Creating Memorable Mishaps With a Wizard’s Spellbook

There’s a very small line in the Player’s Handbook that has inspired me for quite some time now. 

Copying a spell into your spellbook involves reproducing the basic form of the spell, then deciphering the unique system of notation used by the wizard who wrote it. You must practice the spell until you understand the sounds or gestures required, then transcribe it into your spellbook using your own notation.

It’s a seemingly mundane quote about magic, but there’s something here that I find very interesting.

This passage about copying spells into your spellbook clearly suggests that each wizard has their own unique notation used to encode their spells. 

Every time a wizard finds an old spellbook or a scroll and decides to write some new spells into their book, they’re essentially playing a translation game without a single hint or reference, just a deep knowledge of magic.

Yet somehow, if they have the right gold and time, everything seems to work out just fine.

Well, I don’t really like that. The concept of transcribing encoded magic spells is far too interesting to just be used as a throwaway line. 

Today, join me in asking: What if transcribing spells was an intense and volatile process?

Encoded Spellbooks

Every wizard has their own unique set of notations they use to record spells, but according to 5e, there are no special rules to how it works.

I get it, it’s an added level of complication that they didn’t want to include, but there is so much room for excitement in this little bit of flavor they added to the wizard class.

The first part of my thought process is a very simple question. Why do wizards encode their spells?

I’d have to assume it’s to prevent other wizards from learning their secrets. Otherwise, we’re just saying that all wizards are very eccentric and enjoy making up weird languages. 

So the written version of the spell is probably much closer to a set of Ikea instructions than a recipe. My partner’s sister has trouble setting up that furniture, and she’s an actual rocket scientist. 

That brings us to the next part of this process. Decoding spells is difficult.

We’re supposed to know this already because 5e has us spend time and gold figuring out how to cast a spell before we copy it down in our own spellbook.

Specifically, we have to spend two hours and 50 gp per level of the spell we’re trying to copy.

Normally, that’s a very simple process in our world. We say, “I’m going to spend six hours copying Fireball into my spellbook,” and the DM just says, “okay,” and reminds us to remove the gold from our character sheet.

In the game though, our character is spending all of that time staring at a bunch of encoded, scribbled notes and trying to figure out where in that pile of symbols a spell is.

There’s also the fact that we spend gold thrown in, which is meant to represent us purchasing the necessary materials to cast the spell so we can cast it over and over again.

Doing this means we become familiar enough with the spell to jot it down with our own super-secret code. 

Here’s the thing though, we don’t know how the spell works. We could easily be buying the wrong supplies and practicing completely incorrectly.

Imagine if I asked you to make some obscure dish you’d never heard of and then handed you the recipe in another language. Oh, and you don’t have access to modern technology.

I’m going to give you 10 hours to mess around in the kitchen, and when I come back, I expect you to prepare this dish for me.

That would be absolutely insane! There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that you even come close to making the right meal.

Fortunately for our wizards, we can at least give them the benefit of being a practiced spellcaster. So now I’m asking the same task of a master chef, meaning they can infer a decent bit more about what’s going on.

Can someone please pitch that as a show on Food Network? We’ll call it… Kitchen Wizards.

Okay, so we all agree? Transcribing spells should be difficult. Let’s talk about how we can do that.

Copying Spells in 5e: Modified

There are two things that I want to implement to make this whole process much more exciting and challenging.

First, we’re going to add some difficulty to the copying process. Then, we’re going to introduce a way for failure to be more impactful than just wasting a few hours and some gold.

Decoding DC

Adding a challenge is remarkably easy. All we have to do is introduce a check.

Arcana makes the most sense because this is very clearly related to arcane knowledge. Plus, wizards have the option of arcana proficiency and should already have a high intelligence score.

This means that while it will be a challenge, it will be at least mildly mitigated by some bonuses.

We’re not just going to do one check either, because that means we’re just setting up a pass/fail scenario.

If we want to actually make things interesting, we’re going to force an arcana check every hour that you spend decoding the spell. This will allow us to create a sort of spectrum from successful transcription to decoding failure.

Next, the DC for our arcana check should be related to the spell. Fortunately, spells have levels, a built-in number for us to use as a DC modifier.

We’ll set the DC as 10 plus two times the level of the spell (DC = 10 + 2x spell level). 

This means that 1st-level spells (DC 12) barely create a challenge for our intellectual mages, while 9th-level spells (DC 28) are almost impossible to accurately decode and recreate. 

Now, we have a huge difference between our early spells and our late-game spells.

Where you can probably copy a low-level spell with only a small margin of error, you’re practically guaranteed to mess up a high-level spell in some way, shape, or form.

Just think, we only have to make four DC 14 checks for a 2nd-level spell. Compare that to the 14 DC 24 checks our 7th-level spells will force on us, and it’s clear to see we’re going to mess up a spell or two along the way.

Making Failure Matter

If we were to just fail at copying a spell, then we wouldn’t really be making the game any more exciting. That kind of rule would just force our players to waste more gold and time.

By the “rule of cool,” we should be spicing things up with our failures, which is why I made us make multiple arcana checks to even decode the spell in the first place.

It’s pretty likely that you’re going to cast some form of spell in the time that you spend playing around with magical materials and some wizard’s spellbook (or scroll, whatever).

So it’s up to us (or me, I’m writing this article) to figure out what kind of weird spell you’re going to end up with.

This entire article’s concept really started with the idea that you could mess up transcribing a spell to end up with a cold damage Fireball – a Snowball, if you will. That inspired the theme of what I’m calling “transcription mishaps.” 

Transcription mishaps are modifications to the original spell that represent an inability to fully recreate the spell you’re trying to.

Maybe you accidentally give the spell the wrong damage type, maybe a healing spell starts dealing damage, or maybe the range changes. The whole point is that we’re ending up with a new spell.

As you remember though, we can fail our checks several times, so I’ve made a lot of possible mishaps that can be tacked onto your spell.

Each time you fail a check, you’ll have to roll on the Transcriptions Mishap table and use the result to modify your spell.

Additionally, if you fail all of your checks, the transcription will automatically fail, and the spell will disappear from the page. We’re calling this a “Catastrophic Fail,” and it’s also a possible mishap.

You can roll up as many mishaps as you need, and you’ll use each of them to modify the spell unless specified otherwise.

There’s a chance that some of the mishaps won’t affect the spell you’re intending, and that’s totally fine – that means you’ve dodged a bullet.

There’s also a chance that certain combinations will create when you cast this spell.

For example, a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias are conjured into existence 4,000 feet in the air. They fall according to XGtE’s rule on free fall.

The DM describes their thoughts at the start of each round for an impossible spell, which is essentially a failure.

Transcription Mishap Rules

Below is the transcription mishap table and a condensed version of the rules we’ve discussed and created above. 

Spell Transcription

When you find a wizard spell of 1st level or higher, you can add it to your spellbook if it is of a spell level you can prepare and if you can spare the time to decipher and copy it.

Copying a spell into your spellbook involves reproducing the basic form of the spell, and then deciphering the unique system of notation used by the wizard who wrote it.

You must practice the spell until you understand the sounds or gestures required, and then transcribe it into your spellbook using your own notation.

For each level of the spell, the process takes 2 hours and costs 50 gp. The cost represents material components you expend as you experiment with the spell to master it as well as the fine inks you need to record it.

Once you have spent this time and money, you can prepare the spell just like your other spells.

Each hour, you must make an arcana check. The DC is equal to 10 + two times the spell’s level. If you fail every check, the transcription fails, and the spell disappears from the fail.

Otherwise, roll on the Transcription Mishap Table below, and modify the spell with each mishap.

If a mishap would not affect the spell, then the spell does not change. If a combination of mishaps causes the spell to be uncastable, then you fail to transcribe the spell.

A DM can make mishap rolls in secret to add to the suspense of the decoding process.

Transcription Mishap Table

Final Thoughts

D&D is an exciting game, and that is a direct result of what the community has added to it throughout the years.

If you come across something that you feel can be elaborated, some fun mechanic you want, then spend the time to introduce it.

I hope you enjoy this new rule I’ve come up with, and I hope it inspires you to spend a little more time homebrewing on your own.

As always, happy adventuring.