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I'm trying to come up with a way for a greedy NPC Wizard who sells spell scrolls exclusively to be used as consumables to prevent the buyers from copying the spell into their own spellbooks.

For background, the NPC has invented a breakthrough spell and is willing to share it with the world — as long as the ones who use the spell pay him each time they cast it. He spares no expense to protect his intellectual property from being stolen and will simply add the cost of the copy protection to his scroll's selling price, with him having monopoly.

What spell or chain of spells can he use to protect his spell scrolls from being copied?

I know I can simply invent an undefined spell that makes the scroll unreadable if the user tries to copy it but would prefer to go about this process within the bounds of 5th edition's current spell list. Meaning, no homebrew spells.

Criteria

  • Class requirement — I'd prefer the Wizard to be able to do it himself but would be open to spells in the Cleric list, and then to a lesser extent, other spellcasting classes.
  • Level requirement — the lower the better, but there are no limits.
  • Material Components — Free > re-usable component > consumed on cast

What I have thought of so far

Geas — the Wizard can cast Geas on each buyer to prevent him from copying the spell to a spellbook. A drawback is the high spell requirement: 5th-level, not to mention Geas can be circumvented if the target succeeds on the Saving Throw or simply waits for the Geas spell to wear out before copying it. Even with a 9th-level Geas the copier could also survive the Geas effects if broken.

Glyph of Warding - Explosive — the drawback is that the spell scroll can't be taken more than 10 feet away from where Glyph of Warding was cast. The item must be salable, which means the buyer should be able to take it home.

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Your goal seems to be to have the NPC profit every time it is cast. It looks like you value spells without material components, but why not embrace (expensive, consumed on use) components?

Instead of making and selling scrolls, the easiest way to charge someone every time they cast the spell is to build the spell with an "expensive" material component you have monopoly over. This is something the Wizard can do himself at any level, and will fall within/sidestep the legality concerns by having built in rights management (punishment is irrelevant if it simply doesn't work without the requisite consumed-on-use license token).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, building on this, the best material component would be something like "Token made by <wizardname>". Make them something small (like coins), let them be purchased in bulk, and give the spell away. It's the model that medical devices use: "The meter is free, but we charge an arm and a leg for the test strips" \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Jul 7 '16 at 16:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this idea, and am thinking of a different approach: perhaps the token can be a magic item similar to Quaal's Feather Token that is consumable on use and not really a component of the spell. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jul 8 '16 at 4:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @daze413 if you're going to go with a magic item like Quaal's Feather Tokens, why bother with the scroll at all? Just embed the spell into the token. \$\endgroup\$ – PurpleVermont Jul 8 '16 at 17:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleVermont Exactly. Thing is, it never occurred to me to do that instead, so I asked about how to copy-protect scrolls. This answer answers my problem, so I +1 it. But doesn't answer the actual question (though now I am in doubt whether it can be answered) of copy-protecting scrolls so I am not accepting it, yet. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jul 9 '16 at 4:01
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This doesn't really answer your question about scrolls, but if the spell is a self-targeted spell, perhaps the wizard could make potions instead. Alternately, non-recharging wands might fill the bill, though those don't really have precedent in 5e. Other consume-on-use magic items such as Quaal's Feather Tokens do exist in 5e though, so something like that would be another possibility.

I can't think of any way to do it with scrolls, without the wizard having also invented a copy protection spell.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I know this is super-late...but there is a precedent for non-recharging wands in 5E. Variant rules for 'Wands that don't recharge' are in Chapter 7 of the DMG or right here if you have dndbeyond access: dndbeyond.com/sources/dmg/treasure#Wands \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Jul 19 at 15:31
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Copying spells into your spellbook takes a lot more time than casting them. Assuming this holds true for 5e as well your wizard could scribe the spell on parchment that corrodes within ~10 minutes if exposed to air and sell the scrolls in air tight containers.

This would give his buyers time to cast the spell but if they tried to copy it the scroll would disintegrate before they finished.

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Build it into the spell. Make one of the rules of the spell "if this spell was cast in any way except by a scroll scribed by Glumdyfork the Greedy, the spell has no effect." That requirement shouldn't change the level of the spell, and really is not that different from spells that can only target certain people or require specific material components. This rule would mean that even if copied into a spellbook, Glumdyfork's spell wouldn't work for that wizard.

There is nothing preventing other spellcasters from creating a similar spell on their own, but that would require them to research it on their own, which is expensive in both gold and time. You could even hide this requirement, so that unless the caster succeeds on a high arcana check, they do not realize this requirement, and the copies they make always fizzle.

Bonus points if instead you make the rule something like "Unless this spell was cast from a scroll scribed by Glumdyfork the Greedy, it instead explodes as a fireball cast at xth level centered on the caster."

If you want a RAW solution, have the wizard use a carefully worded Wish spell to cause all versions of the spell "Glumdyfork's Greedy Spell" that aren't cast by Glumdyfork or from a scroll or other device created by Glumdyfork to fail.

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Create a simulacrum chain, generating an unbounded sequence of copies of you.

These simulacrums then create magic jars (500 gp ornate scroll cases), and transfer to true-polymorph created mimics. (note: if you have a separate collection of mimics, that can also work)

These mimics transform into scrolls of paper. You scribe the spell on these scrolls.

If the spell is used in any way you don't want it to, the simulacrum-mimics simply transform to a different form (say, a blank scroll), then abandon their mimic back into the scroll case. The mimic is no longer the spell, and it attacks the violator of the contract.

The simulacrum survives in the scroll case, from which it can continue on the usual way one does (possessing creatures for the rest of eternity).

Using this technique you can enforce any contract you want, so long as a simulacrum of it can detect violation while soul jared into a mimic shape-changed into a scroll that is.

Of course, this is similar to using a nuclear bomb to kill an ant in that we broke D&D 3 times before breakfast when creating this MRM, costs 2000 gp and multiple castings of a 9th level spell (unless you find a herd of mimics you can abuse).

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Note: This answer has been revamped due to an extended discussion with respect to clarity and we (SevenSidedDie and I) have come up with a much simpler way to state this.

The easiest way is to watermark your spell.

When you create it, do so with a combination of components that is unique to your spells alone. This way if somebody reproduces your spell (rules for this in PHB pg. 114 Copying a Spell into the Book, and DMG pg. 200 Spell Scrolls), you can demonstrate that they took the time to reverse engineer it and steal your rights.

You may need to employ the services of an otherwordly patron in order to elicit a binding contract (speak to your local Warlock for advice on this). This would help ensure individuals don't attempt to steal your work without repercussion.

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It's been a while since I went over the magic item rules, but the method that should work in any version (and probably any system with magic scrolls for that matter) would be to create the scrolls as cursed items. This is probably a bit more expensive, but his whole goal is to be able to charge more than market rate anyway, so that shouldn't be much of an issue.

Given the time requirements for copying a scroll into a spellbook, something simple like, "the scroll disintegrates two rounds after it is unrolled, whether it's been read or not" ought to do. Obviously he won't be able to keep his fancy spell secret forever, but all he really needs to do is put the cost of copying it into the same realm as the cost of researching it from scratch, and having to buy a copy of the scroll for every 12 seconds of the copying period will probably accomplish that.

Worst-case, he can research an additional spell that implements the disintegration effect and cast that on every scroll before it goes out the door. I'm actually somewhat surprised that no such spell already exists given the need politicians often have to send messages that destroy themselves after they are read... I mean, technically explosive runes at the end of the page will do, but that's not very polite to the recipient... Explosive runes might work in this instance as well if the rules would allow structuring the scroll such that someone reading it to cast would skip them while someone reading it to copy would not. Most societies would, at least, require notification that copying was not permitted though, or else ban the practice entirely.

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How about obfuscation?

Computer languages (like Java and .NET) compile the program into bytecode, which is then interpreted by the VM. This means that anyone can decompile the bytecode and come up with a compilable version of the program. Many companies try to prevent this by obfuscating the code. The obfuscator changes all the variable names, etc., and makes it hard to understand the decompiled code. It can be done but it's usually not worth the trouble.

So by analogy, GreedyNPCWizard could develop a way to write the scroll which would allow you to speak the words of the spell, but the words are gibberish. This would prevent anyone from understanding the spell and writing it into his/her spellbook without spending an exorbitant amount of time doing so (maybe 10X time/cost?)

This would satisfy most of your requirements and take no special spell components.

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    \$\begingroup\$ …but would require “a way to write the scroll which would allow you to speak the words of the spell, but the words are gibberish”. This answer would be significantly improved by explaining how that is possible in D&D 5e, thus making it a complete answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 8 '16 at 0:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Doesn't make logical sense for the application. Such obfuscation might make it easier to hide secondary effects and/or prevent the reader from being able to identify the spell, but since the reader can interpret the spell well enough to cast it, they can interpret it well enough to copy it into their spellbook, even if they don't know for sure exactly how it works or what it does. You might be able to make the argument that obfuscation makes it harder for the caster to prepare the spell if they're not reading it from the scroll, but that would have to be a house rule. \$\endgroup\$ – Perkins Jul 13 '16 at 17:07

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