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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Read Magic and Literacy

In one of the retroclones (Labyrinth Lord, if I recall correctly,) characters with a very low Intelligence score are illiterate.  This may be true in B/X or BECMI as well; I never read those versions of Basic, just Holmes.  That approach doesn't sit well with me, since I prefer no minimum scores for the base classes; illiteracy is a background option, not a side-effect of a low ability score.

But I do like the idea of having some effect on literacy for low ability scores.  Here's an idea: Intelligence 8 and below means a character's lips move while reading, with 5 or less meaning the character reads allowed.  This mainly affects the use of scrolls: a magic-user of average or better Intelligence can cast Read Magic and identify the spells on one or more scrolls without problem, but those of low Intelligence have a 1 in 6 chance of casting the spell on the scroll, or 2 in 6 for those of very low Intelligence.

There's also a 1 in 6 chance that reading a normal inscription aloud will alert a nearby monster, spoiling surprise.


  1. I actually just assume most characters are illiterate unless they have a good reason to not be, since we have a medieval based society we're working with. Magic-Users and Clerics get a pass to literacy, everyone else has to convince me (or spend points on it, if we're using some kind of skill/proficiency system).

  2. I like to think all M-Us and Clerics are literate, but Fighters and Thieves are literate only on a d20 roll-under INT.

    Social standing doesn't have such a big impact, as I can see a knight not learning to read because that's not really a skill required for bashing heads and exhorting peasant toil.

  3. My approach is the opposite, as I hinted at with my reference to backgrounds. Your character is literate unless you want to be illiterate, or unless you would obviously be illiterate (barbarian, orc.)

  4. The Labyrinth Lord description of Read Magic is interesting in that it effectively gives the character casting it the chance to retain their newfound language skills...which isn't how things were way back when, but is a nice way to expand on the use of languages in magic, at least.

    The assumption of literacy/illiteracy says a lot about a setting and it establishes a fundamental bit of shared context--written clues won't do much for illiterates, and erudite-types might overlook the fancy knots or patterns in the beadwork of illiterate tribes...there's a lot to work with adventure/setting-design-wise just in terms of how you want to deal with literacy.

  5. I recall reading (somewhere... The Medieval Machine perhaps) that the ability to read silently was considered an amazing feat, cited in wonderment about a certain cleric. The areas in monasteries where the monks copied works were said to hum with the murmuring of the monks speaking as they read.

  6. @Alex: I recall reading, in an article on improving reading speed, that even many people who appear to read silently either subvocalize or move their lips slightly while reading; one of the first tasks for someone trying to improve their reading speed is to learn not to do that, so that their speed of comprehension isn't limited by their speed of speech.