I’ve always had a bit of an issue with WFRP’s handling of the Read/Write skill, at least in its first and second editions. One of the strengths of the game has always been how it’s rooted its fantastical (and sometimes fantastically silly) elements in a world that felt real. Much of the heavy lifting with the latter was done by the careers system, but it was also observable in the rarity of the Read/Write skill. (Of the six pregens in The Enemy Within, only two were literate, and the Elf wasn’t one of them.) Meanwhile WFRP3 and Zweihänder both fold literacy into a more general education skill, in both cases treated as ‘advanced’. This was a world, the system tells us, dominated by illiteracy; those who could read or write were a privileged few.
But the wisdom of this approach is contradicted by the last 40 years of game design. Generally speaking, GMs now know that it is a bad idea not to give out any information because a lack of leads stalls the game. An entire rules system, Gumshoe, has been designed to address this issue. If the characters can’t read, then that immediately eliminates a major source of clues and leads to keep the action going. The problem cropped up as early as 1e’s intro adventure, The Oldenhaller Contract, itself: the scenario relies on the PCs being able to read the advertisement nailed to the Deutz Elm in Episode 12. So in this post I’m going to look at a few ways a WFRP GM can help keep the game going while still being true to the (pseudo-)historical verisimilitude of the setting.
Historically, while not everyone could read or write, a lot more people had access to someone who could. The 1e rules-set nodded towards this with the Scribe career, but a WFRP GM can take it further. Perhaps impoverished students hire themselves out as readers to the illiterate for a penny a page. Maybe a bright street urchin with an education from a Shallyan orphanage does the same for adventurers at the Deutz Elm in Delberz; he could then return as an NPC later on, making the world that bit bigger and more interesting. In fact, this is roughly the approach that Tim Eccles suggested in his article about WFRP languages in Warpstone #19: make writing rarer than the scenarios suggest so as to make the skill more important (although, it must be said that the article is a lot subtler than that half-sentence can imply).
But for me that loses a lot of what makes the pseudo-Renaissance background so interesting. Historically, this was an extraordinarily exciting time in the development of written culture. And keeping writing commonplace, while also emphasising how rare literacy was, means that those very dynamics of literacy and illiteracy can be used to inform the background and create story hooks. Thus, providing literacy for a village community is one source of a cleric’s authority, just as controlling literate documents of sale and property that the peasantry can’t fully understand is another tool with which the aristocracy can control their tenants.
So another approach to making the skill more interesting is to add some complexity to the skill itself. This has the advantage of making it more historically plausible as well. After all, literacy is not an either/or proposition. Generally, reading advances more quickly than writing, for example, to the extent that someone might be able to read fairly well but only be able to form letters clumsily and inaccurately. The following builds on these considerations and draws on 2e’s three-tiered skill system to reflect them.
Let’s start with the majority of starting characters who have no Read/Write skill. Assume that instead of this meaning they had no access to literacy at all, most people have very rudimentary literacy and are able to ‘make their mark’ on a document and laboriously spell out signs to themselves, out loud. Perhaps it could be treated as a Basic Skill and the PC can roll against half Intelligence to find out more, read more quickly or read silently. But in any case, this gives the GM the opportunity to supply very basic information (like from the sign on the Deutz Elm) to the PCs, without negating the usefulness of Read/Write as a purchased skill.
In contrast to that, the three skill levels of Read/Write indicate levels of educated, learned literacy in the mold of 3e and Zweihänder, but with a greater emphasis on literacy and literature itself. In this model, it allows the character to understand, copy or compose text of various lengths more or less quickly and accurately, as well as recognise and understand literary or cultural references that might serve as signs of upbringing and culture, a kind of socially advantageous ‘cultural capital’.
Thus at the first level, the PC can read and write letters and documents, read books slowly for the gist, and copy books slowly and imperfectly. This is the education you might get from the village priest or a governess. Because it would be based on primers, readers and florilegia, the PC would be familiar with excerpts from famous texts, as well as edifying anecdotes and maxims from the Great Men of the kingdom’s past.
At second level, the PC can write in an elegant, formal hand, copy books without making significant mistakes, as well read books quickly for the gist, or slowly for detail. The PC also has a basic knowledge of their culture’s classic written works, religious and/or secular. This is the sort of level achieved with a higher education, at a university, seminary or from a personal tutor.
And at the final, third level, the PC can ‘gut’ books quickly for all the important information, as well as read and write exotic calligraphy. The PC has an excellent knowledge of written classics and can use it in conversation, as well as recognise learned references used by others. This is the level of the serious scholar.
At each level, the listed tasks would be automatically successful, but the character can act at one level higher on a successful roll, e.g.: someone with only one level in Read/Write can get the gist of a book quickly by making a roll, but someone with two levels doesn’t need to; someone with one level can roll to catch a learned reference, and someone with two levels can roll to understand a very obscure one. While the practical aspects of Read/Write would be transferrable to any language the PC knows with the same script, the cultural aspects would probably only be available to those who had, in 2e terms, Common Knowledge of the other culture or a similar skill or background (maybe the Seasoned Traveller Talent, for example).
This scheme gives, I think, a little bit more texture to the skill and therefore to the setting while also retaining its usefulness and widening its scope.