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Friday, October 11, 2019

Decode Arcana, Scrolls, and Learning Spells

Sebastian DM had some questions in a comment on yesterday’s Liber Zero Magic Class pamphlet. The answers are related and worth some discussion, so I’m answering in a full post.
I have two questions. First, Why require time and cost to learn spells if Decode Arcana will do it free and instantly? It is a first level spell so I would guess a player would learn it fast. And second, how come a MU must learn a spell before they can utilize it from a scroll? Did you figure they would want to learn it first anyway?
Before I get started, let me make clear, for anyone who didn’t know, that the Decode Arcana spell is meant to replace Read Magic. A lot of my previous posts on Read Magic went into the thinking behind the spell.

Originally, Read Magic seems to have been a gatekeeper for using scrolls and magic items. There weren’t a lot of predefined details about the way spellbooks and learning spells worked in early games, so its only real effect was to restrict how many scrolls found in a dungeon could be used immediately. It’s limited to the number of Read Magic spells memorized.

Decode Arcana inherits this function. The way I’m imagining the spell working: a magician finds a scroll, which is written in some ancient wizard’s uniquely personal magical code. The magician doesn’t have time to decode the symbols, so they use Decode Arcana to immediately decode it. They now know what the scroll says and can use it.

That’s pretty much identical to the way most GMs use Read Magic. It’s just a different backstory of how it works.

What I changed, though, was: magicians can automatically recognize and use scrolls for spells they already know. Decode Arcana isn’t necessary. Limiting scroll use to spells the magician already knows sounds like a limitation, but it is actually a boost to ability: instead of a 1st Level Magician only being able to use one scroll max, assuming they’ve prepared Decode Arcana, they can use any scrolls of known spells they find, plus one scroll of an unknown spell per Decode Arcana spell used. Once Decode Arcana is cast to learn an unknown spell, that spell is known and the magician never needs to cast Decode Arcana to read a scroll with that spell on it.

This is a very complicated way to explain what’s ultimately a simplification.

That basically answers the second question. But why require time and cost to learn spells, if Decode Arcana does it for free? The magician might not know Decode Arcana. Without the spell, they will need to take the slow, costly way of learning new spells. But on the other hand, they aren’t completely locked out of learning new spells or even using scrolls, just because they don’t know Decode Arcana. They always have a way around it. However, they have a strong incentive to find and learn Decode Arcana as quickly as possible.

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  1. Thank you for the explanation. When put like this, it certainly makes a lot of sense. I think I failed to put 2 and 2 together and see how the first question actually answered the second since a MU would know the spell the second they got to read it.

    Paying gold and time to learn a spell when a scroll or spell book already been found is something I think I have forgotten to question. If the functions of this learning procedure are only to keep the player from using them straight away or using too many (which I agree seems the case because gold sinks are easily made in other ways) I can totally follow you in changing it right away. Making the player wait multiple weeks (of real time) before they learn and finally get to try the spell they just found only seems like poor game design.

    Also, I never knew Read Magic was supposed to be used each time a scroll is used. That is an interesting reading, and reasonable too!

    Off i go to read your posts on Read Magic :)

    1. Finally got to read them. And they were an interesting read! They sparked some ideas for alternative rules that I have to type out soon.

      Now that I have read about the subject it does seem very strange for read magic to limit the number of new spells being cast from scrolls. I don't see the point in it and further a MU is still allowed to keep the scrolls and blow through all of them at once on the very next adventure.

      If it was to limit the total number of scrolls used in an adventure (learned and unknown) instead, it would make way more sense to me. I have seen players use all their money on sleep scrolls and solve every encounter with sleep. It does even seem like an effective strategy for most adventures.