The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Classic Rant: "Real Magick" in RPGs: Spellbooks

I've posted previously in this series (on the old blog, but archived here), about some of the misconceptions about how 'occultism' is handled in a lot of allegedly-occult RPGs, and how GMs can modify things to more closely model the reality of the occult scene (a reality that is filled with posers, fakers, and lunatics, but also some truly fascinating stuff).  One of the big ones in modern games is about how occult knowledge is somehow rare or very difficult to access (the classic Call of Cthulhu scenario where magical knowledge is only available in the most obscure places), when the fact is that the problem is not access to that knowledge at all, but the ability to differentiate between the useful and the useless.  I also made a post about how and what a magician's diary looks like, and how these will often be the  most important "grimoires" available in a setting.

Now on the whole I've been focusing on modern settings, but I heard something interesting today on theRPGsite in reference to the "unrealistic" nature of D&D magick.  Someone pointed out that the idea of a magician going around with a spellbook and memorizing spells made no sense.  Magicians should study their books at home, and their spellbooks would be kept safe within lock and key in their towers.

But the truth of the matter is a bit trickier than that.

A magician may very well carry around his magical diaries with him (remember: a grimoire is really nothing more than a heavily-edited magical diary); for two reasons.

First, not to memorize spells but to potentially remember correspondences. There are big tables of correspondences (which are important "components" for magical practice, divination, etc) that someone might be able to memorize, but there's so much to be memorized that a lot of students won't. A good magick student will know the symbols and order of the zodiac, the planets, elements, PROBABLY the Hebrew letters and their number values, and things like the names of gods, elemental signs, the pentagram rituals and hexagram rituals. If he does all that by heart, he's a pretty advanced student (even among serious practitioners; remember, 99% of supposed 'magicians' have barely studied anything at all and don't actually practice any magick).
But even that kind of expert student may not memorize what type of plant corresponds to the moon, or the name of the Angel of the 20th degree of Leo.

Second, you never know when there's going to be new things to write in the diaries!

A magical diary is practically a part of a magician's body; its been repeatedly described by almost all of the great occult authors as the single most important tool of the magician.  You can almost always use it as a litmus test to tell the difference between a serious occultist and a dabbler, dilettante, or fraud: not everyone who keeps a diary will necessarily be doing serious occult work, but anyone who doesn't keep a magical diary is almost guaranteed NOT to be doing serious occult work of any kind.

Thus, the diary is far from an neat and tidy book of instruction (though sometimes material from said diaries are heavily edited to become actual commercial books); they are the frantic scribbles of a madman, and a seriously-obsessed occultist won't be trusting his own recollection to write down some insight or discovery long after the fact, if he can at all help it. He'll want the diary close, so he can record his studies, discoveries, findings or experiences as quickly as possible.


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Amber Root Bulldog + C&D's Crowley's Best

(originally posted January 17, 2014)


  1. For my own vision of D&D-style magic, which includes 2e style specialists as well as OSR spell casters, I have come up with this convention:

    Classic "magic users" have spell books exactly as you describe. They're written in the mage's own peculiar notations, and don't make much sense to anyone else.

    The Read Magic spell was developed to get around this issue. RM makes the spell book understandable to the caster, and they can then attempt to understand the spells written inside. (I use the "%chance to know spell" throw in this case as a "decypher spell" to figure out what each spell in the book does once RM has been cast. If the caster already knows the spell, they can recognize it immediately, and if the caster is a specialist, the usual modifiers apply.)

    But once (literal) schools of magic came around, standard notations were developed. The advantage to these standard notations is obvious - spell books become more organized, spells (slightly) easier to prepare, etc. But the problem is that the notations used to express, say, Enchantment can't be used to express their opposition school concepts at all, and are inelegant for expressing other school's spells.

    Specialist mages can also learn Read Magic (if they can do Lesser Divination casting) for deciphering random spell books or alien magics, but don't need to use it for books/scrolls written in their school's notation.

    Not earth shattering, but the idea that "specialists" came about as a result of someone developing a consistent notation appeals to my academic side, so I thought I'd share the concept.