Everyday Writing in the Realms (Part Two)

By Ed Greenwood

"Should I use Vangey's toy again?" Azoun asked his queen. "Or explore a bit?"

He hefted the sword in his hand, and Filfaeril smiled a little, sighed, and replied, "Explore. What else?"

"What else, indeed," the Purple Dragon said eagerly, striding off into the darkness. He was heading in the direction the tortoise had come from; Queen Filfaeril gave the doggedly trudging little beast a swift look of farewell as the heavy gloom swallowed it, and hurried after her husband, hoping she'd reach his side swiftly enough to keep him out of trouble.

For once.


Ink that doesn't fade is pricey, except along seacoasts where certain snails, squids, and octopi can be gleaned easily. The "ink" of the latter two species or the crushed shells of the snails are base ingredients in most writing inks. This ink base is usually mixed with a substance to keep it from drying (into a hard cake or a powder, in the vial) too swiftly or when exposed to extremes of heat and cold, and an ingredient to inhibit fading. Just what these two sorts of ingredients are varies from region to region across Faerûn, but they are all either plant distillates or powdered minerals.

Colored inks have a blend of additional pigment ingredients, plus something to keep the "base" ink from separating from the pigments.

Inks used for writing spells are far more complex and expensive, but usually begin with a base of the finest "everyday" ink, unless wyvern blood or harpy blood or another "base" fluid is available. Their recipes are valuable, carefully guarded secrets, and usually involve costly and hard-to-obtain ingredients. Some sages assert that everyday ink can be used to write spells just as well as special inks, but many scribes, wizards, and priests of Azuth, Mystra, Oghma, and Deneir firmly disagree, claiming that everyday inks "melt away" over time due to magical stresses, this time being measured in a handful of days for the most powerful spells.

Ink that fades over time or with exposure to heat or light, on the other hand, can be made readily almost anywhere in the Realms that isn't frozen or desert terrain, from many, many vegetable and wild plant sources (anything from beets to certain forest leaves). However, the methods of making inks are usually secret, and none of them are swift or easy (powdering and boiling specific parts of a plant are always involved, with precise temperatures and timings).

As a result, an ounce of will-fade ink tends to sell for as much as 4 gp, except at places and times when nonfading ink is available in ready abundance (which depresses the price to as low as 2 gp/vial). An ounce of will-fade colored ink tends to cost 6 or 7 gp (metallic hues and striking reds are more highly desired and hence more costly).

A 1-ounce vial of nonfading black ink costs 8 gp, and one of nonfading colored ink 16 to 20 gp, depending on hue. The prices of spell inks tend to begin at 45 gp/ounce and escalate swiftly, most selling for around 75 gp/ounce.

Archival Records

As a result of the properties of writing substances, parchment tends to get used for human archival records and legal or official documents, and rag paper for short-term commentary or record-keeping. Dwarves and gnomes produce graven-with-runes stone tablets or stamped metal alloy plaques or pages for "permanent" writing. Certain human guilds also make plaques or certifications by stamping metal (often copper) with letter- or symbol-shaped punches.

Tally-Sticks and Temporary Writing

To cut down on furious disputes over payments, counting is done with "tally-sticks" and with chalk (where chalk is readily available) or by scratching, in both cases marking lines on a stick in an agreed-upon fashion, one stroke being one unit, and longer strokes with crossed ends or circles having meanings (for example, ten or twenty or a hundred) set by various costers, guilds, and royal decrees. Folk keep their own tally-sticks, and they often jointly create a new, specially marked (usually with a carved or painted head) stick for an agreement between them. Guilds and temples often "safekeep" tally-sticks (for nominal fees of 1 cp/year, payable up front and with any outstanding balance due upon retrieval) to prevent loss or tampering.

Most writing used in negotiations, imparting directions, or teaching is done by drawing temporarily in sand, snow, mud, or wax.

Memory Marks and Tale-Tallies

The great majority of folk in the Realms don't have the luxury of having anything to write on except a stick, a tree, a stone, or the wall, so one of the skills taught to them from childhood (often by grandparents, or village elders) is memorization: fixing things in their minds by looking at a drawn symbol or remembering a rhyming chant or pithy saying. Farm-folk often scratch important records or symbols on stones that form the "floor" of their cottage or hearth; the stones are then put back into place with the written-on side facedown. More than once, a hastily scratched likeness of a badge or banner found on such a stone is the only record left behind of who raided an outlying hamlet and slaughtered everyone.

Some novice minstrels go about with sticks thrust into their boots (akin to the manner in which real-world marching-band drummers carry spare drumsticks slid down their socks) that are decorated with a series of symbols. Each symbol on such a "tale-tally" is a reminder of a key scene in a famous or stirring story, so a minstrel can pull out a stick that's meaningless to most people and "read" the outline of a story they can embellish in the telling. Bards can often pick up an unfamiliar tally-stick and identify the story it's telling at a glance.

Our next column will leave matters of recording behind, and turn in quite a different direction. As will, most likely, the King and Queen of Cormyr.

© 2006 Wizards of the Coast, Inc. All rights reserved.