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I'm preparing for my first campaign as Dungeon Master. While I was assisting my players with character creation, one of them (playing an Archfey Warlock) expressed enthusiasm for the spell "Crown of Madness" (we're starting at level 3 so they'll have access to 2nd-level spells at the start of the campaign). I told them that, while they were free to choose that spell, in my opinion it isn't a very effective and they might want to consider other options. My argument for this is:

  • The target can be forced to attack only "before moving", so as long as its allies don't stand right next to it, this aspect of the spell is useless.
  • In addition to requiring your concentration, you have to use your action on each turn (!!!) to prevent the spell from ending.

Taken together, these points mean that on each turn, you either have to trade your action for a very slim chance at forcing the target to abuse its action, or end the spell early. Additionally, point 2 prevents you from using other abilities to try and force the target into positions where it is within reach of other enemies. Why anyone would ever use this spell when Suggestion exists, is the same level, and appears to be far more effective is beyond me.

My player was very surprised by my interpretation of Crown of Madness's mechanics, which they described as "super literal", and explained that their previous DM had allowed them to use the spell in a much more flexible manner. Specifically, they were incredulous that the restriction that the target could be forced to attack only "before moving" would be enforced.

Overall, I was left with the impression that they were accustomed to being able to use Crown of Madness to accomplish an effect comparable to the 3rd level spell Enemies Abound, or even potentially the 5th level spell Dominate Person. I view Enemies Abound as a very good spell and I intend to encourage this player to replace Crown of Madness with it once they gain access to 3rd level spells. But in the meantime, I'm not comfortable letting them use a (in my opinion very bad for its level) 2nd level spell to accomplish the effects of a (in my opinion quite good for its level) 3rd level spell.

Nevertheless, this player is clearly very fond of Crown of Madness, and the idea behind the spell (disrupt an enemy's mind, charming them and potentially forcing them to attack their allies) is thematically perfect for their character. Clearly, we need to have a broader discussion regarding how the rules of the game will be interpreted and enforced for my campaign. But in the meantime, I'd like to propose the following alternative version of Crown of Madness for use at my table. My intent is to keep the spell fun to use for the player while keeping it more in line with the power of other 2nd level spells. I also added some modest spell slot scaling, since spells below 6th level that don't scale with level are inherently less viable for Warlocks.

Changes are indicated in italics.


Crown of Madness

2nd level enchantment

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 120 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

One humanoid of your choice that you can see within range must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or become charmed by you for the duration. While the target is charmed in this way, a twisted crown of jagged iron appears on its head, and a madness glows in its eyes.

As part of the action when you cast this spell, and by using your action on subsequent turns, you can force the charmed target to immediately use its reaction, if available, to move up to half its speed in a straight line in a direction chosen by you. If this movement would force the target to move into obviously dangerous ground, such as a fire or a pit, or if it would provoke an Opportunity Attack, the movement ends.

The charmed target must use its action before moving on each of its turns to make a melee attack against a creature other than itself that you mentally choose. This attack deals an extra 1d6 psychic damage on hit, as the target's madness spills over into its victim. The target can act normally on its turn if you choose no creature or if none are within its reach.

The target can make a Wisdom saving throw at the end of each of its turns, and has advantage on the saving throw if it took damage since the end of its last turn. On a success, the spell ends.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the target's forced attacks deal an extra 1d6 psychic damage on hit for every level above 2nd.

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2 Answers 2

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You can play the opponents differently

As you say, the spell is weak as the target can just move away from its allies. In my experience, what this often results in is that the caster chooses a target that is next to one of its allies. The target then tries to hit an ally, and the DM makes it move to a position where it is not next to an ally, effectively negating the compulsion. The player then protests vehemently.

However, there is no need to modify the spell, if you do not make the monsters move away every time.

Fixing how the spell plays

You are operating the monsters as if they had your knowledge as a DM of how the spell works, optimizing their behaviour to negate it. But the monsters themselves may not have any idea about this.

To the contrary: unless they are spellcasters that know the spell, or have knowledge of arcana and spend an action to do a skill check, they may not understand this effect at all. They may not understand it is not a one time thing. Once they do realize it after having had the repeated urge to hit an ally, they then might move away. Or, if they are not particularly bright, they may not. How do they know that they won't want to do it anymore once they are not standing next to their ally?

The attacked ally may be upset and even choose to retaliate for being "backstabbed", adding yet more damage and potentially removing two opponents, before they withdraw themselves. For this the creatures likely need to be pretty dumb, as the flaming crown is a good giveaway something is wrong. But an ogre for example might well react like this.

You can play the monsters from their perspective, and that can help to make the spell play a lot better. Few things are more satisfying for the players than dumb monsters making dumb mistakes.

Fixing the spell

Suggestion is one of the best spells on second level, but I know many DMs who would not make it turn a target to attack its allies in combat, unless there was some situational support to make this sound "reasonable". So treating it as if it could reliably do this is too high a benchmark in my mind.

Compare it to Hold Person or Levitate instead. They also remove a target from combat (negate its action), but without requiring your action on subsequent turns. If Crown of Madness would serve to effectively remove a target from combat by forcing them to attack each turn, it would be better on the first turn (extra chance for attack damage), and then trade your action on subsequent turns for the target's damage, which may be weaker than what you could do with it independently, or not, if it is a strong creature. That would seem to be an overall balanced version.

You could get that by just adding "A charmed target that is not next to an allied creature must use its movement each turn to move next to one if possible without harm, and must use ...". This would fix the main issue with the spell, the target moving away. If they are compelled to attack their allies, include the compulsion to put themselves in a place where they can do so. The proposed version instead only addresses the issue half-way, by half movement, which may still allow the target to move out of reach, and to compensate adds in modest psychic damage.

The homebrew version you present is not unbalanced in a gross way, it's just unnecessarily complicated, and changes the nature of the spell.

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It's fine

Prior to your change, using this spell on an intelligent opponent would generally mean they'd run away from the combat until the spell wore off.

After your change, that's still true. They can use their full movement to leave, and the caster can make them use half their movement to return, and they'll still not be in range of anyone.

Prior to this change, using this spell on an unintelligent opponent would generally mean they'd wade into melee and attack the wrong thing a lot. After your change, that's still true.

The damage scaling you added is pretty small. Many monsters scale up by getting extra attacks, and crown of madness does not let you copy a monster's multiattack, so damage from this spell will be less than the monster's damage even after this buff.

Even with these changes, this spell is a bad choice to rely on, especially for one's primary character concept. (If nothing else, the restriction "target: one humanoid" means it will be useless in a lot of fights!) But I think we can at least say that it's not overpowered.

Inventing homebrew content might not be the right solution here

You've written that one of your players wants to break an important rule, with the argument "my last DM let me do it".

You've written that your game is just starting out (has not, in fact, had its first session yet). Now is when you have the most negotiating power, because if your player leaves then you can replace them without too much trouble. Once your campaign is running, it will be harder to replace people.

If there are any conversations you need to have, you should make sure to have them quickly. If it were me, I'd say something like: "yes, sorry, at this table we do interpret the rules literally. Are you on board with that? If this makes you want to drop out, I understand."

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