The Player’s Handbook gives a wide variety of cantrips, with each class having at least a few that end up being an adventurer’s go-to spell. But sometimes it’s worth looking beyond those lists to browse the offerings in rules expansions, campaign settings, and adventures on the chance you might find a new favorite.
For this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into one such offering from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the cantrip Toll the Dead. Who casts it, what does it do, and – most of all – is it a spell worth keeping in mind when you’re putting together your personal list?
What is Toll the Dead?
A completely new spell for D&D 5E, Toll the Dead doesn’t appear in any prior version, though it could be said to have a spiritual predecessor in 3rd Edition’s Death Knell, even though the spell effects are substantially different.
The stats of the spell are as follows:
School: Necromancy Cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Classes: Cleric, Warlock, Wizard, Bard
The caster selects one creature within range which he can see. When the spell is cast, the sound of a mournful bell fills the air, and the target must make a Wisdom save or take 1d8 necrotic damage. If the target has already taken damage from another source – in other words, if they are not at full HP – they take 1d12 necrotic damage instead. This damage scales with level, adding a d8/d12 at 5th, 11th, and 17th level.
This cantrip is an addition to the cleric, warlock, and wizard lists, making it available to a broad range of classes. And of course, bards can access it through the Magical Secrets class feature.
As it’s a ranged attack with necrotic damage, it can draw comparisons to a similar 4th level spell, 5E’s Blight, though obviously with much less damage (though Toll the Dead’s Wisdom save will generally be more favorable to the caster than Blight’s Constitution save). And Toll the Dead can do damage round after round, without burning a spell slot.
Toll the Dead Ambiguities
Sometimes the real trick of a spell isn’t in what the description says, but what it doesn’t. How the vague parts are interpreted can often make a big difference in how the spell can be applied, and how successful it can be in the right circumstances.
For instance, while the spell says the “sound of a dolorous bell fills the air”, it’s unclear whether this is an illusory effect only the target perceives, or a physical sound that can be heard by all – a question with big implications for stealth. And there’s the question of volume – what does “fill the air” mean, in raw decibels? Likewise, whether the target has to be able to hear the bell, or be able to hear at all, is not specified – though since spells like Vicious Mockery do specify this, the most likely interpretation is that they do not.
This might seem like nitpicky rules-lawyering, but these sorts of interpretations can completely transform a spell, and impact how and when it’s best used or not used. The DM will always have final say on such questions, so if you have some kind of magical trick-shot in mind based on a particular interpretation of the spell, it’s best to get a ruling beforehand.
How does Toll the Dead 5e stack up?
So how does Toll the Dead compare to the base list of cantrips for each class? Let’s take a look at the side-by-side of the most promising alternatives to see where Toll the Dead stands.
Clerics have only one cantrip on their base list that lets them deal damage – Sacred Flame. So, does Toll the Dead make a more appealing substitute? Let’s look at the numbers of Sacred Flame vs Toll the Dead.
The ranges of the two spells are the same – 60 feet. Both spells target a “creature that you can see”, which cuts out the chance to target invisible or otherwise hidden foes.
The basic damage for both spells is 1d8, though Toll the Dead does get an edge here for dealing 1d12 if the target has already taken damage. The important distinction here is the type – radiant damage for Sacred Flame, necrotic for Toll the Dead.
Resistance to radiant damage isn’t all that common, especially not for player characters who, being generally heroes, are going to be fighting undead and other creatures of the evil variety. Meanwhile, if you’re the kind of person who counts up this sort of thing, you’ll find that about five times as many creature types have resistance to necrotic damage, and a sizable number are outright immune to it. Necrotic is actually the 4th most common damage resistance in the game (excluding non-magical weapon damage).
So, beyond the raw hit point damage and looking in pure terms of “how often is this going to actually hurt something”, you’re more likely to hit a target with resistance to your damage if you’re casting Toll the Dead than if you’re slinging Sacred Flame.
On the other hand, a target can avoid all damage from Sacred Flame with a Dexterity save, while for Toll the Dead they need a Wisdom save. So, again, if you’re inclined to dive deeply into the numbers, the average bonus on creatures’ Dex saves is just above that of Wisdom, meaning creatures will tend to make the save vs Sacred Flame a little more often. Still, it’s not much, and not enough to edge out the advantage of radiant damage over necrotic.
Warlocks have a few options for damaging cantrips with range: Chill Touch, Eldritch Blast, and Poison Spray. Let’s look at each one of them vs Toll the Dead.
Chill Touch and Eldritch Blast both have double the range of Toll the Dead – 120 feet – which is quite an advantage. Poison Spray’s range is a meager 10 feet, about as close as you can get without being in melee (unless your opponent has a weapon with Reach). Additionally, Chill Touch and Eldritch Blast both have targets of “a creature in range” rather than specifying “a creature you can see within range”, making them potentially more useful on concealed or invisible opponents.
In terms of damage, Chill Touch lines up with Toll the Dead’s d8 base, and while it can’t flex to d12, it does have its own interesting effects. For one, the target can’t regain hit points until the start of the caster’s next turn – cutting off the target from healing for an entire round, a little trick that could make a big difference in combat. And for an even better bonus, hitting an undead target with Chill Touch gives it disadvantage on attacks against you until the end of your next turn.
Eldritch Blast does 1d10, splitting the difference between Toll the Dead’s d8 and d12 possibilities – and not hinging on a saving throw. Poison Spray’s d12 damage, on the other hand, is a match for Toll the Dead’s max.
However, as with Sacred Flame, the damage type matters heavily. Chill Touch does the same necrotic damage as Toll the Dead, so that would normally be a wash – but the ability to give disadvantage to undead targets (the ones most likely to be resistant if not immune to necrotic damage) – gives Chill Touch a slight edge.
Poison Spray is dismal here – while resistance to poison damage isn’t as common as resistance to necrotic, outright immunity to poison is staggeringly common. There are almost as many creature types immune to poison as there are resistant to cold, fire, and lightning damage (the most common three) combined. That’s a hard strike against this cantrip, and given its tiny range, it’s pretty much a dud.
Eldritch Blast, on the other hand, deals force damage, and resistance to force damage is ridiculously rare – as uncommon as resistance to radiant damage is, it’s over three times as common as resistance to force. That means that d10 damage is pretty much always going to be a d10.
And one final note are the saving throws; Poison Spray requires the target fail a CON save (the most favorable saving throw for monsters in general, and statistically quite a bit more likely to be made than Toll the Dead’s Wisdom save). But neither Chill Touch nor Eldritch Blast offer saving throws at all – they’re both ranged spell attack rolls.
The math of whether attack rolls or saving throws work out better for the caster has a lot of variables, but in general you can lean safely into attack rolls as the better choice. The only serious exception being constructs, who tend to be stronger in AC and they will be on saving throws. Beyond that, though, attack-roll spells like Eldritch Blast and Chill Touch win the day.
The warlock’s verdict: Chill Touch and Eldritch Blast both stomp Toll the Dead on range, are a match or better on damage, and have the advantage of being attack-roll spells. But Eldritch Blast, being force damage, is going to be more universally useful.
Wizards have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to damaging cantrips – Acid Splash, Chill Touch, Fire Bolt, Poison Spray, Ray of Frost, and Shocking Grasp. Chill Touch and Poison Spray have been covered already for the warlock, so we can dispose of them here. And while Shocking Grasp is a damage cantrip, it’s basically just a melee attack for 1d8 lightning damage, and out of its class competing with ranged cantrips like Toll the Dead and the others, so let’s leave it out as well.
Fire Bolt has a range of 120 feet, twice that of Toll the Dead, while Acid Splash and Ray of Frost both match its 60’ range. While Acid Splash specifies the target is a creature you can see, Ray of Frost and Fire Bolt do not (and additionally, Fire Bolt can target objects as well as creatures, making it more versatile for when you’re looking to destroy a what instead of a who).
Damage-wise, Fire Bolt does 1d10, while Ray of Frost does 1d8 and Acid Splash a mere 1d6. However, Acid Splash can target two creatures instead of just one (if they are within 5 feet of each other), which offsets that low damage die just a bit.
Unsurprisingly, Fire Bolt does fire damage, Ray of Frost hits with cold damage and Acid Splash delivers acid damage. Cold is the single most-resisted type of damage in the game, even counting non-magical weapons. Fire comes in just below those two. Acid Splash has the edge here, with a fairly uncommon resistance – not as good as radiant, but better than the other types. Ray of Frost does have the bonus effect of slowing the target’s movement by 10 until the start of the caster’s next turn, which is nice when that’s of real use – though how often is that?
And finally, both Fire Bolt and Ray of Frost are attack-roll spells, while Acid Splash calls for a Dexterity save – which again, is slightly worse odds than Toll the Dead’s Wisdom save, but not by much. All in all, Acid Splash is probably tied with Toll the Dead, while the other two rank higher (Fire Bolt probably being the top, all things considered).
As mentioned, bards could technically acquire Toll the Dead through the Magical Secrets class feature. With only one ranged-damage cantrip, Viscous Mockery, on their base list, is it worthwhile to learn?
Reviewing the basics – Vicious Mockery has the same 60-foot range (though with the added restriction that the target must be able to hear the bard, which could easily become a weak point), and the same Wisdom saving throw. The damage is much less – only 1d4, though it’s psychic damage to which resistance is almost as rare as it is to radiant.
That’s still very meager damage, though, and it makes Toll the Dead the clear winner of the two – and Toll the Dead’s musical theme fits right in with the bard’s aesthetic. But that said, when a bard can choose cantrips or spells from any list, it’s not clear why they would spend one of those slots on the Toll the Dead cantrip versus some of the other ones mentioned – or versus more powerful leveled spells, for that matter.
More than the Math
Of course, this kind of dry analysis isn’t the full story of any spell. Entire books could be written dissecting the statistical averages of damage, resistance, and success ratios, but that has nothing to do with the reality of what’s happening on your tabletop or online platform.
You know what setting your character is in, where they’re going and what they’re likely to meet. That X number of creature types have resistance to a certain type of damage is a meaningless stat if you never meet them or meet them much less often than others.
You also know better than anyone how a particular spell balances with your party’s other abilities and spells – or if it doesn’t balance at all. Maybe Toll the Dead, whatever its shortcomings versus another cantrip on paper, may be exactly what you need.
This calculus can also change based on how the ambiguities of the spell are interpreted. If, for instance, your DM decides that the bell is only heard by the target, that could make it a magical attack that’s not only stealthy (to everyone but the target), but if you’re harassing an encampment of particularly superstitious enemies and staying hidden, Toll the Dead could have an outsized effect as a psychological weapon (“this land is cursed!”).
In the end, any spell can be a good spell if you use it in the right way at the right time. It’s never a universal truth that spell A is always better than spell B. It’s a blend of flavor, strategy, circumstance, and who knows what other variables that make any spell worth casting.
Toll the Dead 5e FAQ
When cast, the spell causes the sound of a mournful bell to fill the air. A selected target the caster can see within range then must make a Wisdom save, or they take 1d8 necrotic damage. If the target has already taken damage (i.e., not at full hit points), they take 1d12 instead.
Toll the Dead causes a target within 60’ (which the caster can see) to make a Wisdom save or take 1d8 necrotic damage (1d12 if they are not at full HP). The spell description notes that the sound of a mournful bell fills the air when the spell is cast.
As Toll the Dead has a verbal component, it cannot be cast if the caster is within the area of effect of silence. As to whether it will have an effect if the target is within an area of silence, the rules are less clear. However, since other spells, such as Vicious Mockery, specify that the target must be able to hear the caster while Toll the Dead only requires the target be seen, it’s reasonable that the bell is a magical effect not requiring physical hearing (thus not effected by silence) or that hearing it isn’t necessary to be affected by it. As always, the DM will make the ruling on this.
The 3rd level spell Sending can possibly contact the dead, with some caveats. Of course, the dead person or creature in question would have to be familiar to you, but dead beings that have successfully moved on are not usually considered “creatures” in the typical sense, so while you could contact a ghost or spirit that was haunting a location, reaching out to dearly departed Uncle Radmir may not be viable. But since the spell carries a 5% chance of success for beings on “other planes”, the DM could always rule that the afterlife meets that definition and let you give it a shot, perhaps with special penalties of some kind.