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While modifying the Ghosts of Saltmarsh I realized there was no spell for bringing back a sunken ship, so I decided to make a spell.

Spectral Vessel

4th level necromancy

Casting Time: two hours

Range: 30 feet of destruction/sinking site

Components: V, S, M (sailcloth of at least 5 feet by 5 feet, a chunk of wood akin to what the ship was made from, and 10 copper coins)

Duration: Indefinite

While within 30 feet of where a ship had sunk no more than 30 days ago, you may enact this ritual to bring it back, after the 2 hours is up, the ship will rise from the ocean.

You may roll 2d4 to determine how many souls returned with the ship, these souls will take the form of skeletons, cannot leave the ship, cannot attack, and only serve to work as its crew.

The ship is mended of all damage. If the ship was fully destroyed, the spell will create a replica.

Spell lists: Wizard, Warlock, Druid (I imagine a Swashbuckler Rogue could also obtain this spell)

I made the spell in case my players made lost their ship in a campaign, I worked a lot of it out orally with them and forgot to include some of those details. I dubbed it a necromancy spell due to its undead crew and the inherent "bring something back" aspect. The 2 hours casting time and range seemed like good decisions, but that was just my opinion.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is the 30 foot range specifically 30 lateral feet with unlimited depth? Or would it not be able to raise a ship which you were directly over, but which was 40 feet below? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jan 27 at 15:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @kirt its has an unlimited depth, As long as you are within 30 feet of where the ship first submerged then you can cast this spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – Krimson42
    Jan 27 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you add some discussion on why you made the design decisions you did? For example, why is the duration 'Indefinite'? Why is it on the spell lists selected? Why did you choose the '2 hours' casting time? Why you selected the range? Also, can you expand on what goals you are trying to achieve with this spell? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Like pointed out below, the duration ought to be "instantaneous", i.e. at the end of the casting it rises from the deep and keeps itself together and it remains a functional ship - until it's once again destroyed and sunken presumably. \$\endgroup\$
    – Thank-Glob
    Jan 27 at 16:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Krimson42 the rollback was because your changes invalidated existing answers, but you can still edit in information from these comments. So for example, don't change the spell's casting time from 2 hours to 7 hours, simply explain why you chose 2 hours in another section of your post. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 at 17:59

11 Answers 11

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As written, that spell is extremely powerful. Ships are expensive, and this lets you get one for free. (Arguably, better than free, because the resurrected ship comes with free sailors who don't eat or sleep.)

If this spell exists in the world, then we should expect everyone to use it at every opportunity, until there are more resurrected ships on the seas than real ones. Good-aligned nations might not use the spell on ships that sink in their waters, but then there's a black market in ship-necromancers who resurrect those ships and use them or sell them.

Consider adding an expensive material component to the spell, or a short duration, or some sort of narrative drawback involving the ship being dangerous or evil somehow after it comes back.

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    \$\begingroup\$ should I add the stipulation that you must have already owned the ship? I had thought about it but didn't think of the in-world consequences of not including it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Krimson42
    Jan 27 at 15:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Krimson42 I think that would help a lot, yes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan B
    Jan 27 at 15:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Krimson42 That would help, but it wouldn't fix the underlying issue. especially since ship ownership is complicated, does the navy own one of their ships that sunk in battle? If so who is allowed to cast the spell? Anyone in the navy? Anyone acting on the Navy behalf? Only the admiral in charge of the fleet maneuver? the king/queen? The only possible fix I could imagine is if this is a short duration spell that wears off eventually and can't be cast indefinitely to perpetuate the ships existence indefinately. \$\endgroup\$
    – dsollen
    Jan 29 at 18:31
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So many issues

First, it would need to be a Transmutation spell

Yes, there may be skeletons involved, but really, the spell is fixing a ship. The fact the skeletons exist is beside the point. The fact that a whole new ship can be created might even put in the realm of Conjuration.

Where is "30 feet of the destruction/sinking site"?

Thirty feet from the bow? The stern? Do you need the exact GPS coordinates of where it started sinking? Speaking of which, what if the ship moves while sinking? Is it where the ship started going underwater or where it settled on the sea floor? What if the ship broke in half and sank in two different directions? Far too many unanswerable questions to have the caster not be in contact with the ship in question. Make this a Touch spell. Yes, that means breathing underwater and possibly losing the Verbal component.

On a different "30 feet" tangent; if you expect the caster to be above the ship while casting, what happens to the craft they are on when the ship rises? I see a situation where the caster hires another ship to bring back the first, and when the ship "rises", it crashes into the second ship causing it (or both) to sink. Or do you expect the caster to just be floating on some debris for the two hours of spell casting? Look for rules on Hypothermia.

Components are questionable

What do you mean by "wood akin to what the ship was made from"? How would the caster know what went into the construction? Or once again, are you expecting the caster to be floating on a chunk of wood from the ship and that is part of the components?

What do the ten copper represent? Is it an expense? Otherwise, the whole thing can be cast using an arcane focus. No wood or sail needed.

Duration is either Instantaneous or Until Dispelled

Both would mean that at the end of the two hours, the magic instantly happens. With "Until Dispelled", it has the added factor of some other caster casting dispel magic and re-sinking the ship.

Spell lists are for what makes sense, not who wants it

There are plenty of spells that are on the Wizard list that I'm sure other classes would love: Wish, Simulacrum, Bigby's Hand, Find Familiar. So don't make the list based on who wants it, but who is capable of that much power.

So Wizard, maybe Warlock, maybe Storm Sorcerer subclass, and maybe the Circle of Land Druid subclass.

Who "owns" the ship?

You mentioned in comments you thought about only the owner being able to cast the spell (or have owned it). Does this mean that the spell caster is the only person that can claim ownership? What if it was bought by the fighter? What if the caster used to own the ship but sold it/lost it gambling? What if the ship is owned by a benefactor that is letting you use it? What if the party commandeered the ship while it was docked? Does 9/10th of the law work in the FR? The term owning/owned makes it weird about who can and cannot cast the spell.

What happens to the cargo?

What happens to all the food, water, gun powder, cannons and cannonballs, personal belongings, maps, etc? All of which could be ruined, washed away, or both. I mean, great, you have a ship again, but all the food and water is worthless, and good luck defending yourself with wet powder. Hope you can make dock quickly.

And now for the shenanigans!

  1. As stated, the ship rises from the ocean. This can be a war tactic in waiting for a ship to come this way and finish the spell right as they are passing overhead (or put out a decoy to make them stop for a moment). Old ship rises, and BAM, crushes the new ship.

  2. If things look bad, it makes more sense to sink your own ship! Unload the cargo, blow the ship up, then ten copper and two hours later you have a completely new ship! Everything would be a bit wet, but small price to pay, right?

  3. My favorite; the description says that when the ship rises, it comes back with 2d4 souls to man the ship. But it doesn't say anyone had to go down with the ship! So take the ship into a harbor, sink it, raise it, and now you have a crew that needs no food, no water, and no pay. Not enough souls? Do it again! Skeletons don't need to breathe and would likely survive the dunk so the next casting will add to the crew. The description says these skeletons cannot attack, but I would put them to work priming the cannons, steering the ship, bailing water, and any number of tasks while the party takes Attack actions.

  4. And to build off a few of these; what if the party WINS a sea battle? They can (1) bring all the surviving enemy crew and booty on board, (2) claim "The ship is ours!" and then promptly sink it, (3) send the Wizard out in a rowboat for two hours to cast the spell while the party boat floats to safety, and (4) raise the ship with a faithful crew of skeletons! Now you have the beginnings of a fleet! Given a little time the party will have an armada of ships helmed by the undead.

Instead

Don't think about the party losing the ship, think about ways to save the ship!

  • Spells to fix holes in the ship (like creation)
  • Spells to replace cannon balls (or make them more powerful like the magic stones cantrip)
  • Spells to bail more water than create or destroy water can normally handle

Hopefully you get the idea. Don't let the party get free ships, make them work to save the one they have.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You could let Control Water evacuate water out of the ship, as a minor variation on its existing "Part Water" option. Or to flow out of the ship as a Redirect Flow option if it was currently flowing in. (4th level Transmutation, concentration for 10min, Cleric / Druid / Wizard). \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28 at 1:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I wish I could +1 more than once for the Instead suggestion. That is awesome. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28 at 2:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Imho all of those are small issues, if they are issues at all. Plenty of spells can be abused in some way if you apply some creativity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael
    Jan 29 at 9:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ "What do the ten copper represent? " <- V.A.T. ? \$\endgroup\$
    – einpoklum
    Jan 29 at 21:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Very nice frame challenge at the end. +1 \$\endgroup\$ Jan 31 at 19:33
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Your seafaring party lost their ship? The solution is a quest, not a free ship.

You stated in a comment:

I made the spell in case my players lost their ship in a campaign.

From a narrative perspective, losing a ship is entirely meaningless if they can bring it back in a couple hours. As the DM, it's largely up to you if their ship gets destroyed. If you want them to have their ship two hours from now, don't destroy it right now. If you want to prepare for the possibility of them losing their ship, prepare a quest or adventure arc that culminates with a new ship, rather than preparing an ctrl+z button that makes such a devastating event totally meaningless.

It's probably not even balanced as a 9th level spell.

The spell wish is the most powerful, indeed, its description states:

Wish is the mightiest spell a mortal creature can cast. By simply speaking aloud, you can alter the very foundations of reality in accord with your desires.

One of the stated functions of wish is:

You create one object of up to 25,000 gp in value that isn't a magic item. The object can be no more than 300 feet in any dimension, and it appears in an unoccupied space you can see on the ground.

So in a world without your spectral vessel spell, the only arcane technique that can conjure a ship is "the mightiest spell a mortal creature can cast". However, when it comes raising destroyed naval vessels, your spell is much better even than wish.

Wish has a 25,000 gp limit (unless opting to use an "off-label" use of wish, see my answer here for details), but the value of a high quality ship can far exceed that limit:

Adding an upgrade costs 15,000 gp and requires 1d4 weeks of work.

-Ghosts of Saltmarsh, "Superior Ship Upgrades"

And your spell can be cast without the consequences of using wish:

The stress of casting this spell to produce any effect other than duplicating another spell weakens you. After enduring that stress, each time you cast a spell until you finish a long rest, you take 1d10 necrotic damage per level of that spell. This damage can't be reduced or prevented in any way. In addition, your Strength drops to 3, if it isn't 3 or lower already, for 2d4 days. For each of those days that you spend resting and doing nothing more than light activity, your remaining recovery time decreases by 2 days. Finally, there is a 33 percent chance that you are unable to cast wish ever again if you suffer this stress.

So is it balanced as a 4th level spell? It's probably not even balanced as a 9th level spell.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Every spell that hasn’t happened to be written yet is something wish does not have a listed effect for. This isn’t unusual in that regard. And the match-up with “create one object of up to 25,000 gp” isn’t very good, since this requires starting with a shipwreck—this is a high-power repair job, not creation ex nihilo. So that kills the argument that it does something that wish explicitly does, but better. I don’t know if this is balanced, at 4th or at 9th, but this argument is not sound. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jan 27 at 15:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for good insight: "As the DM, it's largely up to you if their ship gets destroyed." \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan B
    Jan 27 at 16:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chemus Fire and burnination \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 at 19:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan It can recreate the ship if destroyed. Thus in it's most powerful use it's creating an object of the value of a ship. Wish has a power limit at 25,000gp, no ninth-level spell should be able to create something substantially more valuable. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28 at 5:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LorenPechtel No, that is still not the same as what wish is doing. The power of wish is in large part the fact that the item can be exactly what you need, and you do not need to have had any thought you might need that thing prior to casting wish. This is more comparable to resurrection than wish’s high-power creation. Wish can’t create a person ex nihilo at all, but no one is saying resurrection is overpowered because it can do something wish can’t. This comparison is just wrong, it’s apples and oranges. No conclusion can be drawn from this. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jan 28 at 12:25
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A few things

The spell is way too powerful. A 4th level spell that can fix a ship already exists; it is called fabricate and it requires:

  1. many castings
  2. the actual shipwreck
  3. lots of materials
  4. proficiency with shipwrights tools
  5. a crew after it's finished

The simplest fix is to change the spell so it only floats a real shipwreck that can then be towed to town for repairs. That would be OK for a level 4 spell. This will make a lost ship a big issue but not a complete loss. Losing a ship should be like losing a castle: it should require a lot of effort to fix. Getting to the shipwreck will require an investment of time and spells, and the party will need to pay another ship to do the towing. Then they have to pay for actual repairs.

I have run Saltmarsh and that would be the bare minimum if my players lost their ship. Losing a ship should be like losing a town you are defending--it should be a huge ordeal to recover IF it is even possible. I likely would make the cost of repairs at least half the cost of a new ship.

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Is it balanced?

No.
Let's compare it to the 4th level spell from 3.5 edition(3.5e) (before 5th edition(5e)), from the spell compendium, called Raise From the Deep.
That spell raised a specific ship you had to know up from any depth to above sea level. It did not do any repairs. It did not crew the ship. It just raised the physical body of the ship above sea level for one hour per level. If you could repair it in time and crew it, great. If not, it would sink back.

Your spell is of the same level and does a lot more.
Given that Raise From the Deep is from 3.5e, and 5e kept almost all spells but rarely made them more powerful - it mostly kept them the same or made them last a shorter period of time - I would say it is not balanced against the other spells in 5e. As a matter of fact, most people I talked to found Raise From the Deep to be too powerful in 3.5e. It was hard to compare objectively, because it did something unique, but most people said "You can do that with a 4th level spell? That's not okay..."

Does it add anything fun to the game?

That's a in relevant question related to your question.
This spell is not used "against" anybody. Not against players, not even against NPCs. So is "balance" really the unit you want to measure it by? I would advise you to find another point of view: is it fun?

Diving down to sunken treasures in rotten ships' carcasses is a great adventure. Rough seas, monsters and dangers you normally don't face in your standard adventure. Gold in chests, easily lost if you don't take care when you bring it up to your own ship. And your own ship? Is it in danger when you lead your most experienced heroes underwater with no contact? A sunken ship is an adventure. It's dangerous, it's adventurous, it's full of what we love to play for. Even keeping your ship from sinking is a great adventure on its own. Finding a shallow cove/bay/coastline to beach it and make repairs, protect from storms and predators on the island, all a big adventure.

So why have a spell to skip the fun part?

I could easily see a spell "free-princess-from-dragon". It would probably not be overpowered for 4th level, because it is so very specific and situational. But... why have it? Isn't the princess-saving the whole point of why we sit around the table? Do we really want our fun be a 3 second wizard spell and nothing more?

TL;DR

The answer to your question is "no, it's not balanced" but the solution is not to balance it. The solution is to scrap it and find a way to make the sunken/sinking ship an adventure instead of a matter of a player flipping through their books' pages to find what it takes to get the ship back.

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Make it a magic item

As others have said, it’s way too powerful for a 4th level spell. A 9th level spell, sure, after all, Wish can do this for ships worth up to 25,000gp. Maybe an 8th level since it’s more limited than Wish.

However, if it’s a magic item, you can limit it however you wish.

For example:

  • you decide how many of these there are,
  • you can gate them behind quests/adventures
  • you can make them single or limited use
  • you can make the ship be the magic item i.e. magic troll ships that repair/refloat themselves
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  • \$\begingroup\$ This was my first thought. This eliminates the need for balancing and determining the ramifications of such a spell across the campaign. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28 at 16:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @keithcurtis We've got a roll20 question that you may be able to lend some insight on (given your experience/expertise with that VTT). \$\endgroup\$ Jan 31 at 19:43
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Too much for its level

Animate dead

I'm going to address this from another angle. Animate dead is a 3rd level spell that allows you to create a single skeleton. Upspelling it to 4th level allows you to make three skeletons. The proposed spell makes an average of five skeletons, up to a maximum of eight.

But wait, you say, the skeletons are tied to the boat and can't fight. Maybe, but the skeletons created by animate dead are only loyal to you for 24 hours, not indefinitely. After that, you have to recast the spell each time the previous instance times out, if you want to retain control of your minions. Also, commanding the skeletons via animate dead requires a bonus action, your proposed spell has no such restriction.

If you designed a 4th level spell skeletal workers that let you summon 6 skeletons (double animate dead) but they can only do a single, specific task specified in the casting, and that task was not fighting, and they all crumbled to dust after the 12 hour duration, I would probably allow it. But that would just get you the crew, not the ship.

Fabricate

As for a 4th level transmutation spell to raise and repair a sunken ship, I might allow it. Others have made comparisons to fabricate which lets you make almost anything out of raw materials, but has a size limit (one 5 ft cube for stone/metal or eight connected 5 ft cubes for other materials). A ship raising spell has a single use and requires a premade but damaged ship. The specialization of the spell makes it very limited in its usage, unlike fabricate, which might be enough to offset the increased area. And frankly, one could potentially do the same thing with the cantrip mending, one fragment of the ship at a time. It would just take a lot longer.

Counter suggestion

Greater Mending

2nd level transmutation (ritual)

(bard, cleric, druid, sorcerer, wizard)

Casting Time: 1 minute

Range: Touch

Components: V, S, M (a small silver hammer which is not consumed, and two nails or an ounce of glue which are consumed)

Duration: Instantaneous

This spells fully repairs a single item with such as a suit of armor, a door, or a table, so long as the item has a total volume of under 100 cubic feet. Alternately, the spell repairs up to 100 cubic feet of damage to a larger item such as a ship or a castle wall. In either case, most (at least 80%) of the material from the original item must be within 200 feet of the caster (a recently broken window can be repaired, a shard taken from a broken window cannot recreate the whole window).

This spell can repair a magic item or construct, but does not restore magic to such an object.

At higher levels When you cast this spell using a 3rd level or higher spell slot, increase the volume of the item or section of the item by 50 cubic feet for each spell level.

It is a stronger version of a cantrip. Compared to fabricate at 4th level, it has the same AoE for wood or cloth, but a higher AoE for metal or stone, but is also limited to repairing an item. But it would let you fix your sunken ship. Or maybe even stop it from sinking in the first place, if cast fast enough.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The skeletons in this spell are little more than flavored unseen servants, though. Comparison to Animate Dead is inappropriate. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael W.
    Jan 28 at 16:27
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I made the spell in case my players made lost their ship in a campaign,

This looks like the kind of thing which lets you go from losing a firefight to instantly deus-ex-machina getting your ship back again. If the party charge into a battle recklessly, they should have consequences of losing their ship. Their next steps are up to you, but would likely involve loss of all possessions except what they're wearing/carrying, and having to steal a fishing boat at the next opportunity. The downgrade from a nice ship with a crew to an open boat that's slow and reeks of fish puts natural consequences on their actions.

Assuming you do keep it, I see a major issue being

The ship is mended of all damage.

To prevent it being a "Mend Entire Ship" spell in the middle of a firefight, a useful extra caveat would be requiring the entire ship (including masts) to be submerged for the spell to work. That'll limit the scope for it to be abused.

A further improvement would be that the ship floats to the surface but its damage isn't repaired, and it's only held together by magic for a limited duration (say 4 hours). Note that this needs to include the time for the ship to reach the surface - 1 foot per second would probably be the fastest you'd want considering water resistance, so if you've sunk in the deep ocean then you'll need to allow for that. You might also say that magical repairs won't work whilst the spell is active, which makes recovering the ship more of a team effort.

If the ship was fully destroyed, the spell will create a replica.

This is simply ludicrous, since (as pointed out elsewhere) you're basically Wishing a high-value object into existence. And with the number of boats that have ever sunk in history, you can probably cast this spell in any harbour anywhere and have a dozen fishing boats pop to the surface.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You might want to rethink that "the entire ship must be submerged" requirement, since it means that if a small piece of timber breaks off as a result of whatever damage caused the ship's sinking, and is floating on the surface due to being made of wood (a fairly likely outcome), it'll be impossible to raise the ship. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jan 28 at 23:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe Fair point. I was thinking of it raising the contiguous remains of the ship, and not repairing random bits that had fallen off. Those bits wouldn't be restored. \$\endgroup\$
    – Graham
    Jan 29 at 7:48
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I think the spell is far too powerful, as others have said. It effectively does many other spells' worth of work, some of which are included below. The following sequence would fit RAW and allows for more storytelling:

  1. Cast Water Breathing (3rd level). Swim to the wreck.
  2. Cast Fabricate (4th level), as needed, to repair enough damage for the boat to float.
  3. Cast Reverse Gravity (7th level) for any boat, whose majority of mass can fit inside a 100 foot diameter circle. For larger objects, structural integrity becomes an issue. Stop concentration when the boat surfaces.
  4. Cast Control Water (4th level), as needed, to remove the water from the boat, before it sinks again.

You could even incorporate adventure elements into the process, like defending the wreck. The biggest problem is having someone to cast Reverse Gravity. Perhaps getting someone, or something, that can cast it could be part of an adventure.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ maybe some sort of "create air" or "boyancy" spell instead of "reverse gravity" \$\endgroup\$
    – Jasen
    Jan 30 at 11:27
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I would say this spell is rather powerful. My recommendation is to require that the caster be within 30 feet of the shipwreck, rather than where it sunk beneath the waves.

Groups at this level should have access to the water breathing spell so they should be able to get down to it and cast the spell (though you may have to remove the verbal component as that might not work underwater). With that change in mind they can still get their ship back (or any ship they heard about), but it will become more of a mini-quest/underwater adventure rather than nearly free.

Another change to consider might be the size of ship. Have it be able to raise a ship up to a certain size, and increase the maximum size if cast at a higher spell slot. That should be able to prevent players from getting a massive galleon before you narratively want them to have access to one.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast That is what my third paragraph says. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 at 19:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok, I guess I'd have written that para differently, but that's a style thing, nvm \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 at 20:20
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Allow your players to get access to some Feather Tokens or a similar item.

As already pointed out in previous answers (mainly here, here and here) as it is written this spell seems to be unbalanced, given its level, duration and material cost.

As Dale M suggests in their answer, you can manage to substitute your spell with a magic item: see for example the Feather Token (Swan Boat):

This tiny object looks like a feather.

You can use an action to touch the token to a body of water at least 60 feet in diameter. The token disappears, and a 50-foot-long, 20-foot- wide boat shaped like a swan takes its place. The boat is self-propelled and moves across water at a speed of 6 miles per hour. You can use an action while on the boat to command it to move or to turn up to 90 degrees. The boat can carry up to thirty-two Medium or smaller creatures. A Large creature counts as four Medium creatures, while a Huge creature counts as nine. The boat remains for 24 hours and then disappears. You can dismiss the boat as an action.

The boat created in this way lasts 24 hours and it does not come with any crew: you may use this Feather Token as a starting point to create your magic item, changing for example its duration, its looking or whatever detail should fit with your campaign.

As Thomas suggests in their answer, you may create a side quest for making your players come in possession of such item.

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