Far away, in a kingdom overgrown with vines, at the heart of a castle choked with greenery, lies a princess — sleeping as though dead and unable to wake or be awakened by anything other than a true love’s kiss.
Through endless, twisting, turning hallways of identical doors that lead everywhere except the way out, the wizard runs — lungs burning and legs as heavy as lead, but he is unable to stop for fear of the bull-god’s hot breath upon his neck.
In a cavern far below the world, in golden chains, the god of mischief is bound eternally beneath a serpent’s dripping fangs; punishment for the only unforgivable crime a god may commit — killing gods. There, in agony, the trickster waits, waiting for the next splash of searing venom and eventually for the end days when he shall break his bonds and ride to vengeance upon the back of a wolf that shall eat the sun.
From ancient myth to modern science fiction and fantasy (don’t even get me started on horror), human beings are obsessed with the idea of imprisonment — of locking away something too powerful to destroy or allow to be free, of punishing people with a fate worse than death, of locking princesses up in towers and throwing villains in jail until the next installment.
This sort of thing (you know, caging a god or sending a demon back to hell) is big magic; there’s a reason genies are famously hard to put back in the bottle. It’s certainly the case in Dungeons & Dragons 5e, and such power is reserved pretty much solely for deities and the most powerful archmages.
And powerful fey, of course.
Today, we’re going to be talking about the spell that gives you that power — whether you want to lock up your enemies forever or awaken some sort of ancient evil, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about the Imprisonment spell. We’re going to teach you how it works, how much it costs, how to cast it, and even how to escape its clutches.
- Level: 9th
- Casting Time: 1 minute
- Duration: Until dispelled
- Range/Area: 30 feet
- Classes: Warlock, Wizard
- School: Abjuration
- Attack/Save: Wisdom saving throw
- Damage/Effect: Restrained
- Components: V, S, M*
Source: Basic Rules pg. 252
*(A vellum depiction or a carved statuette in the likeness of the target and a special component that varies according to the version of the spell you choose, worth at least 500 gp per Hit Die of the target)
You create a type of magical restraint or prison that holds a target you can see within range. If the target fails a Wisdom saving throw, it is bound by the spell; if it saves successfully, it is immune to further uses of this spell by the same caster. The spell suspends the target’s physical needs; while under its influence, it doesn’t need to eat, drink, or breathe, and it doesn’t age. No divination magic can find or perceive the target.
The spellcaster chooses from several forms of imprisonment when they cast this spell, and each type of imprisonment requires a different spell component.
- Burial. You entomb the target deep beneath the earth in a sphere of magical force that is just large enough to contain it. Nothing can penetrate the sphere, nor can any creature teleport or use planar travel to get into or out of it. The special component for this version of the spell is a small mithral orb.
- Chaining. Heavy chains, firmly rooted in the ground, hold the target in place. The target suffers from the restrained condition until the spell ends, and it can’t move or be moved by any means until that time. The special component for this version of the spell is a fine chain of precious metal.
- Hedged Prison. The target is transported into a tiny demiplane that is warded against teleportation and planar travel. The demiplane can be a labyrinth, a cage, a tower, or any similar confined structure or area of your choice. The special component for this version of the spell is a miniature representation of the prison made from jade.
- Minimus Containment. The target shrinks to a height of 1 inch and is imprisoned inside a gemstone or similar object. Light can pass through the gemstone normally (allowing the target to see out and other creatures to see in), but nothing else can pass through, even by means of teleportation or planar travel. The gemstone can’t be cut or broken while the spell remains in effect. The special component for this version of the spell is a large, transparent gemstone, such as a corundum, diamond, or ruby.
- Slumber. The target falls asleep and can’t be awoken. The special component for this version of the spell consists of rare soporific herbs.
Ending the Spell. During the casting of the spell, in any of its versions, the caster specifies a condition that will cause the spell to end and release the target from its imprisoned state. The condition can be as specific or as elaborate as you choose, but the GM must agree that the condition is reasonable and has a likelihood of coming to pass. The conditions can be based on a creature’s name, identity, or deity but otherwise must be based on observable actions or qualities and not based on intangibles such as level, class, or hit points.
A Dispel Magic spell can end the spell only if it is cast as a 9th-level spell, targeting either the prison or the special component used to create it.
You can use a particular special component to create only one prison at a time. If you cast the spell again using the same component, the target of the first casting is immediately freed from its binding.
How Does Imprisonment Work in DnD 5e?
Imprisonment is a 9th-level abjuration spell that can bind, hold, or trap a target creature in a magical prison of your choice. For example, you can use this spell to wrap a creature in unbreakable chains, send them into a magical slumber from which they can’t awaken, or trap them in an extradimensional labyrinth.
The target remains trapped there until either the unique conditions set by the spellcaster are fulfilled or a 9th-level Dispel Magic spell is cast upon the prison (or on the special, expensive components used to cast the spell). While inside the prison, the spell’s target doesn’t need to eat, sleep, or breathe and ceases to age — meaning someone imprisoned for centuries or millennia would emerge from their imprisonment physically unchanged.
Honestly, this has to be one of the cruelest, most torturous spells in D&D 5e. And it’s definitely one of my favorites. Frankly, I think 9th-level spells should feel like this one does — dangerous, horrifying, and more useful as a plot device than an actual spell. Imprisonment’s long casting time, expensive components, and high risk-reward ratio (if the target saves even once, it’s all been for nothing) mean that casting this spell isn’t something you can just do off the cuff, and if you just want your enemy to disappear, there are simpler solutions — like dropping a whole meteor swarm on their head, for example.
Out of the five versions of this spell that you can cast, the most humane version is the one that sends the imprisoned creature to sleep, meaning they could potentially wait out centuries unaware of the passage of time, their body lying immortal and untouched by the passing years.
Figuring out exactly which of the other four options (burial, chaining, hedged prison, or minimus containment) is the cruelest is tricky and probably depends on the individual fears of the target in question. Personally, being buried in a tiny, pitch-black, impenetrable sphere of lime below the earth forever sounds like a fate worse than death, but I can see how being stuck inside a little gem and forced to watch your enemies carry you around (or a dragon sit on you for a decade) could be pretty hellish.
Why Cast Imprisonment?
The obvious answer to why cast imprisonment is putting something (or someone) on ice indefinitely. Locking away an immortal and otherwise unstoppable enemy is a pretty good reason to fire up this spell. Basically, it’s harder to make this spell work than it is to smack your target around a bit and then fire off Power Word Kill, so make sure you exhaust all the possible options for murder before you turn to Imprisonment.
A lich or demilich whose phylactery is next to impossible to find would be a good target for this spell, as would other immortal undead like death knights and high-level spellcasters who probably have contingency plans (like the Clone spell) in place for something as simple as death.
Powerful fey, fiends, and other extraplanar entities that may well return to the world even if killed are all decent candidates for this treatment. Of course, if they ever do manage to escape again, you’d better be ready for them (or just hope that your character died of old age at the end of a long and happy life several centuries before that comes to pass).
The other reason you might want to cast Imprisonment (probably the sleep version) is if you need to create a guardian for a particular place or keep watch against a particular evil. A particularly selfless party member might volunteer to be sent to sleep indefinitely, only to reawaken should the villain return to the world.
Put an unwilling but unaligned monster in a prison, and you’ve basically got a very elaborate trap that can be sprung in a manner of your choosing.
How Much Does Imprisonment Cost To Cast?
Imprisonment — like many high-level spells — can be an expensive endeavor to cast. In addition to a vellum depiction (a drawing) or carved statuette of the intended prisoner, each version of the spell requires a different special component, each of which is rare and expensive enough that you could probably base an entire adventure arc (or even a short campaign) around finding it.
From miniature jade mazes to fine chains of finest gold, the overall cost of the special component must be at least 500 gold pieces per Hit Die of the intended target.
For example, a Tarrasque (with its 33d20 + 320 hit points) would need a special component worth at least 16,500 gp (33×500) to cast Imprisonment on it, which is roughly the same amount of money you’d need to set yourself up with your own castle.
GM’s Note. I usually try not to hand out mechanical information to my players as a matter of course; I think it’s better to try and frame things in terms of narrative as much as possible as it encourages the players to do the same. However, I would happily tell any wizard or warlock of a high-enough level to cast this spell exactly how much gold would be required for the component, seeing as withholding that information feels cheap and I don’t think adds difficulty in a meaningful way.
How To Make Sure Imprisonment Works
The biggest risk when casting Imprisonment is that you really do only get one shot at it before the target becomes permanently immune to the spell (at least from the same caster), so I think it’s really important to maximize your chances of success when casting this spell.
With this much riding on your enemy failing a single saving throw (especially given the fact that if you’re trying to cast this spell, you’re admitting that straight-up killing the BBEG isn’t an option), you’re going to want to stack the deck as much as possible.
Some really good ways to do this include…
- Have a divination wizard use their Portent ability to swap the target’s saving throw roll for something outrageously low.
- Silvery Barbs lets you impose disadvantage on an enemy’s attack roll, check, or saving throw after they roll.
- Bestow Curse (among other things) imposes disadvantage on saving throws with an Ability Score of your choice.
- Bane forces a target to subtract a d4 from their attack rolls and saving throws while the spell is active.
- Apply three levels of exhaustion (the Dream spell, a prolonged chase, and Sickening Radiance are all effective ways of adding exhaustion to a creature).
By targeting your enemy’s Wisdom saving throw roll, you stand a much better chance of them failing their roll and therefore being imprisoned. This is definitely a spell that produces the best results when the whole party works as a team to control, hold off, and debuff the target to increase the caster’s chances of success.
Speaking of which, the actual casting process is really tricky too as you’re going to need to continue casting this spell for a full minute (10 rounds of combat) while staying within 30 feet of the target. Given the fact that most powerful monsters have huge amounts of mobility (from teleportation, plane shifting, and flight to just being able to move with their legendary actions), you’re probably going to want to make sure the target is incapacitated or restrained in some way before you begin.
However, pull this off, and you’ll be able to take the biggest, baddest monsters in the multiverse, lock them up, and throw away the key. At least, until some pesky cult comes along and breaks their dark master out of the freaking phantom zone… again. But that’s a problem for the players in your next campaign.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.