Read Magic

I would like to remove the spell “Read Magic” from the game. My reasons for this are two-fold.

  1. Thieves are able to read magic without resorting to a spell. Why should mages and other spellcasters have to use a spell to do what thieves can do with cunning and practice?
  2. Arcane spellcasters in ACKS have a very small number of spells available - even mid level casters may have only 3 or 4 first level spells. Having to use one of those precious slots for Read Magic seems unfair.
    My proposed new rule:
    A character can use a magic scroll if (a) he can read the language the scroll is written in, and (b) the spell is on his class’s spell list. Thieves can bypass both “a” and “b” since they can read languages, etc.
  1. Quintus the Mage finds a scroll of “animate dead” written in Ancient Zaharan. Quintus reads ancient Zaharan, and “animate dead” is on the mage spell list. Quintus can use the scroll.
  2. Quintus the Mage finds a scroll of “cure light wounds” written in Ancient Zaharan. Quintus can read ancient Zaharan, but “cure light wounds” is not on the mage spell list. Quintus cannot use the scroll.
  3. Quintus the Mage finds a scroll of “polymorph self” written in Draconic. “Polymorph self” is on the mage spell l ist, but Quintus cannot read Draconic. He cannot use the scroll.
  4. As above, but Quintus casts Read Languages. He can now use the scroll.
  5. Quintus already knows “animate dead” so he gives the scroll to his friend Balbus. Balbus is a Lawful Cleric, so “animate dead” is not his spell list. He cannot use the scroll.
  6. Quintus also gives the “cure light wounds” scroll to Balbus. Balbus reads Draconic and can use the scroll.

Makes sense to me.
But this does raise a conceptual question about magic. Previously it was stated:

Arcane spellcasters know only a limited number of spells. Knowing an arcane spell is far different than merely possessing a copy of its formula. For an arcane spellcaster to know how to cast a spell he must keep track of complex astrological movements and star signs that are constantly changing; he must daily appease various ghosts and spirits that power certain dweomers; he must remember and obey special taboos that each spell dictates. All of these strictures, and they are many, can vary with the season, the lunar cycle, the caster’s location, and more. Knowing a spell is thus an ongoing effort, like maintaining a friendship or a muscle. Only the most intelligent and learned arcane spellcasters can know more than a few spells at a time.

How does that then work with scrolls, in terms of the narrative? If the limit on normals spells is tracking all the variables in a constantly changing universe, then an inscribed spell that is single use and can be used at any time seems a little odd.
(unless the creation of the spell ‘traps’ it in midcast, and the scroll itself is just the instructions on how to release it. And then the ability to add a spell to your spellbook from a scroll becomes more complex, since its not just copying the spell over but instead studying the scroll and ferreting out the nature and specifics of the original spell was cast into the scroll.)

Have I got this right - Clerics don’t have Read Languages so if they have only average INT they would probably have to learn them as proficiencies instead, and still not be as good at translating something in a dead language as an average 4th Level Thief.

So the thief would make two throws to use a scroll?
Another option: Leave magical writing as a distinct “language”, and say that spell-casters can read a scroll for a spell on their spell-list on the same proficiency throw as a 10th level thief. Failed throw means you can’t decipher the writings.

I’ve wondered about this also. As it is, any mage without Read Magic is working at an extreme disadvantage. Still, removing Read Magic as a spell isn’t necessary even if there are other ways of accomplishing the same thing, and it might be more trouble to take it out than leave it there being somewhat redundant.
(Of course, I said that thinking the spell was there, but it’s not. It doesn’t appear in the spell index or on any of the spell lists. Awkward.)
A character can use a magic scroll if (a) he can read the language the scroll is written in, and (b) the spell is on his class’s spell list.
I like this for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that it gives languages more importance and encourages spellcasters to favor ancient civilized languages like Zaharan over, say, Goblin (which probably doesn’t lay claim to many scrolls). One thing I don’t like about it is that it de-emphasizes the mystical nature of magical writings.
In the history of magical grimoires, two recurring themes are (a) magical symbols in and of themselves contain power, and (b) there are procedures to follow for properly and safely unlocking that power. Engrave the sigil on a sword, say these words, and you’ve got a banishing tool. Draw this figure on the ground, chant this invocation, and you’ve summoned a demon. If you look at nearly any classical grimoire, like the Lesser Key of Solomon or the Arbatel, you’ll see a bunch of largely incomprehensible symbols surrounded by the explanation of how to use them.
If you applied that to an ACKS scroll or grimoire, it would be very similar to what you described. It would have some arcane markings (the part with the power you’d normally need Read Magic to activate) along with helpful descriptive text in some mundane language. If you know the language but can’t Read Magic, you’d know what it does but not be able to activate it. Having Read Magic without the language, you could activate it with an idea of what would happen but might be missing important information (the texts are full of helpful hints like “this demon will appear fearsome until commanded to take a pleasant shape” or “this only works at dusk”), so there’s a strong incentive to get the language figured out. In game play, Read Magic tells you that it’s some kind of fire spell and you can activate it, being able to read the language lets you know if it shoots a fireball or summons a fire elemental.
This amuses me, but it seems like too much accounting for every single scroll that comes up in a pile of treasure.
Some other alternatives might be:
One campaign I played declared “Magic” as a separate, learnable language - more or less the equivalent of memorizing all of the alchemical symbols, astrological signs, demonic sigils, etc. of the world. This made Read Magic a free spell if you were willing to give up a language slot and could find someone to teach it to you. Hey, it made sense when Thieves’ Cant and Druidic were languages.
The Collegiate Wizardry proficiency seems designed to cover exactly this ground, though. Expand identifying “grimoires of his own order” to the standard arcane spell list and you’ve got a mage who can work comfortably with the usual spells, has an improvable proficiency throw to deal with unique (lost, ancient, original) spells, and can fall back on the Read Magic spell if all else fails. Ill-educated hedge wizards without the proficiency struggle to understand the magic of other mages, as is proper. Arcane spells in this case are less like languages and more like math.
Since divine scrolls can be read without special deciphering (as described in Scrolls), they don’t have that problem and Theology doesn’t fill the same role. It would make sense, though, for clerics to typically write scrolls in their own common language. That Ancient Zaharan Cure Light Wounds scroll was just a typical scroll in old Zahar.
Put those last two together, and you’ve got arcane scrolls that require the ability to read magic (through familiarity, collegiate training, or the Read Magic spell) and divine scrolls that require the ability to read the language (through familiarity or the Read Languages spell). Nice and neat.
There’d be an argument there for putting Read Languages on the divine spell list, but given the way clerical spells work, that would make nearly every cleric the perfect linguist and language skills would be worth a lot less.
Speaking of perfect linguists, I’m with Sean - I don’t see how every Burglar has an 80% chance of reading anything in any language ever. Ciphers and maps, absolutely. Ancient Zaharan, not so much. Surely with that kind of talent they could be earning more money as sages. Three 4th level thieves together have a greater than 99% chance to read any text - there are no secrets in this world.

I would take the middle path :slight_smile:
give to Mage a “Read magic skill”, with less disastrous effect of the Thief skill on a failed roll, and with a progression (maybe similar to the Magic Research with more numbers for the first levels) and the possibility to try again after a little research
ps: and again I would highlight a difference between spells known (in the book) and spells studied, as it is we know that spells known are the one that the mage is keeping notes on (star configuration, leylines, spirit and whatever), but really he didn’t study other spells? Make clear that the spells that the mage has studied are many more but the one he can keep track of are the one in the books (for whatever reason). (Spell studied could be wrote in the book as if found in a scroll?)
pps: why the mage is positioned before the cleric in the 1.7 draft?

I think I prefer ‘Magic’ to be written in whatever language the author happens to write it in. Why? I think it makes more game than closing Arcane magic off to anyone but a mage with Read Magic. I understand why (I think), and it seems to boil down to niche protection. However…
Ash from Evil Dead: Armies of Darkness manages to read from the Necromonicon (a magical grimoire if ever there was one) and fluffs the spell, releasing terrible things. Non-mage, mucking about with spellbook to hilarious consequences.
Somewhere on the blogosphere one of the OD&D bloggers (I forget who) references a story about an ‘adventurer’ type who gets his hands on a magical scroll but has almost no idea how to use it. I think this is used as an example of the Thiefs ‘Use magical item’ ability, but why limit it to thieves? Sure, they can more reliably not blow themselves up, but it’s more entertaining if the party fighter has to try to read the magic scroll of ‘everyone not dying today’ and fluffs it.
That said, I’ve not digested this against the magical cosmology so I don’t know if it would actually work in practice.
Gut feel though, suggests that someone could find a mages spell journal and try to read it to hilarious and unanticipated consequences.

Also the 1999 version of The Mummy.