It has been a standard rule in Dungeons & Dragons for as long as I can remember that spell scrolls are single-use items. Once a spell is cast from the scroll (or, sometimes, even if an unsuccessful attempt is made to do so), the scroll becomes blank, crumbles, or otherwise becomes unusable. This has also been the rule in many computer role playing games, including Diablo.

Where did this trope originate? Did it originate in D&D, or does it derive from an earlier or even classical source?

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    Most of Gary Gygax's magic ideas were inspired by The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. I know for a fact that the idea of having to memorize a spell that you forget after it's cast came from there.
    – Spencer
    Jun 26, 2019 at 23:31
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    @Spencer - The trope is usually called Vancian Magic, actually. I'm pretty sure that novel is the main source in current time, although I've no idea if it's the literal first example.
    – Radhil
    Jun 27, 2019 at 0:32

1 Answer 1


Although Vancian magic was the basis of much of the original Dungeons & Dragons magic system, I do not recall any instances of single-use scroll's in Vance's Dying Earth stories.* However, there is a much older likely inspiration for the existence single-use spells in written form: the master-runes from The King of Elfland's Daughter, by Lord Dunsany.

The King of Elfland is an extremely powerful wizard, capable of all sorts of magic in the environs of his palace that is only told of in song. However, most of his magic cannot extend to affect the fields we know. At the beginning of the story, he possesses three master-runes, which are powerful enough spells to exert influences even over the realm of Erl, outside Elfland.

Although it is never explicitly said that the King of Elfland's runes are written spells, the word "rune" in Dunsany's narration often seems to refer to written magic. (The word itself originally referred to runic characters and was only later expanded to mean forms of magic or song.) Early on in The King of Elfland's Daughter, there is an example in which magical runes are explicitly written down; when the witch Ziroonderel forges a sword for Alveric to take with him into Elfland, beyond the fields we know, it is inscribed with powerful runes on its blade:

And she had beckoned to him and he had followed, and learned from her on her thunder-haunted hill that on the day of need a sword might be made of metals not sprung from Earth, with runes along it that would waft away, certainly any thrust of earthly sword, and except for three master-runes could thwart the weapons of Elfland.

Moreover, over the course of the novel, the King of Elfland uses all three master-runes to effect magical changes that encompass both Elfland and Erl. And once each rune is used, it is gone, not to be used again. After initially holding back, the King finally starts using the master-runes to try to prevent his daughter's departure from Elfland:

They rushed forward, he taking her hand; the Elf King lifted his beard, and just as he began to intone a rune that only once may be uttered, against which nothing from our fields can avail, they were through the frontier of twilight, and the rune shook and troubled those lands in which Lirazel walked no longer.

Dunsany was listed in Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading, from the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide as one of the sources that contributed to Gygax's development of the game, so he was almost certainly familiar with The King of Elfland's Daughter.

*Only the first handful of the stories in the setting actually mention the Vancian magic system. The spells used by Iucounu and Rhialto the Marvellous in later works often seem to be of a different nature.

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    Spells in The Dying Earth must be held in the brain rather than carried on scrolls, but they do not seem to be reusable. "Mazirian paused indecisively. It was not good to use so many spells and thus shear himself of power."
    – user14111
    Jun 27, 2019 at 4:46

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