April RPG Blog Carnival: A Scroll by Any Other Name

It’s April at the RPG Blog Carnival (and in the real world, too, I guess) and our theme this month is magical items. Our host, Codex Anathema, has asked us to consider how we approach magic items in out campaigns, what we do to make them truly special. So today I want to focus on that most ubiquitous of magical items, the scroll.

Casting magic from a scroll has been a staple of fantasy for longer than there has been fantasy. Mythology is rife with scrolls being used to make magic great and small. Terrible and wonderful things have been wrought by words written on a rolled-up bit of paper.

And that last bit is the problem. Say “scroll” to your players, and it’s very likely you both have the same image in your head; a rolled up bit of parchment, maybe tied with a ribbon or tucked in a tube. And the response to finding a scroll in their treasure is indifference at best, unless they’re one of the party casters.

So let’s change that. Even in our world different cultures created myriad ways to communicate the written word. A scroll from Feudal Japan is going to look different than a similar scroll from Medieval China, and both will look nothing like the scrolls used in Dynasty Egypt. Why shouldn’t the scrolls in your game have that same variation? And why should you stick to scrolls written on paper or paper-like surfaces? In my current campaign, for instance, the party have come across an ancient fey library, in which the scrolls are actually embossed and preserved leaves which give up their information when pressed against the skin.

So at its heart, a scroll is an information transfer device. Someone puts information on it, so that someone else can access that information at a later time, for as long as possible. Spell scrolls would act in the same way, except that accessing the information usually consumes the information stored, and it needs to be replenished before it can be used again. But from that basic idea of what a scroll does, you can expand your ideas of what a scroll is, and give your players a unique experience the next time they find scrolls in their treasure. 

I’ve listed ten ideas for weird and wonderful scrolls to surprise your players with at your next session. While it isn’t exhaustive, hopefully it helps get your brain juices flowing to come up with unconventional scrolls of your own. They may require a bit more thought and care on behalf of the GM than a regular scroll might, but I think the excitement from your players will be well worth it.

  1. The scroll is a skull, with the spell inscribed on the inside surface. At the GM’s discretion different skulls could enhance certain spells (a shrinking spell inscribed in a pixie skull, for instance)
  2. The scroll is a playing card, with the word’s symbols hidden in the card’s artwork. Added bonus, your players may, for one sphincter-clenching moment, think they’ve found a deck of many things when the deck of cards detects as magic. Good times.
  3. The scroll is a stretched hide in a frame. Cumbersome to carry, this is more suited to ritual spells that might commonly be cast in a specific location.
  4. The scroll is one of several similar tapestries, all hanging within eye line of the ruler as they sit on their throne. Perfect for when an NPC needs quick protective/offensive magic.
  5. The scroll is a bird, the words inscribed on its feathers. When the bird is released its song activates the spell.
  6. The scroll is a small (15-20 piece) puzzle, which must be completed to activate the scroll.
  7.  The scroll is an uncooked egg. Breaking the egg releases the spell. Only works on uncooked eggs. As with the skulls, different eggs may enhance different spells.
  8. The scroll is a blend of spices, coloured pigments, and other granular ingredients. Flinging the entire contents into the air releases the spell.
  9. The scroll is a small firework, and the spell releases after it explodes.
  10. The scroll is a doll, the words written on its porcelain skin. When you pull the string in its back its eyes open and it speaks the trigger word to complete the spell.

Pick a description you like, or roll a d10 for a quick one-off result. Or use a bunch all at once; imagine a library filled with a variety of these scrolls.

Imagine as well the possibilities for NPCs and locations inspired by looking at scrolls differently. Take Number 5 off the list above. Imagine the shop where these “scrolls” are kept and cared for. Imagine the type of person who can sooth a bird enough to then sit and inscribe tiny words and symbols onto the feathers of a still living bird. How did they discover this method? Did they invent it or did they learn from someone else? Where does that person live and what other wonders might be found there? With enough “what ifs” you can spin one magical oddity into an interesting character for your players to meet and possibly an entire side quest down the road.

Please check out the other RPG Blog Carnival participants this month. And comment on Facebook or Twitter: how have you made a “mundane” magic item special for your players? I’d love to hear from you!