Scrolls have been around from the very beginning. Honestly, I’ve never given them much thought. Recently, they drew my attention and I decided that it was time to evaluate whether they could (or should) be improved.
What is a Scroll?
Scrolls have actually seen a number of changes, either in new editions, magazine articles or forum posts. Instead of discussing all the minor variants other people have used, I want to focus on how scrolls operate in my game.
A scroll is a piece of parchment (alternately paper, papyrus, hide, etc), roughly 8½” x 11″, possibly attached to a leather strip or wooden dowel (top and bottom) to facilitate unrolling quickly (This adornment is purely cosmetic and provides no in-game benefit).
A scroll contains a single spell, which may be either arcane (wizard spell) or divine (clerical spell). Any caster may create a scroll containing any spell she knows. This process involves creating a special ink (requiring special ingredients whose rarity increases with the level of the spell), scribing the appropriate magical symbols onto the parchment, and then casting the spell in a way that imbues the symbols written on the scroll with the power of the spell. It requires the same amount of mana to cast a spell into a scroll as it does to cast the spell normally. When creating a scroll containing a ritual spell, no material components are needed (instead they must be provided later when the scroll is used).
When casting a spell from a scroll, the spell is cast at the level of the wizard or cleric using the scroll (regardless of the level of the caster who created the scroll). Casting time for spells (and rituals) cast from a scroll are identical to their normal casting times.
Scrolls are single-use items, allowing the spell contained within to be cast one time. At the completion of the casting, the scroll disappears in a puff of smoke.
Benefits of Using a Scroll
In a Vancian spell system, you have to memorize your allotment of spells each morning. Since you have a limited number of spell slots, no wizard wants to memorize a spell (however useful it may be) if it is unlikely that she will need that spell that day. By carrying a scroll containing such a spell, the wizard has access to that spell without using up a spell slot. In a Vancian system, this is a huge benefit! In my game, wizards do not need to memorize spells each day and can, instead, cast any spell they know, assuming they have sufficient mana to do so. Therefore, this benefit becomes moot in my game, but I felt it should be included for completeness.
Increased Spell Capacity
Wizards and clerics in my game use spell energy and spell levels, respectively, to cast their spells. When they run out of mana, they are done casting spells. Scrolls augment the number of spells a caster may cast each day. At low levels, the cost of creating/buying scrolls is somewhat prohibitive, but at higher levels a character may be able to afford to use scrolls all day long.
Higher Level Spells
Only wizards may use arcane scrolls and only clerics may use divine scrolls. Beyond that, casters need only have the requisite int/wis score (spell level plus ten) in order to cast a spell from a scroll. There is no spell level limitation. However, if the spell level exceeds the caster’s level (note that spell levels have been adjusted to correspond to requisite caster level) there is a chance of failure. For each level of the spell above that of the caster there is a cumulative 5% chance of spell failure. If the spell fails, the scroll is still used up and any material components (in the case of a ritual) are used up as well.
As detailed above, a caster may cast any spell from a scroll, limited only by class and requisite int/wis score. There is no level limit (although there is a failure chance that increases by spell level). Further, there is no limit on how many scrolls may be used in a day.
Go to any forum and you will quickly find discussions about how casters (usually focusing on Wizards, et al) are overpowered and game-breaking. I’m not sure I agree with this assessment, but casters can be quite powerful). Editing (or removing) certain spells goes a long way towards fixing any potentially serious problems. Beyond that, limitations on casters, imo, keep them from being overpowered let alone game-breaking.
However, scrolls circumvent some of those limitations. By allowing wizards and clerics unlimited spell casting capabilities, and stretching the spell level limitation, scrolls certainly have the potential to make casters much more powerful than non-casters of the same level. On the other hand, I have DM’d for many groups and never once had a player abuse scrolls in this way. We do tend to run lower level campaigns (where scroll cost is more of a factor) so that may play a significant role in keeping scroll abuse to a minimum.
Let’s start with the level limitation. It’s important for casters to have a limit on how high level a spell they can cast. However, what happens when a character dies and your cleric isn’t high enough level to cast raise dead? You stop what you are doing and head to town where, hopefully, you will find a higher level cleric to raise her. Alternately, you stop what you are doing and wait for that player to create and equip a new character and contrive a reason for this new character to join the party. The operative phrase here is “you stop what you are doing”. It’s hard enough to find time to get together for a game. Reducing wasted time therefore becomes a significant goal. If a cleric is allowed to carry and use Raise Dead scrolls (even though they are higher level than what she could normally cast), I think the benefit greatly outweighs any hesitation I might have about stretching the level limitation.
The Raise Dead spell is the most obvious example, but there are many (albeit less critical) other spells for which the same argument could be made. The cost of the scrolls (and the increasing failure rate) is, imo, enough of a limiting factor to offset the benefit.
The lack of limitation on the number of scrolls that can be used each day is another matter entirely. Whatever system you use (spell slots, spell levels, spell energy, etc) probably incorporates limitations on the number of spells a caster may cast each day.
What I propose is to restore the limitation on spell casting capability by modifying how scrolls are used. Previously, when a scroll was created, the magic for the spell in question was embedded in the scroll and released when the scroll was used. The character using the scroll merely read the scroll with no cost to herself. Instead, when the caster reads the scroll, she must now expend the same amount of energy to release the spell from the scroll. In this way the character has the same spell casting capability each day whether the spells are cast normally or from a scroll.
Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of using a scroll? Yes and no. With this change, there is no point in a caster creating scrolls for personal use. Anything she can cast (or put into a scroll) is better cast directly. The benefit is now seen solely by those that can’t cast a particular spell.
In the earlier example, a cleric (who couldn’t cast Raise Dead) used a Scroll of Raise Dead to bring back a dead comrade. That’s a pretty big benefit all by itself! There are a great many higher level divine scrolls that alone still make scrolls a valuable asset.
But what about wizards? A wizard needs to find (or research) new spells in order to learn them. Spells can’t be learned from scrolls but only from other wizards or their spell books. Since most wizards are quite covetous of their spell repertoire, there is little exchange between wizards, causing them all to be constantly looking for new spells. A wizard, unable to learn a particular spell, would certainly find a scroll containing that spell to be quite useful.
As I’ve said in previous posts, almost every house rule I have is designed to either benefit the characters or increase the enjoyment of the players. Adding a mana cost to using a scroll does neither, which made me hesitant about adopting this change. On the other hand, I don’t see it as a particular hardship either, at least not based on the way scrolls have been used to date by characters in my own games. This change does plug a potentially exploitable hole. Imo, that’s always a good reason to at least consider a change.