June 19, 2024

Getting Away From It All

Like speak with dead and a number of other spells that are foundational to the D&D game, the teleport spell is one that can inspire great consternation in some DMs for its ability to derail a well-thought-out encounter — or even upend a whole campaign. Whenever group teleportation first becomes a thing a party can do, we as GMs need to always keep that in the back of our minds, fretting constantly over when and how the party’s arcanist will play the “Get Out of This Encounter Free” card. 

Except that a lot of GMs (including me, once upon a time) can easily forget that what the teleport spell actually does and what a gang of overly excited players assume the spell does aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Art from the Dungeon Master’s Guide

The Fine Print

It’s easy to assume that teleport allows a group of characters with access to that spell to safely and instantaneously travel wherever they want. But that’s not actually what the spell says. What the stock 5e version of the spell says is: “The destination you choose must be known to you, and it must be on the same plane of existence as you. Your familiarity with the destination determines whether you arrive there successfully.”

That “known to you” clause makes teleport a much more interesting spell from a GM’s perspective. Because the actual mechanics of what “known to you” means (as laid out in the table that accompanies the spell) can add a lot to the narrative of using the spell.

Teleport absolutely gives the players an almost foolproof get-out-of-danger-now move (but see below for how that “almost” might play out against savvy foes). In the midst of a knockdown battle, characters who can coordinate regrouping with the wizard’s casting of teleport can flee a fight they can’t win or that they don’t want to finish. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A bit of general wisdom that’s useful for all GMs is to ensure that battles have exit points that characters and their foes can take if they want or need to. Not every battle needs to be a fight to the finish, and teleport simply gives the characters and players an additional out if they want it.

Likewise, teleport allows characters to go back to any specific location they’ve been to before, which can make for fast side treks. If it turns out that talking with the sage the party met three levels earlier might help with cracking a puzzle or deciphering coded lore, it’s totally fine to just let that happen. By the time the characters are of a level where a party member is casting teleport, it’s expected that they can get access to all kinds of exceptional resources, so don’t worry about them gaining long-distance access to resources they’ve already used.

For everything else, though? Using teleport can be much trickier than the players and characters initially expect.

Who’s Got the Map?

One thing to keep in mind is that teleport takes its caster and any friends tagging along to a specific location. Not to a city in general, but to a particular street corner in that city. Not to a random spot in a dungeon or a castle, but to a particular room in such a site. Characters who’ve heard of the most magnificent city in your campaign world or the richest hidden vaults but who have never visited those sites have zero chance to teleport there. And that’s where teleportation can make an adventure interesting.

Teleporting to a site the characters don’t know requires tracking down a description of that site. That’s a side quest right there, which you can have as much fun with as you like. The end of such a side quest should unveil the lore describing a location in very specific detail, most commonly in the form of written or illustrated records, or by talking to an NPC who’s been at that location and can describe it. But the characters’ goal of getting to their magical destination doesn’t necessarily end there.

Go Left… I Mean Right

Characters who seek a description of a location with the intent of teleporting there are always working with the very optimistic hope that that description is accurate. But whether that’s the case or not is known only to you. A written account or sketch of a specific site might miss out on a number of key details. A retired warrior who once fought a battle out in front of the Lost Shrine of Unfindability might have only hazy memories of the place now, though they swear their recollection is crystal clear when the characters offer to pay for it. A popular tavern that can be described with perfect accuracy by anyone who’s spent time there might have burned down when the characters decide to drop in from the other side of the continent.

The Off Target result on the table for the teleport spell gives you a degree of carte blanche for deciding where the characters end up. This can provide a perfect excuse to bust out a premade random encounter using a map you’ve previously selected for just this purpose, as the characters arrive in middle-of-nowhere monster territory rather than their intended destination. But the Similar Area result on the teleport spell’s table can be even more fun. Are the characters trying to teleport into the common room of the merchants’ guild to pull off a daring heist? Maybe the ex-guild member who described the site was fired for drinking on the job, and their shoddy description sees the characters end up in the common room of the assassin’s guild two blocks over instead.

Also, don’t forget that the best-known locations the characters might attempt to teleport to in settlements, fortresses, or dungeons are often the busiest and most populated locations. It might be an automatic success for the bard to teleport the party to a public market they know well in a previously visited city. But the bard might need to then turn on the charm to explain why the characters have just appeared in the middle of a panicking merchant’s stall before the local guards are called.

You Shall Not Pass

One thing that’s always easy for a GM to forget is that just as you have to worry about the effects that powerful magic can have in the campaign, your villains also spend a lot of time worrying about that. As such, powerful figures and monsters who are painfully aware of the hassle that a group of characters teleporting into their sanctum would cause will absolutely set up defenses to protect against that if they can. 

Formidable wizards or priests channeling peak divine power might have their towers or temples protected by unique magical effects that negate or interfere with teleportation, both incoming and outgoing. If a local cavern is suffused with natural magic that causes teleportation to automatically go off target, it’s a safe bet that some intelligent apex monster will have decided that’s a premium spot for a lair.

On a less epic level, having a lair or sanctum protected by the glyph of warding spell or similar effects won’t prevent characters from teleporting straight in, but will provide them with a most unpleasant welcome. And even the most low-level illusion magic filling a location with false features can hinder attempts to teleport there after viewing that location with scrying or similar magic.

Final Destination

One important note: Don’t treat any of the ideas here as punitive or retaliatory. Your intent should never be to punish the characters because their relentless pursuit of experience lets them learn to do new cool stuff. But as is often said, the destination should never be the point of any journey. Teleportation in the game can and should give the characters access to a wider world. But you as the GM can still have fun with how they get there.