... now with 35% more arrogance!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Spread of Magic

In the post about giving every character the potential to learn, memorize and cast first level spells, Charles states, "I find it hard to believe that in a society of humans where learning magic was as easy as copying a few pages out of a book that there would be any significant fraction of the population who didn't know magic."

Certainly, theirs a potential for that to happen. But is it a necessity for almost everyone to know magic, in such a world? Is it really unbelievable to have a large number of people who could potentially cast spells, but don't actually know any spells?

Let's try an experiment and replace a couple phrases in that statement.

"I find it hard to believe that, in a society of humans where learning to read and write was as easy as copying a few symbols out of a book and memorizing the sounds they represent, there would be any significant fraction of the population who was illiterate."

Ignoring arguments about the relative difficulties of learning one system of writing or another, for a significant portion of human history, reading and writing has been that easy, and yet illiteracy was the norm. Why?

  • Partially because children who could learn to read could also do work, and that's what most families made children do instead of learn to read.
  • Partially because, unless someone offers to teach people to read and write for free or the government pays for it, it's expensive and only affordable for the rich. 
  • Partially because books are so expensive to create for most of human history that they are luxury items and pretty rare, so there's not much demand to learn to read and write. 
  • Partially because some segments of the population weren't allowed to learn to read and write, and in some times and places, a small caste of literate people tried to keep literacy to themselves, to retain control.

This is relevant to learning spells, as well, at least as imagined in the D&D universe. Learning magic requires learning to read. In fact, it may require learning a specific language or writing system that is not in common use, much as, at several moments in history, there were two writing systems or two languages in use, one profane, one sacred. Egyptian hieroglyphs get their name from the fact that they were used by priests. And, as it turns out, they were associated with magical knowledge and spells as well.

The first thing we need to remember, then, is that the potential to learn something does not mean there is also an opportunity to learn something. The second thing... is what I'll cover in a post tomorrow.


  1. The thing you're not getting here is that for much of history, learning to read and write offered literally *no benefit*. There was no advantage to a farm hand, soldier, or weaver who could read vs. one who couldn't.

    With magic, though, the potential benefit is colossal, and the barrier to entry much lower. You don't need to learn how to read magic in general - apparently everyone already knows that - all you have to do is copy a few pages by rote from one book to another.

    So, in the reading example, the barrier to entry is high, and the potential benefit nil.

    With magic (as you propose), the barrier to entry is low, and the potential benefit immense.

    1. Sorry, it's simply not true that reading and writing offered no benefit. Which is why there were, indeed, farmhands, soldiers, or weavers who learned to read and write, say, Demotic. There's been a lot of study of personal letters written by Egyptian tradesmen working on remote construction projects -- letters that mostly involve mundane things like directions on running the household or requests to send possessions from home. Literacy may have offered no *perceived* benefit, to some, which, combined with active suppression of literacy, would explain why few farmhands, soldiers, or weavers who became literate.

      I'm not sure where you are getting "you don't need to learn how to read magic". Certainly, that was never what I proposed.

    2. "I'm not sure where you are getting "you don't need to learn how to read magic". Certainly, that was never what I proposed."

      Well, you said that *every* character can learn and cast spells as a 1st level Magic-User... Since, presumably, every character is not literate, this would require that literacy not be a requirement for magic use.

      Frankly, the idea that anyone can cast spells with no training doesn't make much sense to me, so I don't really see why being illiterate would be any more of a barrier than being completely ignorant of all things magical.

      And I don't think you can compare the benefits of being able to write to your wife to say she should fire the pot girl to a spell which could do your days work in 10 minutes...

  2. I think that the real analogy is with chemistry. There are a lot of neat things that you can make using the processes of chemistry (such as blasting caps), but they require a lot of practical lab knowledge and theoretical chemistry knowledge to perform with any safety or even with any actual effect! This gets even more difficult if, like the alchemists, the information is buried in layers of analogy and deliberate obscurantism (such as is the case even when an alchemical text can be described as "exceptionally clear").

    1. Sure, and that's how magic normally works - you need years, or even decades, of training to be able to use it.

      That explains why you don't see it anywhere.

      Talysman (seemed) to propose that literally every person in the world could do magic with no training whatsoever, all they would have to do is find a spell.

    2. Well, there's the other thing, too, which is that in addition to those complex and crazy obscurities of alchemy or high explosives manufacture, there is also a tradition of chemistry which is used on a daily basis by people all over: cooking! So, the simpler forms of magic can be widespread while more advanced forms are limited to the specialists.

  3. Are we assuming there is no difference between a 1st level adventurer and every NPC barmaid, soldier, weaver, and scribe?
    Also, didn't Talysman mention in his previous posts about casting checks and intelligence requirements for using and learning scrolls?