DM Advice: Fixing Spell Scrolls

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Spell scrolls are one of the magic items in D&D that I feel are more fun to give away as a Dungeon Master than they are to receive as a player. I like the concept of spell scrolls as a DM because they are easy to balance. Any spell in D&D can be scribed and placed on a spell scroll, and spell scrolls can even be scribed at higher levels than the original spell. You can also only use spell scrolls once, which may help if you’re afraid of breaking your games with magic items that are too powerful.

Wizards get an additional benefit from spell scrolls because they can use them to scribe new spells into their spellbook. However, a spell scroll is also destroyed when it’s used this way, so players will have to choose between casting the spell scroll or saving it for later.

If you’re a DM who uses homebrew material, spell scrolls can also be a great way to introduce new homebrew spells to your game. This allows you to build out the lore of the place where the spell scroll is found as well, telling a story of who or what might reside in that location.

But in my games, spell scrolls seem like the first items my players try to sell or trade when given the opportunity. And I think I know why.

The Problem

A photo of some ancient text, like on a scroll.
A photo of some ancient text, like on a scroll.
Photo from Pixabay

Spell scrolls come with a built-in risk. A character trying to cast a spell from a spell scroll that would normally be too high for them to cast needs to make a check to see if they succeed. If they fail, the spell scroll can no longer be used. It can feel awful for players to feel like they wasted their turn in combat, and if they roll poorly for a spell scroll, it’s definitely possible.

Additionally, the one-use limitation of spell scrolls can make players feel like they need to hold onto it until the best possible moment. This is true of many magic items with limited uses, but unlike wands and staffs, spell scrolls don’t recharge each day. While many DMs like to make player’s choices feel important, it can be annoying for players to have to decide when the right time to use a spell scroll is when another opportunity might be better. Combined with the possibility of failure, there is a lot of incentives for players to keep spell scrolls stuffed in their character’s back pocket.

Finally, spell scrolls can only be used by characters whose class has the spell on their spell list. This means most spell scrolls will belong to the party’s spellcasters who can use them properly, giving them one more option to think about on top of the multitude of spells they already possess.

My Suggestions

There are several different ways you can change up the way you use spell scrolls in your game, which can lead to your players using them more often and having more fun while doing so.

Give more spell scrolls. This can potentially unbalance the way you use magic items, but players are more likely to use a resource if there is more of it. This strategy may work better in high-magic or wide-magic campaign settings like Eberron, where spell scrolls for cantrips and 1st level spells are more common and can probably be picked up from your local general store.

Give noncombat spell scrolls. Spell scrolls that can be used outside of combat may be more likely to be used by players because they don’t lose their turn if they fail. Spells like knock, invisibility, and tongues are good options because they can help characters solve problems and the risk of failure doesn’t feel as heavy.

Encourage players to make their own spell scrolls. Characters can scribe their own spell scrolls during downtime, and the rules for doing so can be found in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. While high-level spell scrolls can be expensive to make, they give your spellcasters something else to do with their gold and give them more versatility with their spells while adventuring. Characters can scribe a spell they don’t use very often onto a spell scroll if they don’t want to prepare it, or they can scribe a really powerful spell scroll in case they get surprised by combat and haven’t prepared the right spells for it.

A mage blocking an offensive spell with a shield
A mage blocking an offensive spell with a shield

Homebrew new rules for using spell scrolls. In some video games like Skyrim, spell scrolls are way more accessible to characters than they are in D&D, so if you want to make spell scrolls more usable for your players, you can write some new rules for them. In addition to the existing rules for spell scrolls, I have my own homebrew rules for using them, which I’ve included here as an example:

  • If the spell scroll contains a spell that is not on your spell list, you must make an ability check using your spellcasting ability to determine if you cast it successfully. You make this check regardless if you are a high enough level to cast it. The DC equals 10 + the spell’s level. On a failed check, the spell disappears from the scroll with no other effect. (Ex: a 3rd level paladin using a spell scroll of fireball needs to make a DC 13 Charisma check or the spell fails).
  • If your character is of a class that doesn’t have the ability to cast spells (barbarians, fighters, monks, rogues), you must make an Intelligence check to determine if you cast the spell from a spell scroll successfully. The DC equals 12 + the spell’s level. On a failed check, the spell disappears from the scroll with no other effect. (Ex: a 1st level barbarian using a scroll of fireball needs to make a DC 15 Intelligence check or the spell fails).

There are exceptions to these homebrew rules depending on a character’s subclass, feats, and backgrounds. You may also choose to homebrew a rule where characters can cast spell scrolls like they would a normal spell instead of using their action (for example, using a spell scroll of shield as a reaction). Or you may get rid of restrictions on spell scrolls altogether. I recommend talking with your players first to see what they think about how spell scrolls are used and if they want to improve them.

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about spell scrolls in D&D? Do you like them as they are, or do you have your own homebrew rule for using them? Let me know in the comments below, or you can reach out to me on social media! Cheers!

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Rayce is a freelance RPG writer and editor from Indianapolis, Indiana. He writes about fun tabletop gaming topics, from board games to RPGs and more.