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In my campaign (DnD 5e) I would like to send players on a quest to save a kidnapped person. The person has high value information. He/she was ambushed and taken prisoner.

My question is: is there a logical reason for sending a person to deliver a message instead of using 3rd level spell Sending? The spell has no range limitations, and message can be up to 25 words long. What are good reasons for not using a spell? The sender and the receiver would both have resources to hire a Wizard, Bard or Cleric to cast spell, so not using the spell option should be more complex than just “Caster is not available”. In addition the length of a message is less than 25 words.

I would like to keep the idea of sending party on a rescue mission, just need a logical reason for doing so.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How can we communicate short messages long-distance? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 12 at 21:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding "I would like to keep the idea of sending party on a rescue mission, just need a logical reason for doing so" - Information can be valuable to multiple parties. Don't send your players to recover the information that they or their employer may already have, send the players to stop the kidnappers from extracting the information from their prisoner. Note that, depending on the circumstances, this may mean the mission goes from a rescue mission, to a rescue or kill mission. Though DnD does provide ways of getting info from the dead, so a rescue might be necessary anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – 8bittree Oct 21 at 2:45
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Sending is expensive and has certain limitations

The question already notes the primary drawback to sending, which is that it is expensive. The Adventurers League Tyranny of Dragons Player's Guide suggests a price of 90 gp, more than a year's wage for an unskilled worker. As per PHB p.159, a messenger costs only 2cp per mile.

However, in your case, sending has certain inherent limitations, and can have contrived limitations which you can invent (think of how Star Trek's transporter always fails to work right when they need it).

  • Sending requires that the caster know the target. The captive might be a spy whose identity is not known. The only casters available at short notice may be wizards-for-hire who do not know the target personally. Perhaps the original agent was killed, but the critical information was passed on to another individual who is previously unknown to the casters.
  • The target's identity may also be state secret, particularly if they are a spy or secret agent. If they are a secret agent or informant among the enemy, it may even be that the caster is not allowed to be told the agent's identity; only the PCs can be trusted with this knowledge (because they're loyal, or politically neutral, or their employer just trusts them more than any scheming court wizard).
  • Getting a response is also tricky if the target does not recognize the caster. If it's secret information, he's not going to give it away to just any wizard who claims to be on his side.
  • The spell has a limit of 25 words. The intel may be much more detailed. Spies are normally given lengthy debriefings and must be interrogated at length.
  • The intel may be something physical, like a map or a physical object giving proof of something.
  • Perhaps the sending was attempted, and no response was given. The player characters are sent in to investigate. (Is the target dead? Unconscious? Has he defected? If dead, the spell won't work, but speak with dead or rescuing the body for raise dead will.)
  • Perhaps the captors are blocking the sending with antimagic or some unique spells which specifically prevent sending magic.
  • Perhaps the enemy has a way to intercept sending, so it's not considered secure.
  • Wizards are rare, and hard to acquire at short notice. The d20 Demographics Calculator (admittedly based on D&D 3e's demographics rules) suggests that a city of over 40,000 people may have only a dozen wizards able to cast sending. Perhaps none of those even have sending prepared today, and cannot wait until tomorrow; time is of the essence.
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    \$\begingroup\$ How can you intercept sending? Asking for a friend. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 12 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Getting a response is also tricky if the target does not recognize the caster". But the spell description says it targets a creature with which you are familiar and [the creature] recognizes you as the sender if it knows you. So this limitation only applies if the caster knows the target but the target doesn't know the caster. If the caster is a wizard-for-hire this seems unlikely. I suppose it is possible if the caster is a government agent trained to know people but who keeps their own identity secret. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Oct 12 at 16:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt Sure, you'll recognize Bob the for-rent Wizard is sending at you, but you won't know if the message came from the king (unless the King has a daily code word). \$\endgroup\$ – Owen Reynolds Oct 13 at 0:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer, and many of the last few points apply to almost any other option you can come up with in 5e for a reliable communication system based on magic. Setting up a magical telecom system is a difficult task even in significantly more high-magic systems like 3.5e or Pathfinder (it’s actually doable there, but needs specific magic items, and it ends up being a a complicated (and very expensive at 40k gp per link in Pathfinder 1e) mesh topology if you want it to be reliable). \$\endgroup\$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Oct 13 at 1:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just teach your spies a highly agglutinative language like Kalaallisut to get around that word limit. \$\endgroup\$ – Azor Ahai -- he him Oct 14 at 0:33
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Availability of magic

If your setting is a High Magic setting (see pages 38-41 in the Dungeon Master's Guide for more on "Flavors of Fantasy"), this might not apply so much, but in settings where magic is not quite as common, not everyone has access to a spellcaster who can cast sending, so then more people have to rely on more mundane ways of sending messages.

Cost

Even in a High Magic setting, or in a lower magic setting where you happen to know a spellcaster, having a spellcaster cast spells for you often costs something, and not everyone is able or willing to do that when sending a messenger is likely to be cheaper. Consider the AL rules on clerical services as an example of putting prices on spellcasting.

Longer messages

The spell's description says:

You send a short message of twenty-five words or less to a creature with which you are familiar.

If you needed to send a message that was longer than 25 words, you'd need to find another way, so a messenger with a piece of paper (or several), or even just having the messenger know of the subject (an apprentice delivering a message for their master, no need for paper since the apprentice understands what is being discussed).

Also, as pointed out by @Mooing Duck in a comment, if the message is an image rather than words, then sending would also be an inappropriate method of communicating, whereas a messenger could still deliver a picture.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "that was longer than 25 words" -> Or if it wasn't words. If the messages is a picture, that also wouldn't work \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Oct 12 at 20:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MooingDuck Hey, you only need to cast Sending 40 times to send a picture. \$\endgroup\$ – 8bittree Oct 13 at 21:25
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There are 2 ways I can think of.

  1. You can use the first sentence of sending: "You send a short message of twenty-five words or less to a creature with which you are familiar" (emphasis mine). You could argue that even if a spellcaster could be hired for casting it, said spellcaster would have to be familiar with the creature they're sending a message to.

  2. Spellcasters are not all that common in the typical world of D&D, and 3rd level spells should generally be even less common than 2nd level or less.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Also people send messages to others they're not 'familiar' with, like customer support or job applications. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Oct 12 at 21:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ ,,,,or "the current acting mayor of Mudtown" or "the foreman of the royal platinum mine". Sending a message to whomever is in a certain position. \$\endgroup\$ – Owen Reynolds Oct 12 at 23:57
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This kind of sounds like "In the age of telegrams, is there any need for writing letters anymore?"

Familiarity

A sending must target a creature with which the caster is familiar. If your local wizard just hasn't ever met the guy, that puts the stop to any kind of sending to begin with. This is probably the easiest thing -- nobody around with spellcasting ability has met the sender or the messenger, so it's just kind of a dead-end.

Physical objects

A sending can only transmit pure information; there's no ability to send an object or a signature. A signed contract or peace accord isn't valuable for the information in it, but for the signature that indicates it's been accepted and is legally binding. A box of objects wouldn't be viable for transmission by sending at all. Your second-easiest answer is probably to have the messenger carrying something where the actual, physical item itself is what's important, not the information written on it. (Or alternatively, the information is what's important, but as Sean Connery said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, "I wrote them down in my diary so I wouldn't have to remember!")

Information density

But on that note, how much information is there, and long do you really have before it becomes worthless? How many times can you cast sending every day?

A page of handwritten text is usually between 300 and 500 words and a sending can only send 25 words at a time, so even if you can cast sending three times per day, you're looking at 4 days to a week per page. That might work for a relatively short document, but anything longer than a casual letter will probably require months of effort to transmit. Can a message really wait so long to be completed instead of just rescuing the messenger or sending a new copy by foot?

Even if the sender can summarize the text to get information across faster, it still may take weeks to even get the gist of a multi-page document pushed through sendings, let alone details. The logistical limitations imposed by daily spell slots really seem to remove this as a reasonable option for anything you wouldn't be comfortable communicating by bellowing across a field.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good call on the familiarity. Any sort of Sending network would require everyone involved to know one another. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Oct 12 at 15:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding a contract, it could be anything you need to show to someone else. With a sending you stare at the sky, mutter "at once" and tell people the king just put you in charge, or raised the quota. Riiight. \$\endgroup\$ – Owen Reynolds Oct 13 at 0:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for a great answer. The part about physical object gave me some ideas. \$\endgroup\$ – Samogitian95 Oct 13 at 0:46
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The need to confirm, protection against mental contact, and it's all about relationships

The other answers already do a good job of explaining why messengers are needed in general in a world where sending is commonplace. I will confine my answer to your specific case, which seems to be, "why would you send PC's to rescue someone with high value information when you can just extract the information via sending and then tell the kidnappers to get bent?"

The need to confirm

There is no requirement that the statements made via sending have to be truthful. The kidnappers have to establish that they indeed have the prisoner. If the prisoner is simply 'out of contact', any number of people with access to sending might claim responsibility. The actual kidnappers need to send something physical, such as clothing or jewelry or a little finger to demonstrate that they actually have the prisoner.

Protection against mental contact

If the people trying to recover the prisoner have access to sending (3rd level), they may also have access to scrying (5th level). Anyone planning for a successful kidnapping needs to take this into account to prevent their location being discovered. Ideally the prisoner is in some kind of anti-magic zone, preventing both scrying and sending. Spells such as private sanctum and items such as an amulet of proof against detection and location explicitly prevent contact through divination magic and thus block scrying, and would likely be used by the kidnappers. Although RAW sending is evocation and would not be blocked by these, as a DM I would rule that someone under their protection could not be sent to or received from.

Relationships

Just as the sending spell does not require one to be truthful, it does not require one to respond at all. Put yourself in the position of the person kidnapped. If you even suspected that those interested in the information you have were considering just using sending to get the information from you and then abandoning you, rather than attempting your rescue or ransom, what incentive do you have to respond or comply? I think if you were contacted by sending your communication objectives would be (1) I'm still alive, (2) I have not provided the kidnappers with the information (yet), (3) here is everything I know about the kidnappers and my location so as to make my rescue possible, but (4) I'm not providing any of the information you want to you if it means you are less likely to save me.

If you just happen to have desired information but are not part of the group who wants it, you have no incentive to turn it over until you are safe. If you are part of the group, if you are a loyal agent and 'this is what you signed up for', you might turn it over - but in that case you are likely of further use to the group in the future, meaning a rescue attempt is still motivated.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the answer. I realy like the second part you suggest and might use it as a motivation for someone to hire a party for rescue mission. \$\endgroup\$ – Samogitian95 Oct 13 at 0:39
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From what you wrote, I consider the situation where the party needs to send a simple and short message, without bringing any special item nor particular person.

First of all, it depends if magic in your setting is very common (see the Eberron settings, for example), it is not so common but it is quite known (e.g., Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance settings) ot it is seen as something even damaging the world (see the Dark Sun setting). In the latter case, using Sending may have some consequences on the party and maybe also on the story. Moreover, in the former cases it could depends also on the geographical region where your party is.

I depict two scenarios below: in the first one the party finds a way to use Sending, while in the other I list several reasons for which they can not do so, even if Sending is availabe in the campaign setting.

The party manage to hire someone to cast Sending.

The description of Sending says that

You send a short message of twenty-five words or less to a creature with which you are familiar.

The party could not be familiar with the kidnapped person nor with the kidnappers, so the first condition is not met.

If the party is sufficiently familiar with the hostage, nevertheless some problems may arise. For example:

  • The hostage does not believe to the rescuers (familiar does not mean friend).
  • The hostage is beaten up and he/she passed out.
  • The hostage is doped, its mind is confused, he/she is not able to clearly understand the message or he/she is not able to says/think intelligible messages-
  • The hostage is under some Enchantment spell that makes him/her refuse the rescuers' message, even confess to the kidnappers that someone is coming for rescuing.
  • The bandits have some protection against magic or they are even in a antimagic area.
  • The bandits become in someway aware of the message and then prepare for the party coming in rescue.

The party can not find anyone to cast Sending

There are several plot-reasons that you can come up with to do not allow the party use Sending:

  • they do not have enough money.
  • The nearest caster is several days of travel from the location of the party and time is running out.
  • The party can not find a caster willing to have a role in this kidnap/rescue thing (because it involves local nobles, dangerous persons, ...).
  • The caster wants something in return of its services instead of simple money, something that requires a large amount of time to be accomplished;

The above lists are obviously not complete and just an indication of what you can come up with. There are several ways to overcome the usage of Sending, even if the party manage to use it.

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I see two possibilities:

  1. There is a physical object involved that needs to transit between the two people. For example, to conclude a transaction, a lord might want to send a seal or something similar.
  2. The discussion involve a heavy secret and can't be disclosed to outside party. For example, two people part of a conspiracy, one telling the other where he is in the "Grand Plan"
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Sleeper Agent

Another approach to this would be to make the person that must be recovered a sleeper agent. They are a spy but don't know they are a spy. The magic ritual that made them into a sleeper agent requires them to be present, or them to be physically exposed to something, to have them remember where their true loyalties lie. Any type of sending or other ways to contact them would not work because without "waking them" the agent is still on the enemy's side. The benefit of using a sleeper agent would be that they would pass most kinds of magical lie detection or other means to root them out. It would also mean that they wouldn't need to know magic themselves to afford such protection.

I don't know if the "being kidnapped" is a hard requirement, but it could be that they are suspected of being an agent, and thus are now under scrutiny or otherwise imprisoned, all the while they are professing their loyalty to the enemy.

This could have some interesting roleplaying situations where the PCs are forced to take a captive that doesn't want to go with them, or actively works against the PCs.

I'd probably just make this a spell/ritual that is custom, but if you want a magic spell that could pull this off try Modify Memory. This spell could possibly be used to implant a false memory of where the sleeper agent turned against their king(dom) and joined the enemy. Remove Curse or Greater Restoration would then restore their proper memory. This requirement of Modify Memory would also keep the agent protected against dispel magic.

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