Tome of Prowess (3.5e Sourcebook)/Ciphers

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Ciphers is an analysis skill. It is primarily concerned with the obscuring or discovering of meaning in written words, whether they be encrypted or written in common, obscure, or dead languages. With it, you can piece together patterns in written work to translate foreign or ancient languages or crack codes that hide meaning, as well as create your own codes to hide meaning in your own correspondence. Those with a great deal of skill in Ciphers can even avoid triggering written trap effects or create special attuned books.

Key Attribute: Intelligence

Encryption and You

You can generate messages in any code that you have on hand, whether you have ranks in Ciphers or not, regardless of decryption DC. You can also decrypt messages written with any code that you have on hand, though determining which code a piece is using is a difficult process. Most coded messages are transmitted in a code known to each party beforehand as a result.

Encoding material doesn’t do much good if a spellcaster can just magic the meaning out of it. For this reason, we treat material written entirely in an encrypted cipher as magical writing, whether it is hidden in a larger and otherwise normal message or not. It cannot be understood with comprehend languages unless the caster knows the cipher themselves or their caster level + 16 is equal to or greater than the code DC. Codes can thus be broken by magic, but if you can afford a good code, it has to be really good magic.

Table: DC Modifiers[edit]
Circumstance Example DC
Unknown alphabet system Russian, Elvish +5
Unknown syllabary system Japanese katakana, Arabic +8
Unknown logographic system Egyptian hieroglyphics +10
Unknown language, known alphabet Gnomish writing when you know dwarven script +0
Unknown language, known syllabary (This possibility has no contemporary or fantasy examples) +3
Unknown language, known logographs Chinese characters (hanzi) when you know Japanese kanji +5
Simple or repetitive subject matter Time tables, troop rosters −5
Complex or specialized subject matter Alchemy treatise, legal document +5
Very short message 1 - 10 words in length +5
Short message 11 - 100 words in length +3
Long message or short text 101 - 1000 words in length 0
Long text 1001 - 10000 words in length −3
Very long text 10001+ words in length −5
Table: Check Modifiers[edit]
Condition Check Modifier
Rushing a 10-minute action to a 2 ½-minutes action −5
Rushing a 5-minute action to a 1-minute action −5
Rushing a 2 ½-minute action to a 5-round action −5
Rushing a 1-minute action to a 2-round action −5
Rushing a 5-round action to a 1-round action −5
Rushing a 2-round action to a standard action −5
Rushing a 1-round or full-round action to a standard action −3
Rushing a standard action to a move action −2
Rushing a standard or move action to a swift action −5
Table:Default Written Languages[edit]
Spoken Language Base Written Language Type Restrictions
Abyssal Infernal Logograph Planar
Aquan Elemental Syllabary Planar
Auran Elemental Syllabary Planar
Celestial Celestial Alphabet Planar
Common Common Alphabet
Draconic, High Draconic Logograph Secret
Draconic, Low Draconic Syllabary
Druidic Druidic Logograph Secret
Dwarven Dwarven Alphabet
Elven Elven Syllabary
Giant Dwarven Alphabet
Gnome Dwarven Alphabet
Goblin Dwarven Alphabet
Gnoll Common Alphabet
Halfling Common Alphabet
Ignan Elemental Syllabary Planar
Infernal Infernal Logograph Planar
Orc Dwarven Alphabet
Sylvan Elven Syllabary
Terran Elemental Syllabary Planar
Undercommon Elven Syllabary


Learn Written Language[edit]

The first ciphers to learn are the trivial ones that help you decipher the greatest amount of secrets – other written languages. For every odd rank in this skill that you possess, you know the written form of a language for which you already know the syllabary or alphabet. For every even rank that you possess in this skill, you may learn one additional alphabet, syllabic, or logographic system as well as the written form of a language that uses that system. The languages that you may learn are limited by your total ranks in the skill, as indicated below.

A Word on Written Words

Written language is an extremely varied thing in the real world, and it’s worth supporting and encouraging some of that variety in the rules. So here we break written languages into three groups: alphabetic written languages have symbols for consonants and vowels, syllabic written languages have symbols for consonant-vowel pairs, and logographic written languages have symbols for expressing full words or ideas. These three groups can contain every writing system ever known in the world (though we are glossing over some details here, particularly those about syllabaries), and so should contain every writing system you’re likely to run across in a fantasy world.

But even though the possibilities for a written language are quite varied, it is also true that cultures tend to adopt common practices and symbol forms from their neighbors or trading partners that diminishes some of the variety within a region. As a result, entirely different spoken languages can use the same, or very similar, writing styles despite using different words for the same concept. Knowing a very close written relative of a language won’t allow you to read a different language, but it will make your guesses as to its meaning much more accurate; since you don’t have to relearn everything about it. An ‘a’ is still an ‘a’ in these cases, and that’s a substantial leg up. To use an example from the SRD, Dwarven and Gnomish use the same alphabet, despite having different spoken forms, and so attempting to decipher messages written in one is easier if you already know the other.

It is this sort of translational applicability that causes all those who truly dedicate themselves to the study of deciphering old texts to learn as many written languages as possible. Since you never know when a current language will be related to an old dead one, it’s worthwhile to know as many written languages as possible.

Untrained Uses[edit]

None. Sorry, you actually can’t do this stuff without a bit of training.

Rank 1 Uses[edit]

Decipher Text[edit]

Dusty tomes and ancient manuscripts are rarely written in the current common tongue. They may not even be written with the common letters. But they may contain useful information, and you have enough experience with other languages to glean meaning from them. With a bit of time, you can find meaning in the meaningless strings of characters of other, often older, languages. These are the first ciphers that you learn to decode, though with practice, you will be able to find meaning in work that has been intentionally obscured.

The base DC for this check is 20, or the DC of any unknown encryption scheme used in the work, but it is modified by the difficulty of the language system, the type of material within the work, and the length of the work. As there are quite a lot of different texts to decipher out there, the DC can vary quite a bit from the base value, and you generally do not know what the actual DC to decipher a text is. The degree to which you understand the material is determined by your check result as indicated below. Understanding the material does not give you any special insight into it, however, and it is entirely possible that the meaning you uncover has a special coded meaning for a recipient that is lost to you.

Each check requires one minute per 100 words (the average handwritten book contains approximately 400 words per page, individual books and languages may vary), which must be spent before you can make the check. You may, however, break up longer works into multiple checks if you prefer. As this will allow you to gain a sense of whether it’s worth the time investment to decipher a longer work, it can often be worth doing despite the higher DC.

Special: Once you have decoded 1000 words using a particular encryption scheme, you are considered to know that encryption scheme. You no longer suffer a higher base DC when you run across it, and may employ it in your own work as well.

DC: 20, or decryption DC, + conditions
Check Result 
DC+5 and above You gain a very clear understanding of the text, including most details. You recognize any parts within the work that seem odd, out of place, or nonsensical as well. 
DC+0 to DC+4 You gain a general understanding of the text and its intent, but may be missing some minor details. Further work may refine your understanding. 
DC-1 to DC-5 You have no understanding of the text whatsoever. Further work will not refine your understanding unless you receive some insight into the text or language from an outside source. 
DC-6 and below You have a general, and ultimately wrong, sense of the text. Further work will not refine your understanding unless you receive some insight into the text or language from an outside source.

Rank 4 Uses[edit]


Aside from analyzing them, you can also create codes on your own or compose messages in codes that you understand. You can create codes with a decryption DC up to 20 + your ranks in Ciphers. It takes 4 hours to create a new code, less 1/2 hour for each 1 point less you accept for the decryption DC, to a minimum of 30 minutes. You can generate messages in any code that you have on hand or have analyzed, whether you created it or not, regardless of decryption DC. Material written entirely in an encrypted cipher, as opposed to hidden in a larger and otherwise normal message, is considered magical writing. It cannot be understood with comprehend languages unless the caster knows the cipher themselves or their caster level + 15 is equal to or greater than the code DC.

Rank 8 Uses[edit]

Rosetta Stone[edit]

You know your way around a text, even when it’s written in an obscure, insane, dead language. If you read enough of a dead language, you can eventually become fluent in it. Each successful use of your Decipher Script ability provides you a +2 cumulative bonus for works written in the same language. If this bonus reaches +10, you no longer need to make checks to read the language, and are actually fluent in its written form. You can even compose messages in it if you like.

You are unable to learn the spoken form of the language without a native speaker, however. If you have access to the spoken form of a language that you are fluent in the written form of, by listening to native speakers or magical recordings, you may learn the language even if it is normally restricted and they aren't actually trying to teach it to you. Learning a language in this way does not cost any skill points.

Rank 10 Uses[edit]

Defensive Reading[edit]

Familiarity with dead languages and codes alone won’t get you access to all of the secret writing in the world. There are many magical tricks to be prepared for, both those that might conceal truth and those that might harm you. You are familiar with these magical writings, including spells such as explosive runes, illusory script, sepia snake sigil, secret page, and the various symbols, and you are prepared for all of them.

If you are about to trigger a magical effect by reading it, you are entitled to a Ciphers check (DC 16 + Caster Level) to avoid the effect. This check is treated like a saving throw; you either pass it and avoid triggering the effect or fail the check and trigger the effect. In either case, you are aware of the effect after your check. If the effect is not triggered, but merely a standing effect that alters the page, like secret page, you are entitled to a Ciphers check (DC 16 + Caster Level) to notice the effect.

Once you are aware of an effect on a page, you may use your Ciphers skill to disable it as if it were a magical trap. This check has a DC of 16 + Caster Level, and requires 1d4 full rounds to complete. The results of your work are listed on the table below.

DC: 16 + caster level
Check Result 
DC+10 and above You can either disable and remove the magic without issue, suppress it as indicated below, or make minor modifications to the magic as if you were casting the spell yourself. Maybe you change the secret word, or change the targeting instructions. These modifications are obvious to anyone who inspects the work, but that means that they probably have to survive it first. 
DC+5 to DC+9 You can either disable and remove the magic as if it were successfully dispelled, or you can suppress it for up to 5 rounds per rank in the Ciphers skill. 
DC+0 to DC+4 You disable and remove the magic. It can’t hurt or frustrate you anymore. 
DC-1 to DC-5 You believe that you have disabled and removed the magic, but you haven’t actually done that. If it can trigger against you, it does when you try to move on. It does not trigger if you simply close the book or walk away, though. If it was instead a constant effect and could not trigger, like a secret page, you instead find a slightly incorrect version of the hidden text. 
DC-6 and below The magic triggers immediately, subjecting you to the full effect. If you were attempting to work past a passive effect, like secret page, the hidden message is destroyed as if it were subjected to an erase spell. In general, the worst thing that could happen to you from monkeying with the effect occurs.

Minimum Rank 14 Uses[edit]

Attune Pages[edit]

Your time with the study of symbols, written language, and codes has shown you one of their deeper secrets – that symbols will propagate on their own under the right conditions. With a bit of time and effort, you may prepare or maintain a page that is linked to another somewhere else in the world so that everything written on one page is instantly transmitted to the other.

When you write on a page that has been properly prepared, any mark that you make is instantly transmitted to the attuned page so long as the two pages are on the same plane. If the pages are on different planes, this transmission is delayed until such time as they are on the same plane again, at which time they immediately fill up with the writing on their attuned partner. The number of attuned pairs you may maintain is determined by your ranks in Ciphers, as described below.

Attuned pages are generally similarly sized to avoid rescaling issues. Each page may be up to 12” × 12” in size, and larger pages simply use up additional attunements. Maintenance of these pages requires you to work with one page from each attuned pair daily; you may meet the maintenance requirement for all pages with one 10 minute span if you desire. If you do not maintain a page from a set for over 30 hours, the set loses its attunement. Adding a new set requires 1 hour.

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