D&D 5e: The Trouble with Friends

A conversation sprang up yesterday in my blog post about the Royal Sorcerer origin subclass. In that conversation, I was correctly called out for some shoddy design. Specifically, I gave the royal sorcerer the ability to make the friends cantrip cover its tracks with 100% effectiveness. This isn’t a good idea, but then the friends cantrip as published is also pretty flawed. In a blog filled with obsessive minutiae, this might take the cake, but… what the hell, let’s do this.

Enchantment cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self
Components: S, M (a small amount of makeup applied to the face as this spell is cast)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
For the duration, you have advantage on all Charisma checks directed at one creature of your choice that isn’t hostile toward you. When the spell ends, the creature realizes that you used magic to influence its mood and becomes hostile toward you. A creature prone to violence might attack you. Another creature might seek retribution in other ways (at the DM’s discretion), depending on the nature of your interaction with it. (Player’s Handbook, p. 244)

So let’s see what we have here, including the glaringly obvious stuff.

Cantrip. You could, hypothetically, cast this every round if you wanted. Not that you would want that, because it has a duration, but… that raises a question.

If you cast friends while maintaining concentration on an earlier casting, does this constitute the spell ending, or do the spells chain together without having ended?

If yes (they are separate spells, and the duration ends), that weakens the effect of this spell. It’s a cantrip and not supposed to be all that powerful, but as I’ll be arguing that this is underpowered – nearly useless, in fact – even for a cantrip, we may come back to this. A strict reading of the Duration rules supports this ruling.

If no (a second casting functionally extends duration), the cantrip is useful for extended social sequences, as long as you can sufficiently conceal or justify the Somatic component so that people don’t know you’re influencing them. Maybe you have to reapply the makeup and maybe you don’t – the spell doesn’t consume the makeup, but the Components line calls out that you apply the make during casting. I can imagine a setting in which casting friends was a socially-required part of courtly manners – it’s presenting yourself as charmingly as possible, no matter how literally artificial it is. Favoring this answer puts rulings over rules-as-written (sorry, Adventurer’s League players!), but I find the idea fairly compelling. On the other hand, without an additional clause, a player might be able to keep them in the dark for a long time, hours beyond the encounter’s end, by casting the spell once per minute.

Friends appears on the spell lists of bards, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards, which re-emphasizes its “underhanded diplomacy” theme – otherwise it would have also gone to clerics, since judging by their skill lists, they’re expected to be capable party faces. Sorry, Trickery clerics.

Range: Self. Just about the only Enchantment effect that targets the spellcaster! This means you can’t share this effect with allies, and it pushes for the caster to be the party’s face. The spell also only affects one opposing target. This raises another question that will never, ever matter in probably 90% of all campaigns… but my campaigns might be the other kind.

If you’re writing a persuasive, threatening, or deceptive letter, when do you roll the skill check? (And while we’re here: what do you think of the argument that you should add Intelligence rather than Charisma, as it is pure rhetoric rather than personal magnetism or presence?)

My personal rulings, off the cuff: you roll the Deception, Intimidation, or Persuasion check at the time the target reads the letter. This prevents friends from applying, as well as effects like guidance or the like. I can see a plausible argument to the contrary specifically so that friends, guidance, and other buffs apply, but think life is easier on the DM to rule against. Personally, I would allow the letter-writer to apply the better of Intelligence or Charisma, unless I started to feel that that was getting abused.

Components: S, M. I mentioned the rules ramifications of these components above. Additionally, this reminds me of something Filamena Young posted in G+ maybe two or so years ago, discussing the oddities around makeup and the Disguise skill in games – these are treated as a form of Deception, rather than a socially-encouraged aspect of self-presentation. I think she correctly observed an odd thread of (pretty exclusively male) thinking here, that is glaringly unrelated to the uses of makeup in historical social or ceremonial contexts. I don’t necessarily think that D&D’s disguise kit should give bonuses to Charisma-linked skill checks, though. Carving out a mechanical space for something like that in D&D is tricky.

Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute. Concentration duration locks a lot of other spells, though I’m not sure how many of those you’d want to use at the same time as common use cases for this spell (or even significantly altered variations thereof). It also stops you from trying to stack friends effects on yourself to gain advantage against multiple targets – that would be a crummy ruling, but it’s decisively blocked here. Well, there’s suggestion – you can’t maintain suggestion on a primary social target while also maintaining friends on yourself to mollify secondary targets. If you’ve got someone dominated (if you are moonlighting as a vizier, for example), you can’t also run friends. These are fairly corner-case, but they’re not bad for keeping an enchanter or warlock from trumping even complex encounters with a few simple spells.

The one-minute duration is a piece of the spell’s Big Problem, because of what happens when that duration expires.

For the duration, you have advantage on all Charisma checks directed at one creature of your choice that isn’t hostile toward you. Okay, there’s a reading of this that I would call exploitative, in which “directed at one creature” means “for the duration, any single-target Charisma check” rather than “for the duration, pick one person as your special buddy.”

Non-hostility locks out a lot of potential uses. For example, if there is ever a combat style that hangs on Intimidation or Deception checks as part of combat (not an unlikely long-term addition), friends won’t help. I don’t believe that “hostile” is a technical rules term in 5e the way it has been in several previous editions, but we can still say that as soon as you’ve rolled initiative, it is too late for friends.

When the spell ends, the creature realizes that you used magic to influence its mood and becomes hostile toward you. This… is the big deal of the spell. With a duration of only one minute, you can’t really use this to avoid fights, only delay them. You can’t really use this in day-to-day social situations, because you’ll instantly sour the relationship. This could be rephrased as “at the end of the duration, treat all successes as failures.” If they know they’ve been had, they might not work out the truth of your Deception, but it’s pretty clear that they’re no longer Intimidated or Persuaded, based on that wording and the sentence following. It’s even more evident that you wouldn’t use it to bolster a Performance check, unless “on a rail” is your preferred way to leave towns.

This is the part that I set out to change in the Royal Sorcerer, but +Shahar Halevy pointed out that this went too far and amounted to nearly-always-on Charisma skill advantage, and that’s wildly too good for a cantrip. I want a nice clean way to present the idea that being the focus of the Royal Sorcerer’s attention is overwhelming, and this seemed like a good way to handle that. Since I don’t like the rulebook’s version or the Royal Sorcerer’s version, I’m changing both.

In place of this line, use the following: “When the spell ends, the creature rolls a Wisdom (Insight) check against your saving throw DC. On a success, it realizes that you used magic to influence its mood and may become hostile to you.” The Royal Sorcerer’s ability becomes, “The Royal Sorcerer imposes disadvantage on this check.” I interpret “hostility” as something more like the creature reviewing the whole conversation, and deciding whether or not if has been snookered – if so, then sure, hostility makes sense.

Another idea: since there is no overlap between lists that receive friends and those that receive guidance, it would be simple to rewrite this to work like guidance, but self-only and Charisma skills only. I’m not sure how the Law of Unintended Consequences will bite me for that.

Obviously, I’m setting out to preserve tension in the outcomes, while also greatly increasing the spell’s applications. I get that they want to protect the niche of charm person without building in a saving throw (for some reason), but turning the target hostile 6-54 seconds after the spell’s casting and a skill check… that’s not the right balancing factor. Honestly, other than a delaying tactic while you get your party into position, the only use cases I can see are when you’re sure you can kill (whoever you just pissed off) and basically all of the guards in the city. Since it makes people so angry to discover that it has been used, I assume that friends is illegal? (People tend to pass laws against things that make them violently angry.)

Alternate forms of retribution are good for the DM to explore, but that doesn’t expand the spell’s usefulness – if anything, it means that you’re creating a new long-term antagonist. We all get that that’s worse for you than an immediate fight, right? (American criminal law gets it – it’s the difference between manslaughter and premeditated murder.)

If you have ways of using this spell that I’ve overlooked, please share them. If your table has alternate rulings or tweaks for it, I’d love to hear that too!

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