Grease. It feels a bit modern for a sorcerous spell. Perhaps a spell like this is better suited for the sort of wizard that’s airbrushed onto the side of an Econoline van, rather than a wizard that embarks upon dangerous dungeon delves. Or a bard that sings like John Travolta. Nevertheless, grease is a spell that I’ve seen get precious little use in fifth edition D&D, whereas it was a staple spell for wizards and sorcerers alike in D&D games I played in earlier editions. What was grease like back then? What changed? And how can you use grease to its fullest potential in your fifth edition D&D games?
Improvising with Grease
Grease is the kind of spell that thrives when a Dungeon Master allows their players to use their knowledge of real-world physics to their advantage. This may seem distasteful if advocate for strict adherence to the rules, since requires going beyond the strict “rules as written” of D&D, but I assure you that your games will be more memorable if you supplement the rules with your own interpretations. For example, one of my all-time favorite gaming moments was when I created an encounter with a hydra in third edition D&D. The hydra loomed atop a steep stone wall that the characters would have to climb in order to continue through the dungeon, all while contending with the hydra’s snapping jaws and its serpentine necks twisting down around them.
My players managed to circumvent this encounter in a way that I’ll never forget; the wizard cast dimension door to whisk the party to the top of the cliff—behind the hydra—and initiative was rolled. The hydra advanced on the party and got a few quick hits in, but the sorcerer quickly retaliated with a grease spell, cast right underneath the hydra. As the beast struggled to find its footing, the fighter and ranger bull rushed the monster, tackling it like a pair of linebackers, and sliding the staggering hydra across the greased cave floor like a hockey puck. The warriors skidded to a halt and the edge of the cliff, and the mighty hydra careened off the cliff, roaring and snapping, and tumbled to the ground below. The beast lived, but it couldn’t scale the cliff, and the party exchanged congratulations and continued through the dungeon content in a job well done.
Third Edition (v3.5)
The thing is, the current iteration of grease is pretty limited compared to versions of old. I first saw grease used in third edition D&D; let’s compare the two iterations of the spells side to side. The full spell text of the 3.5 version of grease can be found in the v3.5 SRD. Let’s break them both down.
This covers the technical details of the spell, like range, who can cast it, what level the spell is, and so forth. We’ll summarize these, rather than spelling them all out. They’re essentially the same, except that the spell is exclusive to wizards in fifth edition, and it’s available to bards, sorcerers, and wizards in third edition. I have no idea what prompted this change; it seems better suited to bards than wizards, in my opinion. Notably, the target of the spell can also be an object in third edition, whereas it can only target a 10-foot squre in fifth edition. More on this later.
In both third and fifth edition, the main function of grease is to cause a 10-foot by 10-foot patch of ground to become incredibly slippery, and any creature that enters the patch of ground must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw (or, in third edition, a Reflex save) or fall prone, and the ground becomes hard to walk through. In fifth edition, any creature that enters the area or ends its turn there must make the saving throw; likewise, in third edition, a creature in the grease makes this save on the caster’s turn.
The above distinction seems minute, but the way fifth edition handles creatures entering the grease is actually a clever condensation of an additional effect included in third edition. There, in order to walk through the spell’s space at all (even at half speed), a creature must make a DC 10 Balance check—essentially, a DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. On a failure, the creature can’t move, and if the check fails by 5 or more, it falls prone again.
I was initially confused by the change, but I actually think fifth edition’s version is simpler, more elegant, and more powerful. Third edition potentially allows you to completely lock a creature in place with this feature, but in order to do so, it has to fail a pitifully easy DC 10 ability check. Fifth edition’s version of this effect forces another saving throw, which is almost guaranteed to have a higher DC. Even though it doesn’t completely immobilize the creature, slipping and falling again forces the creature to spend half its movement to stand again, which is nearly as powerful.
Grease has a secondary effect in third edition that isn’t replicated at all in fifth edition: the ability to grease an object, rather than an area, making the object slippery and hard to handle. An unattended object is always successfully greased, but you can also target an object held by a creature, granting the creature the chance to make a successful Reflex save to avoid the effect. On a failure, though, the creature fumbles the item and drops it at its feet. Likewise, a creature that tries to pick the greased item back up has to succeed on this save to pick it up again, and must continue attempting the save any time it tries to use the item. Likewise, a creature wearing greased armor has a +10 bonus to escape grapples and resist being grappled. Incredible!
I love this effect, and I’m at a loss as to why it wasn’t replicated in fifth edition. Perhaps the logistics of the spell were deemed a bit too complicated to include in a 1st-level spell?
Using Grease as a Player
For reasons I can’t quite place, grease hasn’t found a place in the spellbooks of most fifth edition wizards. Perhaps being able to grease the hilt of a hobgoblin’s sword or an archmage’s arcane focus was such an important element of the spell that, without it, grease is consigned to languish in obscurity. If you want to add grease to your spellbook, you should know the strengths and weaknesses of this simple-but-effective battlefield control spell.
The Limitations of Grease
While grease has immense power when wielded correctly, it also has some serious limitations that can make it difficult to use it to its full potential. Here are some drawbacks to be aware of when considering learning or preparing grease, all of which are situational disadvantages that mean you have to do some research and reconnaissance before preparing grease on any given adventuring day.
- Wide-open Areas. Without advantageous terrain, it can be difficult to use grease effectively, since enemy combatants can simply walk around the greased area.
- Land Only. Similarly, this spell has no real use when you aren’t on the ground, such as when you’re swimming or flying. This isn’t usually an issue, but with Ghosts of Saltmarsh ushering in a host of new aquatic campaigns, it’s worth considering how much use you’ll actually get out of a spell that only works on land.
- Enemy Movement. Grease has no effect on creatures that can fly over it, burrow under it, or climb around it, and it likewise has no effect on incorporeal creatures.
- No Upcasting. Unfortunately, grease’s power doesn’t increase when cast with a spell slot of higher than 1st level. Though its effect is still useful, it would be nice if the spell’s area of effect were increased when cast at a higher level.
The Strengths of Grease
With all that in mind, what are the strengths of grease? Obviously, the spell’s straightforward effects are useful; causing an enemy to fall prone and making a specific area difficult to move through has immense benefits in both fight-to-the-death melees, and in scenarios where you are pursued, such as in thrilling escape sequences or fights where you have to play keep-away with a MacGuffin. But what goes on beyond that?
- Any Movement Activates. Some effects in D&D only activate when a creature moves into a space of its own volition, such as opportunity attacks. Grease, however, makes no such distinction. If an ally takes the Shove action or pushes an enemy into your grease patch with thunderwave or the Repelling Blast warlock invocation, your foe still needs to make a saving throw.
- Mighty in Restrictive Space. As a counterpoint to an earlier weakness, grease excels when used in restrictive environments—and conveniently, most dungeon corridors are exactly 10 feet wide, just wide enough to be completely coated in grease. This makes grease a prime spell for proactively setting an ambush, or for reactively fleeing from an overpowered foe.
- No Concentration Required. A staggering number of spells with ongoing effects require concentration, meaning that lots of spells are vying for that precious concentration slot. Fortunately, grease isn’t one of them. You can cast it, and then keep using other spells like cause fear or Tasha’s hideous laughter to harry your foes, or even use fog cloud in conjunction with grease to make a hard-to-see trap.
- No Size Restriction. Part of what makes grease so enduring and powerful, even for a 1st-level spell, is that even the largest and most powerful creatures in the Multiverse are affected by it—so long as they walk on the ground. Imagine slipping the mighty tarrasque with a well-placed patch of grease, like slipping King Kong with a banana peel.
Adjudicating Grease as a DM
Let’s return to fifth edition. If you’re DMing a game of fifth edition D&D and one of your players casts grease, what can you do? Like other movement-restricting spells like entangle or web, to goal of grease is to make it difficult for the adventurers’ enemies to navigate the battlefield. Fortunately, the effects of this spell are fairly straightforward and easy to understand with a cursory read of the spell text. Just be sure you notice that the spell has three points at which it can force a creature to make a saving throw:
- If the creature is in the spell’s area at the moment of its casting
- If the creature enters the spell’s area at any time (even on another creature’s turn)
- If the creature ends its own turn in the grease (but not at the end of other creature’s turns)
Also, if you have an evil spellcaster using grease against the heroic adventurers, all of the advice in the player section above applies to you, as well. You even have something of an advantage in this scenario, since you can set up all the terrain to give a benefit to your grease-wielding magical maniac, give the evil wizard allies with attacks that push or take advantage of prone targets (like Sneak Attacking spies or assassins, or burrowing bulettes ready to burst from the earth and snap up a prone character.
If you’re using grease a lot in your D&D game, also consider adding the final clause of the third edition version of grease to the spell (modified to fit fifth edition rules), to give it a bit more utility:
The spell can also be used to create a greasy coating on an item. Instead of affecting an area, you can target an object you can see within range. If a creature is holding the object, it must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or drop it. On a successful save, the object is unaffected by the spell. An unattended object is automatically affected. A creature that attempts to pick up or use a greased item must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or drop it. Finally, a creature wearing greased clothing or armor has advantage on ability checks made to escape from a grapple.
Have you used grease in your games? What fun stories do you have about this spell? Let us know in the comments!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.