Variant Rule: Quiet Casting

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.

Cloud Spire Ruins

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.

Image result for mouth of sauron

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:

Image result for onward heart's fire

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.

Murmur

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.

Whisper

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!

Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as my milk-themed carnival adventure, Step Right Up, Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.

Mystra’s Musings: Making Stoneskin A Rock-Solid Spell

I’m not a fan of Ang Lee’s Hulk movie, but it did have an interesting villain. No, I’m not talking about the 10-foot-tall gamma poodle. I’m talking about Absorbing Man! During the film’s abstract finale (which featured some ambitious CGI for 2003) there’s a brief moment where Absorbing Man becomes stone. I was only ten at the time, and I thought it was extremely cool.

Image result for absorbing man stone

Twelve years later, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons in Utah with some friends. Fifth Edition D&D has just released, and I’ve decided to try my hand at being a Dungeon Master. All three of the core books are out, but I only own the Player’s Handbook because $50 is quite the investment. (Support your local game store!) I’ve only played 3.5e at this point, and to be honest, I didn’t really understand what’s was going on at the time.

I’m reading the PHB like crazy, trying to absorb all the info I can because my DM is about to be one of my players, and I don’t want to look like a complete fool. (I did, but that’s a story for another time.) I’m not a fast reader by any means, but going through the core rulebooks at least once a year has become an important pastime and made me a better DM. That was the first time I came across the stoneskin spell.

Stoneskin

Here’s the spell, courtesy of D&D Beyond:

Sounds Dope. What’s the Problem?

It looks awesome at first glance, right? Thematically it is. Your skin becomes rock-hard for an entire hour so you or your buddy can go toe-to-toe with that towering stone giant without getting dropped in the first round. In fact, casting this spell on someone else is probably the most effective use of it. But I’ve never seen a player cast it, let alone take it in 5th Edition.

Why does this spell feel underwhelming? Well, there’s not really one glaring problem with the spell. In my opinion, stoneskin falls flat due to a few micro-contributions, namely:

  • It requires 100gp to cast. Right off the bat, you need 100 gp in diamonds every time you cast this spell. If your DM is a stickler for resource management, this one’s going to be a pain.
  • It’s a 4th level spell. Getting to 7th level in any class is quite the achievement! Generally, I think that 4th level spells are in the awkward place between iconic 3rd level spells like fireball and haste and game-changing 5th level spells like scrying, but there are some great ones out there.

    This spell has to stand up to banishment, dimension door, fire shield, and Otiluke’s resilient sphere. That’s a tough line-up!
  • It lasts an hour. Sounds great at first, but this is part of the reason that the spell is both concentration and 4th level. A lot can happen in one hour in-game. Generally, I take a 1-minute duration as one encounter and a 10-minute duration as 2 combat encounters – though I’ve seen more than that due to snowballing bad decisions. An hour could be an entire dungeon!
  • It’s concentration. Fans of older editions absolutely despise concentration, but I generally think it’s a necessary evil to keep the gameplay flowing instead of being bogged down by mechanical upkeep. That said, there are a lot of concentration spells in 5th Edition, and it’s worth asking, “Should stoneskin be one of them?”

    Stoneskin is an armor spell, which means you don’t cast it on someone unless you think they’re going to get hit. If you’re casting this on yourself, or you’re close to the ally on which you cast it, you’re going to be making a few concentration checks to avoid dropping the spell with a minimum DC of 10 (see below). Unless you’re rolling really well, you’re most likely not going to make use of that 1-hour duration because eventually you’re going to fail this check.

    On top of that, fire shield doesn’t require concentration and is at the same level. Sure, it’s a bit more situational and fills a different niche, but still.

Sculpting a Better Stoneskin

I actually like the stoneskin spell, but I also like to play against type and am generally pretty easy to please. My desire to “fix” it comes from the reaction on my players’ faces when they read this spell. Despite how excited they were about the prospect of taking hits like Rocky, they end up ultimately disappointed and pass on the spell in the end.

The best part about modifying this spell is you have some options, and you can pick the one that best suits your table. Here are my proposed fixes for the stoneskin spell.

Image Copyright Dean Spencer 2019

Option 1: Lower the Spell Level

Make stoneskin more accessible at lower levels by making it 3rd level. Your wizard’s Arcane Recovery and the sorcerer’s Font of Magic feature can get more use out of this spell as they level up.

There are already a ton of great 3rd level spells. However, if a player really wants to take this spell, you can offer it earlier. If you choose this option, I recommend one of two additional tweaks:

  • The spell still requires concentration, but the duration is now 10 minutes.
  • The spell does not require concentration, but it only lasts 1 minute. With a 1-minute duration, you’ll almost always use your first turn in combat to cast it.

Option 2: Remove Concentration & Lower Duration

My favorite option involves removing the concentration component and changing the duration to 10 minutes. The spell stays at 4th level. This isn’t a huge change, but it does the spell justice. You won’t have to curse under your breath and hope for a high roll every time you take damage, and the spell could potentially last for two or even three encounters. Sure, there are going to be some weird combos where someone is flying with stoneskin or something, but they’ll only last 10 minutes!

Option 3: Remove Concentration & Increase the Spell Level

If you want to cap off your 10- or 11-level campaign with a spectacular boss fight or dungeon, you could remove the concentration requirement and make stoneskin a 5th or even 6th level spell. This is my least favorite option, because 1) most campaigns fizzle out around these levels, 2) the balance seems shaky here with such a long duration, and 3) there are so many cool 5th and 6th level spells.

You’re probably better off just giving a potion of stoneskin if this is your preferred route because if you’re making this change for the long-haul, this spell is going to become a no-brainer before every dungeon. And without concentration, it’s going to be cast on multiple characters.

Then again, high-level play is all about challenging your players and learning how to tell the best stories in the framework of their epic abilities. If it’s too much, it doesn’t hurt to learn how to retcon something diplomatically.


Did this article help you? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as my milk-themed carnival adventure, Step Right Up, Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.

Mystra’s Musings: Who Is Nystul

This article is the first installment of Mystra’s Musings, a new blog segment devoted to spells, wizards, and the arcane.

Tonight, I was sitting at Union Hall’s Urban Eatery while my wife, Sam, DM’d her ladies’ night D&D game. It’s this new food court in downtown Waco that’s slated to have 14 restaurants. Right now, there’s only a few places, but one of them is Koko Ramen, which was a food truck up until only a month or two ago. I love a good bowl of ramen.

Sam’s group bounces around Waco every Tuesday. Sometimes it’s here at our house, but usually they’re at a restaurant, supporting local businesses and spreading the good word of D&D. I usually accompany the group, sitting at a nearby table to write (we just released Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters), read books, and provide support to Sam and her players. The group has come to nickname me “Grampappy DM.”

Grampappy DM

Why? Well because Grampappy is old, and he knows all the rules. Sam and her group know that I am saturated with D&D content, be it videos, podcasts, writing, reading – you name it. My relationship with D&D content is best summed up by a contestant on the New Year’s special for the Great British Baking Show. Stephen, who was originally speaking about orange buttercream frosting, said “I’d like to strip naked and lather myself with it like a shower gel.” That’s how I feel about D&D. Is that too much?

So, when Sam or someone in her group reaches an impasse or can’t remember a rule, they look my way and say, “Hey Grampappy DM? When a creature’s prone, do I have advantage?” to which I clear my throat, grab my cane, and reply, “An attack roll against a creature has advantage if the attacker is within 5 feet of their target. Otherwise, ya’ got disadvantage.” They say thanks and resume playing.

Today, Sam looked up from her copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh and asked, “Hey Grampappy?”
“Yes?” I replied.
“Who is Nystul? It’s okay if you don’t know. It looks pretty obscure.”

Grampappy knew.

Who Is Nystul?

Nystul is an archmage in the Greyhawk setting. He was born to a noble family in Tenh, and developed spells such as Nystul’s magic aura and Nystul’s undetectable aura. The former made it into 5th Edition D&D with its original name, and the latter could have been absorbed into the nondetection spell.

Image result for nystul greyhawk

Nystul’s Magic Aura

You might have seen Nystul’s name somewhere before. If you’re relatively knew to D&D, like I am, you probably first came across Nystul in the 2nd level divination spell, Nystul’s magic aura.

Nystul’s magic aura (or arcanist’s magic aura), courtesy of D&D Beyond

Pretty obscure spell, isn’t it?

I actually really like this spell, but not for it’s usage. A while back on Twitter, there was a thread on alignment in 5th Edition D&D. It’s been a while, but I think someone said you could throw out alignment altogether because there wasn’t anything mechanical about it like older editions. This spell, along with a few other ones like polymorph, are part of the handful of mechanical effects currently in D&D that reference alignment.

Spells like these are interesting ones. I feel like they’re not really there for you to take at 3rd level, unless you’re prepping it for a very specific purpose. They can be used to do cool things, like make a magic item appear nonmagical or hide your magical disguise, but up until about 7th level, those 2nd level slots are a precious resource.

After that, however, you can really start to have fun. Why cast a 1st level chromatic orb when your ray of frost cantrip is more potent? Let’s get creative! What else you got? Going into a dungeon? Cast longstrider. What else you got? Nystul’s magic aura? Sure, why not. Use ’em or lose ’em!

Nystul and the Circle of Eight

There are many spells throughout Dungeons and Dragons history that contain the name of the spell’s creator. Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion, Tenser’s floating disk, Rary’s telepathic bond, Bigby’s hand and Otiluk’s resilient sphere all appear within 5th edition D&D. Coincidentally, all of these individuals were in the Circle of Eight, along with Nystul.

The Circle of Eight was a powerful cabal of wizards in the Greyhawk campaign setting devoted to maintaining the balance between the forces of good, evil, law, and chaos. If you’ve read Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, you’re already familiar with Mordenkainen’s perception of the Blood War, the eternal struggle between devils and demons that takes place primarily on Avernus. Mordenkainen is happy to tip the scales when need be if it means the devils and demons will continue to tucker themselves out instead of turning on the rest of the cosmos. It’s super cool and a great example of lawful neutral, in my opinion – or is it lawful good? Someone get Nystul in here!

Image result for mordenkainen circle

The Circle of Eight originally consisted of:

  • Mordenkainen (founder)
  • Bigby (Mordenkainen’s apprentice)
  • Bucknard
  • Drawmij
  • Leomund (who was later replaced by Tenser)
  • Otto
  • Rary
  • Nystul
  • Otiluke (a late joiner)

Sadly, most of the Circle of Eight (all except for Mordenkainen) were slain by Halmadar the Cruel, who was in possession of the Hand of Vecna at the time. I thought this was super interesting, because Joe Manganiello’s character, Arkan the Cruel, bears the same title and is currently in possession of the Hand of Vecna!

Nystul the Person

There’s some debate as two whom the Nystul’s magic aura‘s namesake belongs. It appears that the spell (and thus the wizard) was inspired by a stage magician named Brad Nystul who suggested the spell to Gary. You can read the source comment written by Gary back on the Dragon’s Foot Forums here. I’ve screen capped it below because it’s interesting to see some of the other origins as well, such as Tasha.

However, user ripvonwerner on this thread did some interesting detective work that suggests the spell may actually be named after RPG creator Mike Nystul, given a section in Footprints #5 which describes the “Nystul campaign” that may have taken place around 1978 including “Brad, Genny, Mike and Brian [sic] Nystul.” The user goes on to mention that “Mike and Bryan Nystul were brothers and later game designers, so Brad Nystul must have been their father.” It’s hard to remember a game from 30 years ago.

Either way, Nystul’s magic aura is a family spell.

Roleplaying Nystul

We don’t have a lot of information on Nystul, unfortunately. One could surmise from the spell that he could be a divination wizard if he showed up in 5th Edition D&D. If Nystul is indeed named after Mike, Len Lakofka mentions in the same Footprints #5 article that Mike’s character was aggressive, brash, and impetuous. Not the best qualities in a wizard watching the cosmos, but at least he had eight others to balance him out.

I much prefer the page about Nystul on the Greyhawk Wiki that describes him as flippant with a preference for puns and quips. Mordenkainen doesn’t seem like the sort to ever crack a smile, so it’s amusing to think of another wizard annoying these great watchers of the cosmos. It also mentions he is “intelligent, subtle, and profound, however, with an unerring tactical sense.”

UPDATE: User N. Gray has confirmed that the spell was indeed Brad’s idea, and Nystul was Mike’s character. Thank you!


Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.