Read Magic Through the Ages: Part 1 (OD&D)

After realizing that Magic doesn’t come close to working the way that we’d always played it, I decided to go back to the source texts and figure out where we’d gone wrong.  One thing I’d discovered was that Read Magic was the ONLY way scrolls could be used in B/X, and one had to sacrifice one of at most four level one  spells that one would EVER get on Read Magic or NEVER have access to Scrolls.  You could theoretically write a scroll and use it without having read magic, but this has more to do with B/X’s magic item creation that’s based on charges – it’s not a scroll you’re reading from to cast the spell, it’s a sheet of paper magically imbued with one or more spell charges, and you’re just as well off enchanting one of your other items, like your dagger, with whatever spell you want.  But I digress; I’ve decided that I will be doing a comparative look across all editions of Read Magic to dig just how possibly misunderstood this little spell is!

Read Magic: The means by which the incantations on an item or scroll are read. Without such a spell or similar device magic is unintelligible to even a Magic-User. The spell is of short duration (one or two readings being the usual limit). – Dungeons & Dragons Volume 1: Men and Magic, Page 23

So, in this case, Read Magic is the only way in which a Magic-User can read a scroll or spellbook, possibly even their own. One could theoretically cast at most two scroll spells using Read Magic. It says nothing about deciphering spells (i.e. the spell does not explicitly grant a MU the ability to go back to a previously Read Magicked scroll or spellbook with an ability to read and understand it; in fact, it almost sounds like the spell would not last long enough to transcribe a spell!)

In Men and Magic, we’re told under the Magic-User class”Wizards and above may manufacture for their own use (or for sale) such items as potions, scrolls, and just about anything else magical.” (p6) Scrolls are 100 GP per spell level. This means that only 11th level MUs and above can scribe scrolls!

I could be wrong in my interpretation, as there’s not a lot of meat to M&M, but I think that Magic-Users just get to know whatever spells they want from the various levels so long as they are capable of casting it. The concept of the dungeon book and refreshing your spells with scrolls introduced in Holmes is absent here. Both Magic Users AND Clerics can research new spells that are not on the list. A newly researched spell can, however, be shared with the party: “Once a new spell is created the researcher may include it in the list appropriate to its level. He may inform others of it, thus enabling them to utilize it, or he may keep it to himself.”(p34)

So, in OD&D, it looks like there is a list of “known spells” which all Magic Users in the world have access to some way or another. Those spells are there in their books that they bought at Spell Emporium at the cost of 2000 GP per spell level, I guess. “Characters who employ spells are assumed to acquire books containing the spells they can use, one book for each level. If a duplicate set of such books is desired, the cost will be the same as the initial investment for research as listed above, i.e. 2,000, 4,000, 8,000, etc. Loss of these books will require replacement at the above expense.”(p34)

Rules on scrolls are elucidated on in Monsters and Treasure:

“All Scrolls are spells for Magic-Users, and regardless of the level of the spell they can be used by any Magic-User capable of reading them. All “Protection” spells can be used by any character who is able to read. Scroll spells are of the 6th level unless necessarily higher, in which case they are of the minimum level necessary to generate such a spell. After reading a spell from a scroll the writing disappears, so the spell is usable one time only!” (M&T p32)

It’s also worth noting that DMs are advised to make non-Cursed Scrolls disappear to force players to read Cursed scrolls that will summon monsters, give PCs fatal diseases, turn them into insects, transport them randomly 1000 miles away or to another planet (like those are literally the 5 options on the table).

So Read Magic in OD&D:

  • Very probably the only way to use non-“Protection” scrolls.
  • Probably not useful to transcribe spells into your spellbook, but it doesn’t matter because you have all of the spells anyway.
  • Maybe necessary to read one’s own spell book.
  • If not necessary to read one’s own spell book, possibly not necessary to read another MU’s generic spellbook.
  • A fist-full of scrolls would not be of any benefit to increasing your overall casting power as Read Magic is likely required to use them; however if you have two scrolls, Read Magic could allow you to cast two for one once if your DM was generous enough to say that Read Magic lasts long enough to use two scrolls.

Magic in OD&D – very different from what one assumes as the Vancian Dying Earth themed system of scrounging magic and stealing spells!  I’m beginning to think that this aspect of D&D doesn’t show up until 1e AD&D, cuz it’s sure not here, not in Holmes, and definitely not in B/X.

I will be looking at Holmes in part 2.

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7 responses to “Read Magic Through the Ages: Part 1 (OD&D)

    • Thanks! I remember you saying you were looking forward to these, so I thought “What better time than now to hit these?”

      Holmes may be a bit trickier, since I’ll need to go to Zenopus Archive’s comparison between the Manuscript and Published version as I’ve never been able to find pdfs of Holmes anywhere since WotC pulled them in favor of Moldvay.

      • Will you be giving Mentzer a look too? That’s the set I was playing as a young shaver. I guarantee we were playing it wrong.

        You play Moldvay with your group, right? I have those books but I have never gotten to play it. I run a monthly public game at the local library and people want to play 5th so I run 5th but I am dying to play something else. Not that I mind 5th. Its a solid game with manageable crunch and only slightly ridiculously powered low level PC’s. For me the big difference is that spice that lethality brings. I could easily make really deadly encounters but player expectations are different now. People don’t want to die from a pit trap after writing three pages of single spaced text about how their first level was forced to leave the community of Elves in Eloysia due to a forbidden romance between the PC and the High Priest’s daughter. Somewhere in between the sprawling romantic novel and a ghastly medieval snuff film there is a sweet spot for D&D. I haven’t found it yet but I have enjoyed the journey so its all good.

        Someday if you find yourself without anything to write about I would enjoy your take on all the editions in one mega post.

      • Y’know, I wasn’t going to at firsts, but then I remembered that one of my players made me a hand-made leatherbound copy of B/X that is Mentzer/Cook instead of Moldvay Cook. I’ll also be looking at the Rules Cyclopedia version of BECMI. The only ones that I may not be able to look at the exact wording with a copy of the sources in hand are Holmes and 1e (and I can at least probably borrow a copy of 1e from a friend, in case someone say “Hey, he used OSRIC and OSRIC clarified this and that!”

        And yeah, we’re playing Moldvay right now, with some tweaks.

        I don’t know if you were reading me as far back as when I talked about the time I played 5e, but in a lot of ways it felt more like a system designed for a Supers game that was dressed up as fantasy.

        The shield rules I introduced in my Moldvay game have served to be a decent reminder of how potentially lethal everything is without necessarily having to go through characters like toilet paper. After the first session where 3 PCs died, we haven’t lost anyone yet. Now, I totally expect the fight against the undead King and Queen of Cynidicea to end in a TPK, and I’m okay with that, since my game is a stop-gap while my DM retools his setting to try out a different system.

        I really think the sweet spot can be found in short fiction – I’ve been noticing that a lot of the best stories I’ve read from the classic period, as well as the best submissions I’ve received for Cirsova, are those that could be quickly converted to a one-page-dungeon and run in one or two sessions with no more than a couple of stat-blocks. Pieces like Leiber’s Jewels in the Forest or Wells’ Raiders of the Second Moon. Heck, even your stuff that I’ve read!

        By the way, any news on the physical versions of Thune’s Vision?

  1. That’s true about 5e feeling like a supers game. It is much less so than 4e was but it definitely has that vibe. I will have to look up that post.

    I just ordered a second round of proofs and hopefully they will be the money and then print will be available. It should not have taken this long but life and all that.

    Its funny when you mentioned the fiction/dungeon relationship on Castalia it got me thinking about the novella. Wild city, perilous jungle, space fantasy dungeon, that thing had it all and it was completely organic. I didn’t think about gaming at all while writing.

    What system will your regular DM be using?

    • He’s thinking about trying out Warhammer Fantasy RPG. I have mixed feelings about it. It seems like an interesting system, but it means either converting or ditching our DCC characters (even though we’ll be playing in the same setting), and I’ve actually gotten really attached to my thief.

      I don’t think it’s something you can go into thinking about, because then you run the risk of writing overly gamey fiction; better that when you see the outcome after it’s done, you realize you’ve done it right.

  2. Pingback: Read Magic Throughout the Ages Pt. 2 (AD&D 1st Edition) | Cirsova

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