Monday, February 10, 2020

I Hate "Read Magic"

So there's this first level spell in old versions of Dungeons & Dragons called "Read Magic," and it's awful. I don't care if you're talking about OD&D or AD&D or Basic D&D or some retroclone or the collective wisdom of every DM who ever lived being drilled directly into my fucking brain with God's pink laser beam: "Read Magic" sucks. It's fiddly garbage.

"Congrats! You searched the dungeon diligently and found a scroll with exactly the spell you happen to need right now. You can tell by reading the convenient label, which is the only part not written in mystical mumbo-jumbo. Oh, too bad you didn't memorize Read Magic today! If only you had either seen the future and known that you'd need it, or else made a paranoid and unfulfilling habit of always spending one of your few precious spells-per-day on it just in case. Wait, what's that? You did memorize it today, but you already cast it a few turns ago in that room full of magic wands? Tough luck, bud. By the way, when was the last time your character used the bathroom? You don't know? Let's just assume it's been a while and impose a -1 penalty on all of your rolls until you relieve yourself. Speaking of which, it looks like some wandering monsters just barely succeeded on their roll to surprise you thanks to that penalty, so give me a saving throw to see if they drain any levels. Oh stop complaining; it's on page 215 of the AD&D Bathroom Survival Guide."

I get the appeal of resource management in a dungeon crawl, I really do. But this is just annoying and finicky and kind of unfair. Especially if your character is unfortunate enough to start without Read Magic. BECMI and the Rules Cyclopedia added a rule that magic-users and elves always start with Read Magic, presumably just to address this issue.

Magic-users spend years studying the fundamentals of spellcraft in grueling apprenticeships...doing what, exactly? Not learning to read magic runes, evidently. Okay, to be fair, they can read their own magical writing, so I guess they either learn a hyper-specific set of runes that no one else uses, or they literally can't read their own writing without casting Read Magic on it at some point.* Wait, maybe all wizards write their spells in secret codes or obscure dead languages, right? Well then, wouldn't spells like Comprehend Languages do the trick? No, you need Read Magic because shut up.

Requiring a "spell slot" for Read Magic probably means the more fun spells get memorized less often, or else the player gets punished down the line for it. I think it also makes casters even less likely to memorize a variety of spells; If I only have 2 or 3 "slots," and I already have to fill one of them with the boring-but-practical Read Magic, it's a pretty safe bet that I won't also memorize something weird and situational like Ventriloquism 'cause papa needs his Magic Missiles!

But what really rots my rations is that thieves can read magical writing without using the spell! Sure, there's a chance of failure, but it's still more than the magic-user can do without the spell. Little or no magical training? You've got a chance! Dedicated your life to studying magic? Nope, you don't have a clue what those runes say without your special brain doohickey. You expect to just read magic runes without wasting a spell? You think that's part of a wizard's education? What are you, some kind of thief?

Years of Academy Training Wasted - A Poem
So now you're telling me
that your lockpick-sniffing thief
with 9 intelligence
who only made it to level 10
by stealing fancy ashtrays from the Comeback Inn
and stabbing ten million sewer rats in the dark,
who never cast a spell in his whole yellow-mold-licking life,
finds a scroll in the gutter that fell out of Merlin's lunchbox
and has an 80% chance of just eyeballing it for a hot second
and bending the universe to his almighty will,

while my level 20 wizard with 18 intelligence
and a full book of spells,
who lives and breathes magic
and is so hyper-focused on his craft that he
because he needs every spare neuron to learn this arcane shit,
simply can't do it
without the help of one specific first level spell
that he didn't happen to prepare that day
and that your cheating ass doesn't even KNOW?

-Justin Stewart, February 2020

Yeah, you can come up with some brilliant headcanon or setting-specific reason why that makes sense, but you know what? I'm not gonna bother. It's easier to just fix it with a quick house rule and move on to more entertaining subjects. If you want to play it by-the-book, I'm not stopping you. If you come up with a fun, clever explanation for why things work this way in D&D Land, hey, good for you! I'd love to hear it, even. Heck, I'd probably join your game centered around the deep intricacies of Read Magic and play with great enthusiasm if given the opportunity. Repurposing weird D&D-isms is often the foundation of cool new innovations and fascinating perspectives on gaming. It's one of my favorite things that OSR game designers and bloggers do.

But when I run my games, I'll ditch what I want to. And don't give me some lecture about how "You Can't Have A Meaningful Campaign If Strict Read Magic Quotas Are Not Met." I don't want to hear any griffonshit about how Read Magic is absolutely integral to the game and secretly an intentional stroke of genius by Gygax or whoever, some unsurpassed piece of game design or masterful stroke of implied world-building, and I'm just some spoiled millennial philistine too unimaginative to intuitively grasp it. Taste is subjective, and game designers aren't perfect. Sometimes it's okay to just hate a stupid rule in a silly elf game.

Anyway, for my "Super-Casual" Pulp Campaign, I might use of one or both of these house rules:
  1. The spell "Read Magic" is removed from the game. Scrolls, runes on wands and magic items, and other typical magical writing that normally requires the use of this spell can instead by read automatically by any Magic-User. This skill is considered a basic part of a Magic-User's training. Essentially, every Magic-User is under the permanent effect of a "Read Magic" spell at all times.
  2. No more spell memorization! Spellcasters are still limited by their spells per day, but if they have a particular spell in their own spellbook (or general repertoire for clerics), and they have an unused "spell slot" of the appropriate level available, they can cast the spell as if they had memorized it. Hopefully this will encourage players to use a wider variety of spells. This goes for NPCs as well, just to even the playing field. I'm coming for you next, Vance!
*Wait a second...How did the fledgling magic-user read and memorize Read Magic in order to be able to cast it on their teacher's or their own writing in order to first learn Read Magic?


  1. Agreed. Read Magic should be an innate ability for wizard-types. They have it bad enough at low levels without having to spend a resource on a basic feature of the class.

    All of your arguments are valid and persuasive, but that asterisked question at the end is gold.

    1. Aw, you're too kind. Thank you. :)

      I've clearly been in a puckish mood lately. I wonder where it'll take me next.

  2. I know this is an old post, but I’m convinced.