Sunday, 28 February 2016

Dungeon Master: Scroll Wizard

I mentioned previously some ways that scrolls can be used to make things more varied. It inspired me a bit to create a wizard that mostly used scrolls in order to present a threat to the players (stats wise, they are quite poor). This way, a threat can be provided but there is still a lot of room for randomness and spell failure. If defeated quickly, the players become in possession of spells above their level.


Level 2 Wizard
Ability Score
Strength 10
Dexterity 10
Constitution 12
Intelligence 7
Wisdom 10
Charisma 10
Hit points: 12 (using averages)
Skills: Arcana, Insight, History, Persuasion
Proficiency Bonus: +2
Armor Class: 10 without mage armor, 13 with mage armor

This wizard doesn't know much magic beyond cantrips. The main way they use magic is through spell scrolls (their spell save DC is low with their own spell) since their spellbook was lost or destroyed (or never had one?). To succeed the wizard must meet or exceed 10 + the spell's level.

Pick a few scroll such as:
Magic Missile (1st level)
Comprehend Languages
Protection from Good and Evil
Thunder Wave (1st level) DC 13
Acid Arrow (2nd level) DC 13 *
Scorching Ray (2nd level) DC 13
Shatter (2nd level) DC 13 *

* These spells are particularly dangerous to a 1st level party. Scorching ray is less so since it can be split up between 3 targets to prevent one shot kills.

Note: Above all found in SRD.

Playing Them

Having so many spells to choose from due to the spell scrolls, there is no shortage of the kinds of character that can be played. They can be cowardly. They can be cocky. The level can also be adjusted in order to make them last longer in combat (lacking a spell book, there's not much else). High level spells have high DCs to beat in order to cast the spells, so there is a bit of a risk/reward system. I find that spells in the middle, especially at low level, are the ones to watch out for. A level 1 wizard has a high enough chance to cast a fireball or shatter that it really heavily threatens a level 1 party (fireball does a lot of damage for that level) unless an appropriately low intelligence score is also used (it's why I used 7 for which gives a -2 that is balanced out against a +2 proficiency for a net of +0). Disintegrate, while devastating if cast, has a far lower chance of succeeding.

Scrolls like this also allow a lower level wizard to challenge a high level party if needed. In this case, the DCs won't be a problem. I'd recommend not treating these wizards like a regular NPC for experience purposes. The use of these scrolls like this makes them more of a challenge than their CR will imply. Be careful since using scrolls in this way (to make a weaker character stronger instead of an asymmetrical character) since it may make them feel weak if used to often. It is still an easy way to put scrolls in the hands of the party spellcasters.

Something I find is important, however, is describing the effects of a failed spell well. I remember very clearly how in one case, the Dungeon Master decided to describe the fireball flying towards the feet of our party but when it hit the ground, it didn't explode like it should have. Instead, it went out. While this should not be used every time, used sparingly it can create a real sense of suspense as they wait to see the damage that results and are instead greeted with no damage at all.

A multiclass NPC or martial class with limited magic use can also be used instead and provide for more opportunity (Eldritch Knights benefit extremely greatly from scrolls like this while also having better AC and health).


Having played against these kinds of wizards, the tension that can result from the possibility of failing to cast a spell is something I greatly enjoyed, especially since I knew the devastating effect it could have if it worked. Hopefully this wizard provides some fun in your games too.  

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Dungeon Master: Scrolls

By now it should be obvious that I tend to write about things I don't see used very often in the games I play. Keeping with the theme, I am going to be talking about spell scrolls and why they are a very useful tool for the Dungeon Master. As always, feel free to comment and add to what I say.

Different Economy

The beauty in these kinds of scrolls is that they are a one-time use thing. They don't nearly have as big an impact as a wand or staff that allows continuous casting of the spell. Instead, it's a single casting. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, the wizard could choose to learn the spell instead of casting it. However, this is not a valid strategy if the spell is already known by the wizard. It may also be better to keep the high level spell than learn it (great, learned the 6th level spell due to a lucky roll but can't cast it for weeks).

Extra Firepower

You can continue to give challenges to the players that are at the level expected. However, more experienced or daring groups might want a bigger challenge. In these kinds of cases, spell scrolls and magic items provide exactly what they might need to face their powerful enemies. Since a lower level character can cast spells they don't know from a scroll (in most systems I can recall including Dungeons & Dragons, anyway), a weak party could use it to even the odds. A fireball in the hands of a 1st level party allows for completely different threats to be thrown their way. It also provides a difficult choice for the wizard since they only get one use from the scroll.

Extra Castings

When a game has some kind of scroll mechanic or limited casting, it is typically balanced around some time period. However, wizards are not always lucky enough to be able to rest and prepare. When they aren't, the party is significantly weakened. A way to get around this problem is through spell scrolls. The result is that the wizard has more spell slots or castings of their spells than they normally would. I'd be careful in these cases since a clever party could keep these scrolls for later and turn important encounters into a joke. Having said that, it's a possible situation that can come up during play and clever play should be rewarded. It can also allow for story opportunities and tension that is otherwise not possible (maybe they can challenge the big bad early, create a setback for the big bad they wouldn't otherwise, or get out of an impossible situation). Just don't forget to consider the possibility and don't forget to factor scrolls into future combat encounters.

Unpredictable Enemies

A powerful hostile wizard with spell slots changes the nature of the encounter dramatically. It also allows a higher chance of spell failure than otherwise possible and can make an unpredictable encounter (especially when used with the miscasting rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide). The danger with this approach is that the players could kill the enemy early and obtain quite a few more scrolls than intended by the Dungeon Master. Planning for this (you would generally assume a scroll or two would be left and needed) may need to be called for. You could also decide to simply reward the players for their luck and or thinking (if they thought of a great ambush, maybe the final fight should be easier?).

Completely Different Spells

Spell economy is a difficult subject. There could in theory be some spells that are so powerful you don't even want a level 20 wizard to have access to it during combat readily. In these cases, you could let a wizard spend significant resources and time to create a single scroll. Unlike normally, where spells may be cast per day or other period, this allows you to have spells that could take weeks or even years of preparation before being cast. It also allows for some special spells that the players may only get the chance to cast once or twice in the entire length of time they play. As a tool for the Dungeon Master, these kinds of spell scroll allow for break from the normal spell system and allow for some interesting situations for the players. In fact, I'd say that using scrolls is one of the most powerful ways to make changes to the spell casting system (more spells, new spells, etc.) without actually changing the normal spell casting system (all of the original mechanics are kept intact).  

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Dungeon Master: Orb of Foresight

The surface of the orb, beautifully white and seemingly polished, seems to fill with smoke as it is held. The blackness takes different shapes and forms as it is held until finally, it seems to hold a form. Three people seem to stand in front of a building. The building is unmistakable. The stained glass and shape gives it away. The party easily recognizes one of the people too...

Orb of Foresight

A perfectly white orb that easily fits into the hand of a grown person, an orb of foresight is a rather interesting item. It remains perfectly white and clean until activated. Sometimes I've seen this happen by asking questions out loud but I have also seen how it can be used by mere thought. When activated, a question about the future is answered by the form that black swirling, almost like smoke, takes. Sometimes this answer is in the form of a still form. Sometimes, though more rarely, the form moves and acts out a soundless scene. The clarity and quality of the image can greatly range based seemingly on the question asked but also based on the orb. In my studies, some orbs were mentioned to have very crude representations where others more commonly displayed clearer images, even when asking the same question. They are very rare; so much of my work was based on old manuscripts mentioning these artifacts.

The orb also has some other odd properties. If dropped or thrown, the orb does not roll or bounce. Instead, it falls straight down after hitting an object and it stays where it landed until picked up. It also does not seem to transfer heat or cold through it. Even if held in a flame or ice, it keeps it's temperature constant.


Viewings can only be done through the orb after attuning to the item. Pick a dice. Another viewing can only be made that many days later (I suggest a D10 or D20).

The result of the viewing is displayed by a black smoke or liquid shape that takes from on the orb. It disappears when desired by attuned creature or when it is out of reach of the attuned creature.

Since the future is influenced by the actions of creatures and can have wide reaching effects, the visions of the orb are not guaranteed to come to be (though your players may not be aware of this at first). Choose a DC and roll a D20. On a success the correct events will be shown and on a failure an alternate course of events is shown instead (on some failure, not less than 5 for example, nothing may be shown instead).


Instead of a time delay, roll a dice (I suggest a D10, D6 or D4). This is how many questions will be answered by the orb. After the last question is answered, the black smoke doesn't fully retreat from the white surface of the orb. Where the smoke stays, cracks form and the orb falls apart in the hands of the user.

Variant 2

This orb, a cursed version, only shows incorrect versions of the future no matter how many times asked. A creature may remove curse of similar magic cast to be free of the cursed orb. While it is cursed in this way, nightmares alternate futures fill its dreams. When performing a saving throw, roll a D20. On a 16 or higher, the creature has disadvantage on the saving throw. This curse only occurs once per long rest.

Variant 3

This defective orb either shows nothing or shows the complete opposite of what is really true.

Notes of Caution

Putting this kind of item in the hands of your players or NPCs will obviously have a great effect on the campaign. Before putting this item into your game, make sure you understand how big an effect knowledge of the future will have. As the Dungeon Master, you control the knowledge obtained by the orb so it is not necessarily game breaking but it may also be needed for plot reasons (to provide information of the villains plans, where to find the villain and how to stop them).  

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Dungeon Master: Using Languages

Languages are an element of the game I see very little use of. In some cases, I've even seen groups completely forget about the languages they chose at character creation. However, I think there are a couple of things that can be done by using this feature of tabletop role-playing games. I'm hoping that having them written down will help people but also help me think of a few other things to do with them, since it is such an infrequently used element from my experience.

Ancient Tombs May Be in Different Languages

Languages tend to change over time and as a result something previously understandable may become cryptic. Keeping this in mind can add a great deal of atmosphere to an old dungeon. If there are old books, they could be in a form that will require the party to spend time or money on interpreting the texts they found. It could also be in a completely different and now dead language, which could make things harder.

With unknown, dead, or old versions of languages misinterpretation could be a real concern. If this is the case, checks can be made based on linguistics (insight I'd say) or based on previous knowledge of the material. In the case of a failure, a mistranslation will occur for that particular piece of knowledge (a letter may have a location and a description of the item). You may even decide that you need more material in order to properly translate, leading to another quest. Of course, translating things and doing linguistics as the aim will take a special group but it can still be used as an element of a larger story.

Dungeons May Be in Areas with Different Languages

If players go far enough and have holes in their languages, they may eventually find themselves in areas where they cannot speak the language and know very little of the culture. In these kinds of cases they could try to learn it ahead of time or, more likely, they can hire a guide. I'd consider a guide who can speak the party's language and the local languages a skilled hireling if it is uncommon (normal people don't know both languages but some special adventurers or learned individuals might) and unskilled otherwise (they may speak draconic and their own local language in the area and the dragonborn character can understand draconic).

Creole Languages

It is possible that creole languages develop in some areas with multiple linguistic and cultural influences. In order to understand this language, the interpreter will need to know most of the languages that helped inspire the creole language.

Accents and Differences

Though not necessarily tied to language, you may decide that certain areas have a certain special feature that makes it distinct from another. It could be certain slang, certain pronunciation of sounds or certain grammatical constructs unique to a certain area. If used sparingly enough, it can help give locations a feeling of identity but I find it's also quite hard on the Dungeon Master to remember all of the accents and differences while in the heat of role-playing. Still, I think it deserves mention.

Don't Want to Bother?

Everyone knows common. There, problem solved. However, I feel you might be missing out on some elements, particularly if the party travels far away into a vastly different culture.