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So, just to clarify, you needn't worry about vague rules - this question is relevant to my own fantasy universe. In this such universe, magic is not a separate energy, it is the ability to control energy (heat, light, electricity etc) much in the same way as the Inheritance Cycle series tackles it, if you're familiar with it. The manipulation is also pretty similar, as words and gestures must be bound to the action to cause the effect (usually), the spell is not as simple as 'fireball' either, it is an explained process - for instance: gather heat in fixed place (to create fireball), sustain flame, move flame this way (shoot the fireball). Unlike the Inheritance series however, the magic is not bound to one language, there are multiple, the words simply help structure the spell in a human brain, and having 'magic languages' separate from communicative language prevents unfortunate accidents.

While most spells will be uttered or shaped with gestures, some larger or more complex spells would take too much time to be viable in battle, so a way to speed up the process is to pre-write the spell with runes. Once the rune is inscribed, and the power source of the spell specified, the rune's spell can be activated with as little as a single word.

As I was designing a weapon for one of the main characters I realised quite an important flaw in the runes, since they are written (and probably glowing when activated as-per rule of cool), anyone who can read the language would instantly know what spell the object is capable of casting and be able to counter/negate it.

Obviously, fantasy and rule of cool dictate the runes should remain exposed, but logic would have them covered. What reason would there be to have them exposed? I wonder why this question hasn't come up in any other fantasy series.

Side note: If you could, adding how the runes are hidden would be great too, if your answer is in favour of hiding them of course.

Edit: While it isn't final, I'll add some extra info to clarify a few things - As I have it now, magic just needs to be bound to something, and you need the intent to use magic, then the spell can work. When casting in the mind, the electrical signals in your brain provide the physical binding, gestures and words otherwise provide such bindings. These things are temporary, while a rune is less so, once the spell is bound to the words made by the runes, it can be cast again by anyone who knows the activation sequence. This part could change if need be.

P.S. I'm unfamiliar with the fantasy-related tags - I usually ask about sci-fi - so if you know of other relevant tags please add them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 4 '18 at 4:03

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I say leave them out in the open. If a guy has a sword in his hand I can guess what that can do. Just like I can guess what a device might do if I can read the runes. If I am an expert I might be able to watch how the bearer of sword or staff moves and judge even further how dangerous he is.

... anyone who can read the language would instantly know what spell the object is capable of casting and be able to counter/negate it.

Great idea! By the time you are close enough to read a person's device you are at close quarters and already at risk from the device. Trying to pre-empt the action on those circumstances requires quick thought.
Having a character realize what might happen in the few seconds before it does happen offers lots of narrative possibility. A mage might counter attack by triggering the enemies magic early. There might be someone magic literate but who cannot work magic. Can she pre-empt / block / duck the magic attack using mundane means? I cannot work magic but I am an artist and good sketcher. I sketch the symbols I saw on a device on a big stick then use it to bluff my way thru the magic literate.

You have opened the door here to lots of fun. March on thru!

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    $\begingroup$ "If you can read this, you are too close... and your head is cut off." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jan 6 '17 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ "Oh, magic runes! I can read them." - - - - "it says.... 'I prepared Explosive runes today!' $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Jan 7 '17 at 0:16
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think you're being imaginative enough. What if the enemy uses a scrying spell to see the rune? What if they're using a spell to make their eyesight better? $\endgroup$ – Hellreaver Jan 10 '17 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ What if you know all that and so put in two fake runes such that anyone copying and using that spell has a mousetrap appear in his pants? Remember to scratch those two out before the fight starts! $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 10 '17 at 17:26
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If I may add an option from the modern world:

Use encryption!

Here's how:

  1. Have a single decryption rune on the hilt or pendant or something. Be sure to use a strong algorithm.
  2. Select a good password and keep it secure. It could be spoken or engraved really small on a secret ring or something, OTP style.
  3. Encrypt your runes. This might take a while without a computer, but is still possible, though tedious. Make it part of their training, or let them use an encryption rune to do it or something.
  4. Engrave encrypted runes on blade. (Looks like rune nonsense to anyone else)
  5. At run-time (during a fight) use your secret password to obtain the original runes (pword combined with rune specifier required ). Would be useful if you could think this part so your enemies don't hear it. (Arguable doesn't matter as you'll kill them, or they'll kill you)

Why it works:

The only unencrypted rune is the decryption rune. Even if they could decrypt runes while in a fight, Kirchoff's Principle ensures that it is useless without the password. Your runes still look cool, while giving away no info. And they are also secure from any other attacks, like secretly looking under the covers when you're not around. All you need be concerned about is a brute force attack, and that could take millions of years, even with a modern computer, so is not feasible.

This may be seen as an interesting way to both hide the runes, and not hide the runes.

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    $\begingroup$ The encryption process could just as easily be a geometric change to your two dimensional runes, similar to a sliding tile puzzle modifying a picture. Then, the decryption rune just rearranges the engravings until the original runes reform and can be used. $\endgroup$ – RustyTheBoyRobot Jan 6 '17 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ @RustyTheBoyRobot I was thinking more AES, with no moving parts. But that works too (sort of geometric ROT13, I guess) and might look better. In fiction, actual security always comes second to what looks good ( Rule of Cool, Subsection 13(B) ). $\endgroup$ – E404 Jan 6 '17 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ I like the sliding puzzle thing. Why not have your magical staff actually have a sliding or rotating mechanism? Sure, it's another potential point of failure, but that's true of any current security mechanism with a moving part. "He primed his staff, shotgun-style, and mouthed the runes aloud." $\endgroup$ – flith Jan 9 '17 at 9:47
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What could prevent hiding of runes?

  • They require open space. It may be drawing mana that exists only in the air, receiving blessing from astral beings, or needs space to vent waste energy and heat of. Having some extra material between them and open air would weaken them.

  • They are 'bound to an item' in a way, that requires them to be cast on finished item. If the item undergoes modifications, this bond weakens.

  • Runes require maintenance. If they are hidden, you must first uncover them, requiring more complex structure of the tool.

  • They are cool looking! They are pride. And they are the selling point of magical items when sold!

  • It is considered a taboo and very bad luck if someone hides his runes.

  • Creator didn't considered a need for hiding the runes at the time of item creation

Then, how could you hide the runes if you really needed to?

  • Maybe, there are certain materials, than can visually hide the runes without giving out negative effects.

  • Maybe, there are spells or tricks that can suppress unwanted side effects, like dim the glow.

  • There are ways, how to modify existing runes without changing their effect, but to make them practically un-readable. Or masked behind other 'dummy' runes.

  • Proxy runes? Having your complex spell running somewhere else, in a big altar or something, while the item itself is just 'receiver' of the final effect.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for proxy runes. A single, cool looking "client" rune, that communicates with a distant "server" rune in a room of many linked runes would help to make the available spells unknowable, while also adding much more space for runes (A sword is only that big) and additional resources (need fire for this rune? Sorry, only got water here. Pity you don't have a remote rune room with fire on tap for just these situations). $\endgroup$ – E404 Jan 6 '17 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ + for venting waste energy. In consumer electronics, from outside you can mostly access UI, all guts are hidden, except for vent holes. As for proxy runes, this could be an inevitable consequences of Kolmogorov complexity. Imagine a hardware + software system that provides the same experience as some scrying spell. How many lines of code can you fit onto handheld thingy? $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Jan 6 '17 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ I also really like the idea of the runes needing frequent maintenance. By itself it doesn't prevent easily removable covers, but needing relatively frequent expert service and care keeps them from becoming overpowered / too efficient / too cheap. $\endgroup$ – Gregor Jan 6 '17 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Daerdemandt Indeed, the need for additional rune space way prompt the development of proxy runes all by itself, without any rune hiding considerations. $\endgroup$ – E404 Jan 7 '17 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ Have fire runes visible on the blade to scare off thugs and ice runes hidden on the handle to freeze the wizards who expect you to attack with fire. $\endgroup$ – user31389 Jan 7 '17 at 18:44
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Because it doesn't matter that they're exposed

Different authors deal with this in different ways. Some have the rune patterns extremely complex and the activation rune/sequence relatively simple so that reading the runes doesn't gain you anything in a short time because it's not cut and dry until the pattern is read and understood. Others take the assumption that if you're creating a fireball or another simple spell, them reading it isn't going to gain them anything because they can typically easily counter it normally.

Also, sometimes you want to use them being able to read the runes/figure out the pattern as a plot driver and I can name a couple of books where that was the case such as escaping a rune prison, learning different abilities that are tied to completely different runes, etc.

My point being that unless it's a trap, you're not going to have time to read them unless they're static and if this is during a battle, it's likely not going to be static. As well, just because you know what runes they have, doesn't mean you know what they're going to use next especially if the activation is not the same as the original spell. It also depends on how long specific spells take to activate in your world and even if they know what's coming, they might not be fast enough to counter that spell unless they also have a rune specified for that purpose and unless they read the other's runes ahead of time, they likely wouldn't be prepared for that anyways without chanting some long complex spell.

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    $\begingroup$ Really, I agree and don't see how reading someone's runes gives any sort of benefit. In combat you are either too busy fighting to read or they are actively using the rune, in which case you know what it does. Prior knowledge of runes might help prepare for a fight, but if you have that kind of access to someone's equipment then why not just steal it? $\endgroup$ – D.Spetz Jan 6 '17 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @D.Spetz Most definitely. $\endgroup$ – rangerike1363 Jan 6 '17 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ Have you been over to code golf SE? Picking a random post and scrolling through the answers I found this: ,;R@,;╗@%╝`ª╜@%╛=`MΣ. Seriously (that's the name of the language), but even if I grab the answer in JavaScript you get this: q=>n=>f=(t=n)=>t&&f(t-1)|t*t%n==q. I don't think that because you can read runes means you can know what they do. Good answer (I even made a language called Runic, but I want to do better; not enough room to do game-things). $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Nov 4 '18 at 17:22
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Have you considered that if the runes were hidden, you might simply grab the wrong sword? Imagine attacking a super powerful demon and... oh wait, this is my normal sword not my Holy Sword of Holiness. Guess I should label these in the future.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point, sometimes the best solution is the simplest one $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 11:55
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The thing about magic is that it's usually somewhat dangerous. In the real world, when an animal is somewhat dangerous, it tends not to hide that fact. Poisonous animals are brightly colored so that you know not to eat them. The same generally goes for venomous animals; they may be able to kill their foes, but they don't want to fight to the death in order to find out.

Similarly, in human society, we put warning labels on things so that people don't hurt themselves. In terms of security, sometimes just letting people know you have it is enough to deter them from trying to take anything from you. That's why home security systems come with signs you can put on your lawn, so thieves will think twice before breaking through your window or pointing a gun at you. Just because they'll get caught doesn't mean you want them to try to break in anyway.

I think this can apply to runes as well. A runed item is going to be dangerous to your allies, and if your enemies don't know about it they won't be afraid to attack you. If people see your runes and back off, that's an easy victory, and everybody gets to go home unscathed.

Plus, consider this: the more runes you openly display, the more unexpected it'll be when you use an object with hidden runes.

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So I can think of a few ways that runes could be left in plain sight and have their purpose hidden, or where having them visible is actually important:

They don't work if you cant see them.
So having the magic language independent has some interesting implications.
There are lots of computer programming languages, and they each have an interpreter to get them into something that is understandable by the computer. So I write a simple function in Java, or Python, or C#, and they all look different, but once compiled the computer processes the instructions as 1's and 0's.
So in your world the compiler/interpreter to get it to a universal low level language is the human brain. The spell, whether spoken, written, or action, doesn't do anything on it's own, it just gets the signals in the brain into the right configuration and that is the "machine language" that the universe actually executes.

So someone pulls out the scroll with the runes, looks at it, and speaks the activation phrase, but it's his mind that is subliminally processing it into machine code and executing it. If they can't see the scroll then the rune program can't be imprinted and compiled.
They don't even have to be able to read the runes to make it work. How often have you seen a phrase like "the runes were hard to focus on, seeming to twist and writhe under my gaze." That effect could be caused by the viewers brain being twisted to the right configuration to run the spell, assuming you know the activation word to complete it.
That doesn't mean that they runes have to be visible to everyone. You could for instance put them inside of a folder, or a book, so that they can be closed up and out of sight when not needed.

"Written in an unknown language"
So since magic is language independent, it seems reasonable that each wizard could create their own rune system that is for them alone, and so anyone else that sees them will just see weird shapes and squiggles, and not actually be able to read what they do. A wizard who is also a linguist might be able to figure it out given enough time and examples, and maybe a Rosetta Stone, but to anyone else it just wouldn't mean anything. And it wouldn't matter so long as they work.

"I looked upon it, and despaired"
You might want them visible as a means of intimidation. "Oh crap, is that a level 4 plague of lice Armageddon spell? We don't have anything that can counter that. We'd all die from scratching our own heads clean off. It might be time to sue for peace."

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    $\begingroup$ I prefer this answer, Why do runes written on old doors only activate when the characters enter the room? Why does a scroll need to be unrolled and looked at? Why does certain runes not work if not written properly.. if nothing less than 'its 'unreadable' so doesn't activate.. $\endgroup$ – BaneStar007 Jan 9 '17 at 5:13
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Consider a basic spell for a sword. Runes of Enduring Sharpness. These have to be engraved on the blade, there's no point having them anywhere else, you don't want a sharp hilt or a sharp scabbard, you want a sharp blade.

The same would be true for any blade effect, firey, icy or whatever you so choose.

You could consider manufactured spells for ordinary people the same way. Your big thug of a hero wants to be able to throw fireballs. He's not overly bright, nor is he able to pull out a scroll and read it in the middle of a fight (reading is not his strong point anyway). Inscribe the runes on his blade and tell him to point the sword where he wants the fireball to go and to say the magic word. The runes are both the source and the controller for the fireball which then comes out of his sword.

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  • $\begingroup$ yes, true, but why would you leave them exposed? $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ @XenoDwarf. I was considering that anything on the blade is pretty much exposed by default, to conceal them would add extra useless weight unless you had a really good reason to do so. Taking the time to read someone's blade while they're trying to stick it in you is probably not a good plan and what it can do is fairly obvious once it's been done once anyway. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jan 6 '17 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ It's always the simple things that slip my mind - so moving blades are near impossible to read, but what about armour? or staves?. $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ @XenoDwarf, narrative imperative suggests that runes on armour are primarily defensive, so less important to read. The size and movement on a staff probably classes with the sword under really hard to read. The trick would be stealing the mage's staff while (s)he sleeps, reading it, then slipping it back so you know what (s)he's got lined up. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jan 6 '17 at 11:52
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I think that a better question to ask yourself would be "How do I have my characters cover/hide their runes logically". Say we are talking about your sword. The runes are going to be etched onto the blade, or the hilt most likely. How exactly would you not have them exposed? They would have to be etched onto the blade after it was made.

One reason why they would need to be exposed could be that if they were covered or hidden, they wouldn't' be able to draw out the power source they were looking for. They would need exposure to be able to suck in the heat or the air or whatever.

One thing you might consider, and I think this happens often in fantasy, is that the runs ARE hidden or invisible until activated. Once activated they simply flash and draw power, then fade. In the heat of battle nobody is going to have time to look at them and read the spell. And in the case of your blade, if it shot fireballs, and they did read it and use it, they would simply shoot a fireball at themselves I would think. In the case of runes hidden on a doorway or something else, they wouldn't be visible until the person knowing the spell came by and used them. One would assume he'd be by himself or with a trust worthy person in such a situation.

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  • $\begingroup$ I thought of this myself, but decided not to include it in the question to see if there are other possibilities. I was thinking maybe riveting (or some other method) a thin plate of steel over the runes in the case of a blade or armour, but the exposure being important in casting always seemed important. $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ One other option might be simply they cover them with a tabard, cloak or surcoat. You certainly could add metal plating over them on armor, but I don't think that would work for a blade. The armor might start to take on a strange look in your readers minds as well if you begin telling them about tacked on plating. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Jan 6 '17 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ Or, perhaps they can only be seen by the person who made them? Or only readable by that person. Could be another option. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Jan 6 '17 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like that would need a spell in and of itself $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ Would be a useful spell for folks to learn then so they didn't have to rivet on extra plating to their armor :) $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Jan 6 '17 at 11:51
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If a rune's power is not infinite, the process of drawing power through the rune could erase it from the material when it 'expires'. Not only is a rune inscribed on something like a sword going to be hard to conceal, but if you want to be able to reapply the rune you can't bury it in the middle of the material.

Alternatively, or in addition, since the rune is essentially acting as the spellcaster, the effect will emanate from the rune itself. Hiding a small magical protection rune on the rear of a shield won't do much good, it needs to be large and inscribed on the enemy-facing surface to be effective. For the same reason, a tiny rune on the pommel of a sword won't give the blade the desired effect; it needs to run the length of the blade itself.

This could also mean that an object with multiple effects might have superposed runes, since they all need to occupy the same space to be effective. Anyone with a basic understanding of the rune symbolism can figure out a simple one-rune device and employ a counter (provided they have enough time), but figuring out the individual components of a multiple-rune symbol could be more difficult. And if you see a guy coming at you, carrying a sword that looks like a mass of entangled lines, it's probably time to start running.

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    $\begingroup$ The rune draws energy from a specified source, whether that be your own ATP supply or a storage crystal or something, once the source runs out, the rune cannot activate. The rune isn't magic, it's a physical thing, the magic is bound to it. $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 14:31
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In order to preserve the Rule of Cool, and to also riff on other answers about runes having to be exposed in order to draw energy, have your combat magi also be like martial artists. Runes are exposed and flash during casting, and might broadcast the intent to a possible counter, but the superior mage depends on timing and movement in order to best an opponent.

Even novice martial artists learn to watch opponents and can see a punch or kick coming before it lands. They just aren't able to do much about it at first. As they grow in skill they are able to counter, deflect, and avoid blows. Even at the highest levels, sometimes a simple punch or kick gets through, so long as it is properly timed.

Even if the language of magic is not really standardized maybe some of the side effects give clues about a spell...Red for heat, blue for water, white for air, green for earth (thereby expanding on the rule of cool). Then have Magi infuse a focus object or objects with a variety of attacks and counters and the greatest portion of skill then gets down to who can sling a cone of ice, raise a shield, and follow with a fireball in rapid succession. Or maybe have your magic follow existing martial arts. One Mage trained in Wing Chun Abra would throw a volley of very fast, but less powerful spells against a wizard who is partial to a Northern Shaolin Kadabara style which relies on strong, linear attacks.

There is all kinds of fun to be had here. I want to see what you come up with

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    $\begingroup$ I like this one, it's rare that people think to apply advanced combat strategy to magic combat, a lot of potential. $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I'd like to claim original thought, but it seems like this sort of thing kind of goes on in Jim Butcher's Dresdenverse, and also, I watched a lot of Avatar, the last airbender :) $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Jan 6 '17 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ i thought of avatar too when i read this $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Deliberately giving your opponent advantage is stupid, turning that into weapon design guideline is doubly so. This might take place for training weapons, but even then more advanced ones would deliberately obscure your attacks, to prepare the student for real life. If opponent says "I'll hit you with water now" that does not mean he won't follow up with fire instead. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Jan 6 '17 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ It is not stupid if magic users have to work within certain guidelines. According to the rule of cool, at least in my mind, runes need to be exposed in order to draw energy from the world around. Hidden or obscured runes won't be able to draw energy as effectively. The color of the flare, again in my mind, is universal, a side effect of the energy drawn. The cleverness of the mage then has to drop into creative uses of the various energies. Also, "I'm going to hit you with water now" does not describe whether its a tidal wave or high pressure thin jet, either needs different defense. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Jan 6 '17 at 19:47
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Whenever the rule of cool gets in your way, double down. Make it even cooler.

My favorite approach to problems like these is to make the problem dynamic: what if the runes changed in response to the wearer?

Quite often humans don't know what they want, so its reasonable that some of the structures we create in our brain to cast spells have a little ambiguity to them. A skilled practitioner can use this ambiguity like a paradox or a zen koan to expose truths inside their own mind. Like a Ouija board, the flickering shapes may reflect the subconscious truths that the practitioner does not consciously admit. Or it could be summoning a demon... one never can quite tell. In either case, this would give your magic system a solid root into the world of psychics and fortune telling, which is always a good fun place to explore.

Engraved on a sword, they may act somewhat differently. These runes may be designed to focus the intent of the human holding them within the confines of the particular runes inscribed. These runes may be swirling with intensity, changing shapes depending on what the wielder's subconscious is thinking and how pure their intent is. This has the effect of obscuring the "correct" meaning of the runes from any prying eyes unless the wielder is permitting the "correct" energy to come forth from them. You no longer have to fear your opponent reading your weapon.

You could think of these pairs of runes like homographs. The word "bear" could mean to carry a load, or it could be a furry mammal. It's not clear outside of the context. When you hold the sword, your subconscious reveals the proper meaning of the symbol by making it glow in one way or another. The easiest approach to this would be to carve two runes on top of each other, but to make sure that only one can fully glow at any one time.

This has countless fun tributaries you can explore. Perhaps the process of engraving the runes can impart a preference as to which swirling runes are easiest to select. Perhaps one set of runes engraved one way highlights a glowing "kal vas flam" trio of glowing runes which is ready to unleash a fireball while the same cold runes engraved in a different way (perhaps a different stroke order) is easier to cause to glow with the glyphs for "vas rel por," a teleportation tool. With the runes extinguished, or glowing with response to an unfocused mind, it may be impossible to tell which glyph is actually there.

If you consider that runes may have more than one meaning, it gets even more fun. Perhaps you have a staff that's been engraved to glow with the runes "vas rel por," but you have enough raw skill, you may be able to convince the staff to instead glow the portions of the runes responsible for "kal vas flam." Suddenly a staff that everyone through could only do teleportation is now a powerful weapon in the hands of an expert mage. It would be very reasonable to have swords engraved with multiple spells to suit the wearer's needs.

The next layer of cool up from that would be glowing patterns that are "hard" to make occur. The king might have a sword passed down from generation to generation, and each king learns the secret of how to make it shine with the king's spell. This would serve as a rapid way to identify a one true king! Abbeys may have weapons locked away where only the senior monks know the secret for unleashing its true potential.

Finally, it explains why runes are visible: many reasons. The king has his visible because its a proclamation to the world. The Abbey may keep weapons whose runs are visible because they are excellent training tools for the monks to teach newcomers how to channel the energy correctly. A skilled assassin may choose to hide the runes, manipulating them through sheer feel, but a less skilled one may choose to reveal them just to make sure the proper runes are activated before issuing the spell. Finally, with all of these reasons to have runes be visible, there would be a social force encouraging it: anyone hiding runes would be seen as a shady character (possibly an assassin!). Good true righteous fighters would not be afraid to show their runes, so anyone who hides them is clearly shady.

A closing story, from Japan, showing just how much fun having runes with multiple meanings can be:

My wife had an English teacher in Kobe long ago who always signed for things at the post office. No matter how many times he went there, the regular clerk always asked him first to use a seal. He always politely said he had none, whereupon the clerk then—and only then—let him sign.

This went on for years. Eventually, he went to a shop and had a large square seal carved with the characters 馬鹿 baka (idiot, fool). The next time he went to the post office, the old ritual ensued. "Don’t you have a seal?" the clerk asked. The teacher quickly produced his new chop, loudly stamped a large and bold 馬鹿 in the required spot, and thrust the paper before the clerk’s eyes.

The stunned clerk, getting the message but rather at a loss for a snappy face-saving riposte, stammered out, "A! A! Umashika-san desu ka" (Omigosh! That’s Mr. Horse-and-deer, of course!) Saved by multivalent kanji readings!

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Runes are required to be visible because they are required to be accessible in order to be read and used. A runed stone of fireball in your pocket isn't going go off if you accidentally say the wrong word. Or, as a more extreme example, the 19 identical runed stones in your backpack aren't going to go off when you activate the 20th stone held in your hand.

To activate the runes of awesomeness on your sword will require that you read, and possibly touch, the runes to bring them to life. However, the runes may not be glowing until they are activated. Prior to glowing it may not be visible from any real distance, especially if it is being violently swung at the observer's head.

Additionally, there is one example in fiction of a dwarf carefully carving runes into his masterwork. This is from The Crystal Shard.

Bruenor needed no model for the first carvings; they were symbols etched into his heart and soul. Solemnly, he inscribed the hammer and anvil of Moradin the Soulforger on the side of one of the warhammer's heads, and the crossed axes of Clanggedon, the dwarven God of Battle, across from the first on the side of the other head. Then he took the silver scroll tube and gently removed its diamond cap. He sighed in relief when he saw that the parchment inside had survived the decades. Wiping the oily sweat from his hands, he removed the scroll and slowly unrolled it, laying it on the flat of the anvil. At first, the page seemed blank, but gradually the rays of the full moon coaxed its symbols, the secret runes of power, to appear. These were Bruenor's heritage, and though he had never seen them before, their arcane lines and curves seemed comfortably familiar to him. His hand steady with confidence, the dwarf placed the silver chisel between the symbols he had inscribed of the two gods and began etching the secret runes onto the warhammer. He felt their magic transferring through him from the parchment to the weapon and watched in amazement as each one disappeared from the scroll after he had inscribed it onto the mithril. Time had no meaning to him now as he fell deeply into the trance of his work, but when he had completed the runes, he noticed that the moon had passed its peak and was on the wane. The first real test of the dwarf's expertise came when he overlaid the rune carvings with the gem inside the mountain symbol of Dumathoin, the Keeper of Secrets. The lines of the god's symbol aligned perfectly with those of the runes, obscuring the secret tracings of power.

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Short Answer: Magic Runes generate heat and corrosion when activated.

I find adding some physics to magic makes the world much more interesting. Follow Brandon Sanderson's Law of Magic:

First Law:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Second Law:

The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than its capabilities. What the magic can't do is more interesting than what it can.

Rune magic is interesting in that it's often associated with using particular magic materials. There's an artistry and difficulty to create these runes in the first place. There's also often a magic languages or specific set of magic shapes like circles of power. So tie that all together with the physics of how these runes actually behave.

For my setting, (I'm a GM) I said that the reason that people use certain materials is that channeling magic through runes damaged the object channeling them. Runes would only work as long as they held their shape. Writing a rune on a piece of paper would likely generate so much heat that the the paper would be destroyed before the spell completed. Etching runes into steel swords was a viable option because steel could withstand the heat shock, but it would rust over time. Taking care of your magical weapon actually required physical maintenance. Even better, make a magical object out of gold, which can handle heat well and is immune to corrosion. Gold then becomes the preferred metal for magic runes, and can be inlaid in strong metals. Stone also works for rituals, but once the corrosion blurs out a rune etched in stone, it's hard to repair.

Having a clear set of physical consequences allows you to think through trade-offs in character. "Why not put the runes inside the hilt?" What is the handle made out of, because that things going to get hot. "Why do scrolls require nice parchment and expensive inks?" Because the materials need to be flexible but last long enough for the spell to complete. Using this reasoning, you can build a whole world from it. Personal items with hidden runes would need to include gold threading and corrosion resistant materials. That makes maintenance more difficult.

They could hide runes, but most of the time it's more practical to have them out in the open.

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Unlike the Inheritance series however, the magic is not bound to one language, there are multiple, the words simply help structure the spell in a human brain,

Therein lies the answer. "When a tree falls in the forest and noone is there to hear it, it makes no sound" applies to your magic system.

It's not confined to runes, either. Why would a sorcerer speak the words of a spell, exposing himself to counterspells, when he can just think them? The words must be spoken out loud, to be heard by ears and to take form in minds (even if not everyone understands the words) before they can, through their effect on minds, affect reality. Just so, the runes must be exposed. They don't have to be deliberately read and interpreted or even noticed by anyone, but they DO need to be exposed where people can see them in principle.

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    $\begingroup$ You caught something I hid there, I did say 'usually'. In the story highly experienced mages will use thought (doesn't break the bound to a physical thing law either, as thoughts are electrical signals). The problem is it's dangerous - this happens in the Inheritance series too - thought is abstract and prone to distraction, you think a complex spell and accidentally say one off word and you could set yourself ablaze or rip yourself apart, only the most seasoned mages would take such a risk. $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 14:37
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[...] the spell is not as simple as 'fireball' either, it is an explained process - for instance: gather heat in fixed place (to create fireball), sustain flame, move flame this way (shoot the fireball). Unlike the Inheritance series however, the magic is not bound to one language [...]

I think this is already a good excuse to leave them exposed. The actual spell won't have your parentheses in there to explain it so it won't necessarily be obvious what the spell is going to do. The fact that they can be written in different languages makes them even more inscrutable. Determining at a glance what someone's spell (program) is going to do without actually casting (executing) it would take a great deal of skill. Spells could even be crafted to be misleading, such as a clever spell disguised as a common fireball spell.

Another thing, hiding the runes only solves part of the problem. If the object is stolen by an enemy, the enemy can take it back to their lab and put a great deal of time into reverse engineering it. Hidden runes don't help with this part. Groups of wizards would put many years into developing obfuscation techniques and secret languages. Hidden runes to such people would be a sign of weakness.

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An alternative reason that I don't think I've seen mentioned here is to hide the trees amongst the forest.

Lets say that you want them exposed for rule of cool, and you have an in universe reason for them needing to be displayed, maybe they need to be in contact with the magic in order to shape it. If you want to stop people from being able to easily decipher it at a glance then put dummy runes on it too.

For example maybe the runes for extreme heat are written on there as the main offensive choice, but these are hidden in a sea of other carved runes that might not even do anything of note, but they do assist in stopping the enemy from knowing which runes to read and which to be wary of. In a fight there probably isn't enough time to read the whole set and figure out which might be the dangerous ones too.

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Ever heard the saying "Out of sight, out of mind"? If the purpose of the runes is to

simply help structure the spell in a human brain

and that having it written out

prevents unfortunate accidents

Having it written somewhere that you cannot see it, is going to provide significantly less mental focus and safety. This is probably only slightly less risky than just doing it all in your head.

If you are worried about someone else interpreting your runes then use a cipher that is only meaningful to the caster. It doesn't even have to be a complex cipher. After all, how long does your opponent really have to figure it out before you are done casting? Or write your runes on 2 (or more) separate items that you only assemble at the moment you are going to cast. So there is no time for someone else to read and comprehend the whole thing.

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An option used by some characters in my shared world:
Make the runes very difficult to read because of the way they are drawn

One of the way used, for example, was to hide rune in clothes by using slight tint or pattern alteration, or even changing the shape of the fabric to trace the rune. This character, an anthropomorphic wolf, ended up drawing "invisible" runes on his own body by changing the thickness of his fur on the pattern of the runes.

Other options to do this: use the grain of wood, brushing of metal or other slight pattern to draw the rune, in order to keep it hidden.

However, this solution is not much help if the rune start glowing when activated, but at least it provides some element of surprise before the spell is cast.

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  • $\begingroup$ And now I see I do not really answer the question of why the runes should be exposed, only how to hide them in a way that leave them exposed... Still, this may be a useful point of view to someone. $\endgroup$ – Jupotter Jan 6 '17 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ I found it to be a pretty good way to not have them obviously visible, but still there. As you say, once you activate them, then they start glowing and unless one can read them fast enough, then one will not have time to counter them. So sure, if the rule of cool demand them to be highly visible at all times, then it's not the best answer, but I find this to be a good compromise (and with high enough skill in perception, then one might spot them anyway). $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Jan 9 '17 at 17:29
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What if magic has to obey some of the laws of thermodynamics?

Enchanted items, like real-world machines, will then usually produce an quantity of heat related to the amount of work they do. A simple spell that moves a lot of energy, or a very complex spell that moves a trillion tiny bits of energy in different ways, will produce a lot of heat.

Perhaps very low-level enchanted items do not require special cooling and can be easily concealed.

Mid-level enchanted items rely on air-cooling to stop their runes from melting off, so it is common for magic items to have exposed runes.

And high-level items have magically powered water-cooling channels, often with an exposed air-cooled rune or two on the water pump or on any other minor subsystems that use less power than the primary spell.

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You can decide that only the holder of the item can make the runes react to the words, implying a biological link that seems scientifically hard to imagine, but we're talking magic. We can invent a rule like this as long as we're consistent.

You can decide that some sort of ritual must take place to bind item and owner and therefore only he/she can work the magic, but everyone can see them.

You can decide that only the owner/holder can read the words, which appear as gibberish to others.

You can decide the words can only be read in certain circumstances, like under a full moon, and the wielder did this to learn the words, which are visible to everyone else but gibberish to everyone, including him, except that he already knows what it says. That can set up a cool scenario where on every full moon, people are trying to hide their items. Imagine someone purposely setting up a battle during full moon and suddenly during the fight, everyone can control other people's items - but only when the cloud cover parts.

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If you already have magic, why not just have a spell of Rune Hiding? It can be a rune too. If everyone always have a big blatant Rune Of Rune Hiding on every weapon, armor, shield, ect, it doesn't give a lot of information. And it can even be used as a basic strategy. Even if there's actually no other runes on your sword, inscribe a Rune of Rune Hiding and now everyone will be wary of it.

You can even go one step further and hide mundane runes to fool a spell of magic detect. While the enemy mage is busy trying to analyse your sword to see which runes you're hiding, your sword only really has an harmless rune of make-a-duck-sound hidden by the rune of rune hiding.

Hell you can even manufacture objects with fake runes (stamped/painted/engraved/ect). Anyone without magic abilities couldn't tell the difference.

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    $\begingroup$ Well the rune would take energy to power, and it would be a constant drain, I don't feel like it would be efficient, but yes, it would make things interesting. $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 6 '17 at 14:27
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Consider the entries of the IOCCC (the files that end in .c). They appear to be complete gibberish, perhaps ascii art. Many are, but they are also valid C programs. If you do not understand C they appear as nonsense. Know that they look like nonsense to me too unless I carefully take them apart. See the spoiler version for a short description of what each does.

Maybe magic is like that.

Similar effects look different when a different mages craft them, and similar appearing runes may have subtle differences that give very different outputs. This is caused by either incidental differences in style or by deliberate obfuscation.

Well crafted runes advertise their function to the lay person by taking the shape of something familiar, but there is no relation to the outer outline and the true function.

This gives you "revealing runes is mostly harmless" but does not give you "runes must be exposed to function".

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The rune could be like a mnemonic device. Perhaps to a wizard, the sight of the rune triggers the full memory of the details of corresponding spell, much like the opening chord of your favorite song triggers the memory of the whole song.

Something like this is used in the magic system in the Dresden Files.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's actually how they originally worked, but I thought to change it as it leaves it leaves it a little loose. A definite rule is more believable. Anything could change tho, the world isn't built yet. $\endgroup$ – XenoDwarf Jan 8 '17 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ I think I see the problem. You don't want the runes to be too arbitrary. One thing you might include is something like you see with some Chinese characters. I've only a beginner at Chinese characters, but the characters combine to form meanings based on the parts. For instance, if you put the character for a man inside the character for a box, you get the character for a prison. The wizard using an existing rune system would probably be much easier than creating his own. $\endgroup$ – David Elm Jan 8 '17 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ Although a lot of people seem to think that cultural symbols are entirely arbitrary, I suspect that their assignments are like patterns of grains of sand on a vibrating plate (called a chladni plate). The grains can settle in many places, but not all, and likewise some symbols are more evocative than others, and some will catch on better than others. $\endgroup$ – David Elm Jan 8 '17 at 19:10
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Some explanations to leave the runes exposed:

1.) Power demonstration: Soldiers marching with weapons having glowing runes on them can fill the hearts of the enemy and the peasants with fear and submission.

2.) Status symbol: Having powerful runes on your armor and weapons might be a symbol of your wealth, privileged status, or runecarving skills.

3.) Chivalry: The ethics of some faction may require their members to play with open cards, and view weapons with concealed runes as low-down and dishonest. They can use overkill curses to punish those, who dare to use such unholy weapons.

4.) Law: Just like the law makes difference between the open and concealed carry of firearms, or require toys to be distinguishable from real weapons, the law in particularly civilized and lawful countries may require all magic tools to have visible signs of their capabilities.

5.) Fast use: If someone is wielding his weapon speedily, its almost impossible to read the runes, even if they are exposed, glowing, and written in a standard language. The enemy would only see light stripes, not letters and symbols.

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I am probably super late by now, but you could make the realization that their runes are exposed to the enemies a part of the plot (maybe during a war someone took advantage of it).

After that they start hiding their runes. However people don't like them as much because they don't look cool, so they start inscribing light runes that are connected to the main rune, and their only purpose is to give off light and look cool on the outside of the weapon. People could then customize their weapons by choosing the color of the light rune.

If the enemies also do this to their weapons, you could choose to make the light runes a weakness to give you the upper bound. You could say that the main runes would slightly affect the light given by the light runes, and that really experienced mages would be able tell part of the main rune (e.g "It will create fire, but that's all I know").

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Seeing the runes could be part of aiding the weilder's focus - much like seeing the letters C, A, T can bring the image of the animal to mind, seeing the runes helps bring the image of the magic to mind.

Along the same vein, perhaps your runes have specific meaning to the user - the opponent can see that the sword is enchanted, but they mean nothing to them (much like reading a different language.) Covering the runes becomes unnecessary, or at least offers insufficient benefit to make it generally worthwhile.

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I think you already have a fine answer in your post.

Once the rune is inscribed, and the power source of the spell specified, the rune's spell can be activated with as little as a single word

With this you can use natural energy as a reason for both hiding and showing your runes. Lets say you add runes that are hidden, you need to ether define a internal power source or use small amounts of the radiant energy (heat, light, etc.). If you do use radiant heat energy it forces the spell to be endothermic reaction limiting you in both power and options. However if you want the powerful exothermic reactions (flame, bright light, etc.) you will need to use a powerful energy source (large, hard to carry, expensive, etc.) or a powerful external source (sun, rotation of the planet, etc.)

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That would be simple. The runes that are showing are no more than a small bit of the runes for the spell that are simply designed to throw people off and make them guess something else.

In the Inheritance Cycle, it is mentioned that a skilled magician could say "Water" and get a gemstone. And with runes, you can probably do even more. What is to say that the rune saying "Fire" that is exposed is not actually part of a spell to focus sunlight onto your head until you burn like a bug under a magnifying glass, or that the rune saying "Death" won't just paralyze your sword arm when activated? And since this could clearly happen, eventually people will just learn to stop trusting any reading of the runes.

That, or they might be a spell that, each time it is casted, it rearranges the runes to do something else useful (like Malbolge code) so that no one actually knows what it is about to do.

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Runes may not do need to be visible even if they aren't covered

In the Skulduggery Pleasant series there is a character called China Sorrows. She's a rune mage. Her runes are only visible if she press the rune with its counterpart (when she uses it) and than it's too late.

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