If a Wizard finds the spellbook of the evil Wizard they discovered, how does the process of finding out which spells are in the spellbook work? (Assume the evil Wizard didn't simply write the spells' names in common at the top of the pages or create an index.)

  • Does the Wizard have to spend 2 hours per spell level "deciphering the unique system of notation" to be able to tell that the spell they've been studying is detect magic? Or can they tell at a glance that it's detect magic before spending the 2 hours?
  • Does it require the 50gp per spell level cost just to figure out what the spell is, or do they get to choose whether to spend it after figuring out what spell it is, as part of deciding whether to copy the spell into their spellbook?

From the 5e Basic Rules, Chapter 3, pg. 31 (emphasis mine):

Copying a spell into your spellbook involves reproducing the basic form of the spell, then deciphering the unique system of notation used by the wizard who wrote it. You must practice the spell until you understand the sounds or gestures required, then transcribe it into your spellbook using your own notation. For each level of the spell, the process takes 2 hours and costs 50 gp. The cost represents material components you expend as you experiment with the spell to master it, as well as the fine inks you need to record it.


3 Answers 3


Rules As Written: It's unclear

Rules As Intended: You likely know which spell it is

5th edition has tried to stay away from "GOTCHA!" moments, so it feels against the spirit of the game that they would make you spend time and money, only to find out that you don't want to copy "Pete's Portable Outhouse" into your spellbook, or whatever.

There are various modules wherein players find a spellbook "with X,Y, and Z spells" and no mentions of "after the wizard deciphers part of the spellbook, they realize that these are the spells in the book."

Additionally, that you could potentially start trying to copy down a spell that you can't prepare (a level 2 spell, while you're still level 1) would potentially be possible if you didn't know what the spell was. Would that mean that you've wasted the 2 hours per level and 50 GP per level up to what you could potentially prepare? Would the DM just tell you "You try to decipher the spell and fail."? Neither of those seem to be keeping with game intent.

Copying a Spell into the Book. When you find a wizard spell of 1st level or higher, you can add it to your spellbook if it is of a level which you can prepare and if you can spare the time to decipher and copy it. (emphasis mine)

Rules As Fun (and Rules As Common Sense, likely): You definitely know what the spells in the book are

It is neither fun, nor interesting, nor interactive in any way to make players decipher what the spell is before they can decide whether or not they want it.

Just imagine being a first-level wizard and your DM telling you "You find a dusty tome in the abandoned wizard's tower. You have to spend at least 50 gold pieces each to find out what the ten spells within can do."

You'd sell the book for what you could and walk away (or at least I would).


Another interaction occurs to me. If you want to pay to copy a spell out of a wizard's book, you wouldn't actually know what spell you were copying until you were done. While hilarious once, it would be a huge jerk move on both the side of the wizard and the DM allowing it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Speak for yourself, Pete's Portable Outhouse is a must have for any self respecting wizard! \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2018 at 20:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ What are RAF and RACS acronyms for? \$\endgroup\$
    – TylerH
    Apr 19, 2018 at 20:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TylerH "Read as Fun" "Read as Common Sense" \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Apr 19, 2018 at 20:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @goodguy5 Actually I thought those were usually "Rules as ..." \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Apr 20, 2018 at 0:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mobile posting sucks. "rules as..." is correct \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Apr 20, 2018 at 3:06

I'll second most of goodguy5's answer:

Rules As Written

By RAW, it is unclear, since part of the copying clearly refers to understanding the spell itself.

Rules As Intended

RAI, you should know which spells are in the spellbook, since some interactions would make no sense as he exemplified with trying to copy a spell that you don't have spell slots to.

Note that the entire process takes 2 hours and 50 gold per spell level, so, no matter what, it shouldn't be intended that only knowing which spell it is would take the same time and cost the same gold.

Rules As Fun

Now this is where I will make some changes in goodguy's answer. I'm sorry if it becomes a heavily opinion-based answer, but it is kinda based on experience. As a mainly Wizard player, I don't find it that fun to just receive a Spellbook with "X, Y, Z" spells on it and choose which I want to copy and that's all. I actually enjoy the mystery on someone else's Spellbook, his awkward notations that don't make any sense to me, why does he use \$ y'\$ instead of \$ \frac{dy}{dx} \$?!?! This Evil Wizard clearly knew no math, god. Obviously, "Spend 2hr and 50 gold per spell level" is not a funny solution either. Jokes aside, it is completely fine that an easy spell like Magic Missile would be understood instantly, but all those diagrams to this Wish spell?

Here are some things I've thought would be fun as a Wizard player:

  • Make use of the Arcana skill. Most Wizards have it, and Intelligence skill checks are already too much in the shadows, at least in my tables.
  • Even if you decide to put a roll on it, never make it so a bad roll will incapacitate your wizard from learning what that spell was - it will just take him some time studying. This time should be, at most, the 2hr per spell level. I don't see any reason for charging gold, as he is just studying. (I always interpreted the gold cost as the special Ink and w/e I was using to copy it and maybe some materials for experimentation to actually learn how to cast it).
  • If there is an amazing spell that you know certainly your player wants, maybe a quick side quest involving Libraries and Arcane Knowledge where he learns the archaic magic notation from the society that created this spell?
  • If you are DM'ing, ask your player(s) what would be the funniest for him(them).

Per suggestions, I would like to note that I tried using the Arcana skill for it as a DM (trying to improve something I didn't like when I was a player). I talked with the player that was going to play Wizard beforehand to make sure he didn't mind losing some character hours studying, and if he did I would just make him know the spells on the book and that's all. But he didn't and enjoyed the extra flavor on it.

The system worked like this:

  • Based on the level of the spell, which I would indicate to the player through how complex it looked in the book, I set a DC. (Note: some remarkably good spells would have a DC higher than the others at the same level, and the contrary for bad ones.)
  • If he passed the test, he identified the spell, remembering he saw these symbols elsewhere and making trivial to understand which spell it was.
  • Here I should note that passing this test would also decrease the time to copy it to your book. IIRC I've used 1hr per spell level.
  • If he failed, depending on how hard he failed, it would take him something in the range from 1hr to the standard 2hrs per spell level. If he then wanted to copy it to his book, he only needed to pay the 50g per spell level.

So the trade-off from the actual system is: he would take less time to copy a spell that he wanted to copy (from 1hr to 2hr/spell level, instead of always 2hr/spell level), but sometimes he would have to study before even knowing which spell it is, and if he didn't want it, it was "lost time".

  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you any personal experience with this sort of play in an actual game? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Apr 19, 2018 at 18:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden The Side quest was totally theorycrafting. Using Arcana to identify spells on the spellbook was something I DM'd and my Wizard player didn't mind losing some character hours to get the extra flavor. How much time it would take for him to study depended on his roll and on the level of the spell (which I would indicate through things like "this spell seems very elaborate and complex, you notice that many pages of the book are about this spell"). As I suggested, I had talked to him beforehand to check if it was okay for him to lose these hours. \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Including that information would improve the answer. This stack draws a big difference between "I think this might be fun" and "I tried/experienced this, and it worked well". \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden added that to the answer, as well as specifying a little more about the system I've used. The DCs I've used for spell levels were usually made up on the run, so I can't provide details for that from memory (and admittedly I probably wasn't much consistent back then). The most important thing is making sure your player is fine with that and is having fun, though. That's why I emphasize talking to him. \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Apr 19, 2018 at 20:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the "in two hours you can figure out the spell without spending any money" \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Apr 19, 2018 at 21:02

Identifying Magical Items

This answer hinges on the spellbook being considered a Magical Item. While Scrolls are clearly a magical item, a spell book is not listed in the DMG. However, a spellbook is a collection of spells written on paper just like a scroll is. While the mechanics may be different in their use, they are very similar in form. And it is the form we are trying to decode.

An unknown magical item falls under the rules for identifying a magical item found in the DMG (pp 136)

The identify spell is the fastest way to reveal an item’s properties. Alternatively, a character can focus on one magic item during a short rest, while being in physical contact with the item. At the end of the rest, the character learns the item’s properties, as well as how to use them. Potions are an exception; a little taste is enough to tell the taster what the potion does.

Note that scrolls are not listed as an exception and would fall under these rules as well.

This gives the wizard the option of using a Short Rest or casting Identify to learn what the spell(s) is(are).

But what about a whole book?

Normally, the Short Rest has the limitation of "focusing on one magic item" and Scrolls are generally considered separate magic items. There are no guidelines on if a Spell Book is basically sheets of scrolls or a single item by itself. That's going to be the up to the DM to determine.

Is a spellbook even a Magic Item?

This is another difficult situation, as the contents are equivalent to Scrolls, but aren't really quite the same thing. There's enough leeway here that I think it's reasonable for a DM to rule that it's a single Magic Item but could also see that given the power it could give (a LOT of new spells), to require 1 hour/spell.

However, Jeremy Crawford does not agree that a spellbook is a magic item.

A normal spellbook or spellcasting focus is not a magic item.

I agree with that, as well, but I still believe that the idea of a spell written on paper is what draws the equivalence between a magical item scroll and a spell in a book.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer a lot, but I feel that it should be more clear that it's an interpretive answer than anything clearly defined by RAW. +1, regardless \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Apr 19, 2018 at 20:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I generally agree given my last paragraph about whether or not spellbooks are magical items. I just find the difference between a Scroll and a page in a book that has the exact same contents to be too small. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Apr 19, 2018 at 20:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Spellbook pages can't be cast as scrolls, though, and can't be dispelled. There's no RAW reason to think this is even applicable. You could cast from spellbooks in earlier editions, but not 5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Apr 19, 2018 at 21:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden Right, and that's why I'm saying it's not an equivalent. But it very similar in that it is a spell written on paper. The mechanics are different as you've noted (and on the flipside, a spellbook spell never disappears after it's been used. Although it's use is in daily preparation rather than use). But functionally, it's a piece of paper given you access to a spell and that's the same whether or not it's a scroll or a spellbook. The mechanics of how that works is different, but it's still an unknown spell on paper. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Apr 19, 2018 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's the thing. Functionally, it's nowhere near the same. It's not a magic item. Nowhere is it suggested that it's a magic item. RAW, it's not a magic item in any way. It's just a bunch of arcane lore written down on paper. You can offer the houserule of "we should let the identify spell work on it" but if that worked, you should also let focusing on it over the course of a short rest while in physical contact work on it. Either one is houserule, and if you want to present it as such, would preferably come with your report of your own experiences with that rule. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Apr 19, 2018 at 21:31

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