D&D 5e comes with a number of spells and abilities that allow characters to scout ahead without any risk for life and limb. For example:

  • As a wizard or warlock, you can have a familiar, and with invisibility even an invisible one. Some of these familiars even may be able to open doors and have a range of up to one mile, allowing you to scout entire dungeons.

  • A druid can shapechange themselves into an innocous looking spider, mouse, cat or similar small animal fitting to the environment to scout and explore.

  • Alternatively, as a druid or ranger, you can conjure woodland creatures, including sprites, which are intelligent and likewise can invisibly and flying scout ahead, open doors, and report back.

These lower level tactics using familiars or similar animals have already been discussed, in How do I handle the wizard's familiar invalidating exploration, outshining the rogue, at low to no cost?, How do I handle a player exploring the entire dungeon with his familiar?, As a DM, how can I handle my Druid spying on everything with Wild shape as a spider?.


Such exploration tactics tend to have a playability issue, as the player controlling the exploration is normally the only actor, and all the other players are sitting around doing nothing. That is a real problem, but not my problem here.


The other issue is that such tactics undermine the exploration pillar of the game, by removing risk from it. They make it much less likely that you are surprised or ambushed, and they inform the group where and how to attack. Because they are so powerful and so effective in reducing the level of danger, the players have a strong incentive to use them. But if they do, instead of their characters experiencing adventures, for large swathes of play time, the characters sit back somewhere holed up safely in mission control, while their minions do all the adventuring.

Essentially, the DM could just hand the players a map of the dungeon with a description of the rooms (minus those that are well hidden behind secret doors, unless the players systematically screen empty space with their earth elemental). The players then can decide where and how to alpha strike.

Several answers acknowledge that by recommending to do just that: hand the map to the players, and focus on a different kind of challenge, planning the perfect heist with great intel on the target.

For me, removing this part nearly entirely removes some possible enjoyment from the game, both as a DM and as a player. I feel it removes some of the tension and excitement that comes from risk. At the same time, I think it is hard to justify for the players to not use the tools that their characters have at their disposal to minimize risk and maximize their chances of survival.

Low Level Answers

Apart from recommending to just accept it, answers to these questions for lower level tactics cover two possible solutions:

  1. Familiars are quite vulnerable, and can be discovered and easily killed.

  2. This exploration still misses a lot of dangers, because opponents may move around, and maybe as importantly, because the creature still can miss the secret doors, traps, alarms, invisible foes (unless a bat familiar), illusions, shapechangers, false appearance monsters and cannot access areas behind locked doors. So, even if you have a map, it is going to be a map with lots of nasty surprises and undiscovered areas.

My question here is focused on how to deal with the same issue at higher levels:


As a mid-level druid or wizard, you can conjure elementals, including invisible stalkers and earth elementals, which likewise can move around undetected, open doors, or earth glide to spy on the interiours of dungeons and report back to you. As a druid you also can take the form of an elemental yourself.

These are not only much harder to kill, the earth elemental also has an Earth Glide ability that allows it to burrow through nonmagical, unworked earth and stone without disturbing the material. In dungeons dug out of rock this allows it to effectively move through the empty space around the rooms, peek into the rooms, and to also discover all kinds of otherwise secret rooms, tunnels, trap shafts. (And for me it is not an option to just not use dungeons -- the frigging game is called Dungeons & Dragons).


As a high level wizard, you can use Etherealness to get or give allies super-invisibilty that also allows you to move through walls, and even more effectively allows you or a minion of your choice to scout everything including most hidden aspects of the map.

So the weak and easily killed aspect of the low-level solutions does not work that well (although, at higher levels, the monsters will be stronger, it still is pretty rare for them to be able to deal with creatures in solid rock or on the Etheral plane. I've had may share of Readied Action standoffs by the dungeon's denizens trying to catch the elemental when it peeks in.

What is worse, the "missing crucial information" aspect also does not work that well -- these tactics may be more successful in discovering hidden threats and treasures than the PCs themselves when they are walking through the dungeon.

I am interested in "good subjective" advice on what has worked for other groups to counter such tactics and make it a more rational decision for players engage more directly with their environment. I don't expect to entirely invalidate them, just useful ways to have them carry a reasonable amount of risk and downside.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Sep 30, 2022 at 17:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminder that solutions to the asker's problem belong in answers, not in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Sep 30, 2022 at 17:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ If anyone is interested in the playability issue mentioned in the question, this other question might be relevant: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/174070/40516 \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 8:22

6 Answers 6


What you are thinking is a problem is actually players engaging with the exploration pillar

The issue I think you have is that the exploration pillar is talked about, but never explained very well.

When a player opens a door with no knowledge what is on the other side they aren't engaging with anything; it is simply chance and the DM can make it up entirely the second the door opens. When the players are armed with information from scouting they get to make an informed decision and exercise their agency.

Only when a player is exercising their agency are they actually playing the game.

The tools players are provided are good for a reason, and that reason is to ensure that the players actually get the information they need to play the game.

What you seem to want is for the players to miss things, but that isn't really fun. Players don't know they miss things, and DMs waste time planning things if they don't get discovered.

What you need is to plan a dungeon where (for example) the treasure is on the dangerous route to the left and the goal is on the right. Then the players scout around, discover this information and have a real decision to make.

Without that information ahead of time they are simply wandering around at random at the will of the DM.

If you are playing a pre-written adventure you will probably find this a problem, and that seems to be because even WotC don't understand their own exploration pillar. Rolling a survival check to not get lost isn't exploration.

I should also add that as per the other answers there are plenty of ways to foil the exploration methods; worked stone floors foil an elemental, lead foils magic as does "a wizard lives here and it's protected from magic". Sure you can do that, but it's boring.

I also think it heavily disingenuous when the rat familiar just happens to find a cat which the DM never bothered writing down and just made up to make the choice of the player less valid. Present an encounter, let the players decide how to overcome it, then let them overcome it and get onto the next written encounter. Just because they overcame an encounter doesn't mean you should check another one in; it means you first encounter wasn't really a very well-designed encounter.

To add a few more bits: let's say the earth elemental finds a secret room; the encounter shouldn't be about finding it, it should be about getting in, or getting in safely, or getting whatever is inside out. You always want your players to find the secret; they feel good and you didn't waste time planning. But you want them to have to make a decision using their agency as part of that encounter.

The non-magic method involves going into a room, which is effectively from the players' perspective randomly generated, and saying "I check for traps and secret doors" which again isn't using agency, and a rogue with a huge investigation bonus is going to find it anyway.

As for traps, they are set in places that catch people so should still be perfectly valid. The earth elemental goes under them and never notices them, the familiar is too light to set off the pressure plate, the kobold hiding in a secret tunnel above the ceiling never notices either and neither notice them so they are still there ready to trigger an ambush, but this time it is a really unexpected ambush!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you. I do actually agree with your main point, with no info there can be no meaningful decisions. I just wish that it would require a bit more thought and variety to get that info than pulling off a single trick over and over. Some of your foils like worked walls/floors are also good. +1 \$\endgroup\$ Sep 30, 2022 at 20:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note, if you are a druid transformed to an EE, looting that treasure room is trivial. Revert, ransack, use your second shapechange to trafo back and get out. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 30, 2022 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you burn both wild shapes just to get some treasure that's a choice which means they won't have it for the fight, so to me that's a win. Especially if your area is dangerous enough to prevent easy rest (though tiny hut et al is another problem). \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 30, 2022 at 20:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ As for the same trick, they only have to use that trick when there is no other method. Drop a map from an NPC, let them research in advance etc. The trick is that they need the info before they can explore, how they get it may need more ideas though \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 30, 2022 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ This line "If you are playing a pre-written adventure you will probably find this a problem, and that seems to be because even wotc don't understand their own exploration pillar." is rarely said enough. +1 to you. I will point out that it would be made better if you gave some advice on giving the information to the players while involving more than just the wizard (or otehr caster) \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Sep 30, 2022 at 22:36

You answered your own question

Essentially, the DM could just hand the players a map of the dungeon with a description of the rooms (minus those that are well hidden behind secret doors, unless the players systematically screen empty space with their earth elemental).

Do that.

This appears to be the play style the player’s want - the excitement is in the planning and the execution, not the exploration.

Smart defenders take precautions

A lot of these options involve using scouts who are not very smart. The smartest are as smart as people but not as smart as smart people.

Clever monsters will take precautions against this vector of attack.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question has changed significantly since it was closed (in order to get it reopened), and this no longer answers the question, unfortunately. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 30, 2022 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Re "A lot of these options involve using scouts who are not very smart." Or strong. We can easily open a stone door, but can a bat? \$\endgroup\$
    – ikegami
    Oct 2, 2022 at 2:45

I agree with other posters that it may not be a good idea to deliberately frustrate your players when they engage in a play-style they seem to enjoy. Probably the most important thing is to have a chat and find out whether you're all trying to play different games.

That said, there's no reason you can't throw some curveballs their way. Even if everyone at the table agrees to continue with the scan-and-strike approach, it will get stale if you don't innovate and surprise them.

The goal here is to prove to the party that scan-and-strike has drawbacks, so that in the future they will have reason to weigh their strategic options for exploring each dungeon.

I think it would be bad to treat this like a bag of tricks that can be used to manufacture punishments for the party every time they resort to extended remote recon.

So, in that spirit, here are a few ideas for making the party think twice about sending in the video drone.

Time-critical discoveries

If you're camped-out half a mile away from the dungeon entrance, you are too far away to react quickly to anything you might discover.

Sometimes the hero stumbles across an innocent person being attacked by monsters, or a prisoner who is about to be tortured. Or maybe she finds an agent of her nemesis who has set down his sack of high-value mcguffins for just a minute while he drains the ourobourous. These can be great moments of serendipity, where players are forced to make important judgment calls in the heat of the moment -- but only if the hero literally stumbles into them, i.e. is present.

The party who is watching all this through a crystal ball might as well be watching an old movie, because their remoteness guarantees that any window of opportunity they discover will have closed long before they can rush to the scene.

Do this a few times and they may think twice about Tivo-ing the whole dungeon.

The scrying party is vulnerable and inactive

Often, methods of remote viewing require the party to become stationary for an extended period. This has two obvious consequences: (1) a stationary party is potentially vulnerable to being ambushed while their attention is engaged elsewhere; and (2) they've effectively removed themselves from the flow of events for an extended period while other plot-significant actors have not.

Some interesting wrinkles can be created by having a second adventuring party of NPCs wander into this scene while the players watch (aka "P2").

P2 can be a less-noble group of mercenaries, in which case you can have them stumble across P1's scrying camp, leading to a confrontation. If you're willing to do a bit more work, you can instead have P2 enter the dungeon while the players watch, and few things are more aggravating than watching someone who is less skilled and less worthy move in to seize the riches or glory you had your heart set on. It will be even more irksome if it appears that P2 will explore the dungeon badly and squander its potential.

Or P2 can be decent folks. In that case, if the dungeon is out of their league, P2 become victims who must now be quickly saved from their own folly. If P2 is powerful and competent, they may be strategic or political rivals of your players -- like Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Your party may not be willing to murder them, but they will hate to see P2 add this feather to their own cap, and so now it's a race.

Finally, other plot-significant actors with great power can have their own methods of far-seeing. If they don't see the party doing what is expected, they may change their plans. NPCs in a TTRP do not need to have the unthinking patience that quest-givers in open-world video game RPGs have.

If the actor is a Good Guy who is expecting the party to clear the dungeon, she will probably be watching the dungeon (just like they are), looking for signs that the party is knocking heads. If the party first spends a couple days scrying the dungeon, that's a couple of days when our important Good Guy sees no visible sign of the good-guy raiding party she is hoping for. Maybe she'll conclude that the party was killed on their way, or reneged on the deal, or got distracted, or deliberately lied to her. She may activate whatever is her Plan B. (Which is a good explanation for P2, above.)

If the actor is a Bad Guy, they may use the extra time to entrench their position or develop another prong in their villainy. This doesn't depend on them being certain the party is camped out -- these preparations could already be underway regardless, and they just progress substantially further while the party is passively scrutinizing the dungeon. In real-time strategy games, it is generally true that giving the enemy even a moment of peace is a double fault, because not only are you not weakening them, you're gifting them with extra breathing room to grow unfettered. This might not matter if your dungeon is filled with kobolds, but a higher-level party often finds itself intervening in the affairs of intelligent and active people who put extra time to good use.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This might not matter if your dungeon is filled with kobolds => Tucker's Kobolds want a word ;) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 1, 2022 at 11:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the time pressure can work and the idea of scenes that you only can salvage in person is good too. At least for my group the vulnerable part in "vulnerable and inactive" did not work — they‘d take great care to seal themselves up behind a stone shape wall in a distant cave, and even had tactics against the scent tracking of wargs the opponents employed. Very well defended from discovery. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 1, 2022 at 18:59

No Free Lunch

Nothing is ever free, and all those exploration strategies have their costs: Etherealness is a spell that you won't have later on if you spend it to scout, same goes for Summons or the druid's Change Shape. Sure, the group can decide to first scout, then take a long rest, then actually explore the dungeon, but that means they still spend something that should be very precious: time.

Time is always a cost for people around the table: you only have a finite number of hours before the session stops, and those sessions can't last forever, even if your campaign is super good and everyone wants to continue. This alone can constitute a good reason for the players not to waste it doing boring stuff (assuming they find "using the same tactics as in the last 25 dungeons to find all the secret doors before entering it" boring: some don't). That said, it is not a good reason for the characters, and thus will always feel dissonant (as in "ludico-narrative dissonance") if you rely on it.

The best, in my opinion, is to make the time that flows in-game a bigger deal. There should always be consequences for wasting time and your players should be aware of that (not necessarily aware of the exact consequences, but generally aware of their existence).

How to make time matter

  • Count it: have a calendar that advances every day that passes in-game, or a clock that counts the hours... If the passing of time is not visible, nobody cares about it.
  • Establish known consequences of time passing: maybe an oracle predicted that in exactly one year the Dark Lord will rise again and end everything: the PCs better be ready by then. Maybe they got a contract for bringing the Ancient Idol back to its shrine, but if they haven't in one month they won't get paid. Maybe PC1's uncle is held prisoner by the goblins and every day that passes he has 1/20 chance of dying... Those consequences should be clearly communicated to the players, so they can choose whether they would rather spend a day safe-scouting or not.
  • Use mechanics like random encounters that incentivize the PCs not to slack.

Do not punish them for doing what you want

The most important if you want your players to be braver about exploration, is to be coherent with that when you design your dungeons. If in every single one of them there are deadly ambushes your players feel like they could have avoided if they had scouted better, you can't expect them not to spend even more resources (both their character's mechanical resources and the group's time) on scouting next time they have the occasion.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 This is an effective, and also a fair strategy, that has no need to nerf PC abilities \$\endgroup\$ Oct 1, 2022 at 18:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, I think time is the key thing to resolve this issue. However most of your examples were of longer time frames (a chance every day that an important NPC dies, a year until the Dark Lord rises...), whereas the question seems to be about high-level scouting strategies which should only require 10 minutes - 1 hour of ingame time scouting. Can you offer some examples of adding time pressure to dungeons? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 3, 2022 at 13:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FerventHippo: I don't think that is that much of an issue. Those scouting strategies use your daily resources, and one hour is already a significant time investment (you could do one more short rest later in the dungeon with this hour). I don't thing the 10 minutes scout is that frequent, unless your dungeons are only one room. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 3, 2022 at 14:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also most "short-term threats" can feel forced or backfire if used frequently. I had a game where every dungeon started a timer once you entered them and would collapse after a few hours, but it resulted into one player always insisting that they took days to prepare before entering each dungeon, and even try to "scout" despite him knowing that it could start the countdown if the scout was detected. You could instead have the countdown start when the players find the dungeon, but then you would punish them if they find it early. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 3, 2022 at 15:02

the characters sit back somewhere holed up safely in mission control, while their minions do all the adventuring.

Your problem isn't that players are scouting the landscape and thus gaining information they can use to generate a plan of attack. Your problem is that their scouting is too powerful and something you want to interact with (to create obstacles to) you can't, or feel you can't.

There's two major solutions to your problem.

  1. The party controls the minions.

Not the wizard (or druid, or etc). The party. Think Everyone Is John. Even add a bid mechanic, or assign people roles like 'hunger' or 'curiosity' or 'caution' if the entire scouting party is just one familiar. Then you can have obstacles to the scouting, such as an angry rat, a closed door, or a curious guard. The tale of Bonzo the Goat Familiar and his heroic battle with a smaller than usual goblin sentry can and will become the stuff of legend.

You don't need to do this for every inch of the dungeon ('you explore several areas without incident'), you don't need to do this for every scouting trip. However, by briefly replacing the PCs with their familiars/summoned monsters/hired minions, you create interactability in the process and such 'side stories' are often fun for players, especially if unexpected.

  1. 'A rat opened the door? Alert the dracokin, open the crypts, and begin the ritual immediately!'

Familiars are a well known part of the world, in most D&D settings. So is the ability of powerful spellcasters to summon creatures, craft golems, people to hire adventurers, etc. If your lair in the middle of the forest is suddenly awash in Earth Elementals, wolves acting very oddly, odd-acting small animals and hired thieves busy drawing some kind of map, it doesn't take Int 20 to put 2 and 2 together to get 4.

The interactability here comes from enemy action. Once they realize they're being scouted, the enemy starts to do things, from activate defenses to try to in turn scout out their mysterious foe. This is placing the party in the position of the typical active antagonist, rather than the usual reactive situation they find themselves in. They are the shadowy force lurking in the shadows - the enemies are the party of plucky adventurers trying to uncover their antagonist.

To make this work, you have to show fairly clearly that the enemy are reacting to having found scouts (of whatever kind) or to suspecting that the remote attack on them (via summoned minion or w/e) was the doing of an enemy and not just a 'random encounter'. This might lead to multiple types of deception (the party hides behind an illusory barrier, or mind controls an enemy scout to say they found nothing) and some level of 'cat and mouse' between the party, and whoever is in charge of the enemies. This creates the kind of back and forth, plan-making and interaction that might be found while delving into a ruin torch in hand.

An advantage of this approach is that it can be scaled (via enemy intelligence and resources) to whatever level of challenge a DM may desire, as the more capabilities and ideas the enemy has, the more things the party will need to think their way around (or brute force their way around) to deal with the enemy.


Some tested ways to address this

Here is what our group used, and what did work in turning these tactics from go-to wonder weapons into tools to try if the circumstances were right. This is focused in particular on the Earth Elemental, as we have not had play experience with Etherealness yet.

Rules interpretation

Similar to many of the solutions suggested for familiars, we looked at how we can interpret the rules less leniently to make this less simple.

  • Stealth. The first item is that we ruled an Earth Elemental moving through stone or earth will need to employ Dexterity (Stealth) checks to remain undetected like any other creature, as there is nothing in the text that states it is automatically unheard. We rationalized this by imagining that the elemental moving through stone and earth, while not "disturbing the material" would cause rumbling and grating noise by its own movement.

  • Limited vision. While the Earth Elemental does have tremorsense 60', nothing in it description says it can see through stone or earth. That means, while walking through those substances, it is functionally blind when it comes to seeing where rooms or tunnels are, or in which exact direction or how far it has been moving. As much of the scouting involved large distances underground to canvass entire dungeon levels, this was quite effective. The elemental could not reliably estimate directions and distances, and was not able to make exact maps.

The combination turned undetected exact scanning of levels into possible, but inexact and more easily recognized intrusion that would alert the dungeons denizens.

  • Worked Surfaces. The Elemental can only move through "unworked stone and earth". We did not count dungeons hewn out of solid rock as worked, although maybe you could. But dungeons that had walls, floors and ceilings made from masonry or stone blocks would block access -- or at least force the elemental to smash through them, again causing noise and disturbance.

Smart Defenders

As suggested in Dale's answer, in a world where familiars, elementals and divination are a reality, anyone building a base of operations who has access to the means will take measures to protect themselves against them. There are examples of this in some of the oldest dungeons to see print, for example in the Tomb of Horrors, dating all the way back to 1981, we find this text:

Characters who become astral or ethereal in the tomb will attract a type I-IV demon 1 in 6, with a check made each round

What was important for us was to be fair: these defenses had to be decided before the adventure started, and the idea was not to just rule out intrusion, but to make it more difficult or risky. Here are some:

  • Iron-reinforced walls Some structures had iron bars or grids embedded into their walls, to make them resilient to attack and penetration.

  • Hallow Effects: The basement of the Temple of Lolth in Vault of the Drow was enhanced by a permanent Unhallow effect, barring direct entrance from fey, elementals or fiends. The group still found the secret tunnel leading there, teleported into that and was able to stage an ambush from an unexpected direction.

  • Private Sanctum: Wizards of high enough level will typically have fortified their keep or tower with a permanent version of this spell, and other wealthy parties may too, courtesy of a hired wizard doing the work, blocking divination and teleport. This by itself will not keep out an elemental, but enhances the difficulty in combination with worked masonry, and blocks easy access with teleport to target locations.

  • Bound guardians One drow temple had demons bound into its walls. Walking through the wall or casting spells on it would release them to attack whoever interacted with the wall. They were of middling power - shadow demons if I recall right - so no showstopper, but made it more difficult to enter that way, and the resulting combat could attract additional reinforcements.

Note: I posted the question to see if there are other good solutions, which I got. As none of them covered these tactics, I'm adding them here for completeness.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Would it be accurate or not to say that these didn't really scratch your itch because you've asked how to resolve this? Or was this intended to be a self-answer? Your question seemed poised like you were experiencing this issue without [good] solutions, but you did have a solution. It may be insightful for others if you talk about why these didn't work for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Oct 2, 2022 at 12:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch It was not originally intended as a self answer, I felt that binding demons into the walls et al was a bit heavy handed, and I was curious if there were other approaches that we did not think of. I somewhat had expected that ours would just show up among them from someone else, so only dediced to add this as it looked like this would not happen, and it is another answer that was not yet covered. I will add a bit of explanation to the answer. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 2, 2022 at 12:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Did this happen, like, last night? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 2, 2022 at 13:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm sorry - but given that your question is your dissatisfaction with how things have been going, I have to give this a -1 because your solution didn't work for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Oct 2, 2022 at 13:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I concluded that because you said the solutions you had were heavy handed - and the fact that you asked the question and didn't mention you had tried things that worked wasn't mentioned. WHen asking questions here, it really is best to give us all the possible information - and also to target if you are a player a or DM. In this situation, it very much seems like you are a player and have the choice to do what you'd like here - I think a question about your situation would have netted you better help then this general question that isn't really accurate to your problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Oct 2, 2022 at 13:58

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