In the heat of battle, it can become difficult for even the most experienced Dungeon Master to keep track of all the spells and spell effects that are flying around the battlefield. Here are some table tested, practical ways you can keep track of spells and spell effects during your Dungeons & Dragons 5e encounter.
How can you quickly and effectively keep track of spells and spell effects in a Dungeons & Dragons 5e encounter? The best tools for keeping track of spells are:
- Spell Cards
- Spell Rulers
- Pipe Cleaners
- Effect Trackers
Some of the items on this list might leave you scratching your head, but I promise, once you use them, you will never go back! Although tracking spells can be difficult, utilizing these resources can make it much simpler. All of these can even be created for FREE, which is every Dungeon Master’s favorite number!
Each class in Dungeons & Dragons has their own list of spells they can cast and spell casting characters often have a whole arsenal of spells they know. Many of these spells are listed in the Player’s Handbook, but with all the recent expansions, such as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, it is possible your players might have one or two spells not found in the Player’s Handbook.
Most often, what ends up happening is the player says they want to cast a spell, then they, you, or both search through the Player’s Handbook, or other books trying to find the spell to remember what it does. Is it a ranged spell attack? What’s the range on that? How many creatures can you effect? Most often you have no idea offhand what these spells do. There are just too many to remember. This is why Wizards of the Coast created Spell Cards.
Buying Spell Cards
For each class, you can purchase spell cards that include all the possible spells a player in that class could take. These cards list all the spell effects such as casting time, duration, range, components and spell effect description. Instead of flipping through a book each time a player wants to cast a spell, they can have the spell in front of them on a nice little card that doesn’t take up nearly as much room.
The only problem with buying these cards as a DM is the price tag. Though each set itself is very reasonably priced (between $10-$20 on Amazon) If you have a party of 5 players that are all different spellcasting classes, that can really add up. However, on the flip side, if you buy these once, then you have them forever!
If the price isn’t an issue for you, then I would highly suggest buying these spell cards. They are a really wonderful resource for both you and your players. I have even found these cards speed up the pace of combat because players can quickly see what the spell does and if it is an option as opposed to flipping frantically through a book or saying I cast this spell, then realizing what that spell actually does, saying, “Oh wait, nevermind.” Then repeating that whole process three times before deciding to just hit the enemy with a melee weapon. (Anyone know what I’m talking about?? Yeah. You do.)
If you hate how long it takes players to figure out which spell they want to use, or you are a new DM who isn’t sure if they can memorize all those spells, then these cards are the way to go! Buy them yourself or encourage your players to buy their own.
Creating Your Own Spell Cards
If the price tag is just a little out of your range, then there some (mostly) free options.
I say mostly free because you will need access to the spells in whatever book they are from. This either means you need to purchase a physical copy or purchase a digital copy on a platform such as DnD Beyond. If you can’t do this either, then I suggest becoming really good friends with a seasoned Dungeon Master and borrowing theirs.
If you have access to the books containing the spells you will need to know, then you can make your own FREE spell cards with nothing but the effort and these resources.
Old School: Index Cards
Nearly everyone has index cards laying around somewhere. Whether you bought them for school, work, or a presentation, index cards always seem to appear out of nowhere and you never use them all. If you don’t have any laying around, you can pick up a pack of 200 for less than a dollar at any Walmart, Dollar Tree, or Dollar General. If they aren’t free, they are as close as you can get.
Now you just need to copy down all the spells your players or NPCs will use so you can have them at your fingertips whenever you need them. Because you are making the cards, you can put the most pertinent information where you will see it quickly. You can also highlight info you will need quickly, like range and damage. This allows for a high amount of customization to your cards that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.
Although this is a big-time investment upfront, the spells do not change, meaning you can reuse them over and over, only adding spells as you need them for your group. I would suggest having your players send you the spells they take at each level and creating card sets for each character.
New School: Trello
Trello is a FREE online, collaborative list maker that lets multiple people access the same list at the same time. If you have never heard of or used Trello before, it can be difficult to comprehend without looking at it yourself. Just go to Trello.com and sign up for a free account and start playing with the features. You will quickly realize just how powerful a tool this can be for your campaign!
Creating Campaign Boards
The first thing you will want to do in Trello is to create a campaign board. To do this, simply add a new board and give it a title. Next, begin adding “Lists.”
Trello is designed to be used as a work management tool to create To-Do Lists, but it works just as well to manage players and party funds. For each character in your party, make a list and title that list with the character’s name. In my example, I have “Harris” as the list title. Within that list, you can add “Cards.” These are what we will be using for Spells.
Title each card the spell name, then add all the information for the spell into the description. Now you have a complete spell card that both you and your players can see at the same time!
My favorite part about this resource is that I can have the players add their own spells, cutting my workload down and saving me lots of time!
To each of the cards, you can also add pictures, labels and even checklists. Meaning there is a whole lot of customization options for whatever you want to add!
Of course, adding spell lists is just one use of Trello. You can also create a list of the Party Funds where your players can track their shared resources or keep track of NPCs you have used in the past, locations, monsters, or even collaborative note taking.
Tracking Spell Ranges
Figuring out which creatures are within the area of effect or range of a spell can be annoying. Some spell effects are a cube, others are a cone, and others still are a sphere with a radius. I haven’t had to figure out a radius since high school geometry, and I wasn’t even good at it then! Luckily, there are some tools that can make this process quick and easy! (No more googling “radius” every time. What? Am I the only one that does that?)
Using Spell Rulers
The quickest solution to this problem is often the quickest solution to any problem. Throw some money at it. Buy a Spell Damage Marker for 11.99 on Amazon (or at your local game shop) and your instant spell effects problems will be solved.
When a spell is cast that affects an area, just pull out this marker, measure your map, and keep on rolling. I recommend this one on Amazon. It clearly marks all sizes of radius, cubes, and cones.
Using Pipe Cleaners to Mark Area Effects
As great as damage markers are for figuring out what creatures take instantaneous damage, it is much more difficult to track a spell’s area of effect that is centered around a player. While you can draw out which areas are affected by spells that have hard guidelines, some spells, like Spiritual Guardians affect the areas around the player.
This is much more difficult to track because if you draw the area and the player moves, then you have to take the time to erase and then redraw the area around them. This can be very time consuming and, quite frankly, annoying. If you don’t mark the spell’s effect in some way, you and your players will forget during combat, making for arguments, back dealing damage (which I try to avoid at all costs), and overall complications.
A cheap and easy solution to this is to up pipe cleaners. Simply twist the pipe cleaner into a circle that marks whatever radius you need and place it around the player’s miniature. Now, whenever a creature moves into that circle or starts a turn inside that circle, you clearly know they need to take damage. This will also help both your and your player’s strategies because you can both clearly see the area of damage.
Because pipe cleaners are so cheap and come in a large variety of colors, you can even use different colors to make different damage types or use them to make spell effects.
Tracking Spell Effects
Many spells not only do damage, but they put the targeted creatures under some kind of an effect as well. Such as stunned, grappled, or charmed. To easily track which players or monsters are under which effect, I would suggest picking up a token set like this one.
When a player or monster is under an effect, place the token under the miniature to easily track which condition is affecting each combatant. I really recommend having at least one set of these, as they cost under $15 and are one of the most useful encounter tools I have ever used.
If you can’t afford these right now, simply use the pipe cleaner trick I told you about above, or use the rings off of milk cartons. Really anything works, you just need something to remind you that player is suffering from a condition.
Keeping Track of Concentration
Some spells require the caster to “concentrate” on that spell. If the caster takes damage, they must make a concentration check to see if they maintain the spell or if it drops. The spell caster cannot use two spells requiring concentration at the same time. The difficult part of this is remembering which players are maintaining concentration. I have run many encounters where I have completely forgotten about concentration, but this can have a huge effect on combat!
Here is an example: If a player has cast Polymorph on an enemy, and another enemy hits the spell caster, they must succeed on a concentration check, or the other enemy poofs back to normal. You can see how this could greatly impact an encounter. But how do you keep track of that?
There are a couple of ways to keep track of concentration. The first is by using Player Cards.
Using Player Cards to Track Concentration
While this isn’t the cheapest solution, it certainly works well. When a player casts a spell that requires concentration, you can simply write that in the notes section of the card. This is also great for tracking all spell and damage effects, such as stunned or poisoned. Because they are dry/wet erase, you can use them over and over again, making these worth the price.
If you are looking for a cheaper and more fun option, try using candles.
Using Candles to Track Concentration
Personally, I prefer the fake LED candles, like the ones picture above. You can get them on Amazon for about a dollar apiece, making them a really affordable option. Give one to each of your players and when they are concentration on a spell, have them turn on their candle. When they are no longer concentrating on a spell, they turn it off.
Now, you can look around the table and quickly see who is concentrating on a spell. Not only does this give the players a physical action they need to do when they are concentrating (which is a link to memory, meaning just the act of turning on the candle will help them remember) lit candles add a cool element to the table! It just feels more natural somehow, and it really is a great memory tool.
The Spell Master
Not even the greatest of DM’s can remember every spell and track every effect perfectly. We all need a little help (in my case, a LOT of help). By using even one or two of the resources I outlined above, you will free up your mind to focus on other aspects of the game and impress your players with your organization. Just a few tools go a long way in helping you become a Spell Master!
Have a specific resource or trick you use to keep track of spells and spell effects that I didn’t mention here? Cast Sending and let me know what I missed!
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!