Magic spells and literacy

The homebrew rules for adding literacy into your campaign setting that I shared last time were meant to be a little generalized, so I didn’t specifically address one aspect of literacy in a fantasy setting: spell-casting.

In my custom campaign setting, magic is not nearly as widespread as in Faerûn, and the literacy rules provide a way to support that. As stated in the standard rules: “A spell scroll bears the words of a single spell, written in a mystical cipher. If the spell is on your class’s spell list, you can read the scroll and cast its spell without providing any material Components. Otherwise, the scroll is unintelligible.”

When incorporating literacy into your campaign, acquiring new spells—particularly powerful ones—shouldn’t be that simple. Reading should be an essential skill for spellcasters who wish to acquire more and more power (safely).

You can model this under the literacy rules with two simple declarations:

  • New spells must be acquired from a mentor or found in a scroll.
  • Magical texts are closely tied to the language and culture they were crafted in.

Acquiring New Spells

Upon gaining the ability to cast higher level spells, characters are not instantly given access to all of the spells on that list. New spells must be taught by a mentor or learned from a scroll. At lower levels, DMs will want to make this task easy; baby characters level up fast. Where you draw the line and start making these spells harder to acquire informs how ubiquitous magic is in your world.

This isn’t a limitation; it’s a story prompt. Pepper your adventures with spellbooks and scrolls, for your spell-casters to find the spells you want to give them access to. Write one-off adventures for finding such spells. Once a character is high enough level, you might require them to research very powerful spells, as if they were creating them from scratch.

Once a spell is initially acquired, all of the usual rules apply—but only once it has been translated into the spellcaster’s magical idiom (and, where applicable, copied into their spellbook).

Wizard reading.
This dude is only 3rd level.

Deciphering Magic Scrolls

D&D 3.5e had a spell called Read Magic. 5e removed that, giving all spellcasters the inherent and free ability to read magic texts. With literacy rules, this action is simply part of the Literacy skill… with one caveat: a spell is not simply words for an incantation; they are detailed instructions containing the vocal, somatic, and material requirements for harnessing a specific form of magic. They were written in a specific language at a certain point in time—possibly in a cipher, as well.

So instead of having every wizard automatically able to read and cast any spell scroll they find that’s on their spell list—even one written by a two thousand year old sorcerer—spellcasters must translate them first or find the assistance of someone familiar with the original language (or its modern equivalent) who can do it for them.

Characters who wish to decipher a spell scroll themselves must succeed at a DC 12 + 1 per spell level Literacy check. Archaic texts (relatively to the character) should require a higher Difficulty Class; a particularly cruel DM might even increase the DC if the spell was written by a spell-caster of another class. That fifth level spell written down by a sorcerer two thousand years ago? That’s a DC 21.

The Comprehend Languages spell, of course, allows spellcasters to understand the literal meaning of any language. But it “doesn’t decode secret messages in a text or a glyph, such as an arcane sigil, that isn’t part of a written language.” Effectively, it makes it equivalent to a modern language in which the character is fluent. Therefore, a Literacy check may still be required, with advantage and a lower DC.

Perhaps the player in question is a 13th level Thief with the Use Magic Device ability, however, and no access to Comprehend Languages, or the player hasn’t learned the value of that spell in a setting with these literacy rules yet? Without the Comprehend Languages spell, understanding a spell written in a foreign language is, simply, impossible.

Failed translations might mean the scroll simply doesn’t work, or, when cast, does not work correctly. (The DM should warn the player that they don’t feel very confident about their translation.) Casting a mistranslated scroll—or, even riskier, skipping this translation step and casting it on the fly (translating them on the fly, as it were) would need to make the same Literacy check, but a failed roll would have instant and potentially dangerous results. These results should generally be related to the nature of the spell—not as erratic as the “Scroll Mishaps” table (DMG, p. 140)—but in most cases the scroll is still expended.

That Fireball scroll you just tried to use? It just exploded around you. But hey, at least it was also at half strength…?