Toll The Dead: 5e Mechanics & Guide to Using the Spell

Cantrips make the worlds of D&D go round. Without them, our casters would get to cast a few spells a day, and would have to spend so much more energy rationing their spell slots. You know, kind of like some older editions of D&D. 

I’m glad 5e has cantrips, and such a wide variety at that. Today, we’re going to be talking about a cantrip that dishes out some serious damage. What is this spell that could go toe to toe with Eldritch Blast? 

Dawn your dark clothes and call for the undertaker, it’s time to Toll the Dead.

Toll the Dead

  • Casting Time: 1 action
  • Range: 60 feet
  • Duration: Instantaneous
  • School: Necromancy
  • Class: Cleric, Warlock, Wizard
  • Level: Cantrip
  • Damage/Effect: Necrotic
  • Attack/Save: Wis Save, 1d8 or 1d12
  • Components: V, S

Spell Description

You point at one creature you can see within range, and the sound of a dolorous bell fills the air around it for a moment. The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or take 1d8 necrotic damage. If the target is missing any of its hit points, it instead takes 1d12 necrotic damage.

At Higher Levels. The spell’s damage increases by one die when you reach 5th level (2d8 or 2d12), 11th level (3d8 or 3d12), and 17th level (4d8 or 4d12).

What Is Toll the Dead?

Toll the dead is a weird spell. Etymologically, not mechanically.

Mechanically, this is a straightforward cantrip that deals a lot of necrotic damage on a failed dex save and even more if your target has less than their maximum hit points. 

This spell has the highest single target damage output of any cantrip.

Eldritch blast and fire bolt already get a bad rep for being ridiculous d10-damage-dealing cantrips, and toll the dead puts them to shame.

The only thing that keeps this from making the other two inviable is that this is based on a saving throw, which means you have no chance of doing critical hit damage.

Now you might be thinking that this can also use a d8 as its damage die. Sure, you’re technically right, but this spell is hardly ever going to make you pick up a d8.

I mean, think about it, creatures take damage. That’s kind of the whole point of combat.

You might have to use the d8 once in each combat, but after that it’s nothing but dodecahedron rolling from here on out. The fact that it’s necrotic damage is a nice touch.

There aren’t too many creatures that are resistant or immune to necrotic damage. The ones that are will mostly be undead, but that just gives you a nice group of creatures to avoid with this spell.

Honestly, even then, only about half of all published undead creatures actually have resistance to this deadly damage type. 

The other thing we have to consider with this spell is the wisdom saving throw. Wisdom isn’t often the highest stat for enemies you’ll come across, but it typically isn’t going to be the lowest either.

Honestly, it’s a pretty safe bet as far as saving throws go, with the chances that a creature will fail being pretty average until about CR 15.

After CR 15, most creatures tend to either have an amazing or abysmal wisdom score, so this is definitely an example of a spell that gets better with age.

So all together, this is a cantrip that’s typically going to be dealing some amount of d12 to creatures most of the time. That’s definitely a good spell in my book.

Toll the Dead Origins

I can’t be the only one who thinks this sounds like a spell that specifically targets undead creatures right?

Typically, toll refers to a cost needing to be paid, so the thought of Charon charging a toll for dead to cross the river Styx comes to mind.

This spell is clearly referring to the sound of church bells, which toll for funerals. That much is made apparent in the spell description.

Then it seems kind of strange that this isn’t a thunder-damage spell relating to sound or even a psychic damage spell since it targets someone’s mind.

Well, while this spell wasn’t present before 5e, there is a spell with a similar name in 3e.

Death Knell was a spell that attempted to kill a dying creature and would provide you with some temporary hit points. It was definitely a bit of a complicated spell, but I think we can see some similarities.

Firstly, a “death knell” is described as the tolling of a bell at a funeral, so the names mean essentially the same thing. Second, both of these spells become stronger when a creature is closer to death. 

While Toll the Dead might seem like a very confusingly named spell, it seems as if it took heavy inspiration from an older spell and that the changes made might’ve just seemed more natural in the design process.

Without that knowledge, this just seems like a spell that should do something entirely different.

When To Cast Toll the Dead

Honestly, this is such a good damage-dealing spell that you can basically just cast whenever you want to dish out some damage. Obviously, bonus points if the creature you’re attacking has taken some damage already.

Looking at this spell, we know that we’re dealing with damage on a failed wisdom save. For a caster that might have other spells with wisdom saves, this works as a nice little test.

There’s no way to know for sure that if they fail this wisdom save they’ll fail the next one, but you can still use this to make an educated guess.

This is a cantrip after all; you can use this many times, and it might even be your main damage dealer. Using it as a way to prod at your enemies and prepare for an even larger spell is a great strategy. 

Naturally, this works well with some other necromancy spells like Bestow Curse and Cause Fear. In fact, this combination is really impressive.

If you spend your first turn putting a curse on a creature and choosing wisdom as the saving throw they have disadvantage on, then you now have an excellent way to continuously barrage them with the deadly bell noise.

Of course, you also have the dominate spells further down the line.

These incredibly powerful wisdom-saving-throw spells aren’t something you’ll want to burn through if you’re not reasonably sure that a creature is going to fail their save.

So letting off a few tolls to test the waters is only reasonable. Plus it comes at no cost to you other than your action.

Then of course, there’s the obvious part of this spell – using it when a creature has already taken damage.

The only time this should be a complicated decision is when you’re first up in the initiative order. In that case, you should have an arsenal of other spells to either deal damage, buff your party up for battle, or weaken your foes. 

If you come after anyone that’s dealt damage to an enemy, you have your target. With a range of 60 feet, you don’t have to worry about your placement virtually at all. You can be as far from the action as you want while just dropping bombs on your enemies. 

Who Should Take Toll the Dead?

A spell that’s available to wizards, clerics, and warlocks definitely has a lot of potential. Certainly, this is a great option for any caster.

Realistically, since this is only a cantrip, this can function as a staple for a damage dealer or as the small aggressive backbone of a more utilitarian healer.

A cantrip this powerful doesn’t require a lot of justification to be tacked on to a spell list. If you want to deal any damage at any point, this works excellently.

Some casters prefer to choose between attack-roll spells and saving-throw spells, so those focused on making attack rolls will want to leave this be.

Cantrips tend to function as go-to spells. If you already have eldritch blast or fire bolt, then you might forget about toll the dead.

Of course, toll the dead might become the primary, in which case either of those other two would feel wasted. 

The point is, you want to make sure you’re getting as much value as possible out of your cantrips.

It makes sense to have some variety, but that variety should be more focused on different types of effects – not just different types of damage. 

Grabbing a couple damage-dealing cantrips isn’t the end of the world though. If you do grab another on top of toll the dead, you’ll want to make sure it’s based on an attack roll, which will give you some variety in whom you’re able to hit.


Best subclass(es): Arcana, Death

Clerics don’t have to be resigned to the role of healer, but even if they are, they can still grab up this spell for some fun.

The general class doesn’t have many abilities to support this cantrip, but there is the variant feature, Blessed Strikes, which can allow you to deal an extra 1d8 of radiant damage on top of a damage-dealing cantrip. 

The arcana cleric has a nice 8th-level ability that allows you to add your wisdom modifier to your damage-dealing cantrips, which by then will be a sweet bonus.

The subclass also comes with two extra cantrips off of the wizard spell list, which means you can get some serious diversity in your free casting.

Death clerics, masters of necromancy, fit this spell wonderfully.

This is made abundantly clear with their 1st-level ability Reaper, which allows your necromancy cantrips that normally only target one creature to target a second creature within 5 feet of the first.

Now you have a cantrip that can potentially dish out 24 damage at only 1st level!

Not to mention, this grim cleric subclass starts to ignore resistance to necrotic damage at 6th level. 


Best subclass(es): N/A

Now, warlock isn’t a bad class to take this cantrip in, but it’s not necessarily a great class either.

So much of the warlock’s eldritch invocations are focused on improving Eldritch Blast that almost nothing focuses on actually making any of your other cantrips any stronger.


Best subclass(es): Evocation

An evocation wizard gets the Potent Cantrip at 6th level, which is going to allow your damage-dealing cantrips to do half damage on a failed save.

This will dramatically improve the effectiveness of your toll the dead, especially since you don’t have to worry about the added effects clause. 

There are also some niche uses for other subclasses. One of my favorites is the graviturgy wizard, which can move a creature 5 feet whenever you target them with a spell and they fail the save.

Now you have a fun way to interact with the battlefield state a little more creativity. 

Toll the Dead Feats

Magic Initiate

Toll the dead is an amazing candidate for the magic initiate feat, especially when we look at the classes that have it available.

Since this is on the spell lists of wizards, warlocks, and clerics, we can choose its casting ability as either intelligence, charisma, or wisdom. 

This means that if you’re going to pick from any of these three classes’ spell lists, you can just consider this a free grab. 

War Caster

Any martial combatant will tell you how amazing opportunity attacks are. So why shouldn’t you be able to use your spells when provoked?

Well, with this feat you can! War caster lets you react with spells rather than weapon attacks, and toll the dead fits the requirements perfectly.

Not to mention, this feat is going to give you advantage on constitution saves to hold your concentration, so other spells you have running like Bestow Curse or Dominate Monster will be a lot easier to maintain.

Overall Thoughts

Toll the dead is a great cantrip – one that you’ll be happy to have in your list ready to go. 

It’s going to dish out some serious damage, and if you pair it with the right class abilities, it’s only going to become more impressive from there.

Now all you have to do is remember that this spell has nothing to do with undead creatures, and you’re on your way to being a powerful caster.

I hope this article has helped you realize your necromantic fantasies, and as always, happy adventuring.