Tuesday, May 11, 2021


I'm guessing this post will be shorter than the last one. Yay!

Continuing the discussion of languages in D&D, we move on to the subject of literacy which for game purposes I'm going to define as "the ability to communicate through writing." That's a little more than the literal definition of the term (which is simply the ability to read and write), but for purposes of a game rule/system I want to make sure I'm considering "practical application."

The history of writing is a long and interesting one that predates the invention of paper. Mainly, the need for a written form of communication seems to have been tied to the rise of administration/bureaucracy (which itself was only made possible by the advent of agrarian culture and large communities of people starting to congregate). This is a gross simplification (I am as much a hack academic as I am a hack writer), but it works well enough for where I'm going with this (plus I said I wanted this to be shorter!).

The main part of originating writing is the development of an alphabet: illustrative characters that can represent sounds, words, or whole concepts. The alphabet I use (that I'm typing in right now) is the Latin alphabet, first developed some 2700 years ago (though it wasn't the same then as it is today). Other alphabets developed other places. Some of these are still used today, many have fallen by the way (or been subsumed into others). 

The latin alphabet is used throughout most of the "western world," because of the reach of the old Roman Empire and its influence on the rise of western culture. Romans needed writing because they had a gigantic bureaucracy to administer. Prior to its fall, folks living within the empire (both citizens and non-) enjoyed a high level of literacy and writing seems to have been quite proliferate. After the disintegration of the Empire...and the loss of a cheap source of writing material (papyrus from Egypt), literacy fell drastically in western Europe, and would remain low for centuries. 

[one might ask which came first: loss of literacy or loss of governmental cohesion. They probably fed into each other in a death spiral of de-evolution]

Again...I am grossly simplifying because it's not my objective to write a long essay on the subject (lots of good sources on this stuff exists for interested folks). However, for purposes of world building...and then rule design...this gross simplification provides the foundational material I'm working with.

Does the Dungeons & Dragons world need literacy? That's not a terrible question to ask. Originally, the main things PCs were supposed to read included spell books, magic scrolls, and treasure maps (all of which I intend to discuss in a follow-up post). And other then scribing ones own scrolls, the only thing a character was presumed to need to write were hiring notices posted at taverns...and, of course, one could hand-wave even this, given the likely illiteracy of desirable hires (especially considering it's the exact same cost for simply "having servitors circulate in public places, seeking such persons"). 

Spells like read languages (from OD&D, book 1), magic items like a helm of reading magic and languages (from OD&D, book 2), and the thief's ability to read languages are all explicit to reading treasure maps:
Thieves of the 3rd level and above are able to read most (80%) languages, so treasure maps can be read and understood by them without recourse to a spell.

- Supplement I (Greyhawk), page 4
Reading doesn't otherwise appear to have been all that important (note the low level associated with both the spell and the thief ability) to the D&D game. As Alexis pointed out the other day, having written text for PCs to discover is generally just finding a different, novel way of delivering exposition to the players. And if that writing is in a language that they don't understand (or can't read), the only thing you're gaining is time; i.e. the DM is delaying the delivery of exposition to the PCs, which is only rarely useful.

And yet, in my mind's eye I always remember that scene in 1952 film Ivanhoe in which Robert Taylor seeks out a local priest to read a letter confirming the location of King Richard (Ivanhoe is not a stupid man but obviously an illiterate nobleman...not terribly unusual for the 12th century). It's not "exposition" that's gained from the priest's literacy, but a useful clue. Such a clue isn't necessary to your typical D&D adventuring party (who could just as easily decide to assault every keep in Austria until they find their king or die terribly), but it is a useful piece of information, helping to save resources (and lives). And the prospect of a literate captive (one with whom a literate party might communicate via message) ALSO has uses. 

Even so, that's a fairly singular example of mundane literacy being useful (the party cannot be expected to rescue a king in durance vile every week!), and as far as using written messages with each other, nothing prevents party members from working out their own coded signs...or hiring scribes to read/write for them. 

The main reason that I want literacy is from a world building perspective. I like the idea of there being books in the world to be read, and useful information to be gleaned from their pages. Sages are hella' expensive after all...though that might simply reflect the fact that few persons can read the texts in the sage's library (ooo...I like the idea of a book thief campaign!). Useful hints, rumors, legends, and even magical command words should be available to the person able to read the memoirs and journals that have been left behind by other, literate folk. And the quest for folks who can read ancient alphabets...well that can be an adventure in and of itself!

SO...to the rules. There are two parts to comprehending writing: understanding the alphabet, and understanding the language the alphabet is expressing. I can read the Latin alphabet just fine, but if the words are in Danish, I'm not going to grasp what's been written down. In my campaign world, there are only a handful of written alphabets, all developed by their own cultures (generally long ages prior to the start of the campaign) for the purpose of administering their civilizations:
  • the "Common" alphabet used by humans
  • ancient elvish, a script not used in a thousand years
  • "common" elvish
  • runic dwarf (mainly used for counting and/or religious/magical purpose)
NOTE: ancient elvish can only be used by someone with fluency in elvish; runic dwarf may only be used by someone with fluency in dwarfish. These symbols used in both these languages communicate concepts, not just sounds, and cannot be used to transliterate the languages of other cultures.

There are at least two other languages I'm toying with adding: one will be related to an ancient snake-man (yuan ti) civilization, lost in the southern jungles. The other would be an "Underdark alphabet" used as a common script by the various deep dwellers (drow, svirfneblin, etc.); though drow themselves will mainly use a "tarted up" version of ancient elvish. Mind flayers, being big-brained telepaths, have never needed to develop an alphabet. 

Most of the other sentient humanoids of game world neither have nor use alphabets of their own. Goblins, orcs, gnolls, lizard men...none of these creatures have ever had the administrative needs to develop their own forms of writing, and few have access to learning the writing of others. That doesn't mean there aren't literate humanoids! They are just few and far between and the ones that do write are most likely to use the "Common" alphabet of humans.

[though to whom would they write?]

Learning any single alphabet requires only one point from the character's pool of language points (see the rules in my fluency post). Some DMs might want to make particularly rare or difficult languages "cost more" to learn...I don't. It amuses me to have a halfling academic who knows how to write "good morning" in common elvish without actually being able to speak elvish, or to have a rather low intelligence dwarf who still knows his holy runic writing.

Oh, and just by the way: with the inclusion of these rules I will be removing the thief skill of reading languages from the game. But that will be discussed in my next post regarding secret languages.
: )

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