|Little Golden Books Treasury: the original LGBT|
The implied setting in BX is incredibly hyperliterate. Tables for different magic books and manuals, demihumans in particular starting out reading and writing oodles of languages, spells to leave messages, rules for how many bonus languages you know, alignment languages, secret magic languages and spells to read lamguages, and it piles on as time marches. Druidic, thieves cant, runes, ciphers, tongues, advanced rules for copying and scribing, Bards and their fucking fakebooks...
I sometimes feel like our D&D characters have outstripped even we, with all our modern conveniences and translation apps and Duolingo and shit, when it comes to language and literacy. That's weird because while the weird make-em-up time that most D&D is set in is not exactly the dark ages (and the dark ages weren't the blindly ignorant period people often generalize about) we are still talking about a setting where the price of a decent spyglass - not a telescope, a spyglass - is enough to raise your own small army and sack a town. The price of academic luxury and liberal art, the distances involved in these worlds (and how short a distance it can take to be considered 'remote'), cultural divides and good old racism, and that's all before you get into the crushing cycle of toil and harvest or the fact that elves are a thing...
Basic has all humans speaking two languages by default. I think we've all known humans who have trouble speaking one language. Hell, I think we're all even guilty of that sometimes. Here in the states especially complete bilingual fluency is not especially common. This isn't the ability to muddle through asking when the next train to Antwerp is due, this is being able to hold discourse on your favorite Belgian philosopher in either language. I say this is exceptional. To the response "Well PCs are meant to be exceptional" I would myself respond back "Yes and no." PCs are meant to do exceptional things whatever those may be. The idea that they just ARE better by existing or somehow naturally accrete due to awesomeness levels is a pretty newschool "My lv. 1 Fighter is a legendary warrior" kind of thinking to my mind. The only thing Basic characters are better than by default are the Normal Man baseline provided for the DM's convenience when the PCs inevitably start throwing around Charm Person and starting petty brawls; compared even to the Bandit or Medium a few pages later even first level Thieves and Magic-Users are paltry.
A king must be able to communicate her orders to her generals, sacred scriptures must be passed down to new acolytes, and words of power once found must be kept under lock and key for some kind of eldritch cold war. But unless you are a scribe or tactician you almost certainly don't need this kind of thing in your day to day life in a society where you can trade grain for chicken and you die at 47.
YET D&D has this permeating literacy.
I decide that this suggests a less considered aspect of the much-blogged "implied setting" of BX D&D, a world knee deep in Greek monsters, petrified warriors, vast hoards, and easily exhaustible magics. Literacy and multilingualism is something prized even in rural communities and weaponized at the higher levels of society and secrecy. Texts are still difficult to produce, sometimes difficult to interpret, but are prized both as objects themselves and as sources of permanent information and knowledge. This does not mean that this world does not glory in whispered rumor, spoken tales, or oral histories. It means only that they prize everyone, EVERYONE, having a baseline of knowledge, and for this purpose a permanent source of information is invaluable.
Why? Magic springs to mind. When even rolled up pieces of paper with words on them can be deadly in the hands of half the population, whether they're true students of magic or not, then having a population at least literate enough to differentiate between finding someone's diary and finding someone's Cthulhu summoning ritual at a glance is helpful; they may not understand that they're seeing a summoning ritual in that second parchment but they know the first book is just Trevor's wank fantasies and nothing to worry the regent about.
Time is another big reason. If the only people with a really good grasp of what things were like 100+ years ago were the elves...fuck, are we going to take their word for it? Better not, pointy eared devils could be subtly controlling us, shaping our culture. Elves and dwarves being hyperliterate would be a factor: here's these ancient cultures with cities older than Greg's Mountain and they mostly just hang out with earthworms or butterflies but they can do these little scribblies and look at them later and suddenly have way more power than us in trade warfare medicine manufacture...
If we take both to their extremes and answer the implicit question of how THOSE two races got that way then we arrive at an easy explanation for everything: dragons.
1) Dragons discover magic
2) Dragons invent language to help control magic
3) Dragons teach language to ancient races, accidentally inventing civilization
4) Civilization invents new languages, which in turn is more tools to use to control magic
5) Better control of magic leads to greater ability to explore and discover magic
6) If magic is change then greater discovery begets greater change
7) Magic invents dragons, transformed by their power and knowledge, retreating into their massive stores of power
8) Elves discover magic, and, learning from the Dragon playbook, seed language to lesser/younger races
We get a lot of fun ideas to play around with for this setup but let me finally finally get to my main take-away, one I intend to implement:
All gold is books now.
You get yourself a Type H hoard haul? Congratulations, son, you found like nine different kinds of books. These can be traded for resources and favors back in civilization. You can liquidate them into coin, sure, but why bother with that middle step? Give the party a treasure they can carry with them, one they have to strategize and agonize about giving up, one which can be a similarly universal currency but not so convenient or inexhaustible as a pile of thousands in gold. You don't have to worry about draining coin off your PCs if their bag of Make This Problem Go Away is filled not with enough gold to build a new planet but like, all 7 Harry Potters. You get 7 big opportunities to surmount an obstacle and that's it, plus you endear yourself to your followers by reading them a chapter each night, improving their morale; is giving one of these up to buy passage to Stormboner really worth it to you?
It's also a resource that catches fire in a world full of fire breathers and fire ballers. That's a hell of a volatile market. I call this feature not bug.
So, blahblahblah wordl building bullshit, result: your party does not find 3200g in copper, silver, jewelry, gems, statues, and weapons. Your party just found a private library. Take this idea out for a spin and maybe swing on by Zak and Pat's places for some more toys to use in this Fright Zone playset.