Friday, April 3, 2009

On the Subject of Magical Writings

Here's something I just learned about illusionists in 1st edition that doesn't sit quite right with me: they don't have to use read magic to read illusionist spells in books and scrolls. According to the AD&D1 DMG, illusion spells are written in a secret tongue taught to all illusionists during their apprenticeship.


I never knew this because, in my entire gaming history, nobody I've ever played with has rolled up an illusionist, and I'm pretty sure that specialist wizards in AD&D2 all work exactly like normal mages when it comes to read magic. (2nd edition illusionists included)

For some reason, this little tidbit just doesn't jive with me. (Of course, maybe that's why the minimum starting age for an illusionist is 31 years old vs. magic-user's 26)
I also find that the concept is somewhat contradicted in the DMG's section on scrolls, where all scrolls aside from protection-type scrolls require a read magic spell to decipher.

That leads me to scrolls in general: all scrolls require read magic to decipher except for protection scrolls (which can be read by any character). How is it that classes without access to read magic would be able to create scrolls that can be read by no other means?

A final nitpick on magical writings is that rangers can eventually learn to cast druidic and magic-user spells, but cannot read them from scrolls. Likewise, the thief cannot cast spells, but may read magical scrolls. I suppose the partial education of those classes is sufficient to at least hand-wave the matter.

Since I anticipate tinkering quite a bit with AD&D, I intend to address the issue of magical writing and the use of read magic. My initial idea is thus:

Magic-users will have a secret set of written language much like illusionists do. This allows them to decipher magical scrolls and writings, but only up to the level they can cast. A 3rd level magic-user who finds a scroll with web can read the scroll without magical aid, but he cannot comprehend a spell with fireball on it because his understanding of magical writings is insufficient to comprehend a 3rd level spell. The old read magic spell becomes something of a translator-type spell: the magic-user can use it to reveal the nature of spells beyond his comprehension. He could then read scrolls or even copy a higher level spell into his spellbook, although he'd still be unable to memorize it until he reached the proper level. Read magic would also allow him to determine the nature of an illusionist, clerical, or druidic scroll, including what spell it is, though of course he would still be unable to use it.

Druidic spells would be written in the druidic language. Characters who have somehow managed to learn that secret tongue (an assassin, for instance) would be unable to cast the spell regardless because they have no connection to the powers of nature.

Clerical scrolls are written in a church dialect that all clerics learn during their seminary, something akin to Latin in the medieval church. While non-clerical religious scholars or curious academics might be able to learn this language, they lack to training to connect to the divine and thus the scroll can't be employed as a spell.

Illusionist spells will remain written in the secret illusionist language, readable and usable only by illusionist characters.

An additional rule I am contemplating is that the reverse of read magic, undetectable magic, be made permanent in duration, or perhaps it lasts one year per level or is particularly long lived. It renders magical writing unreadable until read magic is employed.

It occurs to me that the format of a spell is most likely different on a scroll than it is in a spellbook: the writing is charged with energy and I see it as a sort of "magical shorthand." (For magic-user and illusionist scrolls, that is...the idea isn't applicable to clerics and druids as they lack spellbooks.) Magic-users and illusionist still have to make a "chance to learn spell" roll if they desire to copy the scroll into their book, because they have to essentially reverse engineer the true version of the spell from the magical shorthand. For copying a spell of higher level than what one can cast, I would impose a penalty of -10% per level difference.

The spell comprehend languages cannot be used to decipher a magic-user or illusionist scroll, as I see those languages as more of a system of mathematics or scientific formula than I do an actual language that one could communicate in.

I think we've got ourselves a workable system, folks.


  1. I find I have to comment.

    The whole "read magic" thing was, from the beginning, quite silly. I assume it was an attempt to limit the power of spellcasters, though I can't see how exactly. It was a rule I ignored pretty much from the beginning, since its like giving a special power to a carpenter, "use hammer."

    Clearly, the emphasis of the caster's ability is "perform magic." Obviously they should be able to read it. It is just as obvious that others should be able to read it as well--for which I produce the obvious example, and one that is mathematical in nature.

    I can "read" music. I can discriminate between a quarter note from a half note, I recognize the various markings, I understand what the lines mean and why bars are divided the way they are. What I can't do is play music. Given time and patience I can eventually hit piano keys in order. But I can't sit down with a piece of music and immediately knock out a song. I haven't the talent.

    The argument has always been that if you make thesounds of the magic from the scroll then the spell will occur. This is patently idiotic reasoning. Making the sounds from a piece of music is not playing music. It is more than just tapping keys in order. It is tapping them at a required rhythm and at a required pace that produces music.

    Thus, it is the caster's knowledge of HOW to read that is relevant here, not a knowledge of what is written. Hell, I can put French in front of you, and you can read the words: "sest laa vi-ee." Is that French?

    So, my point: why not let comprehend languages identify the nature of the scroll. Doesn't necessarily mean they can use it.

  2. So, my point: why not let comprehend languages identify the nature of the scroll. Doesn't necessarily mean they can use it.

    I was actually debating that with myself as I typed and reread this entry yesterday. Originally I did write down that comprehend languages would identify the scroll. Then, I wondered why anyone would use that spell when read magic is first level. (Then again, they might not have it memorized.) I ended up erasing the line and typing up that bit about mathematics. Of course, I have heard of mathematics referred to as a language, and what is a language but symbols used to represent concepts/ideas? I suppose I could allow comprehend languages to identify a scroll. After all, in the entry above I did mention several instances where someone could read a scroll but not necessarily use the spell on it (the assassin who had learned druidic, for instance.)

    I also agree with you in that I don't see what the reasoning behind making magic unreadable without a spell. It also makes one wonder just how an apprentice mage even learns read magic to begin with.

  3. Which is why I began with the whole spell concept of "read magic" as silly. Why not simply let casters read magic, automatically and all the time, and have done with it?

    The problem should be for NON-casters, not for casters.