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.
The spell’s damage increases by one die when you reach 5th level (2d8 or 2(112), 11th level (3d8 or 3d12), and 17th level (4d8 or 4d12).
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
School: Necromancy cantrip
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, pg. 169
Toll the Dead 5e
Toll the Dead — one of the best cantrips to come out with DnD 5e’s first expansion, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. It packs a wallop against already-injured baddies through some sort of sonic-necrotic waves and offers consistent damage from the early game right up until your 20th level.
We’ll cover the trickier parts of the spell, as well as its strengths, applications, and comparisons to other tempting cantrips. And some flavor stuff for dungeon masters who don’t know exactly how to describe the spell’s effects.
Who Can Cast Toll the Dead in 5e?
The following classes have Toll the Dead on their spell list:
No subclasses get Toll the Dead for free.
What Does Toll the Dead Do in 5e?
Toll the Dead forces a creature you can see within 60 feet to make a Wisdom saving throw. The spell save DC is equal to 8 + caster’s proficiency bonus + caster’s spellcasting modifier (ties go to the defender; or, more accurately, the roller).
If the target passes the saving throw, they take no damage, making Toll the Dead a “save-or-suck” spell. If they fail the save and have full hit points, they take 1d8 (4.5 average) necrotic damage. If they fail the save and are missing any hit points, they instead take 1d12 (6.5 average) necrotic damage.
Toll the Dead scales the way most damaging cantrips do — at 5th, 11th, and 17th level, you add one additional die (d8 or d12) to your damage roll.
As for what Toll the Dead “does,” it creates the sound of “dolorous” (sorrowful, distressing) bells that somehow mentally damage the enemy’s brain/spirit/life force (however you interpret a failed Wisdom saving throw).
The fact that it does extra damage to creatures that have already sustained damage along with the name suggests that these bells remind the creature of the grave/their mortality and/or it worsens whatever wounds they already have, speeding along the normal process of decay. More in DM tips below.
What Are the Rules for Toll the Dead in 5e?
The rules for Toll the Dead in DnD 5e are as follows:
Toll the Dead’s sound travels as far as a normal bell would. Mike Mearls confirmed that “unless specified, consider sounds…generated by a spell or effect to be the equivalent of a mundane source.”
That still leaves things a bit unclear, but at least we know for sure that the sound of bells isn’t limited to the target’s mind — real sound is being produced, and enemies that are in the direct vicinity will almost certainly notice the sound.
An injured enemy still has to fail a saving throw in order to take damage. The spell’s wording is a bit confusing, but a targeted creature makes a Wisdom saving throw regardless of whether it’s missing any hitpoints; only the damage is changed. Here’s confirmation on Sage Advice.
Toll the Dead upcast scales with character level, not class level. Confirmed in the Sage Advice Compendium and by Jeremy Crawford. So if you multiclass into a caster with Toll the Dead, you only need 1 level in it to get a cantrip that’s damage scales to your character level.
Toll the Dead still works on Deafened creatures. Just because Toll the Dead mentions the bell, and just because the bell makes a real sound, it doesn’t mean that the sound is the cause of the damage. The sound is simply the flavor text, and you can imagine the sound waves themselves as the damaging element of the spell.
If you’re not convinced, consider a spell like Vicious Mockery, which explicitly states that the target needs to hear the spell in order for it to work. The general rule to follow with all spells in Dungeons and Dragons is “spells only do what they say, nothing more.”
Evocation Wizard’s Overchannel does not benefit Toll the Dead. Confirmed in Player’s Handbook Errata and later printings of the PHB.
How Do I Use Toll the Dead in 5e?
Toll the Dead is a fairly straightforward damaging cantrip that relies on a Wisdom saving throw. That said, here are some ways to optimize your use of the spell:
Be a Death Domain Cleric. Death Domain Clerics (DMG 96) get a ridiculously awesome feature at first level, Reaper, that allows them to learn one necromancy cantrip for free (boom, Toll the Dead). More importantly, it allows the Cleric to target two creatures with necromancy cantrips that normally only target one creature, as long as they’re within 5 feet of each other.
Two is better than one, so Toll the Dead is better for Death Domain Clerics. AND THEN, at 6th level, Inescapable Destruction allows the cleric to ignore necrotic resistances (not as big a deal as Reaper, but still a nice bonus).
Or an Evocation Wizard. Wizards in the School of Evocation (PHB 117) also get a nice Toll the Dead perk. At 6th level, Potent Cantrip allows the Wizard to deal half damage with a saving throw-based cantrip even if the target passes the saving throw.
This ensures that you never waste your turn when you cast Toll the Dead, as you’ll always deal some damage with it. Unfortunately, Overchannel (the 14th-level Evocation Wizard feature that allows for a spell to automatically deal maximum damage) does not work with cantrips.
Target injured enemies. No brainer here — Toll the Dead does +2 average damage (per upcast level) to creatures that are already missing some hit points. Target those creatures, do more damage.
Use on creatures with low Wisdom. Kobolds, Zombies, Skeletons, Goblins, some dumb Ogres/Trolls/Giants, etc. — you don’t have to memorize a list to imagine which creatures aren’t likey to be “wise.”
The average Wisdom score for monsters in the Monster Manual is 12 (+1 modifier), so you don’t often have to worry about insurmountable odds either way. (credit to Reddit user Fontanapink for their awesome spreadsheet.)
Pair with Bane. If you’re a Cleric, use Bane early on and then cast Toll the Dead on whoever fails the saving throw for Bane. Those creatures will have -1d4 (2.5 average) on their saving throws, meaning Toll the Dead will land that much more easily.
Pick up a spell attack cantrip as well. Any experienced Dungeons and Dragons spell caster will tell you it’s smart to have a mix of spell attacks and spells that rely on saving throws. If your enemy has a high Armor Class, you use your saving throw-based spells; if they have high Wisdom (or whatever save your spell forces), use the spell attack instead.
Who Can I Target With Toll the Dead 5e?
You can target any creature within 60 feet that you can see with Toll the Dead. However, 11 creatures in the Monster Manual are immune to necrotic damage, and another 11 are resistant to it.
Things like banshees, death knights, liches, ghosts, helmed horrors, mummies, revenants, shadows, specters, and wraiths are immune to necrotic damage. Creatures like shadow demons, draco liches, shadow dragons, flameskulls, ghasts, vampires, wights, and will-o’-wisps are resistant to it.
Zombies and skeletons, however, are fine to target with necrotic spells like Toll the Dead. Sadly, no creatures in the Monster Manual are vulnerable to necrotic damage, so you aren’t too likely to get free bonus damage on this cantrip.
Is Toll the Dead 5e a Good Spell?
Yes, Toll the Dead is a good spell. In terms of straight-up damage, Toll the Dead beats out almost every damaging cantrip (except Poison Spray) when it hits an already-damaged creature.
Necrotic damage isn’t all that common a resistance or immunity, so you don’t often have to worry about that. Wisdom saving throws aren’t too bad to overcome, and if you are facing high-Wisdom enemies, that’s what your ranged spell attack cantrip is for.
Toll the Dead’s 60-foot range is in line with most other damaging cantrips. Even if it does lag behind the 120-foot range of cantrips like Fire Bolt, Eldritch Blast, and Chill Touch, there aren’t many encounters where those extra 60 feet are going to matter.
Toll the Dead 5e Compared to Other Damaging Cantrips
So is it worth it to take Toll the Dead? Let’s break it down by the classes that have access to it:
Sacred Flame. Sacred Flame deals an average of 4.5 radiant damage, has a 60-foot range, and forces a Dexterity save that can’t benefit from cover. That last part is Sacred Flame’s claim to fame — and it kind of sucks. Toll the Dead doesn’t worry about partial cover at all, since creatures don’t get a boost to their Wisdom saving throw from cover, only Dexterity.
Unless you think you’ll be blasting lots of radiant-vulnerable and/or Dexterity-deficient baddies, Toll the Dead is better. (The average Dexterity score for creatures in the Monster Manual is 13, compared to Wisdom’s 12 — another point for Toll the Dead).
Word of Radiance. Xanathar’s came with another tempting cantrip in Word of Radiance, which deals an average of 3.5 radiant damage to all enemies within 5 feet of the caster upon a failed Consitution saving throw.
Word of Radiance is great if you’re rolling a Cleric who likes to get in the thick of things, but Toll the Dead is just easier to use in most situations.
Eldritch Blast. Eldritch Blast is great. Take Eldritch Blast as your ranged spell attack cantrip and Toll the Dead as your saving throw cantrip — can’t really go wrong with that combo.
But if you’re trying to use your cantrips for utility spells rather than damage, it’s probably better to take Eldritch Blast over Toll the Dead. Even adding one Eldritch Invocation to improve Eldritch Blast’s potency will likely make it scale better than Toll the Dead can.
Fire Bolt. Fire Bolt is the vanilla ranged spell attack for Wizards — a no-nonsense, 5.5 average fire damage cantrip with a 120-foot range. Oh, and it can target objects (unlike Eldritch Blast) and set things aflame. Fire is a more common resistance/vulnerability than necrotic, but this fact is overhyped, as it’s concentrated in a few small categories of creatures.
Overall, Fire Bolt/Toll the Dead is a great combo for any Wizard to have as their damaging cantrips.
Frostbite. Frostbite deals an average of 3.5 cold damage on a failed save and gives the target disadvantage on their next weapon attack roll before the end of its next turn — if it fails a Constitution saving throw. Frostbite offers great utility, but Constitution tends to be a more common high stat for monsters (average of 15, +2 modifier for creatures in the Monster Manual).
Take Frostbite if you want to help reduce the damage your party takes while getting in a bit of damage.
Poison Spray. Poison Spray has a short 10-foot range, forces a Consitution save, and deals an average of 6.5 poison damage. Poison is the most common resistance/immunity in the game, which does hurt this spell’s utility a lot. It might be the highest-damage cantrip in the PHB, but we like Toll the Dead better than Poison Spray in most cases.
Create Bonfire. Another Xanathar’s cantrip, Create Bonfire is a fun spell that forces a Dexterity save and deals an average of 4.5 fire damage on a fail. It also creates a real fire, offering decent battlefield control. If you like this playstyle or you’re planning on building your party around tactics like this, Create Bonfire can be super satisfying (plus there’s the roleplaying potential).
But pound for pound, Toll the Dead is a better damaging cantrip. Plus Create Bonfire requires concentration — yuck.
Chill Touch. Chill Touch is a very good option — a 120-foot range, 4.5 average necrotic damage ranged spell attack that prevents health regeneration for a whole round of combat on a hit. If you’re going up against creatures that heal or regenerate, you’ll definitely want at least one caster with Chill Touch in your group.
The biggest problem with Chill Touch is that it’s also necrotic damage, making it a somewhat bad choice for picking as your ranged spell attack if Toll the Dead is your saving throw-based cantrip. But still, necrotic resistances/immunities aren’t common enough to make it that big a factor in your decision — taking both spells is perfectly acceptable.
Bonus points: your character will be a super-thematic necromancer if you go this route.
For Warlocks and Wizards:
Toll the Dead 5e DM Tips
So, how exactly are you supposed to describe Toll the Dead’s damaging effect? Does it rattle the resolve of those who hear its mournful tones as they consider their own imminent demise? Does their skin slough off their body as the necrotic waves of sonic rot vibrate through their being?
It’s up to you and the player casting it. You can give your best description at the table and see how your player likes it, or let them/help them develop their own cool flavor for the spell. Some might favor the sonic element, while others are more interested in the flesh-rotting potential of these bells.
On the practical side, we did leave DMs with an unanswered question above: how far does Toll the Dead’s sound travel? It’s up to you how far the sound of a tolling bell travels and whether the acoustics of the space affect that answer.
We don’t recommend making it a huge radius like Thunderwave’s 300-foot range or so small that it’s more like a butler’s bell than a death knell. Realistically, the sound of a bell ringing is probably no louder than the sound of a swordfight or a fireball exploding.
Simple Toll the Dead 5e Spell Text
Toll the Dead: (cantrip, 60 feet, V/S) Force a creature in range to make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failure, it takes 1d8 necrotic damage or 1d12 necrotic damage if the creature is missing any hit points. | +1 die at 5th, 11th, and 17th level