Friday, January 6, 2012

Scrolls & Spellbooks in Old School D&D

I often like to compare the different early "basic" editions of D&D.  I'm fascinated in particular by the differences between OD&D, Holmes, and B/X D&D.  Some of these differences are dramatic, some more subtle.  But each game presents its own nuances and challenges.  It's still fun and interesting to uncover differences in these games today when I review and play them.

Today I'll talk about how scrolls and spellbooks are handled in the different early versions of the game - and the affect that these differences have on game play.

OD&D (1974)
In Original Dungeons & Dragons, I couldn't find any mention of spellbooks until the last page (p.34) of Men & Magic.  The reader is then treated to this cryptic statement: "Characters who employ spells are assumed to acquire books containing the spells they can use, one book for each level."  I guess this means that a MU is always assumed to have a spellbook containing the spells for the appropriate levels he can cast.  There really isn't any detail on how these books are to be found or built.

The result of the OD&D rule is that there doesn't need to be any focus or strategy around the concept of locating or finding spells.  The characters are just "assumed to acquire them."

As for scrolls, according to Monsters & Treasure they can only be used for direct casting - not for copying into spellbooks.  This appears to be a consistent theme among OD&D, Holmes and B/X.

(The Greyhawk supplement introduces concepts that will appear later in Holmes and AD&D, such as intelligence-based adjustments like % Chance to Know Spell, and Min/Max # of Spells)

Holmes Basic (1977)
Like all the old-school D&D versions I'm discussing, Holmes does not allow spells to be copied from scrolls into spellbooks.  In Holmes, scrolls are only for casting spells directly.  However, spellbooks are handled much differently than OD&D.  Spellbooks can contain a number of spells based on the Intelligence of the Magic User or Elf - a rule which was carried over to AD&D.  A spellcaster's intelligence is associated with a Minimum and Maximum number of knowable spells, as well as a "% Chance to Know Any Given Spell."

What I'm not clear on is whether a Magic User can attempt to re-learn a failed spell from an earlier level.  Say a 1st level MU with an INT of 10 fails on his attempt to learn Sleep but rolls up his Maximum # of Spells (6) for his spellbook.  Once he hits 2nd level can he re-try to learn Sleep - and replace one of his current spells with it?  I dunno...

One nice thing about Holmes is that there are very specific rules which allow a MU/Elf to create his own scrolls based on spells that he knows.  This costs time and money, but can really help when adventuring.

B/X (1981)
B/X places strict limitations on the use of scrolls and spellbooks.  For one thing, a wizard's spellbook can only contain the number of spells, by level, that the wizard can cast.  Since a 5th level MU or Elf is allowed to cast two 1st, two 2nd, and one 3rd level spell per day (2/2/1), that is all he is allowed to have in his spell book.  As outlined on page X11, each time that an Elf/MU levels either the player or the DM selects which news spell(s) are learned and added to the spellbook.  As opposed to AD&D, where a Magic User can have many more spells in his book than he can cast per day, B/X is much more limited.

Like the other two editions I've discussed, there is no mention in B/X of being able to copy spells from scrolls into spellbooks.  Scrolls can only be used to cast from.  However, this makes sense due to the fact that the number of spells in the book is severely limited and is based on player (or DM) choice.  So with that backdrop, there is no need to copy spells from scrolls.

I'm not 100% satisfied with how B/X handles spellbooks.  See my houserule on this topic.


  1. What I'm not clear on is whether a Magic User can attempt to re-learn a failed spell from an earlier level.

    Assuming Holmes conforms to AD&D unless otherwise specified, no.

    In AD&D any permanent change in INT, positive or negative, does force retesting each spell in each group for which the PC is eligible (& may cause a PC to forget how to cast spell(s) she already knows)

  2. Thanks for posting this, very interesting.

    Also from Holmes:

    Magic-users can not bring their magic books into the dungeon with them. Always assume that more than 1 day has passed between expeditions, so that a magic-user who leaves the dungeon and goes home may start a new game with all his spells ready, but the appropriate time lag must be carefully noted.

    Magic-users can create scrolls at any level in Holmes (they have to wait until name level in B/X and must use the magic research rules).

    I am surprised that there are no rules for copying spells from scrolls into spell books. I could have sword that was in the basic rule sets. Was it introduced in AD&D?

  3. Rainswept - thanks for the information! That actually makes a lot of sense.

    Brendan - thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. That's interesting about MU's not being able to bring their spellbooks into the dungeon in Holmes. It's also a reflection on the conventions of old school gaming that the word "dungeon" is used instead of "adventure."

    I did a pretty thorough search of the Basic book and couldn't find anything allowing copying from scrolls.

    It's definitely allowed in AD&D. See, for example, page 10 in the Player's Handbook (the page about Intelligence).

  4. I tend to go with that 1974 mentality. They have books, they have to study out of them, but I don't affect them much. They can get wet, burned, whatever. He'll still have them unless he gets imprisoned or something, but that would be rare. It's too easy to target and MU's spellbooks, and too big of a liabilithy for MU's if they are focused upon too much.

  5. Brunomac - I tend towards the same thing. To me, spellbooks are just off in the background unless the PC's do something really stupid.

  6. Nice blog, George. I just discovered it.

    It's not crystal clear, but in Holmes there may be no mention of copying scrolls because the assumption is that each character has full access to the entire Book of Spells for each level. For example, a first level character has access to the entire book of First Level of Spells, but may only "know" (understand) 6 of these if his intelligence is 10. No need to copy any scrolls because he already has access to the entire standard list.

  7. Zenopus - thanks for the compliment! As a new blogger, that means more than you think. :)

    Interesting comment about Holmes. Is that a widely accepted theory? I'm not challenging the statement. Just curious. Thanks again.

    1. I don't think it's widely appreciated, as most folks are influenced in their thinking by the later AD&D rules covering copying of spells into spell books. IIRC, there's no discussion of copying spells into spellbooks in the OD&D rules (Men & Magic or Greyhawk). In Men & Magic, M-Us were assumed to have (or "acquire") a spellbook with all of the spells on the list. Greyhawk added the % chance to know, which Holmes follows, where characters still have access to all spells but they can only understand a limited number of them based on INT.

      Some threads discussing this:

      Spell books in OD&D

      Spellbooks in a Holmes Dungeon

    2. Cool. Funny how these things are open to interpretation in D&D. What a great hobby we have. I'm really wanting to go peruse your website and learn more about Holmes! I just need to find some time. :-/

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