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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.