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5e: How do Scrolls Work

Written by Ethan

Ethan is a storyteller, GM, and all-around nerd. He spends his time introducing all of his friends to D&D and creating hard magic systems for upcoming novels.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

Understanding how spell scrolls work is a key part of playing D&D, and it’s especially important if you play a spellcasting class. If you come across one in your game, how do you use it? Should you use it? What are the risks of using one?

Spell scrolls are consumable magic items that can be used by any character who has the spell on their class’s spell list. Reading the scroll requires an ability check if it is at a higher level than what you can normally cast or if you attempt to copy it into a spellbook. 

If you want to get the most out of a scroll when you find or buy one, keep reading.

How to Use a Scroll

The rules for using spell scrolls can be found on pages 200-201 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). Spell Scrolls are pieces of parchment inscribed with the words of a single spell. 

The words are written in a magical cipher that can only be read by a character who has the spell on their class’s spell list. For example, Eldritch Knights and Arcane Tricksters both take spells from the wizard’s spell list, so they are able to read wizard spell scrolls.

Such a character can use their action to read the spell and, in doing so, casts the spell without needing to provide any components for it. The scroll then turns to dust.

Every scroll has a spell save DC and attack bonus that are used for the spell instead of the caster’s spellcasting ability. They are as follows:

Spell LevelSave DCAttack Bonus
Cantrips, 1st, & 2ndDC 13+5
3rd & 4thDC 15+7
5th & 6thDC 17+9
7th & 8thDC 18+10
9thDC 19+11

Some cantrips become more powerful as the spellcaster reaches certain levels. For example, the damage done by Ray of Frost increases by 1d8 at 5th-level, 11th-level, and 17th-level.

In Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, it is specified that when a character scribes a spell (pg 133), a cantrip works as if the caster were at 1st level, meaning no damage increases. This reflects the idea that the magical power comes from the scroll and not the caster.

How to Make a Spell Scroll – Costs and Complications

There are charts on how to make a spell scroll, and just like most crafting, it will require both time and money. You can find plenty of useful information in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything for downtime plans and expansions like the following. Please buy it if you enjoyed this.

Prerequisites for the work involve having all the requirements to cast the spell at the moment of scribing, including having it prepared, on the character’s spell list, material and gold components, and be proficient in Arcana.

Costs

Spell LevelTimeCost
Cantrip1 day15 gp
1st1 day25 gp
2nd3 days250 gp
3rd1 workweek500 gp
4th2 workweeks2500 gp
5th4 workweeks5000 gp
6th8 workweeks15,000 gp
7th16 workweeks25,000 gp
8th32 workweeks50,000 gp
9th48 workweeks250,000 gp

Complications

When it comes to scribing a scroll, the risks more often come from outside the scribing itself. Roll a percent die each workweek; if you get 10 or below, then roll a d6 for this premade list:

  1. You bought up the last of the rare ink used to craft scrolls, angering a wizard in town.
  2. The priest of a temple of good accuses you of trafficking in dark magic.
  3. A wizard eager to collect one of your spells in a book presses you to sell the scroll.
  4. Due to a strange error in creating the scroll, it is instead a random spell of the same level.
  5. The rare parchment you bought for your scroll has a barely visible map on it.
  6. A thief attempts to break into your workroom.

Of course, any DM can make up their own complications, and these are more suggestions for those who would rather have things easier. Interpret them as you think is fair, and use any for plot hooks.


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Using Scrolls of Higher Level Spells

Spell scrolls allow for characters to cast spells more powerful than they normally could.

A 3rd-level sorcerer can normally cast up to 2nd-level spells. However, if they found a spell scroll of a 5th-level sorcerer spell, they can still attempt to read it and cast the spell.

To do this, they must make an Intelligence (Arcana) with a DC equal to 10+ the spell’s level. For a 5th-level spell, that is DC 15. Pass or fail, the scroll is consumed.

You only get one shot at the check before the scroll is destroyed, so make use of your party’s abilities.

A 3rd-level sorcerer with proficiency in Arcana might only have a bonus of +4 to the check. This roll has a 30% chance of failing as they need to roll an 11 or higher.

Use Bardic Inspiration, Guidance, Bless, and other buffs that your party has to ensure the check succeeds. The Help action gives another party member advantage on their next ability check. Your DM has the final say on whether another character could use the Help action in this case, or they may ask you to describe how you are helping.

If you want to ensure you succeed on this check, gaining expertise in Arcana allows you to add your proficiency bonus to the check twice. 

Bards, knowledge domain clerics (Blessings of Knowledge), and rogues gain access to expertise. However, any character can take the feat Skill Expert from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and also gain access. 

This allows a character who has proficiency in a skill to gain expertise with that skill. Add this to Arcana and increase your chance of succeeding on the ability check.


Frighten Your Players

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Copying a Scroll Into a Spellbook

If the scroll bears a wizard’s spell, it can be copied into a spellbook, which only wizards have. When doing so, the character copying the spell must make an Intelligence (Arcana) check with a DC equal to 10 + the spell’s level. This is similar to the rules for reading a scroll of a higher-level spell.

If the check is failed, the spell is not copied correctly and cannot be prepared by the wizard. Success or failure, the scroll is destroyed—parchment and all.

This means that you must choose to either read the spell to cast it or copy it. You cannot do both, as the spell is consumed in both cases.

A spell scroll cannot be copied into a spellbook if the copier cannot yet prepare spells at its level. 

For example, a 5th-level wizard can prepare up to 3rd-level spells. If they find a scroll for a 4th level spell, they can make a DC 14 Intelligence (Arcana) ability check to read the spell and cast it once, destroying the scroll.

But they cannot successfully copy the spell into their spellbook until they can prepare 4th-level spells at level 7.

If you find a spell scroll for a level higher than what you can normally cast, you can either make an ability check to read it and cast the spell or wait until you reach a level that allows you to copy the spell.

Scroll Mishaps

As a variant rule, failing an Intelligence (Arcana) check either to copy or cast the spell results in a mishap.

The creature who attempted to read the scroll must succeed a DC 10 Intelligence saving throw or suffer the effects of one of the following (roll 1d6):

  1. A surge of magical energy deals the caster 1d6 force damage per level of the spell.
  2. The spell affects the caster or an ally (determined randomly) instead of the intended target, or it affects a random target nearby if the caster was the intended target.
  3. The spell affects a random location within the spell’s range.
  4. The spell’s effect is contrary to its normal one but neither harmful nor beneficial.
  5. The caster suffers a minor but bizarre effect related to the spell. 
  6. The spell activates after 1d12 hours. If the caster was the intended target, the spell takes effect normally. If the caster was not the intended target, the spell goes off in the general direction of the intended target, up to the spell’s maximum range, if the target has moved away.

Ask your DM if this is a rule that they use before you attempt to read the scroll so that you know what you’re getting yourself into! For the DMs, you could consider a Rune Puzzle for the players trying something particularly difficult, but context matters.


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Other Types of Scrolls

The majority of scrolls in D&D are spell scrolls. However, other types of scrolls exist as well. 

Non-magical scrolls are equivalent to pieces of paper that can be read by anyone who can read the language on the scroll.

The only other example of a scroll is the Scroll of Protection. This scroll is a rare magic item that protects you from a specific type of enemy for 5 minutes. 

Anyone can use their action to read the spell and be enclosed in a protective cylinder that prevents creatures of a certain type from entering or affecting the inside of the cylinder.

If you come across a Scroll of Protection, your DM will either choose a type or determine it randomly, and you will be given the specific version like a Scroll of Protection From Elementals.

Summary

  • Most scrolls in D&D are spell scrolls that require someone who has the spell on their class’s spell list to read. The spell uses all of the stats of the scroll, not the caster.
  • A scroll can either be read to cast or read to be copied into a wizard’s spellbook but not both since the scroll is consumed either way.
  • A character must succeed on an Intelligence (Arcana) check with a DC equal to 10 + the spell’s level if they attempt to read a spell of a higher level than they can normally cast or if they attempt to copy it into a spellbook.
  • Use buffs (like Guidance), Help, and expertise to drastically improve the chance of succeeding the check.
  • Your DM might rule that failing this check has additional disastrous consequences. Ask beforehand if they use the Scroll Mishap rule (see above).
  • There is only one other type of magical scroll that isn’t a spell scroll. If you encounter one, you will be told by your DM how to use it.

Now you know how to use a scroll in D&D! Here’s hoping you make that ability check!

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