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One of my players, new to D&D, is playing a Rune Knight, but in his background he's a son of merchants, and he asked me if he can produce runes to use or sell.

Now, I'm aware that from the Rune Knight's class features there is nothing of the sort, but it does grant proficiency with smith's tools, so he wanted to know if it would be possible for him to create simple runes. I have my doubts on this, because he's no spellcaster and usually you need to know the spell to write a scroll of it, but the Rune Knight is affine to the rune magic indeed.
So I wanted to ask: how do runes work in D&D 5e? And, if this isn't already included in the answer to the first question, could a Rune Knight inscribe one? How, and with what costs and times?

I'm interested in advice on producing any kind of rune (giant, dwarven, single-use, artifact, whatever), but with actual magic properties and not just nice calligraphy.

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Rules-as-written, runes as described in the Rune Knight's class feature do not, as you note, create anything that could really be sold. So no, if you want to just like "make a fire rune to sell", that's not really an option. However, that said, I always prefer to look for ways to let players do something cool rather than telling them 'no', unless there's a really good reason to refuse them.

In the Dungeon Master's Guide (p.128), it says this about crafting items:

The creation of a magic item is a lengthy, expensive task. To start, a character must have a formula that describes the construction of the item. The character must also be a spellcaster with spell slots and must be able to cast any spells that the item can produce. Moreover, the character must meet a level minimum determined by the item's rarity, as shown in the Crafting Magic Items table.

A rune knight clearly does not have spell slots, so he doesn't meet the requirements.

However, Xanathar's Guide to Everything revisits magic item crafting and completely removes that requirement. Using the XGE rules, magic item crafting is not limited to spellcasters (except spell scrolls), so you can simply allow the character to craft and sell items of his choice.

According to the XGE, crafting a magic item requires:

  • A formula for how to create the item
  • An exotic material component
  • Proficiency with an appropriate tool or the Arcana skill
  • A gold cost
  • Time

In this case, you could (if you so choose) waive the need to find a formula for items that fit within the conceptual/thematic space of the runes the character knows and are of an appropriate rarity for the character's level.

For example, with a Fire rune, you might decide he could craft a flame tongue sword, a ring of fire resistance, or other items that are fire-related; with a Cloud rune, he can create items related to weather creation and control, or to illusions.

You could also have him inscribing runes on bits of breakable material to create potions and elixirs in an alternate form, if they fit thematically. I would use this as my preferred item, if I were carving runes for sale.

As shown by the XGE rules, there really shouldn't be any balance concerns about letting "non-spellcasters" craft magic items, and even having multiple PCs cooperating to speed up the process is probably not a big deal as long as each of the collaborators has proficiency with an appropriate tool or the Arcana skill. (You may want to put some kind of limit on how many people can reasonably work on a single magic item, though.)

The adventure Storm King's Thunder does have a few items in it that specifically use giant runes such as ild and stein, which grant the holder various powers, and can additionally be used to transfer the rune to a few specific kinds of nonmagical objects (such as a shield or weapon) to grant that item a magical ability. However, the original rune-bearing items are all rare or very rare, so they're probably much too expensive for the purpose of sales, if you even allowed crafting them in the first place; and the item created by transferring the rune is usually weaker than the rune-bearing item was originally.

However, it might be worth looking at the items the transfer can create and using those as the items your rune knight can make without a formula. For example, the opal of the ild rune can transfer its rune to a weapon to make it an uncommon magic weapon that deals an extra 1d6 fire damage when it hits. So you could potentially let your rune knight directly craft a "sword of the ild rune" that is uncommon and has that effect, without going through the rigmarole of making an opal first.

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The use of runes is a class-specific feature, so rune commerce doesn't make sense.

Using runes is a unique class feature of the Rune Knight, so non-Rune Knights are unable to use runes at all. This means that, in general, the market for rune-inscribed equipment is probably non-existent, unless you are in a place with lots of other Rune Knights, but if you can create runes, they can just create their own runes too.

Homebrewing new runes is ... homebrew.

So it's up to you as the DM. Without more details about what they are trying to do I cannot really give you much concrete guidance, but I can off this: consider that each new rune created is an additional class feature. More runes means more class features means more flexibility; which should be considered for balance reasons if you permit the Rune Knight to invent new runes. Tentatively, we can probably say "its unbalanced" because it's just adding extra class feature options to the Rune Knight, but your mileage may vary depending on the features.

There should probably be a clear separation between Artificer and Rune Knight

The Rune Knight is similar to the Artificer in some ways. The Rune Knight's runes do allow you to imbue items with magical properties, but the list is very limited. Expanding this list makes the Rune Knight's rune inscription resemble the Artificer's Replicate Magic Item, which is the defining feature of the Artificer. Custom runes essentially turns the Rune Knight into a Diet-Artificer with all the other Rune Knight and Fighter features.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is being allowed to craft magic items, following all the usual rules in terms of material, time, and effort, really a balance issue? The artificer's infusions allow him to shift what items he has on a day-to-day basis, which doesn't seem at all similar to using the item crafting rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym May 3 at 17:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ So the whole concept of "rune" in D&D 5e is restricted to the ones mentioned in the Rune Knight class, with its daily buffs of armors and weapons? \$\endgroup\$ – Mauro Giliberti May 3 at 21:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MauroGiliberti As written, yes. Adding more runes is homebrew. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov May 3 at 21:43
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Rune Knight runes are temporary magic items, and their enchantment fades before they can be sold.

Quoting the Rune Knight section of Tasha's Cauldron of Everything:

You can use magic runes to enhance your gear.

...

Whenever you finish a long rest, you can touch a number of objects equal to the number of runes you know, and you inscribe a different rune onto each of the objects. ... Your rune remains on an object until you finish a long rest, and an object can bear only one of your runes at a time.

So, the class feature does create magic items (the runes are explicitly described as magical in the class feature), but their magic will only last until the next time you take a long rest - typically meaning that they'll only last about one day.

There are rules for selling magic items in Xanathar's Guide to Everything's "Downtime Revisited" section, under the downtime action "Selling a Magic Item". The relevant section of the entry reads as follows:

Resources. A character can find a buyer for one magic item by spending one workweek and 25 gp, which is used to spread word of the desired sale. A character must pick one item at a time to sell.

From this, we can see that it takes a week of downtime to find a buyer for a magic item, so the enchantment of your runic items won't last long enough for you to sell them.

Presumably, part of this time is spent by the buyer holding onto and examining the magic item to determine its validity - anyone who would want to buy a magic item wouldn't want to be scammed by a temporary item such as a Rune Knight's runes, or the items created by an Artificer's Infusions.

Whether or not other creatures are capable of making use of a Rune Knight's runes at all seems ambiguous to me, and might be worthy of a question in its own right; they all say "While wearing or carrying an object inscribed with this rune, you...", and whether the "you" refers to the Rune Knight specifically, or whoever happens to be wearing or carrying the object isn't clear to me.

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