Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What's the deal with read magic?

So why read magic? I have to admit I've never seen it used. I never played a magic user as a kid, because I'm a bonehead and only wanted to play minotaur barbarians (and, yeah, I was a teenager during the Dragonlance years, at least when I played on Krynn).

I don't even know if it exists in 3.x. Let me check the SRD. It's there as a 0-level spell that's used to "decipher magical inscriptions on objects—books, scrolls, weapons, and the like—that would otherwise be unintelligible".

What started me thinking about this was, not surprisingly I guess, the way the spell is presented in OD&D (which I really should quote here, but I don't have my booklet with me) because it implies that magic-users  will need to have this spell on hand for any spell-reading they want to do, say at memorization time. That could be a welcome brake on the power of higher level wizards, but it's hamstringing to the 1st level guy, isn't it?

Here's what my copy of Swords & Wizardry White Box says: "allows [you] to read magical writings on items and scrolls. Magical writing cannot be read without . . . this spell." And the duration is specified as "2 scrolls or other writings."

Do these magical writings include your own spell book? What do you suppose this spell was originally intended to do? How do you use it? Did you piledrive it too? (If you haven't read those posts at Monsters & Manuals, I'd say they're worth your time.)

I have an idea for a variant--which is really just a re-skin, but I suppose I'll save it for Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day (April 17), in case I don't think of anything better before then. It'll even give me time to write it.


Nagora said...

Each magic user develops, presumably as part of their apprenticeship, a personal cypher system which prevents their magical works from being read BY OTHERS; they can automatically read their own without this spell. If they find another magic user's works then they need the read magic spell to break the encoding, which allows them to read that same text again anytime they want to without the spell.

High level thieves, who I suppose have been studying codes and symbols, have a chance of breaking a given encoding.

That seems to be how it works in 1e AD&D, and I think OD&D had a similar idea in the background as it was for use on scrolls and items, not the magic users spell books.

Telecanter said...

I don't use it and never understood why it was even a thing.

If only magic users can cast spells then there is no need to prevent other classes from reading scrolls (unless you don't even want non-casters to know what kind of spells scrolls are).

If it's intended to be a requirement to read every bit of magic writing, why not just abstract it into the class abilities?

If it's meant to act as another resource to manage by taking up a spell slot, I think the desire to record new spells into your spell book before you cast and lose them from a scroll much more interesting.

I can only guess it's one of those complexities added to the game because it makes sense, without thinking about the affect it has on the game in play, like weapon lengths.

Aaron Nuttall said...

Nagora, your presentation makes sense. I this spelled out in the AD&D rules, say somewhere other than the spell description. In the DMG perhaps?

Telcanter, about the resource management issue, I wonder if it was thought of as a kind of tax on casting a spell from a scroll (though that would be quite a favorable trade for higher-level spells), or if it's just a bit of Vancian simulation.

Jeremy Deram said...

In my mind, the primary advantage of read magic is that it allows you to read the inscriptions on magic items and figure out what the thing does, command words, etc. without having to resort to experimentation, thereby minimizing the risk of getting totally screwed - either by a cursed item, or simply a mishap while trying to figure it out.

I'm playing DCC these days, and 1st level wizards get 4 spells. I think that's kind of a lot, so I automatically give them read magic and detect magic, and let them pick the other two. Now it's only a question of whether or not the player remembers to use it. They don't have to sacrifice the ability to be effective in combat in order to tell what spells are on a scroll, which I agree is pretty lame.

If I'm running OD&D, I don't require memorization, and 1st-level wizards have access to all the 1st level spells, they are just limited to casting one per day. This way, no one has to blindly decide to take read magic over sleep, because really, who on earth would ever do that? But, if they come across a curious item and are having trouble, it becomes a more interesting choice.

Alternatively, I think making read magic just be an innate wizardly ability that can be used with a successful INT check or something is a totally legit way to go as well.

Aaron Nuttall said...

Jeremy, it might be interesting to compare how the various OSR-type games deal with read magic, alongside DCC. Then I'd be in a whole "Spells Through Ages" situation, but that wouldn't be so bad.

Talysman said...

I think the original purpose of Read Magic is to unlock immediate use of a magic scroll or item command words. OD&D doesn't mention using it to read spell books at all. Instead, it compares the spell to Read Languages, so I rule that what both spells do is eliminate the need for weeks of research and high research costs.

My rationale behind it is that two magical inscriptions that trigger the same spell effect are never the same. You have to use astrological tables and tables of correspondence to construct unique symbols, and those aren't immediately decipherable without a lot of hunting through those same tables. Read Magic is thus the shortcut.

Lee Reynoldson said...

Telecanter said...

If only magic users can cast spells then there is no need to prevent other classes from reading scrolls (unless you don't even want non-casters to know what kind of spells scrolls are).

If it's intended to be a requirement to read every bit of magic writing, why not just abstract it into the class abilities?

I think it's more about MU's protecting their spell books from other mages, and from a meta viewpoint making it a bit more work when PC MU's get their grubby paws on an NPC spellnbook, and making it less easy of PC MU's to swop spells.