[RPG] Is the “Bone of Animation” magic item in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Marvelous Magic unbalanced


I'm running the Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus adventure.

In a session 0 for one my PCs, they acquired a Bone of Animation, which is an item in Mordenkainen's Tome of Marvelous Magic (a pretty great list of magical items from DMsGuild). The description of the item reads:

Wondrous item, uncommon (requires attunement)

This item appears to be a regular human upper arm bone. While holding the bone you can use an action to speak the command word and turn the bone into a skeleton. The skeleton reverts to bone form after 1 hour or when it drops to 0 hit points.

The skeleton is friendly to you and your companions for the duration. Roll initiative for the skeleton, which has its own turns. It obeys any verbal commands that you issue to it (no action required by you). If you don't issue any commands to the skeleton, it defends itself from hostile creatures but otherwise takes no actions.

Once the bone is used, it can’t be used again until the next dawn.

So far, so good. This is a pretty cool item.

We're now approaching level 5, and my wizard is super excited to use animate dead after he levels up. The animate dead spell description says:

This spell creates an undead servant. […]

On each of your turns, you can use a bonus action to mentally command any creature you made with this spell if the creature is within 60 feet of you (if you control multiple creatures, you can command any or all of them at the same time, issuing the same command to each one). You decide what action the creature will take and where it will move during its next turn, or you can issue a general command, such as to guard a particular chamber or corridor. If you issue no commands, the creature only defends itself against hostile creatures. […]

The creature is under your control for 24 hours, after which it stops obeying any command you’ve given it. To maintain control of the creature for another 24 hours, you must cast this spell on the creature again before the current 24-hour period ends. This use of the spell reasserts your control over up to four creatures you have animated with this spell, rather than animating a new one.

By comparison to the animate dead spell, the Bone of Animation seems overpowered:

  • It does not require a spell slot to use
  • You can issue verbal commands without using an action

Whereas for animate dead:

  • You must expend a spell slot
  • You have to use a bonus action to command the creatures

The only downsides of the Bone of Animation is that you can use it only once per day, and the skeleton lasts for at most one hour. But in a typical adventuring day, there is probably only one combat encounter that would require pulling out all the stops — so neither of these downsides seems that impactful.

I do understand that animate dead scales well, and at higher casting levels you can start to control groups of undead. But it seems very off to me that animate dead requires a bonus action to command, whereas the Bone of Animation does not. Every similar item in the Tome of Marvelous Magic works the same way, so I assume it was a deliberate decision by the author(s).

The question I need an answer to:

I'm thinking of editing the Bone of Animation so that it also requires a bonus action to command. Without this, I anticipate my wizard asking me why he has to expend a bonus action when my other PC does not.

Does modifying the Bone of Animation in this way negatively impact gameplay or materially change the item's balance implications?

Best Answer

I believe part of the problem is is that you're making the wrong comparison.

Don't get hung up on the fact that it makes a skeleton. The verbiage is actually close to Conjure Animals:

The summoned creatures are friendly to you and your companions. Roll initiative for the summoned creatures as a group, which has its own turns. They obey any verbal commands that you issue to them (no action required by you). If you don't issue any commands to them, they defend themselves from hostile creatures, but otherwise take no actions.

In that case, let's look at the stats:

Conjure Animals:

  • Can summon eight CR 1/4 animals
  • Lasts one hour max
  • Takes Concentration
  • Uses a spell slot
  • Can be used while the caster has 3rd level spell slots and above

Bone of Animation:

  • Can summon one CR 1/4 skeleton
  • Lasts one hour max
  • Does not need Concentration
  • Does not need a spell slot (But does require attunement)
  • Can be used once per day

So the big differences are quantity, Concentration, and number of uses.

Spell slots are finite, but are not completely limiting. Attunement slots on the other hand are; you get three per character and that's it. Based on level, the character probably already has at least one attunement slot used up if not two. That means the item is fighting for a precious resource.

Concentration is nothing to sneeze at either. That can greatly hamper a full caster (someone most likely to be using the Conjure Animals spell). But on the other hand, you get eight people to act as meat shields vs one calcium shield.

Which means quantity of animals would generally beat out a single skeleton. This puts the magic item on par with a single-use 3rd-level spell. Since the characters are nearing 5th level, that's when your Druids would be able to pick up the near equivalent spell. However it becomes available to any class that has a spare attunement slot. But it's not completely unbalanced based on level.

As a DM, I'd hold off until 6th level, just so the Druids have their glory.

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