A Guide to Ball Bearings in 5e, Group of metal ball bearings

A Complete Player’s Guide to Using Ball Bearings in D&D 5e

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has a myriad of pieces of equipment available to player characters outside of armor and weapons. Some more useful than others, but each with some idea for helping adventurers during their travels. One such item is a bag of ball bearings; tiny metal balls meant to trip up creatures, but they’re a bit restricted in terms of the rules outlined in the Player’s Handbook.
 
What are ball bearings in 5e? And, what can they be used for?
 
This article goes over everything a new player (or Game Master) should need to know about ball bearings in 5e.

First off, let’s go over what ball bearings even are in 5e.

What Are Ball Bearings in 5e?

Ball bearings are a piece of equipment player characters may buy in D&D 5e. Essentially, a player character may purchase a bag containing small metal balls for use in their adventures.

To put it simply; ball bearings in 5e are tiny metal balls. They come in a bag of 1,000 which costs 1 gp by default and weighs 2 pounds.

By default, the Player’s Handbook only features 1 use for ball bearings. But, with a little creativity, a player character may find a myriad of different uses to help their on their adventures.

What Can Ball Bearings Be Used For?

Ball Bearings 5e, Metal ball rolling down a track

The primary use for ball bearings in 5e is to spread over a 10 foot square to slow down creatures in that area or make them fall prone. However, with a bit of creativity and Game Master allowance, ball bearings have a variety of uses for adventuring.

If a player character buys 1,000 of anything, they may want to use them outside of their intended purpose. This is true for ball bearings as it is with anything else.

D&D 5e outlines 1 specific use for a bag of 1,000 ball bearings. But, if your Game Master allows it, you may be able to find other uses for them to help during your game.

Here are 5 examples of what you can do with ball bearings in your D&D 5e game:

  • Spreading over an area
  • Determining a drop’s distance
  • Targeting with a spell
  • Finding a slope
  • Distracting enemies

Of course, this isn’t everything you can do with ball bearings as that’s limited only by your creativity and what your Game Master allows. Rather, these are just some examples of what you can do with them.

Anyway, let’s break down each of these uses so you can see how they can help your character during their adventures.

Spreading Over an Area

Of course, the standard use for ball bearings is to slow down or knock prone enemies. As an action, a creature may spread their ball bearings over a 10 foot square. Creatures entering this square must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or fall prone unless they move at half speed. This is the default use as outlined in the Player’s Handbook.

This is the only use explicitly described for ball bearings in 5e. From the equipment section (Chapter 5) of the Player’s Handbook:

As an action, you can spill these tiny metal balls from their pouch to cover a level, square area that is 10 feet on a side. A creature moving across the covered area must succeed on a DC 10 Dexterity saving throw or fall prone. A creature moving through the area at half speed doesn’t need to make the save.

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules

Pretty simple, actually.

A character can take an action to cover a 10-foot square area with 1,000 ball bearings which includes every bearing in a single bag. If a creature moves across the covered area, they must succeed on a Dexterity save or fall prone unless they move at half speed in which case they don’t need to make the save at all.

Determining a Drop’s Distance

Being metallic, dropping a ball bearing (or several) into a dark drop may help player characters determine how far the depths go as they gauge the time it takes for one to impact the bottom if they can hear it.

Dark descents are fairly common in tabletop roleplaying games. They’re an easy obstacle to add in any adventure to give players enough pause before plunging headlong into possible danger. Part of that is due to the uncertainty of how far down such a hole may go.

5e’s rules for ball bearings specifically mentions that they’re made of metal. So, dropping one on a hard surface like stone or metal may make a sound of some kind.

If you have a perceptive enough character, they might be able to figure out a drop’s distance from listening to how long it takes for a ball bearing to impact the ground. Of course, this would only work if the ground is solid. Loose dirt or sand probably wouldn’t make enough of a sound to hear the impact.

Also, you may also need to consider the size of a single ball bearing. They’re a lot smaller than you’d think, probably only around 3mm in diameter, so your GM might rule that they wouldn’t make enough of a noise to hear let alone gauge a drop’s distance.

Target for a Spell

Ball bearings in 5e may serve as the target object for certain spells. Spells and cantrips like light or locate object may target a ball bearing for whatever use the player characters need.

Some spells allow for or only target objects. Unless such a spell states a specific object, you can use a ball bearing at its target.

Of course, the benefits of doing this depends on which spell you cast. Some sound great in theory like heat metal (using this on a single ball bearing has too many variables to be effective) but have caveats that make them much less effective or even useless in practice.

So, here are just a few examples of spells you can use with ball bearings for decent effect:

Light
The light cantrip is great for creating a source of light without taking the time to light and use a torch. A player character only needs to touch a single object and the light produced can be covered by an opaque object. Since ball bearings are so small, casting light on one is fantastic since all a character needs to do is quickly shove it into a pouch to cover it.
Continual Flame
Confinual flame is basically the upgraded version of the light cantrip. It’s a 2nd-level spell that lasts until dispelled (as opposed to light’s hour long duration) and can be cast on any object including a single ball bearing. Like light, the light produced by continual flame can be covered, so placing an affected ball bearing into a pocket or bag works at concealing it.
Darkness
The darkness spell can be cast on a point or object within range. If cast on an object, the dark area created moves with the affected item. So, you could spread out your ball bearings, toss a single one into an area, or simply hold one and target it with darkness to create a mobile, concealed area that’s easy to carry.
Locate Object
This use for a ball bearing is great for keeping tabs on a target non-player character. Locate object lets the caster sense a specific object within 1,000 feet for a 10 minute duration. If a player character sneaks a ball bearing onto an NPC’s person (pouch, pocket, hood, etc.), the caster could then use this spell to know the location of that ball bearing, effectively keeping track of the NPC’s location and movements.
Glyph of Warding
Glyph of warding is a great defensive spell for protecting an area. The interesting thing is the spell outlines a maximum size (10 feet diameter) but doesn’t specify a minimum area. Technically, a caster could target a ball bearing as the surface required for the spell. At that point, you can do anything else outlines in the spell like adding explosive runes or imbuing the ball bearing with a spell.
Animate Objects
The animate objects spell allows up to 10 tiny objects to come to life with 20 hit points, 18 armor class, 4 Strength, 18 Dexterity, +8 to hit, and 1d4+4 damage. Since there’s no size in 5e smaller than tiny, you can cast this spell on 10 ball bearings. What’s more, even if your animated bearings get destroyed, a single bag contains 1,000 of them; this means you have 100 casts worth of ball bearings for the cost of a one bag. You basically have a small army on-hand using a bag of ball bearings and animate objects.

Finding a Slope

Being spherical, ball bearings may be used to detect subtle slopes in dungeons and other locations. This could aid in finding hidden passageways or doors.

If your character is out adventuring, they may not notice a subtle decline. While this sounds like no big deal, a slight slope may reveal the entrance to a hidden passage as the door descends further down.

Alternatively, finding the path of least resistance for a dried trail of water could reveal a hidden cavern or underground river. These may hold secrets or serve as hideouts for monsters and other NPCs.

As a Game Master, you can incorporate these small details to add a level of realism and helps encourage exploration in your games. This becomes especially true if your players go out of their way to buy a bag of ball bearings and want to use it for uses outside of the one listed in the PHB.

Distraction

The description for ball bearings specifically mentions they are made of metal. As such, throwing some of them against a wooden, stone, or metallic surface may cause enough noise to distract enemies away from the party. Additionally, throwing a ball bearings at a non-player character most likely won’t deal damage but may distract them away from hidden allies or a guard post.

Using a ball bearings as small distractions are great for stealth missions.

On the one hand, a player character can use them to make small noises by throwing them at stone walls or metal bars to distract guards from their posts. On the other, they may use them to hit patrolling enemies either from their location or away from their allies.

How Many Ball Bearings Are Used When You Take An Action with Them?

Taking the standard action with ball bearings in 5e uses all 1,000 of them.

It’s as simple as that.

The default rule for using a bag of ball bearings states; " you can spill these tiny metal balls from their pouch to cover a level, square area that is 10 feet on a side." While not explicitly stated, this implies that all 1,000 ball bearings get spilled out of their bag.

Of course, you can try discussing this with your Game Master if you don’t want to cover the full 10-foot by 10-foot area. Given the size and amount of ball bearings in the default bag may make this difficult, but that rulings is ultimately up to your GM.

How Big Are Ball Bearings in 5e?

3 metal balls; 2 big, 1 small

The ball bearings in 5e are generally very small most likely no larger than 3mm or roughly 1/10 of an inch.

D&D’s ball bearings are very small. At least, the ones found in the equipment listing in the PHB.

Even discounting the calculations for figuring out physical size, each ball bearing only weighs 0.002 pounds (a bag contains 1,000 balls and weighs a total 2 pounds for 2 / 1,000) or roughly 0.9 grams. So, they’re tiny.

Unfortunately, this means a single ball bearing is probably too small to get used as ammunition for a sling. One is even too small for a spell like catapult which explicitly states an object must weigh between 1 and 5 pounds.

Can You Recover Ball Bearings After a Battle?

There are no rules for recovering ball bearings after using them, so this comes at your Game Master’s discretion and the circumstances of how your character used them.

Now, if your Game Master (or you, if you run the game) wants to allows for recovering ball bearings, they could use the rules for ammunition which lets a character spend 1 minute after a battle to recover half of that expended. Basically, if you use a bag of ball bearings, you’d be able to recover 500 of them after combat.

That said, this halves the bag’s effectiveness. Instead of a 10-foot square area (100 feet squared), the bag would only be able to cover 50 square feet or a 5-foot by 10-foot area and so on until the bag becomes effectively useless.

Alternatively, you may find that allowing for a longer time or making an Ability check can aid in finding more or even all of them. On the other hand, your GM may rule that the chaos of combat and the size of ball bearings makes finding more than a few more difficult than it’s worth.

Bear in mind; this isn’t rules-as-written. This is a homebrew solution for recovering ball bearings after their use. If you or your GM have a different idea, that’s perfectly fine since there’s no real guidance here.

 

Summary of Using Ball Bearings in 5e

That about covers everything you should need to know about using ball bearings in 5e.

Ball bearings are tiny metal balls player characters may buy as equipment in D&D 5e. Their main use is for spreading over a 10-foot by 10-foot area to trip other creatures moving through the area but may have other uses depending on what a Game Master allows. And, they’re incredibly small; weighing no more than 1/500 of a pound.

Have you used ball bearings in your game? Do you have another use for them not outlined in this article? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “A Complete Player’s Guide to Using Ball Bearings in D&D 5e”

  1. First, I’m not sure how the size has been determined but ball bearings that small would not have the desired effect. They would have to be at least 1/2 inch to do ANY of the things mentioned here. 1/10 of an inch is smaller than the shot fired from a BB gun, almost half the size. Can you actually imagine doing any of these things with a pack of BB’s?? Even just to hinder movement it would have to be a smooth hard surface virtually free of debris. 1/10 of an inch is less than the depth of the tread on my shoe.
    Second, you can do all of that other stuff with a rock. Rocks are free and everywhere. Any adventurer worth their salt should have a few rocks in thier pocket to deal with such issues. Except check for a slope I guess, but it’s been at least a couple decades since I’ve really had to worry about that…

    1. Honestly, that’s part of the issue with them. 1,000 ball bearings only weighing 2 pounds would mean they have to each be tiny. Granted, since they’re specifically stated as being made of metal, it’s kind of assumed they’re a dense material like steel or iron. If they’re made of something else like maybe aluminum, that would probably affect their overall size and weight.

      I think the idea is if a creature runs willy-nilly into an area covered in metal BBs, there are enough of them per square foot that they can slip and fall. But, even then, it’s only 10 per square foot which…isn’t a lot. I’d be willing to bet the designers thought of 1/2 inch or larger bearings when developing the equipment, but didn’t actually consider the material and weight. But, that’s just an assumption.

      It’s one of those things in D&D 5e that makes sense until you take more than a second to think about it.

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