One of the best things about being a wizard in D&D is the wide array of spells that, in principle, you have access to. To prevent this from being over-powered and over-whelming, you can't just prepare any spell: you first need to learn it and copy it to your spell-book. So far, it all seems logical and realistic (well, as realistic as you can get while having wizards around).

A quirk of the rules that has always bothered me is that every single wizard has a different way of writting down spells. This makes perfect sense out-of-universe: If the party defeats a powerful wizard, we don't want the party wizard to simply pick up the book and gain access to all of the spells. Come to think of it, we probably also don't want there to be a standardised book with a title like Compendium of Spells for Adventurers that every wizard adventurer gets; individual spellbooks are much more flavourful.

But in-universe, it seems strange. In our world, people who need to record any specialised type of information tend to do so in ways that are mutually intelligible within their specialty: musicians have notes, mathematicians have mathematical symbols, engineers have their diagrams, etc. There are, of course, individual quirks and differences between sub-specialities, but it still strikes me as awfully counter-intuitive that there is no standardised way write down magic, even for followers of the same school, even when the writer is trying to be understandable.

Is there an in-universe explanation for this state of affairs? Official sources are, of course, preferred.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For those answering, please remember that OP is asking for lore support. Don't just submit ideas that are theoretically solid, but that have lore support. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 21, 2021 at 12:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Even when mathematicians are trying to be clear, it still usually takes other mathematicians a while to figure out what they're saying :P \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2021 at 19:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DM_with_secrets not to mention computer programmers... how many programming languages are there? While some familiar with one lends itself to understanding another, there are many cases where this is not true. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael
    May 21, 2021 at 19:38

6 Answers 6


It’s how real-world alchemists did things

Which is likely something that Gygax—and Vance, assuming Vance’s novels also including writing spells down—would have known.

There are famous alchemists. Plato is arguably the father of “Western” alchemy, and he’s one of the most-published authors of all time. Jābir ibn Ḥayyān is the first person in recorded history to write down many different chemical properties and processes. In Europe, alchemists sometimes rose to prominence in the courts of kings and queens—John Dee, Nicholas Flamel, and the like. Even Isaac Newton took some interest (though he took much more interest in astrology).

But most alchemists didn’t publish and become famous. Most alchemists, it seems, didn’t want to. They invented arcane writing styles all their own to encode their processes—and jealously guarded those secrets. Many truly believed that they were working on achieving grandiose supernatural power—and didn’t want to share. Many, even, felt strongly that deciphering these codes they used was a security measure, not for themselves, but for the world. That only those who proved their wisdom by figuring out their writing could be trusted with the knowledge contained therein. Some of those codes, therefore, were meant to be cracked—but only by the “wise,” who were presumed to be trustworthy.

And even the better-known codes are still extremely arcane to us. Take a look at the Unicode page for alchemical symbols, for example:

Codepoint Symbol Description
1F700 🜀 Alchemical Symbol For Quintessence
1F701 🜁 Alchemical Symbol For Air
1F702 🜂 Alchemical Symbol For Fire
1F703 🜃 Alchemical Symbol For Earth
1F704 🜄 Alchemical Symbol For Water
1F708 🜈 Alchemical Symbol For Aqua Vitae
1F70C 🜌 Alchemical Symbol For Vinegar-3
1F714 🜔 Alchemical Symbol For Salt
1F717 🜗 Alchemical Symbol For Vitriol-2
1F762 🝢 Alchemical Symbol For Dissolve-2
1F773 🝳 Alchemical Symbol For Half Ounce

You’d find entire books written in these symbols, with minimal actual language around them. And worse, you’d find books written using the author’s own personal set of symbols, and maybe their page layout and organization is encoding more information not found in the symbols themselves, and so on.

I mean, for that matter, you can even look at modern chemical equations and can easily imagine how impossible they can be to understand: even the straightforward “2H2(g) + O2(g) → 2H2O()” should immediately raise eyebrows for anyone who doesn’t remember chemistry class, and that’s a really famous one. Chemists standardize things heavily so that it can be taught in chemistry class, but that’s a relatively modern effort, pushed by modern sensibilities and enabled by modern technology.

But without a press, without regular international communication, with information that can literally burn down buildings or gate in demons? Yes, it is entirely plausible that wizards all come up with their own system. It’s certainly what the people who were trying to become wizards here did.

Also, just to bring this back to the lore a bit more...

One of the things with Vancian magic is that the level of memorization involved in casting a spell is absurd. It’s way, way beyond anything you are familiar with—in Vance’s works, if I’m not mistaken, the mere ability to learn magic was itself a magic ability, impossible for a regular human to perform.

There is much, much more information to encode than you’d expect, apparently, in writing down a spell. Moreover, one has to encode things that are extremely difficult to describe—precise movements and utterances, yes, but also magical attunement and mental patterns and so on. And that encoding has to resonate with your own magical ability to memorize that spell so thoroughly that the act of keeping it in your mind is magic itself. A prepared spell is an actual, existing “thing” in the world of D&D. It’s not physical, of course, but it is tangible, for those with the right senses. It can even be stolen, in certain cases. And once used, it’s entirely erased—no matter how thoroughly you memorized it (and it had to be very thoroughly), and no matter how many times you’ve done it before, the actual act of casting a spell is enough to scour that magical thought-construct that was your prepared, memorized spell, entirely from your mind.

Which is to say that your system of encoding has to interact with your own personal magic. Other people’s encodings don’t necessarily work for you—or yours for them. You can, with enough effort, decipher someone else’s encoding well enough to get it into your head, to prepare the spell. But replicating their style, particularly with a spell you have never seen them encode? There’s no hope. So you can’t copy their encoding perfectly anyway, even if you wanted to.

Tangent about alchemy

It’s important to bear in mind that “chemistry” didn’t exist at the time. “Alchemy” was the name of the serious pursuit of trying to learn more about what makes up the materials around us and how they can be manipulated. Plato... honestly, Plato wasn’t right about much. But Jābir is the first recorded discoverer of many chemical substances and techniques. And he wasn’t alone in making real discoveries. But it was still also, ya know, “alchemy,” as we think of it—turn lead into gold, achieve immortal life, etc. How much a given alchemist focused on those things varied widely, of course, but the split between material and spiritual concerns that we have in the modern world didn’t exist then. They were both equally “alchemy,” and both equally serious.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a quick note: 5e did away with the "casting a prepared spell erases it from your mind": in fact, any passage about preparing spells specifies the following: "Casting the spell doesn't remove it from your list of prepared spells". \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2021 at 5:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer! +1! One nitpick, however: In Vance's Dying Earth series, the ability to memorize magic was something anyone could do, but nearly no-one did. It required study - and anyone who could memorize more than two or three spells at once was considered an extremely powerful mage. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 21, 2021 at 9:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Programmers have to go to a lot of effort to make their code understandable to other programmers (including their future self), for a modern day example. Wizards who don't intend or expect anyone else to be reading their spellbook can't be bothered to make their spells accessible. \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2021 at 13:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aherocalledFrog Programming was the first thing that came to mind for me as well. As an experienced software engineer I can say that while I can get into any project made by someone else, it's not going to be just diving in. It'll take a dedicated amount of work to just understand what's going on, even if it's written in the same language as I'm used to. \$\endgroup\$
    – William
    May 21, 2021 at 17:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fun fact: turning lead into gold and achieving immortality sounds like to unrelated pipe dreams to modern readers, but because alchemists didn't separate the from material, to them they were incredibly linked. Because gold is uncorrodable, it stood to reason to alchemists that if they could turn the corrodible into the uncorrodable they could also stop the corroding of the human body, i.e. aging. \$\endgroup\$
    – yesennes
    May 21, 2021 at 20:30

Individual idiosyncrasies

From the players handbook section on "Your Spellbook":

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.

The Book’s Appearance. Your spellbook is a unique compilation of spells, with its own decorative flourishes and margin notes. It might be a plain, functional leather volume that you received as a gift from your master, a finely bound gilt-edged tome you found in an ancient library, or even a loose collection of notes scrounged together after you lost your previous spellbook in a mishap.

Note the part about your own notation in the first quote and the part about margin notes in the second. Every person thinks a bit differently and the spell text reflects how they think about the casting of magic and spellcasting.

Keep in mind also, the spells are presumably written in some kind of standard notation format already. Nothing in the description says that you have to understand the language of the spellbook. If spells were written in individual languages such as elven, common or draconic the rules would require you to understand that language before being able to parse the spell.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That first quote is what the OP is asking about. Why do you have your own notation? Why don't you use the same notation as your teacher, which they taught to all of their students, and who learned it from their master who learned it from theirs... . \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2021 at 15:23

Each wizard learns magic in their own way.

Unlike modern academics, who try to use standardized names and notation for everything to communicate their ideas and encourage collaboration, wizards in D&D are more hermetic and idiosyncratic, often actively avoiding making their work understandable to others.

D&D 5e Player's Handbook, p.114, in the sidebar Your Spellbook, notes that each wizard has their own idiosyncratic understanding of magic due to the way they learned largely through individual study:

The spells that you add to your spellbook as you gain levels reflect the arcane research you conduct on your own, as well as intellectual breakthroughs you have had about the nature of the multiverse.

D&D 3.5's Player's Handbook, p. 178, Arcane Magical Writings, describes this system:

To record an arcane spell in written form, a character uses complex notation that describes the magical forces involved in the spell. The notation constitutes a universal arcane language that wizards have discovered, not invented. The writer uses the same system no matter what her native language or culture. However, each character uses the system in her own way. Another person's magical writing remains incomprehensible to even the most powerful wizard until she takes the time to study and decipher it.

A wizard's personal notation might inherit features of the wizard they apprenticed under, according to Complete Arcane, p.140:

Wizards who take on apprentices usually teach them many of the same notations and codes they themselves have perfected. A wizard attempting to decipher, prepare, or copy a spell from the spellbook of a master (or apprentice) gains a +2 circumstance bonus on the Spellcraft check.

The sense I get from this is that there are an unlimited number of ways that the same spell might be written down, and there is little to no standardization in the field, except that apprentices tend to learn rudimentary forms from their master. This is of course very different from modern academia, where for example everyone uses the same names for things and a standardized mathematical notation in order to make education and academic collaboration easier.

Also noted in Complete Arcane, p.140:

Every wizard possesses a personal set of notations, formulas, scripts, and ciphers for recording the workings of a spell. While the underlying language and concepts are the same no wizard can simply pick up another's spell book and instantly prepare spells from the foreign tome.

The use of ciphers particularly suggests that wizards may intentionally make their recordings confusing to prevent others from learning their spells. The same page also notes that spellbooks may contain "spurious false writings", again suggesting that part of the writing in a spellbook is an attempt to mislead readers.

The Geometer prestige class, in Complete Arcane p.40, uses a unique method of recording spells which is more efficient, but harder for others to decipher. This suggests that there are possible benefits to unique methods of recording spells.

Of course, the non-lore reason is that since as far back as AD&D 1st edition, the rules for spellbooks worked this way, with wizards requiring the read magic spell to understand spellbooks other than their own. The rationalization was invented that each wizard must have a unique way of recording spells in their spellbook.


This is more logical than you expect. Wizards don't write their spells to be easily shared (indeed, as stated in the books, they guard their spells like a lioness guards their cubs), but to be easily read by themselves.

Indeed, if an engineer writes documentation, it is written according to conventions. A wizard writing his book is not comparable to that though, a spellbook is more like that engineers scrapbook that they use while working. Check your notes to that of a random other person, they are different for everyone.

In the end of OPs post, they assume that a wizard writes spells to share, but he doesn't. That is where it comes in. There is overlap of course, that makes it possible to decipher a found spellbook and learn spells that way, but that takes time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a solid theory, but can you please support this with lore from the editions? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 21, 2021 at 12:28

A question of flavour

I agree with sections of the other answers and I think it's an interesting question.

Of course it is true that in a fantasy setting like D&D there is always the option of answering such a question with: "That's the way it is."

For example, why do the dragons in 5e tend not to have spell lists available to them, whereas in AD&D 2e they do.

Saying that, I think a lot of these questions, including why each Wizard uses a different notation in 5e, is a question of: flavour.

I think you make a valid point in that there is not a standard Compendium of Spells. I could just picture my party's wizard turning up at a tavern and odering a large horn of mead along with a tattered old second-hand copy of A Wizard's Guide to the Most Useful Spells.

I think again, this comes back to the question of flavour. In most campaign settings Magic is special! Wizards are especially special... possibly unique, like their notations. It surrounds them with an air of mystery and power and knowledge.

There is a section in the Player's Handbook (p. 112) which I think backs this notion up too:

Wild and enigmatic, varied in form and function, the power of magic draws students who seek to master its mysteries.

As a side-note, if I had two wizards in our campaign who wanted to devise a joint notation system for their spells so they could share, as a DM, I would allow this.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a solid theory, but can you support this more from lore? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 21, 2021 at 12:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch, thank you, that's helpful. Will do a bit of lore digging. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    May 21, 2021 at 20:44

Turn the question around - why would there be a standardised way of writing these things down?

In a world without universities and journals and the Internet and conferences, how would a discipline ever develop standards?

Additionally, given the paranoia and secrecy typical of spellcasters in literature, why would any wizard ever voluntarily develop a standard or use one developed by someone else?

Consider guilds. Each guild has its own notation which it teaches only to its members, forbidding them to teach it to anyone outside the guild. Similarly, a wizard would have their own notation, which they teach only to their apprentices.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This overlooks the fact that apprentices have different notations than their master, and each other. Their master's books are just as difficult to read as that of the 500 year old lich on another continent, or the newest 17 year old apprentice of their master. \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2021 at 11:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you back this up from lore? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 21, 2021 at 12:29

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