Thursday, March 1, 2012

Language and Magic

Read Magic you say? Try reading this. 
Everyone who's seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer or read the Harry Potter books knows that you can't get very far in the magic world without learning some Latin.  And everyone whose played AD&D knows that powerful Magic Users always have a ton of extra languages under their belt.  Is it too much to assume, then, that decoding linguistics is linked to the conducting of magic? That magic is created by communicating with arcane forces in a mundane way?

The notion is supported by at least a couple of verses from AD&D scripture:
"Illusionists do not need the spell Read Magic or anything like it in pursuit of their profession.  All illusionist spell books and scrolls are written in a secret tongue which every apprentice learns from his mentor." --Gary Gygax, DMG pg. 39
"At 10th level (Master Thief) thieves are able to decipher magical writings and utilize scrolls of all sorts, excluding those of the clerical, but not druidic, nature." --Gary Gygax, PHB, pg. 27
Likewise, druids "have their own secret language" though it is not made explicit that it is essential to the conducting of Druidic spells.  

So why not make Read Magic a language instead of a spell?  Say, you have to learn Latin to cast magicky spells.  That's just one language; what's a smart Magic user to do with his other bonus languages?  Learn to speak Pixie?  Ha!  How bout he picks up a few more dead languages.  Why not give each magic type (i.e. abjurations, Alterations, Divinations, etc) a different language to be learned?  Let's say you need to learn Gothic in order to delve too deeply into the world of greater summonings.  Or Tocharian to really get the hang of them phantasms. 

In this way you can attach whatever magic limitations you prefer via the language learning ritual thus guiding the way magic is expressed in your game.  Say Manx, the language of Necromancy, is only taught by a cult in the Lortmil Mountains, and members of the cult hold bludgeoning as the highest form of injury; edged weapons are considered crude or too lenient or whatever.  Or the utterance of the  Aramaic language--the tongue of evocations--causes a resonant force around the spellcaster's body that is interrupted by the presence of significant amounts of ferrous metals.  Elves are default magic users in your game?  That's 'cuz they all learn to speak Avestan, the language of Enchantments.

Advanced studies in a particular language might allow characters a benefit.  Burning 2 extra languages on a magic language--a specialization if you will--allows you to cast spells of that type normally not available to your class.  Your Spell caster double-majors in Tocharian, the language of Phantasms, he can now cast all phantasm spells, including those normally reserved for Illusionists and Druids; thus effectively eliminating the need for an Illusionist subclass.  In this way, a "cleric" might just be a Magic user with fluency in the languages of divination, abjuration, and necromancy.

I'm pretty sure that third line says "Magic Missiles"
This flows much better with the thiefly ability of to  read scrolls; under AD&D rules, not even magic users could read scrolls without first casting read magic--a rule that was perhaps as widely ignored as weapon speed factors and psionics--and yet thieves of a certain level had a chance of reading the same scroll without any spell casting ability.   Of course, the arcane forces have been pre-channeled and imbued in the substance of the scroll, so all that the thief has to do is read the magic words in a reasonably competent fashion and voila!  Magic be happenin'!

Language-as-magic widens the potential for other characters to get in on this scroll-reading bonanza as well.  Say your character is an Elf and, though not an MU, he or she is familiar with Avestan.  Now say your elf finds a scroll written in Avestan.  S/He reads it over, says I think I get it, and gives it a whirl.  He or she may attempt to cast the spell, though not being fluent in magixcersizing, they run a risk of spell failure.  Maybe give 'em a  percent chance of success equal to 5 x Int.  Or, if you'd rather roll a 20 sider, d20 + Int must be > or = to 21.  [Alternatively, AD&D-nards might like to use the "Chance to Know Each Listed Spell" from Intelligence Table II on page 10 of the PHB as the base chance of success].  This would not work in the case of non-spellcasters who read from spell books because, unlike scrolls, the book itself does not contain the magic that is to be channeled.  The second part of performing magic--channeling the energy once you've communicated with the arcane forces--would remain the purview of trained spellcasters.

The effects of a failed scroll-reading might look something like this: 

Scroll Failure (roll on d6):
  1. Nothing happens whatsoever
  2. The spell functions as normal but takes effect 1d6 mile(s) away. 
  3. The spell takes effect as normal at the same location but not for 1d6 hours. 
  4. The spell affects the least convenient of the following: you, the person or thing best equipped to use it against you, anyone who isn't you.
  5. A curse befalls your offspring; all of your future characters suffer -3 to all ability rolls until the curse is lifted.
  6. The soul of every player within 3d6 feet of the scroll-reader is inexorably drawn into the dimension of Hades to suffer eternal torment.


Erin Smale said...

Timrod, where has this post been all my life? Absolutely brilliant. You are on notice that this will be plucked. Thanks!

Timrod said...

Thanks Erin; glad you like.

DHBoggs said...

Great Post. You would probably be intereseted to know that it was Dave Arneson's idea origianlly to have D&D magic language based. MU's had to learn the "language of the magi" to be able to read, write and cast spells. His version of Read Magic was "read magic or languages" that had been scrambled, coded or otherwise obsucured, but had nothing to do with reading spells.
Gygax, for whatever reason, never adopted Dave's idea.

Timrod said...

@DHBoggs: Thanks for the lowdown on Arnesonian magic; that is pretty cool to know. It totally flows with the whole notion of spell books and scrolls.