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The description of the encode thoughts cantrip says (GGtR, p. 47; emphasis mine):

Putting a finger to your head, you pull a memory, an idea, or a message from your mind and transform it into a tangible string of glowing energy called a thought strand, which persists for the duration or until you cast this spell again. [...]

If you cast this spell while concentrating on a spell or an ability that allows you to read or manipulate the thoughts of others (such as detect thoughts or modify memory), you can transform the thoughts or memories you read, rather than your own, into a thought strand. [...]

Casting this spell while holding a thought strand allows you to instantly receive whatever memory, idea, or message the thought strand contains. [...]

It seems that it is intended that the memory is removed. This could, perhaps, create an unintended, strong combo with detect thoughts and obsolesce the modify memory spell.

It also could be more reasonable in scope of power for encode thoughts to simply render a copy of the thought, though this doesn't seem to be what the spell says it does.

Does encode thoughts remove the targeted thought from the creature's memory, or does it create a copy of that thought?


Related and inspired by: Can a creature with a Mind Blank spell active on itself target itself with Encode Thoughts?

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Encode thoughts does not modify memories

As you say, the phrase "pull from" can mean removing something from its place, and usually this is exactly what is meant when referring to physical objects. For example: "The dentist pulled the patient's tooth from his mouth."

However, when used with things that are easily reproduced, such as thoughts or computer data, "pull from" almost always implies making a copy. For example: "The wizard was able to solve her mystery by pulling from the vast archives of knowledge in the library." No one would read this sentence and assume that the wizard was running around the library literally pulling pages out of books.1 It's so unambiguous that you wouldn't even think to ask for clarification.

The situation is the same with the text in the encode thoughts spell: a thought is not a physical object and is easily reproduced, so the clear intent is that the spell creates a copy of the thought without removing or modifying the original.

If the spell modified your memories, it would say so explicitly

Consider the text of the modify memory spell. It spends 3 entire paragraphs describing the process of modifying the target's memory, and the consequences thereof, in exacting detail. This is good, because figuring out how to role play false memories is difficult, and you need all the guidance you can get. In contrast, there is no text describing any memory-modifying effects in encode thoughts. The closest thing is the use of the phrase "pull from", which by itself is not sufficient to imply that a lowly cantrip can produce such a powerful effect as memory modification.


1Although if the wizard is a servant of Vecna, all bets are off.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with this answer now. My own answer relies on an incorrect assumption about how the spell works. I've deleted it (I suspect someone else needs to confirm the deletion, since it seems to still be there.) \$\endgroup\$ – Ton Day Feb 10 '19 at 10:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ You mention physical objects a few times, and specify that thoughts are not physical objects. The very nature of this spell sort of, muddles your analogy for me. The spell makes thoughts be physically pulled (as physical objects) from your memory. It leaves room for some disconnect. +1 lol from me for the footnote. \$\endgroup\$ – Token Feb 10 '19 at 21:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Token Books are also physical objects, but the knowledge contained within is not. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Feb 10 '19 at 21:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm. The same confusion seems to apply. If I pulled knowledge from a book into a semisolid, glowing ribbon, then I'd have a physical object that I pulled from the book. Did I copy the words? Or remove them and place them in that semisolid? I'm trying to accurately communicate the fundamental nuance that provoked the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Token Feb 10 '19 at 21:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Token Also consider that reading a thought strand with the spell makes a "copy" of the thought in your own mind without destroying the thought strand itself. So it makes sense that creating one would also be a "copy" operation rather than a "move". Otherwise you could immediately undo the removal of the thought by reading it back into your mind, which would make for a very odd spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Feb 10 '19 at 22:01
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I disagree with the conclusion in Ryan Thompson's answer, though the following interpretation is mechanically the same. I just came in here to clear some things up and show an alternate conclusion that can be made. That is, this spell does in fact turn thoughts into a physical object as a permanent transformation, and does not copy them.

This actually relies on the fact that the spell is worded as to say that if you're reading or manipulating someone's memories with a spell or ability and you're concentrating on that, you can use this cantrip to transform the thoughts or memories you read, rather than your own, into a thought strand.

This means in this context that the definition of pull actually means to magically pull something out of the mind and turn it into something physical, in this case a thought strand.

Here's where it gets weird. Even if you're reading or altering someone's mind/memories, it wouldn't make sense that it's actually getting pulled from their mind. In essence, since the range of the spell is self, you're actually effectively turning yourself into a ticker tape machine, meaning that you're actually pulling this information from your own mind as you read/alter someone's mind/memories. What would effectively be something you remember sensing (i.e. through detect thoughts or modify memory).

Like Ryan Thompson said, being able to immediately undo the removal of the thought by reading it back into your mind makes it odd, but it seems that's actually an intended potential interaction. See, these memory strands are very valuable to Dimir operatives, and are in fact traded as a form of currency. It wouldn't make sense that trading information as a currency would require losing access to that information forever, as this would not benefit a Dimir agent.

In fact, this benefits a Dimir agent in that they're able to effectively remove incriminating memories from their mind if it works as described.

This cantrip, thus is similar to the process of putting ones thoughts to paper, though in a more esoteric fashion that can only be accessed through being able to cast this cantrip or detect thoughts. They're basically temporary books that (based on the spell duration) last for 8 hours, except they can contain information of any level of granularity so long as it meets the requirement of being a single "memory", an "idea", or a "message".

Then again, this is just based off of experience with both using this spell as a player and having to moderate usage of this spell as a GM, so the information above might not be correct. It certainly seems to work best in this manner, however.

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