When I wrote DRAGONBOWL, I needed to imagine a transport infrastructure that would allow the gladiatorial festival to ‘pop up’ in locations around Faerun, including in a massive cavern in Mount Waterdeep – and that infrastructure meant a lot of teleportation.
As I tried to fathom out how to recreate ‘sci-fi’ style teleportation stations in Dungeons & Dragons, I pored over the core rulebooks and discovered that the rules pertaining to teleportation – such as they are – are hidden within the text of the teleportation circle spell.
5th level conjuration
Casting Time: 1 minute
Range: 10 feet
Components: V M (Rare chalks and inks infused with precious gems with 50 gp, which the spell consumes)
Duration: 1 round
As you cast the spell, you draw a 10-foot-diameter circle on the ground inscribed with sigils that link your location to a permanent teleportation circle of your choice whose sigil sequence you know and that is on the same plane of existence as you. A shimmering portal opens within the circle you drew and remains open until the end of your next turn. Any creature that enters the portal instantly appears within 5 feet of the destination circle or in the nearest unoccupied space if that space is occupied.
Many major temples, guilds, and other important places have permanent teleportation circles inscribed somewhere within their confines. Each such circle includes a unique sigil sequence – a string of magical runes arranged in a particular pattern. When you first gain the ability to cast this spell, you learn the sigil sequences for two destinations on the material plane, determined by the DM. You can learn additional sigil sequences during your adventures. You can commit a new sigil sequence to memory after studying it for 1 minute.
You can create a permanent teleportation circle by casting this spell in the same Location every day for one year. You need not use the circle to teleport when you cast the spell in this way.
Ok, so the spell tells us what D&D teleportation portals / stations are called – ‘permanent teleportation circles’, and how they are made, and we also learn a simple access system in the form of ‘unique sigil sequence’ that acts as a kind of WiFi password. If you have it, you can log on and arrive at the PTC (permanent teleportation circle), by casting the teleportation circle spell. If not, you can’t.
What’s not 100% clear is how to use PTCs for outbound travel. When we think of fantasy and sci-fi tropes we usually imagine that teleportation stations are linked and that you can easily use one to travel to another, but the rules we find are about how PTCs act as inbound travel nodes in combination with spells from the Player’s Handbook, namely teleportation circle, teleport and planeshift. There are no rules for using a PTC as a launch point to go somewhere else.
Does that mean you can’t? Or that you still need an 9th level spellcaster to cast teleportation circle even when you’re standing next to a PTC? I don’t think that was the designers’ intention, and probably – leaning into our expectations – we are to imagine that one inputs a unique sigil sequence into one PTC to open up a gateway to another PTC.
How is this done? Well for DRAGONBOWL I basically added a sci-fi-esque control panel to my PTCs to make that possible. I imagined a complex series of dials with arcane sigils and symbols that could lead to millions of combinations, and which needed configuring (although not by a high level wizard necessarily, just someone vaguely familiar with the dials who knows a correct sigil sequence).
I also came up with teleporting mechanics that enable the creation of automatic gateways between two PTCs (that function a bit like we imagine most D&D / fantasy portals to function… you step in and zip to a predetermined destination).
Plus I had a think about how ‘teleportation keys’ might work.
Finally, I considered how you might learn the unique sigil sequence of a PTC (which would be a closely guarded secret, but one which studying the PTC in person might reveal).
Here’s what I came up with (I’m gonna copy and paste the text from DRAGONBOWL)… it might just save you some brain power if you plan on using teleportation in your homebrew adventures or worlds.
“Like all Dungeons & Dragons’ teleportation circles, those of the Blood Games Incorporated have a unique sigil sequence, which, if known, allows one to arrive at the circle via the spells teleport and teleportation circle.
They also each have a control panel which allows you to dial the unique sigil sequence of another Blood Games Incorporated circle, provided you know it. The sequences are complicated, and it takes around one minute to input them using the complex series of dials on the panel. Once a valid sequence has been selected on the control panel of the sending circle, the sigils on the dials glow and the pathway is opened for one minute to the recipient circle. After one minute has elapsed, the dials twist and turn of their own accord back into a random sequence, thus closing the gateway.
Those familiar with the control panels can spend an additional minute, after
opening a pathway, to programme the dials to remain put indefinitely, meaning a one way teleportation route is permanently set up between it and the selected recipient circle (at least until someone readjusts the dials). When the dials are locked in this way, the sending circle is no longer able to receive travellers, or to send travellers to other circles.
Generally speaking, the sigil sequences of the Blood Games teleportation circles are closely guarded secrets, especially those of circles in sensitive locations like the Dragonbowl Airship’s forecastle (leading to the Head Office) or those in the Games Master’s Mansion, or Dragonbowl Treasury.
However, some sequences are less well guarded and those that study a configured dial for a few minutes should be able to commit the sequence displayed on the control panel to memory. A successful Intelligence check may allow one to do so in less time.
Some Blood Games Incorporated staff carry teleportation keys (in the form of black onyx rings decorated with the Dragonbowl logo) that save them from having to memorise or input various sigil sequences. The keys have various levels of access, depending on the staff member’s position and duties. These keys work by holding them up to a crystal in the control panel, while standing on the circle and speaking the name of the desired destination circle. Anyone standing on the circle is then instantly transported to the spoken location. In a combat situation, this requires an action.
Some keys have a one journey function, which means that when they are held up to the control panel they initiate that journey, no words required. Such keys are usually programmed to be able to do the journey in reverse. They are typically given to mid-level staff who need to access certain locales to do their job, or to supervise the movement of equipment and supplies.
Learning a Circle’s Sequence
A teleportation circle’s unique arcane sigil sequence is never openly displayed, for security reasons. Typically the sequence is known by the creator of the circle (in the case of Dragonbowl, this usually means the Games Master) and those they choose to share it with.
Given that multiple sequences are generally too complicated to retain en masse in one’s memory, the Games Master has a written list of all the Blood Games Incorporated circles’ codes in his mansion, while other staff members may have carefully guarded notes with the sequences they need for their work.
Otherwise, casting identify on a circle can be used to learn its sequence, or, if you study a circle for 10 minutes, you can hope to calculate its sequence, successfully doing so on a DC 15 Intelligence (Arcana) check. You only learn if your check was successful at the moment of attempting to use the sequence however (i.e. the DM should make this check behind their screen, or have the player make the check at the time of using the sequence, not at the time of studying it).
Teleportation is a pretty interesting topic in D&D, and while it can be a great tool for speeding adventures along, it can create some realism problems into your world building, or make travel trivial. I’ll address some of these concerns in a forthcoming post “Why Don’t We Just Teleport There?”.
Have you added any teleport lore or mechanics to your game? Can players use a permanent teleportation circle for outbound travel… and if so how does that work in your game?
For what it’s worth, permanent teleportation circles feature in Storm King’s Thunder. In that campaign, each circle is staffed by a 9th level mage with the teleportation circle spell, which is to say those writers and whichever WOTC staff revised and edited it understood the spell still needs to be cast, even when travelling from one to another.
But I like your way much better!
Firstly, yes I meant 9th level mage (not 11th… have corrected the post!).
Interesting… I haven’t read STK, although the storyline appeals. Anyway, staffing a PTC with a mage doesn’t make ANY sense. If they have to cast the spell any way then there’s no benefit to having a PTC, as the spell teleportation circle doesn’t require one to set off. If this is the case, better just to go and find a 9th level mage in their lab and have them cast the spell, rather than going to a PTC, which is only really useful for safe arrivals.
Of course you could easily make it make sense by ruling that, using a Permanent Teleportation Circle as a material component, you can cast teleportation circle as a ritual without other material components (saving you a spell slot and 50 gp on chalks and inks each time).
Also, in this way the 9th level mage doesn’t stand there all day to only be able to enable ONE use of the spell…
I like your rules, Duncan. I especially like the “you can’t just look at the circle and learn the pattern” rule. I had this issue in a previous campaign, with the party easily picking up lots of circles just because they found one while adventuring. These aren’t supposed to be Diablo Town Portals – run by it and it’s logged! I also really like the idea of *maybe* figuring it out through study – but not knowing until you are *somewhere else* trying to come back to it. “Do my password begin with a 1 or a 2?” (to quote AJR’s song Bang!). And giving Identify another useful circumstance is a great tie in as well! I’m always on the lookout for ways to have that spell be more useful (given its original primary purpose – identifying magic items – is now handled by anyone with a Short Rest)!
Creating a PTC is only supposed to give you remote access to return home easily. I like the idea of making it a kind of Portal on demand! In my home game I created a System with Programmed crystals which work as keys – they all fit into the same keyholes but they all lead to only one specific location which is part of the teleportation network.
This allows even non casters to access teleportation if they have a key.. and certain keys are very valuable or even dangerous to possess because people want to get access to the places they lead to. Having a door which is linked up to the network is also desirable so you can have your very own access to the grid. I made it so that part of every teleportation circle is a stone slab with a key hole so the wizard who created the PTC can produce crystals to give quick access… even tho these crystals are horrendously difficult to obtain. In my game they are the cores of planets which because of calamities of Astral proportions might wander the Astral sea in the shape of asteroids.