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By Skip Williams

The grinning demon vanishes with a smirk and a mocking bow, the coy dryad bewitches the woodsman with no more than a fetching look, the trio of loathsome hags turns the hero into a toad with naught but a derisive cackle. That's three examples of spell-like abilities in action. What are spell-like abilities? Why are they called that? How do they work? Read on to find the answers these questions and to a few others that tend to pop up in connection with spell-like abilities.

What Is a Spell-Like Ability?

The term "spell-like ability" has been part of the D&D game for many years, and it still retains its essential meaning: A spell-like ability is a magical trick that works exactly like a spell of the same name. How does a dryad's charm person spell-like ability work? Just like a charm person spell.

Spell-like abilities first arrived in the game along with magically accomplished creatures such as demons. They served as handy shortcuts for designers trying to give such creatures an appropriate amount of magical punch without getting too long-winded. Earlier versions of the game didn't have much to say about spell-like abilities. When a creature had them, you got a list of the spell names the creature could duplicate and usually some information about how often the creature could use each ability.

In the current version of the D&D game, the term "spell-like ability" has taken on a little more meaning. It refers to a broad category of magical abilities that work more or less like spells, as noted below. Most of the details in the next two sections come from the discussion of spell-like abilities in Chapter 10 of the Player's Handbook and in the Monster Manual glossary.

Similarities Between Spells and Spell-Like Abilities

A spell-like ability is like a spell in the following ways:

  • Using a spell-like ability is a standard action that provokes an attack of opportunity. Sometimes using a spell-like ability can be a free action or a full-round action, or it can have an even longer activation time. However, it's a standard action unless the ability description specifically says otherwise. A creature using a spell-like ability can use all the tricks that a spellcaster can use to avoid that nasty attack of opportunity. The creature can take a 5-foot step before using the ability (so as to get out of a threatened area). The creature also can make a Concentration check to use the ability defensively.

  • A spell-like ability can be disrupted. Anything that could disrupt a spellcaster's concentration and ruin a spell can do the same thing to a spell-like ability. (See the section on disrupting spell-like abilities, below.)

  • A spell-like ability is subject to the effects of antimagic. An antimagic field or a beholder's antimagic ray suppresses a spell-like ability so that it has no effect. This suppression does not dispel the ability, however, so if the spell-like ability's duration outlasts the antimagic effect, the spell-like ability resumes functioning when the antimagic effect goes away. An antimagic effect also blocks line of effect (see Chapter 10 in the Player's Handbook) for any magical ability, though a creature always has line of effect to itself. So a creature with a spell-like ability could use the ability on itself, even in an antimagic field. The magic still would be suppressed while the creature remains inside the antimagic effect, and the creature would gain no benefit from the ability until it left the area of antimagic. Time spent inside the antimagic effect still counts against the magic's duration, however.

  • A spell-like ability can be dispelled. All the usual limitations of dispel effects apply to dispels used against spell-like abilities. For example, a spell-like ability with an instantaneous duration cannot be dispelled, and the dispel user must make a successful caster level check to dispel any spell-like ability with a longer duration.

  • A spell-like ability has a caster level. The description of the creature will give its caster level for its spell-like abilities (which, among other things, determines the DC for the caster level check to dispel the ability). If no caster level is given, its caster level is equal to its Hit Dice. In many cases, however, a creature's caster level for spell-like abilities is not the same as its Hit Dice, and it might not be the same for all its spell-like abilities. Likewise, if the creature actually can cast spells, its caster level for its spells might be different than its caster level for spell-like abilities; check the creature's description to be sure. Some spell-like abilities duplicate spells that are not subject to dispelling; if so, the spell-like ability also is not subject to dispelling.

  • A spell-like ability is subject to spell resistance. The creature using the spell-like ability must make a caster level check to overcome the subject's spell resistance, using its caster level for the spell-like ability in question. Some spell-like abilities duplicate spells that are not subject to spell resistance. If so, the spell-like ability also is not subject to spell resistance.

  • A save DC for a spell-like ability is calculated the same way a save DC for a spell is calculated. The save DC for a spell-like ability (unless its description specifically says otherwise) is: 10 + the level of the spell the ability duplicates + the user's Charisma modifier. The user's Charisma modifier affects the ability's save DC no matter what spell the ability duplicates.

PART II

Let's finish the topic of spells and spell-like abilities by going over the differences between them. Then you can see some options for how to (and how not to) disrupt spell-like abilities.

Differences Between Spells and Spell-Like Abilities

A spell-like ability is not a spell. (If it was, it would simply be called a spell.) Important differences between spell-like abilities and spells include the following:

  • A spell-like ability has no verbal, somatic, material, focus, or XP components. Using a spell-like ability is a purely mental action, albeit one that requires enough concentration to provoke attacks of opportunity. It is quite possible, however, that a creature using a spell-like ability might add some gesture, word, or flourish just for dramatic effect.

  • A spell-like ability cannot be used as a counterspell, and it is not subject to counterspells. A counterspell involves recognizing a spell as it is being cast, then quickly altering that same spell so as to create an opposite effect that cancels out the original spell. A spell-like ability is essentially hardwired into its user's psyche, and its power is released mentally. The process is sufficiently different from spellcasting so it that doesn't allow a foe to identify the spell-like ability, and a counterspell cannot interfere with the spell-like ability's magical energy as it can with a spell. As noted earlier, a spell-like ability is subject to dispelling (provided the spell it duplicates is subject to dispelling). When a spell-like ability can be dispelled (as most of them are) one can effectively counter them with a dispel magic spell. While spell-like abilities are not normally subject to counterspells, dispel magic is not really a counterspell. When you use dispel magic as a counterspell, what you're really doing is casting a quick, targeted dispel effect at the correct moment to negate the enemy spell and not creating an opposite magical effect that cancels your enemy's spell.

  • A spell-like ability is not subject to spell failure. A creature using a spell-like ability that duplicates an arcane spell doesn't have to worry about arcane spell failure from armor it wears (assuming it's wearing armor) or about spell failure from any other source or condition (such as deafness).

  • A spell-like ability need not be prepared in advance. As noted earlier, a spell-like ability is hard-wired into the user. A creature with a spell-like ability doesn't have to do anything to get its daily allotment of spell-like abilities. It does not need to study, pray, meditate, or even rest.

  • A spell-like ability is not subject to metamagic. For many of the same reasons a spell-like ability cannot be countered, it also cannot be modified through metamagic in any way. Some creatures have special feats that allow them to duplicate the effects of metamagic on their spell-like abilities (such as the Quicken Spell-Like Ability feat). It's also possible for a creature to have a spell-like ability that duplicates spells already altered by metamagic. For example, the archmage prestige class allows a character to make a spell modified by metamagic into a spell-like ability.
Disrupting Spell-like Abilities

In most cases, one can disrupt a foe's spell-like ability in exactly the same way one disrupts a spell. For example, a creature's opponents can ready attacks to disrupt its spell-like abilities, and if they hit the creature while it uses a spell-like ability, they may cause the ability to fail. The DC for the creature's Concentration check is exactly the same as it would be if the creature were casting a spell. Likewise, if the creature tries to use the spell-like ability defensively, the ability doesn't work unless the creature makes a successful Concentration check.

For instance, suppose that a group of adventurers closes in on a pesky vrock demon and begin pounding it to bits with their melee attacks (as adventurers usually do when they get the chance). The vrock decides to escape via its greater teleport ability. The vrock must use a standard action to trigger the ability, and the action provokes an attack of opportunity from all foes that threaten the demon at the time. Let's say the vrock is canny enough to use a 5-foot step to move away from all but one foe (Sondranna the barbarian). Let's also say that Sondranna hits with her attack of opportunity and deals 16 points of damage with her greataxe. Unfortunately, the vrock has damage reduction 10/good, and Sondranna's greataxe, though magical, is not good, so Sondranna's blow only deals 6 points of damage to the demon. The demon still took some damage, however, and must make a Concentration check to finish using the ability. The DC for the vrock's Concentration check will be the same as if it were damaged while casting a greater teleport spell: 10 + spell level (because the vrock was "casting" when the distraction occurred, see the Concentration skill description) + damage dealt. In this case the DC is 23 (10+7+6). With the vrock's Concentration score of +20, its check probably will succeed.

Later, the vrock returns with a friend in tow and the pair resume the attack on the party. After several rounds of violent maneuvers, the party corners both vrocks, and the two demons decide to tough it out and fight. One vrock, however, decides to use its mirror image spell-like ability to help it avoid a few hits from Sondranna and her allies. The vrock decides to use the ability defensively to avoid a hail of attacks of opportunity. Because the vrock is using the ability defensively, it must succeed at a Concentration check to successfully use the ability. The DC for the check is 15 + the spell level. Mirror image is a 2nd-level spell, so the DC is a mere 17. The vrock will succeed with this check automatically thanks to its Concentration score of +20 (there's no automatic success or failure on a check as there is with a saving throw or attack roll, see page 63 in the Player's Handbook), and so the vrock's use of mirror image won't provoke any attacks of opportunity this time. However, let's suppose that Sondranna has seen this trick before and that she has readied an action to disrupt the vrock's magic use. The vrock's defensive power use won't interfere with the readied action (it only keeps the power use from provoking attacks of opportunity). Furthermore, let's assume Sondranna has received a bless weapon spell for her greataxe, making it a good weapon that bypasses the vrock's damage reduction. Sondranna hits and deals 18 points of damage to the vrock; the mirror image is not yet in effect because Sondranna's readied action interrupts the magic use, so there's no chance that Sondranna's blow will strike an image instead of the vrock. The vrock must make a Concentration check with a DC of 30 (10+2+18).

Suppose the check fails. This use of the vrock's mirror image power is wasted. The vrock can use mirror image at will, however, so it can try again next round. The vrock used a standard action to employ its mirror image power, so it's pretty much done for this round. It could take a move action, but it cannot attack or use another spell-like ability (both of which also would require standard actions). It could take a move action, but it declines to do so, preferring to keep its foes within reach.

PART III

So, you're trying to figure out the spell level and version of a creature's spell-like ability. Here is the information you may have been seeking!

Determining a Spell Level for a Spell-Like Ability

It's often necessary to determine what level spell a spell-like ability duplicates. For example, you'll need to know the spell level whenever someone uses a detect magic spell to study a spell-like ability's ongoing effects. Also, as noted earlier, you'll often need to know the ability's level to determine the DC for any Concentration check the user might have to make when employing the ability.

The spell level also affects the saving throw DC for the spell-like ability, but that information usually is included in the user's creature description.

Exactly what level spell a spell-like ability duplicates often proves unclear, because most spells become available to casters of different classes at different levels. To determine the spell level for a spell-like ability, always use the level for the sorcerer/wizard version of the spell. If the spell has no sorcerer/wizard level, use cleric, druid, bard, paladin, or ranger level, in that order. Sometimes a creature's description will specify a kind of caster for the creature's spell-like abilities. If this is so, use the appropriate level for the spell-like ability.

You also can calculate a spell-like ability's level from the saving throw listed for it. Simply subtract 10 + the user's Charisma modifier from the listed DC and the result is the ability's spell level.

As noted earlier, some spell-like abilities don't duplicate spells. For example, a paladin's ability to call a special mount is a spell-like ability gained at 5th level. This ability is very similar to the 1st-level mount spell and can be treated as a 1st-level effect.

Determining the Version of a Spell

Some spells work differently for different kinds of casters. In such cases, use the sorcerer/wizard version of the spell. If the spell has no sorcerer/wizard version, use cleric, druid, bard, paladin, or ranger level, in that order. Sometimes a creature's description will specify a kind of caster for the creature's spell-like abilities. If this is so, use the version for the spell-like ability.

PART IV

To finish off the topic of spell-like abilities, let's go into using them, conditions that can affect their use, and how often you can use them.

Using a Spell-Like Ability

As noted earlier, using a spell-like ability requires a standard action and concentration. It requires nothing else. (Also as noted earlier, a spell-like ability has no verbal, somatic, material, focus, or XP components.)

So what does a spell-like ability look like when it's used? Well, the answer is pretty much any way the user wants it to look and can pull off. When a creature simply uses a spell-like ability without any dramatic flourishes, it still shows some sign that it's concentrating. For example, it might stop moving for a moment, or it may furrow its brow (if it has any brows to furrow) or make some incidental gesture. Note, however, that using a spell-like ability is a purely mental action, and a creature could use one even when bound and gagged or when paralyzed. If a creature can think, it can use its spell-like abilities.

Anything that disrupts a creature's mental processes or concentration also prevents the use of spell-like abilities, including the feeblemind spell and the following character conditions (refer to the condition summary on page 300 of the Dungeon Master's Guide):

  • Cowering
  • Dazed
  • Dead
  • Dying
  • Fascinated
  • Frightened*
  • Flat-footed
  • Nauseated
  • Panicked*
  • Petrified
  • Stable
  • Stunned
  • Turned*
  • Unconscious
*Some spell-like abilities might remain available to the creature, see the notes that follow.

Additional Notes on Conditions

Some conditions merit additional comments:

Ability Damage or Ability Drain: Any ability damage or drain that renders a creature unconscious also renders it unable to use spell-like abilities. Creatures with Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma scores reduced to 0 are unconscious. Reductions in Charisma can reduce the save DC for a creature's spell-like ability if they're sufficient to lower the creature's Charisma modifier.

Blinded: A blinded creature usually cannot aim spell-like abilities that duplicate targeted spells (unless it can touch the target) and must specify the point of origin for area or effect spells (see Aiming a Spell on page 175 in the Player's Handbook). The creature can still aim a ray or touch spell, but must use the procedure for attacking an unseen opponent to do so (see Invisibility on page 295 of the Dungeon Master's Guide).

Confused: If the d% roll indicates that the creature can act normally this round, it can use its spell-like abilities this round, otherwise, a confused creature cannot use spell-like abilities.

Dazzled: The -1 penalty on attack rolls from this condition applies to any attack roll the creature makes to use a spell-like ability (such as a touch attack or ranged touch attack).

Disabled: Using a spell-like ability while disabled causes the creature to lose a hit point. Unless the spell-like ability increased the creature's hit points, it begins dying after it takes the damage.

Energy Drained: A creature retains its spell-like abilities (and its caster level for those abilities) no matter how many negative levels it gain or how many Hit Dice it might lose as a result of those negative levels. The penalties from negative levels apply to any attack rolls a creature makes to use a spell-like ability (such as a touch attack or ranged touch attack).

Frightened: If a frightened creature has a spell-like ability that allows it to flee from the source of its fear, it must use that ability to flee if it can't escape any other way.

Grappled: A creature can use its spell-like abilities if grappled. Doing so requires a Concentration check (DC 20 + the duplicated spell's level).

Panicked: If a panicked creature has a spell-like ability that allows it to flee from the source of its fear, it must use that ability to flee if it can't escape any other way.

Pinned: A creature can use its spell-like abilities if pinned. Doing so requires a Concentration check (DC 20 + the duplicated spell's level).

Turned: If a turned creature has a spell-like ability that allows it to flee from the source of the turning, it must use that ability to flee if it can't escape any other way.

How Often Can Spell-Like Abilities Be Used?

Most spell-like abilities have a daily use limit (most often once a day or three times a day). A spell-like ability that is usable at will has no use limit at all, and the creature can use it as often as it likes; however, an at will ability still requires a standard action to use unless its description specifically says otherwise.

As noted earlier, spell-like abilities with daily use limits become available to the creature automatically each day. The creature doesn't need to rest, study, or prepare for them in any way. In this case, a "day" is any contiguous period of 24 hours. There is no set "recharge" time for a spell-like ability. Instead, the creature can use the ability a set number of times in any given period of 24 hours. For example, a lillend can use its darkness spell-like ability three times a day. The lillend cannot create three darkness effects at 11 PM one day, then create three more two hours later (at 1 AM the next day). Instead, the lillend can use darkness up to three times during any period of 24 consecutive hours. If she creates darkness at 11 PM on a given day, she can use the ability only twice more during the following 24 hours. Let's say she uses the power again at 1 AM the next day and again at 7 AM that same day. She has exhausted her daily limit on her darkness ability at 7 AM. The earliest she can use the ability again is 11 PM on the second day, when she can use the power only once (because she already has used the power twice during the preceding 24 hours). If she doesn't use the power at all after 7 AM the second day, the earliest that she will have three uses available again will be 7 AM on the third day.

Page Last Updated Feburary 15th, 2005

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