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 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