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.
Have fun out there.