Magic spells and literacy

The homebrew rules for adding literacy into your campaign setting that I shared last time were meant to be a little generalized, so I didn’t specifically address one aspect of literacy in a fantasy setting: spell-casting.

In my custom campaign setting, magic is not nearly as widespread as in Faerûn, and the literacy rules provide a way to support that. As stated in the standard rules: “A spell scroll bears the words of a single spell, written in a mystical cipher. If the spell is on your class’s spell list, you can read the scroll and cast its spell without providing any material Components. Otherwise, the scroll is unintelligible.”

When incorporating literacy into your campaign, acquiring new spells—particularly powerful ones—shouldn’t be that simple. Reading should be an essential skill for spellcasters who wish to acquire more and more power (safely).

You can model this under the literacy rules with two simple declarations:

  • New spells must be acquired from a mentor or found in a scroll.
  • Magical texts are closely tied to the language and culture they were crafted in.

Acquiring New Spells

Upon gaining the ability to cast higher level spells, characters are not instantly given access to all of the spells on that list. New spells must be taught by a mentor or learned from a scroll. At lower levels, DMs will want to make this task easy; baby characters level up fast. Where you draw the line and start making these spells harder to acquire informs how ubiquitous magic is in your world.

This isn’t a limitation; it’s a story prompt. Pepper your adventures with spellbooks and scrolls, for your spell-casters to find the spells you want to give them access to. Write one-off adventures for finding such spells. Once a character is high enough level, you might require them to research very powerful spells, as if they were creating them from scratch.

Once a spell is initially acquired, all of the usual rules apply—but only once it has been translated into the spellcaster’s magical idiom (and, where applicable, copied into their spellbook).

Wizard reading.
This dude is only 3rd level.

Deciphering Magic Scrolls

D&D 3.5e had a spell called Read Magic. 5e removed that, giving all spellcasters the inherent and free ability to read magic texts. With literacy rules, this action is simply part of the Literacy skill… with one caveat: a spell is not simply words for an incantation; they are detailed instructions containing the vocal, somatic, and material requirements for harnessing a specific form of magic. They were written in a specific language at a certain point in time—possibly in a cipher, as well.

So instead of having every wizard automatically able to read and cast any spell scroll they find that’s on their spell list—even one written by a two thousand year old sorcerer—spellcasters must translate them first or find the assistance of someone familiar with the original language (or its modern equivalent) who can do it for them.

Characters who wish to decipher a spell scroll themselves must succeed at a DC 12 + 1 per spell level Literacy check. Archaic texts (relatively to the character) should require a higher Difficulty Class; a particularly cruel DM might even increase the DC if the spell was written by a spell-caster of another class. That fifth level spell written down by a sorcerer two thousand years ago? That’s a DC 21.

The Comprehend Languages spell, of course, allows spellcasters to understand the literal meaning of any language. But it “doesn’t decode secret messages in a text or a glyph, such as an arcane sigil, that isn’t part of a written language.” Effectively, it makes it equivalent to a modern language in which the character is fluent. Therefore, a Literacy check may still be required, with advantage and a lower DC.

Perhaps the player in question is a 13th level Thief with the Use Magic Device ability, however, and no access to Comprehend Languages, or the player hasn’t learned the value of that spell in a setting with these literacy rules yet? Without the Comprehend Languages spell, understanding a spell written in a foreign language is, simply, impossible.

Failed translations might mean the scroll simply doesn’t work, or, when cast, does not work correctly. (The DM should warn the player that they don’t feel very confident about their translation.) Casting a mistranslated scroll—or, even riskier, skipping this translation step and casting it on the fly (translating them on the fly, as it were) would need to make the same Literacy check, but a failed roll would have instant and potentially dangerous results. These results should generally be related to the nature of the spell—not as erratic as the “Scroll Mishaps” table (DMG, p. 140)—but in most cases the scroll is still expended.

That Fireball scroll you just tried to use? It just exploded around you. But hey, at least it was also at half strength…?

Homebrew rules for literacy (and… Polyhedral launches next week!)

First, an announcement! Polyhedral begins its semi-private soft launch next TUESDAY at 8pm Eastern! Join me (Gordon McAlpin) as host/DM and players Phil Kahn (The Guilded Age), Bri Castellini, Luis García González, Tony Rivera, and Jasmine Mann. Or actually, Bri can’t make next Tuesday — but she’ll be there on the 30th for our first actual gaming session. My $3+ Patreon followers can listen LIVE on Discord as we play!

After the first session, we’ll be playing every other week (barring some skip weeks for holidays and the odd rescheduling). At this time, there’s no timeline as to when these first podcast episodes will be edited and released to my Patreon-exclusive RSS feed — or to the public, for that matter.

In this first campaign — my first as DM — we’ll be playing the published Dungeons & Dragons 5e adventure Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (in the Forgotten Realms setting).

Second, I wanted to share an idea for some homebrew rules that I’ve been turning over for a future homebrew campaign setting and adventure that we’ll be playing in Polyhedral… someday… maybe.

The Literacy Skill

Under the standard D&D 5e rules, literacy is taken for granted, and that’s fine for most campaigns. If everybody and their mother is a spellcaster, the idea that the otherwise medieval world has a 100% literacy rate is not really any less silly. But what if you want to run a world outside of the usual high/epic fantasy genre?

Adding literacy mechanics to your setting isn’t just about simulating a more “realistic” world (whatever that means, when you have elves and dragons running around). Reading — yes, reading! — can generate fun story moments in your campaign! These guidelines provide some framework for adding literacy into your setting. The cornerstone of it is a new, custom Literacy skill:


Ability: Intelligence

Your Intelligence (Literacy) measures your ability to decipher the written language, as well as your ability to recall lore about literature, dramatic plays, and epic poetry.

A player must be proficient in speaking a language in order to make a Literacy skill check against reading a text in that language (e.g. they must speak Common in order to read it).

Proficiency in Literacy may be purchased with either a language or skill proficiency, so characters who haven’t acquired proficiency in Literacy through other means may “trade” their ability to speak another language for it (at character creation).

Unfortunately, baking literacy into your homebrew setting can’t be as simple as adding a new skill, because characters ought to be literate or not at 1st level. Certain characters should be required to trade one of their additional language or skill options for proficiency in Literacy during character creation:

  • all Bards, Clerics, Warlocks, and Wizards;
  • characters with either of the following tool proficiencies: Calligraphers’ Tools or Forgery Kit;
  • or characters with the following backgrounds: Acolyte, Anthropologist, Archaeologist, City Watch, Clan Crafter, Cloistered Scholar, Courtier, Faction Agent, Investigator, Noble, Sage, or Trade Sheriff (and others at the DM’s discretion).

Given that the underlying idea for these Literacy rules is to create a more “realistic,” less high fantasy world, limiting the number of languages the player characters know supports this theme. And spending language proficiencies has the added benefit of forcing more creative solutions for communicating with the exotic creatures they meet.

literacy skill checks

As noted above, Literacy also governs characters’ ability to recall lore about literature, dramatic plays, and epic poetry (particularly useful for Bards). This doesn’t seem to fall under the existing History skill very well. But the most likely use for it is to read and decipher texts discovered in the course of a game.

As with all rules, Literacy skill checks should be used to enhance the adventure and add meaningful story moments, not just more die rolls, so DMs should avoid requiring die rolls for everyday things like reading a menu, even for the non-proficient fighter with an Intelligence of 8. (Actually, that could be pretty funny… but it could also just be annoying.)

I would recommend avoiding literacy checks except in cases of especially complicated texts or when characters are under a time constraint. Perhaps instead of having every wizard magically able to read any millenias-old spell scroll from any plane of existence, they need to translate it first — or find the assistance of someone familiar with the original language who can do it for them?

Texts have a Difficulty Class approximately equivalent to its grade school reading level minus 3 (e.g. an eighth grade reading level would be DC 5). For context, the average modern newspaper is written at around a 10th grade reading level, so one in a “realistic” medieval world would be a DC 7 or lower; an academic text in modern Common might be DC 12; etc.

And, of course, the DM should remember to assign advantage — or disadvantage — where appropriate. For example, if one of the characters’ skill proficiencies or their background is relevant to the content of the text being deciphered, they might be given advantage on the roll.

Here’s an example of how all of this could play out:

As the catacombs collapse around our adventuring party, they need to decipher a riddle carved in ancient elvish on the wall and GTFO. The text has a DC of 21, and Quillanoth is a 1st level Elven wizard with an Intelligence of 16 (+3) and proficiency in Literacy. The DM gives him advantage on the roll due to his background as an Anthropologist. Given more time to copy the text down and refer to his library back home, Quillanoth could undoubtedly decode the text. But the party doesn’t have that luxury right now!

Unfortunately, his best roll was a 20 (15 + 5 for his proficiency in Literacy and Intelligence bonuses) — technically, a failure… but ever so close. Even a failed role could reveal what language it is, its approximate age, and even some vague idea of its contents. (At the very least, if they haven’t rolled a 1, players should know that important texts are important, even if they cannot unlock its secrets.) The DM determines that Quillanoth can still understand enough of the text to relay a partly garbled, incomplete translation to the players… but will it be enough for them to solve the riddle and escape with their lives?

Balancing out the literacy rules with bonus feats

Certainly, the situation described above could be governed by an Intelligence check, rather than a new skill, and some players will object to having automatic literacy at 1st level “taken away” from them, in a sense. To (more than) offset this in my homebrew setting, I’m giving 1st level characters of all races a bonus feat at 1st level and 6th level. (These are treated as racial bonuses; a multi-classed character does not get an additional free feat for adding 1st level of a second class.)

Beyond offsetting the addition of the Literacy skill, these bonus feats are also meant to offset the fact that the world I’m building has much less magic in it than worlds like Faerûn or Eberron, and I’ll be slowing down level advancement significantly to prevent the spell-casters in the party from accessing those high level, crazy-powerful spells.

In low-magic worlds like this, short adventures could be written around acquiring and even translating (with the Literacy skill!) particularly powerful spells. Failed rolls, for instance, could produce unpredictable or even disastrous results when cast, leaving the party to deal with the consequences.

In these settings, Wizards or Clerics who spend their lives poring over books will almost certainly want to double their proficiency bonus in Literacy through the new Advanced Study feat (below) — while a fighter with an Intelligence of 9 might be content to be semi-literate and instead use their free 1st level feat on the Polearm Mastery feat, making him a badass killing machine and a more personalized character straight out of the gate.

Expertise for Everyone

Why should Bards and Rogues be the only ones with access to expertise? The Prodigy feat introduced in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything expands expertise to humans, half-orcs, and half-elves — but surely any character who has devoted years of their life to studying the rise and fall of civilizations should have a way to earn expertise and double their proficiency bonus in the History skill?

The following feat provides a way for all character races and classes to obtain expertise in any skill (including the Literacy skill below) or tool:

Advanced Study feat

You gain proficiency in two skills or tools of your choice.

Additionally, you gain expertise in one skill or tool of your choosing, which doubles your proficiency bonus for any ability checks with that skill or tool. You must either already be proficient in this skill or tool or gain proficiency in it through this feat.

This feat may be acquired multiple times.

UPDATE: I’ve created this as two homebrew feats for D&D Beyond. I needed to split it into Advanced Study (Skill) and Advanced Study (Tool) due to limitations in D&D Beyond. The variant refers to the skill or tool gaining expertise; you can still choose either skills or tools for the two proficiencies.

Alternatively, DMs might simply state that acquiring expertise in a skill or tool (when already proficient in it) costs the same as one skill or tool proficiency. This approach would make the Advanced Study feat effectively identical to the existing Skilled feat — but also allows players to acquire expertise in many more skills at a time.

Literacy and Expertise

If you want to use both the Literacy rules above with the expanded approach to expertise, proficiency in Literacy might be “upgraded” to expertise by trading either or one skill proficiency or two additional language proficiencies. That is, from non-proficiency, acquiring expertise costs three language proficiencies or two skill proficiencies.

This way, a character already proficient in Literacy may acquire expertise through the Linguist feat, in order to also acquire its +1 Int increase, cipher creation ability, and proficiency in a second language. When using Literacy in a campaign setting, ciphers created by linguists have a DC equal to their Intelligence score + their proficiency or expertise bonus in Literacy.

What do you think? Do you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions for improving these rules? Let me know on twitter!

Updated! Several commenters on Twitter have pointed out a few ways to streamline the rules without throwing out the underlying idea entirely. Thank you!