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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\$ – Dayton Williams Feb 10 at 10:23
  • \$\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 at 21:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Token Books are also physical objects, but the knowledge contained within is not. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Thompson Feb 10 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 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 Thompson Feb 10 at 22:01

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