During our last campaign, the party received a scroll penned by a god. It detailed a list of four components – all on different planes – that could be combined in a ritual spell to create an artifact known as the phoenix elixir, a liquid capable of resurrecting a dead god. Due to the potential ramifications, the divine scribe scrambled the letters on the scroll with an ever-changing script that was impervious to the strongest of divination spells to read its contents. Even the great wizard Mordenkainen only knew of one such method to translate the scroll: an ancient codex created by a god of knowledge named Kvasir.
The codex’s last known location was at the top of an enormous tower library in Ysgard. (Technically, the codex was destroyed and would be cleverly reconstructed using the plucked eye of one of Kvasir’s immortal librarians who was able to see into the past, but that’s another story.)
The party at this point was 18th level, and they knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. Kvasir was no longer around, but many of his sworn agents were. (If you’re familiar with Norse mythology, which was a big part of this campaign, you’ll know that the god Kvasir was killed and turned into the Mead of Poetry.) His had a host of constructs, giants, and angels guarding what was essentially ruined city of knowledge surrounded by a dedicated mythal. There was even a Valkyrie-inspired planetar who was just itching for a fight after centuries of guarding the near-impenetrable fortress.
I used this awesome Cloudspire Ruins map by Venatus Maps to represent Kvasir’s library city. Venatus has a ton of maps available on their Patreon that are just as good as this one. You should consider becoming a patron if you use digital maps or run a lot of homebrew.
Eventually, the party made it inside the library, which, like all libraries, included its own specific set of rules. One of these was stressed above all others by the modron in the entrance foyer:
Please be quiet while in the library.
As the party entered the first room of the library, an aged wizard sat at one of the reading tables. With a beard nearly five feet in length, this mage had certainly been here a long time. Excited to have human contact once more, he leapt to his feet and exclaimed in joy at the characters, only to promptly cover his mouth in horror at violating the principle rule of Kvasir’s library.
Protruding from some one of the floating bookcases was the carving of an aged woman. She appeared almost as a wooden lich, similar to the mouth of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. She raised one finger to her lips, shushing the mage while pointing towards him with her other hand. A ray of green light sprung from her index finger, and in an instant, the mage was but a pile of dust. These were the librarians.
With that, the session ended, and I let the party I’d be sending them some alternative rules on sneaking within the library. Naturally, one of the party members wanted to know if they were restricted to spells that didn’t have verbal components. Realizing that this could be an opportunity to give structure to sneaking mages in the future, I whipped up the following variant rule.
Disclaimer: Stealth Sequences and Minions
Note that this rule loses its potency in later levels unless you institute minion rules from 4th Edition D&D. Matt Colville has a great video on minions which really opened my eyes to their potential in 5th Edition. Many players ask about stealth-killing guards when sneaking, but only the rogue has enough gusto to make this a reality at later levels unless the enemies are significantly weaker than your party’s casters. When someone only has one hit point, or even a small number of hit points, these Quiet Casting rules really shine.
Variant Rule: Quiet Casting
Sometimes, a caster will want to cast a spell with a verbal component while sneaking up on a foe without attracting the attention of nearby enemies. Whisper casting provides a trade-off for a shorter range in exchange for lower volume during stealth sequences that involve one or more casters.
Assumption: Normal Spells are Spoken from Your Heart’s Fire
In Disney Pixar’s Onward, Barley Lightfoot tells his brother that in order for a spell to work, it must be spoken confidently and with a richness and power to one’s voice. Barley calls this “speaking from your heart’s fire.” We’re going to assume that this is the requirement for spells with verbal components in Dungeons and Dragons, i.e., normal spells are spoken loudly and with gusto, drawing the attention of enemies in the same way shouting would.
Thankfully the majority of spells in D&D 5th Edition are divisible by three. There are a few exceptions, such as touch spells, some cube spells, and spells with long ranges (locate object, dimension door). This makes our job quite easy, so long as you’re okay with a little bit of quick math. With this variant rule, there are three ways to cast a spell:
Speak From Your Heart’s Fire
A spell spoken from your heart’s fire maintains the spell’s normal range but is treated as a shout. This attracts the attention of most enemies in the area as if you were yelling at your foe as a distraction. The exact range is up to your DM and may be subject to an Intelligence (Investigation) or Wisdom (Insight or Perception) check. Your ray of frost spell may take out that orc guard 60 feet away, but his friends are on the way.
A murmured spell has two-thirds its normal range. A murmer is less likely to attract unwanted attention. Continuing with our ray of frost example, the spell now has a range of 40 feet, rather than 60 feet, but it’s less of a risk. Your other party members may be able to take out the other orc guard nearby before she has a chance to act. The ones on the other side of the clearing aren’t going to hear you cast the spell.
A whispered spell has one-third its normal range. However, unlike a murmer or shout, a whispered spell can only be heard by enemies in close proximity, i.e., the same small room, guarding the same door, or engaged with one another in an activity. Now our ray of frost is just 20 feet, but just as stealthy as an assassin’s blade (or at least pretty close).
Shortcomings of this Variant Rule
This rule unfortunately doesn’t work for every spell, as there are a few spells that either don’t quite fit the bill due to range or because they have some obviously recognizable effect (such as the booming sound of thunderwave or shatter). In addition, the exact proximity for detection is intentionally vague to prevent bogging down the pace of your game. After all, it wouldn’t be D&D if the DM didn’t have to do a bit of adjudicating!
Some quick suggestions:
- Spells with a range of touch must always be shouted and cannot use Quiet Casting rules
- Spells with 10-foot range become 5-foot range when murmured and touch when spoken
- Sorcerers with the Subtle spell trait can treat all their spells as spoken from the heart without suffering a detection penalty
- Dimension door’s ranges follow this range 500 feet > 300 feet > 150 feet
- Any spell with a range longer than 500 feet cannot be cast using these rules
- Everything else, you’re going to have to eyeball it!
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