Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A defence of Read Magic, and battlefield power gain

This is for D&D, and any game with magic, psionics etc., including wargames like 40K.

A defence of Read Magic

The prompt is the discussion here at Like Being Read To From Dictionaries on the point of the Read Magic spell, and possibly a lack of clarity in the rules. I think Nagora gets it.

What's Read Magic? Put simply, in OD&D etc. just looking at magical script - at the text of a spell on a scroll say - isn't enough for a spellcaster to read it, and, if it's a spell, to learn it: it needs to be deciphered first, i.e. translated from the system and even the scrawl of the writer, a little like understanding a prescription maybe. There's a spell for that - Read Magic - but it means forgoing another potentially more useful spell to learn it.*

If we're talking gameplay benefits only, two seem clear. First, it delays gratification. Find a scroll, even a tome full to bursting, and if you don't have the tool, you just have to wait, hold tight and dream of what could be in there. What if you never find out..? That's D&D.

Second, if you can't decipher it, and suddenly need a translator or a teacher, it means a trip back to civilisation, new investigation, maybe a quest to weave in: a trip from village to town, or a journey to a regional hub, maybe to a major city or a new realm, or an expedition to the edge to find a recluse or radical. What can the party combine it with? What might happen out of the blue, and what's over that border, that hill..? What's that?

That plays to the resource management aspect of the game too, one feeding the other.

It makes magic more precious and it promotes the exploration at the heart of the game.

For a one-off game, your magic-user might take Sleep, Magic Missile. For a campaign, you're going to want Read Magic as soon as the breathing space opens up, especially if you're dreaming of the ancient lores, setting up a laboratory and weird new technologies.

Battlefield power gain

Off on a tangent then, for non-tactical roleplayers or other not-onlies, what if this reading idea was adapted to skirmish gaming and bigger, even where one-off battles are more common? It might not work in so expansive a way - one trade-off could be in positioning.

Imagine a rule: when a wizard, psyker etc. is killed, the model is left in place. A wizard or psyker of another force, even of a whole other background, can then come and study and/or drain the body under fire: a test can be made and a number of powers absorbed.

Think how much dynamism it could add to a game. Do you risk moving up or not? More importantly, if you needed a specific power to be able to do it, would you make space..?

* App as magic spell? With the size and scope of some spell lists - check - and potential for creation, maybe.


Andy Bartlett said...

There was a discussion on Dragonsfoot about whether a sub-literate character could be a Magic User. The more interesting aspects of the debate boiled down to the question of what was involved in 'reading' magic. Geoffrey McKinney (I think it was him) of Carcosa notoriety made the argument that as, in D&D by the book, deciphering magical writing required a magical spell, not training in an obscure, occult, but ultimately mundane language called 'Majick' or 'Arcanium' or whatever, magical writing was not the same kind of thing as mundane writing at all. Therefore a sub-literate character could, theoretically, 'read' magic.

He also suggested that we might imagine 'written' magic as looking something like 'asemic writing', though even there we're providing a mundane analog for magic.

Porky said...

Intriguing subject. While use of Read Magic seems to me fairly clear, especially looking at the wider context like this, there's a lot in early D&D that's hard to tease out or take onboard, which encourages or demands interpretation by the individual. There's a complex tension between the fact that in theory a character do anything that makes sense in a given situation, and the fantastical aspects, and the nature of the interaction as a game - which brings in the players' environment, natures and expectations - and the suggestions in the rules themselves.

This is one of those wonderful hazy areas where the information on the nature of magic sketches out a form only and leaves us to fill it, which we presumably often do by a more direct route. The associations are there most obviously in the character spellbooks, and the word 'read' of course, and maybe the speech element to casting - and this has been built up further in the literature and art over time - but being as it's magic I think you're very right there's no reason to keep that at the mundane level.

Magical script looking like asemic writing specifically is an attractive idea, and so is the idea it might even 'be' a kind of asemic writing. That also ties in with the possibility the script is a more living thing, maybe fluid, possibly even sentient. Could the reader be communing with an individual lifeform, or with a facet of a larger being..?

It could turn things around a fair bit too. We could go from a fustier vibe to a more dynamic one, where maybe the meaning of an illegible script is drawn out less by endless candlelit study than by a more kinaesthetic or revelatory process. Followed up more broadly, that could reshape perceptions of the character type and maybe lead to revisions to the class, or a new class altogether. We know from the past few years in the OSR that what may be relatively new viewpoints, subtle colourings or tight concept sets can spread fast.

Given all this, the idea the spellcaster might work in this way also plays to that houseruling-homebrewing space of a particular group's 'D&D Ours', and that scope, or even natural slide or push towards innovation, is part of the beauty of the game I think, and quite possibly the reason we're still exploring the potential even now and finding whole new expanses in other people's understandings. A little like Alexis at The Tao of D&D, I have a feeling we're still only just at the threshold of what the game can be or do.

John Till said...

I wonder if there IS a D&D spell that would simulate the kind of battlefield Read Magic you are describing? If not, there should be. I can easily imagine a whole order of dial-a-murder assassin mages who specialize in this kind of spell theft as a form of commerce. There would definitely be a market for this kind of spell-knowledge recovery.

Porky said...

I can't think of one, but I haven't been through the lists in a while. If there isn't, it would be a little odd, given how many spells the game in its various form does have, and with the development from wargaming.

Still, there is scope for creation in-world and a lot have been produced since. I've got a whole set of spells ready, drafted or only hazily sketched for a future supplement and there are one or two along these 'intermage-ic' lines. There'll be at least a handful of spells posted as part of the noircana project, and the idea does fit.

If you want to get in on the project too, you're very welcome.