Spells and Realism: Sending
The Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game is filled to the brim with magic, which can do anything from launching giant fireballs to healing wounds and deadly diseases or conjuring enough food to feed a village for a day. Realistically, these spells would drastically change every aspect of society, but none of the official 5th edition rule books give guidance on how to incorporate them into your worldbuilding. Nonetheless, thinking through what effects spells would have on your world is useful to make your game unique, immersive, consistent, and believable. Writing about all the spells in the game would take months or years, so today I will focus on Sending, and how it would change a fantasy world.
Sending is a 3rd level spell in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition that can be cast by wizards, clerics, and bards. It allows the caster to instantly send a telepathic message “across any distance” that can be up to 25 words long. The recipient can be any creature the caster is “familiar” with, and can immediately respond back with its own 25 word message. A short telepathic message may not seem like much, but the instantaneous communication provided by the Sending spell would be extremely useful in areas such as diplomacy, government, and war.
We can begin to discern what effects the sending spell would have by comparing it with real world communication technology such as the telegraph. The telegraph, which operates by sending electrical pulses through wires, was one of the first technologies to facilitate communication over long distances without relying on a physical messenger. After the United States installed its first telegraph line in 1844, the telegraph was quickly adopted for use in news, finance, war, and many other industries. However, telegraphs had a couple very important limitations, which happen to be shared by the Sending spell.
The first important limitation is cost. Telegraph messages, or telegrams, were extremely expensive due to costly components and the need for skilled operators. It cost over $2500, adjusted for inflation, to send a 10 word telegraphic message from the United States to England in 1860! Because of this, the telegraph was primarily used by governments, large businesses, and wealthy individuals.
Sending would be even more expensive because it can only be cast by a highly trained spellcaster. The Player’s Handbook suggests that spellcasters powerful enough to cast Sending are rare, and would only be found in large cities. When asked to cast a spell, they might request completion of a dangerous mission as payment. From this we can infer that the Sending spell is more expensive than a telegraph, so the average D&D peasant wouldn’t be able to afford it. Sending would be reserved for kings of rich nations, lords of wealthy cities, and extremely powerful guilds and organizations that can afford to hire a spellcaster repeatedly.
The second limitation shared by telegraphs and the Sending spell is the limited number of words you can send. Until the 1920s, telegraph lines could rarely transmit over 20 words per minute which resulted in large queues of unsent telegrams in many telegraph offices. To make messages as short as possible, telegraphers charged by the word. Businesses assigned one word codes to commonly used phrases. Diplomats drafted and revised telegrams multiple times to make them as concise as possible while still being accurate.
The Sending spell is significantly more limited in word count than the telegraph. Each Sending spell can only transmit 25 words and most spellcasters would only be able to cast it 2–3 times a day. While a telegraph can send and receive thousands of words each day, an extremely wealthy king with a few spellcasters in court would be limited to a couple hundred. Brevity would be even more important when using the Sending spell than when using a telegraph, so complex codes would develop to communicate as efficiently as possible.
In addition to being brief, Sending messages need to be easy to understand. The Sending spell allows recipients to reply without using additional magical energy, but only if they do it immediately. If the recipient takes a few minutes to decode a message or decide what to say, they’ll have to cast Sending themselves in order to respond. In order to conserve magical energy for other purposes, Sending spells would go directly to someone with both the authority to make an immediate decision about the content of the spell and the ability to understand any codes used immediately. These people would most likely be the king’s trusted advisors, each of which would receive and reply to Sendings about a particular topic of expertise.
Despite the Sending’s high cost and limited word count, it would still have a drastic effect on many areas, most notably diplomacy and war. When the telegraph was invented in the real world, diplomats stopped being “great ambassadors” who made major foreign policy decisions on their own and became “cogs in a bureaucratic machine” who sent telegrams back to their home countries before taking action on most events. (Under the Wire)
Sending would have a similar effect on a fantasy world. If a kingdom had multiple spellcasters who could cast Sending, they would be sent as diplomats and check in with the king or one of his advisors before making any important decision. If a kingdom couldn’t use spellcasters as diplomats, they would have a centralized spellcaster check in with the diplomat every few days, giving advice for what the diplomat should do next and asking for a 25 word report of what happened since the last check in. They could use similar methods to check up on, and make decrees to, local leaders which would make governments much more centralized
Sending’s effect on war would be just as significant as its effect on diplomacy. Quick communication between generals is essential to creating effective strategies and battle tactics, and preventing enemies from overhearing your communication is just as important. In the American Civil War, the Union strung hundreds of miles of telegraphs to help generals coordinate assaults and inform Washington D. C. of their progress. In World War II, codebreakers had a huge impact on the Allied victories in the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of Midway.
The Sending spell would be a military leaders’ dream come true. In addition to facilitating instantaneous communication between forces, the Sending spell is impossible to intercept without either being able to see the caster or using the rarest spell in the game. Generals would protect spellcasters who can use the Sending spell as thoroughly as possible, and would seriously consider all possible alternatives before asking them to use offensive spells on the front lines.
In conclusion, the Sending spell would be extremely useful because it allows for instantaneous communication. Due to the rarity and high cost of hiring spellcasters, it would be inaccessible to most of the population. For governments and powerful institutions, Sending would have major effects, especially in the fields of war and diplomacy. When creating your next D&D world or adventure, I urge you to take these ideas and apply them to your setting specifically. By incorporating this spell into your world building, you will be able to add a lot of depth and realism to your game.
Want to be notified when I come out with new posts? Subscribe to my email list for a notification every time I come out with a new post
CPI Inflation Calculator. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed 6 November 2019. https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=2600&year1=201201&year2=201909
Hochfelder, David. “The Telegraph in America: 1832–1920.” JHU Press, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=fUDxx_bMVQUC&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=telegraph+and+the+military&ots=GqbwfbKqjc&sig=ceipwwcQG0p1wH40xMNaMv3WZsY#v=onepage&q=telegraph%20and%20the%20military&f=false
Paul, David. Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy. Harvard University Press, 2009. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=0L1Cit6yB0sC&oi=fnd&pg=PP6&dq=telegraph+changed+society&ots=lYU_UsVWz7&sig=BdQcz-WXhdhaWiVhOPQX-AKOYqM#v=onepage&q=telegraph%20changed%20society&f=false
Player’s Handbook. Wizards of the Coast, Renton Washington, 2014.
“Plug Pulled on the world’s last electric telegraph system.” New Atlas, July 17, 2013. https://newatlas.com/last-telegraph-message/28314/
Sterling, Christopher. “Military Communications: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century.” ABC-CLIO, 2008. p. xxxv https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=RBC2nY1rp5MC&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=telegraph+and+the+military&ots=9E6axSP3Qe&sig=VufD0uioud5tWoXyE2BC1kZGmFI#v=onepage&q=telegraph%20and%20the%20military&f=false