Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Grimoires of Wessex

Spellbooks in D&D can be boring.  We live in such a book-rich society, with the printing press and cheap paperbacks and libraries and bookstores, that we forget that at once upon a time the proper reaction was probably more like holy crap! you own a book!  The pre-Gutenberg codex was a work of art, requiring intensive labor to produce.  In some instances they were literally chained to the desk where you would read them, in order to prevent theft of these valuable resources.  For certain milieus a filthy adventurer owning a book is kinda like going over to your buddy's crappy studio apartment and seeing an original Picasso on the wall.  Not utterly impossible, but it makes you want to ask impolite questions like "Is the rest of your stuff cheap junk because you spend all your money on your art obsession?" or "Hey, man, are you some kind of international art thief?"

That's why for my next go at my 12th century faux-England campaign I've decided that spellbooks are basically artifact type objects rather than the users manuals for arcane systems operators they tend to come off as.  The Call of Cthulhu tome rules and Ed Greenwood's "Pages from the Mages" series in Dragon heavily influenced this decision.  As did reading a couple real historical grimoires, the problems surrounding the textual transmission of the works of Shakespeare, unearthed manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi Library, and the enigma of the Voynich Manuscript.

So now I've got a spreadsheet I've been working on, with the goal that each spellbook can be treated as an individual object.  Here are the current fields, with some comments:
common name
alt name - Many of these books have more than one name, which makes tracking them down a big ol' pain in the butt.
language - I don't use read magic for spellbooks.  Instead that spell "unlocks" scrolls and doubles as identify for any magic item that has runes on it.  I think OD&D will back up this interpretation.
past owners - "Your spellbook was once owned by Merlin."  How cool is that?
blasphemy - Spellbooks aren't strictly how-to guides written in a vacuum.  Each comes with a context that a canny reader can puzzle out.  And since pretty much all wizards are cranks, heretics, pagans and/or crazies, this means that one or more passages or implications in a spellbook will offend the sensibilities of the strictly orthodox and question the worldview of the open minded.  The historical nature of my campaign makes this a lot easier to pull off effectively, I suspect.  In a totally made-up world you're going to have to work hard to come up with a convincing blasphemy.  In Wessex I can get away with things like "The Holy Spirit is a woman, God's wife and Christ's mother" or "Satan isn't a rebel, he's God's double agent."  My only concern is that the World of Darkness probably ran this sort of stuff into the ground, making it completely uninteresting to Vampire fans.
comment - vague catchall
Spell 1
Spell 2
Spell 3
Spell 4
Spell 5
Spell 6 - Capping level advancement to 10th means I can get away with pretty short lists of spells.  Just to make life rough for the PCs, fireball will only be appearing in a single grimoire, which starts in the hands of one of the active NPC wizards.  (Active NPC wizards have their own file.)

My list of grimoires is approaching 40 total entries, though none are totally complete yet.  That's probably way more than I would need for any one campaign. Eventually I want to be able to hand starting M-Us a print-out of their initial spellbook with all this cool info on it.


  1. I like this approach. Spell books (& magic items, for that matter) should be more interesting than just a list of spells. Nice work.

  2. Instead that spell "unlocks" scrolls and doubles as identify for any magic item that has runes on it.

    So, if I have, say, a pair of gauntlets of ogre power that have runes on them that resemble the rune of, say, fire ball, I could take it to a magic-user who knows fireball and he would be able to identify it by...reading the runes? casting fireball?

    Am I understanding this idea correctly (I am curious because I like this idea quite a bit...)

  3. I like this a lot. Though I don't have spreadsheets describing them, this is basically how I handle grimoires. My only advice would be to consider establishing a consistent arcane orthodoxy (well, one or more consistent blasphemous systems of belief or heterodoxies) that players can learn over the course of finding or borrowing multiple grimoires.

  4. FrDave: It's much simpler than that. The runes on the gauntlets say "Yo, dude. Ogre Power." in Magicish.

  5. YOINK!

    I like this enough that I may add it to my current setting once we do a reboot. There's already enough Old God tentacle-infested goodness that it makes perfect since. Nice idea.

  6. Do you happen to remember what issue that Article was in

  7. Never mind just read that again realized you were talking about 2 separate thing

  8. I always try to make books special--sometimes useful, sometimes dangerous, never to be ignored--in my campaigns. I like this approach!

  9. I totally dig this. Dovetails nicely with a "let's collect all the spells!"-type D&D campaign I've been wanting to run ages. Might be fun to come up with a name/blasphemy generator sometime. Especially for a fantasy world that needed a way to establish categories of common but non-obvious blasphemies in a way that players would care about. "You own a spellbook that annoys groups X and Y."

  10. Great idea. I don't suppose you;d be willing to share a few sample Grimoires would you?

  11. p.s. I didn't get pulled from your blogroll, did I?

    Just when I start getting un-busy enough to post more...:(

  12. Very interesting, thanks a lot!

  13. I'm with Brian about being mighty curious about the particulars of some of your grimoires. Sharing is caring.

  14. Anonymous12:54 AM

    Great idea, Jeff. Making magic items special or even unique is always more interesting. And like some others here I'd love to see a sample grimoire.

  15. Did you ever read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising? (written before there were a thousand boooks with basically the same name)? It had a great, Taliesin-inflected grimoire in it called The Book of Gramarye (which now I think about it probably is "grimoire"). Reading it seemed like a psychedelic experience: you flew over mountains and dove into the deep sea and became bubbles in beer and all that. It influenced the way I treat CoC tomes: they may be hard to read because your mind recoils from them (for which my go to guy is Derrida) or because you cannot put them down - you have to read them through at one sitting and every subsequent time you read them you lose some of that first sensation/connection.

  16. p.s. I didn't get pulled from your blogroll, did I?

    No. You're still listed.

    Richard: I'm not familiar with Susan Cooper, but you re right as rain on Gramarye being related to grimoire. Grammar and grimoire are two branches of the same tree, just like "spell" the magical incantation and "spell" the correct letters to make a word. Both concepts go back to a time when all writing was considered magical.

  17. I love this approach to spellbooks. It's infinitely more flavorful than "a tome containing third-level spells X, Y, and Z." I'd also include a field for describing the physical appearance (size, binding material, etc) and condition (stains, scorch marks, loose signatures, torn or chewed pages). That may be more fiddly than you want to get, I realize.

    When I had to come up with a bunch of occult texts for the Vampire game, I used some names of real works (sometimes in fictional translations, or with commentaries by fictional people). Other titles I came up with whole cloth.

    Two examples of the wholly fictional ones (which you are more than welcome to use if they fit what you're working on):

    Ţlīthā Qūm is a work of darkest necromancy, and deeply offensive to Christian sensibilities. The title is the Aramaic for "Little girl, I say to you, get up" - the words spoken by Jesus when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. (The contents are more likely in Latin, though.) It's a large, heavy tome bound in pale leather with heavy bronze clasps. The cover is brittle and badly cracked. The book may have actual mystical defenses and certainly has numerous references in the text to horrible curses befalling unworthy/uninitiated readers.

    The Enchiridion of Phinehas the Younger is a work of ritual magic of some kind (the specifics never came up in my game). The author's name is taken from a minor figure of the Old Testament (one of the wicked sons of Eli), though "the younger" probably indicates that the author isn't claimed to actually be that guy. An enchiridion is a small manual or handbook. I figure this one is no more than an octavo, possibly even smaller, in fairly plain brown leather binding. It was written as an instructional text (by a master for his apprentice perhaps) so the main text is unusually neat and clear. It has a lot of marginal notations in a second, scribblier hand.

  18. Anonymous6:12 AM

    And, of course, who's to say that spells have to be written on a book or scroll?

    I'm thinking of the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii--"Flavius Maximus pleasured six women!" and underneath, some wit writing a spell for curing disease.

    Or why not weave it into a tapestry, or carve it into a staff or wand?

    I'm also thinking of Fermat's last theorem- you know, the theorem where the proof was too large to fit in the margin. Imagine instead of maths it was a spell. Instant adventure hook!

  19. A chest containing 127 curses, written in Catalan using Arabic characters. Of these curses four have real magical formulae and effects that can be replicated, and one is actually a protection against being cursed. Each is written on some object belonging to the cursed person - a shoe, a scapular, a quill, a hairpin, a stamp-seal, but most often a document, such as a contract, letter or shipping manifest, in which case the curse is written across the prior writing. The object was then torn in half or otherwise broken, and posted through a slot in the tomb-house of a reputed necromancer, and finally dug up and collected by the present owner.

  20. I love this. You draw your inspiration from the same sources I do, it seems -- I totally loved Pages From The Mages. I love the idea of spellbooks in general, I like that wizards need to track down obscure lore in order to expand their powers, and rant rant grognard rant rant damn kids rant video games rant uphill in the snow both ways rant rant with dice made of soft cheese rant. Anyway... I believe every item, if possible, should have some flavor or history to it, something that makes it more interesting. I'm sure the mechanics of the article I just posted on (on magic candles, are not your cup of tea, but I think you'd appreciate the flavor text and fluff for them.

  21. mmmm, Enchiridion

  22. lovely! I've been playing around with spellbooks too recently, making them more involved than being just spell repositories. Been thinking in terms also of spell books having scroll ink forumlas, bonuses for spell research, etc. I like your language & blasphemy ideas especially!

  23. This is my favorite blog post in quite awhile. It also makes me think I need to step up the books/scrolls in my own current game.

  24. I really like this. I think it fits very well with the idea of specialization via tradition instead of college that is in a 2nd edition Netbook I have (I mentioned it in spell ideas for the late stone game you wrote about last year).

    @Shieldhaven: and your idea of blasphemous systems fits in well fact, a traditional might be defined by it's shared blasphemies and working from that the blasphemies enhance certain types of spells while inhibiting others.