Monday, June 15, 2020


Regarding Friday's post on spellbooks...

Additional thoughts have been percolating in my brain. Please allow me to share.

The first thing that occurs to me is that any "problem" I have with spell books is only really a problem when it becomes a problem. Me worrying about it ahead of time is...well, silly. Except of course that if the physicality of a wizard's tome is important, then I want the players to worry about it, too (i.e. 'How am I going to lug this thing around?'). Requiring players to think about such real world issues...similar to having them think about issues like light and food and encumbrance...helps with the immersive experience of the game. But for the game itself, it's not all that important...unless it suddenly becomes important (due to a particular book-wrecking situation during play). Whether or not the character has the book in her backpack, or safely hidden outside the dungeon only otherwise matters if you're allowing wizards to rest and recuperate their spells in the Underworld which is a sketchy stance to take as a DM for a variety of reasons.

A second thought about why the size, presence, or need for spell books matter is that it directly ties to how magic-users acquire spells in one's game. Can players steal enemy spell books and add their pages to their own? Can the players' own books be stolen? Spell books quickly become the most precious treasures in a wizard's hoard. Does a lich need to study a spell book? Sakartha, the vampire lizard king needed one...and it proved quite a valuable find to my players back in my old AD&D days. On the other hand, B/X magic-users only know as many spells as they can cast...taking an enemy's spell book certainly hamstrings the caster but adds nothing to the player's own store of knowledge.

Which leads me to my main (if not final) "thought of the day:" it seems to me that one could interpret the wizard's spell book as something largely symbolic, a talisman the mage requires in order to use (and re-use) her spell knowledge. A talisman is nothing more than an extremely personal (and, thus, magically invested) object that is sacred to the spell caster; losing a talisman denudes the character of her magical abilities...capturing a talisman puts the wizard at a person's mercy (and destroying it severs her powers completely).

Typical Talisman
Plenty of talisman examples from fiction come to mind: the wizard Vector's monocle in Wizards & Warriors (stolen by Blackpool and used to control the mage). The staves of the Istari-wizards in Tolkien (and how Gandalf's breaking of Sauruman's staff destroys his powers). Galen's amulet in the film Dragonslayer. The stolen wand of Rastafyre the Incomparable in the Lythande story The Incompetent Magician...even the secrets of the Blue-Star mages themselves could be classified as a talisman of sorts, one that carries no physical weight but whose loss carries far more consequence (destroying the magician's power completely).

I could wrack my brain for other was a common plot element of the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, requiring the protagonists to recover some ring or wand or amulet in order to restore a wizard's lost powers. The magic hat of the the magician character Presto would certainly count as a talisman by my definition.

Would Sauron's ring count as a talisman? Probably. So might the matrix stones of the laran gifted in Darkover or the medicine bag of a Native American shaman (which seem to me an inspiration for the former). Would Stormbringer qualify as a talisman for Elric? Maybe...but Elric's a special case in a lot of ways. But you could probably count Princess Eilonwy's "bauble" (from the Prydain books).

The point is, there are a lot of things that can serve as a talisman, all largely symbolic. A spell book need not be different: it represents the work, thoughts, and accumulated knowledge of a mage in a world that (presumably) has a fairly low rate of literacy. It need not actually contain "magic spells" but, rather provides the same sense of security and comfort and pride as the phallic power represented in a staff or wand.

[isn't the wand thing kind of a big deal in the Harry Potter books? It seems to me that there's a lot of wand stealing and wand breaking plot points in that series...if memory serves]

Changing the magic-user's spell book requirement to a talisman might make the character a little too similar to the cleric class (whose "holy symbol" amounts to the same thing)...on the other hand, that might be a good thing. How does one's magical power grow, exactly? The gods gift the cleric with power as she gains experience in their service. The wizard...needs to find (or create or steal) spells?

Far easier (and perhaps more interesting) to make the different spell-casters all "magic-users" of different schools. Mechanically (i.e. rules-wise) they're still interesting: clerics have (mostly) different magic, lesser in some ways, but powerful in others. Wizards have more variety and raw power (perhaps), but don't have the support of a church or's still the path of the outsider and individual, even those who belong to a particular magical order.

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. I'd even consider something like the theft of one's talisman resulting in a diminishment of power (say one-half level?) rather than a full loss of spell ability. The 14th level wizard without her staff is still a potent force, but with it she can literally move mountains. Well, hills anyway (using the move earth spell).

My final thought on the subject is this: a fighter who loses her weapons can still fight, a thief who loses her lockpicks can still perform other thief skills, and (in both cases) acquiring replacements are a small cost to the player. Same holds true for a cleric's holy symbol (assuming you require the symbol for clerics to use their abilities). Placing the magic-users power in an encumbering stack of paper...very, very expensive paper...feels exceptionally punitive to me.  And I'm not someone who is particularly about "making life easier" for the players.

Anyway...still thinking about it.


  1. You might take a look at the long series of Ethshar books by Lawrence Watt-Evans (or the wiki on the setting) for a setting with many different styles of magic. In particular, their wizards require both a talisman (their athame, which is a Top Secret of their Guild so almost an unknown weakness outside of it) and spell formulas and all sorts of components to do much of anything. They're nigh-unbeatable with sufficient prep time and resources, but bad at doing things on the fly in an emergency. There are at least five other commonly-seen caster types and some outliers, and the way they each fit into the world is pretty well thought out. The books themselves are light reads and maybe not the most exciting ever, but as "slice of life/puzzle situation" books in a fairly civilized human-only RPG-styled setting they can be useful for mining ideas from.

  2. Ah...I followed your link to that Lythande post from 2009, and you really might want to update that. Marion Zimmer Bradley was exposed as a pedophile in 2014 by her own children Moira and Mark, and they were not the only victims. While Bradley was never charged, her husband Walter Breen was, and her own testimony during his trial reveals that she was aware of his own abuse of their children and others in 1963-1964 and declined to report him. He received multiple convictions for child molestation in 1954, 1990, and 1991 and died in 1993 before serving his ten year prison sentence. Bradley's own involvement has been discussed at length in both the scifi fan community and in speeches by both her children and a book written by Moira. Every publisher still involved with her work is now donating their profits to charity, and the many authors that used to collaborate with her have mostly done similarly. Were she alive today she'd be a pariah, and most likely in prison. Maybe you can separate her from her work enough to still appreciate Lythande and Darkover and the rest, but even so acknowledging her mistreatment of her own children and others still seems like something you should do.

    1. @ Dick:

      I am well aware of MZB's indiscretions and wrote about this in 2014, when I first became aware of the issue:

      I am not affiliated with Bradley, her writings, or her estate. I receive no income from collaborative work that I can donate to charity. That her former publishers ARE giving profits to charity provides me with MORE incentive to reference her works now, works which were (are?) viewed as seminal pieces of fantasy literature.

      That she was a despicable human being to children, especially her own, is a terrible, terrible thing...fortunately, being dead, she is in no position to do harm, nor be supported (by her fame and fortune) in a way that would allow her to continue her transgressions.

      Separating the artist from the art...mmm. There have been many "good" things that have come from "bad" people over the years (and vice versa). Christ would teach us to love the criminal even as we denounce the crime. That's a tall order (no one said being a Christian was easy), but maybe acknowledging the art she created...and the other authors she helped (especially women authors) during her career...can help us to see her life and time on this planet wasn't totally without value.

    2. A Thief without his thieve's tools is neutered quite a bit... probably balanced with his ability to do stuff otherwise. I've always presumed that a magicuser has his big tome tucked somewhere safe, and carries an adventuring copy with his main spells... such that if something disastrous happens, he's not up shit's creek... even if he falls in shit's creek. Even if this happens in game play, I'm not likely to make this a long term disability... rather play in the moment that if they're stuck deep in a dungeon, they need to regroup so that the magic-user can retrieve his primary and scribe another adventuring tome. Kind of like how I have my secret password file saved in a few different places... yeah, that's it... I've been meaning to do that :)

    3. Coda... after all, isn't that what the read/write magic spell is all about (which no one ever memorizes) :)

  3. I largely agree with you on this one (the point about spell books being punitive). I like the mechanical aspects of vancean magic just fine. For D&D it is pretty solidly balanced (as much as a class of characters that can warp reality can possibly be balanced) and it is easier to riff on it than replace it.

    But spell books aren't necessary for the mechanics. I do like a focus (or talisman as you say) and for games with a less Eurocentric (by way of American fiction) flair I have already taken that options.

    When I do use spell books I make their replacement much easier. It just charge a passage of time, and usually as a DM make some game space for that time passage. Get blank book. Slowly rewrite spells. Go adventure.

    I don't go out of my way to take a spellbook, and honestly consider them a bit more trouble than they are worth. As a DM I have to tailor my threats so that I am not constantly imperiling a character types ability to perform their primary action. The argument that it balances the amazing power of the class is ludicrous. It just makes them go from godlike to useless.

    The only strong advantage to the spell book, over other talisman, is that it can be stolen or captured by players, and it is pretty easy to pilfer its secrets. You would need write another game mechanic/fiction to explain extracting spells from another talisman, but that could have an advantage of providing a better spell control mechanism within a game.

    Slightly off topic I don't hold clerical spells particularly "sacred". Though not on a MUs spell list I do allow them to be researched if they don't involve direct divine intervention. I loath the slavish devotion to a "balanced party" and opening up healing to magic users means it is easier to put together a party of characters players want rather than forcing someone to fill a roll for the mechanics. (spam this argument for other classes learning thief skills).

    1. Regarding clerical spells: hmmm. While I'm not a big fan of "balance" in the game in any shape (I think the asymmetry is responsible for much of D&D's charm and intrigue), I prefer to keep magic-user and cleric spells separate just so that different character types are forced to rely on one another...helps knit groups together into a tighter, more cooperative unit.

      That's kind of why I've come 'round 180 degrees on the thief.