TLDR: Rather than try to “fix 5e Spell Scrolls” just don’t use them. You can get the same effect, and frankly have more fun, with custom scrolls and all sorts of other trinkets that create the same opportunity to turn mundane encounters into memorable ones.
I recently saw some discussion online about house ruling scrolls in D&D 5E. Folks were looking for ways to make scrolls more accessible to non-spellcasters and maybe more common at their table. Creative and unexpected use of magic items is always welcome at my table so exploring ways to get more scrolls into players’ hands sounds like a fun time.
First, let’s look at scrolls themselves. Scrolls are usually pieces of parchment on which a spell has been stored in written form. In the Rules As Written, scrolls are described as a category of consumable magic item that can be used by anyone that can read the language written on the scroll (DMG p139). As with all rules in D&D, more specific rules such as those within an item description can override this rule. Fair enough.
Strangely, there are only two items on the DMG magic item list classified as scrolls: the Scroll of Protection and the Spell Scroll. The Spell Scroll is the only scroll in the Basic Rules at all. The Scroll of Protection works as described on page 139 but the description of the Spell Scroll overrides the page 139 rule by stating that the item can only be used by classes that would otherwise know the spell inscribed on the parchment. Hey now.
While there are lots of different variations on the lore behind scrolls, D&D 5E states that scrolls are “spells stored in written form”. They are physical manifestations of a spell already cast. When a scroll is created the arcane or spiritual power channeled by a spellcaster is woven into written words on parchment. Later, when the scroll is read, the power of the spell is released from the parchment and the full effect of the original spell is released.
So how much knowledge of the original spell does the user of a scroll need to have? I suppose it is not unreasonable to expect that the user/reader need to have some foundational knowledge to effectively access the magic embedded in the parchment, but that expectation seriously limits the usefulness of scrolls. Again, it’s strange that the most ubiquitous examples of scrolls in D&D are WAY less useful and interesting than they could be.
There are evidently a lot of house rules on this topic and, at first, I was tempted to follow suit. What might I change at my table to make scrolls more useful and more exciting for the party? Frankly, I think the simplest house rule is to just ignore the restrictions placed on Spell Scrolls. But as I wrote this article I realized that house rules aren’t required here. I agree that Spell Scrolls in D&D 5E are boring but I don’t think they need fixing. Just don’t use them! Use scrolls and other single-use items instead.
Umm. Did he just say don’t use Spell Scrolls, use scrolls instead? Yup. Spell Scrolls (notice the capital letters… I am referring to a specific magic item here, not the category of magic items called scrolls) can only be used by casters. But scrolls (lower case) can be used by anyone. So instead of giving the fighter a Spell Scroll with fireball written on it, give them a scroll called Scroll of Fireball. It’s an easy solution and still within RAW (yes, you need a simple homebrew magic item, but no house rule required).
Relics are more fun than scrolls anyway
That said, I still don’t use many scrolls. I like rewarding my party with consumables of wondrous power because, time and time again, creative use of consumables makes for a great gaming session. I want to encourage that as much as I can. Scrolls and potions are intended to do the heavy lifting here, but I actually think it is more fun to use other forms of single-use magic items. Sly Flourish’s Single-use Magic Items are my go-to.
Single-use magic items work like scrolls but don’t have the class limitations of Spell Scrolls. Anyone can push a button or speak a command word to release the magical effect. A ruby that is warm to the touch and explodes into a 3rd level fireball when thrown at a target is way more interesting than that Scroll of Fireball I recommended above. As a single-use item, the ruby could even have an interesting backstory while the scroll just feels like an extra spell slot. Of course, as a DM you are free to introduce any prerequisites to an item’s use that makes sense for your game. I think the Fireball Ruby would explode no matter who throws it, but perhaps only creatures of fey descent can activate the Twig of Invisibility.
For more ideas on single-use magic items, head over to Sly Flourish’s 2015 post on the subject, Relics: Single-use D&D 5E Magic Items. I find them way more interesting than scrolls and, because they are really homebrew and don’t require house rules, they are easy to introduce into your game.
I love building characters and leveling them up. Doesn’t everyone really? 🙂 Pouring over new class abilities, feats, and spell selections in anticipation of your next level is a great way to keep playing between sessions. How cool would it be if, in addition to players leveling up their characters, the whole group had the opportunity to level up as a party? After all, this band of adventurers is spending a lot of time together. What does it look like as they learn about each other’s talents and start finding synergies that work well? Would it be possible to find new elements of play that compliment individual character journeys while emphasizing the team dynamic?
Where is the Party?
The D&D party is one of the defining characteristics of the game. The interplay between players and their characters is at the heart of role-playing, exploration, and combat at the table. Some of the game’s subsystems, like encounter planning, use the party in the underlying math of the game. And yet the only mechanical reference I’ve seen in D&D 5e to the adventuring party itself appears in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything in the form of Group Patrons. It’s a cool idea, but I think that the adventuring party deserves more!
Blades in the Dark formalizes the crew with mechanics of its own. I’m sure that there are other RPGs that do something similar. As I was writing my last post about Party Factions I realized that there was one major faction in the game that I wasn’t accounting for – the party itself! Now I’m wondering if the adventuring party should be its own game mechanic that looks a bit like a faction but is controlled by the players themselves.
The Adventuring Party
I would introduce the idea of the adventuring party during a session zero meeting. Ask the players how their group come together or if they are just meeting for the first time. How does the campaign world view this newly formed company of adventurers?
Are you a ragtag band of kids trying to survive on the streets of the city?
A band of brothers caught in the middle of a war?
Long-time friends displaced from home by a cataclysmic event?
Or maybe you are treasure hunters or mercenaries always looking for the next job.
Whatever it might be, the inspiration for the party is a statement about the type of game the players want to play just as the setting itself often reflects what type of game the DM wants to play. Obviously, it is best to align your party concept with the concept for the campaign overall.
The Party Sheet
The party sheet is much simpler than your character sheets but the intent is the same: capture the characteristics of the party that might be important to the game. I suggest that it has three sections:
Party background is a description of who the group of adventurers is in the world. Just like character backgrounds, we briefly describe where the group comes from and any characteristics they may have as a result of that experience.
Party reputation is a place to track their reputation score with the various factions in the world. See my article on party factions for more on that.
Party features are special traits and abilities that the party has while working together. These are similar to class features that each individual character has, but accessible to every member of the party. It is through party features that we can introduce the idea of the party growing as a team.
When your characters level up, so should the party. But what exactly happens when the party levels up? Where is the list of features, spells, and feats that we can pour over in between sessions?
Rather than introducing a whole new set of party stats or attributes, I propose that the players select a new party feature every time they level up their characters. The list of party features is created by the DM at the beginning of the campaign (ideally, with input from the players during session zero) and has more options than the players will be able to choose over the course of the campaign. If the party may get to level 20, I might start with 30 features to choose from. Every time the party unlocks a new feature on the list, the players should feel like they are reaping the rewards of working as a team.
NOTE: You might want to have the party advance more slowly by leveling only on odd character levels or even every 4 or 5 character levels.
Of course, there is some work that goes into creating a list of party features in the first place. I think it would be important to share the list with the players very early on in the campaign. That way they can look ahead and see how each choice they make might open up additional options down the road.
Some party features will have prerequisites that serve as gates for more powerful features in the list. Some might be selected more than once, getting more interesting and more powerful as the players gain more experience together. There might also be room on the list for a few secret party features that the DM only reveals to the players when certain events unfold in the campaign. If you combine this post with my post on factions you might find ways to integrate the party’s reputation as prerequisites for some party features.
To be inclusive of a wide variety play styles I recommend organizing the list of party features around the three pillars of D&D: role-playing, exploration, and combat. A group of true murder-hobos may invest heavily in only combat features while a more balanced group of role-players might choose party features from all three categories. Here are a bunch of generic adventuring party features that my friends and I came up with. Use them or create your own that are more specific to your campaign and party background.
You go first. At the beginning of each encounter any two party members can swap their initiative positions.
The one-two punch. Once per short rest, when two members of the party start a round flanking an enemy creature, the can both take their turn before the flanked enemy’s turn that round.
Look over here. Coordinated attacks confuse and overwhelm the enemy. Once per short rest, any party member can use the Help action as a bonus action. Each time you select this feature you get one additional use of the feature between short rests.
Eye in the Sky. When two party members are within 10 feet of each other and at least 30 feet from an enemy, one can use a spyglass and their Help action to range targets for the other wielding a ranged weapon. The next attack made with that weapon is made at advantage and ignores the effects of long-range and partial cover.
Martial magic conduit. Once per short rest, any spellcaster in the party that uses a spell attack can choose to target a melee weapon or piece of ammunition being held by another party member instead of a creature. The spell attack automatically hits. If the wielder of the targeted item hits an enemy with an attack with that item before the spellcaster’s next turn, the attack does both the normal weapon damage as well as any damage or effect from the spell.
Not getting through. When two or more party members are standing no more than their maximum reach apart the empty squares between them are impassable by enemies.
This guy is going down. Any party member can use 5 feet of movement to drop to their hands and knees behind a large or smaller humanoid creature. If another party member who is flanking the creature uses the Shove action against them before the creature’s next turn, the creature is automatically pushed to the square on the opposite side of the ally on their hands and knees. The creature is knocked prone and automatically fails any saving throw to catch themselves.
Incoming! Once per short rest, at any time during any party member’s turn, every other party member can use their reaction to move 5 feet. If you select this feature a second time party members can move up to half of their normal walking speed.
A force to be reckoned with. When the majority of the party is present and conscious and combat swings in their favor (see below), all enemies within 60 feet of a fallen enemy must make a Wisdom saving throw or become frightened of the party for 1 minute. Scenarios where this can be applied include (1) when an obvious enemy leader is defeated, (2) when more than half of all enemies have been defeated, or (3) when the party defeats more enemies than there are members of the party in the first round of combat.
Party critical. prerequisite: the party must already have the ‘A force to be reckoned with’ feature. When any member of the party scores a critical hit against an enemy creature the momentum of the battle begins to swing in the party’s direction. Each member of the party can score a critical hit on a roll of 19 or 20 for the rest of the encounter or until a member of the party rolls a natural 1 or an enemy scores a critical hit.
Minor Help. prerequisite: the party must already have the ‘Look over here’ feature. Party members can use a bonus action to distract a creature within their reach. If another party member attacks that creature before your next turn, the first attack roll gets a +2 bonus to hit. Characters that have the Extra Attack feature can substitute this ability for one of their attacks (but cannot also use their bonus action in this way during that turn).
Role-Playing / Social
Good guard / Bad guard. Once per long-rest, when two members of the party are engaged in a discussion alone with a single NPC that requires a Persuasion check, one character plays the good cop (Persuasion) while the other plays the bad cop (Intimidation). The highest of their two rolls is used against the NPC’s Insight to determine success.
Name drop. The party is always keeping an ear out for hints as to the power structure of local communities. Once per long-rest, if the party has spent at least 1 hour in a community of humanoids, any member of the party can use the name of one of the community members to influence an NPC interaction.
Cause a distraction. Once per week, any member of the party can spend one hour prepping a distraction that will attract the attention of a group of NPCs. Through a series of simple signals and timing, the party can coordinate the distraction from up to 1,000 feet away. The attempt automatically succeeds.
Watch my back. Countless hours in taverns and inns keeps you on your toes. When at least two members of the party can see each other in a public space, they cannot be surprised and have ADV on ability checks for Perception.
Without saying a word. Members of the party can communicate with each other without making a sound as long as their fingers are free and visible. Each time the party selects this feature they learn three non-verbal signals to represent a phrase, command, or warning.
Social Reconnaissance. When the party spends at least 6 hours split up in a humanoid community they will reliably learn key power players, threats, and at least one secret that most outsiders would never know.
Best inn class. When the party spends at least 1 hour in a humanoid community they can reliably identify a place to stay for the night that best meets of the following requirements: safest, most discreet, best reputation, most dangerous, or loosest lips.
Search the room. When the majority of the party spends 10 minutes turning over a room they automatically succeed any Investigation check to spot interesting items or characteristics of the room. They have advantage on ability checks for Perception to spot and avoid traps.
Loot the bodies. When the majority of the party is present and conscious at the end of a combat encounter, the party automatically finds any valuable or interesting items on the bodies of their slain adversaries. Additionally, they automatically spot any indications that their foes may have a nearby lair.
Standard door procedure. When the majority of the party is present at a closed door they have advantage on checks to surprise creatures on the other side of the door when it is opened. Party members must use their first action after opening the door in a prescribed manner determined when this party features is unlocked.
Expert climbers. When two or more party members attempt to climb a wall each rolls an ability check for every 10 feet climbed and the highest roll is used to determine the group’s progress. On a failure the party encounters a portion of wall that they cannot pass (but they do not fall).
Toss. Party members with above party average Strength scores can use an action to give a boost to any party member that weighs less than they do. The booster’s Strength score is added to the boosted’s jump distance when they move through the first character’s space on their next turn.
Synchronized Skills. Any two party members can both use the same Strength, Constitution or Dexterity ability check during consecutive turns of a skill challenge.
Overnight Watch. When the majority of the party is taking a long rest, they can take watch in a prescribed manner determined when this party feature is unlocked. When they do so, they have advantage on checks to avoid being surprised.
Overland Travel. Gain one of the following benefits when the majority of the party is traveling together each time you choose this party feature:
Navigation. The party cannot get lost as long as no external force is actively trying to take you off course.
Ease of passage. The party can travel through wilderness at the same speed as they can travel a well-maintained road.
Stealth. When the party is attempting to travel without attracting attention, use the highest ability check roll for Stealth among the party instead of a group skill check.
Supplies Scavenger. When the majority of the party travels together you can scavenge for supplies on the go. You are automatically able to find food and water each day to sustain the party.
Helping Hand. prerequisite: the party must already have the ‘synchronized skills’ feature. Once per long rest, when the majority of the party is engaged in a skill challenge, any party member can use their action to assist another. Both players roll the same ability check and the highest roll is used to determine success.
This is one of the bigger-in-scope ideas I’ve presented here and I am sure that it is not perfect. I’d love to get your feedback and I might revisit this subject next time I start a new campaign. In the meantime…
I love that 5e factions provide a somewhat structured way to manage character relationships with the many NPCs in a campaign. Managing those relationships across multiple characters and factions, however, is not a simple chore. I absolutely love weaving character backgrounds and story arcs together. I think factions are a great way to do that but I find myself wishing that factions were easier to manage and more meaningful for the players. Can we give factions a little TLC beyond Rules-As-Written to make them more fun? In this article I propose how and why you might run factions at the party level instead of for each individual character.
Background & Influences
Everyone loves when choices you make in role-playing video games have real impact on the story being told and the challenges you face. Mass Effect’s ally missions and Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system are great examples. These clever game mechanics make the games feel more open-ended than they actually are. Since video games borrow heavily from tabletop RPGs, why not borrow a few things back?
I want to build on RAW D&D factions in a way that gives characters more visibility to the connections they have with the campaign world. Just like the choices that players make when leveling up their characters, knowing how factions can help or hinder their goals gives them more opportunity to shape their story. There is lots more to say about running factions in your game (I love the idea of progress clocks, for example) but today I want to focus on how tracking renown for the party as a whole can really level up your players’ engagement with the campaign world.
What are (party) factions?
Just as described in the DMG, factions are groups of like-minded NPCs that have a presence in your world. Over the course of a campaign, player characters can build up their reputation (or earn renown as discussed in the DMG) to color how members of a faction might interact with them. Think of party factions simply as an extension of that idea but applied to the party as a whole rather than individual characters. Party factions may be highly organized and visible like those presented in the Forgotten Realms, more loosely organized groups, or even secret societies. No matter how big or small, both factions and party factions are a bit like individuals – they have a history, goals, allies, and sometimes enemies. There is a brief section in the DMG on creating factions and some examples. Let’s start from there but boil it down to essentials:
You might create a few factions for your campaign when you first introduce the world to your players. These are likely large, well-known factions like those in the DMG and other official WOTC content. But you should also add new factions as the game unfolds:
gangs fighting over territory in the city
powerful families playing at politics
rival guilds with deep pockets
a cult trying to convince a red dragon to become a dracolich
I actually think that factions can be simple and short-lived, requiring no more than a name and a few words describing its goal and leader. In fact, you probably already have factions in your game. Factions can be powerful narrators and quest givers. They also make great enemies. For example, a powerful NPC might actually be the leader of their own faction even if it isn’t outright named as such.
Renown vs. Reputation
In most campaigns it won’t be long before your party attracts the attention of a faction. The DMG uses renown to track these relationships on a 50 point scale. This is fine but seems a bit overkill to me. We do want to track the party’s relationship with each party faction but we will call this this the party’s reputation to differentiate it from renown. It is essentially the same thing, but uses an 11 point scale: -5 to +5. Most parties will start the campaign as unknowns and so their starting reputation with every faction is usually zero.
Each time the party has a significant interaction with a faction (completes an important task or quest for example) their reputation with the faction either increases or decreases, usually by one. It’s also possible for reputation with multiple allied or rival factions to change (though perhaps more slowly) as a result of a single interaction. For example, the more the party helps the city guard, the less the thieves’ guild will like them (or vice versa). Of course, any interaction with a faction can impact the party’s reputation. A great social skill check or skillful role-playing may earn the party points on the reputation scale. A personal endorsement from a powerful NPC may also increase the party’s reputation.
Once a party reaches +5 reputation, most factions will treat them as leaders and decision makers, likely exhibiting almost blind trust in the party. A king may take the party into his closest confidence and trust them above all others. A gang of sea dogs may officially confer upon the party the title of pirate lords and begin taking direct orders.
A party with a reputation of -5 has earned its place as a faction’s mortal enemies. Members of the faction will use whatever influence they have to see the party ruined or killed. In most cases, the party would have had to actively done something to act against the faction, foiling their plans or even killing important members, to earn this kind of active loathing.
Wait, another number to track? Aaargh! Isn’t being a DM hard enough? I can barely get my players to track wealth or encumbrance properly and don’t get me started about experience points! I know, I know, and I hear you. But give this a chance. Keep reading and decide for yourself whether tracking reputation is worth it. Oh, and don’t be a helicopter DM, have your party track this stuff for themselves.
Perks: Boons and Plot Devices
In the DMG, WOTC lays out how a faction might reward characters with ranks and perks as renown increases but only makes a few suggestions in other sourcebooks as to what those perks might be. In Out of the Abyss, Chapter 6, Battle for Blingdenstone, specific benefits are awarded to the party in the battle if they had previously completed tasks for the deep gnome factions. I like the specificity of that. It adds flavor and real mechanical party buffs for the coming encounter.
My party faction stat block ties these ideas together by connecting reputation score with tangible rewards that benefit the entire party. We want to be specific and let the players know in advance what rewards they can earn from each faction as their reputation increases. There may also be specific complications that will arise for the party if their reputation with certain factions falls too low. The more they know about how factions can help or hurt them, the more interested they may become in the faction.
+1 reputation with the local townsfolk earns the party free room and board at the local inn (no more tracking coppers and silvers for that!)
+2 reputation with the Gnomish Smith’s Guild unlocks access to purchase weapons and armor of Gnomish Steel (who doesn’t like weapon upgrades?)
+3 reputation with the Order of Keepers grants the party unrestricted access to the Great Library (more information, more secrets, more more more)
-2 reputation with the Wizards Enclave and the party will find themselves banned from the magical gates that connect the cities of the realm (oops. that might have come in handy)
You don’t have to have every reputation perk worked out when you first introduce a faction. As the party’s goals become apparent you can share with the players potential advantages that different factions have to offer. Now the players are in the driver’s seat as they decide on which factions might be most helpful in completing their ultimate goals. As they do so, it is VERY IMPORTANT that the party have more than one “good” and one “bad” faction to choose from. Why? Because choosing between one “good” and one “bad” option doesn’t actually feel like much of a choice. Most characters are heroes and most players will choose to support the obviously “good” faction. No real choice there. Make sure that the players know how at least two factions can help them and how two might hurt them down the road (more on that later). Three or more of each will almost guarantee more dramatic and exciting stories at your table.
Here’s an example from video games. Mass Effect is pretty transparent with its use of factions throughout the game. No spoilers here, but during most of the game you are preparing to confront some BBEG. You know you can’t do it alone, so you choose from a wide variety of side quests offered by companions to earn the respect of their underlying factions. You need a certain number of factions on your side before you can move on to confront the BBEG and you have six to choose from! You don’t have time to fully recruit them all and some aren’t exactly allies with each other. You have to make choices. There are no wrong choices but each choice has a meaningful impact on your game. The same thing could easily work in a D&D game and I think many players would love the crunchy mechanics of tracking their reputation over the course of the campaign.
Going after party faction perks already provides some pretty neat incentives for you players to choose their next quest or how they spend some downtime. It is also a great opportunity for your players to shape the middle and late tiers of play. As the party approaches major events in the campaign we want their interactions and reputation with various factions to carry even more meaning. How will their allies support them or their enemies attempt to stop them?
will the King’s Guard commit men to join your crusade against the ancient red dragon?
will the Midnight Blades have your back or be at your throat?
will the elves allow passage through the Sacred Grove to bypass the heavily guarded mountain pass?
I can think of a couple of ways you might do this:
First, by establishing story-specific perks when the party achieves a sufficiently high reputation score. Tie these to a major event or confrontation for which the party is preparing. For example, if the party earns a +4 reputation with the King’s Guard the garrison commander will send a squad of soldiers with the party when it is time to confront the ancient red dragon that has been plaguing the town. If they earn a +5, the high captain himself will allow the party to carry the last of the ancient dragon lances that he has secured within the Guard’s vaults.
But that’s just one faction and I said that you needed at least two but probably more! Imagine the party has three or five different factions with ways to help the party defeat the dragon. How might the elves help? Do the dwarves know a secret passage to the dragon’s lair? The Wizards’ Guild certainly has some helpful spell that they could transcribe to a scroll. These perks are just like the benefits laid out for Battle for Blingdenstone but the party should know about some or all of them in advance. They probably don’t have time to recruit every faction. They have to make choices. These are fun, meaningful choices that tells you, the DM, how the players would like to go after that dragon.
There is an even simpler approach that I think would work well for epic, save-the-world campaigns or story arcs that build to a single encounter climax (combat or otherwise). What if the party’s total reputation across a specific set of factions worked as a story trigger? What happens when the party earns +10 reputation across four or five factions? How will the party’s total reputation in the campaign shape world events?
Let’s say that the party is preparing to confront a BBEG and his armies. To field an army large enough to stand its ground while the party goes after the BBEG, they are going to need some help. The party has met six factions that could provide assistance. The players know that they need a total reputation score of 12 to trigger the endgame battle. This simple scoring track from 0 to 12 sets the stage for an open sandbox with well-known goals but lots of potential paths forward. Earning 12 reputation points with multiple factions is at least 12 quests, right? Will they invest most of their time earning +4 reputation with three factions or settle for +2 across all of them? The players’ faction choices will determine how this story will unfold. Their choices also tell you, the DM, what type of game they want to play.
As The WebDM points out, there are actually a ton of resources across WOTC sourcebooks that suggest how factions could play a larger part in your game. Unfortunately, WOTC’s presentation is a bit haphazard and spread out among many books. It needed a little help to become a meaningful part of my game. By refocusing factions on the whole party and being transparent about reputation rewards we give the players more say in what happens next and the characters more interesting choices to role-play.
Have fun out there.
An Example – The Merchant Guild
I feel like all of this is building toward an example. What might a lightweight faction stat block look like as I introduce it to the party? This example stat block is for a merchant faction that might fit into your campaign as is. T really make it shine add new, story-specific perks as the campaign unfolds.
Name: The Merchant Guild Description: Run by the richest and shrewdest traders in the land, the Merchant Guild uses the duties it collects from import/export caravans to keep shipping lanes and roads safe and their coffers full. Headquarters: Sea's Edge Leaders: Lord Garuk Tull, richest man in the Five Kingdoms Goals: To control the movement of all goods between major cities and nations Allied Factions: The Royal House Rival Factions: The Thieves Guild, The Sea Dogs Party Reputation: [ -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 (0) +1 +2 +3 +4 +5 ]
Generic Reputation Perks
Recognized as Guild Lords, the party are granted exclusive rights to a major trade route and all assets in the area
Raised to Guild Masters, the party can conscript major Guild assets and an increased stipend
The party is entitled to private audience with the Guild Lords who will do what they can to support the party’s cause provided it doesn’t impinge heavily on the goals of the Guild
Formally honored as Guild Agents, the party can conscript minor Guild assets and are entitled to a monthly stipend
The party is given unconditional use of a small Guild sailing vessel and crew of 3 and a map locating secret Guild locations.
Granted a Writ of Passage, the party can board any Guild vessel as a registered passenger, fees waived
Guild Agent Niko is responsible for documents and manifests related to local shipments and is willing to assist the party if he can.
The party is welcome to join caravans and are given priority boarding on Guild vessels
Harbor Master Surila knows just about everything that happens on the docks and she is willing to share some of that info with the party.
Local Guild officials recognize the party as troublemakers
The party’s likenesses are distributed among Guild leaders and the party will be charged double rates for passage on any Guild ship or caravan
Ship captains and caravan foremen are given instructions to report any sighting and deny all passage.
The guild will call upon allied factions to find and detain the party to account for misdeeds and wrongdoings that jeopardize commerce across the land
The guild secretly arrange for a contract to be placed for the capture or elimination of the party
I can’t say that I love the core spellcasting system in 5e, but I do like it. 5e spell slots are easily managed at the table and flexible enough to add flavor in just about any campaign setting. It’s true that part of me yearns for something more complex like the richer, more complex magic systems in fiction, but every time I start to write something up or read someone else’s interpretation on reddit, it never passes my house rules test:
Is it fun?
Is it simple?
Is it worth it?
My house rules are usually mechanical overrides to the core systems of the game, but sometimes they are simply statements about how we play the game. For spellcasting in 5e, I’ve tried to keep my proposed house rules to a short list.
First up is the identify spell. Here’s my change to the spell:
If it is a magic item or some other magic-imbued object, the DM describes for you a vision that gives you clues as to the object’s properties and how to use them, whether it requires attunement, and how many charges it has, if any.
Let’s compare this to Rules as Written (RAW) at the table, first RAW:
After defeating the goblins in the forest, the party finds a pair of fine leather boots in an old chest at the back of the goblin den. The wizard steps up with owl feather and pearl in hand, mutters a few words, and after 1 minute lo and behold these are Boots of Elvenkind (check them out on page 155 of the PHB).
The spell did what it was supposed to and now the caster has the info they wanted. It was also boring and (ironically) took the magic out of the moment of discovery. Here’s the same scene with my house rule:
The wizards steps up with owl feather and pearl in hand, muttering under her breath. She reaches out to touch the boots and the color in her eyes pales. She catches her breath as a vision comes to her: a lone elf wearing the same boots, moving silently through thick brush. These are Boots of Elvenkind.
The spell functions almost identically to RAW for regular magic items. The player still gets the info they wanted but I try to give them an additional bit of history that ties the item to our world or even to their quest. For story driven items or artifact-level magic items I always hold back some details or introduce a complication to the vision. Very powerful magic items have a tendency to reveal themselves to the players on their own schedule, not just because the wizard asked nicely.
The dragon lies dead in its lair and the exhausted party finally gazes at the ceremonial knife atop the central pedestal in the chamber. The wizard approaches with one hand in his pocket and the other extended to touch the artifact. Behind the wizard’s closed eyelids he sees a vision: the back of a priest in robes standing over a frail man stripped of his clothes on the flat stone of an altar. The naked man struggles against thick ropes that hold him in place. The priest raises the knife above his head and plunges it into the screaming man’s heart. The gem in the knife’s hilt glows red and the man’s blood rushes up the blade to be consumed by the gem. In just a moment, the man’s skin has turned grey and he stops moving. The priest pulls out the knife and the now dead man’s eyelids open suddenly revealing solid black eyes. The priest turns toward you. You recognize him. It is your benefactor, Lord Honrach.
This house rule gives the DM a powerful storytelling tool. Even common and uncommon items found on a band of roving goblins have a history and the vision that you describe for your players can instantly strengthen your party’s connection to the story and the world.
Bonus action casting times
At my table there is no restriction on spells cast in the same turn.
You can always use both your action and bonus action to cast on your turn, provided that you have the spell slots to do it.
I’m not sure why RAW places restrictions on casting both a full action spell and a bonus action spell in the same turn. Specifically, if you cast a spell with a bonus action, “you can’t cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action.”
The rule seems to protect against edge cases that aren’t game breaking without closing loopholes like a multi-classed fighter/magic-user casting two spells back to back with their Action Surge. With RAW you can cast a full action cantrip and a bonus action spell but cannot cast a full action spell with a bonus action cantrip? There are only two cantrips with bonus action casting times listed on D&D Beyond: magic stone and shillelagh. Neither of these give the spell caster an extra attack or otherwise mess with the action economy. So what exactly is the point of the restriction?
It feels overly complex, sucks the fun out of the spellcaster’s turn, and I don’t have time for that noise. 🙂
Spells with the ritual tag can be cast without expending a spell slot but it take 10 minutes longer than the normal casting time. I like that this allows spellcasters to showcase their talents more often in the exploration and role-playing parts of the game without worrying about the economy of spell slots. I add one caveat:
While casting a ritual, the spellcaster must remain stationary for the duration of the ritual or effect.
This small change does two things. First, it stops the less-than-scrupulous wizard from ritually casting identify on his recent acquisition while fleeing the rightful owners at a gallop.
Second, being stationary gives a small hint as to how those extra 10 minutes should be used. By asking my players what casting a ritual looks like I introduce another small opportunity for role playing something that might become common or mundane later in the game.
Add flavor to your spells
This one is less of a house rule and more like a piece of advice. For players out there that aren’t already doing this:
Spell descriptions are only suggestions and should be customized to match your vision of your character. Players are strongly encouraged to make each spell their own by describing it as you cast it.
Talk to your DM and take ownership of your spells! At my table I usually even let players reskin spells to cause a different type of damage. Playing a wizard from the freezing tundra and want to reskin fireball as iceburst? Go for it.
Spell points alternate rule
The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers an alternate spellcasting system (page 288) that uses spell points in the place of spell slots. I’ve seen players use both systems and each has their pros and cons. Spell slots are simpler to use but a bit less flexible. I always recommend new players start with spell slots.
Spell points are more difficult to manage but also more flexible – so much so that I think you end up with more powerful spellcasters in the hands of certain players. Veteran spellcasters that are OK with doing more math at the table will likely love using spell points.
Passing the test
Are they fun?
Yes, they introduce new content for the DM and players to interact with without nerfing character abilities.
Are they simple?
Yes, none of these rules introduce new rolls or any additional resources to track. In fact, in the case of bonus action spells, they simplify an overly complex rule in RAW.
Are they worth it?
Yes, these are minor mechanical changes but have great impact at the table and are easy to remember.
These make the cut on my short list of house rules for D&D 5e. What about yours?
Today I’d like to talk about a specific house rule at my table… the dying condition.
In D&D 5e when a character falls to zero hit points they fall unconscious, which is a named condition that is exactly what it sounds like. The character blacks out and the player just starts rolling death saving throws. Playing an unconscious character is pretty boring stuff. Worse yet, if their character does end up dying on the battlefield three turns after the killing blow, it is an anti-climactic moment to say the least. To be clear, I have no problem with the death save mechanic itself (I know some players don’t like it). I just think that the process of rolling them is boring.
Enter my house rule and a new condition called dying. Instead of dropping unconscious, when a character drops to zero hit points, they enter the dying condition.
This is nearly identical to the unconscious condition but for the two bullets in bold. First, a dying creature is still awake and able to speak.
A dying creature is incapacitated (see the condition) but is still aware of its surroundings and can speak.
Just like Rules As Written, the creature has lost their ability to take actions or move so attacks and spells are impossible but, because the character is still conscious, they can still turn the tide of battle from the sidelines:
“Tossed aside by the fearsome yeti, Kyrill can feel the warmth of his own blood trickling down the back of his neck but it is his cry of alarm that warns his sister Kayla of the winter wolf hiding in the tangled thicket on the other side of the clearing.”
“Maklak knows that he is close to death. He can feel it in his bones. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, but he knows that his life is inconsequential compared to the disaster that will befall his family if the orcs get through this pass. With a smile he shouts “hey you! yeah, I’m talking to you… come here and let me spit on you!”
Now the player has a reason to stay engaged. The ability to shout out a warning or even a cry for help seems a small change but has fun implications. A dying character’s time is short as each failed death saving throw moves them closer to death. They should have every opportunity to make the most of it.
If they do fail that last save, I don’t want to miss that opportunity for role-playing either. So let’s make those final moments more exciting by giving the character a dying action.
When a dying character fails their third death saving throw, they can immediately take any single action except the Dash action.
Just like in the movies, I want our heroes to have one last shot at a glorious ending. At a minimum they can speak a few last words… a bit of role-playing that may bring the character to a more meaningful end. By giving the player the option to take a dying action, they also have a chance to go out with a bang. No, casting a healing spell on yourself at this point does not stop you from dying. Similarly, using your dying action to misty step into a fountain of healing might teleport the character but they are dead on arrival. The dying action is a reaction to failing that last save and cannot alter its result. The DM may even rule that the character is dead before they see the result of their dying action.
As the dying character crosses death’s door, they can’t change the inevitable or run across the room, but they can go out in one last burst of glory.
“Hillibrand the Wise had a bad feeling about this trip and for once it seems his premonition was true… there were just too many of them. Vile creatures these gnolls, but if there are any survivors they will pay a heavy price for messing with Hillibrand today. He still has just enough energy for one spell and Hillibrand has been holding onto a particularly nasty incantation all day…”
“Corelios watched as his comrades stood against the onslaught of undead. He would likely soon stand among the unholy horde, but while there was still light in his world he would do what good he could. Extending his arm as far as he could he touched the shoulder of the fallen knight by his side and channeled into him what lifeforce he had left.”
“Markus only had the energy to draw his bowstring one last time and so he knocked the Arrow of Bh’agulzar that had been buzzing at him since he found it. The old hag had warned him against ever using it, but he knew it was now or never. The darkness took him as he let loose the bowstring and the shaft found its mark, banishing the dark druid forever.”
At my table, the dying condition gives players a bit more to do while they make death saving throws on their already short turn. Players can sway the course of battle by calling out but caution is advised as some enemies may choose to finish off the overly talkative wounded. While every player is hoping for that natural 20 that will get them back into the fight, they also have three rounds to consider how to make their character’s death a memorable one. Could this house rule radically change the outcome of a battle? Yes, and your players will remember it forever!
For the past few months, I’ve been using the D&D Beyond character sheet to run my Aasimar paladin in a friend’s online campaign. She’s awesome. She’s great. I love her.
I’ve also come to really like the online character sheet… frankly more than I thought I would. Especially with the addition of the dice roller and game log. It works. It works well. Being able to click on just about any number of the character sheet to roll some dice is just soooo convenient. There’s probably more to say on that… but for now, I wanted to post the workaround I needed to make that dice roller work in one more edge case – the paladin’s divine smite.
I’m sure it is in the devs’ backlog, but divine smite only shows up on the sheet as a class feature description, not a roll-able feature. I asked the question to the community for confirmation (as have others) and got a number of great recommended workarounds. I played with a few things and this is the one I landed on.
I’ve got a couple of sessions with the display under my belt now, which means I’ve spent a good amount of time learning how to prep for my digitally-enhanced game. After doing a bunch of research and experimentation Microsoft PowerPoint has become one of my go-to tools to drive the display. Why? How? Read on…
Last post I showed you my new digital gaming display… a simple rig that makes it easy to lay a 4K TV in the middle of the table when we play D&D. These are my first thoughts and some more detail on how it’s running so far.
As a technology enthusiast – computers are both my job and (one of) my passion(s) – I’ve experimented for years with the blending of digital and analog tools to both make my time at the table a bit easier and maximize the players’ experiences. I’m a strong believer that D&D is best played around a table as an analog game, but I’ve long used tools like Photoshop, OneNote and PowerPoint to create content for the table and organize my game. I think I’m ready to take the next step… a leap of faith and an experiment with hardware/software.
Many years ago I wrote a homebrew magic system for AD&D that centered around the idea of a universal magical force. I realize that this idea might not be 100% original. 🙂 Anyway, spell-casters in this system had a shared hit point and spell point pool… their own life force powered their spells. It actually worked very well and created some interesting opportunities as the players explored other sources of magical energy (force vampires are fun).
I’m still fascinated by the concept and have been thinking about how I might work this into a Sorcerous Origin for the 5e sorcerer class. As a stepping stone to that end, and with dungeonmook’s help, I wrote a cantrip that gives 5e spell-casters an option to dig deep, tapping into their life force to cast beyond their normal abilities. It comes at a hefty price though… so be careful out there.
NOTE: We’ve gone back and forth a number of times tweaking this one… debating the balance between the cost of casting such a spell and the potential benefit. I keep picturing this as a “last ditch” spell, one that you might use when you are out of spell slots and need one last punch to defeat an adversary; even at the cost of your own life. That said, it should be somewhat useful at other times as well. The first version below is closest to the original idea and directly burns hit dice and hit points in exchange for spell slots. The second taps into the exhaustion framework in the PHB to simulate the drain on the spell-caster’s body. Which one do you like better?
Transmutation cantrip In the Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, and Warlock class spell lists.
You tap into the very life force that keeps your heart pumping to power your next spell, sacrificing hit dice and hit points to regain a spent spell slot. When you cast Cannibalize choose how many hit dice you will sacrifice up to your current hit die count. You regain one spell slot equal in level to the number of hit dice you choose to expend. You can only regain a used spell slot and cannot gain a spell slot that you would not normally have.
When you use the regained spell slot, you gain advantage on one spell attack roll (or you can impose disadvantage on one targets’ saving throw against the spell). The regained spell slot is usable until the end of your current turn, at which time it expires.
At the end of your current turn, as an additional cost to casting Cannibalize, roll each expended hit die and you lose hit points equal to the result.
Transmutation cantrip In the Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, and Warlock class spell lists.
You tap into the very life force that keeps your heart pumping to power your next spell, pushing yourself to the limit to regain a spent spell slot. When you cast Cannibalize you regain one spell slot. You can only regain a used spell slot and cannot gain a spell slot of a level that you would not normally have.
When you use the regained spell slot, you gain advantage on one spell attack roll (or you can impose disadvantage on one targets’ saving throw against the spell). The regained spell slot is usable until the end of your current turn, at which time it expires.
At the end of your current turn, as an additional cost to casting Cannibalize, you suffer from exhaustion as determined by the level of spell slot regained.