On Literacy

In Dungeons and Dragons, player characters of the Barbarian class are automatically illiterate, unless they sacrifice a couple of skill points to reflect the additional time and effort learning how to read and write.

Why just them?

I can see how a Wizard would have to be literate, and training in how to read and write spellbooks is an essential part of their upbringing. Same with Clerics; they must be able to read their specific religion’s holy text. Paladins, too. Bards should be able to at least read music, and they are so tied to storytelling that being illiterate would be a huge disadvantage.

Fighters, though? Why are all Fighters literate? How can that be assumed to be a part of their upbringing? Druids especially, since they are linked so closely with Nature and not so much with civilization, probably don’t get too many opportunities to learn to read. They certainly don’t need literacy with spellcasting.

It could be argued that the typical Monk, who is often assumed to have been raised in some type of temple or monastery, are trained in more cerebral occupations such as reading. It’s a fantasy trope that is easy to fall into. Rangers may be just like Druids, but since they are so often looked at as scouts or point-men in adventurer’s groups, being able to read “dire warnings” on the walls of ruins may be a survival tactic.

I personally can’t see Rogues as needing much in the way of literacy. Yes, it would be handy to be able to read a scroll snatched from a treasure chest, but that’s something the average Rogue may not prepare for.

Sorcerers? I’m not sure. They don’t need spellbooks or scrolls. I really don’t know about these guys at all.

So let’s get back to the two-point skill sacrifice needed by Barbarians to be able to read and write. I feel that’s a lazy way to represent their so-called “backward” culture. Literacy should be listed as a skill the same as “Speak Language”. Having one does NOT guarantee the other. Literacy should also require choosing which language you are literate in. This has a bit of leeway… as I understand it, many languages use either Dwarven, Elven, or Human (“Common”) letters even if their spoken language is different. If a player chose Literate:Dwarven, she’d have an advantage when trying to decipher many different written languages.

A clever DM (me!) could represent the difficulty of the different classes with learning how to read and write by assigning Literacy as a class or non-class skill.  Barbarians certainly would get it as a non-class skill requiring two points per level (which finally explains why exactly it is that they need to use two points to be able to read), but any typically literate class such as the Wizard or Sorcerer (?) would get it as a class skill.

Personally, I would make it a class skill for (in alphabetical order) Bards, Clerics, Monks, Paladins, Sorcerers and Wizards, and a non-class skill for everyone else.  If the DM really feels like Barbarians should have an even tougher time of it, make it cost three or even four points per level… if you really feel the need to keep Barbarians ignorant of the written word.

Imagine an illiterate Fighter trying to bargain the price of a good longsword with an unscrupulous merchant. Suddenly, Literacy comes into view as necessary and important.

Just like in real life!

2 thoughts on “On Literacy

  1. Interesting viewpoint and summation. Any anomalies, of course, could and should be explained in character gen. I feel that often it is looked at as merely a process to get the most for the least effort. I like the idea of a character being illiterate and either a) deciding that it was a necessity to learn to accomplish their role effectively, or b) insuring their role can be effective without it. Imagine a situation where the skills necessary to function in civilization without literacy are highlighted and possibly even made a benefit. Sometimes we take the written word for truth, whether it is or not. Someone illiterate may see the clues that show them a different view of reality. I mean really — how often is anyone policing the written word, or being held to a code of honor like journalists are supposed to today, in D&D civilizations?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s