Did you ever notice just how many spells are in the Player's Handbook? Roughly a third of the book is dedicated to describing the hundreds of spells available for clerics, sorcerers, wizards, and other spellcasters. A couple dozen spells, often blatantly offensive or defensive in nature, tend to fall into the 'no-brainer' list for all but the most specialized of spellcasters, such as magic missile, fireball, mage armor, cure spells, and protection from energy (and for you power players out there, miracle and wish). Beyond this immediate list, however, are spells that don't often get the recognition that they deserve from either players or DMs.
This series focuses on several spells that do not get frequent use in play but are nonetheless interesting and effective when used in the proper manner. What's more, we give a nod to the DMs out there, hopefully inspiring them to use these spells to keep the characters on their toes or perhaps even start an entire campaign simply by the casting of one little spell.
This time, we turn the page and look at spells that deal with script and writing. With so many spells written in books and on scrolls, these spells can make for a great deterrent in keeping prying eyes (including the spell of the same name) from reading something that you would rather keep hidden.
Script-Based Spells and Campaigns
Many of the spells described in this article work best in campaigns in which characters are immersed in tomes, enigmatic maps, and cryptic letters -- in short, an adventure full of intrigue and espionage. In these sorts of games, even minor spells such as arcane mark and erase take on a greater importance if a character's personal seal needs to be vetted or if a single page of information can be easily destroyed or manipulated.
In games that feature lots of messages, codes, and ciphers, players should get used to dealing with explosive runes, illusory script, sepia snake sigil, and the like. Spells such as comprehend languages, read magic, and true seeing could come in handy to deal with layers and layers of codes and traps.
Explosive runes requires a bit of planning and foresight to use, but when done effectively, it packs a serious wallop -- 6d6 points of damage from a mere 3rd-level spell. The most obvious use for this spell is to set up a trap for anyone that pries into your spellbook. Here are a couple of other ways that you can get the most out of explosive runes.
- If you have a map that you do not wish to fall into enemy hands, keep it hidden in some place other than your map case. Cast explosive runes on a fake map or note (with the requisite "sucker!" message if you're feeling saucy).
- Remember that explosive runes deals the same amount of damage to whatever object it is cast upon, so use it only on things that you don't really care about, that are tough enough to survive such a blast, or that are just too precious to fall into anyone else's hands.
Explosive Runes for the DM
Explosive runes works as a pretty standard, if powerful, trap for PCs when they start going through scrolls, books, and other treasure after a fight. Here are a few other ideas for making use of this spell.
- The main villain sends a messenger to the PCs bearing a message to be read aloud explaining the folly of their situation. The message includes explosive runes hidden at the very end of the page. When the messenger (who is reading the message, and who the villain obviously considers expendable) gets to the final phrase, the spell activates, killing the messenger, potentially damaging the PCs nearby, and definitely sending a message about how dangerous the villain truly is.
- The description of explosive runes states that it activates "when read." It does not state whether the person must understand the language, but the implication is that merely looking at the runes is not enough to set them off. Assume that a creature that doesn't speak any languages (such as an animal) cannot trigger explosive runes. Creatures that can read, but not the language in use, probably can't trigger the runes unless they make a concerted effort to study and decipher the script. The DM needs to decide whether readers can trigger the spell merely by scanning the words to get their gist without really absorbing them.
As mentioned in the sidebar, illusory script is a perfect spell for games that feature espionage and cryptic messages. Because you designate who can read the message, this spell has the potential for some interesting uses.
- The suggestion portion of this spell is more potent than it appears. For example, instead of giving a command such as "close the book and leave," you could instead give a more detailed order, such as "pour the vial beside the book into the chalice." Follow the rules from the suggestion spell to determine the boundaries of the illusory script's effect.
- For a particularly mean effect using illusory script, give the suggestion for any unauthorized readers to turn to the back page of a book or multiple-page scroll set. This page is further trapped with explosive runes.
Illusory Script for the DM
Illusory script is a great way to inject a bit of mystery and even paranoia into a game.
- A message arrives containing illusory script coded to a specific PC (who is unaware of the spell). Upon reading it, the PC determines that the message is chock full of blackmail material. Because none of the other characters can read the message, they watch the player squirm as he tries to explain the contents of the note to his fellow players. This could be further complicated if one of the other PCs makes her Will save and can read the encrypted message.
About the Author
Eric Cagle cut his teeth at Wizards of the Coast, but now lives the extravagant freelancer lifestyle. Look for his name on D&D, d20 Modern, and Star Wars books. Recent credits include d20 Apocalypse, Monster Manual IV, and the Tome of Corruption from Green Ronin Publishing. He is also a contributor to the Game Mechanics, Dragon Magazine, and this website. Eric lives in Seattle where the coffee is dark and bitter like his goddesses.