The Civ IV tech tree makes a distinction between writing and alphabet, and rightly so. Writing in English means nothing more than the old Saxon word from which it comes - writan, which means “to tear.” From its earliest beginnings, writing was the practice of scoring or carving a shape into a surface. There was no separate word for “symbol,” which all writing was for thousands of years – nothing more than a sign, a representation of some concept, most likely a warning or a brand.
Anthropologists make a distinction between the artwork of primitive and civilized peoples and pre-hieroglyphic symbols. The dividing line is gray, at best. Anthropologists will also say that writing ‘began’ as a means of keeping records, for we have those records, tics written on shards of pottery, to prove that it is so.
But pictures repeatedly drawn for thousands of years are simplified and worked into line drawings habitually committed onto whatever surface presents itself. The archaeological record does no justice to the practice, since it is far easier to write or draw on surfaces which do not remain for the convenience of researchers. Millions of images have been carved throughout the prehistory of humankind on trees, in mud and dirt, on beaches and the skins of animals. The simple practice of a child marking their height on a door frame has been no doubt practiced for thousands of years, with few frames left to prove the fact of it.
It is a mistake to limit one’s perception of writing to that which endures for centuries. We often see writing at the beginning of history – because we define writing as that which was done on stone for our benefit. Writing is a living thing. Long before it was harnessed to keep records it was more an act of sculpture than of message. The gentle reader is perhaps unaware of the practice of ‘fetishism’, the belief that an object is possessed of supernatural powers, and that a man-made object possesses the greatest power. The act of writing is the creation of such power. A tree so marked has power over other trees; a marked sword defeats swords without markings; the incised block erected before the home has the power to turn back animals, to defeat the very elements, simply because a hand has changed it and made it into a great spirit.
The glyph in D&D is the iconographic magic that begins the manufactured power that will later become spells and dweomercraft. It is the technological revolution that enmeshes the various elements of shamanism and transformation into a single binding principle – the mark of an intelligent being, inscribed onto a surface to claim the ownership of that surface, to harness it to the will of the intelligent mind against the chaos of nature.
If you grasp magic as an inherent process of the material plane, its manipulation cannot be regulated by an ordinary creature’s hopelessly unfocused thoughts. Meditation can focus those thoughts, but meditation by its method removes one’s interaction from the world. The greater one’s success at meditation, the less stake one possesses in the material surrounding world ... so that at the point of greatest power through meditation, so too is the greatest measure of disinterest and disregard.
Magic as a technology demands a hands-on approach. Facere, from the Latin, gives us the word “facility” ... as we make so shall we function. The glyph presents as the primitive methodology by which humanoids facilitate magic for the first time in history. A series of glyphs follow, to manage the magic and increase the finesse by which is applied to the varying crises one faces.
This may all seem very odd, as I speak of magic as though it really exists. On some level it does. I am a writer. Words, which are only collections of glyphs, have the power to resurrect, to frighten, to drive victories and horrors, to bring comfort and express love, to manipulate terrible forces and to alleviate terrible consequences. We take all this for granted. We have education and technologies which serve to jade us and blind us to what a truly amazing thing this process of communication is. We understand the source of emotions, of responses – whereas our earliest ancestors could not comprehend why the sight of a particular image brought them feelings of terror, while seeing a particular shape or curve would make them laugh. It did seem true to them that the symbols themselves had a unique power, that clearly did not exist in nature prior to their being put there.
How strange is it to perceive a world where nothing changes except that which we ourselves change? Where there is no interaction with others for months or years at a time, so that every mark on every surface one sees can be identified to the time it was drawn and to the very person who put it there. We cannot conceive of it.
A D&D world should be filled with such symbols, put there by friends and strangers; by established, open religions and by hidden cults; as gang signs; as things to ward off evil and as things to encourage good; glyphs to announce the presence of a special guild, glyphs to designate where the dead may haunt; glyphs speaking of rats and other vermin; effacements to describe lovers and body parts, to suggest disgust at an inhabitant or give sign that it is a good place to beg; directions to the toilet, directions towards other desired places, and caricatures of foolish persons or kings. A thousand and one hooks for adventures, a reason for investigation, a pattern in which the players read the behaviours of a town or a nation, by which friends are sorted from enemies and by which trails are followed to lairs and treasure. A simple drawing, sketched out during a session and then given meaning by the coins it brings and the player characters who die in its wake ... to be resurrected ten runnings hence, or fifty runnings hence, to bring a shudder or a wry smile when the DM trots it out again on cue.