With a wide range of effects, from rendering your targets unconscious to driving them temporarily mad, the Symbol spell might be one of the most underrated magical booby traps in all of D&D 5e.
In our guide, we’re going to break down how this 7th-level Abjuration spell works, which effects you should use in different situations, how to ensure you don’t end up getting caught in your own trap, and why this spell should be on every BBEG’s list.
- Level: 7th
- School: Abjuration
- Classes: Bard, Cleric, Wizard
- Casting Time: 1 minute
- Duration: Until Dispelled or Triggered
- Range/Area: Touch (60-ft. sphere)
- Attack/Save: See below
- Damage/Effect: Necrotic, frightened, stunned, unconscious…
- Components: V, S, M (mercury, phosphorus, and powdered diamond and opal with a total value of at least 1,000 gp, which the spell consumes)
Source: Basic Rules, pg. 280
Symbol Spell Description
The caster of this spell inscribes a harmful glyph or magic rune on a surface (a wall, door, floor, table, etc.) or inside an object that can be closed to conceal its presence (like a book, a scroll, or the inside of a chest).
If the caster chooses to inscribe their glyph on a surface, the glyph can cover an area of the surface no larger than 10 feet in diameter. If they choose an object, that object must remain in its place; if the object is moved more than 10 feet from the point where the spell was cast, the glyph is broken, and the spell ends without being triggered.
The glyph is nearly invisible, requiring an Intelligence (Investigation) check against your Spell Save DC to find it.
The caster decides what triggers the glyph when they cast the spell. For glyphs inscribed on a surface, the most typical triggers include touching or stepping on the glyph, removing another object covering it, approaching within a certain distance of it, or manipulating the object that holds it. For glyphs inscribed within an object, the most common triggers are opening the object, approaching within a certain distance of it, or seeing or reading the glyph.
The spellcaster can refine the trigger even further if they choose by creating special conditions concerning the caster, time of day, or other factors that affect whether or not the spell is activated. For example, the spell might only be triggered under certain circumstances or according to a creature’s physical characteristics (such as height or weight) or physical kind (for example, the ward could be set to affect hags or shapechangers). The caster can also specify creatures that don’t trigger the glyph, such as those who say a certain password or those belonging to a certain type or wearing a certain color of clothing.
When the caster inscribes their glyph, they choose one of the options below to determine its effect. Once triggered, the glyph glows, filling a 60-foot-radius sphere with dim light for 10 minutes, after which time the spell ends. Each creature in the sphere when the glyph activates is targeted by its effect as is a creature that enters the sphere for the first time on a turn or ends its turn there.
- Death. Each target must make a Constitution saving throw, taking 10d10 necrotic damage on a failed save or half as much damage on a successful save.
- Discord. Each target must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, a target bickers and argues with other creatures for 1 minute. During this time, it is incapable of meaningful communication and has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.
- Fear. Each target must make a Wisdom saving throw and becomes frightened for 1 minute on a failed save. While frightened, the target drops whatever it is holding and must move at least 30 feet away from the glyph on each of its turns if able.
- Hopelessness. Each target must make a Charisma saving throw. On a failed save, the target is overwhelmed with despair for 1 minute. During this time, it can’t attack or target any creature with harmful abilities, spells, or other magical effects.
- Insanity. Each target must make an Intelligence saving throw. On a failed save, the target is driven insane for 1 minute. An insane creature can’t take actions, can’t understand what other creatures say, can’t read, and speaks only in gibberish. The GM controls its movement, which is erratic.
- Pain. Each target must make a Constitution saving throw and becomes incapacitated with excruciating pain for 1 minute on a failed save.
- Sleep. Each target must make a Wisdom saving throw and falls unconscious for 10 minutes on a failed save. A creature awakens if it takes damage or if someone uses an action to shake or slap it awake.
- Stunning. Each target must make a Wisdom saving throw and becomes stunned for 1 minute on a failed save.
What Is the Symbol Spell?
Symbol is a 7th-level Abjuration spell available to Bards, Clerics, and Wizards. The spell lets the caster inscribe a surface or the inside of an object (like a book) with a harmful magical effect and set the conditions for triggering it. When triggered, the spell affects all creatures within a 60-foot-radius sphere and can do a wide variety of things from putting affected creatures to sleep to driving them temporarily insane.
It’s the kind of spell that a powerful Wizard uses to guard their spellbook or a lich inscribes on the inside of their coffin. An especially powerful Bard may even use it to send an entire building to sleep. Spellcasters beware, however: Symbol is an indiscriminate spell, and with creatures within 60 feet in all directions being targets, it can easily catch the caster within its radius.
How To Use the Symbol Spell
A long cast time, indiscriminate effect, and large radius all conspire to ensure that Symbol isn’t much use in combat. Despite its devastating effects, the radius and potential for the spell to knock out the people who cast it mean that even if the cast time wasn’t an issue, the spell’s utility in a chaotic fight is limited.
So, how do you use Symbol effectively? There are better ways to damage large groups of enemies with high-level spells like Glyph of Warding or Delayed Blast Fireball, and spells like Mass Suggestion or Confusion can generally be relied upon to be better methods of crowd control or sowing chaos — heck, my preferred method for generally starting a ruckus is just to cast Summon Greater Demon and then go sit in that nice tavern down the road until the screams stop.
Still, there are two applications for which Symbol might be better than any other — one offensive and the other defensive.
Essentially, Symbol is meant to be used either as a trap or as a bomb. You can use it to protect your valuables, the entrance to your base, or anything else you don’t want people getting too close to that you don’t have time to guard yourself. Alternatively, you can plant this spell like a bomb and deal some serious damage (or some other debilitating effect) to a large number of enemies.
Cast the sleep or stun version of this spell to incapacitate intruders until you have a chance to return home and finish them off yourself, or use something like hopelessness to give your own guards an easier time.
Using Symbol as a bomb, however, might be one of the most effective ways of starting an encounter that I know of. Setting the trigger to be the final line of a threatening letter and leaving it for your enemies to find is an absolutely diabolical way to ensure you have the edge when a combat begins.
Obviously, if the object is moved more than 10 feet, the spell ends, which is a pretty irritating limitation. But this can be overcome easily enough with sufficient prep time and access to the intended battlefield beforehand.
Personally, I think this spell is especially effective on a battlefield as long as you make sure your own troops don’t go anywhere near it or have some form of exemption. Using it like an arcane land mine to take out anyone trying to cross a bridge, get through a castle’s gates, or charge over open ground should help tip the balance of any mass-combat encounter. Again, the long cast time, spell AoE, and indiscriminate nature of the effect mean you need time to prepare undisturbed beforehand, so Symbol is definitely a better defensive tool than an offensive one.
Which Symbol Effect Is Best?
None of the potential effects Symbol can have are bad, per se. However, there are some that are unquestionably more powerful than others or produce effects you can’t easily replicate with other spells.
Each target must make a Constitution saving throw, taking 10d10 necrotic damage on a failed sav, or half as much damage on a successful save.
With an average of about 55 necrotic damage (or 23 for creatures that fail their saves), you’re not going to end up killing anything outright with this effect. 7th-level spells are the province of high-level adventurers, and there aren’t a whole lot of enemies out there that high-level adventurers fight that are going to be taken out by this effect.
Still, the range of this spell means that — especially in a tightly packed building or dungeon where the number of creatures per square foot is high — you can potentially lay down an outrageous amount of damage across multiple enemies. Even on a flat plane like a battlefield, if you managed to trigger the Death Symbol (“Trigger the Death Symbol” is definitely the name of my metal band’s next album), you can catch dozens of enemies in a blast.
Even if you don’t kill an entire army, weakening an attacking force like that can effectively determine the outcome of a battle before it begins if the sides are evenly matched.
Each target must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, a target bickers and argues with other creatures for 1 minute. During this time, it is incapable of meaningful communication and has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.
While not the most effective form of crowd control, I would still consider firing this option off if I knew my enemy force comprised more than one faction or had some sort of preexisting internal strife. Then, I’d just have to hope that a kind and interesting dungeon master allowed the situation to blossom into a beautiful friendly fire incident while I sat back and watched.
Each target must make a Wisdom saving throw and becomes frightened for 1 minute on a failed save. While frightened, the target drops whatever it is holding and must move at least 30 feet away from the glyph on each of its turns if able.
Not bad for gaining some distance or buying time while you finish a ritual or defeat the enemies that remain. Most creatures will be forced to move a minimum of 300 feet in 10 turns, which can do a lot to give you breathing room.
However, this is quite a situational and reactive option, and the spell’s relatively cumbersome setup means it would be hard to recognize the situation where the Fear Symbol would be most effective and then deploy it in time to be useful.
Each target must make a Charisma saving throw. On a failed save, the target is overwhelmed with despair for 1 minute. During this time, it can’t attack or target any creature with harmful abilities, spells, or other magical effects.
A better version of the Fear Symbol that renders your enemies effectively defenseless for a whole 10 rounds while you get to completely go to town on them. One of the most powerful disabling spell effects in the game mostly because affected creatures don’t get to save once they’ve failed their throws. I cannot stress enough how much of an auto-win this can be.
Each target must make an Intelligence saving throw. On a failed save, the target is driven insane for 1 minute. An insane creature can’t take actions, can’t understand what other creatures say, can’t read, and speaks only in gibberish. The GM controls its movement, which is erratic.
An effective method of disabling some enemies and lets the DM in on the fun. Probably not the most consistent in terms of results, but Intelligence is a much less common Ability score to have Saving Throw proficiency in than some others on the table, and therefore it can be a great way to sow real discord and chaos in the enemy’s ranks.
Each target must make a Constitution saving throw and becomes incapacitated with excruciating pain for 1 minute on a failed save.
No actions or reactions for your enemies thanks to the incapacitated condition is good, but Constitution is a common save, and there are more debilitating options out there.
Each target must make a Wisdom saving throw and falls unconscious for 10 minutes on a failed save. A creature awakens if it takes damage or if someone uses an action to shake or slap it awake.
If you need to get one really good hit in, steal something without being seen, or escape undetected, total unconsciousness plus a 10-minute duration mean this is probably the best Symbol option to choose, assuming all goes well. It’s also the one whose effects are the most easily undone if even a few enemies pass their saving throws, so beware of the high risk and reward.
Each target must make a Wisdom saving throw and becomes stunned for 1 minute on a failed save.
Stuns are a powerful disabler ability and will almost certainly guarantee you win the fight if you catch enough powerful foes with this effect
Final Thoughts: A Spell for Every BBEG
Personally, I love villains who can cast spells. From Acererak and Vecna to Strahd, all the best bad guys are more than just a big bag of hit points with a multiattack. I like antagonists who can plan, prepare, and match wits with the PCs, not just trade claw and bite attacks.
Because it is versatile, is indiscriminate, and can inflict horrible effects on large groups of creatures, I would say that Symbol is a spell that belongs on every high-level BBEG spellcaster’s list. Honestly, even a lower-level villain could be made especially terrifying by having a magic item that lets them cast this one spell.
Being able to attack huge crowds of people (10d10 necrotic damage may not be enough to finish off a lot of monsters, but it will decimate crowds of ordinary humanoids) or drive them temporarily insane as cover for a heist is peak villainy. BBEGs are best when the PCs can really get into hating them, and an evil Wizard who sets off magical bombs as part of their reign of terror (or even as callous tools that form a smaller part of their larger plan) is going to inspire some real hatred.
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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.