Read Languages / Decipher Script : Lankhmar

Reading Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death, the story “The Seven Black Priests”, I come upon a familar scene:

“The runes of tropic Klesh!” the Northerner muttered. “What should such heiroglyphics be doing so far from their jungle?” … Together they pored over the deep-chopped letters, bringing to bear knowledge gained from the perusing of ancient treasure-maps and the deciphering of code-messages carried by intercepted spies.

Here is a fine example of the use of the Thief’s Read Languages ability (or a Rogue’s Decipher Script skill).

(If Wikipedia can be believed) Leiber’s book Swords Against Death was published in 1970, but the story “The Seven Black Priests” was published in 1953. The Lankhmar board game was written in 1937 and published by TSR in 1976, and the Greyhawk Supplement in 1975. Clearly Leiber’s work predated Gygax’s and so it’s possible that Gygax was inspired by Leiber, but not the other way around.

On a side note: it seems like Fafhrd is a Fighter/Thief with the Sailor secondary skill, and the Grey Mouser is a (Lankhmar-style) Magic-User dual-classed into Thief before hitting a significant level. For all the magic he uses after his intro story, you could just call him a Thief.

I think this is a result of D&D being written to try to let people play certain fictional characters rather than some special quality of D&D that allows it to depict existing characters.


2 Responses to “Read Languages / Decipher Script : Lankhmar”

  1. Ian Harac Says:

    It’s fairly obvious that the reason thieves in AD&D could read scrolls was because Cugel the Clever was one of the main inspirations for the class, and he could read magic scrolls, although not very well.

    Your conclusion is almost certainly accurate; you can look through the earliest D&D versions and supplements, and articles in the Strategic Review and The Dragon, which very clearly were intended to model the abilities of particular characters from fiction rather than generic abilities which could be used that way, in theory. Only as the game really evolved… indeed, I’d say not until 3e… did it become a real design goal to focus more on “What should this class be able to do, in the game?” than on “This class is for people who want to be Conan! What could Conan do? This class does it!” (Obviously, this was an ongoing and transitional process, and some classes show more direct inspiration than others, and some merged in new inspirations as time went on — Rangers went from “This is just like Aragorn!” to “This is just like Drizzt!”, for instance — note the 1e Ranger has no two-weapon fighting abilities, and can only own a limited number of magic items.)

    • 1d30 Says:

      I think the Dying Earth characters were just on varying scales of fighting ability and magic-use. Cugel was able to memorize a couple spells at the end of his journey, but they both went awry because he failed to cast them right – spell failure due to insufficient level, perhaps. I agree about early game design seemingly focused on “this character has a cool ability, so let’s stick lots of things in the world for him to use it on!” This seems the case with Thieves especially, and the proliferation of traps and treasure maps. When you play the game with fewer traps, locked doors, and treasure maps, and the party never splits up or sends a scout, the Thief doesn’t seem as useful.

      I’ve heard about the Aragorn – Drizzt shift in Ranger before. It’s problematic to figure out who influenced who. According to the wikipedia article on Drizzt, the author Salvatore claims he was influences in part by Gygax’s Drow (and almost certainly by his 1E Ranger treatment) and Aragorn from Tolkien’s LotR. Drizzt first came about in around 1988, and the PHB2 where (as far as I know) we see the first dual-wield Ranger in 1989. However, this is muddied by Drow having dual-wield ability in Unearthed Arcana in 1985. It’s possible Salvatore gave Drizzt two-weapon ability because of Unearthed Arcana, and then the 2E Ranger changed to reflect that popular character, an example of a game/fiction feedback cycle.

      I don’t see a reference to 1E Rangers having a magic item limit. They can’t keep treasure more than what they can carry, which prevents them from being tied down to any place. But a Ranger could have a Bag of Holding full of magic rings.

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