Magical power comes from many places in the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse.
Some spellcasters study their entire lives to prize a few cantrips from the pages of a dusty volume; others strike foolish bargains with dread eldritch entities in exchange for power beyond imagining.
Then there are those who are born to it.
Because magic suffuses all of reality in D&D — a great transdimensional layer called the Weave that underpins every plane of existence and everything that lives on them — it’s no great surprise that some creatures end up with the ability to control magic without anything that passes for formal training.
Welcome to our guide to Innate Spellcasting. Today, we’re going to be looking at what it means to innately cast spells in D&D 5e, for both player characters and monsters.
We’ll also be looking at some of the recent changes to the way that spellcasting for monsters has changed in Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse.
What Is Innate Spellcasting?
Innate spellcasting is the ability to cast one or more spells that isn’t gained as the result of a class, feat, or item.
In player characters, innate spellcasting is usually tied to a creature’s race, meaning that the character can cast the spell a certain number of times per long rest. The spells available via a character’s race are tied to their level.
Some monsters have the ability to innately cast spells (sometimes using psionics), although some have spellcasting levels and spell slots.
Prior to the release of Monsters of the Multiverse, a creature could have either Innate Spellcasting, Psionics, or Spellcasting as a trait — with some, like the mind flayer lich known as an Alhoon, having more than one.
Now, innate spellcasting for monsters (even humanoid ones) has been streamlined with no distinction being made between Innate and normal spellcasting (and psionics are still their own extra layer, which is basically code for “no verbal, somatic, or material components”) and spells available to the caster a number of times per day.
So, seeing as innate spellcasting functions differently for player characters and NPCs/Monsters, we’re going to look at them separately.
Innate Spellcasting and Player Characters
The most common way for a player character in D&D 5e to gain access to some innate spellcasting is through their race.
Out of the nine playable races in the Player’s Handbook, just three subraces have access to any innate magical abilities.
Drow have the Drow Magic trait, which means they know the dancing lights cantrip. At 3rd level, drow can cast the faerie fire spell once with this trait and regain the ability to do so after a long rest.
At 5th level, drow learn to cast the darkness spell once per long rest. Drow use Charisma for their spellcasting ability for these spells.
Forest Gnomes have the Natural Illusionist trait that lets them know the minor illusion cantrip, which they cast using their Intelligence score.
Tieflings’ Infernal Legacy trait means they innately know the thaumaturgy cantrip.
Then, at 3rd level, tieflings can cast the hellish rebuke spell as a 2nd-level spell once with this trait and regain the ability to do so when they finish a long rest.
Upon reaching 5th level, tieflings can also cast the darkness spell once per long rest. Tieflings use Charisma as their spellcasting ability for these spells.
Innate spellcasting has become a more common element of player races with the release of Monsters of the Multiverse, which in addition to making player races more versatile by removing inherent Ability Score bonuses, is working to make innate spellcasting feel like a more integrated element of a player character’s build.
For example, let’s look at the rules for the Deep Gnome playable race in Monsters of the Multiverse.
In addition to other racial traits like gnomish magic resistance and darkvision, all Deep Gnomes (or Svirfneblin) have an ability called Gift of the Svirfneblin.
Gift of the Svirfneblin
Starting at 3rd level, you can cast the disguise self spell with this trait. Starting at 5th level, you can also cast the nondetection spell without requiring a material component.
Once you cast either of these spells with this trait, you can’t cast that spell with it again until you finish a long rest.
You can also cast these spells using spell slots you have of the appropriate level.
Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma is your spellcasting ability for these spells when you cast them with this trait (choose when you select this race).
This is a prime example of spellcasting tied to something innate to a character rather than their class, background, or magic items.
It’s also a great example of how player races are becoming more versatile as the design of 5e progresses.
Not only can your innate spellcasting be fueled by any of the three spellcasting abilities that you choose, but innate spells also function like memorized or prepared spells, meaning that you can burn spell slots on casting them if they’re available to you.
The other significant change to the way that innate spellcasting works for races updated in Monsters of the Multiverse is related to spell components.
Does Innate Spellcasting Remove the Need for Components?
Just because you can innately cast a spell doesn’t mean you just think about it and it happens. All spells in D&D 5e require one or more components to cast.
Verbal components require you to make noise, somatic components require you to have one hand free to make obscure arcane gestures, and material components require you to provide an ingredient specific to the spell you’re trying to cast, although this third concern can be circumvented with a component pouch or a spellcasting focus.
Now, according to Jeremy Crawford, a creature’s innate spellcasting doesn’t inherently remove the need for spell components.
“A creature’s Innate Spellcasting trait tells you if it doesn’t require certain components. It otherwise requires components.”
You’ll note that none of the three innate spellcasting races in the Player’s Handbook are excused from the need for spellcasting components.
This is an especially big headache for non-spellcasting classes belonging to these races.
For example, both drow and tieflings who weren’t part of a class with access to a spellcasting focus or able to use a component pouch would need to remember to collect and lug around “bat fur and a drop of pitch or piece of coal” in order to cast the spell each day.
Virtually all the fantastical races in MotM that have an innate spellcasting ability are excused from the demands of material components.
However, it’s worth noting that only psionic races like the Githyanki and Githzerai can eschew spell components altogether.
Innate Spellcasting and Monsters
Some Monsters have always been able to cast spells in D&D.
In earlier editions of the game — back when magic users (no such thing as wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks in the 1970s) had access to fewer spells that were much, much more powerful — a brush with an enemy mage could spell instantaneous death for a party.
Back then in the good old B/X days, the sleep spell could hit up to 2d8 1HD creatures at once, and according to the rules, “Creatures enchanted by this spell are helpless and can be killed instantly with a bladed weapon.”
Imagine an enemy mage turning that on the party. Suddenly, the wraith’s touch ability that drained away your experience levels doesn’t seem quite so bad. But I digress.
Enemy spellcasters have always been one of my favorite types of bad guys… in principle.
In practice, running an archmage or a lich (or even a less powerful magic user) at the table has always been a daunting prospect, and the more spells they’ve had, the worse the problem is.
Add to that the fact that most spellcasters need a medium-sized hoard of minions to slow down the part lest the barbarian charge the entire length of the room in a single turn and stuff the evil nerd into the fantasy equivalent of a gym locker (it’s a mimic, isn’t it?).
What does this have to do with innate spellcasting, you ask? Well…
Previously, in D&D 5e, there were three ways a monster could get access to spellcasting.
Plenty of monsters also had abilities that worked like spellcasting (like the Ice Devil’s Wall of Ice ability, which is suspiciously similar to the spell, uh, Wall of Ice) but weren’t.
But, if a monster or NPC could cast spells, they had a version of one or more of the following three traits.
Spellcasting meant the monster is a spellcaster of some kind in the same way a player character is.
The rules for such creatures usually state that “X is an Xth level spellcasting” and note down the spells the creature has prepared along with the number of spell slots they have ready to cast them.
Just take a look at the Archmage’s spellcasting trait.
The archmage is an 18th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Intelligence (spell save DC 17, +9 to hit with spell attacks).
The archmage can cast disguise self and invisibility at will and has the following wizard spells prepared:
- Cantrips (at will): fire bolt, light, mage hand, prestidigitation, shocking grasp
- 1st level (4 slots): detect magic, identify, mage armor*, magic missile
- 2nd level (3 slots): detect thoughts, mirror image, misty step
- 3rd level (3 slots): counterspell, fly, lightning bolt
- 4th level (3 slots): banishment, fire shield, stoneskin*
- 5th level (3 slots): cone of cold, scrying, wall of force
- 6th level (1 slot): globe of invulnerability
- 7th level (1 slot): teleport
- 8th level (1 slot): mind blank*
- 9th level (1 slot): time stop
For all intents and purposes, the Archmage casts spells like a player character wizard.
This is another way for monsters to cast spells, which in some ways functions similarly to the innate spellcasting available to playable races.
A monster that has innate spellcasting can innately cast certain spells a certain number of times each day (and sometimes know cantrips, which can be cast as many times as they like — using the monster’s CR in place of a level when determining damage and other effects).
Innate spells are always cast at their lowest possible level and can’t be cast at a higher level.
An innate spell can have special rules or restrictions. A drow mage, for example, can innately cast the levitate spell, but the spell has a “self only” restriction, which means that the spell affects only the drow mage.
The drow mage’s innate spellcasting abilities are arrayed like this…
Drow Mage Innate Spellcasting
The drow’s innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 12). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:
At will: dancing lights
1/day each: darkness, faerie fire, levitate (self only)
And lastly, psionics are a unique, mental version of spellcasting that requires no components but otherwise functions identically to Innate Spellcasting.
And now things get a little.. Weird.
If you’re using both the new monsters from Monsters of the Multiverse and the older ones from the Monster Manual, you may end up wondering where innate spellcasting went… and why regular spellcasting looks so much like… Innate Spellcasting?!
Essentially, what’s happened is that monsters no longer cast spells like player characters.
Spellcasting no longer gives monsters a huge array of spells, spell slots, and a bunch of other stuff to keep track of. Effectively, it makes running spellcasting monsters a lot simpler, which I love.
It also means that Innate Spellcasting is just Spellcasting. All spellcasting monsters and NPCs have x/day spells to cast, some of which are psionic.
Just look at the Evoker Wizard from MotM in comparison to the Archmage from earlier.
Arcane Burst. Melee or Ranged Spell Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 ft. or range 120 ft., one target. Hit: 25 (4dl0 + 3) force damage.
Sculpted Explosion (Recharge 4-6). The evoker unleashes a magical explosion of a particular damage type: cold, fire, lightning, or thunder. The magic erupts in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point within 150 feet of the evoker.
Each creature in that area must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw. The evoker can select up to three creatures it can see in the area to ignore the spell, as the evoker sculpts the spell ‘s energy around them.
On a failed save, a creature takes 40 (9d8) damage of the chosen type and is knocked prone. On a successful save, a creature takes half as much damage and isn’t knocked prone.
Spellcasting. The evoker casts one of the following spells, using Intelligence as the spellcasting ability (spell save DC 15):
At will: flight, mage hand, message, prestidigitation
2/day each: ice storm, lightning bolt, mage armor
1/day: wall of ice
So, in addition to two new combat-oriented abilities that provide more information to the DM who’s just reading the stat block at the table, the Evoker’s spell list is much smaller and converted to resemble an innate-spellcasting stat block.
Now, I wouldn’t presume to say that the Evoker is actually casting those spells Innately, but neither does the book. They just work the same way for DMs running encounters.
That’s about it folks: a basic rules breakdown that somehow evolved into a series of patch notes and a short rant about old school magic. Hopefully you now know everything you need to understand innate spellcasting.
Until next time, happy adventuring.