The (Mostly) Indecipherable Spellbook

I have always been a little dissatisfied with the two main mechanisms I’ve seen for magic users to gain spells in D&D: Either the player just picks one from a book and the character suddenly knows it, or the character finds a spell in the world and among loot and gets to learn it when they next level. The former has no narrative justification (which I know doesn’t bother many, but always disappoints me); the latter puts the burden on the DM to include spells among loot, and gives players less choice in what spells to take (which I think is a bummer for players who like pursuing “character builds,” and is a bummer to me as a DM who likes to prep very little). Saying the character has been researching in their spare time and “discovers” a spell in a eureka moment at level-up does work, but raises the question for me of what the hell they were consulting for research sources if they were plundering dungeons all this time.

One obvious answer occurs to me: They’re studying the spellbook itself. It starts play full of notes and diagrams placed there by whoever passed it to the magic user—perhaps a graduation gift from mentor to apprentice, an inheritance from family who didn’t even know its true nature, or loot from some adventure before play even started. Unfortunately, the damn thing is nearly indecipherable. It takes, oh, say, roughly [one level worth of] days to actually work out how a spell works. Then, suddenly, you “know” it.

This suggests some other variants and house rules for play that might be fun to explore, such as:

a) If you want to encourage random character building but also allow for purposeful character builds by eager players, let characters who roll for random spells decipher randomly rolled 2 spells or 1 specifically chosen spell when they level up. Maybe you just know this one page lets you cast Fireball because there’s a big damn drawing of a ball of fire, but flipping around and cross-referencing between multiple pages and piecing together whatever looks easiest will definitely result in deciphering spells faster.

b) If you want to play a game without classes, or where classes only determine starting gear and anybody can build in any direction over time (like Index Card RPG), “a book full of mostly indecipherable spells” could just be one of multiple starting items alongside “a finely crafted dagger” and “a set of armor in the style of those knighted by the king.” When you gain a level, you get to choose one upgrade (or, if using the above method, roll for two), improving your facility with one of your special items—learn a spell, master the technique of knife-throwing, move more freely in your heavy plate, etc.

c) Gradually deciphered spellbooks can apply to clerics as well as wizards, though in the case of clerics, all adherents of a single religion might actually be working from the same sacred text(s). Studying in solitude could be a rite of passage to prove one’s devotion—or a show of faith that convinces a living deity to grant the ability to read certain passages and channel their divine power.

Originally posted to Google+ on June 23, 2018.

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