because Wizards have the Knock spell, and it infringes to much on a situation they are "trained for". \$\endgroup\$ – RevenantBacon Jul 31 at 17:23
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A kilo of oranges is balanced against a kilo of apples

But one is better at making apple pie and the other is better in your Aperol spritz.

You’ve identified some of the ways the bone is better than the spell. Here are some ways it isn’t:

  • Duration
  • No zombies, only a skeleton
  • It takes up one of your 3 attunement slots
  • You can’t decide tomorrow you’d rather have a Fireball or a Counterspell
  • You can’t use the bone to upcast Magic Missile like you can with a spell slot

If your wizard gets upset because a spell is different to the magic item then you can tell them that is just the way things are.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your last sentence was flippant to the point of being rude. So I subbed it for a more neutral phrasing. Feel free to find a better wording that suits you and is tone-appropriate but don't revert to the previous wording. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 31 at 15:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ The original is much better: it wasn't rude, just funny. \$\endgroup\$ – Harry Wilson Jul 31 at 20:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HarryWilson Funny and rude are not mutually exclusive. Humor is also very tricky over the internet. If a significant number of people are interpreting something as rude, it doesn't matter if you intended it to be only humorous and it should be changed. That is what happened here. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 31 at 20:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why should it? Why should someone censor themselves just because some people think he's being rude -- not even truly offensive, just potentially offensive to some imagined third party? What's more, there's no any evidence large numbers of people thought his comment was rude. \$\endgroup\$ – Harry Wilson Jul 31 at 20:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HarryWilson It's not imagined, there were 4+ flags on this post indicating that people found it rude. It's good to remember that just because you don't see the evidence does not mean it isn't or wasn't there. If you have a serious issue with the request, please feel free to bring it up on Meta because further discussion of the issue is not appropriate to have in the comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 31 at 20:56

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