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D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll and Steve Winter

Summoning creatures has long been a staple of the fantasy genre—and for good reason. In pulp fiction, when the mighty warrior finally tracks down and confronts his ultimate foe, in very many stories this turned out to be an evil wizard, one corrupted by magic, wizened, and physically weak—not exactly the fairest of fights. True, the wizard may still have had spells to cast. But for more dramatic flair, he often conjured some monstrous beast to fight in his stead—a more satisfying climactic fight for the hero and exactly the type of cowardly trick an evil wizard would employ.

In fantasy tales, summoning clearly helped show the abundant and practical applications of magic; add in the various themes as well of animal companions, familiars, and animated henchmen, and summoning abounds in everything from the animated broom of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, to Pretso's hat in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, to the various animals in Beastmaster (and who doesn't love a tiger spray painted black?). In fact, summoning otherworldly creatures and demons was the chief offensive power of wizards before Roger Corman and Gary Gygax armed them with fireballs and magic missiles.

The most horrifying summoned creatures of all may have been the mighty horses of Thamagorgos, Lord of the Abyss, from Clark Ashton Smith's story The Dark Eidolon (1935). The twelve monstrous steeds were summoned by the sorcerer Namirrha to trample the palace of Prince Zotulla beneath their iron hooves, out of revenge for the day when the prince's horse had knocked Namirrha to the ground. In the process, the entire city and its thousands of inhabitants were "trampled flat with a crashing as of worlds beaten into chaos" until all was reduced to "a shard-strewn midden" -- all but Namirrha's home, of course. But things didn’t turn out as planned, as they seldom do when dealing with gods and demons. Namirrha's cruel, lopsided vengeance offended another god, Thasaidon of the Seven Hells. Thasaidon granted the peace of oblivion to the slain Prince Zotulla but returned the confused and terrified Namirrha to his home before calling back the stallions of Thamagorgos "to trample down the one house they had spared aforetime."

Primal Power releases this month, and with it come further options for characters who summon nature's allies to their side. Druids can call upon everything from giant toads to fierce boars to savage tigers; shamans, who fight alongside spirit companions, now can choose new watcher and world speaker spirits. Considering the wide effects magic can produce in the game, there's little wonder that conjuring spirits and creatures (and other magical aid) has long been a component of D&D. And so, we take a brief look back at summoning magic through the editions … and how it now plays out in 4th Edition.

How to Summon Friends and Influence People

The basic mechanics of summoning creatures has changed little since its earliest inception in the game. When 1st Edition magic-users reached the 3rd level spell list, they hit a rich vein of options: fireball, lightning bolt, fly… and the following, the first spell in a powerful series:

Monster Summoning I
Within 1-4 rounds of casting this spell, the magic-user will cause the appearance of from 2-8 first level monsters (selected at random by the referee). These monsters will appear in the spot, within spell range, desired by the magic-user, and they will attack the spell user’s opponents to the best of their ability until he or she commands that attack cease, or the spell duration expires, or the monsters are slain. Note that if no opponent exists to fight, summoned monsters can, if communication is possible, and if they are physically capable, perform other services for the summoning magic-user.

As simply as that, a magic-user sent out a casting call and in no time, a number of monsters arrived ready to do his bidding. In 2nd Edition, the spell's available monster list and language remained virtually the same, except for the addition of the following, potentially humorous clause:

"In rare cases, adventurers have been known to disappear, summoned by powerful spellcasters using this spell. Those summoned recall all the details of their trip."

The obvious implication being that unlucky player characters could, without warning, find themselves summoned randomly to assist some panicked, unknown wizard who was cornered by a dragon and looking for something to distract it with while he slips out the side tunnel.

Aside from the help they provided, the real fun in casting these spells was the lottery result -- what monster would answer your call? The more powerful the spell, of course, the more powerful the monster:

Monster Summoning I
Dice Score Monster Summoned
01-10 Demon, manes
11-25 Goblin (Dwarf)
26-40 Hobgoblin (Elf)
41-55 Kobold (Halfling)
56-70 Orc (Gnome)
71-00 Rat, giant
Monster Summoning VII
Dice Score Monster Summoned
01-03 Chimera (couatl)
04-06 Demon, succubus
07-09 Demon, type I
10-12 Demon, type II
13-15 Demon, type III
16-18 Devil, barbed
19-21 Devil, bone
22-23 Devil, horned
24-26 Ettin
27-29 Giant, fire
30-32 Giant, frost
33-35 Giant, hill
36-38 Giant, stone
39-41 Gorgon
42-43 Groaning spirit
44-46 Hydra, 10 heads
47-49 Hydra, pyro-, 8 heads
50-52 Intellect devourer
53-55 Invisible stalker
56-58 Lamia
59-61 Lizard, fire
62-64 Mind flayer
65-67 Mummy
68-70 Naga, spirit
71-73 Neo-otyugh
74-76 Night hag
77-79 Roper (shedu)
80-82 Shambling mound
83-85 Slug, giant
86-88 Spectre
89-91 Sphinx, hieraco- (andro-)
92-94 Umber hulk
95-97 Will-o-wisp
98-00 Xorn

By 3rd Edition, summon monster remained the same in effect, though the list of available creatures had updated, as well as the fact that the caster now chose which specific creature he or she wished to answer the call.

1st Level Summon Monster

  • Celestial dog
  • Celestial owl
  • Celestial giant fire beetle
  • Celestial porpoise
  • Celestial badger
  • Celestial monkey
  • Fiendish dire rat
  • Fiendish raven
  • Fiendish monstrous centipede
  • Fiendish monstrous scorpion
  • Fiendish hawk
  • Fiendish monstrous spider
  • Fiendish octopus
  • Fiendish snake, small viper

9th Level Summon Monster

  • Couatl
  • Leonal (guardinal)
  • Celestial roc
  • Elemental, elder (any)
  • Slaad, green
  • Devil, barbed
  • Fiendish dire shark
  • Fiendish monstrous scorpion
  • Night hag
  • Bebilith (demon)
  • Fiendish monstrous spider, colossal
  • Hezrou (demon)

Variations on a Theme

Of course, what possible help is a giant rat going to provide in the Elemental Plane of Water? Depending on the environment, 1st Edition DMs could choose which creatures made the best sense to appear; in water, separate charts allowed for everything from giant crabs, octopi, and squid, not to mention nixies and tritons. Conversely, 3rd Edition's summon monster could be abused by summoning an aquatic animal, such as a celestial orca whale, into a non-aquatic environment—in order to block off a 10-foot-wide corridor, for example (the 3.5 PHB later did amend this loophole).

While magic-users could summon monsters, other classes summoned all manner of allies. Clerics, for example, conjured animals (from baboons up to mammoths). Druids called woodland beings, including treants and unicorns, but they had a saving throw to avoid being summoned. Illusionists could create quasi-real monsters (with 20-60% of the real monster's hit points).

Gaining Allies by Other Means

2nd Edition codified such wizard spells into the conjuration/summoning school and for priests into the summoning sphere. Additional spells included such options as summoning elementals, aerial servants, invisible stalkers, and Mordenkainen's faithful hound. Gate created an interdimensional connection between other planes of existence (with a 100% chance of something stepping through—ideally, it would be the specific entity called upon, but that wasn't guaranteed). Clerics might also use animate dead to transform the aftermath of a battle into a fresh contingent of zombies and skeletons.

Then there were the sidekicks—a wizard had his familiar (a list now rather greatly expanded on), a druid his animal companion, and a paladin his warhorse—originally available only once every ten years a long interval for a creature that, while keeping the flavor of a medieval cavalier, proved troublesome at best and largely useless most of the time in almost every dungeon excursion. "Summoned" creatures might conceivably be stretched to include those henchmen, hirelings, and followers more prevalent in early editions; especially those who appeared as characters achieved higher levels, such as fighters attracting a body of men-at-arms, and assassins employing guild members.

Finally, summoning (or at least using) creatures has long been achieved beyond spells and class features through the use of magic items: potions of control, rings of command, wands of conjuration. Magical bowls, braziers, stones, and censors summoned the appropriate elemental (water, fire, earth, and air), figurines of wondrous power transformed into useful critters (just ask Drizzt), and bags of tricks once brought forth various animals, from skunks and badgers, up to tigers (4th Edition bags now advance these creatures to monsters as well: behemoths, gorgons, and basilisks).

Iron flasks represented magic devices used in folktales and pulp stories that trapped the souls or physical bodies of some unwilling creature, as Solomon trapped the genies. Found in earlier editions, a newly discovered flask might be found containing some monster that—once loosened—might obey, but only if the command word was known. Otherwise, the hapless owner unleashed an upset djinni, rakshasha, or xorn upon his own party.

In the spirit of summoning creatures, we present an updated look at iron flasks—liberally cribbing the mechanics and minion statistics from the existing bags of holding and figurines of wondrous power (thanks to R&D's Chris Sims for help with this one). If you have ideas for your versions of iron flasks (or further figurines of wondrous power for that matter; current figurines only reach 12th level, so what might greater versions offer?), send your ideas to, or continue this discussion on our profile page.

Iron Flasks

These special containers are specifically attuned to capturing, holding, and calling forth a creature that has an origin other than natural. Most iron flasks are attuned to a specific non-natural origin, and they are usually found closed with a creature already trapped within.

Iron Flask, Elemental
Level 9
This small, iron flask is inlaid with runes of silver and stoppered by a brass plug, containing a creature that can be forced to fight for you.
Wondrous Item 4,200 gp
Power (Daily Teleportation): Standard Action. Make an attack against a bloodied elemental creature of 9th level or lower. Ranged 5; +12 vs. Will; the target is teleported inside and trapped within the flask, where it can take no actions (save ends). On a successful save, the creature reappears in an unoccupied space adjacent or as close as possible to you. After two failed saving throws, the creature is permanently trapped within the flask until the flask’s owner calls it forth or releases it (see below). The flask can hold only one such creature at a time. When you trap a creature, change the creature’s statistics; it has:

Its normal senses.
No auras.
Medium or smaller size.
Its normal speed and movement modes.
Hit points equal to the flask’s level + 5 (regardless of how many it had when captured).
A normal basic attack that deals medium damage of the same type the creature normally deals (see DMG 42). The basic attack has no other effects.
No other special abilities or attacks.
Its normal alignment, languages, and ability scores.

Power (Daily Conjuration): Standard Action. You conjure forth the creature trapped in the flask, and it appears in an unoccupied space within 5 squares of you, which must be large enough to contain the creature without squeezing. As a free action, you can spend a healing surge when activating this item to give the creature temporary hit points equal to your healing surge value.

The conjured creature obeys only you, responding to commands spoken in any language, and it remains until the end of the encounter. The creature acts on the same initiative count as you. Every action it takes costs you a minor action (which you use to issue commands), and a conjured creature cannot exceed its normal allotment of actions (a standard, a move, and a minor action) during its turn. If you spend no minor actions on your turn to command the creature, it remains where it is without taking any actions on its turn.

A creature called forth in this way has no healing surges and cannot be healed, although it can gain and benefit from temporary hit points. When reduced to 0 hit points or dispelled, the conjured creature disappears, leaving the flask empty. At the end of the encounter, the creature does not willingly return to the flask. It must be recaptured. If you fail to recapture it, it disappears.

Example of a creature that might be called forth from this flask:

Iron Flask Xorn
Medium elemental magical beast (earth)
Initiative as conjurer Senses Perception +7; all-around vision, darkvision
HP 14; Bloodied 7
AC 23; Fortitude 24, Reflex 19, Will 20
Speed 5, burrow 5; see also earth glide
Melee Claw (standard; at-will)
+14 vs. AC; 2d6 + 5 damage.
Earth Glide
A xorn can burrow through solid stone as if it were loose earth.
Alignment Unaligned
Languages Common, Primordial
Str 20 (+9)
Dex 15 (+6)
Wis 17 (+7)
Con 22 (+10)
Int 12 (+5)
Cha 12 (+5)

Results from our last poll:

Have you ever gained possession of an artifact in your games?

  • Sadly, never: 55.9%
  • Yes, I quested after one specifically, and recovered it: 32.5%
  • Yes, I actually rolled form one randomly on the charts: 11.6%

About the Authors

It is possible that Bart Carroll is a relative of the beholder, for there are remarkable similarities between the two species. Bart dwells only at great depths of the ocean, floating slowly about, stalking prey. He has two huge crab-like pincers to seize its victims and a mouth full of small sharp teeth. His primary weapons, however, are his eyes. The author has a large central eye which emits a blinding flash of light to dazzle and stun those in its unless a saving throw versus death ray/poison is made. The author also has two smaller eyes on long stalks with which he is able to create an illusion; or, acting independently, the small eyes are able to cast hold person and hold monster spells respectively.

Steve Winter is a writer, game designer, and web producer living in the Seattle area. He's been involved with publishing D&D in one form or another since 1981. Tiny people and monsters made of plastic and lead are among his favorite obsessions.

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