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Why Don’t We Just Teleport There?

In general teleportation works pretty well in Dungeons & Dragons. At low levels, when the characters don’t have access to spells like teleportation circle, journeys are arduous and fraught with danger. Then, at mid-to-high levels, when the party have exhausted that style of play, and their characters can’t be challenged by bandits, broken bridges and quicksand anyhow, teleportation is a handy way to skip ahead to the meat of the adventure.

If the journey is the adventure… then you might need to consider the ramifications of teleportation. (Image: New Line Cinema).

However, that’s not to say the existence of teleportation doesn’t cause DMs, adventure designers and world-builders headaches… because it most definitely does. The main problem occurs at those low levels when you, the DM, want to challenge your players with a difficult journey, but a smartass pipes up and says: why don’t we just teleport there?

DM: Because you’re only 4th level and don’t have the spell teleportation circle.

Smartass: But surely, if the Open Lord of Waterdeep wants us to deliver this message so badly, we could use one of the city’s permanent teleportation circles to travel to Neverwinter directly? Or we could just ask the Blackstaff to beam us there?

DM: Ok guys, how about we have a little time out…

It’s certainly a tricky one. If the players are working for a patron who is either a 9th level wizard or above, or rich enough to pay one, then it makes sense that the characters will be able to bypass overland travel to reach any major settlement in the known / civilised world. This is likely to be annoying if, for example, they themselves are only level 2 and you wanted to play out an epic Lord of the Rings style journey with them.

Teleportation in D&D also raises some more general questions about the fantasy world you’re playing in. An obvious one being: why doesn’t all world travel – and trade – take place using teleportation circles, thus avoiding the dangers that seem to haunt every highway, road and forest trail in the D&D multiverse?

In order, therefore, to build a consistent and credible world in which to set our D&D adventures, it behoves DMs to give the matter of teleportation some thought – and probably some fairly robust limitations.

Teleportation Limitations

There are limitations already built into teleportation in D&D, as we know. The lowest level long-distance teleportation spell is the aforementioned teleportation circle which is a 5th level spell and costs 50 gp in raw materials to cast. Creating a permanent teleportation circle (which I will refer to as a PTC from now on) means casting this spell every day for a year in the same place, at a total cost of 18,250 gp. There’s a knowledge limitation too, built into the spell’s mechanics. One must know the unique sigil sequence of a PTC in order to use it as a destination.

“Hey Gandalf, hook a brother up with a teleportation circle won’t cha?” (Image: New Line Cinema).

While the rules are clear on how the teleportation circle spell works when cast, it’s not really 100% clear how PTCs work once created: but a RAW interpretation suggests that these PTCs only act as arrival points, and that you can’t use one as a departure node… for that you need to cast teleportation circle, or teleport (so proximity to a PTC doesn’t help you… proximity to a 9th level wizard is what counts!).

Consequently, you could surmise that you’d only really create a PTC to either encourage incoming trade or tourism (giving out the unique sigil sequence readily), or to make getting back home easier. (Note, while temples are cited as likely locations of teleportation circles, on p.24 of the DMG, the fact that clerics can’t access teleportation magic means it would be rather odd to build a PTC in a temple).

For a recent high magic adventure I wrote, I came up with rules that turn PTCs into the kind of sci-fi portals we half expect them to be, with a control dial that anyone who knows an arcane sigil sequence can use – no 9th level mage required. Click the link to take a look.

Meanwhile, if you wanted to make PTCs useful for outbound travel, but still require a mage to cast teleportation circle, you could rule that the PTC itself acts as the spell’s material components… so that no 50 gp of gem-infused inks is required (this feels like how the official rules might have been intended to work). You could also rule that they can cast teleportation circle as a ritual using a PTC, meaning they can do it multiple times a day without running out of spell slots.

In general, however, for a more traditional D&D campaign you probably want to make teleportation harder, not easier, in order to prevent it from trivialising travel and becoming a potential adventure killer.

Here are some limitations which you could dial up or down to fit your world:

Rarity. A simple solution for stopping teleportation getting out of hand is to make it a rare form of magic indeed. Maybe only a handful of living mages have mastered teleportation circle and teleport, and they are not inclined to share their secrets… if a player wants to learn such a spell they will have to do the mage in question a solid favour (and swear a vow of secrecy!).

Cost. You could make teleportation insanely expensive. Maybe it still only costs the mage 50 gp in raw materials to cast teleportation circle, but they have better things to do than aid adventurers on their way… “1,000 gold pieces… each! Or get out of my lab!”

Raw materials. Key components are in short supply. “Sorry, I’m all out of gem-infused inks.” Or a lack of materials could further inflate the price.

Danger. Maybe every time you teleport, even to PTCs, there’s a risk of a Mishap (see teleport spell)… or maybe even a chance of being stuck in limbo? Or maybe anyone who teleports must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or take 1d6 force damage and 1d6 psychic damage (if any die rolls a 6, you roll an additional die, ad perpetuum). That would be enough to rule out teleportation as a form of transport for most traders and merchants, and explain why it is for heroic missions only. You could raise the damage and even smack in some exhaustion for good measure (‘teleportation sickness’ causes vomiting and extreme nausea and lasts for up to 5 days), depending on your needs. Other ideas I had were teleportation ageing you, or potentially causing madness (a cumulative chance? Now we have an explanation for all those mad mages at least!).

Regulation. Maybe teleportation is tightly regulated by a conclave of wizards or a dedicated guild. You need a license to perform it, every journey must be documented with a record of the journey’s purpose, goods carried etc. A high fee must be paid. Perhaps powerful wards prevent non-authorised travel; or, if no such wards exist, perhaps alarms have been designed to tip off the guild about non-authorised travel.

One-Off Obstacles to Teleportation

Depending on your mental strength and stamina, figuring out the precise workings of teleportation in your world could end up frustrating you. Given that I’ve recently been reading The Return of Lazy Dungeon Master (thoroughly recommended!), I’m half inclined to think we’re better off reserving our brainpower for other aspects of our games, but simply keeping one or two excuses on hand for shutting down teleportation on those one or two occasions when it is going to majorly derail your plans (cue comment: “Players should be allowed to derail your plans!”. Cue response: really a DM’s planned encounters should be better than those they have to improvise because the PCs shortcut an entire swath of the adventure).

Here are a few that might work.

  • The town’s mage doesn’t know the arcane sigil sequence of the circle the players wish to go to.
  • The town’s mage is away doing research.
  • The town’s mage is seriously ill.
  • You go to the mage’s tower to find him dead (you have until the players complete their current mission to decide how who killed him and why).
  • The mission requires discretion and the king doesn’t trust any of the city’s mages
  • The mission requires discretion and the PTC in the destination city is watched / guarded
  • The mage casts teleportation circle but the players take damage and arrive back in the mage’s lab.
    • The mage wonders if someone has destroyed the destination circle…
    • …or placed some kind of ward on it like the forbiddance spell
    • …or maybe the building it was in collapsed.

Hopefully one or two of those might save you tearing up several hours of journey prep! (“Oh yes, you will slog through the swamp…”).

Mildly Related Stuff

Good news… Hipsters & Dragons finally got a logo! It has been on my things to do list for just six years or so, but after several aborted attempts I finally came up with a concept I liked and had it done up professionally. It felt like the right time to update the blog’s featured image as well to feature some 5e books (the old image of 2e books was fun, but not really on brand for a blog that talks exclusively about 5th edition!).

A new header image to reflect the 5e content bias

I’ve also made a bit of an attempt to categorise my blog posts a little better and if you dip into the right hand side bar you’ll find I’ve used the WordPress categories widget to much better effect than previously… I’m not saying every post is a classic, but you might enjoy browsing few some old ones… esp. now you can find specific themes way more easily.

Totally Unrelated Guff

A couple of Fridays ago I went to see Top Gun: Maverick at the cinema… it just about surpassed my very low expectations, and you can read my full thoughts on it here, on my resurrected film blog.


Permanent Teleportation Circles: How Do They Work?


Meteor Hammer Feat: How To Play Gogo Yubari in D&D!


  1. Rick Coen

    Congrats on the logo! I like it! Simple, but effective.

    Great article topic too. The “Danger” section really stuck in my mind; I will probably swipe that!

    In my last campaign, civilization was reduced to ten citystates, scattered across a continent. Each city-state needed to be pretty much self-sufficient to survive. Teleportation circles existed between the cities, but they were tightly controlled by the organizations that had archmages to run them. The only trade that occurred using PTCs was luxury items (who could pay the exorbitant fees), and the occasional aid package or treaty-mandated shipments. Agents could be sent to the various cities – except Forgefires, which suffered physical damage to its PTC, and Tanrith, which “mysteriously stopped communicating with everyone, the night of the comet”. But adventurers and caravans were still required to go anywhere ELSE – villages, lost sites, enemy strongholds, ancient kingdoms, etc. Finding a new PTC was a huge “reward” for the adventurers, and *they* never shared these new sigil combinations, because it diminished the party’s value to employers!

    • duncan

      Thanks Rick, glad you like it!

      Nice, I like your approach to PTCs and sounds like great world building – luxury items are a nice touch. I hadn’t given enough thought to how PCs might want to gather and guard their own collection of sigil sequences.

      Did you (or will you) ever publish your campaign world?

      • Rick Coen

        I had never thought about publishing the world, to be honest. We adventured in it for a decade (4th Edition, from level 1 to level 29), finished, and set it aside. Much of the second half of the campaign took place in Sigil and the Planes — and one of the PCs was creating his own PTCs as temporary bases. [4e had the circle active on Day 1, but it took one of the mage’s 6 daily healing surges every day for a year to maintain it.] Arrive in a new location, Stone Shape a “blister” somewhere as a safe base, with a new PTC in it. Then any time they needed to retreat, teleport to the Blister for a long rest. Required retracing their steps afterward, but depending on the location, that wasn’t a problem.

        (And man were they excited to collect a PTC sigil string for a location on level 4 of Hell. More than one difficult foe found themselves dumped into the center of a devil fortification!)

        Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on publishing a campaign setting! 🙂

  2. Michael

    I’ve given this one quite a lot of thought. Teleportation sickness hadn’t occurred to me. I like that one a lot.

    The Lord of the Rings would have suffered greatly as a story if there had been a teleportation circle half way up Mount Doom. That actually brings me to my conclusion. If you are a dark lord and you’ve built yourself an impenetrable fortress in the middle of a nation with an impenetrable border, or if your Elrond’s great grandfather and you’ve built yourself a secret city in an impossible to find mountain valley, you’re really not going to want to build a teleportation circle there and give out the sigil sequence to all and sundry – rendering all your defences utterly useless. It’s somewhat akin to paying for the best world’s best security system for your database servers and then publishing your password on Twitter.

    I think the average ruler in a D&D world would view any teleportation circle as a kraken sized hole in his or her security set up. I think most rulers would destroy any that they found. If they kept any whole then they’d be well outside the city, they guard the f*&^ out of them, they’d let at most five people know the sigil sequence and they change that sequence every six weeks.

    • duncan

      Yes, the DMG does also point out that PTCs tend to be well guarded, and rightly so, for the security threat they offer (nice analogy btw).

      But I still imagine that every city would want a PTC for communications purposes (receiving messengers) at least and – if you don’t put restrictions on teleportation – for trade too. It might be that each city would have a Master of Teleportation mage (or two) who knew the sequences to the other dozen major ‘civilised’ or allied cities in the realm, for the purposes of communications – and these mages were the only folks who knew the passwords. For trade, I think it’s better to come up with reasons why that doesn’t happen via PTCs, unless you’re creating a very high magic setting.

      Meanwhile the evil lord might want a PTC in / near their lair, for their agents to be able to return easily to base, so they can send them out again on new missions… capturing an evil agent and getting the sigil sequence out of them could be a good mission for a party (or a way for them to shortcut the adventure). They might want a super secret one for themselves to get back safely home.

      Changing the sigil sequence makes sense, but I think in RAW that would involve creating a new PTC… expensive and takes a 1 year to accomplish!

      It’s worth remembering too that from 13th level a wizard can use the 7th level teleport spell to just beam in to a fortress / city anyhow with 8 other people… (albeit not necessarily automatically), so destroying PTCs doesn’t solve the security problem outright.

      I’d be tempted to move both spells up a level to 6th and 8th, respectively.

      • Michael

        So to change the sequence every 6 weeks (RaW) you need a cycle of 9 circles, 1 functional, 8 is various stages of completion each six weeks apart. You destroy the working one as soon as a new one is complete and then start reworking the destroyed one 2 weeks after you destroy it.

        I have to say the RaW rules for creating teleportation circles are very, very boring. I know there are a few other spells that follow that pattern. I reject them all.

        In my campaign world there are teleportation circles but they, their sigil sequences, their locations and even the fact of their existence are very closely guarded. The wizard who invented the ritual that changes a sigil sequence was awarded a small city state for the achievement.

    • Rick Coen

      In my 2e game, every LBEG had a glass rod. Breaking the glass rod triggered a Word of Recall (the cleric teleport) to bring the LBEG back to the Evil Lord’s base. It was an escape mechanism, but also an emergency communication option. In two cases, it was a corpse return – first, unintentionally triggered by the PCs; the second, kind of a taunt from the PCs!

      Then, when the time came, the PCs felt they were ready to assault the BBEG’s base, of course they used captured glass rods to teleport right into the base! Whereupon they were immediately Fireballed not once, not twice, but *six* times by the waiting guard-mages! (only 5th level, but 30d6 is a lot of damage to soak!) Being ready for the final battle, most of the PCs survived this, and quickly slaughtered the six unsupported mages. And then the PCs put/grew a Wall of Stone horizontally out from one wall at hip-height… [Yes, in newer Editions, you would just appear in the nearest unobstructed spot. I let it go.] The replacement/resurrected (Story) PC teleported in on his hands and knees an hour later, under the Wall, and had to crawl out in pools of gore from the reinforcements the BBEG had summoned, who *didn’t* know about the Wall!

      I totally agree, guarding your PTC is key. And also…. you don’t put it *inside* your defenses like a Star Trek transporter pad, you put it just outside the defenses like a helicopter landing pad – you still need the codes/badges/passwords to come in, you just don’t have to swim the lava river and hike up the glass mountain, past the ravenous rotworms and the pet half-fiend wyvern chimerae….

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