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The concept of a spell being stored on a scroll, which can be used once and then vanishes, shows up in numerous tabletop and video game RPGs. From a game design perspective, the idea of a one-use spell is sensible. But considering that the whole idea of writing is to record information permanently, the idea that a single-use spell should take the form of a scroll of all things is kind of unintuitive. What's the history behind this idea? Is it based off of some old mythology or folklore, or was it a later invention?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify...Spell Scrolls aren't merely spells written on paper. The spells they contain are basically cast onto the scroll. That's why you don't need material components to cast from a scroll - whoever wrote the scroll already provided them during its creation. \$\endgroup\$ – aaron9eee Feb 11 at 12:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I seem to recall in 1e or so, you could alternately copy a spell from a scroll to your spell book. So it is still writing for permanence. \$\endgroup\$ – Nanban Jim Feb 11 at 14:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NanbanJim I think that's still the case in 5e -- a scroll is dual purpose; use it once, to cast, or use it (also erasing it in the process) to (attempt to) copy the spell into your spell book. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Feb 11 at 14:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Corresponding question on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange: Where did the concept of single-use spell scrolls originate? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 12 at 0:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ I rolled back that edit since questions shouldn’t be edited to include the answer. You can post what you took away from the answers as another answer, if you like, especially if you feel that no one answer fully covers everything and a summary is called for. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 14 at 2:56
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As per this SF&F SE question, an earlier example might be The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), by Lord Dunsany.

Moreover, over the course of the novel, the King of Elfland uses all three master-runes to effect magical changes that encompass both Elfland and Erl. And once each rune is used, it is gone, not to be used again. After initially holding back, the King finally starts using the master-runes to try to prevent his daughter's departure from Elfland:

They rushed forward, he taking her hand; the Elf King lifted his beard, and just as he began to intone a rune that only once may be uttered, against which nothing from our fields can avail, they were through the frontier of twilight, and the rune shook and troubled those lands in which Lirazel walked no longer.

Dunsany was listed in Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading, from the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide as one of the sources that contributed to Gygax's development of the game, so he was almost certainly familiar with The King of Elfland's Daughter.

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Single-use scrolls were a feature of some of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories (published from the 1940s into the 1980s). I don't have my books where I can reach them, so don't have publication dates for all of the stories, but one of them, "The Lords of Quarmall" (originally published in 1964, now found in the collection Swords Against Death), I recall being mentioned in a foreword or afterword as one of, if not the oldest of the stories, in order of creation, though not of publication -- and in it, Mouser had come into possession of a single-use. self-destroying scroll carrying a very powerful spell.

This story, at least, predates the inception of what came to be the D&D magic system.

Beyond this, the Vancian magic that's the core of the original system, in which a wizard completely forgets a spell once cast and has to re-memorize it after resting in order to cast it again, fits well with the idea that such power might be single-use in written, ready-to-use form, as well. If casting a spell erases it from the caster's mind, why wouldn't it also erase the written representation from the physical world?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Lords of Quarmall" was started by Harry Otto Fischer.in 1936 (same that Leiber wrote his initial stories), and finished and published by Lieber in 1974. See: wikiwand.com/en/Fafhrd_and_the_Gray_Mouser \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel R. Collins Feb 12 at 2:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's true that the Gray Mouser has a scroll spell (variously called a "Rune" or "Great Spell"; on a piece of parchment in his pouch; p. 672 on Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 18). And this is clearly the inspiration for D&D thieves casting spells from scrolls (per OD&D Sup-I Greyhawk). But unfortunately I don't see any sign in the text of the spell being single-use only, or of the rune disappearing after being used. It's just that in practice, there's no point to casting it twice, since all the wizards of the given level are destroyed in the city after casting. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel R. Collins Feb 12 at 2:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanielR.Collins Apparently Gygax et al missed the fact that Mouser had been an apprentice wizard before going to Lankhmar for the first time -- so was multiclassed (by the new definition, not the way an elf could be in the original game). He'd have been able to use a scroll even if thieves in general couldn't. Also, per your link, ""The Lords of Quarmall" would be finished by Leiber and published in 1964". \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Feb 12 at 13:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ZeissIkon Like quotes from the book. I found this, which likely refers to the scroll in question. While it is likely that this is the inspiration for thieves using scrolls, it says nothing about the scroll being single-use, and one of the comments on the page points out that the writing remains on the scroll... \$\endgroup\$ – IndigoFenix Feb 12 at 13:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @IndigoFenix: Ha, to be clear, that's also my blog (from the last time I investigated this ~10 years ago). It's a good highlight that at the end the Mouser seems to say that he could do the spell again, it's just not a good idea. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel R. Collins Feb 12 at 13:56
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In addition to what was already said, I would add some background that could possibly have influenced the use of spell scrolls as a source of one-use spells aside from modern literature.

Modern 'swords and magic' fantasy has many origins. A lot of it comes from novels (Tolkien's "the Lord of the Rings" and "the Hobbit" had huge impacts on the general picture people have of fantasy). Probably one of the sources that shapes our idea of fantasy the most, aside from literature, is the Celtic culture and theology that was prevalent in Europe before Christianity. The story of King Arthur is a great example, he is a Celtic-born prince, and the magic in the world is based largely (if not entirely) on Celtic mythology. In fact, most modern ideas of magic in western culture are largely rooted in Celtic mythology. Another great example is The Witcher series, which is deeply rooted in Celtic mythology.

That said, the Celtic view was that magic was redirecting or reshaping the energies that make up the world. Their practice of magic included materials that they believed had special properties, incantations and rituals, and yes, magical runes. They believed that certain patterns could invoke magic; consider The Witcher (mind that witchers themselves aren't a Celtic creation, even though the world is largely rooted in Celtic mythology). The witchers in this fantasy use runes to invoke 'quick' (though weaker in strength) magic.

The concept of runes could possibly be the origin of the 'spell scroll' in modern fantasy. For those unpracticed in magic in Celtic mythology, materials and chants won't be a tool on their belt, but runes created by someone who is, or the passive magic from charms might be. That said, if a portable rune exists that can evoke magic, and it isn't a permanent tool that keeps its magic, why not use paper? Mages would be much less likely to engrave a rune, that can only invoke magic once, into something like metal (or even leather for that matter) than inking it onto paper.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that paper was really expensive in those times, and basically didn't exist in a great many countries. I would expect to see runes engraved into a clay tablet or written onto bark, as those don't use scarce resources. \$\endgroup\$ – user3757614 Feb 12 at 5:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Paper as we know it was always the "cheap substitute" for things like vellum, parchment, or even papyrus (the source of the word "paper"). That is, once it was invented, possibly accidentally, by felters trying to make a felt less expensive than wool. Felting cotton and linen fibers from reclaimed/recycled fabric created the first "modern" papers (wood pulp came much later), which, once they were produced in some quantity, cost a small fraction of what the alternatives did. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Feb 12 at 13:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have a reference for saying that the Witcher was rooted in Celtic myths? Sapkowski was Polish and it is my understanding that he primarily drew from Eastern European folklore. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Feb 12 at 20:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman I'm not finding much on it. I have found this unfortunately it only mentions the Skellige cultural references, it doesn't bring up Celtic mythology. I could be wrong about it entirely, but a LOT of creatures and concepts in the Witcher seem to very closely correlate to Gaelic beliefs and folklore. It is interesting to note that the Major area of Celtic culture bordered Poland (and even a small sliver of Poland is part of it). It is possible some poland folklore comes from the Celts \$\endgroup\$ – Dezvul Feb 12 at 23:02

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